Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Curse of Frankenstein

This is a loathsome story and I regret that it should come from a British team...the writer of this script seems to think that the X category is a depository for sewage

An unnamed BBFC reader's summation of Jimmy Sangster's screenplay for
The Curse of Frankenstein

It's almost a cliché nowadays to talk about it in such terms, but Hammer's 1957 film really did usher in a new age of Gods and Monsters. It was the first British Horror film to be shot in color, and tested audience nerves with an unprecedented level of violence and gore, significantly some 2 years before Mario Bava unleashed La Maschera del Demonio. The film was a breakthrough in the careers of Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher; Cushing had been up to then a television actor of some renown but had yet to make his mark on the big screen, while Fisher had been a journeyman director with over 25 films to his name. The fortunes of both men, Hammer studios, and indeed the evolution of Horror and Fantasy Cinema would take a remarkable turn with The Curse of Frankenstein.

For such a pivotal moment in the Hammer story, The Curse of Frankenstein had a surprisingly complicated birth. A film of Mary Shelley's novel was first mooted as a Hammer project in 1956 when James Carreras was sent a screenplay entitled Frankenstein - The Monster penned by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg (ironically the duo who would go on to establish Amicus Productions, Hammer's most significant rival). Hammer were initially keen to mount a grand production of the Frankenstein story, but the project faced an immediate obstacle in the shape of Universal, who jealously guarded the rights to make a Frankenstein film. When the Subotsky and Rosenberg screenplay was given to producer Tony Hinds, the project seemed fraught with potential legal problems, and began to lose momentum, with Hinds scaling back the production to a 3 week shoot and in cost-effective black & white. It was only when Jimmy Sangster produced a screenplay which was carefully tailored to avoid any ideas and elements of the Universal series - a significant achievement considering Universal having thoroughly mined the property with no less than 8 outings for the monster, that the project was revitalised and planned as Hammer's first film to be shot in color.

The film opens with Baron Frankenstein awaiting his execution for the crime of murder. In an attempt to save his life, the Baron explains to a priest the events which resulted in his incarceration, and so begins the film proper, as Frankenstein obsessively tries to engineer a living being from a collection of dead body parts... Despite sharing the basic framework of Shelley's story with James Whale's 1931 classic, The Curse of Frankenstein is a radical departure from the Universal film, with the emphasis placed on the mania of the Baron rather than the creature. If nothing else it was a practical move, as Hammer were expressly forbidden to emulate Jack Pierce's iconic stylized make-up for Boris Karloff's monster. Arthur Edeson's shadowy expressionist photography which in part established the look of Universal's Horror films, was now replaced by Jack Asher's gaudy experimental color photography. Sangster's screenplay was very much a contemporary reflection of ideas and concerns of the late '50's - if Colin Clive's Frankenstein was committing an act against God, Peter Cushing's Baron was challenging the natural order of life itself, a position the post-war scientific community were increasingly adopting with radical advances in medicine and emergence of the contraceptive pill. With The Curse of Frankenstein, the Baron emerged as a truly modern Prometheus.

Directed with a skill and vibrancy by Terence Fisher, the film contains a number of memorable visual flourishes, like the the incredible first appearance of the monster, ripping off his bandages to reveal a tortured patchwork of stitches and dead tissue, or the monster's spectacular fiery demise. The film made a star of Peter Cushing (who went on to play Frankenstein in all but 1 of the 7-film series, briefly sidestepping the role with The Horror of Frankenstein in 1970), while Christopher Lee playing the monster patiently waited in the wings until the arrival of Dracula - here he is almost unrecognisable but does a fine job, at once imposing due to the monster's impressive height, but also pitiful with its awkward, uncoordinated movements caused by a bullet lodged in it's brain. When the film was released in the summer of '57, it scored a huge hit with audiences worldwide, and Hammer set Jimmy Sangster the task of resurrecting the Baron for a sequel, which would be tentatively titled the Blood of Frankenstein before settling on the more sanguine Revenge of Frankenstein. Clearly the Baron's work was far from over...

Warners 2002 DVD of The Curse of Frankenstein can be difficult to get hold of these days, the title often lapsing in an out of print. As with their DVD edition of Dracula, the studio has paid little respect to this important film in the way of extras, but at least the Warners DVD delivers a solid presentation with a sharp and vibrant 1.85 anamorphic transfer and good robust audio. Some throwaway production notes and a battered trailer are offered as extras. Until Warners roll the film out on Blu-Ray, this DVD if you can find it, remains the best way of seeing this Hammer masterpiece. Essential viewing.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Viking Queen

Despite having directed the hugely successful One Million Years B.C., Don Chaffey's second outing for Hammer The Viking Queen, was a far less extravagant production, a program filler pitched as a sword and sandal spectacle, filmed in Ireland while the studio was channelling its talent and resources into Frankenstein Created Woman. Set in the 1st century, Britain is a divided island under occupation by the Roman Empire. The fragile truce in place between the Romans and the Britons is threatened when a forbidden love affair develops between native Queen Salina and Justina the Roman Governor General, the relationship used by the pagan druids to sow the seeds of dissent, while Justina's second in command, the ambitious Octavian, manoeuvres to seize power and crush the Britons.

The Viking film as a genre had a brief day in the sun following the success of Richard Fleischer's The Vikings, with European filmmakers soon tweaking the formula of the sword and sandal film to factor in the Vikings' fearsome reputation for rape and pillage, as well as adding a dose of Norse mythology. By the time Hammer's film was released in 1967 the genre was all but played out, effectivly replaced by the next wave of low budget Euro-Cinema, the Spaghetti Western. Even the title of the film is a bit of a cheat - it hardly qualifies as a Viking film at all, swapping long ships for chariots and the god Odin elbowed out by something decidedly more Celtic in flavour. Given the relative obscurity of the film, The Viking Queen is all too readily dismissed and seems destined to wind up on the shelf of the Hammer completeist, unjustly so as the film makes for a rousing, intelligent and fast moving action film.

