Wednesday, March 30, 2016

WOMAN IN THE MOON (1929) aka FRAU IM MOND

Fritz Lang, 1929
Starring: Klaus Pohl, Willy Fritsch, Gustav von Wangenheim, Gerda Maurus, Fritz Rasp

By 1929, director Fritz Lang was winding towards the end of his prolific period of silent filmmaking for UFA in the Weimar Republic. He had already explored a number of genres, including fantasy (Halbblut, Der müde Tod, and Die Nibelungen), adventure (Die Spinnen), romance (Harakiri, Das wandernde Bild), and crime thriller (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler). His most famous film from this period is undoubtedly Metropolis (1927), a science fiction epic that has overshadowed the much neglected Frau in Mond (1929), or Woman in the Moon. Kino Lorber recently rescued this gem from obscurity with a lovely high definition Blu-ray treatment coinciding with a similar release of Lang’s Spione (1928), aka Spies.

A man named Helius (the popular Willy Fritsch) is interested in traveling to space and contacts eccentric Professor Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl), who believes there is a reservoir of gold on the moon. Together, they develop plans for a rocket. Unfortunately Helius is competing with powerful, greedy businessmen, who want in on the trip and blackmail Helius into taking along their representative, an American named Walter Turner (Fritz Rasp, possibly the most prolific villain of 20th century German cinema). In addition to Helius, Mannfeldt, and Turner, the other travelers on the ship include Helius’s assistant Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his fiancee, Friede (Gerda Maurus), Helius’s second assistant with whom he is secretly in love.

One of the first serious science fiction films ever made, particularly in regards to its space travel themes, Woman in the Moon is every bit as strangely prescient as Metropolis, M, or Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films. Eerily, elements of the film — including the rocket launch sequence — are closer to news broadcasts of the ‘60s than to Georges Méliès’ early silent films like A Trip to the Moon (1902). Lang essentially invented the countdown (instead of counting up from “one”) that precedes a rocket launch and all manner of other scientific launches. These surprisingly accurate elements and great special effects keep the film fascinating nearly a century after its production.

An avid reader and researcher, Lang was fascinated by science and kept a collection of science fiction books and magazines throughout his life. For Woman in the Moon, he consulted with one of the fathers of modern rocket science, German physicist Hermann Oberth who was later an active participant in the Nazi space race and a mentor to V-2 rocket creator and infamous Nazi scientist Werner von Braun. Like Lang, Oberth came to science through a fascination with science fiction stories and actually designed the rocket that appears in the film, something that would ultimately help popularize rocket science in Nazi Germany. Oberth intended to build a functioning rocket to launch at the film’s premier (!), a plan that was sadly scrapped, though — in a bizarre case of life imitating art — the film’s logo was allegedly painted on the base of von Braun’s first successful V-2 rocket, launched in 1944.

Though Woman in the Moon was based on a novel, The Rocket to the Moon, by Fritz Lang’s wife and frequent screenwriter Thea von Harbou, it marks another important though brief collaboration, one with Croatian actress Gerda Maurus. Lang discovered her and cast her in her first role in Spionen, and the two began an affair that would lead to his divorce from von Harbou. Here Maurus plays Friede, Helius’s assistant (she’s described as a scientist, though it’s never overtly demonstrated) and unrequited love. Woman in the Moon’s romantic subplot is often criticized, though I would actually argue that the melodramatic plot does not bog down the science fiction elements, but elevates them and also humanizes the film. It’s hard to deny that this has one of the most romantic endings of any of Lang’s films and it’s possible that this was influenced by a director in love. When it becomes clear that only two people will be able to take the rocket back to Earth, Helius prepares to sacrifice himself and sends Friede and her fiancé, Windegger, back by themselves. At the last minute, he realizes she will remain with him on the moon and he runs towards her welcoming arms.

It’s hard to deny that the film has some flaws, namely a few elements that will seem campy or ridiculous to modern viewers, such as the idea of secret moon gold and scientists on the moon dressed as mountaineers. Any actual travel to the moon doesn’t occur until the second half of a very lengthy film — the running time is nearly three hours long — but it’s glorious and is well worth the wait. The film is effectively split into three acts: Helius’s plan to travel to the moon and Turner’s attempts to get control of the rocket, the construction of the rocket and space flight, and a suspenseful final section on the moon where everything is resolved. 

