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Posts Tagged ‘Terence Fisher’

If you think of British film companies of the 60s, particularly makers of genre movies, then of course you think of Hammer, then probably Amicus, and perhaps Tigon in third place. It might be quite a long time before you remembered Planet, a much smaller outfit these days best remembered for a couple of Terence Fisher films – Island of Terror, from 1966, and Night of the Big Heat, from 1967. Island of Terror was a moderately successful monster movie, rather let down by ropey monster props and a slightly stuffy tone. Night of the Big Heat (also known by the rather more promising title Island of the Burning Damned) almost looks like an attempt at a remake with these things fixed.

Everything takes place on the island of Fara, which we are told is somewhere off the coast of the UK. The film actually has a very unpromising opening, with no dialogue for ages and no real sense of what’s going on: someone’s radar set explodes in his face, a young woman (Jane Merrow) drives around in her convertible, and a stern-looking man (Christopher Lee) is engaged upon some mysterious experiments involving cameras and mirrors and bits of wood. (One of these scenes turns out not to have happened yet, and is just a teaser for much later on.)

Eventually we get some sense of the set-up here. Key locations on Fara include the weather station and the gravel pits (a useful location for staging mysterious deaths and the climax), but most of the action takes place in the pub, which is run by slab-faced alpha-male novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Lodging in the pub is mysterious outsider Dr Hanson (Lee), while constantly propping up the bar is genial GP Dr Stone (‘guest star’ Peter Cushing). New on the scene is Jeff’s latest secretary, Angela (Merrow), who is a bit of a naughty minx: she and Jeff have history together, if you know what I mean, and she’s come to Fara intent on resuming their liaison. A torrid time is in prospect.

Especially torrid given the island is sweltering in the grip of a tremendous, unseasonal heatwave, which is making TV sets and bottles of beer spontaneously explode. (All the men have had ridiculous sweat-patches applied to their shirts by the costume department.) What’s going on? Does it have anything to do with Dr Hanson’s experiments?

Well, sort of. It seems that space probes from Earth have attracted the attention of alien creatures composed of ‘high frequency heat’ and they are using Fara as a beachhead for their invasion of Earth. Anyone who crosses their path – sheep, supporting characters, those old tramps who are such a regular feature of this kind of movie – is rapidly incinerated. Is everyone doomed?

The least you can say for Night of the Big Heat – you know, I do think Island of the Burning Damned is a better title – is that it more or less avoids the key problems that Island of Terror had: the alien monsters are kept off-screen for most of the movie (and the monster props are marginally better when they do appear), and the general tone of the thing is pepped up by some mildly saucy business between Allen and Merrow (not to mention Merrow providing some cheap PG-rated cheesecake thrills). And yet this is still a worse movie than the previous Planet production.

How can this be? Well, firstly, all the stuff about Jeff being unable to keep his hands off Angela, and her scheme to have her way with him, scarcely informs the main plot of the film – it’s filler, basically, and very melodramatic filler too. The characterisation of Angela is, shall we say, problematic: she is a one-dimensional Bad Girl, who functions primarily as a sex object, and she’s the first one to lose it completely as the situation grows increasingly dire. (On the other hand, at least she can type.)

However, at least this makes a vague sort of sense, which is more than you can really say for the alien monster invasion storyline, which starts off as slightly dubious and rapidly becomes very silly indeed; this is the kind of film you can imagine inspiring the Monty Python ‘Sci Fi movie’ sketch. As ever, you are left filled with admiration for Christopher Lee’s ability to treat this kind of material with a gravity and intensity it doesn’t remotely deserve. By the end of the film Lee is participating in expository scenes explaining how the alien invasion has happened which are basically utter gibberish, before running outside to implement his character’s ridiculous plan to see off the invaders (this involves many shots of Lee setting fire to haystacks with a flare pistol), and he genuinely seems to be taking it completely seriously. What a legend. Peter Cushing is, of course, equally good, though not in the film enough – though we do get a marvellous example of Cushing’s wonderful ‘death-spasm’ acting (let’s see Disney’s CGI Cushing do that).

Most of the film is fairly competently made, but the script is so thick-headed that it’s more or less impossible to take seriously as a piece of drama, and it’s not even particularly enjoyable as camp entertainment. Night of the Big Heat came out in 1967, coincidentally the same year as In the Heat of the Night. One of these films is a timeless classic that deservedly won critical acclaim and several Oscars. The other one is a dim-witted B-movie with Jane Merrow in a bikini and aliens defeated by their poor grasp of meteorology. You can kind of see why Planet Film Productions never achieved a higher profile.

