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Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Bates’

It comes as a bit of a shock to me to realise that I’ve been a fan of Hammer horror for just about thirty years, my personal satanic baptism following the BBC documentary The Studio That Dripped Blood and the accompanying season of films. What seems almost incredible, though, is the realisation that some of these films were less than twenty years old at the time. It’s impossible to be objective about these things, of course, but it feels like a great cultural chasm separated the early 1970s from the late 1980s in a way that isn’t quite the case when it comes to the late 1990s and nowadays. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that Britain had a viable national film industry in 1970 in a way it doesn’t have now.

One thing I am sure of is that I was technically a bit too young to watch most of these films at the time – although I note that when older Hammer films get revived on the big screen these days, they often get recertified much more leniently (as a 12A rather than an 18, for instance). Well, whatever, I’m sure a steady diet of gore, nudity, and the occult never did me any harm (he says, looking around his tiny rented garret, conveniently forgetting his becalmed career and string of failed relationships). That’s not the same thing as saying all of these movies were actually any good, of course, but sometimes a really iffy Hammer film has fleeting pleasures of its own.

I first saw Jimmy Sangster’s 1971 film Lust for a Vampire at the back end of 1989, and even at the time I remember being rather unimpressed with it. This is another Fine-Style production, the sequel to The Vampire Lovers, and while a few of the supporting cast return, none of the featured players do (and everyone’s playing different characters anyway).

We find ourselves once again in early 19th century Austria – this is one of the comparatively rare Hammer films which is quite specific about its setting – where, to no-one’s particular surprise, the undead are stirring. A cheery, buxom village maid is kidnapped by the evil Count Karnstein (Mike Raven) and used in a dark, gory ritual to resurrect the comely female vampire Carmilla (Yutte Stensgaard, on this occasion), although she spends most of the movie calling herself Mircalla. It’s obviously not made entirely clear, but it seems that Count Karnstein is supposed to be the Man in Black from the previous movie, up to his old tricks again (most of the impact of the character comes from the fact that Raven is being dubbed by Valentine Dyall, which is slightly ironic given Dyall himself famously played the Man in Black on the radio). The resurrection scene is interesting in the way it recalls similar moments from both Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood of Dracula, but the striking thing is how much more explicit the satanic overtones become over the years – another example of standards changing (this trend really culminates with Dracula AD 1972, where Christopher Lee is restored at the climax of a full-fledged Black Mass).

Well, anyway. Next we meet novelistic aristo Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnson), a bit of a charming rogue who’s in the area to research his new novel. The local landlord obligingly delivers a mighty slab of exposition concerning the Karnstein family and their vampiric activities, but this doesn’t stop LeStrange from heading up to Castle Karnstein to have a poke about. What follows is a genuinely atmospheric and slightly eerie sequence as he finds himself stalked by a trio of silent, robed young women, which actually recalls an episode from early in the novel of Dracula itself. This may be the single most effective bit of the movie.

The punchline, of course, is that the girls are actually pupils from the local finishing school, visiting the castle of the vampires on a school trip with their tutor (Ralph Bates). LeStrange swings by the school with them, finds himself engaged by the cornucopia of feminine pulchritude on display, and then absolutely smitten by the arrival of Mircalla as a new pupil. LeStrange promptly wangles himself a job as the school’s new English teacher in order to give Mircalla some real attention. Of course, when the school standards board get wind of this sort of behaviour, he’s bound to get it in the neck – but perhaps he has more pressing concerns to worry about…

Lust for a Vampire isn’t really very much more distinguished than its title suggests, though of course it does give good T&A (well, T, mainly). That said, there are moments which suggest a genuinely interesting film might have been made from Tudor Gates’ script, and it is worth noting that Hammer originally envisaged a movie where Ingrid Pitt reprised her role as Mircalla, Peter Cushing played the creepy school teacher, and Terence Fisher directed. As it turned out, Pitt declined to return (she made Countess Dracula instead), Cushing dropped out very late on due to his wife’s declining health, and Fisher ended up being replaced by Jimmy Sangster. For what it’s worth, Sangster and Bates do the best they can with some slightly rum material, but Stensgaard is definitely not in Ingrid Pitt’s league as an actress. The sense of a bit of a bodged job is just compounded by the producers’ decision (without the knowledge of even the director) to soundtrack the movie’s key love scene with the rather execrable pop song Strange Love.