More restrained and personal than Metropolis, The Woman in the Moon is a bittersweet tale of discovery, love, and longing that deserves a wider audience and better reputation. Kino Lorber’s lovely looking new Blu-ray will hopefully help with that. In addition to a digitally restored print, special features include the 15-minute segment, “The First Scientific Science Fiction Film,” which explores the research behind the film and Oberth’s influence.

THE SKULL (1965)

Freddie Francis, 1965
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Jill Bennett, Patrick Wymark, Patrick Magee, Nigel Green, Michael Gough

After a scientist robs the grave of the Marquis de Sade and steals the writer’s skull, he hurries home to clean it — all while a frilly violet nightgown-clad strumpet eats marshmallows in his bed — but meets a sudden, unexpected death. Years in the future, in present day London, an occult writer, Christopher Maitland, comes across the skull for sale from a disreputable dealer. It seems the skull was actually stolen from Maitland’s friend Sir Philips, another collector. To Maitland’s surprise, Phillips is eager to get rid of it because of its allegedly sinister powers. Ignoring his warning, Maitland cannot resist the temptation of having the skull in his possession.

I am either the best or worst person to review a film that has anything to do with the Marquis de Sade. I read The 120 Days of Sodom when I was around 13 — so yes, while going through puberty — and I have a pretty extensive collection of books by or about him at eye-level with my bed. I also have his family crest tattooed on my leg. (Gentlemen, you’ve been warned.) But The Skull has a tenuous connection to the Marquis’s life or writings outside of the fact that the central object — something of a MacGuffin — is his skull. It actually bears a fair amount in common with a story from Sade’s almost-contemporary and another writer I really enjoy, Maupassant, and his story “Le Horla,” about a supernatural entity that drives a man insane.

Amicus abandoned the anthology format of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors for their second film, The Skull (1965), which is based on Robert Bloch’s short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Though like “La Horla,” events are far more supernatural than in Bloch’s telling. With a script written by Amicus co-head Milton Subotsky himself, it’s based on the factual story of how the Marquis’s skull actually went missing not long after his burial; the film actually name drops Havelock Ellis (“Love and Pain,” which they quote, is a real chapter from his book Analysis of the Sexual Impulse), one of my favorite writers on sex and psychology, to tell this story. In other words, The Skull seems tailor made for me, so if you're looked for something approximating an unbiased review, this is not the place to find it.

After Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Amicus was luckily enough to get Hammer stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to return for this film — along with greats like Patrick Magee (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne), Patrick Wymark (Repulsion), Nigel Green (The Masque of the Red Death), and Michael Gough — and it’s definitely strengthened by some great performances. If you want to see a youngish Peter Cushing go totally mad, then the film’s last 20 or so minutes is for you. And Lee and Cushing’s chemistry is so great — in everything, not just here, but it’s nice to see them outside the roles Hammer typecast them in — that for some reason I could watch the early scene of Lee outbidding Cushing at an occult auction all day, or a later scene of them playing billiards together.

The film’s somewhat flimsy premise is that the Marquis de Sade was “possessed by an evil spirit,” one that still lingers around his skull. On certain nights of the moon, it is used BY EVIL SPIRITS to inspire men to violence. I wish I was making this up. Admittedly, the script feels a little padded at times, though apparently it was neutered by the censors and was intended to be a bit explicit, both in terms of sex and gore. There are some lovely scenes, such as a moment about halfway through where, while reading about de Sade, Maitland falls asleep and is swept into a chilling, Kafkaesque dream sequence with some of the film’s best visuals, where men charge into his amazing looking study (that I want to live in) and take him to an undisclosed location on mysterious charges. Here he is forced to take part in a game of Russian roulette. 