 

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For many years it was more or less accepted that the British Film Industry was moribund or had actually expired, some occasional semblence of life being brought to the cadaver through government assistance or co-productions of various kinds. (These days the issue seems a little more clouded, thanks mainly to the degree to which British talent powers many major international films and the notable success of many comedy films and costume dramas). It’s hard to remember that Britain once had a healthy and significant home-grown industry that turned out movies of all kinds in respectable numbers.

These days, if you come across a British movie on TV, there’s a very good chance it belongs to one of the big three franchises that the industry produced: James Bond, the Carry Ons, or Hammer Horror (I suppose the latter is a brand rather than a franchise, but you know what I mean). Bond was always the most Hollywood-style in its approach and tone, but the other two, rather oddly, do quite a good job of showing just how versatile British films could be.

For example, let’s talk about Terence Fisher’s 1958 film The Revenge of Frankenstein, which from the title alone sounds like something pretty schlocky. This film was made the year after the enormous success of Hammer’s first colour Gothic horror, The Curse of Frankenstein, back-to-back with its first Dracula film, so we’re still in at the birth of the very idea of Hammer Horror – which may be why this isn’t quite the film you might expect it to be.

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The film opens with the execution by guillotine of Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing, of course), as featured in the first film – but a nifty retcon reveals that our man switched places with a (presumably rather unwilling) priest at the last second, with the help of a cripple named Karl (Oscar Quitak). Frankenstein sets out to take a terrible revenge on the world which refused to recognise his genius!

Yes, that’s right, he goes into private practice. Three years later, the medical council of the town of Carlsbruck are disgruntled by the success of the brilliant but aloof Dr Stein, who has stolen most of their best-paying patients, as well as doing a lot of work at the hospital for the poor. (The rates of surgical procedures, especially amputations, are soaring.) A delegation is sent to try and get Stein on board.

This has no other effect than to give young Dr Kleve (Francis Matthews, perhaps best known these days as the voice of Captain Scarlet) the chance to clock Stein as the Baron, whom he met several years earlier. Rather than exposing him, Kleve volunteers to become Frankenstein’s new student/assistant, as he sets about his latest exciting project.

Karl is still helping the Baron, and in return Frankenstein has knocked up a new, non-deformed body (Michael Gwynn, perhaps best known these days as Lord Melbury in the first episode of Fawlty Towers), into which he intends to transplant Karl’s brain. Faced with this evidence of his brilliance, how can the world not give Frankenstein the respect which is his due?

As revenge schemes go, it’s one of the most genteel ones out there, and it does involve an impressive amount of community support work. However, as ever, Frankenstein is a bit too keen to overlook some flaws in the plan: post-op, Karl may not be keen to be exhibited as a marvel of transplant surgery, while there is the very small issue of past recipients of this procedure turning into violent cannibals. But that couldn’t happen this time, could it…?

Well, what do you think? Of course it does. The thing is, though, that the censor enjoyed a lot of power back in 1958 and the film is extremely limited in the levels of violence it is permitted to depict, to say nothing of the actual cannibalism. This is left very much implied, with most of the actual work being done by a rather good and pathos-laden performance by Gwynn. Does it completely make up for the fact that Gwynn is the most atypical Frankenstein ‘monster’ in the history of film? I’m not sure. The film works hard to make him tragic as much as horrifying (he gets an odd sort of unrequited romance with a kind-hearted posh girl played by Eunice Gayson, perhaps best known these days as the first of all Bond girls) and his demise arguably occurs a while before the actual climax of the film, which is a bit wrong-footing for the audience.

Then again, the film keeps going off at these odd tangents which aren’t really what you expect from even an early Hammer film. Much of the time this really does resemble a legitimate costume drama more than a horror movie – and not necessarily even a drama. Jimmy Sangster’s script is not short on colourful supporting characters, usually broadly comic in some way – Michael Ripper and Lionel Jeffries come on near the start as a couple of comedy graverobbers, while later on there’s a courting couple who could be the inspiration for the Jim Dale and Angela Douglas characters in Carry On Screaming – and these little vignettes really give the impression you’re watching some sort of weird literary adaptation which keeps erupting into gory surgical mayhem.

A lot of Hammers are a bit minimalist in their dramatis personae – they’re not quite ‘if you’re in shot, you’re in the plot’, but it’s sometimes close to that – but, like I said, this one is an exception, and it’s one which does throw into sharper relief just how class-conscious these films are. All the moral and plot agency is given to the aristocrats and the upper-middle-class characters, the less well-educated and well-spoken ones are just there to be victims or acted upon, or simply comic relief. And, to be fair, amoral monomaniac he may be, but you’d rather spend time with the genteel Baron F than any of the smelly poor people clogging up his hospital.

