Thursday, January 28, 2016

FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE

Terence Fisher, 1953
Starring: Stephen Murray, Barbara Payton, James Hayter, John Van Eyssen

“I didn’t ask to be born so I have the right to die.”

In a small, English village, childhood friends Bill and Robin grow into determined scientists and develop an experimental device that can duplicate matter. The genius of the pair, Bill, is in love with another of their childhood friends, the beautiful Lena, but Lena prefers Robin. When Lena and Robin marry, after the pair announce their scientific success, the forlorn Bill becomes determined to alter the Reproducer machine so that it can replicate living beings. With Lena’s reluctant help, he makes a twin, who he names Helen, and hopes she will love him. But something about Helen is not quite right…

Hammer’s first sci-fi film might not quite belong in my British horror series, but Four Sided Triangle is a key early piece of the puzzle and marks their transition from a studio who produced primarily adventure and suspense films to one of the world’s biggest horror studios. Based on a novel by William F. Temple, there is also much to connect the film with Hammer’s first big hit, The Curse of Frankenstein, far more than just the presence of Hammer’s chief director, Terence Fisher. It also has a lot in common with Hammer’s most important sci-fi series, the Quatermass trilogy that would soon follow. For one thing, Four Sided Triangle has little in the way of special effects but much in the way of dialogue.

The style of Four Sided Triangle — basically a black and white radio drama captured on film — might seem unfamiliar to fans of Hammer’s Gothic horror, but it fits in perfectly with their other sci-fi films from the period like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), X the Unknown (1956), and Quatermass 2 (1957). The laboratory sets are charming and it’s easy to see how Fisher — who unusually cowrote this film in addition to directing it — further developed much of Four Sided Triangle for his early Frankenstein films. But while the Quatermass films place an equal emphasis on science and horror, Four Sided Triangle is far more concerned with melodrama and human tragedy than it is with the legitimate workings of science.

I’m not exactly giving away any spoilers — the film is presented as somewhat of a tragedy from its opening frames, as there’s a preachy biblical quote about man’s perhaps doomed scientific dabbling, and the proceedings are narrated by the village doctor. He is clearly telling the story after the fact and speaks sympathetically about all of the characters, though particularly Bill. Though far more human than Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein, Bill is an early example of one of the studio’s beloved stock characters: the genius who does not begin as a villain, but is driven there by his obsessions.

This film has some of Hammer’s most interesting, if damaged characters. Bill’s abusive childhood is revealed and it offers something of an explanation for his tormented nature. His obsession for Lena is deeply connected with this, though it’s mind boggling that she goes along with his plans. She is also psychologically tormented — admitting to the doctor that she longs for suicide — and her desire to duplicate herself seems to stem from an inability to chose between Bill and Robin. It’s undeniably strange to see a science fiction film from this period with such well developed themes of love, sexual obsession, and personal torment, but it’s easy to see how this would go on to influence the more complex sci-fi of the ‘80s in films like David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Dead Ringers. And I wish The Four Sided Triangle had seen these themes through to their logically perverse ends, but it only goes so far as Helen’s suicide attempt — because she is also in love with Robin instead of Bill — and Bill’s ultimate plan to erase her memory to make her love him.

Though it won’t be for everyone, I really do have to recommend Four Sided Triangle. Pick it up on DVD if you like classic sci-fi or if you want to see the origins of some of the tropes that would emerge in Hammer’s later years, including their first instance of conclusion by fire. Though they would use this repeatedly over the years, the burning of Bill’s lab neatly — though frustratingly — concludes the film, as the kindly doctor and Robin (John Van Eyssen who would soon reappear in Hammer’s Horror of Dracula) realize that Helen has been killed, but Lena has survived. A little ambiguity wouldn’t have killed them. The film’s incessant moralizing is a little annoying, but it’s hard to find a ‘50s sci-fi film without at least a little of this included. And regardless, it sets up some early philosophical implications about doubles, clones, and twin-ship that would be explored later down the line in ‘70s and ‘80s sci-fi horror.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER

Peter Sykes, 1976
Starring: Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Nastassja Kinski

"It is not heresy and I will not recant!”

While on a book tour, American writer John Verney is met with a very strange request. A man named Henry Beddows pleads with Verney to pick up his teenage daughter, Catherine, from the airport and to make sure no harm — physical or spiritual — should come to her. Verney specializes in occult topics and is mystified by Beddows’ request, but is even more baffled when Catherine turns out to be a nun in a strange, heretical order. The head of her church, called Children of the Lord, is a former Roman Catholic priest, Michael Rayner, who was excommunicated. Rayner is determined to take Catherine back to the order, while Verney’s task of protecting Catherine becomes increasingly dangerous.

Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name, this is essentially the opposite of Hammer’s first Wheatley adaptation, the excellent The Devil Rides Out. Panned by fans and critics for the last few decades, the film is a misguided mess that apparently enraged Wheatley so much that he swore never to be involved with Hammer again. But I’m going to throw out a controversial opinion: I actually really like this movie. Is it good? No, not really. But is it entertaining? Absolutely. It’s a little baffling to me that while England was a major producer of what’s generally known as Satanic/folk horror, the country’s largest horror studio, Hammer, all but neglected this genre, really only contributing three films: The Witches, The Devil Rides Out, and this disaster.

But it has a certain undeniable appeal for fans of trash cinema. For instance, there’s some choice dialogue, including lines like, "98% of so called satanist are nothing but pathetic freaks who get their kicks out of dancing naked in freezing church yards and use the devil as an excuse for getting some sex, but then there is that other 2%, I'm not so sure about them” (!!!). The film’s attempt to take itself seriously and strip away any of the camp present in The Witches or the romance of The Devil Rides Out that provides some emotional depth and lightheartedness results in a lot of unintentional humor. And overall, this is a pretty mean spirited affair with some nasty scenes of gore and loads of unsympathetic characters. If you can divorce this from Hammer’s classic output and instead consider this as a last gasp British response to films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, you might be surprised at how much you actually enjoy it.

Obviously the shining light is Sir Christopher Lee’s performance as the diabolical Father Michael Rayner, the excommunicated priest with some very sinister intentions. Lee delivers a performance full of vim and vigor and suitably menacing enough to pretty much carry the film himself — though he’s joined by one of my favorite film noir actors, the great Richard Widmark. Widmark is admittedly not performing at his personal best here and instead ranges from bored to confused, and irate for no apparent reason, but he does have some fantastic moments of scenery chewing that must be seen to be believed — nearly all of these occur during the showdowns between Widmark and Rayner, or even just Widmark against supernatural forces.

Lee and Widmark are supported by a delightfully raving Denholm Elliott and a wholesome-looking, teenage Nastassja Kinski. Her appearance is a bit controversial because she has several nude scenes, which were filmed when she was a teenager and thus underage. I’m not completely sure about how obscenity laws work — I can tell you from personal experience that that is a Google search you do not want to undertake — but I get why it was so shocking at the time. Though she seems a little vapid at times, she’s oddly perfect for the role as the clueless, naive Catherine, who has no idea that she’s about to become the vessel for Satan.

