Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Roy Ward Baker’

Early in 1995, I think, my local art house cinema ran an extremely short season of vampire movies – if you can call two movies a season, anyway. One of these was Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, which is a very untraditional example of the subgenre – I went to see it and rather liked it, unlike a friend of mine, who admitted she was only interested in vampire movies that were sexy. The other one was – a bit of a curve ball – Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, then about to enjoy its diamond anniversary. I can barely bring myself to admit it, but I passed up this opportunity to enjoy a Hammer horror revival on the big screen – it wouldn’t happen these days, obviously. I’ve no idea if my friend went along to see The Vampire Lovers, but if she did I imagine she would have been well satisfied, for this is definitely intended to be one of the sexy vampire movies.

The story, such as it is, opens in properly Gothic style with a portentous narration from Douglas Wilmer, playing a magnificently bewigged vampire hunter. The vampires in this movie are a weird, almost spiritual menace, though they still sleep in coffins some of the time and are strangely attached to their shrouds. Wilmer has an axe to grind, as his family has already suffered from the attentions of the undead. A predictably comely young bloodsucker shows up (played by Kirsten Lindholm, an extremely attractive young woman in a movie not short on them) only to get her head chopped off almost straight away. So it goes sometimes.

Inasmuch as any of what follows makes rational sense, we may surmise that the rest of the film is set some years later. The first section of the film basically constitutes another prologue, greatly extended this time, telling of how General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) comes to take into his home a mysterious and alluring young woman named Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). Marcilla becomes very close to the General’s niece Laura (Pippa Steel), which may or may not have something to do with Laura’s sudden and rapid decline and death under mysterious circumstances, accompanied by some rather suggestive nightmares, not to mention vampire bites about the chest region.

It’s perhaps more rewarding to consider The Vampire Lovers as a succession of impressionistic set pieces than as a conventional narrative. It certainly goes some way to excusing repetitiveness of some of the plotting, as all the above essentially starts to happen again, only in the home of an Englishman named Morton (George Cole) – quite what Morton is doing in Austria in the early 19th century is never really established, nor is what language everyone is speaking, but I digress. Morton likewise finds himself taking Marcilla into his home, except now she is going by the name Carmilla. She seems just as keen on the company of Morton’s daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) as she was on Laura, too, despite the misgivings of her governess (Kate O’Mara). Is history about to repeat itself? Will handsome local lad Carl (Jon Finch) realise what’s going on, and will Peter Cushing come back for the climax of the movie?

As you can perhaps tell, narrative rigour is not The Vampire Lovers’ strongest suit, for not only is it rather repetitive, it doesn’t really bother to keep the audience in the picture when it comes to some fairly basic plot elements, such as what’s actually going on. It seems to be the case that Wilmer’s vampire hunting at the start of the film was not that thorough, and at least one (and possibly more) of the beasties has returned, many years later, to ravage the daughters of the local aristocracy. But who is the mother of Marcilla (or Carmilla)? Is she a vampire too? Who, for that matter, is the Man in Black who occasionally pops up to survey Carmilla’s (or Marcilla’s) doings with such evident satisfaction? Both of them disappear out of the film without explanation.

An uncharitable viewer might conclude that the film is less concerned with trivial things like coherent plotting than it is with Ingrid Pitt getting her kit off and sinking her fake fangs into the necks and bosoms of various other cast members (many stories of said fangs falling out and having to be retrieved from the cleavage of Kate O’Mara by enthusiastic prop hands are in circulation). The film is very much a product of its time, an exploitation movie in the truest sense – calculated to fully exploit the more liberal censorship regime which came into force in 1970, by including more explicit nudity and gore than had been possible in previous Hammer horror movies. This is certainly a much more lurid film than anything from the company’s 1960s output.

How much of this new direction was forced upon Hammer by the general decline of the British industry and how much by the film’s producers, Harry Fine and Michael Style, is a bit unclear – another oddity of the film is that it is, uniquely, a co-production between Hammer and American International Pictures (noted makers of some of Vincent Price’s best horror films) – you would have to be a bit imaginative to see this film as a true synthesis of the two company’s styles, though.