I’m not sure I’d call The Revenge of Frankenstein a classic Hammer horror, it’s just a bit too odd in its tone and structure for that. But we have to remember that the classic formula was still being conceived when this film was produced, and Hammer probably weren’t even considering the possibility that their future lay largely in making this kind of exploitation film. It almost goes without saying that this film has all the classic Hammer virtues – great costumes, sets, music, and Peter Cushing – but it also looks more like a mainstream movie than most of the others. This may not necessarily make it better, but it certainly makes it distinctive.

 

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Given some of the talent involved and a premise which is pretty solid, you might very well end up settling down to watch Terence Fisher’s Island of Terror (from 1966) with reasonably high expectations. This low-budget British SF film is exactly the kind of thing that people automatically assume is the product of Hammer Films, or perhaps Amicus, but it isn’t: it was made by the obscure Planet Film Productions, whose only other movie of note appears to have been the similarly-themed Night of the Big Heat (which, in some territories, revelled in the much better title of Island of the Burning Damned).

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There’s a touch of burning and possibly some damning in Island of Terror but the film’s focus is really elsewhere. Events unfold on one of those remote little islands off the coast of Ireland, where – mysteriously enough – you can hardly ever see the sea, and everywhere looks like the English countryside just outside Pinewood Studios. Present among the locals is the reclusive Dr Phillips, who is working on a radical new cancer cure along with his team. But just as the credits are rolling, there is a non-specific accident and the soundtrack goes all ominous.

A short time later the local policeman finds himself in search of a missing person, whom he rapidly finds in a deceased and somewhat bemusing condition. The corpse has, to be blunt, gone all floppy, as its entire skeleton seems to have dissolved. The island’s doctor is as baffled as the cop, so he calls in ace pathologist Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) from London.

Cushing gracefully declines the leading man role and passes it on to ace bone disease specialist David West, who’s played by Edward Judd (a serviceable 60s leading man, now rather forgotten). When we first meet West he’s clearly about to get down to it with a former patient (Carole Gray), but he is quite happy to fly off to Ireland with Cushing anyway. The demands of the plot mean that Gray’s character comes along anyway, even though she has no real reason to (possibly she’s a nymphomaniac or obsessed with Judd) and her role is almost exclusively that of a decorative screamer. (Your heart may well sink a bit as minor characters take great care to laboriously explain at great length to the leads how they will be Totally Cut Off On The Remote Island With No Way Of Contacting The Outside World.)

Cushing and Judd visit the lab on the island in search of its facilities, but are startled to discover a load more floppy corpses. Even a floppy dead horse turns up at one point. What can be happening? Well, the boffins soon tumble to the truth, aided by Dr Phillips’ notes and the sighting of some odd creatures in the area. The cancer cure research has gone horribly wrong and created an artificial life-form, a silicon-based predator that exists by dissolving people’s bones and sucking them out. Even more alarming is the fact that, given enough sustenance, the silicate creatures reproduce by splitting into two, effectively doubling their number every six hours. (For some reason the fission process also appears to involve a tin of spaghetti, but this is not much delved into.) Can Judd and Cushing find a solution to the menace of the silicates when the shotguns and petrol bombs of the local Irish farmers prove ineffective? Or will the bone-melting swarm wipe out all vertebrate life on the island?

On paper it sounds like a reasonably solid SF B-movie, which may be the reason why Island of Terror was able to attract a decent cast (Niall McGinnis also appears as the headman of the island). However, as wiser heads than mine have observed, appearing in a monster movie is rather like going on a blind date: often you’ve no idea just what the monster itself is going to look like until you’ve finished doing the actual shooting, by which time you’re in the hands of the special effects team. This wasn’t quite the case with Island of Terror, which uses exclusively practical effects, but I expect when Cushing et al were reading the script and thinking about signing on they didn’t envisage the silicates looking like squashed lumps of rubber with a single rather wobbly pseudopod wafting about in front of them.

Believe it or not, it looks much better in a photo than on film.

Believe it or not, it looks much better in a photo than on film.

It’s not just that Island of Terror has one of the least-impressive, least-threatening monster designs in the history of SF and horror cinema, it’s that the actual monster props are so clearly incapable of doing half the things that the script indicates they should do: they are forever crawling over cars, slithering over the roofs of buildings, and pouncing on people out of trees, and the fact they are very visibly just being pulled along by wires (or, in the case of their arboreal activities, have obviously just been nailed up there) makes the whole thing rather ludicrous.