Of course, To the Devil a Daughter has a bad reputation for a reason and it’s chock full of issues. For example, the demon baby — yes, this is a thing that happens — is a flagrant new level of badness and the film would be better served to follow Val Lewton’s example and show as little of the supernatural as possible. Like Dracula A.D. 1972, the film has a contemporary feel and includes numerous exterior shots of London, but they only really serve to diffuse the sense of atmosphere. The main problem is the messy script that frequently loses steam and jumps around willy nilly from character to character. Richard Widmark was apparently very frustrated that the script was constantly re-written, often up to the day of shooting, and threaten to walk off the production several times. The characters are often given no clear motivations for their actions and things just sort of happen haphazardly. It would be much better with a smaller, more well developed cast of characters, but alas.

Peter Sykes, who also helmed Hammer’s Demons of the Mind, seems like a strange choice, but perhaps he was Hammer’s only option for what was to become their final horror film (at least until the recent revival). This was obviously trying to go bigger and better than The Devil Rides Out, but fails utterly, instead replacing that film’s class and restraint with gore, a confused plot, and some licentiousness. But, as I said, I still think it’s a really good time. Check it out on DVD, but if schlocky Satanic horror isn’t your thing, it’s probably more of a rental than a purchase.

Monday, January 25, 2016

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT

Terence Fisher, 1968
Starring: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Patrick Mower, Niké Arrighi

The young, wealthy Simon Aron has become the protege of a strange, charismatic man named Mocata, the head of a circle obsessed with the occult. Simon’s oldest friends, the Duc Nicholas de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn, are determined to rescue the young man, though he is in Mocata’s psychic sway. In order to save Simon, they must also rescue Tanith, a psychically sensitive young woman who is key to Mocata’s upcoming sabbath ritual, where she and Simon are supposed to receive their Satanic baptism. Though Nicholas and Rex are able to recognize Simon and Tanith from the ritual, the Devil appears and, thanks to Mocata’s instruction, is hot on their tails.

The Devil Rides Out is among Hammer’s trilogy of occult-themed films — which includes The Witches and To the Devil a Daughter — and is by far one of the best films of its kind to come out during this period. Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name, this is also one of Hammer’s first attempts to move out of Victorian England to something a bit closer to present day. Though set in the ‘20s, it has a far more modern, less stuffy feel than any of the studio’s Dracula or Frankenstein films and practically races along through its running time with scenes of action, occult exposition, and some fantastic ritual sequences.

There is honestly a lot to recommend about this film. Acclaimed horror writer Richard Matheson penned the script and though he wrote everything from House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum to Burn, Witch, Burn, he didn’t write for Hammer very often. I wish they had collaborated together more often — Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) is another great example — as this is one of their standout scripts. The studio’s best director, Terence Fisher, returned to the helm one of his last times; after this he would only return for Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1969) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1974).

Of course the best part of the movie is the interplay between its two stars: Christopher Lee, appearing in a rare heroic role as the Duc de Richleau, and Charles Gray as the diabolical Mocata. Lee, who is fantastic, as always, apparently convinced Hammer to pick up the film rights for the novel — which they waited to produce until just around the time Rosemary’s Baby struck terror into the hearts of moviegoers — and later claims that it was one of his favorite films. Gray’s Mocata — basically who I want to be when I grow up, sans the purple robe — is based on the Great Beast 666, Aleister Crowley, who Wheatley amazingly met a few times in the ‘20s. The silky, charismatic Mocata is one of the best villains of Satanic horror, avoiding any campiness and playing it straight with an edge of serious menace. In Wheatley’s novel, the character is more European than British, but here he the soul of mannered British aristocracy, dripping with politeness.

Lee and Gray are bolstered by some nice supporting performances from the likable Patrick Mower (Cry of the Banshee) and from Niké Arrighi (The Perfume of the Lady in Black) and Leon Greene (Flash Gordon, The Seven Percent Solution) as the doomed lovers who provide some real emotional depth to the film. And of course, anyone interested in Satanic cinema will love that the occult action is evident from the great opening credits onwards and basically never slows down. Matheson allegedly did research into some of Crowley’s own rituals for his script and delved pretty extensively into occult history. There are a variety of colorful Satanic rituals and one of the film’s best scenes involves a defensive ritual led by Christopher Lee, where the majority of the cast is stuck behind an elaborately drawn chalk circle.

It goes without saying that The Devil Rides Out comes with the highest recommendation and if you are on the fencing about delving into Hammer’s catalogue, this is a great place to start. Pick it up on region B Blu-ray — for those in the UK or with region-free players — or on region 1 DVD. I really wish Charles Gray had done more with Hammer, but he is damned enjoyable here and is one of the few actors other than Peter Cushing who is able to go toe to toe with Sir Christopher Lee.

Side note: This is one of a few films that uses the occult to provide an enforced happy ending, but for once I'm not upset about it at all.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

THE WITCHES

Cyril Frankel, 1966
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen, Ann Bell

“Give me a skin for dancing in.”

Gwen is working in Africa as a missionary when she is caught in the middle of a tribal rebellion and is brutally attacked by a witchdoctor. Some time later, after she has recovered in England, she’s offered a job teaching in a small country school by wealthy local Alan Bax and his sister Stephanie. Though she first regards the village of Heddaby as idyllic, she begins to notice signs of witchcraft — for instance a boy falls ill, Gwen finds a voodoo doll, and a man is suspiciously killed — and before she knows it, she has a relapse and breaks down again, to recover a year later, convinced the citizens of the town are dangerous witches that must be stopped before a young girl is sacrificed.

One of Hammer’s most neglected films, The Witches fits in a strange place in their oeuvre. It’s not quite as theatrically supernatural as their other witchcraft films like The Devil Rides Out or To the Devil a Daughter, but borrows plenty from their more underrated suspense films such as Paranoiac and Hysteria. Released just two years before Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Witches really doesn’t even feel like a Hammer film, but is in the vein of producer Val Lewton’s films, particularly The Seventh Victim, where the horror is subtle and understated and it’s often not clear whether the threat is real or in the mind of the protagonist.

This especially doesn’t feel like a Hammer film, because it lacks any of the studio’s recurring cast members or major stars, but benefits from a great — and final — performance from Joan Fontaine. Her character of Gwen is similar to her turn as the persecuted heroine in Rebecca more than 20 years before: innocent and sweet, but canny, aware of the danger that may befall her even though no one quite believes her. Another Hitchcock actress, Kay Walsh (Stage Fright) acts as a very strange foil as the antagonist Stephanie, who is not up against Gwen, but wants to recruit her to the cause. Walsh is overshadowed by Alec McCowen (yet another Hitchcock actor, most recognizable from his brilliant turn as the inspector in Frenzy) as the strangely perverse Alan, a man who pretends to be a priest and is clearly haunted by some unspoken trauma.