The film falls down as badly as it does simply due to bad characterisation, poor scripting, and some uninspired performances. The fact that the protagonist is apparently an unprincipled rake who cons his way into a school in order to seduce one of the girls studying there is, well, not the sort of plot development you can imagine featuring in a modern film. It also robs the film of any overriding sense of morality – there’s no Van Helsing figure here, just a lot of people wandering about with extremely poor impulse control (they wheel on a Catholic cardinal, who just happens to be passing, for the climax). That said, it’s a fairly odd school, with much more casual nudity and implied lesbianism than one might expect to find on the curriculum. A stronger script might have made this a bit more excusable, but as it is, the film just comes across as leery.

This time around Mircalla seems a lot more interested in boys than on her initial outing, with the lesbian vampire aspects of the story toned down a bit (apparently at the behest of the BBFC). An awful lot of horror films contain not-very-thinly-veiled metaphors for and about sex, but on this occasion it looks rather like a cigar is just a cigar: you can give a rather sour interpretation to The Vampire Lovers, where lesbianism/vampirism is a scourge which must be stamped out, but in this case? Beyond the revelation that many men like blondes with large breasts, the film doesn’t have much to say for itself – it is purely exploitative in this regard.

Viewed from a modern perspective, there is a lot about Lust for a Vampire which is either creatively or morally suspect. It’s a slightly less iconoclastic vampire movie than its forebear, to be true, but most of the innovation is replaced by either half-baked melodrama or simple prurient exploitation. It entertains as a Hammer horror only really at the most basic level. Ralph Bates later regretted having anything to do with it, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I wouldn’t suggest this film to anyone but a Hammer completist.

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I have felt for a long time that there is a strange and not immediately obvious connection between horror stories and comedies – that these two genres in particular share a common link. They are defined, primarily, not by a particular setting or subject matter, as with most others, but by the response they are aiming to produce in the audience. Perhaps then it isn’t so surprising that the ideas for many comedies, when written down on paper, sound shocking and not really the stuff of humour, while the premises of many horror movies seem equally laughable.

Indeed, I’ve always said that there’s nothing more horrific than a bad comedy and nothing more laughable than a bad horror film. (Perhaps this is why comedy-horror is such a difficult beast to get right.) Perhaps sailing closer to the wind in this department than most is Roy Ward Baker’s 1971 Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which really does sound like a joke (and actually started life as one, if you believe the anecdotes about this movie’s genesis).

dr-jekyll-and-sister-hyde-martine-everett

This movie finds Hammer back in fog-bound Victorian London, albeit one which is clearly being realised on a budget stretched to breaking point. The streetwalkers are living in terror of the activities of the murderous Ripper, a crazed killer who inflicts oddly precise mutilations on his victims’ bodies. Perhaps brilliant young scientist Doctor Jekyll (Ralph Bates) can shed some light on the matter?

Obligingly, Dr Jekyll tells his strange tale through the wonders of flashback and narration. Working on the universal panacea of a comprehensive antivirus (don’t worry, this is just a McGuffin), he is dismayed to realise that life is literally too short for him to see his researches through to fruition: it will take many decades to complete the project. This is not enough to dissuade a mad scientist in a Hammer movie, of course, and he starts to investigate the possibilities of extending the human lifespan.

The mechanism he eventually settles upon involves – and I promise you, the actual film really doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous as this sounds – female hormones, apparently because women don’t go bald, or something. Procuring the necessaries from the local mortuary attendant (a droll extended cameo from Philip Madoc), he first succeeds in massively extending the life of a fly, even if the male insect does appear to start laying eggs as a side-effect. Not to be deterred, Jekyll presses on, even if a shortage down the morgue requires him to retain the dubious services of the grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

Soon enough the scene everyone’s been waiting for arrives and Jekyll swills down the potion himself. Cue a lot of staggering about and gurning from Ralph Bates and a genuinely clever shot where he appears to turn into Martine Beswick without the use of either cuts or dissolves: I suspect this was done with mirrors, but anyway. It’s Martine Beswick! Hurrah! The film has been fairly salacious so far but creeps still further in the direction of the nudge-nudge-heh-heh joke, as the very first thing sister Hyde does on arrival is cop a proper feel of herself in front of a mirror.