Though Freddie Francis excelled as a cinematographer in his own right (The Elephant Man is proof enough of this), this is some of his best work as a director. Along with the help of cinematographer John Wilcox (The Evil of Frankenstein, The Psychopath), The Skull is full of delightfully odd angles and an almost Bava-like lushness to the color scheme. The score — from one of genre cinema’s few female composers, Elisabeth Lutyens — might be my favorite from any Amicus film, though she was also responsible for Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Psychopath, and the great Hammer suspense film, Paranoiac

The Skull comes very highly recommended and I would honestly say that this should be your first Amicus film if you’re new to the studio. This would make a great double feature with the Vincent Price film Diary of a Madman, which is actually based on “La Horla” and has a similarly vivid color palette and concluding sequence where the protagonist goes stark raving mad. You can pick it up on DVD in the US or on Blu-ray in the UK from Eureka. And if anyone knows where to get copies of the wonderful statues of Lucifer and his minions from the beginning of the film that occasionally reappear, I want — nay, need — them.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Daughters of Darkness: Episode 2

The second episode of the podcast I'm co-hosting is now up!

From the Diabolique site:


"In the second episode of Daughters of Darkness, Kat and Samm continue their three-part discussion of lesbian vampire films, this time with a focus on European cult directors like Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and Walerian Borowczyk. They begin their discussion with the career of the prolific Jess Franco, who produced a number of films with lesbian vampire themes, namely Vampyros Lesbos (1971). This starred his first muse, Soledad Miranda, as the mysterious Countess Carody, who sunbathes by day but thirsts for blood at night. Franco also adapted Bram Stoker’s novel with the relatively traditional Count Dracula (1970), but continued to explore his own perverse variations on vampire mythology in Dracula’s Daughter (1972) and the explicit Female Vampire (1975), with his longtime partner Lina Romay.
Also explored is the work of French director Jean Rollin, known for his dreamlike, often surreal vampire films such as The Rape of the Vampire (1968), The Nude Vampire(1970), The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), and Requiem for a Vampire (1973). While these films infrequently use overt depictions of lesbianism, they are generally concerned with pairs or groups of female vampires banded together against the world. In films like Fascination (1979), about blood-drinking socialites, and The Living Dead Girl (1982), the tragic tale of a love that survives beyond death, Rollin expanded on his early themes.
The episode concludes with a discussion of a few films that touch upon the legend of historical murderer and alleged blood-drinker Elizabeth Bathory. Most importantly is Belgian film Daughters of Darkness (1971), the podcast’s namesake, which follows a newly married couple who encounter an elegant and possibly ageless woman at a seaside hotel."Find the episode here.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS

Freddie Francis, 1965
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Max Adrian, Peter Madden, Donald Sutherland

On a train departing London, five men in a carriage are joined by an unwelcome additional traveler, a man who introduces himself as Dr. Schreck and offers to read their fortunes with his Tarot cards. Each reading is presented as a separate story, beginning with “Werewolf,” where an architect working on an isolated country home attempts to save a widow from a lycanthropic beast. In “Creeping Vine,” a relentlessly growing plant terrorizes a small family, and in “Voodoo” a musician borrows a song he hears while visiting the West Indies, unaware of its power. “Disembodied Hand” follows a rude art critic who ruins the life of a struggling painter, while “Vampire” is focused on a newly married man who realizes that his adorable French wife might be a vampire.

Amicus Productions’ first anthology film — inspired by the early British horror classic Dead of Night (1945) — ushered in a wave of fun, campy horror films that were among my favorites growing up. Much like The Addams Family and Halloween specials, they generally celebrate horror tropes and spooky themes rather than eliciting any actual terror and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is firmly in that camp. While Hammer had its dream team of director Terence Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster, and stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, Amicus had its version of the same: writer/producer and Amicus head Milton Subotsky, director Freddie Francis, and star Peter Cushing, the latter of whom was in all but one of the studio’s anthology films.

Amicus certainly had a corner on the portmanteau market, at least as far as genre cinema was concerned, and the success of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors allowed them to follow it up with titles like Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Asylum (1972), Tales from the Crypt (1972), The Vault of Horror (1973) and From Beyond the Grave (1974). A number of its characteristics would become staples. First and foremost, the film is fun and colorful with an overtly tongue-in-cheek approach that involves a twist in nearly every story and a comical ending. Secondly, there’s the use of a framing device — in this case a spooky “doctor” reads Tarot cards for reluctant train passengers — which begins and ends the film. Overall, this is actually the most entertaining part of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, simply because Peter Cushing is so delightful in the title role. It’s obvious that he was having a great time with the part.