These demented siblings are right out of Hammer’s suspense films — their neurotic excess is on the same plane (if not as grandiose) as Oliver Reed’s in Paranoiac — and the seemingly rational Stephanie is every bit as nuts as her brother Alan. SPOILERS: In the film’s big twist, which occurs basically ten minutes before the movie is over, is that Stephanie is the head of a local coven and wants to sacrifice a teenage girl in order to attain youth and immortality. Or some such nonsense. Gwen’s assault is a powerful specter that looms over the film and it’s a shame that the second half of the film doesn’t exploit this nearly as well as the first, where there are such quietly symbolic scenes as a local butcher enthusiastically skinning a rabbit before he seems it to Gwen. She remarks that Heddaby seems “a nice place to get over things,” and when hiring her, Alan intentionally exploits her experience in Africa, pushing her to the point of near hysteria.

The Witches exists in a strange place in terms of occult cinema history, landing in the middle of two waves, but not quite fitting in with either. It was certainly influenced by the excellent, understated British horror films of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s — such as Night of the Demon, The Innocents, The Haunting, and Night of the Eagle but also acts as a quiet precursor to the more explicit films later in the decade like Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil Rides Out, Curse of the Crimson Altar, Wicker Man, and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Like Hammer films The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies, as well as the slightly later The Oblong Box, it maintains a strong connection to the colonial themes that seem to haunt British horror at around this time.

Nigel Kneale’s (Quatermass and the Pit, The Abominable Snowman) script — from Norah Lofts novel The Devil’s Own — originally had elements of black comedy that were later removed, which is a real shame, as I think it would have made the film’s absurdities a little easier to swallow. In addition to the unbelievable twist — where Stephanie becomes Gwen’s champion and initiates her into the coven, hoping they can perfect the ritual together — the ritual sequence is pure camp. The “orgy” is really a group of fully clothed, middle aged people performing what looks like an avant-garde dance piece. 

Thanks to these two blunders, The Witches just can’t compare with the weirder and more stylish Eye of the Devil, another nearly forgotten supernatural horror film made in Britain in the same year. With that said, it’s definitely worth watching for any Hammer completists or anyone who enjoys understated occult horrors — of which there are definitely not enough of in the world. Pick it up on DVD in the US or on Blu-ray in the UK.

Friday, January 22, 2016

DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE

Roy Ward Baker, 1971
Starring: Ralph Bates, Martine Beswick

The brilliant young Dr. Jekyll is determined to cure as many illnesses as he can, but the remark of a colleague causes him to realize that he can only accomplish this by prolonging his own life. He begins experiments on flies, which is a success, and soon realizes the key lies in the sex organs of human females. His increased need for them causes him to pair up with Burke and Hare, body snatchers turned murderers, and before long, he samples his own potion. To his amazement, he finds that it transforms him into a beautiful woman, who he calls Mrs. Hyde and claims is his sister. Determined to conclude the serum experiments, Jekyll and Hyde begin murdering prostitutes to have an ample supply of organs, but soon begin competing for possession of the body.

Hammer previously adapted Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a number of times over the years, including earlier efforts such as the comedy The Ugly Duckling, moody horror film The Man Who Could Cheat Death, and the excellent The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. Towards the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they also made a number of films about an innocent female protagonist who — due to a physical or psychic transformation — was responsible for brutal crimes. Films like The Reptile, The Gorgon, Frankenstein Created Woman, and Hands of the Ripper are among my favorite Hammer films and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde fits neatly into this category.

Anyone who finds Hammer generally too stuffy and straight-laced will definitely want to check this one out, as it’s a gleeful blend of camp, brutal violence, tongue-in-cheek sexual themes, and a mad blend of British horror tropes that somehow combines The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the real-life cases of Burke and Hare and Jack the Ripper. It’s also a rare case of a Hammer film title that really delivers exactly what it suggests and I’m sure some people hate it, but I think it’s fittingly whimsical.

The story basically disregards all the staples of Dr. Jekyll’s character as presented by Robert Louis Stevenson. The delightful Ralph Bates (The Horror of Frankenstein) is more uninterested in sex than he is sexually repressed and his goal of trying to prolong life in order to cure every major disease afflicting mankind at least comes from a good place. He actually has a fair amount in common with Hammer’s portrayal of the Baron Frankenstein: an ambitious man given to amoral tendencies in his ruthless pursuit of science. Of course, it takes barely any time before Jekyll is paying for a supply of female body parts of questionable origin to fuel his research and, before you know it, he’s decided that killing prostitutes to harvest their organs is the only logical step.

Apparently the role of Mrs. Hyde was originally intended for the lovely Caroline Munro (Dracula A.D. 1972), but Bond girl Martine Beswick (Thunderball) is fantastic and provides a great foil for Bates. They even look disturbingly alike and her harsh, somewhat masculine beauty adds a nice androgynous element that leads directly towards the film’s grisly conclusion. Perhaps my favorite part of this story is that it presents Jekyll and Hyde as far more than a dichotomy between good and evil, rational and animalistic. Hyde — one of Hammer’s most autonomous, powerful female characters, despite the fact that she literally does not exist in a body of her own — is simply a more charismatic, ruthless, and confident version of Jekyll. She’s not trying to gain control over the body to fulfill her appetites, but simply to survive.

The two are also romantically paired up with Jekyll’s second floor neighbors, an adult brother (Lewis Flander of Who Can Kill a Child?) and sister (Susan Brodrick of Countess Dracula) who are respectively attracted to Hyde and Jekyll, which of course contributes to the tension between them at the conclusion. Brief spoiler: It’s actually interesting that Jekyll/Hyde is killed off at the end of the film and never revived. Hammer kept producing versions of the story, but surprisingly never tried to turn it into a series in its own right, something they did with The Mummy with mixed results.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde comes highly recommended and is one of my favorite versions of the story, probably coming in third after Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne and Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Pick it up on DVD, though I’m hoping for a spectacular Blu-ray to come out sometime soon.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

John Gilling, 1966
Starring: André Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams, Jacqueline Pearce

A plague is spreading throughout a Cornish village and local authority Dr. Tompson is at a loss. His esteemed friend Sir James Forbes arrives to help out, along with his daughter Sylvia, and the two men are alarmed to find a series of empty coffins where the plague victims were allegedly buried. There seems to be a connection with local aristocrat Clive Hamilton, who has a nearby mine and previously learned voodoo and black magic while living in Haiti. And when Hamilton targets Sylvia, Tompson and Forbes must rush to save her and find a way to break Hamilton’s hold over the area.

Not a far leap from White Zombie (1932) and Val Lewton’s magical I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Hammer’s sole zombie film, The Plague of the Zombies, follows a standard pre-Night of the Living Dead zombie movie plot: a wealthy white man uses voodoo to enslave those he regards as socially inferior and also seeks to ensnare a beautiful woman. Making strides from White Zombie, Roy Ashton’s zombies are actually undead rather than merely hypnotized and their white eyes and mouldering rags seem an obvious influence on George Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead came out just two years later.

The zombies — all once downtrodden villagers — are forced to work in the Squire’s mine, equating his occult prowess with economic and even social power. Class conflict would become a major theme in British horror in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, and many of Hammer’s villains are aloof aristocrats who exploit the poor and uneducated masses. The Plague of the Zombies is a little general in this case, blending themes of colonial exploitation with the aristocratic manipulation of the working classes and, of course, there is a fair amount of white washing as voodoo is appropriated by an upperclass white man. It certainly would make an interesting double feature with the similarly themed The Oblong Box (1969), with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee in a parallel tale of aristocratic privilege and the misuse of voodoo.

