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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Sasdy’

Well, now, here’s a slightly odd coincidence – just the other day I was writing about the film career of the Hungarian-British director Peter Sasdy, and (in a couple of quite separate venues) about horror films with the disjointed, compelling logic of a bad dream. And then last night I stuck on a random DVD, solely for pleasure, and it turned out to be a bad-dream horror story directed by Peter Sasdy. Either my subconscious mind is rather more on the ball than its conscious equivalent, or a cry of ‘Whoo, spooky!’ is justified.

The tale in question was an episode of Hammer House of Horror, a 1980 anthology series which was very nearly the final gasp of the original incarnation of the legendary British production company. I would never argue that this is either a great TV show or a real example of what makes real Hammer horror movies so special – the TV budget means that the episodes are all set in contemporary times, making it feel somewhat more like an Amicus production, while the desire to sell the show to a US network means the horror and exploitation elements are too often watered down – but quite a few of the famous Hammer names are involved in various capacities, such as Sasdy in this instance.

This episode is entitled Rude Awakening, written by Gerald Savory, and its particular Amicus resemblance is somewhat heightened by the fact it stars that legend amongst British character actors, Denholm Elliott (he had previously played a hack horror writer in The House that Dripped Blood and one of the victims of Tom Baker’s voodoo paintbrush in Vault of Horror, both for Amicus). This is, as far as I’m aware, the only conjunction of Hammer and Denholm Elliott, but the result is one of the series’ more striking episodes.

Elliott plays Norman Shenley, a middle-aged provincial estate-agent whom the actor invests with all the understated seediness he often brought to this kind of part – although calling it understated may be stretching a point, as virtually the first thing we see Norman do is start letching over and groping his secretary, Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge). Norman is having an affair with Lolly, of course, although there is the slight problem that his wife (Pat Heywood) refuses to grant him the divorce he so desperately wants.

Anyway: a man named Rayburn (James Laurenson) appears, claiming to be the executor of a will with a large country house to be disposed of. He would quite like Norman to take a look at the place in his professional capacity, and our man cheerfully agrees. His enthusiasm is only slightly dented when the manor turns out to be a half-decrepit, cobweb-festooned old pile, complete with spooky doors that open seemingly by themselves and wall-to-wall suits of armour. But then a disembodied voice berates Norman for the murder of his wife, and the armour creaks into life to exact retribution on the hapless estate agent…

Who wakes up in a panic, rather annoying his wife in the process. It was all just a bad dream, apparently – but so realistic! Norman can’t get over it, talking to his wife about, and Lolly when he goes in to the office. He’s so obsessed with his odd nocturnal experience that Lolly suggests he drive out to see if the country house really exists. Discovering that he still has the map given to him by Rayburn in his pocket (somehow!), Norman finds the house is not there, but a phone box is. He almost dies when the box threatens to combust around him, spying a tramp who resembles Rayburn while doing so, but then enjoys a somewhat torrid interlude with Lolly (still in the phone box)…

Only to wake up yet again, back in bed with his unimpressed missus. One of the bricks you could throw at Rude Awakening is that the structure of the story becomes rather predictable as the episode progresses – Norman wakes up from his latest nightmare, restarts the day in question, only for events to go off at some odd tangent or other, normally resulting in him meeting an outlandish sticky end. The sticky ends get progressively more outlandish in the course of the episode – never mind being assaulted by animated suits of armour, Norman finds himself executed by undead domestic staff, almost killed when the building he’s in is demolished around him, and (most surreal of all) waking up midway through brain surgery to find himself dead on the operating table.

All good fun, if you like weird, not-especially-horrific horror, but the problem is really that it builds the viewer’s expectations of something really spectacularly surreal at the climax of the episode, and unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. The conclusion is reasonably clever, though, as is the way the script combines several different story types – Rude Awakening goes for, and pretty much achieves the triple by including elements of a recurring nightmare story, a precognitive dream story, and a can’t-tell-dream-from-reality story. It’s clear from early on that something fishy is afoot – Norman doesn’t seem at all surprised to find a dream artefact in his pocket while he’s supposedly awake, to say nothing of the fact that he doesn’t notice Lolly appearing in a different provocative guise in each new iteration of the story – but the resolution, when it comes, is relatively understated. It may be that it is in fact supposed to be blackly comic – after so many fake demises, Norman ends up assuming he’s asleep, which proves to be a serious mistake – but the script is not quite sharp enough for the results to be particularly amusing.