Apart from the decision to go in a more brazenly exploitative direction, The Vampire Lovers’ greatest innovation is the casting of Ingrid Pitt in its main role. Pitt is a world away from the typical decorative, fragile Hammer starlet – she has a powerful, mature presence, and is a better actress than you might assume. Of course, she’s quite obviously considerably older than the character she’s meant to be playing, not to mention the young girls upon whom she preys (Pitt was over 30 when she made the movie), but this is excusable in the circumstances: it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

The various scenes of Ingrid Pitt wafting about graveyards in something diaphanous with a plunging neckline have acquired a certain iconic quality of their own, and it’s easy to see why she’s just as much a Hammer icon as Cushing or Christopher Lee, despite only appearing in a couple of films for the company. That said, it’s equally easy to discern a little discomfort on the part of film-makers when it comes to making a film about such a powerful, sexually aggressive woman – in the end, of course, it’s a gaggle of middle-aged men who end her reign of slightly kinky terror, but even before this, it’s strongly implied that Carmilla (etc) is really the pawn of the Man in Black and not nearly as independent a woman as she might seem.

It would be slightly ridiculous to try and claim The Vampire Lovers as some kind of feminist movie, anyway, given it was largely designed to incorporate as much soft-core lesbianism and nudity as Hammer could possibly get away with. These days it seems mostly rather tame, and as a result the shortcomings of the plot are laid as bare as the younger female members of the cast. But there is the reliable pleasure of a Peter Cushing performance to consider, and the perhaps unexpected one of Ingrid Pitt’s performance, too. In the end this is a landmark movie in the history of Hammer horror, regardless of how good or not you think the film actually is.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

Halloween looms once more, and without further ado let us try to establish something of a tradition by reviewing another classic old Hammer horror movie (not that I’m averse to going down this road at any time of year, of course). Roy Ward Baker’s Scars of Dracula, originally released in 1970, opens in majestic style with a rubber bat on a string vomiting fake blood onto the gritty remnants left after the Count’s last dissolution (in Taste the Blood of Dracula).

Lo and behold, Dracula reconstitutes himself (he is once again played by Christopher Lee, though this wasn’t the mortal lock you might have expected at the time). All this happens before the opening credits, which makes a refreshing change after a series of films in which Dracula doesn’t show up until quite a long way in. (There is a reason for this, which we will address in due course.)

Dracula gets back into his old routine by chowing down on the daughter of one of the local yokels. However, the villagers feel the need to nip this latest outbreak of vampirism in the bud and set off for Castle Dracula, flammable objects in hand. The village innkeeper (Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper, getting unusually good material) boldly launches the assault on the Count’s stronghold by walking up to the front door and ringing the bell. Luckily the villagers’ cause is helped by the fact that manning the entrance is Dracula’s dogsbody Klove (Patrick Troughton, in a wig and makeup that makes him look rather like Liam Gallagher’s granddad), who is an idiot. Klove obligingly lets them in and they proceed to set fire to a few bits of the castle, but don’t actually bother looking that hard for Dracula himself. (The damage to the matte painting of the castle seems to be much more severe than to the actual set.) Feeling the job has been done, the villagers toddle off home, only to discover that all their womenfolk have been killed by rubber bats on strings, despite taking refuge in the church. Blimey.

All this is, to be perfectly honest, largely immaterial to the actual plot of the film – although I suppose it does explain why the villagers are so bad tempered for the rest of the movie and why Dracula appears strikingly reluctant to leave his house throughout (clearly concerned about leaving Klove in charge). The proper story kicks off at this point as we meet fresh-faced mittel-European youths Simon and Sarah (Dennis Waterman and Jenny Hanley), who are in lurve. However, they are concerned by the roguish antics of Simon’s brother Paul (Christopher Matthews). In a slightly dodgy plot development, one of Paul’s conquests goes a bit bunny-boilerish and accuses him of rape, forcing him to flee across the border (which border is not elaborated upon). He pitches up in the village from the start of the movie, where the men are clearly still soldiering on despite everything (the local inn has a barmaid, who in the circumstances is not as well treated as you might expect). Anyway, he does not get a warm reception and – would you believe it? – finds himself heading castle-wards before much time has elapsed. Meanwhile, Simon and Sarah are still looking for him and their attempt to follow his trail inevitably sees them also heading into danger before too long…

Scars of Dracula is a movie which plays strictly according to the classic horror rulebook: inasmuch as any major character with a fondness for an immoral lifestyle is writing their own death warrant, while all those on the path of virtue are essentially untouchable. I think they probably overdo this element a bit: it’s okay to make your good guys nice people, but Waterman and Hanley are such an incredibly insipid couple that it’s impossible to really care about them. It doesn’t help much that, despite the period setting, all the young characters come across as well-brought-up present day kids in fancy dress – an impression only bolstered by an infelicitously-framed shot which reveals that Paul’s choice of sleeping attire is a pair of bright red Y-fronts.