The third element is the use of horror tropes — seemingly as many as they could fit into one film — and this features monsters like werewolves and vampires, a killer plant that develops its own alien intelligence, a revenge plot that features a disembodied hand, and a white man’s foolish misuse of voodoo. The fourth characteristic is that there are cameos from recognizable actors, in this case from two genre stars and one mainstream actor. Christopher Lee and Michael Gough face off in what is definitely the best story in the anthology, “Disembodied Hand,” where Lee is wonderfully over the top as the world’s most disdainful art critic. 

In the final segment, “Vampire,” a young Donald Sutherland is an innocent newlywed and small-town doctor who doesn’t want to believe his wife is a vampire, but Ken Russell’s regular Max Adrian (The Devils, The Boy Friend) gets the best of him. SPOILERS: It was Adrian’s character, a Van Helsing-like doctor, who helped Sutherland realize his wife is the vampire. But then Adrian tuns Sutherland over to the police, because he didn’t want the competition from another doctor or from another vampire. Finally, the last staple of this subgenre worth mentioning is the use of a conclusion with a twist. (SPOILERS, kind of) In this case, the twist is one used the most frequently in these anthology films, where all the characters come to find out that they’re really dead and have been taking a train to the underworld. 

Anyone who dislikes tongue-in-cheek humor or camp with their horror will want to avoid this film (and probably all of Amicus’s anthologies), but it comes recommended to everyone else. It’s at least worth watching for the Christopher Lee and Michael Gough sequence, and I’m honestly not sure who would take home the award for bitchiest scenery chewing. Pick it up on Blu-ray, though keep in mind you’ll need a UK or all-region player for this release.

THE DEVIL (1972)

This is the second entry in a four part series on director Andrzej Żuławski’s recently restored early Polish films — Trzecia częśc nocy (1971) aka The Third Part of the Night, Diabel (1972) aka The Devil, and Na srebrnym globie (1988) aka On the Silver Globe — which I recently had the pleasure to see at the Lincoln Center in New York. The series will conclude with an interview with the retrospective’s co-curator, writer and Żuławski collaborator Daniel Bird.

Żuławski’s second feature film, The Devil, is set during the invasion of the Prussian army in 1793. Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski of The Third Part of the Night), an alleged traitor, is rescued from a squalid prison by a mysterious, black-clad man (Andrzej Wajda regular Wojciech Pszoniak), in exchange for a list of his collaborators. A nun (Monika Niemczyk) accompanies him on a chaotic journey home, which is marked by political turmoil and the aftermath of a violent battle, and he discovers the complete dissolution of the family he left behind. He is goaded to the brink of insanity by the stranger in black, which leads him to commit acts of horrific, often random violence.

On the surface, The Devil has much in common with Żuławski’s debut, The Third Part of the Night, in the sense that both films are set during historical periods of Germanic occupation and both depict an apocalyptic descent into a hellish terrain. But The Devil is worlds away from The Third Part of the Night’s more subdued, deeply personal sense of dread, and Żuławski himself compared it to the frenetic energy of his later film, L’amour braque (1985). While I would argue that there is nothing quite like The Devil in Żuławski’s catalog, excepting perhaps moments of On the Silver Globe, it does contain many of his central themes: a tormented male protagonist, a tragic if not openly destructive love triangle, hysterical women, moments of jarring violence, and unexpected gallows humor — including one scene literally at a grave side — here in the form of the stranger in black.
If Possession, his most famous film, is a masterful exercise in heartbreak and emotional torment, The Devil is a masterpiece of oppression and anger. Żuławski’s frenzied script is further enhanced by dizzying, restless cinematography from Żuławski’s life-long collaborator, Andrzej Jaroszewicz, which captures the Polish countryside in a largely black and blue color palette. The sense of anxiety is heightened by an anachronistic, prog-influenced soundtrack from Żuławski’s regular composer Andrzej Korzynski.