Thanks to the involvement of director John Gilling, this makes for a loose trilogy with his films The Reptile (which he also directed) and The Gorgon (which he wrote). Like those other two films, the ending feels rushed with Hamilton suddenly unmasked as the villain and Sylvia’s life hanging precariously in the balance. And like The Reptile, the conclusion involves the manor burning down around the protagonists as they flee to safety through the tin mine. But while the fire feels sort of random in The Reptile, here it serves to destroy Hamilton’s spells and voodoo dolls, erasing his power over the area’s undead.

Also like those films, one of The Plague of the Zombie’s strongest points is its excellent use of atmosphere, thanks to DP Arthur Grant, who flooded the fictional Cornwall — the same set pieces used in The Reptile — with fog and shadows. This is actually one of Hammer’s more experimental films and moves away from the stuffy, drawing room set pieces of its earlier Gothic horrors (sort of, anyway), in favor of terrifying moments like a colorful dream sequence where zombies rise from the ground. One of my favorite scenes intercuts a dreaming young woman — the night after she has cut her hand — with the voodoo rituals that allows Hamilton to possess her. Funerals also serve as key set pieces and framing devices, giving ritual more literal and symbolic importance than it usually serves in Hammer films. 

The Plague of the Zombies comes highly recommended and would likely be considered a classic if it involved one of Hammer’s stars, like Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. The prolific André Morell (The Bridge on the River Kwai) shines in the typical Hammer protagonist role of good-hearted though perhaps overly rational scientist, though it’s a shame Hammer didn’t get a more solid, charismatic cast in place overall. Pick it up on Blu-ray and prepare to have your mind blown that Hammer made an atmospheric zombie film before Night of the Living Dead.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

THE REPTILE

John Gilling, 1966
Starring: Noel Willman, Jennifer Daniel, Ray Barrett, Jacqueline Pearce, Michael Ripper

In Clagmoor Heath, a village in Cornwall, dead bodies turn up with what seems to be a kind of plague: they are green and horribly distorted. When Harry Spalding’s brother becomes the latest victim, he and his new bride, Valerie, inherit his cottage and move to the village. Among the only locals to talk to them is a friendly barman, the village madman, and an aloof doctor who lives in a crumbling estate with his beautiful daughter. Harry and the barman learn that the deaths are not caused by a plague, but by a strange, snakelike creature and all evidence for the monster’s existence points right towards the doctor’s mansion…

The Reptile’s director, John Gilling, also helmed The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and penned The Gorgon (1964). In many ways, The Reptile acts as something of a bridge between the two. Though this film was written by Anthony Hinds, it has nearly the same plot structure as The Gorgon: mysterious deaths occur in a closed off, xenophobic European village. When a man’s family member is killed, he investigates and finds a beautiful woman and a cruel doctor to be at the center of the mystery. SPOILERS: In both cases, the monster turns out to be the beautiful woman, who transforms against her will and murders villagers. The Gorgon and The Reptile are both at the beginning of Hammer’s fascinating turn to female antagonists, which includes films like The Vampire Lovers, Frankenstein Created Woman, Hands of the Ripper, and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde

This minor classic not only improves upon the themes of The Gorgon — primarily by fleshing out the female characters for probably the first time in Hammer history — but it also incorporates some elements of The Plague of Zombies, such as the disastrous effects of colonialism. The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies were actually filmed back to back on the same sets and both included substantial roles for Hammer regular (and personal favorite) Michael Ripper and the lovely Jacqueline Pearce. She stars here as the darkly beautiful, if somewhat tragic Anna. Like The Gorgon, this features a cold, humorless doctor controlling a younger woman in his life, but this has more weight because that woman is the doctor’s own daughter. While I would call this film restrained, its female protagonist is far less so than in The Gorgon. Anna’s sexual awakening is an act of monstrosity for which she receives no redemption and is ultimately punished for her father’s misdeeds. 

Though I preferred The Gorgon for many years, I think The Reptile has eventually come to surpass it in my estimation. It certainly improves upon earlier snake-monster films like Cult of the Cobra (1955) and succeeds with a blend of moody atmosphere, Gothic visuals, and domestic tragedy. Hammer often did their best at exposing dark family secrets and rotten inheritances and also admittedly makes the most of another tried and true plot device: innocent newly weds who have arrived in a strange area and are thrown into horror. The film starts off briskly, leading us right into a murder mystery where the victims are found distorted and green and sustains an air of paranoia and claustrophobia with the use of some unsettling supporting characters. Again, like The Gorgon, the backwards, superstitious rural community is seemingly stuck in the past and are thus unable to solve the crimes on their own.

Despite a few unintentionally campy moments — and a somewhat disappointing grand finale — this is B-monster movie making as it was rarely seen in the ‘60s. The weird use of Eastern occultism that doesn’t quite work, but adds a flavor usually missing in Hammer’s staunchly British productions; another element that pairs it with The Plague of the Zombies. And though the monster makeup is cheap and cheesy, it is also somehow effective, particularly in the dark manor hallways when the creature unexpectedly strikes. Jacqueline Pearce gives a compelling physical performance and there is something garish but also terrifying about her creature. 

Personally, I love all of Hammer’s films that delve into magic, ritual, and occult horror, and The Reptile is no exception. It comes recommended and you can find it on DVD from Anchor Bay or on Blu-ray with some nice extras. I would say not to watch it with The Gorgon or The Plague of the Zombies, as the films can feel too similar, but it’s an unusual treat that monster movie fanatics and Hammer fans alike will not want to miss out on.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

THE GORGON

Terence Fisher, 1964
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley

In the small German village of Vandorf, authorities are finding corpses that turn to stone. Locals fear a legend about gorgon sister in an abandoned castle, but a professor decides to get to the bottom of things himself after a young girl becomes the latest victim. Unfortunately, he is petrified by the gorgon and manages to get a message to his son, Paul, before dying. Paul and a family friend, Professor Meister, begin to investigate, despite resistance from the locals. In particular, the unfriendly Dr. Namaroff does everything to get in their way, though his lovely young assistant, Carla, promises to help them as she and Paul begin to fall for each other.

The Gorgon is one of Hammer’s more unique, if underrated efforts. With a script from John Gilling, this is similar to his film The Reptile (1966) and even Tigon’s The Blood Beast Terror (1968): in all three films, a beautiful female protagonist transforms into a murderous creature, often at the light of the full moon. The Gorgon also offers a female monster for the first time in Hammer’s history, even though the titular beastie barely shows up during the runtime. This also has far more in common with The Wolf Man and werewolf folklore than it does with actual Greek mythology, which stipulates that the gorgons are three, hideous sisters with living snakes for hair: Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. They did not transform back and forth into attractive women but were permanently monstrous with animalistic qualities like fangs and tusks. Gilling seems to have at least partially confused the gorgons with the Furies or Erinyes, hellish goddesses of vengeance. Virgil named three — Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone — though there were more, and it is from Virgil that Gilling takes the name of his titular monster.