That said, it’s not as if anyone turns up to a Hammer Dracula to see the supporting cast. You come to see Christopher Lee doing his stuff – and, as these things go, he gets a fair amount of screen time here. The script actually gives Lee the chance to play Dracula with a little more depth than usual – there’s a lot of material here which is, broadly speaking, derived from Stoker’s original novel, which means that Lee gets the chance to retain a little dignity and intelligence, rather than simply being a slavering fiend lurking in a ruined church (which he spends a lot of time doing in later Hammer movies).

Despite all this, as had become traditional, Christopher Lee really had to be dragged into the studio and (almost literally) blackmailed into participating. And even this was at the behest of the distributors, who weren’t interested in a non-Lee Dracula movie. Hammer had originally planned to recast and relaunch the series, much as they did with their Frankenstein series in the same year, but their backers insisted that this be, nominally, part of the same continuity that started in 1958.

(Inevitably, one has to wonder who Hammer had in mind to play their new Dracula: I’m not aware of any documentation on this being available. The obvious choice for me would have been Ralph Bates, were it not for the fact he’d been in the previous film as one of the Count’s acolytes (not to mention that he was also the new Frankenstein in Horror of Frankenstein). No-one else in the Hammer rep company really fits the bill for me.)

This is why the film opens in the way it does: the original script was to start with Dracula in his castle doing his thing. The vomiting bat sequence was the quickest way of restoring the character, but this is inevitably one of the things that draws criticism from hard-core Hammer fans – not because the bat is rubbish (though it is), but because at the end of the previous movie Dracula was destroyed in England, and this movie opens with his remains being back in Transylvania (not identified as such on screen), with no explanation given.

I expect it must have been Klove who did all the necessary travelling around and sweeping up. One of the consequences of keeping Scars of Dracula in-continuity with the earlier movies is that Troughton’s playing a character with the same name and job as someone who was apparently shot dead in Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Is this meant to be the same Klove, miraculously recovered?

Well, the first Klove (Philip Latham) was a lugubrious fanatic, but he dressed smartly and was a credible butler. Troughton’s Klove is an idiot who dresses like a yokel and quite frankly isn’t up to scratch as a domestic of any kind. Presumably the Klove family have some sort of ongoing contract with Dracula to do for him, and Troughton’s character was the only person available to do the work. Dracula seems to accept that you just can’t get the staff these days with commendable equanimity.

‘Feeling supersonic, give me gin and tonic’, etc.

Nevertheless, Klove is really the pivotal character of the movie (honest), and on top of this as a result of his presence we get an unexpected insight into the domestic arrangements at Castle Dracula. Klove spends his days whiling away the time in his horrible quarters, getting tricked into opening the gates by passing vampire hunters, chopping up corpses and dissolving them in an old tin bath, removing crucifixes from the busts of visiting starlets, and being branded with a red-hot sword whenever he gets something wrong. What kind of money is he making? What must the initial job advert have looked like?

One’s mind inevitably wanders into territory such as this during Scars of Dracula. This is despite an attempt by Hammer to up the gore and sex quotient in an attempt to compete with the stronger meat provided by American exploitation movies of the period. To be honest it’s fairly mild stuff, compared to later movies – the nudity content consists of a pair of bare buttocks, and Baker doesn’t seem very comfortable in his handling of the gore. The importance to the plot of rubber bats on strings is also a problem: at various points the bats are required to savage people to death and wrest crosses from their persons, and all of this looks about as convincing as you’d expect.

The main problem with this film is not to do with the production values, however, as these are mostly pretty good: and there is of course a lush and atmospheric James Bernard score to be savoured. The problem is that, despite the fact that Dracula gets some good material and the film is occasionally striking and involving, it’s essentially bereft of new ideas. Taste the Blood of Dracula had interesting things to offer on the subjects of morality and the clash of generations – but Scars of Dracula isn’t really about anything beyond Dracula noshing on his guests and mistreating his staff. It’s simply a very mixed bag of elements, all present for different reasons, and as a result the film lacks the strong identity of the best Hammer Draculas. Still sort of fun, though.

