Posts Tagged ‘Shane Briant’

I haven’t done a full statistical analysis of what the most common opening shots of Hammer horror movies are, but I would imagine that there would be a high incidence of forests, castles, implements of execution, and glowering skies of various hues. Vistas of row upon row of terraced houses in the grim urban north would be correspondingly lower on the list, especially when soundtracked by someone reading out a fairy tale. And yet this Coronation Street-meets-Jackanory approach is exactly how Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning chooses to make its bow.

The unexpectedness of tone persists, as in one of the houses we meet Brenda (Rita Tushingham), the young narrator of a fairy tale she has apparently written herself. Domestics are afoot between Brenda and her mum (Annie Ross), as Brenda insists on going down to London to find a man to take care of her and the child she is expecting. Already it is clear that Brenda may not have an absolute stranglehold on reality, but she is also stubborn and determined and duly rocks up in the Smoke, finding herself in a milieu not a million miles away from that of Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972, a slightly shabby demi-monde of mildly debauched young people in the usual startling fashions of the period. She gets a job in a shop, moves in with a co-worker who is having an affair with the boss (the co-worker is Katya Wyeth, and the boss Tom Bell, though his role is so minor and tangential it barely qualifies as a cameo), gets to know another young man who works there (played by James Bolam, likewise appearing less than you’d expect, considering he’s third billed). You would expect Bolam to be the decent, sensible lad whom Brenda eventually ends up. For best results, this movie requires expectation management, however.

Meanwhile, we of the audience are also getting to know Peter, a young man Brenda literally bumps into in the street not long after arriving in London. Peter is played by Shane Briant, possibly the last individual to qualify as a Hammer horror star, here making his first appearance for the studio (he would go on to make three more, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell amongst them). It is rapidly made clear that, despite his good looks and well-heeled appearance, there’s something not quite right about Peter, as many of the women in his life have realised too late.

Persistent lack of success at landing a bloke causes reality to crash in on Brenda and she goes out for a midnight walk, sobbing and wailing as a rather maudlin song plays on the soundtrack. However, we have now reached the inciting incident of the movie – and not before time, some might say – as she happens upon a scruffy dog named Tinker, also out for a midnight walk. Tinker belongs to Peter, whom she also spies. Displaying a hitherto undisplayed capacity for low cunning, Brenda dognaps Tinker, takes him home and gives him a bath, before taking him back to his owner. As ways of manufacturing a cute-meet go, this is fairly extreme, but for all its relatively mundane setting, this is not a movie which is short on extreme personalities.

For Peter is fully aware of what Brenda is up to, and invites her to stay with him. It transpires that she is not actually up the stick, but would like to be, and telling her mother she was formed part of a not-especially-coherent plan to get her used to the idea of becoming a grandparent. Again, Peter suggests that he might well be open to assisting Brenda with her plans, though he dismisses the fake name she initially gives herself – Rosalba – and christens her Wendy instead. However, a grisly (and not strictly necessary) reminder of Peter’s own issues soon arrives, as he takes against Tinker (whom Brenda has groomed somewhat) and makes his views very clear, using a craft knife…

Quite nasty stuff, but one thing about Straight On Till Morning is that there’s hardly any gore in it: the unpleasantness is almost entirely implicit, with the film owing its adults-only certification to some moderately graphic sex scenes early on. It’s another departure from the Hammer formula – Briant’s presence aside, this is probably the least Hammer Horror-like Hammer horror movie of the lot – in a movie which is obviously trying to do something different.

It would be nice to think that this was born of a desire by the company to broaden its palette a bit and move into other areas – it was released back-to-back with another contemporary psycho-thriller, a slightly more conventional fem jeop movie called Fear in the Night, which at least had Peter Cushing and Ralph Bates in it. However, the fact that the bulk of the movie takes place in the same small apartment, with most scenes being played out between Tushingham and Briant, suggests simply that one of the defining influences on Straight On Till Morning was the fact it was made on a punishingly low budget. Divergence and distinctiveness were really forced upon it.

Even so, I’m not sure this fully explains one of the most striking things about the movie, namely its editing. The actual direction of the scenes, the compositions and the handling of the actors, is perfectly fine, but Collinson frequently opts to rapidly intercut between scenes, juxtaposing clashing images and settings, in a way which is almost subliminal. This gets a bit wearisome very quickly: it’s certainly an interesting experiment, but on this occasion it’s an experiment which fails, badly.