Bearing this in mind, I’m not sure whether it’s a mistake or not for the rest of the film to take itself quite so seriously. This is a very old-school SF B-movie, with wisdom and salvation to be found in the form of the learned and mature (Judd, supposedly the young genius in the film, was 34 when he made it), and everyone’s mostly quite sober and grave throughout it (Cushing, to be fair, has a go at inserting a little lightness and wit). There’s even a coda sequence which is clearly meant to be ominous and doomy, but just suggests the film-makers were worried the ending wasn’t strong enough. Frankly, they were right: Fisher tries hard to make scenes of Cushing and Judd doing things with radioactive isotopes and injecting cattle tense and exciting, but even he really struggles.

The result of all this, coupled to a decent budget and production values, is that Island of Terror is a decent, reasonably taut monster movie, as long as the monsters themselves aren’t on screen: the moment they appear it becomes, at best, faintly risible. There are obviously many other films which meet that description, but I can’t think of many that go down the practical-prop monster route as full-bloodedly as this one. This is one of those films that starts pretty strongly but inevitably goes downhill as the story is forced to replace a mystery with some form of plot resolution. It’s not quite a bad film – by a whisker – but you’d be forgiven for expecting something slightly less absurd-looking.

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Strange to say, but the right kind of horror movie can sometimes be a very reassuring thing. Sitting down to watch the 1964 Hammer horror The Gorgon, one is at once presented with a succession of familiar names – Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Patrick Troughton, director Terence Fisher – to the accompaniment of an unmistakable James Bernard score, while a gloomy Gothic castle glowers behind the credits. Such is the power of the Hammer brand and the associations of all these things that you just know that, no matter what the merits (or otherwise) of this particular script, the undertaking overall is going to have a bit of quality about it.

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And so it proves, more or less. The film potentially finds Hammer a little out of its comfort zone, as the film is set in a remote, German-dominated part of Europe in the early years of the 20th century – but any differences from the classic Transylvanian fairyland setting are entirely cosmetic. We are still in a world of boyish young students carousing with accommodating peasant barmaids, ominous local police chiefs, crusty old professors who are fonts of wisdom and sanity, sinister local authority figures, and castles you shouldn’t be seen dead at after dark (for fear of actually being found dead at, the following morning).

The Gorgon has a slightly awkward structure, opening with young student Bruno discovering to his alarm he has accidentally impregnated his girlfriend Sascha. Off he sets into the night, intent on reassuring her father of his gentlemanly intentions, despite her pleas for him not to go. She ends up following him anyway. The next day, he is found hanged, while her body is taken to the local asylum – well, either it’s her body or an extremely lifelike statue of her…

This draws Bruno’s father, Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), who finds the truth of what happened being covered up by the asylum boss Dr Namaroff (Cushing) and the police chief (Troughton) – Bruno is being fitted up for Sascha’s murder, and the petrification is being quietly forgotten about. Heitz vows to stick around and uncover what really happened, despite the hostility of the locals. But one night something lures him to the local ruined castle where he encounters a hideous, snake-haired creature. Staggering home, he finds himself rapidly turning to stone, so (as you would) quickly jots down a letter to his other son, Paul, explaining just what is going on in quite surprising detail.

The laborious plotting continues with Paul (Richard Pasco) arriving and vowing to discover the truth about his father and brother’s death. At least he has Christopher Lee as his university tutor, who is an expert on this sort of thing. On the other hand, he does find himself distracted by Namaroff’s beautiful assistant (Shelley) – and just why is Namaroff trying to cover up the strange events in the area…?

Viewed objectively, you’d be hard-pushed to seriously argue that The Gorgon was first-rate Hammer horror. There is, as noted, the awkward plotting whereby a string of people get attacked by the titular beastie, each in turn summoning the next investigator/victim: the film threatens to devolve into a string of set-piece Gorgon attacks. There’s also the problem that it’s never really clear who the protagonist of the film is supposed to be – Cushing, when the chips are down, is a bad guy, Goodliffe gets turned to stone by the end of the first act, Lee only really appears towards the end of the film, and Pasco’s character is a bit too weak and passive to be really engaging.

If the movie lacks a strong hero, it also has problems with its beastie as well: the Gorgon itself is a silent, alien malevolence with no voice or agenda of its own beyond petrifying innocent people. The film has swiped a bit of werewolf lore in that the creature spends most of its time lurking inside an unsuspecting human host, only physically taking them over during the full moon. The identity of the Gorgon is never really in doubt – there is a half-hearted attempt at misdirection on the point – but, for whatever reason, the film opts not to give us the scene in which the human host transforms into the creature itself. The monster is female, but – predictably – the story is told almost exclusively from a male perspective.