Read Full Post »

When the respected British film director Roy Ward Baker died late last year, his career received the usual reappraisal: many kind things were said, usually focussing on his classic take on the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember. I was pleased to see a few of the more perceptive commentators making reference to his work on the brilliant horror-SF movie Quatermass and the Pit. However, no-one at all made the slightest reference to his work on the unique 1974 movie The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. The fact that the DVD packaging accurately describes this film as ‘…fist meets fang in Dracula’s kung fu showdown!’ may have something to do with this.

Well, it was 1974, and Hammer were yet again looking around for a new direction. This time around they hooked up with Hong Kong-based film-makers the Shaw Brothers to make a movie in which the stuff they did really well – Gothic vampire horror with lashings of fake blood – collided head-on with the Shaws’ areas of special interest: lengthy kung fu action sequences.

Alas, this was a wacky new angle too far for Christopher Lee, who point-blank refused to be involved. (Legend has it he was basically blackmailed into doing his last few Dracula movies anyway, on the grounds it would be churlish of him to put the rest of the actors and crew out of work by not participating.) And so this is the only Hammer Dracula where someone else plays the part: John Forbes-Robertson, who’s clearly been cast for his resemblance to Lee, but who rather blows it by overdoing his lipstick.

Anyway, in a striking prologue, a Chinese monk makes the strenuous journey to Transylvania. He’s there representing the vampire lords of Szechuan Province (yep, where the chickens come from). The Chinese vampires are having a tough time of it and would quite like the help of the Prince of Darkness. Initially scornful, Dracula rapidly realises his castle is actually a bit of a dump and takes up the offer of helping out this foreign enterprise (a bit like Kevin Spacey becoming creative director at the National Theatre), but not before he possesses the monk (presumably this is to cut down the amount of time that this non-Lee Dracula is on screen).

Some time later, who should pitch up at Chungking University but Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), intent on investigating Chinese vampire legends. Van Helsing runs into Hsi Ching (David Chiang), whose large family of kung fu experts hails from a village in Szechuan which has been terrorised by the seven golden vampires of the title since time immemorial.  A deal is soon struck where together they will deal with the vampire problem, as long as Cushing is excused kung fu duties, Chiang doesn’t have to say Transylvania too often, and they can find an appropriately striking blonde to provide the obligatory Hammer glamour (Julie Ege steps up as a wealthy Danish widow who finances their expedition).

I’m making the plot sound rather more complex than it actually is – most of the foregoing is back-story, handled very directly. What happens on screen is actually extraordinarily straightforward: the vampire hunters set off on their expedition (Cushing wears a pith helmet). Some gangsters try to stop them and there’s a lengthy kung fu battle. Then, they stop for the night in a cave, where the vampires attack them. There’s a lengthy kung fu battle. Finally, they arrive at the cursed village where the vampires attack them again. There’s a – oh, you guessed. The plot is totally linear (though not wholly without surprises – not everyone you may be expecting to survive to the closing credits actually does so).

The ‘village plagued by bad guys calls in expert fighters’ scenario inevitably recalls Seven Samurai and its legion of pasticheurs, but things seem to have got a bit mangled: in this movie the ‘seven’ of the title are the bad guys. Nevertheless, Cushing is backed up by seven of his own guys, though any thoughts you may be having that this is a fair fight are mistaken, as the vampires are supported by a legion of charmingly duff-looking zombies (to be fair, all the makeup in this movie is fairly lousy).

On paper this movie looks like one of the greatest pieces of junk ever committed to celluloid, an aberration committed solely in the name of market-chasing. Neither the script or the production values are up to Hammer’s usual standard, and the film doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. The graphics department don’t seem to have read the script, as a caption establishes Dracula heads for China in 1804, a century before the rest of the story happens. This in itself is enough to put the film in its own continuity, separate from the ‘classic’ Hammer Draculas (1958-1970) and the ‘contemporary’ films featuring the character (1972-3). However, the script makes it quite clear that Dracula and Van Helsing have met before, which is impossible given what we’re shown on-screen. Does it really matter, given that this is, after all, a Hammer horror-kung fu movie fusion? Probably not. Is it, nevertheless, annoying as hell? You bet.