The Devil was banned in Poland, thanks to its themes of political dissent, and it is easy to read the 19th century setting as a thinly veiled metaphor for contemporary Polish turmoil. The 19th century was a period of intense political competition marked by vigorous wars of succession. The French and American revolutions were countered by absolute monarchies in Prussia, Russia, and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Poland was then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a relatively democratic government situated directly in the midst of warring neighbors, and Poland dealt with regular assaults from Sweden, Russia, Austria, France, and Prussia, among others. 
These conflicts — along with attempts at government reform that resulted in one of the first constitutional monarchies in European history — led to united attacks from Russia and Prussia. This ultimately resulted in the partitioning of Poland, which began in the 1770s when Russia, Prussia, and Austria claimed they were acting in Poland’s best interests. By the Second Partition of the Commonwealth in 1793, the country was left little more than a Russian protectorate, stripped of territory, citizens, and political and financial independence, a situation that would not change for more than a century.

While this is the backdrop of The Devil, the real threats in the film come from inside Poland, from greed, misplaced patriotism, blackmail, opportunism, and widespread corruption. It’s easy to see this as a direct response to current events in Władysław Gomułka’s communist Polish People’s Republic. Despite a somewhat relaxed early reputation and a series of reforms in the late ‘50s, Gomułka soon cracked down on freedom of expression, particularly tightening his grip on art, media, and academia. Intellectuals bitterly criticized his newfound authoritarianism with acts like a petition known as the “Letter of the 34,” delivered in 1964, and many of the younger, more reform-minded members of the Party were coerced out. Historian and philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, himself forced to emigrate, wrote, “political slavery is built into the tissue of society in the Communist countries as its absolute condition of life.”

These tribulations of the mid ‘60s, combined with persistent economic decline, led to the infamous events of March 1968, a year marked by primarily student and worker-led unrest in countries like France, Italy, Yugoslavia, and, most dramatically in Czechoslovakia with the Prague Spring. Student protests in Poland began after 19th century Romantic writer Adam Mickiewicz’s play Dizady (1824) was banned by the authorities for being anti-Soviet. 

In his Poland Under Communism: A Cold War History, Anthony Kemp-Welch writes, “Mickiewicz’s classical drama Dziady (Forefathers) was put on at Warsaw’s National Theatre to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Although the play had been required reading in Polish schools at least since independence was regained in 1918 and had been performed regularly during the communist period, it is not clear why its subject, Poland’s struggle for freedom under the Russian partition, was thought suitable by the theatrical censorship” (148). The Devil, then, bears something in common with Dziady in the sense that both are concerned with the years of partition and Prussian/Russian dominance. Like other works in the Romantic tradition, Dziady has Gothic sensibilities and mild themes of paganism and the occult, and, like many of Żuławski’s films, is ultimately a tale of tormented love.

General Mieczysław Moczar, Minister of the Interior, used these demonstrations in defense of Dziady as an excuse to begin a largely anti-Semitic, but also anti-intellectual attack which forced thousands to emigrate from the country, seriously depleting a Jewish population that had nearly been wiped out two decades earlier. The protests continued in 1970 and 1971 with events like the Gdańsk shipyard riots, a chaotic scene straight out of The Devil. Kemp-Welch writes, “About 10,000 people went on the rampage. Looting took place, particularly of luxury items such as furs. Symbols of privilege and status, such as cars parked in front of the Hotel Monopol, were set on fire. Twenty militiamen were hospitalized, five with serious injuries. No figures for civilian casualties were recorded. The militia announced 16 arrests ‘for vandalism and petty theft’. This figure was rightly disbelieved. Secret reports to Warsaw reported 330 arrests” (183). It later came to light that in these riots close to 50 people were killed, more than 1,000 were wounded, and more than 3,000 arrested.

It is perhaps no wonder then that with the treatment faced by Dziady and the harsh crack down on censorship, that The Devil was rapidly banned and Żuławski was forced to relocate to France. Censorship was all consuming and nearly anything could become a target. Kołakowski wrote, “We have reached the shameful situation in which the world drama from Aeschylus through Shakespeare to Ionesco, has become a catalogue of allusions to current Poland.” Notably, this is Żuławski’s first use of classical literature within one of his films, something that would reemerge throughout his career. While a theatrical troupe performs Hamlet in The Devil, L’important chest d’aimer involves a staging of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a central plot piece, Chekov’s The Seagull figures into L’amour braque (itself inspired by Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot), and Le femme publique is centered on a filmic adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. 