But above all it’s just clumsily written. We never really learn why Bruno turns up hanging from a tree at the start, and the idea of the lurking Gorgon is dropped out of nowhere into the script (Goodliffe’s character mentions the legend first, before he’s even aware of the string of statuary-related murders in the area). As I suggested, parts of it do verge on high camp (the professor writing a letter while in the process of petrifying, for example).

That said, whenever I feel the temptation to dismiss any of these old Hammer horrors as quaint or corny, I remember watching Plague of the Zombies on a proper cinema screen with modern sound and vision and being genuinely gripped and unsettled by parts of it. I’m not sure the same wouldn’t happen with The Gorgon, too, for those set-piece Gorgon sequences are supremely well-directed, particularly one in which Paul finds himself repeatedly confronted with the monster’s reflection in various surfaces. The conceit that the Gorgon’s petrification doesn’t happen immediately but takes place over a period of time is quite an inspired innovation too.

Even watched on TV, this is a film with a shockingly bleak ending – I suppose the lack of a strong protagonist is something of a plus point here, as it would be even worse if they ended up dead along with nearly every other major character in the film. And it’s hard not to interpret it as being fundamentally misogynistic – the sole major female character is alternately monstrous or under the sway of the various men in the film.

So The Gorgon is not without some qualities of its own, but it remains a hard film to actually like. Perhaps the fact that both Cushing and Lee are cast against type is partly to blame – for whatever reason, neither has quite the presence in the film you might expect, and they don’t share much screen-time, either. Certainly, if you look at the raw material this film had to work with, in terms of performers and idea, you might expect something a little more impressive than the end result. It’s still hard to completely dismiss, though.

 

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I don’t get paid for writing about films, so why do I do it so much? The same reason I do anything else, I suppose: it seems worthwhile in some way or other. Another question which I get asked less often is why I’m so interested in films which are so old and (from a certain point of view) clunky that many people nowadays find them impossible to engage with.

Well – I don’t see the logic in saying that a film is bad just because it’s old; by that reasoning every film ever made is slowly deteriorating in quality all the time. But I do think that old movies offer us a useful perspective on the world at the time in which they were made, especially genre movies, which I generally find a lot more honest.

All of which is preamble to a look at the 1957 version of The Curse of Frankenstein, directed by Terence Fisher – yes, a bit of a mini-Hammer horror season of late. This particular movie comes loaded with significance – Hammer’s first Gothic horror movie, Christopher Lee’s first really striking lead role, the first colour version of this particular story, Lee’s first on-screen pairing with Peter Cushing…

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Cushing, of course, plays Baron Frankenstein himself. The film has an interesting framing device where a priest turns up at the cell where Frankenstein is being held prior to being guillotined for his terrible crimes – not because the Baron is seeking to repent, but because he wants someone to hear how none of it was really his fault…

Well, that’s a marginal claim at best, as we see. The film flashes back to Frankenstein as a youth (played by Melvyn Hayes from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, slightly startlingly), coming into his fortune and hiring his own tutor, Krempe (Robert Urquhart). Frankenstein’s brilliant intellect develops apace, and the investigations of the two men turn, almost inevitably, from conventional medical research to a somewhat darker avenue…

And it’s here, to be honest, that we start to see one of the things that marks Curse out as a product of its time. I was a bit indifferent about the Ken Branagh version of Frankenstein last year, but one thing which that telling does do well is to give Frankenstein some kind of motivation for his researches – why is this man so obsessively fascinated with and compelled to explore the secrets of life and death? Branagh answers this question; Fisher doesn’t. This film is more melodrama than drama, in which the plot dictates the characters’ actions rather than vice versa.

So Frankenstein starts assembling his infamous creation on rather dubious pretexts – mainly because the story demands it, as I said. Krempe is unimpressed and eventually refuses to participate, on the grounds that this experiment is obviously obscene. Perhaps it’s another example of cultural standards changing, or possibly it’s just me, but I wouldn’t say that reanimating a corpse is a ghastly crime against nature, per se – don’t we have defibrillators for just that purpose? Yet the film expects us to share Krempe’s opinion, I think.