The singularly named Finnish model Carita playing the titular queen provides the required Hammer glamour, but one can't help thinking she's just stumbled out of a photographer's studio on Carnaby Street, especially when she goes to war in a miniskirt. Still, she's capable enough, and is bolstered up with support from her fellow cast, a cadre of hard-working TV actors, and Hammer stalwart Andrew Kier playing the villainous Octavian. Less successful though is actor Donald Houston who should have been thrown to the wolves for his high camp Pythonesque Druid high-priest. Visually the film has a sense of scale and space which extends past it's thrifty budget, with some evocative moody lighting, and director Don Chaffey uses some clever camera angles to transform a modest number of extras into a whole legion of Roman soldiers. As with Hammer's 1960 film, Sword of Sherwood Forest, the shooting unit was dispatched to Ireland, filming on many of the locations John Boorman would later choose for Excalibur. That the film was shot in Ireland is something of a bitter irony, as the backdrop of The Viking Queen's storyline could almost be seen as an allegory for the Troubles, which the island was heading into in the late 60's.

Optimum's DVD of The Viking Queen is a decent enough effort, with a 1.85 anamorphic transfer, but the print is rather faded looking, a shame considering the film's imaginative lighting and lush photography. The audio is perfectly adequate. Extras include the usual barn-storming trailer. If you can track it down, the 1999 US disc from Anchor Bay inches ahead with a warmer image and another episode of the World of Hammer series, Lands Before Time. There's also a German disc available with English audio, featuring a fine transfer and the World of Hammer episode Trials of War.

Monday, 21 November 2011

I Dream of Dredd

The long running British sci-fi comic 2000AD was a major force in my young life. I started reading the mag in the mid-80's when I was 7 or 8, introducing me to an extraordinary world of fantasy and imagination. 2012 sees the release of Dredd, the second pass at 2000AD's most famous character, the fascist, futuristic Dirty Harry, Judge Dredd. The crusty old cynic in me doesn't hold out much hope that this will be any better than the Stallone film, but we shall see. In the meantime, I was flicking thru the 1989 Judge Dredd annual yesterday and came across a readers competition to design a poster for a Judge Dredd film (which had been percolating for some years, eventually arriving in 1995). The following are some of the winning entries and are interesting for what readers chose as their dream cast and crew.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

One Million Years B.C.

Next time you're feeling overburdened by this soulless technological society we live in, spare a thought for the cave people in Hammer's 1966 film One Millions Years B.C, having to deal with Ray Harryhausen's marauding prehistoric creatures and a primordial world going through some violent growing pains. The film became Hammer's most successful film, a huge hit world wide and made Raquel Welsh into an international sex symbol courtesy of a fur bikini and that iconic pose.

In the film, a caveman named Tumak is exiled from his feral tribe and journeys far beyond the blackened volcanic slopes of his home to the coast where he encounters a peaceful tribe, picking up some pointers on civilisation and a beautiful blonde maiden to boot... It's not made for professors, as Ray Harryhausen described One Millions Years B.C, and it's bedtime for hard factual science, what with primitive man rubbing shoulders with dinosaurs, but there is an undeniable giddy thrill from watching a pterodactyl sweeping Raquel Welsh up in its talons to feed to its hungry nestlings. Hammer did take the bold move of replacing conventional dialogue with a hodgepodge of invented language. Here it's used sparingly, with dialogue kept at arms length, unlike Hammer's 1970 prehistoric epic When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth which has the cast endlessly spouting words like "akeeta" to irritating effect.

For One Millions Years B.C, Hammer returned to the formula of their previous adventure film She, reworking an old Hollywood fantasy extravaganza (the 1940 Victor Mature film One Million B.C), adding a gorgeous glamour girl and some state of the art special effects. In many ways, the film is one Hammer's most anonymous looking films but there's much to enjoy like the charming stop-motion monsters, which may lack the seamlessness of modern CGI wonders like Jurassic Park or King Kong, but have a wonderful sensuality to their movements. Director Don Chafney was a good choice having previously worked with Harryhausen on Jason And The Argonauts, and while his direction is pedestrian at best, he simply has to point the camera at the stunning, otherworldly volcanic landscapes of Lanzorote (which gave the 20th century film makers their own share of problems with unseasonably cold weather).

For the most part, a solid, even compelling film, One Million Years B.C. ultimately runs out of steam for the final act of the film as the two tribes go to war only to be interrupted by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. The sequence lacks focus and like many Hammer films of this era, there's a sense of getting the damn thing over with as soon as possible. Originally the film was to end with a battle with a lumbering brontosaurus but was scrapped for budget reason, the brontosaurus reduced to a short walk-on cameo in an early part of the film. But hang on in there for the film's strange and haunting epilogue, shot with a sombre sepia tint and surprisingly downbeat. Hard to gage performances with the absence of real dialogue and most of the cast hiding behind some unruly wigs and beards. Raquel Welsh has little to do except show a little cleavage, but she's a good physical actress, and Hammer girl Martine Beswick, is memorable as a feisty cave-babe. The film has become a much loved minor classic of Fantasy Cinema, and is something of a cultural export too, with a scene from the film colonising Alex deLarge's feverish imagination in A Clockwork Orange (seen during the montage of scenes scored to Beethoven's 9th Symphony) and the film's famous publicity shot of the lovely Raquel, became an integral part of Andy Dufresne's escape plan in The Shawshank Redemption.