This is also, I believe, the final time director Terence Fisher and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would team up for a Hammer production. In an interesting twist, Lee is one of the protagonists, while Cushing is an antagonist. His jealous, possessive Dr. Namaroff is a spin on his icy, hyper rational Dr. Frankenstein, though his misdeeds are all ultimately motivated by love. This would make an interesting double feature with the later Twins of Evil, as his characters in both films are similar and come to similar ends. Lee plays a gruff, no nonsense scientist — one who is slightly off his rocker — who keeps the talkie middle of the film interesting, but I always enjoy seeing him in these sorts of roles.

Anyone looking forward to a Greek riff on the werewolf film is going to be disappointed, as there are few moments of actual horror and little gore or violence. Instead, the emphasis is on the lovely Gothic atmosphere and a depressing sense of doomed romance, as it becomes almost immediately clear who is transforming into the gorgon by the light of the full moon. It’s actually unfortunate that the worst thing about The Gorgon is the creature itself, thanks to some very poor special effects. It’s probably for the best, then, that the monster isn’t seen very often.

SPOILERS: Star Barbara Shelley’s character Carla, Namaroff’s assistant, turns into the gorgon when exposed to moonlight and it is she who commits the murders, though — like most werewolf characters — she has amnesia in human form and possesses no knowledge of these crimes during her waking hours. Shelley wanted to play both Carla and the gorgon, though the studio refused and cast former dancer and Hammer extra Prudence Hyman (yes, that is her real name) instead. Shelley recommended using living snakes for the gorgon wig, but Fisher ignored her, to his detriment.

I would say The Gorgon is one of their best second-tier films; it’s not quite in league with the studio’s classics, but it deserved far more love than it’s received over the years. The tragic tone and solid performances will please anyone who likes more melancholy horror and the abandoned castle set piece and fairytale elements foreshadow some of Hammer’s best later era films like Vampire Circus and Twins of Evil. Overall The Gorgon comes recommended — it’s actually one of my favorites — and is worth watching at least once. You can find it in Hammer’s Icons of Horror Collection along with The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, Scream of Fear, and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962)

Terence Fisher, 1962
Starring: Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Edward de Souza, Michael Gough

Lord Ambrose D’Arcy triumphantly opens a new opera in London, despite frustrations that everyone believes one of the boxes to be haunted. But that night, while the show’s diva is performing, a dead body is discovered, the diva is traumatized, and the show is put on hold. D’Arcy finds a new singer, Christine, but she’s warned of his lecherous true intentions by a mysterious Phantom and by Harry, a producer at the opera house. As Harry and Christine fall in love, they investigate the Phantom and his role in the murders and accidents at the opera house — and his strange connection to Lord D’Arcy.

While I get the appeal of making new versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, I never really understood Hammer’s obsessive need to remake seemingly ever major Universal horror film from the ‘40s and ‘50s — with the exception of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, thankfully — and, in my opinion, The Phantom of the Opera is evidence that this wasn’t the greatest action plan. Hammer occasionally strayed away from horror and more towards melodrama territory throughout their classic run and The Phantom of the Opera is solidly in this camp. It’s essentially a period drama with splashes of horror and the grotesque, but it’s not a true horror film. Director Terence Fisher puts just as much emphasis on the musical scenes and the two murders, though marginally gory, are pretty inexplicable.

I will give Hammer some credit for trying to add a new spin to the plot — as they did with Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man — though it has sort of mixed results here. Annoying, there is a lot of filler and Fisher can’t seem to decide if he wants to film a musical, a love story, or a murder mystery. Unlike Gaston Leroux’s novel, the Phantom is not obsessively in love with Christine. There is a central scene where he is kidnaps her — with this help of his dwarf sidekick !) — and brings her to his lair under the opera. He does give her some nonconsensual singing lessons, but Harry is clever enough to find the lair and reveals that he knows who the Phantom is and what happened to him. 

SPOILERS: It seems that Lord D’Arcy has stolen the music of one Professor Petrie. Harry and Christine discover this, because his music just happens to be at Christine’s boarding house, where the landlady tells them Petrie’s sad story. After D’Arcy promised to publish the music, he stole it from Petrie as it was at the printer’s, setting the whole place — including Petrie — on fire, splashed Petrie’s face with acid, and then the Professor drowned in the river, in shades of Rasputin. At his underground lair, the Phantom confirms this and fills in the blanks. Harry and Christine agree that he can secretly begin training Christine — which sort of flies in the face of the Phantom as a monster — and watch her perform his opera.

While this is sort of a sweet alternative to the traditional story, the absence of the Phantom’s doomed love for Christine — and her inability to requite it — definitely takes away from the proceedings. And the ending is patently ridiculous. After driving D’Arcy out but not killing him (?), the Phantom attends the performance from the “haunted” box. His assistant — the dwarf lest ye forget — hops onto the chandelier over the stage to get a better look. His weight is too much for the rope, which crashed to the stage and the Phantom is killing in the process of saving Christine’s life. What?

Apparently the leading role was written for Cary Grant — which I really can’t imagine — as he considered appearing in a Hammer film at the time. This would be a very different film, though probably a less flawed one. While this is admittedly not one of Hammer’s strongest efforts, Herbert Lom gives a great performance. It takes him forever to actually get on screen, but when he does, he’s the real star of the film. I’m not sure why he didn’t appear in more Hammer films. Psychotic yet sympathetic, Michael Gough is a real runner up with his appearance as the utterly sleazy D’Arcy, though the two romantic leads — Heather Sears and Edward de Souza — are utterly forgettable.

I can’t recommend The Phantom of the Opera, though Hammer aficionados might find it interesting to see the relatively high budget (for Hammer) and a huge production with hundreds of musicians, performers, and extras. Pick it up on DVD or as part of the Hammer Horror Series DVD set alongside lesser seen efforts like Brides of Dracula, Curse of the Werewolf, Paranoiac, Kiss of the Vampire, Nightmare, Night Creatures, and Evil of Frankenstein.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

THE HUNGER: A Tribute to David Bowie

Tony Scott, 1983
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon

John and Miriam Blaylock are vampires living out their days in a New York mansion. They feed upon attractive young couples and Miriam — considerably older than her partner — promises him they will be together forever. But John soon learns this is a lie and, after more than two centuries as a vampire, abruptly begins to age, something Miriam admits has happened to all her previous lovers. Determined to survive, John reaches out to Dr. Sarah Roberts, a local gerontologist gaining ground in age research with some promising experiments. She doesn’t believe him, but after he dies, she finds herself drawn to Miriam and in the beginnings of a relationship that could prove fatal.

Though I hadn’t planned to review The Hunger as part of my British horror series, it seems like the thing to do in light of the sudden, heartbreaking death of David Bowie late Sunday night. I don’t really have the words to say what he meant to me, though judging from the almost violent outpouring of grief, support, and celebration all over the internet, I’m certainly not alone and I’m grateful that he was loved for so long and so passionately. I’m not generally a very emotional person, but I cried more yesterday than I have since my grandfather passed away a year and a half ago. And maybe I’m feeling Bowie’s loss so profoundly as a sort of compound effect: my grandfather’s death in July of 2014 has been followed by the deaths of several men who count as heroes, patron saints, and imaginary father figures: Leonard Nimoy and Christopher Lee earlier in 2015, and Lemmy two weeks ago. Though all of these men lived full, amazing lives, it’s been hard to say goodbye.