Legend remains stubbornly watchable, mainly due to another incredible Peter Cushing performance – the man’s dedication and commitment to his craft remain truly astounding, to say nothing of his sheer ability to sell dodgy scripts to an audience – and Baker’s contribution as director. He’s not the most naturally gifted director of martial arts sequences, but then the fights in this movie are a little atypical anyway, generally featuring at least half a dozen performers on each side. Where he does deliver is in terms of atmosphere: the wordless build-up to the final conflict, as each side steels itself for battle, is genuinely rather thrilling. He’s helped by James Bernard’s strident if slightly repetitive score, even if it does recycle bits of his classic Horror of Dracula score in a rather uninspired fashion.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is what you get when a fairly silly idea gets written up as a so-so script (Don Houghton was once again responsible), which then has rather too much talent and energy and not enough money thrown at it. You can’t really imagine Christopher Lee actually doing a movie as weird as this one, because it is weird – bordering on the actually demented. But if nothing else, that gives it definite novelty value. This is ultimately quite a bad film. But it manages to be bad in a uniquely interesting and enjoyable way.

Read Full Post »

I nearly didn’t write this. I sat down and watched Quatermass and the Pit (1967) last night, but not specifically with an eye to reviewing it – this is one of those films I sit down and view simply for pleasure at least once every couple of years, and I find it always, always rewards me. But then – with the return of the Hammer brand imminent – I read yet another article discussing the Hammer movies of old, with particular reference to how kitsch and camp they are.
  

Well – maybe some of them come across that way now, and possibly some of them were made with tongue sliding into cheek, but Quatermass and the Pit isn’t amongst that number. This is a story told absolutely straight, absolutely seriously. It opens with workmen engaged upon an extension of the London tube system discovering astonishingly ancient fossil human skulls as they dig. But the scientific investigation of the site has to be suspended when the dig uncovers what everyone assumes to be an unexploded bomb from the second world war – but what no-one can explain is how the projectile and the fossil relics appear to have been buried at exactly the same time. On the scene almost by accident is rocket engineer and British SF icon Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), who is more prepared than anyone else to think the impossible. But even he is initially reluctant to accept evidence that the dig site’s history of ghost sightings and paranormal phenomena is linked to the thing in the pit…

The story unfolds lucidly and logically, managing to fuse strong SF ideas with classic horror imagery along the way. And it grows in scale, from a simple, if unsettling mystery, to a climax in which London itself is virtually laid waste and the future direction of human development is at stake. The tone throughout is defiantly naturalistic, as are the performances. Alongside Hammer stalwarts Keir and Barbara Shelley are James Donald and Julian Glover, and they pitch it perfectly, directed by the recently-departed Roy Ward Baker.

I was all set to pass over a more detailed look at Nigel Kneale’s script, on the grounds that it’s all been said before and better, but I suppose there is just a chance that someone reading this may not be familiar with his work, so here goes. It seems to me than in addition to being a visionary and a major figure in UK drama from the 50s onwards, Kneale was a misanthrope. Even on those occasions when his scripts conclude with a happy ending and calamity averted, one still gets the sense that the darker side of human nature has been thrown into unflattering focus, and the price of survival is a deeper understanding of our own essential evil.

The other major theme of Kneale’s later work is the use of classic Gothic tropes and structures to tell explicitly SF-themed stories – or, to put it another way, the use of SF rationales to ground Gothic horror stories. Quatermass and the Pit is about an eruption of ancient, demonic evil into the modern world, culminating in the malign possession of an entire city – but it’s also about the legacy of an attempt at a colonisation of prehistoric Earth by insectoid Martians. The two readings mesh seamlessly, and – tying into Kneale’s view of humanity – include a bleak metaphor and explanation for our self-destructiveness and viciousness to one another.

‘We’ve found the problem. The system had a few bugs in it.’

One thing I’ve never seen written about this movie in the past is the way it echoes the work of another very famous 20th century horror writer, H P Lovecraft. (Kneale would probably have abominated such a comparison.) But to me Lovecraft’s cosmic horror stories seem motivated by a deep discomfort with the ramifications of the discoveries of modern science, with humanity little more than evolved apes in a soulless and unguided universe. There seems to be a similar disquiet about our origins in Quatermass and the Pit, and while Kneale’s Old Ones are Martian insects rather than Lovecraft’s extravagant obscenities, they have something of the same baleful aura.

Cor, this has got a bit deep and heavy, hasn’t it? I have to say that if any of the classic Hammer movies deserve it, it’s this one, not just the best SF movie the studio ever produced, but quite possibly also the best movie overall. Quite simply an essential watch.

Read Full Post »