Previously released in the UK in 2002 by Warners in a non-anamorphic edition, the Optimum DVD of One Million Years B.C. is an improvement, with a nice sharp 1.85 anamorphic transfer taken from a mostly clean print. Detail is good, but the flesh tones seem a little too hot - a few minor tweaks with your settings should be restore the balance. Audio is fine with Mario Nascimbene's excellent score, which takes in orchestral bombast, eerie choral music and avant-garde soundscapes, is well represented here. Two extras from the Warners DVD are carried over - a 12min interview with Ray Harryhausen, and an 8min talk with Raquel Welsh, both produced by Blue Underground, and are a worthwhile and interesting listen. The disc is rounded out with a trailer.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Witches

Grow me a gown with golden down,
Cut me a robe from toe to lobe,
Give me a skin for dancing in
This 1966 Hammer chiller has slipped into obscurity over the years, elbowed out of the reference books by Nicholas Roeg's popular children's film of the same name, and among European Cult Cinema fans, it's often confused with a 1966 Italian film called The Witch, and a 1967 Italian anthology film called The Witches (notable among trivia nuts for an early Clint Eastwood appearance). Even Johnathon Rigby's otherwise comprehensive study of British Horror films, English Gothic ignores the film, a shame considering it's one of Hammer's more underappreciated films of the '60's, and for the studio, a rare contemporary-set Horror.

Gwen Mayfield, a shy retiring middle-aged woman retreats to a sleepy postcard English village to recover from a nervous breakdown following a traumatic incident at an African mission. Taking up the post of headmistress, Mayfield's respite is short lived when the strange behavior she observes in the villagers leads to the discovery of occult practices and black magic... The Witches didn't originate with Hammer but was passed to the studio by Seven Arts when the film's lead actress and star, Joan Fontaine bought the rights to the novel The Devil's Own. Hammer commissioned Nigel Kneale to write the screenplay and the Quatermass creator turned in a typically intelligent and tasteful script, which was careful not to antagonize the BBFC, who were less than enthused about devil-worship and child sacrifice. In fact, the film rarely references satanism at all, the high priestess' magical dabbling is all about extending her life rather than being an Omen-style lap-dog for the Devil.

Kneale's screenplay is perhaps a little too pastoral for most people's tastes, the pace is leisurely and the film looks positively quaint in comparison with similar rural occult films like The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan's Claw. But perseverance is rewarded with a rousing climax when Mayfield finds herself an unwilling participant at the sacrifice of a teenage girl, surrounded by trance-induced villagers who debase themselves with an infernal sticky concoction (which could be mistaken for excrement), and there's a wonderfully eerie moment when Mayfieled is confronted by a child's doll wriggling into life. Joan Fontaine was 49 when she made the film and still retains some of the ethereal beauty seen in Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion. She's quite fine in her role, but is overshadowed by Kay Walsh as the grand-Witch, utterly charming and ruthless in equal measure. Of the supporting players, look out for two future stars of British sit-com - Michele Dotrice, the long suffering Betty from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, and Leonard Rossiter, from Rising Damp and Reginald Perrin fame (or the inquisitive Russian scientist Dr. Smyslov from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Interestingly the film was directed by Cyril Frankel whose previous Hammer outing Never Take Sweets From A Stranger also featured children in peril from adults.

The Witches is one of Hammer's most exquisite looking films, beautifully shot and thankfully Optimum's DVD features an excellent 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the print used in great shape. A few scenes exhibit some softness, but this is mostly during some process shots. The audio is fine, no issues here. Extras include a trailer. All told, The Witches is no long lost Hammer masterpiece, but anyone who likes their films cut from the same cloth as the Pan Book of Horror Stories will find this is a treat.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Dear Censor: The Secret Archive of the British Board of Film Classification

This new documentary screened on BBC4 in September was a welcome look into the notoriously clandestine British Board of Film Classification and the business of film censorship, but I couldn't quite escape the nagging feeling that it was a calculated PR stunt by an ever sensitive BBFC, weary of being seen as overbearing buttoned-down nanny staters after the recent high profile rejections by the Board of The Bunny Game, and The Human Centipede II (now passed with cuts).

Dear Censor focuses on the Board's most controversial epochs beginning with John Trevelyan's reign from 1958 to 1971 which coincided with the emergence of Exploitation Cinema and a number of edgy, confrontational art films from Europe. After Trevelyan stepped down to write his memoirs, Stephen Murphy took up the post of chief censor from '71 to '75 and was often at the receiving end of public fury over the new wave of violent and sexually explicit films like A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Death Wish, The Devils, and Last Tango In Paris. Finally and perhaps most notoriously of all, James Ferman's tenure as head censor from 1975 to 1999, saw the Board emerge into the era of home video and the moral panics of the Video Nasties controversy of 1984, and the Hungerford Massacre and James Bulger murder, two tragedies which the media blamed on violent videos.

Passed uncut by the BBFC but A Clockwork Orange went unseen on British screens for almost 30 years, due to Stanley Kubrick's self-imposed ban of the film
Where the documentary really scores is the extraordinary correspondence collected in the Board's somewhat elaborate and impenetrable vaults between the Board and film distributors and directors, such as Columbia's cringe-worthy letters to censor Arthur Watkins pleading with the Board not to ban The Wild One (which fell on deaf ears), or Warners' lobbying for the lower certificate for Rebel Without A Cause, the Board seemingly unmoved, awarding the film a restrictive adult X certificate. Some film makers fostered a relationship with the Board, like Ken Russell who submitted the screenplay for Women In Love to John Trevelyan and sought advice before production began, later reaching an agreeable compromise over the famous homoerotic nude wrestling scene by darkening the negative. Russell was not so successful however with his 1971 film The Devils which deeply troubled the Board with it's depiction of sexuallly crazed possessed nuns. Despite Russell's best efforts to appease the Board - "I have cleared up the shit on the altar, slashed the whipping and cut the orgy" wrote Russell in a letter to Trevelyan, the Board insisted that the so called Rape of Christ sequence had to be removed.