Hyde is initially the secondary persona, but this changes as Jekyll finds himself running short on, er, supplies again, and is forced – after some fairly brisk moral soul-searching – to procure them himself by putting on a cape and top hat and going out into Whitechapel after dark with a big knife. But as the police close in, Jekyll realises he needs a better disguise for his bloody activities, and what better disguise than the body of a woman?

But Hyde, unleashed, turns out to be very much her own woman, with her own priorities and her own desires. The two personalities rapidly become locked in a curious metaphysical battle, with various confused members of the family upstairs involved too. And all the time the police continue to hunt for the Ripper, whoever he (or she) is…

As I say, written down, the plot of this film makes it sound like a much trashier proposition than it actually is – or, perhaps, the production of the film does a good job of masking most of the trashiness. Given the tiny budget, Victorian London is convincingly evoked, and the sets and costumes are as classy as you would expect from any Hammer horror. The performances, too, are pretty good, even if some of the supporting turns are a little over-ripe. The script (from telefantasy legend Brian Clemens) does a decent job of selling a fairly outlandish idea.

That said, this film has a harder, darker edge than the horror movies from Hammer’s golden age five years previously, and there’s that lurid, salacious quality to parts of the film as well. It always feels in a hurry to get to the flesh and blood sequences, which is why it feels a little strange that the gore is relatively restrained and Martine Beswick only has two very brief nude scenes. Possibly Roy Ward Baker, a quality director, couldn’t bring himself to go all-out in this particular area. Certainly he does an impressive job, including some clever, witty juxtapositions – a sequence of Jekyll at work with his knife is intercut with close-ups of a butcher gutting a rabbit, for instance.

I suppose Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde qualifies as a very, very early example of the sort of Victoriana-mashup which has become increasingly popular in recent years: here we have Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and Burke and Hare all lumped into the same narrative. It’s hard to shake the impression that, on some level, the whole thing is intended as a sick, black joke, and this may be why some of the plotting and characterisation hasn’t been approached as rigorously as one might have hoped for.

For instance, Jekyll does come to the conclusion that the benefits of his work morally justify him going out and carving up prostitutes very quickly, for all that he does so on sound utilitarian grounds. This compromises the character, and when the drama focuses on the conflict between Jekyll and Hyde, it’s can’t really be framed as good vs evil – both of them are murderers, after all. Both Bates and Beswick give very serious, committed performances, and it’s a shame that Beswick in particular doesn’t get quite enough to do – the whole Jekyll vs Hyde angle doesn’t appear until very late on in the film, and the director apparently later regretted not exploring the whole gender-related split-personality angle in more detail. There’s also a bit of an issue that the film feels like it’s lacking a third act: the climax feels like it comes out of nowhere in a rather arbitrary way.

So, not the most typical of Hammer films, with only Bates present from the usual rep company, and a distinctly different tone and emphasis. But it is definitely a memorable one – even if that is, perhaps, for the wrong reasons. The idea of Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde sounds like a joke, and perhaps the biggest failing of this film is that, to some extent, it treats it like one: a black, deadpan joke, but a joke nevertheless.

 

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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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So, it’s 1970, and you’re an award-winning and iconic British movie studio whose horror movies have come to define the genre for a generation. Unfortunately, critics have started to get a little harsh and audiences aren’t quite turning up in the numbers they once did. What are you to do?

Well, funnily enough, Hammer Films found themselves in that exact situation, and the option they went for was to reboot both of their main series for a younger, hipper crowd. First out of the blocks was Jimmy Sangster’s The Horror of Frankenstein, which dropped any pretence of continuity with the previous five Hammer Frankensteins.

So we’re back with the Baron (here played by Ralph Bates) at the start of his career as a student and then a mad scientist. Already having murdered his father to further his career, Victor Frankenstein sets about creating a hideous patchwork monster, a travesty of man… and so on. I think we’re all familiar with the main thrust of this story, and this film adds nothing to it in terms of actual plot twists. The monster himself is embodied by a pre-Darth Vader Dave Prowse, while filling up the necessary Hammer-glamour slots are Veronica Carlson as the good girl and Kate O’Mara as the bad one.