The need to ensure this may be why Frankenstein himself, who is initially presented as someone unorthodox and slightly fixated but not actually evil, rapidly and not necessarily plausibly turns into a complete fiend. Needing a brain for his creature, he murders a kindly old professor who is visiting his home (sadly the brain gets damaged in a scuffle with Krempe) – and if that wasn’t enough, it is later revealed he has been up to some seigneurial whoa-ho-ho with the maid (Valerie Gaunt), whom he eventually has to dispose of using the Creature.

It’s a bit of a cliche to say this, but the fundamental difference between the Hammer cycle of Frankenstein movies and the Universal series is in their focus – the main character for Hammer is the Baron, while the Universal films are more about the Creature. This is certainly true here, as Christopher Lee doesn’t get much to do until quite late on (in a famous anecdote, he complained to Cushing about not getting any lines – ‘Count yourself lucky, I’ve read the script’ was Cushing’s reply), and he’s certainly more sinned against than sinning. Cushing’s Frankenstein, on the other hand, is definitely a bad guy.

So my memory has been cheating me, it seems – writing about the much later Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, I observed that Cushing’s Frankenstein was ‘rarely definitively evil’ – well, he certainly is here, originating the character. Possibly I’m letting Cushing’s usual screen persona of decent integrity confuse me, or the actor himself is quietly striving throughout to create a plausible characterisation in parallel with the requirements of the plot.

It all concludes with the usual mayhem, and along the way there are various examples of gleeful nastiness that horrified film critics at the time: severed body parts, acid baths, and a veritable fountain of Kensington Gore when Krempe puts a bullet in the Creature’s head (‘the shot heard round the world’ of horror films, as Mark Gatiss memorably put it a few years ago). This is a film of various creative tensions – first rate actors trying their best with melodramatic schlock, quality costume-drama trappings being laid about a gory B-movie – and perhaps it’s here that the essential magic of the Hammer films is to be found.

Every time I’ve written about one of the ‘first generation’ Hammer horrors in the past – mainly Dracula and The Mummy – I’ve commented, usually negatively, about how polite and well-mannered they were. That’s much less the case with The Curse of Frankenstein – there’s a rich vein of mischievious nastiness going on that still makes it stand out as something unusual, and special: the real origin of the Hammer horror brand, and an enjoyably over-the-top film even today.

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A group of European archaeologists discover the unopened tomb of a famous Egyptian dignitary, and despite the misgivings – and warnings – of some of the locals, they venture within in search of treasure and knowledge. Of course, while everything in the tomb is dead, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s completely inert…

I often talk about how the world’s most predictable movie genre is that of romantic comedy, but on the other hand you could make a fair case that the horror subgenre of walking mummy movies runs it pretty close: it feels like nearly all of them open in just this way, and what follows is often pretty samey too. I am here today to write about the 1959 telling of this particular tale, in Terence Fisher’s The Mummy.

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This is one of the very first Hammer horrors. In the preceding couple of years the studio had scored a couple of big hits with blood-splattered renditions of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, and were cheerfully ploughing their way through every other classic Gothic tale they could lay their hands on (not to mention The Hound of the Baskervilles). The creative personnel involved seem to have come as a job lot – in addition to Fisher as a director, all of these films star Peter Cushing as either the hero or anti-hero, plus Christopher Lee clawing his way to iconhood  in a variety of roles as the heavy of the piece.

This time around Cushing plays Banning, youngest of a trio of archaeologists who discover… oh, well, we’ve covered that bit already, haven’t we? The twist this time is that Cushing has done his leg in and can’t go into the tomb himself so it’s up to his dad to do the peering about and prying into secrets of which man was not meant to know. As you might expect, something mysterious in the tomb sends Banning Senior spectacularly off his nut and he has to be shipped off home, eventually followed by Banning Junior, his uncle, and the various finds he has extracted from the tomb.

Needless to say there is about the scene a suspicious Egyptian character (played on this occasion by George Pastell), who swears vengeance on the despoilers of the tomb, no matter how long it may take. Vengeance ends up taking about three years, mainly because Cushing has blown up the tomb entrance (not an archaeological technique I recall seeing on Time Team very often) and it takes Pastell this long to dig out his partner in retributory mayhem: Kharis, a disgraced former priest placed in the tomb with its occupant (a lady who he had a bit of a thing for, hence the disgrace). Kharis is, of course, played by Christopher Lee, and spends most of his time being tall, menacing, and heavily bandaged. There is a brief flashback to happier times in which Lee actually gets some dialogue, but this still isn’t a particularly demanding role for the great man.