A shot from the Rape of Christ sequence. Mark Kermode who was instrumental in restoring this sequence back into The Devils likened seeing the film to being "run over by a truck"
If film makers like Ken Russell thought it better to have the Board onside, others were less inclined. Michael Winner who had something of a censor-baiting reputation from his early nudie film Some Like it Cool and the explicit bad language of I'll Never Forget What's 'Isname, brazenly refused to accept cuts to Death Wish. Interviewed for the documentary Winner remained unapologetic - "He was crazy this idiot... crazy", referring to Stephen Murphy. "He doesn't represent society, he's some individual moron who happened to get a job". Winner held fast in the face of Murphy's list of proposed cuts and won the battle, securing an uncut release for Death Wish - "Well he didn't stand on any of this, he collapsed on all of it", Winner defiantly declared. Ultimately, Murphy resigned from the Board after much criticism for passing a number of contentious films, his short-lived career at the Board summed up by Christopher Frayling as being "the right man at the wrong time"

Jeff Goldbum as Freak #1 in Death Wish. The BBFC would take their revenge on Michael Winner when they refused to grant the film a certificate for video release
Following Stephen Murphy's departure in 1975, James Ferman, a soft-spoken New York born television film maker became the BBFC's next head censor, and contrary to his own belief that he would remain with the Board a mere 5 years, Ferman remained in the job until 1999, becoming one of the most dominant forces in British film censorship. Ferman's early defense of Pasolini's Salo might have marked him as a liberal but Ferman became increasingly conservative, preoccupied by various cinematic trends like violence against women and weapons fetishism. Ferman also introduced a more stringent code of silence regarding cuts and decisions the Board applied to films that passed through their offices in Soho square. In this final section of Dear Censor, the documentary is less satisfying, focusing on Ferman's predicament with what he perceived as the weapons worship of Rambo III, and instead skipping over Ferman's more notorious decisions, like his refusal to grant a video certificate to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - even after the distributor had submitted a cut version of what is essentially a bloodless film, Ferman decided that it had not reduced the psychological torture of the film and declared the film "censor-proof". Texas Chainsaw Massacre would remain unavailable in Britain until Ferman's departure.

A scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which James Ferman described as "the pornograpy of terror"
Probably Ferman's most well known bête noire is The Exorcist. The film had been available on VHS in stores across Britain up until the BBFC began classifying tapes. Warners eventually submitted the film for video certification some years after the Video Nasties furore died down but Ferman refused to pass The Exorcist, one of Warners' biggest selling titles, explaining that the film had the potential to disturb and even damage younger viewers. Legend has it, Warners would contact Ferman annually to inquire about The Exorcist but Ferman time and time again would tell Warners that the time just wasn't right. Another significant film that goes unmentioned in the documentary is John McNaughton's powerful drama Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a bleak look at a sociopath which was so troubling to the BBFC that the film languished with the Board for quite some time before it was passed with cuts. What was noteworthy about Henry was that Ferman not only cut the film in accordance with his wishes but made quite a deliberate modification to one sequence in the film where Henry and his sidekick Otis are seen watching a VHS recording of their latest murder. McNaughton has quite brilliantly structured the scene so that VHS tape plays out without any cutaways, but Ferman, worried that the scene would be used as a masturbatory aid, inserted a shot of the Henry and Otis seen watching the tape, in the middle of the sequence, thus diminishing the power of McNaughton's original intention. This modification was done without McNaughton's permission, Ferman himself felt he was the better film maker.

The infamous insert shot from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which James Ferman insisted you see his way.
Omissions aside Dear Censor is a worthwhile whistle-stop tour through almost 50 years of BBFC history, the record of cuts and rejections reveal a fascinating index of the shifting moods, attitudes and opinions of the day. It's a shame that the documentary was only granted access to files over 20 years - a senior examiner at the Board teasingly mentions some very interesting correspondence between Oliver Stone and James Ferman regarding Natural Born Killers, but this remains closely guarded such is the Board's strict policy. In 1999, a definite line in the sand was drawn when James Ferman left the Board, and an unprecedented period of liberalization followed in his wake. Much of the power of the BBFC has been diluted since the advent of DVD, films that have been cut by the Board are relatively easy to get hold of in their original versions, and perhaps it’s a sign of the times that film critic Kim Newman had this to say about the late James Ferman, "Now I have actually a great deal of sympathy with James Ferman, I think that at least he was trying to do an extremely difficult job".

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Reptile

A diamond in the rough, The Reptile was afforded even less of a budget than Plague of the Zombies, the film it was shot back to back with in 1966, but over the years the film has become a cult item among Hammer fans, the fine performances, engaging screenplay and a strong visual sensilbiliy mark this as one of Hammer's stronger horrors of the 60's.

A newly wed couple arrive in a small town in Cornwall in less than happy circumstances. The husband, Harry Spaulding has inherited a cottage after the mysterious death of his brother, due to what locals call the "black death". Unconvinced Spaulding along with the villiage publican Tom (played by Hammer regurlar Michael Ripper) investigate the recent fatalities which leads to an encounter with a snake woman with cobra-like fangs and a deadly venoumous bite... Any discussion on The Reptile inevitably gets round to the thorny issue of the make-up design for the creature, which tends to polarise Hammer fans. Admittedly, FX artist Roy Ashton’s work is modest, but hardly disastrous as some have decided. On paper, the creature with its bug-eyes and paper mache scales doesn’t bear much scrutiny, but when seen in the film, is far more effective, director John Gilling restricting the creature to 2 or 3 scenes. Ken Russell must have been impressed; the creature has a definite resemblance to Amanda Donohoe's vampire from Lair of the White Worm, a film which takes an affectionate nod towards a very British picture that is Hammer Horror.