In the middle of all of this, Shane Briant and Rita Tushingham are doing the best they can, and neither of their performances is anything to be ashamed of. This is no faint praise considering the unhinged, wildly implausible characters they are both saddled with playing, or the dubious nature of the plot they are forced to enact. Some of the contrivances involved I trust you will already have spotted for yourself: the rest concern Briant’s character, who (it’s implied) is really named Clive, and has from somewhere acquired a homicidal hatred of beauty – hence his fondness for bumping off the beautiful women who are drawn to him like flies, the fate of the recently-bathed Tinker, and the fact he’s drawn to Brenda (whose main character point seems to be that she is a bit plain-looking). Where to start with the implicit misogyny? The downbeat naturalism of it somehow makes it seem far worse than any of the dodgy T&A-themed vampire movies Hammer were putting out at around the same time. (You may also have spotted an implied conceit relating to Peter Pan, involving the title of the movie and several character names, but this doesn’t really inform the plot or theme much.)

Some of this would be excusable if the film somehow redeemed itself through its resolution: but such is the scantiness of the budget that the climax seems to have been omitted. The movie concludes with an annoyingly open, unresolved ending – the implication of what’s happened is clear, but there’s no sense of actual closure. Straight On Till Morning has been very difficult to like up to this point – it’s got an implausible opening, a talky and largely static mid-section, and a pervasive atmosphere of charmless nastiness – but as it draws to a close it actually becomes objectionable. It is, literally ninety-something minutes of your life you will not get back, and stakes a good case for itself as Exhibit A for the decline and fall of Hammer Films in the early 70s.

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Ah, there aren’t many movie taglines so good I’ll happily reuse them myself at the top of a review, but I think you’ll agree the one above is something pretty special. The only danger, really, is that the film itself doesn’t do justice to its own advertising. And given that we are talking about a late-period and rather bargain-basement Hammer Horror movie, one could be forgiven for some considerable anxiety on this point. However, extremely pleasingly, this movie is very nearly as much fun as one could wish for.

For we are discussing Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, released in 1974 after sitting on the company’s shelf for a couple of years. The previous movie, Horror of Frankenstein, had been a bit of a cock-up in nearly every department, and this is in many ways a return to the House’s classic style – marked most obviously by a return to one of his signature roles by Peter Cushing.

However, the film is well aware that Cushing is the star turn and holds him in reserve until the end of the opening section. Proceedings kick off with a graverobber (Patrick Troughton, still in his Liam Gallagher disguise from Scars of Dracula) hard about his trade, but it transpires that he is not working for Frankenstein, but a young doctor named Simon Helder (latter-day Hammer star Shane Briant). Helder is a bit of a Frankenstein fanboy and is engaged in cover versions of some of the Baron’s more infamous experiments. When Troughton is accosted by the law, the police turn up on Helder’s doorstep and his cunning ploy of hiding behind a curtain and being really quiet does not succeed: he is nicked on charges of sorcery!

(At this point, one can’t help but contemplate what a good choice Briant would have been to play Frankenstein in a straight relaunch of the cycle – he’s by no means dissimilar to Leonard Whiting in the American TV movie made about this time. Then again, as I’ve mentioned before, Ralph Bates could also have been great with the right script, and it’s not really surprising that Hammer went back to someone like Cushing.)

The judge is lenient and packs Helder off to the local lunatic asylum (so that’s part of the promise of the tagline fulfilled already) – but the lad is not too displeased, as he has heard rumours of a certain disgraced aristocrat being sent to the same place. However, he falls foul of the (slightly camp) asylum orderlies and is rescued by…

Well, no prizes for guessing who gets his big entrance at this point: it’s Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, operating (in every sense of the word) under the name of Doctor Victor. Frankenstein has got some dirt on the putative director of the asylum and done a deal whereby he effectively gets to run the place, leaving the director with more time to spend with his collection of exotic pornography. (Told you this was a class movie.)

Needless to say, the rigours of running an early-nineteenth-century lunatic asylum have by no means reduced Frankenstein’s desire to continue his academic researches. Already having his medical doctorate and a postgraduate qualification in Playing God, after all these years of spectacularly grisly failure he is hard at work on his thesis in Not Being Able To Take A Hint. However, life as a mad scientist has resulted in a little wear and tear on his hands and he has been reduced to getting a mute-but-beautiful inmate (Madeline Smith) to do the fiddly sewing for him. The arrival of another surgeon is thus rather good news for the Baron, especially as he is in the process of cobbling together parts of various former patients in order to vindicate his work in the eyes of the world.