While I generally have an irrational affection for films and music released in 1983 — the year of my birth — I never really formed an attachment to The Hunger, which, before today, I only saw once about 15 years ago. But my opinion of the film has almost completely changed after revisiting it and, in many ways, its themes tie together perfectly with a tribute to its star. It’s the only horror film from director Tony Scott, though it has strange parallels with his brother Ridley’s masterpiece from the previous year, Blade Runner (1982). Like that film, The Hunger’s color scheme is primarily blue, black, and white with imagery of floating curtains, rain, running water, errant tears, incessant cigarette smoking, and doves in flight. 

More importantly, it shares Blade Runner’s anxieties about mortality, aging, and death. This is a film about vampires, so that theme is a bit obvious, but I think it has more in common with Blade Runner — and several other ‘80s horror films — than it does with popular vampire films from the period, such as Salem’s Lot (1979), Fright Night (1985), Near Dark (1987), or The Lost Boys (1987). In essence, The Hunger exists at the intersection of more commercial fare like fashion photography and music videos, gory ‘70s cult horror — particularly lesbian vampire films like The Vampire Lovers or Vampyros Lesbos — and the mainstream, adult-themed horror of the ‘80s, such as The Fly (1986) or the Cat People (1982) remake, for which Bowie contributed the theme song.

Like The Fly and Cat People, The Hunger places mortality within the context of identity, transformation, monstrosity, and even science fiction. More than many of the other vampire films from early in the decade, it connects vampirism with drug addiction, homosexuality, and diseased blood, in other words, the emerging AIDS epidemic. Though Sarah is studying the human aging mechanism, she does so with through experiments with panicked monkeys, extensive blood testing, and the harsh white of hospital labs. 

And like Cat People, The Fly, and Werner Herzog’s earlier Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and somewhat later films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Interview with a Vampire (1994), The Hunger’s obsession with aging and death is countered by an equal emphasis on adult themes like love, sex, and possession. Like many of those, a tragic romantic relationship lies at the film’s center, though in this case it marks the trajectory between old, rejected lover and desired new conquest. The film doesn’t just ask why we have to age and die, but why commitments fade and are broken. John’s anxieties about aging are paralleled with fears of being rejected and replaced.

In putting the emphasis on these themes, The Hunger also overturns much established vampire mythology. John and Miriam appear in mirrors, pictures, and daylight. They need to get a certain amount of sleep each night and there is a clear, if unexplored connection between John’s disintegration and his sudden insomnia. When Miriam turns Sarah, she tells her that she must get six hours of sleep out of every 24. And when a vampire dies — as in John’s case — even that death is not absolute. Disturbingly, Miriam keeps coffins full of her dead lovers, suspended forever in extreme old age — (SPOILERS) though these mummy-like figures eventually rise up and kill Miriam before disintegrating, freeing themselves from an eternity of lovesick torment. This beautiful finale is marred by an additional ending tacked on by the studio, where Sarah is alive and well — despite the fact that she killed herself and poisoned Miriam — preparing to seduce a young couple as Miriam screams her name offscreen, presumably from a coffin in the attic.

While the elegant, stately Deneuve is perfectly cast as Miriam and a post-Rocky Horror, pre-Witches of Eastwick Susan Sarandon is capable if a bit ungainly as Sarah, this film absolutely belongs to David Bowie — as do most things with his involvement. Though he is only in the first half, his physical beauty provides an effective contrast to John’s sudden, grotesque aging and his grief is somewhat restrained, but palpable. Interestingly, this is Bowie in his mid-thirties — arguably just beginning to age — on the verge of major commercial success: the previous year saw his collaboration with Queen, while the album “Let’s Dance” was released just after The Hunger. It would reach platinum in two continents and rocketed him to international stardom.

I also can’t help but wonder (and perhaps the Blu-ray special features answer this question) if he was responsible for some of the film’s more countercultural elements. In particular, the film’s amazing opening sequence where Bauhaus — who loved Bowie and do a ripping cover of “Ziggy Stardust”perform “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in a goth club. A later scene shows a teenage skateboarder dancing to Iggy Pop’s “Funtime,” written by Bowie and Pop for their album, “The Idiot.”

Bowie’s actual death was of course the complete opposite of the events in The Hunger. He kept his cancer secret for the better part of two years and, instead of making a public announcement about his illness and impending death, he gave fans one last album, “Black Star,” which is a surprising work of genius packed with themes of death, rebirth, and resurrection. Classy to the last, some of the final images of him are filled with joy. We should all hope to have such an end.

I’m honestly still having a rough time with it, but the best thing to do is celebrate the man and his work. Though The Hunger has its share of flaws and was a critical and box office disappointment upon its release, it still comes recommended for a shattering, if not quite The Man Who Fell to Earth-level performance from one of the 20th and 21st centuries’ best and brightest. There’s an Oscar Wilde quote that I always associate with David Bowie — “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” — but today there’s another that seems apt.

“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF

Terence Fisher, 1961
Starring: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller, Anthony Dawson, Michael Ripper

A malevolent Marquis in 18th century Spain imprisons an innocent beggar sheerly for his own amusement. After years in prison, he loses his mind and becomes animalistic. When a beautiful young servant rejects the Marquis’s advances, he throws her in a cell with the beggar, who rapes her. She gives birth to a child before dying and a kindly gentleman, Don Alfredo, raises the baby as his son. When the boy, Leon, grows up, it becomes clear that something isn’t right about him and during the full moon, local animals are found slaughtered. Thinking he can suppress the urges, Leon sets off to work in a nearby vineyard, but falls in love with the owner’s daughter, Cristina, though she has been promised to another. When her father aggressively seeks to keep Leon and Cristina apart and his wolfish feelings return…

Though they would explore a variety of transformation-themed horror films over the years, Hammer’s sole attempt at a werewolf film — The Curse of the Werewolf — primarily succeeds thanks to the glorious Oliver Reed, appearing here in his first starring role. Handsome and occasionally hammy, Reed is perfect for the part as he’s able to capture a wide range, though Leon is generally either romantic, sensitive, or enraged. I’ve probably related this anecdote a hundred times on this blog, but director Ken Russell — who worked with Reed often — would communicate what he wanted from the actor by asking for a certain technique ranging from subtle to explosive: moody one, moody two, or moody three. I think this is a perfect summary of Reed’s acting style in general and he busts out moody three a fair few times in The Curse of the Werewolf. The effects from Roy Ashton are certainly not the film’s centerpiece, but they aren’t too overwhelming for Ollie to be able to emote even when he’s gone wolfish.

This might strike contemporary audiences as more of a period drama or tragic melodrama more than an outright horror film, but hey, it’s still a werewolf movie. The script is a bit confusing on exactly why young Leon becomes a werewolf. Is it because his mother is raped and the baby’s born on Christmas Eve (which another character repeats his unlucky)? Or because the beggar who rapes her — after years of imprisonment — has become more animal than human? I really have no idea, but the general conceit is that love can keep the wolf from his door and it’s the presence of first Don Alfredo, his adopted father, and later Cristina, that keeps him from changing. When he’s removed from Cristina’s influence in particular, he can’t control the beast within. 