As with Plague of the Zombies, John Gilling displays a keen sense of the macabre, and the film is punctuated with little moments that chill the bone, like a shot of the reptile writhing underneath a blanket, or in a scene where the reptile's discarded skin is discovered. If Zombies was steeped in atmosphere, The Reptile is even more so, with Gilling pushing the visuals even harder than its companion piece. Another graveyard scene appears in The Reptile but ups the ante somewhat by having its intrepid investigators going about their grim business in pouring rain and soggy earth. For once the funereal gloom has more substance than mere visual dressing, and plays a significant part in the climax of the film. Tony Hinds’ intelligent screenplay is a statelier affair than Plague of the Zombies, and has a certain Stoker-esque quality; Anna’s transformation into a snake-woman is due to a curse placed upon her by her father’s dogged pursuit of a Borneo snake-worshipping cult, her suffering overseen by an ever watchful and sinister valet.

Jacqueline Pearce one of Hammer’s rare jewels steps out of the cast of Plague of the Zombies, to play the ill-fated Anna. Even under makeup, she’s terrific and brings a surprising poignancy to the role in the finale of the film, when she utters her only line as the reptile, after exposure to a sudden rush of cold Cornish air, ending the film on a strangely melancholic note. Look out for the scene where Anna taunts her father by playing some discordant notes on an oversized sitar – truly one of Hammer Cinema’s oddest moments. Also, among the cast is Michael Ripper, one the studio’s most beloved supporting players, here given one of his most substantial role, and is quite wonderful too.

Optimum's DVD of The Reptile is a weak effort. The 1.85 transfer looks okay in daytime scenes but as soon as the image becomes dark, a faint green tinge is noticable - playing around with your TV settings might help. The print used is rather faded too, the black levels are very shallow. Soundwise the disc is fine, but is completely bereft of extras. If you can find it for a decent price, the OOP US Anchor Bay disc features a superior image (but still somewhat lacking it must be said), a trailer and another episode of the World of Hammer series focusing on vampires...

Thursday, 27 October 2011

A Temporary Derailment

I haven’t posted in a few days as I was hit with a virus on my PC last week and it has done quite a demolition job on the old girl. The upshot is I can't get online. The blog is still very much alive but until I get a new PC (next week I hope), the ‘Shores will be operating on a low level basis. I'll try to get the next Hammer rolled out in the meantime but it’s not easy using the PC here in work. So my advice is, keep your security up to date, stick to tried and trusted websites and don't talk to strangers...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Plague of the Zombies

One of Hammer's late night movie masterpieces, Plague of the Zombies, part of the studio's 1965 program of films, was shot back to back with The Reptile, both films designated as support features - Rasputin the Mad Monk played with The Reptile, while Dracula Prince of Darkness was paired with Plague of the Zombies, which has become the bona-fida classic of the quartet.

A village in Cornwall is stricken by a series of mysterious unexplained deaths. The local doctor seeks help from his former mentor Sir James Forbes, a distinguished scientist living in London. Answering the call, Sir James arrives at the village with his daughter Sylvia, and begins an investigation, uncovering a plot by the local squire Clive Hamilton to turn the townsfolk into zombies to work in his tin mines... The missing link between White Zombie and Zombie Flesh Eaters, John Gilling's Plague of the Zombies pleasingly returns Hammer to a strong horror footing after the slightly anaemic Rasputin the Mad Monk. As was the lot of the humble second feature, Plague of the Zombies was produced on the cheap but is something of a triumph of low budget film making, looking far more accomplished than many of Hammer's A-pictures. Much of the film's success is down to John Gilling's superb direction, the restless and often sensual camerawork giving the film a sense of grace and style. The film is often startling to look at with it's eerie ceremonial voodoo masks and decomposing zombies. The dream sequence set in the graveyard as the dead claw their way out of the earth is one of Hammer's most famous set pieces, with it's skewed camera angles and tendrils of fog, and one astonishing, surreal shot of a zombie's feet stepping into a pool of blood.

The frugal budget does cause the film to creak in places, like the sloppy day-for-night photography during a spot of nocturnal grave-watching, and the film's fiery climax is marred by some well padded zombie stuntmen shuffling about amongst the pyrotechnics (a similar fate befell the final sequence of City of the Living Dead). Thankfully these flaws melt away with the furious pace of the film and the fine performances. André Morell, taking a lead role after his previous Hammer outing, She (where he was dubbed and almost unrecognisable) is excellent as Sir James, while John Carson as the velvet smooth evil squire Hamilton makes for a worthy adversary (close your eyes and you would swear it was James Mason). Of the supporting cast, Brook Williams playing Sir James' protege Dr. Peter Thompson is embarrassingly wooden - the scene where he's told his wife is dead is a cringe-worthy moment of B-movie acting. But best of all is the ethereal Jacqueline Pearce playing the anguished doctor's wife - her performance has become a highpoint of the film and justifiably so. The scene where she transforms into a seductive living dead woman is one of the most beautifully grotesque moments in Hammer Cinema, her zombification by Hamilton lends the film a surprising undercurrent of necrophilia.

Optimum's DVD of Plague of the Zombies is generally very good. The 1.85 anamorphic transfer looks fine although the print used does seem a little tired and faded in places. It's a shame that Optimum didn't add a dark tint to the night scenes but if memory serves me right, the US Anchor Bay disc which has more punchy colors, is missing the night time tints as well. All in all, a good effort. The mono soundtrack sounds fine. The only extras are a stand-alone trailer and the double-feature trailer with Dracula Prince of Darkness. Needless to say the film comes highly recommended.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Rasputin the Mad Monk

1965 was a particularly hectic year for Hammer with no less than 6 films before the cameras. For the players and the production crews the pace was relentless - as soon as photography wrapped on Dracula Prince of Darkness, it was straight into Rasputin The Mad Monk, a bogeyman Hammer plucked straight out of the pages of history.