Anyway, Pastell and Lee pursue Cushing and his family back to… well, I didn’t spot anything in the film that really pins down where the majority of it is set. I suppose it could well be the sort of home counties backdrop that’s one of Hammer’s default settings, but on the other hand there are a lot of Irish yokels, Irish policemen, and peat bogs in the area, so it may well be this is supposed to be rural Ireland (just for a change, you know). The Irish yokels and peat bog prove fairly central to the plot, as the former manage to dump Lee’s sarcophagus into the latter early on, with the result that he’s rather more slimy than the traditional conception of a mummy.

Banning Senior is still off his nut and has been incarcerated in the local Home for the Mentally Disordered (I honestly kid you not, it even has a sign outside), and it is here that Lee and Pastell commence their slimy series of salutory strangulations. Being a brilliant investigative scientist, it does not take Cushing too long to work out that something is going on – but will he manage to crack the case before Pastell works his way down the death list to where his name is scratched?

This was, obviously, Hammer’s first crack at doing a mummy movie (they would end up doing several more), and one of their first attempts at doing a Gothic horror film of any description. As I mentioned when writing about the original Hammer Dracula, these very early Hammer horrors are much better-behaved and less lurid than their successors – this one doesn’t have much in the way of Kensington Gore in it (Lee getting his tongue cut out was snipped at the censor’s behest), and the mummy’s pursuit of his beloved is almost entirely chaste as well. In the dual role of Princess Ananka and Cushing’s wife (yes, they are lookee-likees, a pretty remarkable coincidence which the film simply demands that you roll with) is Yvonne Furneaux, who doesn’t get a great deal to do beyond swish her hair back and forth and be carried about by Lee.

I suppose you could argue that the lookee-likee thing is just an inarticulated instance of the reincarnation trope which is a staple of this particular genre. But in every respect this is pretty much a bare-bones take on the story: I suppose the thinking at the time was that simply doing a mummy movie in colour was such a striking innovation that they didn’t have to worry about doing anything new or clever with the actual script, and as a result all we’re left with is a revenge melodrama largely consisting of a series of set-piece mummy attacks.

Christopher Lee, as you’d expect, gives it everything he’s got as the titular monster. To be honest, the part really doesn’t require that much, but Lee insists on giving Kharis little moments of pathos when he’s not strangling people or being stabbed or shot. He and Cushing approach their various physical confrontations with their customary gusto, and – again, as you’d expect – Cushing approaches the role of the misguided archaeologist with his usual commitment and precision. Even here the script verges on the perfunctory – the arc of Banning’s character should be that of an initially arrogant man forced to reconsider his worldview as a result of his confrontation with the dark forces he inadvertantly stirs up – the subtext of this whole genre is essentially ‘Let the past rest in peace’ – but again, the script doesn’t dig into this in any real detail.

The Mummy isn’t actually a bad film, but it is a short one, and perhaps that’s also a factor in how briskly by-the-numbers the script seems to be. This is a movie which covers all the essential elements of a mummy film atmospherically and effectively. It’s just that it barely does anything else.

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You can’t do a Peter Cushing celebration without including a proper Hammer horror movie, and if you’re only going to do one then it should really be a Frankenstein film, the series which – in every sense worth considering – he led for the studio. I have to confess that, much as I love Cushing’s performances, I’m not a particular fan of these films – though I do like Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell – but obviously other opinions are available. For example, let us consider the words of Martin Scorsese, talking ahead of a season of his favourite films in 1987: ‘If I single this one out it’s because here they actually isolate the soul… The implied metaphysics are close to something sublime.’ Yowser.

frankensteincreatedwomanposter

Scorsese is referring to 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman (the title spoofs Roger Vadim’s 1958 movie And God Created Woman), which opens, sublimely, with a low-angle shot of a guillotine. There follows a jolly sequence in which Duncan Lamont plays a nutter who’s being beheaded for murder, something which doesn’t seem to bother him much until his young son Hans turns up. Nevertheless, the sentence is carried out, the father being guillotined in front of the boy. This is really only tangentially connected to the plot, but it’s still a great opening.

One title sequence later (Lamont gets fifth billing, despite already having had his head chopped off), we have skipped forward many years and Hans is now a strapping young man (Robert Webb), which is good, and working as a lab assistant for Baron Frankenstein (Cushing), which is probably more questionable. With the help of Hans and bumbling local doctor Hertz (Thorley Walters), the Baron is taking his peculiar researches in a new direction: rather than creating new life, he is now intent on preserving existing forms of it. To this end he has been putting himself into suspended animation to see what happens to his soul, and Cushing gets a great ‘entrance’ where Webb and Walters have to drag him out of a fridge and defibrillate him back to life.