It sounds a bit formulaic, but you would be wrong in thinking this film makes no demands of its audience. It does. Mainly when it comes to the suspension of their disbelief. Very early on, there is the following exchange –

Old Baron: ‘It’s not natural for a boy of your age to be so interested in all this scientific twaddle!’

Young Frankenstein: ‘It’s no less natural than a man of your age being interested in a sixteen-year-old housemaid!’

– which on paper doesn’t sound unreasonable, but the fact that both Victor and the housemaid are visibly in their thirties doesn’t help the film in any way. The production values are up to the usual high standard for a Hammer film, but it’s slapdash in virtually every other department. Supposedly set in Austria (with stock footage of somewhere appropriately Alpine turning up for establishing shots of Castle Frankenstein), the local church appears to be in the Borehamwood area, and Frankenstein’s housekeeper has an accent from somewhere on the Ireland-Somerset border. Historical realism, particularly when it comes to things like class distinctions, isn’t even a factor.

Instead, Sangster seems to think the way to entice a younger crowd is to channel the spirit of late-period Carry On films and other softcore comedies (not that there’s any of your actual nudity in this movie). The first fruit of Frankenstein’s researches is a severed arm that gives the V-sign to order, for example, and the Baron himself seems as obsessive a womaniser as he is a scientist – none of which is strictly relevant to the plot.

And in including all of this stuff, the essential things you actually want from a Frankenstein movie get pushed aside. This story should be about obsession, and hubris, and arrogance. When Frankenstein’s first major success comes from resuscitating a deceased tortoise, it sort of lacks the blasphemous energy the film really requires. And rather than being a misguided obsessive, he’s an out-and-out ruthless bastard from the opening scene, with no real reason for this being presented. One way or another he murders half-a-dozen people in the course of the film, including his best friend, his father, and his mistress, and we’re never given any sense of why he feels so strongly about his work that he’s driven to do this, or how he can function the rest of the time if his brain works that way.

(Three of the murders occur following an exchange along the following lines –

Soon-to-be-victim: ‘You’re an evil man, Baron Frankenstein! I have proof and I’m going to the police about it!’

Frankenstein: ‘Very well, you have that right. But before you do that, would you like to come down into my dark and mysterious cellar all alone with me and my dangerous scientific equipment?’

Soon-to-be-victim: ‘Er – yes, all right.’

– which is jaw-droppingly lazy scripting.)

What’s worst of all is that there’s no sense of transgressiveness or moral outrage anywhere in this film, almost as if the viewer is supposed to empathise with someone who appears to be a complete psychopath. The resolution of the film – there isn’t an actual climax – has a disgruntled-looking Baron experiencing an admittedly major setback, but otherwise with his health, wealth, and freedom fully intact. There’s no sense of real punishment or the moral order being restored.

What makes this even more irritating is that, very rarely, the film stops trying to be arch and fashionable and takes itself seriously, and in these moments we get glimpses of what a fantastic performance Ralph Bates could have given if he’d had a decent script. Groomed by Hammer as a successor to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Bates appeared in a number of movies, most of which were sabotaged by weak scripts or low budgets. But his performance as the obsessive title character in Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde shows just how good he could be, given the right material. Someone like Lee or Cushing, might, possibly, have had the sheer charisma and wit to make this film work, but Bates seems to be trying to play a ridiculous character straight (his first words to the monster are ‘How do you do?’) and he just can’t carry it off.

Aside from those brief flashes of could-have-been, there’s not much else to get excited about in Horror of Frankenstein – even Kate O’Mara’s extraordinary wardrobe loses its fascination quite rapidly. Dennis Price has a cameo as the local grave robber and displays the sort of droll wit that the rest of the film is sorely lacking in, while Veronica Carlson has the most elaborate hairstyles this side of the planet Naboo, but the rest is extremely forgettable.

So, it’s 1972, and you’re an award-winning and iconic British movie studio whose attempt to reboot its Frankenstein series with a new continuity and a new actor turned out to be a bit of a disaster. What are you going to do?

Easy peasy. You sack Ralph Bates, re-hire Peter Cushing and go back to the old continuity…

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