The film opens with Grigori Rasputin (played with great panache by Christopher Lee), a monk with miraculous healing powers, arriving at a tavern in a Russian village, where he cures a sick and dying woman, restoring her to full health. Afterwards, Rasputin is involved in a tussle with the villagers, leaving one of them with a severed hand. After his bishop casts him out of the order for his hedonistic behavior, Rusputin travels to St. Petersburgh to seek fame and fortune and indulge his enormous appetite for drink and sex. Word of Rasputin's mysterious power gets around, and the monk soon wins the confidence of the Tsarina, setting his sights on the throne of Russia itself... Raputin The Mad Monk is a curious film to say the least, a combination of historical biopic and Horror film that never really works on either level. The most common criticism levelled at the film is its fictionalized history of Rasputin and the final days of the Romanov dynasty. In fairness to Hammer, the film was intended to be an accurate portrayal but as soon as the film was announced, the studio was straight jacketed by representatives of Prince Felix Yusupov, one of the chief participants in Rasputin's murder, who promised legal action if Hammer's original screenplay was found to be contentious. The studio did not take the threat lightly - in 1933 Yusupov had successfully sued MGM for a scene in the film Rasputin and the Empress which implied Rasputin had raped Yusupov's wife.1 With this in mind, Hammer thread lightly and revised their screenplay in accordance with Yusupov wishes.

Yusupov's interference might have reduced The Mad Monk to an entry from Ripley's Believe It or Not! but it freed screenwriter Tony Hinds to accentuate the macabre elements of the story like Rasputin's strange hypnotic control over women, and the scenes where Rasputin retaliates against his enemies by chopping off a hand (when interrupted rolling in the hay with a tavern wench) and in another moment, flinging a vessel of corrosive acid in someone's face. Christopher Lee who was something of an authority on Rasputin is on fine form here, clearly delighted to discard the fangs and the cape, and cutting a tall and imposing figure - dark, devilish, at times playful, the character given an incredible presence by Lee's powerful baritone voice. If a certain visual blandness was evident in Dracula Prince of Darkness, it's even more obvious here - Hammer didn't have a Zhivago style budget at their disposal and it shows, with St. Petersburgh represented by a few market stalls and the odd instance of Cyrillic sign posting. There's an inevitable sense of deja vu, watching the film in close succession of Prince of Darkness - the redressed, recycled sets are a giveaway despite the best efforts of Hammer's art department, and both films feature the same core of actors. On balance though The Mad Monk is an enjoyable bit of nonsense and remains a strangely compelling, if minor Hammer film.

Rasputin the Mad Monk was shot in Cinemascope, but the Optimum DVD (as well as the US Anchor Bay disc) has scaled the aspect ratio back from 2.35 to around 2.10 - as with the widescreen process used for She, there was some curvature of the image at the edges of the frame, which now looks less severe on the DVD. The picture itself looks fine, with good detail and good brightness levels - apparently the previous UK DVD from Warners was rather dark. Audio is fine too, no problems here. Sadly the commentary track from the Anchor Bay disc was not included which is a shame as Christopher Lee points out where the film departed from the facts. Extras include a trailer which contains plenty of ballyhoo ("Now at the last the real shocking story can be told!!")

1. The law suit against MGM was a significant moment in Cinema, and saw the creation of the now familiar disclaimer: This motion picture is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Dracula Prince of Darkness

Despite the success of Dracula in 1958, Hammer's first direct sequel arrived belatedly in 1966. The studio had plans to make the sequel much sooner - Jimmy Sangster's screenplay, The Revenge of Dracula was drafted in 1958 but it proved unsatisfactory and the proposed film was put on hold. Following The Brides of Dracula, Sangster defected to Hammer's thriller division penning screenplays for A Taste of Fear, Paranoiac and The Nanny before returning to the Gothic fold under the pen name John Sansom with Dracula Prince of Darkness

Some 10 years have passed since Dracula's demise at the hands of Van Helsing. Two English couples holidaying in Germany are lured to Castle Dracula, now empty except for Ludwig, the sinister servant of the Count, who offers the unwitting couples the use of the castle. Later that night, Ludwig slits the throat of one of the men, mixing his blood with the ashes of Dracula, bringing his master back to life once again... So good was the original Dracula that any sequel would have its work cut out, and for the most part Prince of Darkness is a worthy follow up, despite some nagging flaws. A tall and regal Christopher Lee dons the cape once again and receives top billing but this time is afforded no lines whatsoever, supposedly because Lee found the dialogue so unutterable that he refused to speak it. Not so, as Sangster was firm in his belief that the Count was not one for chit-chat and the character remained silent. Terence Fisher was once again calling the shots (this his last Dracula picture), and for the first 40min or so the pace is leisurely, as preparations are made for Dracula's second coming. However once Dracula makes his entrance, Fisher returns to the furious pace of the original film for the exciting third act where the Count preys upon a monastery, headed up by Andrew Keir's wonderful cantankerous vampire-slaying abbot.

By 1965 Hammer had significantly stepped up production and there was a definite stretching of time and resources. Hammer was shooting films back to back, reusing sets and actors, and occasionally the studio's thrifty budgeting is evident in Prince of Darkness. Visually, the film has a certain drabness, the garish look of the original film is very much dampened down here, but in it's favor Fisher shot the film in 'scope1, the widescreen compositions giving the film a sense of space and breadth beyond it's budget. Undoubtedly the highlight of the film is Dracula's resurrection scene and the shot of actor Charles Tingwell hanging upside and bled like livestock, is still a powerful moment of Hammer sadism. One can imagine a young Clive Barker filing this regeneration sequence away for Hellraiser 20 years years later. The screenplay includes two ideas taken from the novel - a scene where Dracula makes an incision on his chest to allow Barbara Shelley to drink from, as well as a fly-eating Renfield stand-in who comes under the spell of the Count. Sangster's writing is good but it's a shame that Dracula, a creature whose reach can extend beyond the grave is so easily cornered and finished off in the climax.