However, a movie which has been storming along up to this point nearly gets spectacularly derailed when the Baron reveals what he has been working away on. According to the script, it is the corpse of a homicidal inmate possessed of tremendous physical strength and endurance – ‘a throwback!’ Frankenstein declares. Well, that’s as maybe, but what the costume department have cooked up is not so much ‘a throwback’ as ‘the missing link’. The titular Monster from Hell is basically Dave Prowse in a Bigfoot suit. It’s a reasonable monster, but the least plausibly human of any of the various Hammer Frankenstein creations.

Oh well. What follows is for the most part a retread of the original Frankenstein tale, set in a medical institution. Frankenstein proves his devotion to his cause, someone’s brain gets transplanted into Bigfoot, Helder finds there are limits to his desire to emulate his hero, and there is in the end a gratifying amount of mayhem (so that’s the other part of the slogan sorted out).

When I first got into Hammer movies in the late eighties, I must confess to being more interested in the Dracula series than the Frankensteins. Looking back this was possibly because the Dracula continuity is slightly better, Christopher Lee is a reliably immense presence, and vampires seemed more interesting than mad scientists anyway.

But these days I’m reappraising this – some of the Dracula movies are very good, but some of them aren’t, and Dracula’s schtick doesn’t really vary between them. The Frankensteins have a lot more variety in their plotting and a rather more interesting central character a lot of the time – in the best films, Frankenstein is an obsessive and often ruthless individual, but rarely a definitely evil one. It helps a lot that it’s Cushing in the part, too, of course: certainly, from the moment he first appears in this movie he utterly dominates it (despite a slightly dodgy wig).

It’s a typically magnetic and committed Peter Cushing performance, including moments of black comedy (‘Kidneys! Delicious!’ he says with obvious delight when his supper arrives, shortly after extracting someone’s brain) and physical courage. At one point Cushing gets a pretty full-on fight sequence with Dave Prowse and acquits himself extremely well for a man pushing sixty. But he also displays tremendous agility in terms of the tone of his performance: at one point his assistant is demurring at the latest scheme Frankenstein has come up with (understandably so, as it’s utterly, utterly barking, to the point of incoherence), but the Baron is off into town on a shopping trip. ‘Don’t do anything stupid,’ he says jovially, on his way out of the door, only to reappear moments later: ‘I know you won’t’ – this in a chilling, icy whisper. This film is by no means a one-trick pony, but it would collapse utterly without Cushing at its heart.

That said, there are incidental pleasures all the way through. One of the weaknesses of the Hammer Frankensteins is that they tend to be much more about the creator than his creation, whereas the relationship between the two is at the heart of the best versions of the story. Here, though, there’s a scene where the monster sits down and toys with a violin, which it finds itself unable to play (the previous owner of its brain was a virtuoso). It sounds like the corniest scene imaginable but it actually has genuine pathos. Elsewhere, the film is consistently atmospheric, particularly in the scenes in the asylum beyond the laboratory.

Even the palpably tiny budget doesn’t cause that many problems – although it’s fairly obvious to the initiated that the outside of Helder’s lodgings is the back yard of Hammer’s production offices, and there’s some appallingly unconvincing model-work towards the end. The film still has a good cast – most startlingly, Bernard Lee turns up in a tiny, mute cameo – and is effectively directed by Fisher.

It all concludes with a memorably nasty, almost Romero-esque climax quite unlike anything else in the annals of Frankenstein – and beyond this, manages to pull off an ending which is ominous and suggestive while still remaining subtle. Hammer had clearly learned by this point not to bother killing Frankenstein off at the end of each movie, as it just raised awkward questions in the next instalment. So the Baron is left alive and apparently well – but the script and performances irresistibly suggest that, perhaps, the strain of his repeated failures have finally taken their toll, and that a lunatic asylum is now the best place for him…

But this was the last Cushing Frankenstein and the last Hammer one, too (unless the revivified company returns to the story, which I can’t forsee happening). Given that, it’s a relief that the movie is such fun and so accomplished in many ways: make no mistake, this is an old-school British horror movie, with no ambitions to be anything else – but in those terms it solidly hits its targets, and is easily amongst the best of the late-period Hammer horrors.

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