That said, there is, of course, a masterly performance from Denholm Elliott to enjoy, which is the episode’s main treat. Ineffectual and/or seedy men were really his speciality, usually in a supporting capacity, and he is, it almost goes without saying, on fine form here. He keeps you watching even after it’s become quite clear how the episode’s going to function, even if not where it’s going. And Sasdy has fun with the more surreal elements of the story, which are quite different from the stuff of the relatively grounded feature films he made for Hammer. Rude Awakening probably counts as only a minor item on the CV of both men, but it brings a certain style of surreal British horror to the small screen reasonably effectively.

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And now for a little unfinished business. As frequent visitors may have noticed, I spent a few weeks earlier this year watching and writing about the BBC TV show Doomwatch, which ran on BBC1 from 1970 to 1972. It has never been repeated, despite its enormous success and popularity at the time, and received only a very limited VHS release in the 1990s. As someone interested in TV science fiction and fantasy, though, I was always vaguely aware of the Doomwatch name, enough to make a point of taping and watching the movie based on the show when it turned up on TV – I’m not sure when this actually happened, at some time in the late 1980s I suppose – the main UK commercial network had just gone 24-hour, turning the wee small hours of the night into a treasure trove of obscure genre movies rolled out just to fill holes in the schedule. (What bliss it was, etc.) In any case, the big-screen version of Doomwatch was my first point of contact with the series.

Peter Sasdy’s film was released in March 1972, during the gap between the second and third series of the TV show – it features the second-series line-up of characters (Ridge is still a member of Doomwatch at this point, as is Trend), although features is the operative word – the main actors of the TV show are billed as ‘also starring’, with the lead roles taken by Ian Bannen (a very capable character actor) and Judy Geeson (a quietly prolific actress whose most memorable big-screen role was perhaps her gob-smacking appearance in Inseminoid).

Bannen plays Dr Del Shaw, a member of Doomwatch’s big-screen-only division, who at the start of the film is packed off by Quist to the remote island of Balfe. The exact location of Balfe is left obscure, but, as we shall see, the temptation to assume it is somewhere off the Scottish coast becomes almost irresistible given how the film plays out. There has been an oil-tanker spill in the region and Doomwatch is checking out what effect this has had on the local ecology (the opening credits indicate that Doomwatch exists mainly as an anti-pollution agency, which is a bit of a simplification of the rationale given on TV, but I suppose it would work to bring new audiences up to speed).

Arriving on Balfe, Shaw sets about obtaining his biological samples, but soon comes to suspect that not all is well on the island – most outsiders are unwelcome and resented, almost violently (although, for plot reasons, this does not extend to their schoolteacher, who is played by Geeson). Shaw finds himself shadowed by a gun-toting islander throughout his sample-collecting excursions. Many of the islanders have a short fuse, to say the least, if not an actual tendency towards savage brutality. Shaw comes across a body in a shallow grave, but when he returns it has mysteriously vanished. What is going on on Balfe, and has it got anything to do with the oil spill he has been sent to investigate?

Peter Sasdy is probably best known as a director of genre and especially horror films – he did a couple of rather good movies for Hammer, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula – although his career effectively ended when he won a Razzie for a more conventional drama, The Lonely Lady. In a similar vein, the big-screen Doomwatch was made by Tigon, a production company best-known these days for making two classic folk-horror films, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that, in some ways, Doomwatch’s big-screen incarnation feels like more of a horror movie than the TV version usually did (the US title of this movie was Island of the Ghouls, which is punchy if not especially accurate).