Optimum's DVD of Dracula Prince of Darkness is one of the best discs in the boxset, featuring a solid 2.35 anamorphic transfer which sports good colors and a sharp detailed image which is a little grainy in places. The print is mostly in fine shape except for a very small bit of debris seen in the upper part of the image, which lasts about a minute. The mono soundtrack is good if unremarkable. Sadly, the superb extras from the US Anchor Bay disc - a commentary track, some 8mm footage shot on set and the 30 min World of Hammer episode, Dracula and the Undead have not been ported over but in its place is the most substantial extra included in the Optimum boxset, the 57-min 1996 documentary The Many Faces of Christopher Lee, in which the actor takes an affectionate stroll some of his most famous roles.

1. That the film was shot in widescreen posed a problem for the studio when the climax of Dracula was reprised at the beginning of Prince of Darkness. Because the original film was shot in a much tighter ratio, Hammer framed the sequence with a dreamy aura, filling in the edges of the screen with what looks like swirling Guinness. Pure genius.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958)

The first Dracula film is just about the best thing I have ever done for Hammer and it still looks like a very successful film. Everything seemed to hang together for once during the shooting...
Terence Fisher

How times had changed. When Hammer's Dracula arrived in 1958, Todd Browning's 1931 film of Bram Stoker's novel, a seminal moment in Horror Cinema to be sure, creaked and groaned in comparison with Terence Fisher's fresh and exciting adaptation. A flagging Universal distributed the film in the US and regained significant ground with the substantial profits from the film, in return giving their British partners the rights to their roster of Horror properties. More Frankenstein and Dracula films would follow as well as The Curse of the Werewolf and The Phantom of the Opera. And the rest as they say, is Hammer history.

Christopher Lee has been famously critical of Hammer's approach to Stoker's novel, and while Jimmy Sanger's screenplay is less than faithful to the source material, a huge part of the film's success is the boldness of the adaptation, Hammer's condensing of the book (a practical decision to accommodate the limited funds available to the studio) simply makes for great cinema. Sangster juggles various ideas and episodes from Stoker's novel with some getting shelved away while other elements appear in altered form, like the marvellous moment where Jonathan Harker reveals his true intentions at Castle Dracula ("With God's help I will forever end this man's reign of terror"). Sangster also removed some of the more fantastic elements of Stoker novel, as in a scene where Peter Cushing's Van Helsing mentions that the vampire's ability to shape shift into a bat or wolf is pure fiction.

Terence Fisher's direction is as urgent as the opening lines delivered by Christopher Lee. Right from the credits overlaid against an eerie tracking shot around the entrance of Dracula's resting place, the film grabs the attention. An early draft of the screenplay had been submitted to the BBFC who nixed some of the more overtly sexual elements of Sangster's adaptation but Fisher remained determined to explore the Count's sexuality and the director still managed to import this aspect of the character into the film, albeit with sly subtlety - for instance, the scene set the morning following Mina's nocturnal visit from Dracula, actress Melissa Stribling gives a smile suggesting that her character has just enjoyed a night of great sex. This element of the film, the Count's lust for flesh as well as blood is Hammer's most significant contribution to Vampire Cinema and has reverberated through the mythology ever since.

Performances in the film are excellent across the board, but it's the two leads that steer the film towards greatness. Peter Cushing is tremendous as Professor Van Helsing with his impeccable manners and gracious style, while still able to roll up his shirt sleeves when the moment calls for it, like the climax of the film where Van Hellsing destroys the Count, diving off a table, clutching two candlesticks together in the shape of a crucifix. Christopher Lee, emerging out of the monster makeup of Curse of Frankenstein, is superb and once seen gliding down the staircase in the opening sequence becomes the quintessential Count Dracula (so much so that his absence from Brides of Dracula is sorely felt). Aside from a few lines in his entrance scene, Lee never speaks which actually works in the character's favour, making him even more sinister and otherworldly. It's only a shame that he has relatively little screen time.

Warner's 2002 DVD of Dracula (issued under the original US release title Horror of Dracula) is decent enough, the 1.78 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks sharp and colorful (which the screenshots I selected above don't do justice to), but is let down by some tight framing, lopping off some breathing space at the top of the picture - the film would probably look better at 1.66. At least the film is now fully uncut, with the shot of some bubbling gore when Lucy is staked, reinstated, and Dracula's disintegration scene is now completely intact. For the mono soundtrack, James Bernard's score can sound a little thinny and shrill but otherwise is absolutely fine and dialogue is clear. A theatrical trailer is offered as an extra. Considering the marvellous treatment Warners have bestowed upon the studio classics, like the stellar Blu-Ray editions of Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Searchers, it's scandalous that Hammer's masterpiece has been largely ignored.

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Nanny

One of a handful of macabre films Bette Davis made in the 60's, The Nanny from 1965 is best approached as a suspense thriller in the vein of Shadow of a Doubt, rather than a full-blooded Hammer Horror. In the film, a 10 year old boy returns home from an institution for disturbed children where he was being treated for a breakdown following the death of his younger sister. In the two years that have passed, Joey has developed a hatred for middle-aged women which is now directed at the family nanny (played by Davis) who he claims murdered his sister and is now trying to kill him. Joey's accusations are dismissed as paranoid fantasy but behind the prim and proper persona of the nanny lies some dark secrets...