This film has the fairytale elements that mark some of the best of Hammer’s films and here the werewolf is not a monster, but a pitiable victim, a tragic Romeo. Though it takes awhile to get started — the first third is sort of wasted on Leon’s back story — this time is spend emphasizes the dichotomy that defines a lot of Hammer’s films: that human cruelty often directly causes horror and in particular it is a result of the actions from characters in the upper classes. In other words, the Marquis’s actions so many decades ago have led directly to Leon’s lycanthropy. And where he could have easily found salvation — in Cristina’s arms — he is tragically prevented by yet another greedy aristocrat.

While most werewolf films completely skirt Guy Endore’s inflammatory novel, The Werewolf of Paris, this is one of the few movies to actually stick with some of the plot, namely the rape sequence as an explanation for lycanthropy. And though it avoid much of the book’s sexual content, there are some seedy elements like the lecherous Marquis, the rape scene, and Leon’s brutal attack of a prostitute (seriously, this book is so brutal I can’t believe a direct adaptation hasn’t happened yet). Hammer moved the setting from France to Spain thanks to having some Spanish set pieces already built, but this seems perfectly normal to me because I’ve seen entirely too many of Paul Naschy’s El Hombre Lobo films

It’s hard to pay attention to anyone else when Oliver Reed is on screen, but there are some solid performances. Keep your eyes peeled for Hammer regular (and favorite) Michael Ripper, the beloved Desmond Llewellyn (Q from many James Bond films), Anthony Dawson (Dr. No), and Clifford Evans (The Kiss of the Vampire) as the kindly Don Alfredo. Catherine Feller (The Girl with the Pistol) is a disappointing female lead and I really wish she had switched roles with gorgeous Hammer regular Yvonne Romain (Night Creatures), who has a small role as Leon’s unfortunate mother.

Of course The Curse of the Werewolf comes recommended — I would never speak ill of Oliver Reed — and I think anyone who loves Paul Naschy would find this to be a fascinating precursor to his werewolf cycle. Though his first film, the lost Las noches del Hombre Lobo (1968), was only released a few years later, he must have seen and been influenced by this film. You can find the Blu-ray import with some nice special features or as part of the Hammer Horror Series DVD set along with other underrated pleasures like Brides of Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, Paranoiac, Kiss of the Vampire, Nightmare, Night Creatures, and Evil of Frankenstein.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL

Terence Fisher, 1960
Starring: Paul Massie, Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee

"Lust and violence feed the weaker man. That is why there are so few saints and so many sinners. Will you cut evil out of man with a scalpel, Henry?"

Dr. Henry Jekyll believes that man’s good and evil natures can be separated and distilled. He begins experimenting on himself with a serum that transforms him into his alter ego: Mr. Hyde. And while the nondescript doctor is a workaholic who neglects his wife, Kitty, Hyde is a libertine ready to explore the excesses of debauchery and violence. Hyde soon runs into Paul Allen, a friend of Jekyll’s, and he learns that Jekyll pays off Allen’s gambling debts and that Allen is having a passionate affair with Kitty. Maliciously, Hyde decides that he must have Kitty for himself, regardless of the cost.

After sexualizing the Count in The Horror of Dracula and the good doctor in The Curse of Frankenstein, it is perhaps no wonder that Hammer turned to a more erotic interpretation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Hammer was fond of this theme, adapting the story fairly directly three times with The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, but also exploring a similar dichotomy of good and evil existing in one person who transforms between the two with films like Frankenstein Created Woman and Hands of the Ripper.

This film with a solid script from Wolf Mankowitz is actually one of my favorites in the Jekyll and Hyde canon — second only to the 1931 version of the film with Fredric March — because Markowitz and director Terence Fisher make such smart choices when it comes to Jekyll’s use of science and his motivations, as well as the portrayal of Hyde. Jekyll seeks to create a super human and his utopian ideals make more sense to me that those provided in Stevenson’s original story. Somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein, it is Jekyll’s idealism that strips away his humanity and isolates him from those around him. Jekyll also becomes more unattractive as the serum’s side effects begin to manifest themselves.

On the other hand, this Hyde is so much different than the original, bestial, monstrous Hyde — an apelike man who loves violence for its own sake. This Hyde is not a monster, but an opportunistic predator, a spoiled child who has no regard for consequences. He’s also something of an antihero. He has a charismatic side and it’s easy to see why he is so desired by many of the other characters: he can be friendly, generous, flattering, and fun. Paul Massie (Orders to Kill) is great in dual roles as the soft spoken, bearded Jekyll and the charming Hyde. There is certainly a little overacting, but it works for Massie and I honestly wouldn’t expect anything else from Hammer. As with The Man Who Could Cheat Death, there is a touch of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray about the character — particularly because he becomes more handsome and charismatic as he becomes more hedonistic, amoral, and eventually evil. 

This is really more of a dark drama that peers into the ugly facets of human nature than an outright horror film, but it has so many surprisingly bleak moments that I can’t believe it got past the censors. For instance, there’s a very sexually suggestive scene where one of the girls in the club does a snake charmer’s dance, a surprisingly erotic sequence that involves putting the snake in her mouth. SPOILERS: And even more shocking, when Kitty won’t come to Hyde of her own accord — or as a trade with Paul — Hyde rapes and murders Kitty and then frames Jekyll and, incredibly, it seems like he might get away with his crimes in the end.

Not to be outdone is Christopher Lee, who gives one of his best non-villainous performances here as Paul, a gambler, womanizer, and hapless hedonist who is counting on his best friend — Dr. Henry Jekyll — to pay off his gambling debts, but he’s having a passionate affair with the man’s wife. All of the film’s characters are utterly unlikable, but it is Paul who acts as a sort of moral compass for Hyde. Whatever debauchery and evil deeds Paul stumbles into, Hyde is always eager to go further and he actually finds Paul’s hard limit: selling Kitty to Hyde in exchange for Hyde paying off all his debts. And this is probably Paul’s one redeemable quality: for all his faults, he seems to actually be in love with Kitty.

There’s a lot to love about The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. It comes highly recommended and I can’t understand why it’s one of Hammer’s most criminally neglected films. In terms of their early efforts, it’s one of the most exploitative and edgy, while maintaining a lush sense of color and stylish sets. Keep your eyes peeled for a young Oliver Reed in his first role for Hammer as a bouncer who unwisely confronts Hyde. Also named Jekyll’s Inferno and House of Fright, you can find this film in the Icons of Horror Collection along with other neglected entries like The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, Scream of Fear, and The Gorgon.

Monday, January 4, 2016

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH

Terence Fisher, 1959
Starring: Anton Diffring, Hazel Court, Christopher Lee

Georges Bonnet, a sculptor and womanizer, has a strange secret: he’s been alive for over a century, keeping up a youthful appearance by killing women and harvesting their parathyroid glands to use in a serum that restores his appearance at occasional intervals. But unfortunately, Bonnet needs to have a delicate surgery to keep him alive and he seek out an old colleague to perform the operation. Though the man unfortunately is not able to, but Bonnet finds a new doctor — Pierre Gerard — who he is able to blackmail. Gerard and Bonnet also share a love interest, a model named Janine, and Gerard hopes to save her from Bonnet.