What is perhaps a bit unexpected is the way in which Doomwatch anticipates or mirrors another classic folk-horror film. Look at it this way – an outsider arrives on a remote island, intent on investigating. The locals clearly have a secret which they are very reluctant to share with him. The local schoolteacher provides some intriguing clues. The body of a child disappears in mysterious circumstances. Now, all this happens in the early part of the film, and it’s not as if Ian Bannen is seized by the locals in order to be sacrificed as a way of lifting the curse on the community, but there is a sense in which Doomwatch feels like a weird pre-echo of many elements of The Wicker Man (I should mention that this film was released six months before The Wicker Man went into production, not that I’ve ever seen any suggestion it was an influence on Robin Hardy or Anthony Shaffer). And you could equally well argue that the premise of the movie – something in the sea near a remote coastal community is causing deformities which lead to many members of the community being hidden from outsiders – has something of the atmosphere and tone of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Sasdy conjures up a reasonably effective atmosphere of mystery and menace during this opening movement of the film, culminating in an attack on Shaw by one of the island’s more brutish and deformed inhabitants. However, at this point the story turns into a science-procedural thriller of a kind which would be quite familiar to viewers of the Doomwatch TV show. There’s a rational scientific explanation for everything Shaw and the others encounter, and the only evil involved is that of greedy people trying to cut corners and disregard the danger to the environment. At least Quist and Ridge get more to do in this part of the film, including some scenes with George Sanders (listed, as was common in low-budget British films of this period, as a ‘guest star’).

(I do wonder what 1972 audiences would have made of a movie based on TV’s Doomwatch in which the actual stars of the TV show play such very peripheral roles. I imagine I would have felt a bit cheated. It is a slightly odd creative choice, and an unexpected one given the storyline for the film came from Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, creators of the TV show. Perhaps it was simply the case that the stars of the TV show were busy actually making the TV show when the movie was in production; I don’t know.)

In the end, the least you can say is that big-screen Doomwatch is recognisably the same beast as small-screen Doomwatch, with all the positives and negatives that this implies. It’s a fairly intelligent film that clearly cares about the issues with which it is dealing (primarily, damage to the environment from big business) – one might expect no less from a script by Clive Exton, a very capable screen-writer. And many of the themes of the movie are reminiscent of ones touched on in the TV show – the effects of pollution on communities being the main one. On the other hand, there is a problem when what starts off looking like a certain type of horror movie ends up as something rather different – you’re braced for a particular kind of climax, which never really comes. Ultimately, this is more of a drama than anything else – and a somewhat peculiar one, if you’re unaware of the conventions of the TV show which spawned it. But the Doomwatch film stands up well as an adjunct to the TV show, even if not as a movie in its own right.

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Is it the case that there is a hidden purpose to the universe, communicated to us only subtly and obliquely? Should we draw meaning from apparently random events happening around us every day? Personally I tend to doubt it, but you have to keep an open mind, don’t you. Quite what I am to infer from my DVD rental service sending me two Fine-Style lesbian vampire Hammer horror movies on the spin I’m not entirely sure. It may just be the guys there are going through one of their joined-up-thinking phases (still no sign of Tiptoes though, after five years of waiting).

The big difference between The Vampire Lovers (the first Fine-Style Hammer) and Lust for a Vampire (its sequel), of course, is that the first one is a vehicle for Ingrid Pitt, and the second one, well, isn’t. Ingrid Pitt’s status as one of Hammer’s big names is slightly surprising when you consider she only made two films for them, compared with the dozens featuring Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. This must partly have been due to the decline of the company as the 1970s progressed, but the fact that Pitt apparently had a very unhappy experience making the second of her Hammer movies may also have been a factor. I was surprised and slightly saddened to learn this, as the film in question – Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula, from 1971 – seems to me to be far superior to any of the Fine-Style movies.

Despite appearances, this is not part of the main sequence of Hammer’s Dracula movies, and one suspects the title is mainly there because of its marquee value. (You could argue that there’s a moment in the movie suggesting a shared continuity, but if so the characters are remarkably reluctant to cry vampire, given some of the events of the story.) Instead, it is drawn from the legend of the notorious Hungarian serial killer Elizabeth Bathory, a 17th century noblewoman implicated in the sadistic murder of anything up to six hundred victims (though most credible accounts put the figure much lower). The Hammer version of the story takes a few liberties, to say the least, and focuses on the most lurid aspects of the case.