Inter-film continuity was never really a priority with Hammer, and this film doesn’t really attempt to dovetail with the previous film in the series, The Evil of Frankenstein. Frankenstein is operating under his real name, although he seems short of resources, and he’s not quite the criminal outcast he is in most of the Hammer sequels. He has lost some of the use of his hands, though it’s never specified how (a plot detail which is picked up again in Monster from Hell). He still has a reputation as a sorcerer amongst the local yokels, but he doesn’t have a castle for them to burn down.

Anyway, having been defrosted, the Baron packs Hans off to the local pub to buy some champagne. It turns out that Hans is in love with the landlord’s daughter, Christina (Susan Denberg): one of the slightly difficult aspects of this film is the presentation of Christina as suffering from an unspecified disability, with a scarred face and partial paralysis. This doesn’t bother Hans, though. What does bother him is cruel treatment of his girl by three nasty young rakes, and there are some fisticuffs before the evening is out.

Having run out of cash, the upper-class twits try to rob the pub, but they are discovered by Christina’s dad, so they beat him to death. Unfortunately, all the circumstantial evidence is pointing to Hans and after seeing Christina off on a trip to see a medical specialist (her absence is a plot point), he is hauled in and put on trial. Surprisingly, it turns out that having the notorious Baron Frankenstein and his idiot assistant appear as character witnesses is not an advantage in a court case, and Hans is sentenced to be guillotined too.

Up to this point, Frankenstein has been depicted as a brilliant, obsessive scientist (he’s even invented the nuclear reactor a century early), rather than a bad guy, but his response to learning his assistant is going to be executed is basically to start rubbing his hands and planning what he can do with the body. He has figured out a way to isolate the soul of someone recently deceased (that guy Scorsese knows what he’s on about) and is just looking for a test subject. There is even more good news, for the Baron at least, when an unwitting Christina comes across her boyfriend being beheaded for the murder of her father. This comes as a bit of a shock and she promptly flings herself into the nearest river, her body being delivered to Frankenstein’s lab as well (presumably he has some sort of first-refusal arrangement in place).

I know geniuses see the world differently to the rest of us, but just how detached from reality do you have to be to think that transplanting the soul of your wrongfully-executed assistant into the body of his own lover, after she commits suicide, is in any way a good idea? Nevertheless, that’s what Frankenstein does, taking the opportunity to fix Christina’s various disabilities and blemishes along the way – he also turns her into a blonde (oh, good grief). Little does he suspect that, though seemingly a total amnesiac, the Hans/Christina amalgam retains the young man’s memories of the three real murderers and is intent on exacting a bloody revenge…

(Well… there is the minor issue of it never being explained how Hans knows who the real murderers are. Maybe he’s just killing them because he doesn’t like them.)

Easy, tiger.

Easy, tiger.

Hammer advertised this movie with a series of quite well-known publicity shots featuring Cushing and Denberg in some, er, interesting poses, but to be perfectly honest the film itself is a lot less fun than the photos imply. As I hope I’ve managed to suggest, the plot is a strange mixture of metaphysical science fantasy and brutal revenge melodrama, not really like any of the other Hammer Frankensteins. This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, but definitely problematic is the fact that the revenge melodrama is definitely what the script seems most interested in. While Frankenstein himself is essential to the plot, he’s never really central to it. Cushing walks off with the movie, as usual, but he feels like a character turn rather than the genuine star. It’s hard to imagine how this could be fixed without totally rethinking the premise of the film, but it’s still a problem, and it may explain why this script apparently hung around for years prior to being made (apparently it was written before the Evil of Frankenstein script, then put on hold when Hammer negotiated the rights to the classic Frankenstein’s Monster makeup from Universal, allowing them to make that film).

Nevertheless, this is a classic golden-age Hammer horror film: possibly formulaic, but it is for the most part a bloody good formula. James Bernard contributes another wonderful score, the character actors get their teeth into their material, the younger members of the cast aren’t too embarrassing, and the production values are relatively lavish. Hammer afficionados will recognise most of the locations from the studio’s other films, but that’s part of their charm and identity.

Still – one really could wish for more Peter Cushing in a Hammer Frankenstein movie, and more of a sense of hubristic transgression in the central premise (the Baron’s experiment does seem weird, but that’s mainly because of the relationship of the two people involved in it). Failing that, even a slightly deeper exploration of the metaphysical foundation of the film might have made for a more satisfying production. As it is, Frankenstein Created Woman yomps along briskly and logically to its conclusion, and Cushing himself is exemplary, but one can never quite shake off the vague sense that this is a movie hobbled by an underpowered script.

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