The Man Who Could Cheat Death is one of Hammer’s most neglected early entries and unites much of its classic team: star Christopher Lee, beauty Hazel Court (The Mask of the Red Death, The Curse of Frankenstein), director Terence Fisher, and writer Jimmy Sangster. Based on Barré Lyndon’s play, The Man in Half Moon Street, this includes a number of horror tropes — both the mad doctor and the murderous artist — and falls somewhere between The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This unsteady divide is probably the film’s weakest point and the plot wanders haphazardly all over the place.

For starters, nothing of Bonnet’s background is explained. How did he figure out that he needed to use the parathyroid gland? If he’s an artist, an not a doctor, how did he even invent a serum for himself in the first place? And maybe I missed something, but why does this only have to come from beautiful women? Couldn’t it come from any body or, better yet, a corpse? And not to get obsessive about it, but the parathyroid glands are located in the neck, near the thyroid, not in the abdomen as this film seems to suggest. You literally do not need to eviscerate someone to remove them, but merely do a bit of specific neck surgery. And the parathyroid regulates calcium and phosphate levels in the body, so I don’t know why in the hell it seemed a likely target for this cockamamie plot.

But despite the messy use of science and logic, the film has its charms, its villain chief among them. The role of Bonnet was apparently initially intended for Peter Cushing — and wouldn’t that have been marvelous? — but the star claimed exhaustion and bowed out of the production just before it began. He was replaced by the sinister-looking German actor Anton Diffring, of the superior Circus of Horrors (1960) and often forces throughout his career to play a Nazi (most famously as in the wonderful Where Eagles Dare). Icy yet sympathetic, Bonnet is the same character type as Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein and is much an anti-hero as he is antagonist.

Perhaps surprisingly, Diffring’s Bonnet is put up against Christopher Lee as romantic hero Pierre Gerard. Lee is dashing, but also perhaps a little stiff and cold, though he makes a lovely pair with Hazel Court. I wish Lee had been cast in more of these roles and, to be honest, I wish he had been given a little more to do here. And that’s the main problem: even Diffring is limited by the script and would perhaps be more memorable if he had been allowed to descend into full blown hysterics. As it standards, there’s some memorable scenery chewing and a lot of dialogue-heavy scenes, but the film still jogs through its running time.

I can’t give The Man Who Could Cheat Death the highest recommendation, as it’s definitely an acquired taste and is not an ideal place to begin for the Hammer newbie. But I did really enjoy the film and anyone who likes subtle, Dorian Gray-influenced Gothic horror will probably feel the same way. Plus, you don’t want to miss an opportunity to see a particularly dashing young Christopher Lee. Certainly Peter Cushing’s inclusion would have bumped this up to minor classic status, but there’s still plenty about it to love. You can find it on DVD in the US or on Blu-ray from Eureka, as long as you live in the UK or have a region-free player.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957)

Val Guest, 1957
Starring: Forrest Tucker, Peter Cushing, Maureen Connell, Richard Watts

In the Himalayas, a group of scientists use a monastery as the base for their expeditions, including a botanist, Dr. John Rollason. A new team arrives — Dr. Tom Friend, along with a photographer, a trapper, and a guide — in order to find the legendary yeti. Rollason is determined to accompany them, but his wife Helen fears for his safety and hopes the local Lama will intercede on her behalf. It becomes clear that while Rollason has purely scientific interests, Friend wants to capture the beast and profit off of it. When the men become lost in the snow, Rollason’s wife stages an emergency rescue mission.

The Abominable Snowman, also known as The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas in the US, is one of Hammer’s earliest efforts — alongside The Curse of Frankenstein — and for some reason it’s pretty thoroughly neglected, probably because it’s not one of their Technicolor Gothic horror outings. In my opinion, it fits in in two places: first, as part of Hammer’s small series of sci-fi horror films like the Quatermass trilogy, which began with The Quatermass Experiment (1953). Some of these films were helmed by The Abominable Snowman’s director Val Guest. And like many of those, it was based on a television play made for the BBC — called The Creature — written by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, also responsible for the filmic script.

It also fits in with a small number of winter-themed sci-fi horror films made in the ‘50s: namely titles like sub-genre mainstay The Thing from Another World (1951) and lesser known British film The Trollenberg Terror (1958). While I love The Thing from Another World — and of course John Carpenter’s ‘80s remake, The Thing (1982) — but I also really have a soft spot for The Abominable Snowman. Like the much later series The X-Files, it’s a pleasing blend of science, sci-fi, monster movies, and captures the spirit of fear and wonder that went along with the exploratory fervor of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even as late as the early ‘50s, scientists and climbers claimed to find evidence of yeti prints. 

The creatures are a minimal presence within the film — thanks to Guest rather than Kneale — but the script uses them in a fascinating way. SPOILERS. The film suggests that when humans destroy each other, the peaceful, telepathic yetis will take humanity’s place as ruling bipeds on earth. The wonderfully ambiguous ending allows Rollason to remain as the only survivor of the disastrous yeti hunt expedition, but he claims to have no knowledge of the creatures, either because he has come to learn what the Lama already knows and is protecting them, or because he’s *cue suspenseful music* been brainwashed. They are terrifying precisely because they are able to telepathically control the members of the expedition, causing the men to hallucinate and having fatal accidents. 

There’s also a wonderful sense of atmosphere, with the film shot both in Bray Studios, Pinewood (to allow for more space), and the French Alps. Sometimes it’s clear where Guest and his team struggled to make the different sets work together, but I will take anything with mountains and snow. Hammer’s typically lush use of color is set aside in favor of some very effective black and white film, which occasionally gives The Abominable Snowman a vintage documentary feel. And despite the vast spaces, this has a Quatermass-like use of tension, claustrophobia, paranoia, and suspense — so much so that the film deserves a better reputation.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Like most ‘50s sci-fi, it has its issues. Some scenes are overly talky, while the acting is really nothing to write home about. American actor Forrest Tucker (Break in the Circle, The Trollenberg Terror) costars as the opportunistic Dr. Friend, but is just plain flat and unlikable alongside Peter Cushing in the great actor’s second starring role for Hammer after The Curse of Frankenstein. Though a bit more subdued than normal, Cushing is captivating and delightful, as always. He reprised his original role of Dr. Rollason in Knell’s teleplay along with actors Arnold Marlé (The Man Who Could Cheat Death) and Wolfe Morris (The House That Dripped Blood). One of Kneale’s biggest alterations from the teleplay version is that in the film, Rollason has a wife — apparently named Helen after Cushing’s own beloved wife, Violet Helene — who provides plenty of needed emotional weight.

The film comes recommended, providing you enjoy the sort of blend of sci-fi, horror, monster movie, and adventure film that The Abominable Snowman provides. Pick it up on DVD and revel in the glory that is Peter Cushing at the beginning of his career with Hammer. Give the script a chance to surprise you and revel in the windswept, alienating landscapes.