The film’s setting is a little vague, but the producers have a decent stab at authentically creating somewhere that looks like 16th century Hungary rather than the usual generic 19th century Transylvania. (There are many spectacular hats.) Count Nadasdy has recently passed away, leaving his widow Elizabeth (Pitt) and various family retainers to discover the contents of his will. Elizabeth’s tough-love approach to managing the estate means that peasants are forever running after her carriage screaming ‘Devil woman!’, but I suspect that in medieval Hungary this just counted as strong and stable leadership.

Well, in a commendably brisk and economical bit of exposition, the premise for the film is rapidly established: an unexpected beneficiary of the will is young soldier Imre Toth (Sandor Eles), much to the chagrin of loyal old retainer Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), who had expectations of his own. Amongst these was unfettered access to the Countess herself, who despite her aged condition finds herself rather taken with Imre. Everyone settles down to await the return of the Countess’s teenage daughter (Lesley-Anne Down), whom no-one has seen since she was a small child.

And then the Countess makes an unexpected discovery, when a typical household accident results in the blood of a serving girl being splashed in her face. Say what you like about alpha-hydroxy acids and hydroquinone, it seems that nothing lifts and restores the skin like a decent spray of virgin blood. Revelling in this opportunity to become young and comely again (and with serving girls being easy to come by), Elizabeth decides to impersonate her own daughter (as you would) and let herself be wooed by Imre. But her new beauty regime is a uniquely demanding one, even with the connivance of Dobi and her maid, and how long can she keep her grisly secret?

I was talking about horror movies in a general sort of way, the other day, and I suggested that the less interesting stories of this type are basically just about the threat of something unpleasant happening to you (like being stabbed or tortured to death). The more interesting kind of horror movie concerns itself with a different class of concerns, less immediately visceral but equally universal. It seems to me that Countess Dracula is very much of this type, having such a strong and resonant central theme that I’m slightly surprised this particular story hasn’t been reworked in the forty-plus years since it first appeared.

I might even say that this is a movie which looks stronger and stronger as the years go by, for the simple reason that it is about ageing and how people come to terms with this (or, of course, don’t). For most of us the gradual decline of our bodies and appearance is one of those things that is so inevitable we take it for granted (not that this stops us worrying about it). But, if the opportunity to be young and vital again presented itself, how much would it be worth to us? What would we be prepared to sacrifice?

The movie is very open about the jealousy that the old have of the young, nor does it really shy away from the fact that this often goes hand in hand with desire. Is it socially acceptable to be attracted to someone twenty or more years younger than you? Largely not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Countess Dracula is the best kind of horror film in that it lifts up the rocks under which these uncomfortable truths lurk and examines them in its own, slightly lurid way.

Its main asset is Ingrid Pitt herself. This is a film with a notably good cast (Nigel Green, Maurice Denham, and Peter Jeffrey all feature), but it’s still Pitt’s performance that you remember at the end of it. Not only is she equally convincing as a severe old widow, a vivacious young woman, and an insane crone at various points in the narrative, but she brings genuine emotion and pathos to the character. One of the great innovations of The Vampire Lovers was to imbue its monster with emotions and vulnerabilities – Carmilla behaves and reacts much more like a human being than, say, Christopher Lee as Dracula, who has quite rightly been described as a monolith of pure evil. The same is true of the Countess here – she may be a vicious, manipulative person throughout, but she is not just a cipher or cut-out. She is never really sympathetic, but her motivations are unpleasantly understandable.

Pitt’s performance is the film’s core strength, but it also benefits from a strong set of supporting players and some impressive production designs (sets were inherited from another, slightly more mainstream costume drama). The whole thing looks and feels classy, made more distinctive still by the prominent use of what’s surely a zither on the soundtrack.

In the end, perhaps it’s a bit too classy – or perhaps too economical with the exposition at the start. There’s a definite sense of the film running out of things to say and do well before its somewhat understated climax, and even then it seems to be positioning itself more as a psychological horror movie than one of Hammer’s typical supernatural fantasies. There are not the gallons of Kensington Gore you might expect from Hammer’s take on the Bathory legend, for the film is fairly restrained in this regard – ‘It needed more cruelty, throat slashing, blood hounds, blood!’ was Pitt’s own opinion in later years. The money shot of the film, when it arrives, is much more concerned with Ingrid Pitt’s nudity than it is with the fact she’s supposedly bathing in human blood.