Shot simultaneously with Dracula Prince of Darkness (whose production was soaking up the bulk of Hammer's resources and talent), The Nanny was part of a line of cheaply made mystery thrillers which the studio produced alongside the more lavish Gothic films. Hammer had become something of a nuisance for the BBFC with their increasingly explicit Technicolor horrors, but the studio could prove equally adept at handling serious issues with discretion and subtlety, like child molestation (in the 1960 film Never Takes Sweets from a Stranger) or the dangers of psychological dependence and the dysfunctional family unit, explored in Jimmy Sangster's sensitive screenplay for The Nanny.

Unlike the barn-storming antics of later films like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The Nanny is a far more sedate affair, the film remaining on an ambiguous footing until the third act when the circumstances of the death of Joey's sister are finally teased out. Bette Davis, in the first of two pictures she made for Hammer turns in a perfectly judged performance, her English accent flawless and when the cause of her break from reality is fully revealed, she becomes a tragic figure, a world apart from the toxic bitch she played in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis is almost outgunned by her co-star, William Dix, extremely impressive as Joey, playing the kind of mature, intelligent and resourceful adolescent Stephen King would routinely write into his fiction.

Ultimately what impresses the most about the film is Seth Holt's precise direction which perfectly compliments Jimmy Sangster's thoughtful screenplay. The film is almost entirely set indoors but Holt still manages to make the film visually arresting with a combination of moody monochrome photography courtesy of Harry Waxman, and some striking camera angles - at times the apartment seems utterly enormous, as it would do seen from the perspective of a little boy. In some ways the film has a certain affinity with Repulsion1 - like Polanski's film, Holt's use of spacial disorientation gives The Nanny an almost hallucinatory quality and both films feature female protagonists whose sanity is being gradually eroded.

Optimum's DVD of The Nanny features a gorgeous 1.85 transfer that really showcases the film's luminous photography. The picture is crisp and sharp, struck from a fresh looking print. The mono audio is fine too. An audio commentary by Jimmy Sangster is the sole extra. Overall, a fine addition to the Hammer box.

1. Roman Polanski doesn't figure in the Hammer story except for a very brief moment when Polanski first arrived in London following the international success of his debut feature Knife In the Water. Polanski announced he was available for work, and calls were made to Hammer president James Carreras who passed on an opportunity to work with the Polish director. At the time Polanski was planning a film based on a 16-page screenplay entitled Lovelihead, which eventually mutated into Repulsion. Ironically, the director's 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers is often mistaken for a Hammer production.

Thursday, 6 October 2011


Hammer's 1965 release, She may not be ranked among the studio's finest efforts, but this romp through the pages of Henry Rider Haggard's famous 19th century novel remains a thoroughly enjoyable piece of Saturday afternoon fare. The story begins in Palestine in 1918, where two British officers Professor Holly (Peter Cushing) and Leo Vincey (John Richardson) along with Holly's valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) journey across the Desert of Lost Souls, through the Mountains of the Moon to the lost city of Kuma, ruled by immortal queen Ayesha (Ursula Andress). Ayesha belives that Vincy is the reincarnation of her former lover Kallikrates and intends to make him too an immortal and raise up a new Kingdom to rule once more...

Hammer's adaptation of Rider Haggard's novel was in fact the second pass at the story. Back in 1935 Merian C. Cooper had produced the film for RKO and crucially shifted the books African setting to the Arctic. Hammer bought the rights to the novel in 1962 but it would be some two years before it went into production. By the time the cast and crew had assembled in the desert in Southern Israel in August 1964, Hammer had ended it's relationship with Universal International (the film would be distributed by MGM in the US) and the screenplay had gone through a number of permutations, essentially diluting some of the grislier scenes in the novel. Still, the film is not without it's macabre moments, like a scene where some tribesmen are thrown into a pit of boiling lava, or a scene where High Priest Christopher Lee is praying to some mummified corpses.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the film is the mileage Hammer got out of the low-budget. Compared to other studios, this is an epic done on the cheap, and at times the film does look a little rough around the edges - literally so, the cheap anarmorphic lenses the film was shot with causing a fair degree of visual distortion at the edges of the frame, while the post-synced dialogue does tend to wander off at certain moments. But for the most part She looks very good. The desert locations lend the film a greater scope than a studio-bound film and the special effects are often surprisingly good - including some impressive matte shots (a Collossus of Rhoads type statue stands at the entrance of Kuma) and the final scene in the film where Ayesha bathes in the ice cold blue Flame of Eternal Youth is well executed with some elaborate camera trickery. Hammer composer James Bernard turns in one his most best scores, rousing, lush and romantic.

A large part of the film's success is down to the cast. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are marvelous of course. Cushing gets stuck into his role with admirable enthusiasm, whether he be dancing with belly-dancers or fending off some fearsome natives, while Christopher Lee brings a touch of melancholy to an otherwise sinister role as Billali, Ayesha's unsung adviser. There's excellent support too from Bernard Cribbins as the brave and world-weary Job, a role that doesn't lumber him him with the his usual comic-relief part. John Richardson is a little stiff playing the dashing man who would be king Leo Vincy, but Ursula Andress commands the film when she appears, truely an astonishing beauty. Incidentally, Andress is dubbed by the same voice over artist that dubbed her in her breakthrough film Dr. No.

Optimum's Ultimate Hammer Collection gets off to a bumpy start with She which suffers from a problematic transfer. The film was shot in 2.35 widescreen (or "Hammerscope" if you prefer) but as soon as the opening credits are done, the picture is cropped to 1.85. It might seem like a deal breaker but the compositions and the framing survive intact. The US Warners Archive DVD from 2009 preserves the OAR but the amount of distortion when the camera pans can be distracting. With the Optimim disc, the distortion is less obvious but can still be seen. Other than that, the picture exhibits a fair amount of noise, and the print is comparable to the one used for the Warners disc, with plenty of dirt, debris and scratches. It's entirely watchable, but this is a very average transfer at best. Thankfully, the audio fares better, the score sounding powerful and the dialogue clear. No extras are offered, not even a trailer.