Still, there is much to appreciate here, for all that a little more colour and energy wouldn’t have done it any harm. In the end Countess Dracula is a memorably chilly and slightly uncomfortable film to watch, with a very strong central performance and a compelling metaphor at the heart of the story. A superior film from Hammer’s early 70s output.

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By the time a film series reaches its fourth instalment your expectations generally start dropping, particularly if we’re talking about a horror franchise: the ground rules have been established in detail, all the obvious ideas have been done to death, and it’s becoming something of an exercise in going through the motions. Usually.

Something of a happy exception to this is Peter Sasdy’s memorably-titled Taste the Blood of Dracula, a 1970 movie produced by (you guessed it) Hammer, and starring (you don’t even need to guess) Christopher Lee. The last film in the initial Hammer Dracula continuity (there are two, along with a couple of standalone movies), Taste… opens with an atmospheric sequence where an English wheeler-dealer (Roy Kinnear) finds himself lost in a forest in Transylvania one night. Unsettled by inhuman screams echoing about the place, he loses his bearings and eventually stumbles upon – well, it’s Dracula, in agony, impaled on a crucifix and weeping tears of blood. (This is how the previous movie concluded.)

Dracula crumbles into dust leaving only his cloak and his family seal behind. The scene shifts to late-Victorian England where the slightly annoyingly chirpy children of three respectable gentlemen (Geoffrey Keen, John Carson and Peter Sallis) are trying to do their best to enjoy themselves despite the strict rules of their parents. Alice (Linda Hayden) in particular is suffering as her father disapproves of her boyfriend Paul (Anthony Higgins), possibly because of his incredible bouffant hair. However, it soon becomes clear that the three gents are massive hypocrites, as when they’re not preaching decorum and proprietry to their wives and children they’re off secretly touring the whorehouses and other fleshpots of London.

However, they’re becoming a bit jaded with this, and a chance encounter with Courtley, a legendary debaucher and pursuer of forbidden pleasures (a great performance from Ralph Bates) leads the men to contemplate the ultimate in sin. A deal is struck where the gents purchase Kinnear’s Dracula relics for Courtley, in return for which he will lead them in a Black Mass. When it comes down to it, they find they can’t bring themselves to, ah, taste the blood of Dracula, one thing leads to another and Courtley is killed (whether by Dracula’s poisonous vitae or the three men is ambiguous). But after they have fled the scene, Courtley’s body undergoes a remarkable transformation, and very soon Dracula himself walks the earth once more…

The perennial problem for the writers of Hammer Dracula sequels is finding new things for Christopher Lee to do. Dracula, all things being equal, is only interested in chowing down on the throats of young starlets, and by this point he’d done that rather a lot. Taste… succeeds because it gives him a wider agenda – revenge on the three men who killed Courtley. ‘They have destroyed my servant. They will be destroyed,’ intones Lee, memorably. (What’s that, you say? It was the death of Dracula’s disciple that enabled his resurrection in the first place? Well, er, shush. Don’t be awkward.)

Just to keep things interesting, Dracula doesn’t go after them directly but chooses to use their own children against them, turning some of them into vampires and using hypnotism on the others. Memorable scenes result (a spade to the head, a stake through the heart and a stabbing) but it also means that for much of the film Dracula isn’t much more than a manipulator lurking in the shadows.

Nevertheless, the film remains very watchable throughout, with a terrific cast full of well-known faces, lashings of atmosphere and great production values. The inimitable James Bernard provides another marvellous score, too. The holes in the plot remain numerous and sizeable but I for one found them very easy to forgive: the presentation of Dracula as an avenging angel of darkness is winning, and the generational-conflict angle is interesting, too (in that respect this is very much a film of its time). The climax is a little perfunctory (Dracula appears to be offed solely due to divine intervention), but having already had him blasted into ash by sunlight, drowned in running water, and impaled on a crucifix, it’s slightly understandable that they’re running out of ideas (subsequent demises would be even less satisfactory).

Returning to Taste the Blood of Dracula after a number of years, I was very pleasantly surprised by what a classy and solid production it is, especially compared to other Hammer movies from around this time. In terms of Christopher Lee’s involvement it may be a case of less is more, but on this evidence the blood of Dracula is definitely very more-ish.

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