Just as Hamlet complains that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and finds his father murdered and his uncle polluting both the throne and marital bed, Jakub also finds his world turned completely upside down, particularly his domestic life. The natural order of things is fundamentally disturbed: his father has committed suicide (though Jakub seems to suspect foul play) after committing incest with Jakub’s sister, a suspicious new half-brother has emerged on the scene, and he learns his mother is not only a prostitute, but an enthusiastic madam. Like Ophelia, Jakub’s love (Żuławski’s then wife Małgorzata Braunek) goes mad; she realizes she has been falsely convinced of Jakub’s death and talked into marrying his best friend, who has impregnated her. And like Hamlet’s alleged friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Jakub’s best friend betrays him in exchange for perceived political power.

Żuławski undoubtedly knew that Hamlet has traditionally been read as a play with strong themes of political dissent. In Shakespeare, Dissent and the Cold War, A. Thomas writes, “the play encodes hidden references to the fate of persecuted Catholics in Elizabethan England. The theme of madness (both real and feigned) corresponds to the official perception of recusants as ‘fools’ who had to be locked away as a dangerous threat to society. Similarly, in Stalin’s Russia, dissidents were often declared insane and were incarcerated in mental asylums.” The prison in the opening of The Devil looks far more like a madhouse and insanity is an obvious theme of the film. I’ve read comparisons between it and the madness and hysteria in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), made just a year before, and though the latter is a favorite of mine, The Devil makes The Devils look like an exercise in coherency and restraint. 

Hamlet’s themes of political dissent, surveillance, revenge, and murder — and the central struggle of a young man against a corrupt tyrant — are stretched to their utmost limits. Żuławski implies that madness and the ensuing violence is not only a consequence of war, but also of tyranny. In Kołakowski’s seminal 1971 essay, Theses on Hope and Despair, he wrote, “Despotic forms of government necessarily produce the need for permanent, or at least periodic, aggression. In default of an external war, various forms of internal aggression, aimed at maintaining a constant state of menace and building up the psychosis of a beleaguered fortress — even if this is in favor of the most artificial processes and against the most chimerical enemies — fulfill similar functions.”

The Devil frenetically follows Jakub as he becomes a symbol of this internal aggression. He is reduced to an animalistic state and succumbs to all impulses, even seducing his own mother. Elements of abjection and horror emerge when he becomes a murderer, provoked by the man in black, who frequently drives him to a psychological breaking point and then puts a razor in his hand. Sexually explicit and quite gory, The Devil depicts a country broken out in chaos, where random killings morph into mass slaughter. But this is not merely a straightforward tale of political dissent and casual violence: Żuławski’s use of the absurd and the surreal sometimes bears comparing to the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jakub struggles with a midget in livery playing what I think is a Jew’s harp, he is pressured to join a traveling theatrical troupe, has adventures in an old chateau transformed into a brothel, and wanders into an orgy in a ballroom.


Like The Third Part of the Night, this film is perhaps difficult to pin down not only because of its abstruse narrative, but because it rejects all moral absolutes. While Hamlet can perhaps be seen as an anti-hero, Jakub is barely a coherent protagonist and the man in black, possibly the titular “Devil,” is not an obvious villain. Though he is ultimately castrated for his troubles, there is no sense that good has triumphed over evil: the films ends with the implication that the nun will take over his diabolical work.

Originally written for Diabolique.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Supporting Characters Podcast: Episode 2

Bill Ackerman was kind enough to have me as a guest on Supporting Characters, a new podcast devoted to film culture, where Bill interviews, in his words, "various writers, podcasters, fanzine publishers, programmers, preservationists and more about creative endeavors and film culture."

I'm not really used to talking about myself in a public forum, but we touch upon most aspects of my film writing career, including everything from Suncoast video and Philly cult film culture to my zines and old websites, Satanic Pandemonium, the new podcast that I'm co-hosting, Daughters of Darkness, and Come and See, the book on WWII and cult cinema that I'm almost finished writing. There's lots of intentional and unintentional humor, as well as an account of my René Cardona Jr-inspired death wish.

Download or listen here!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

THE CITY OF THE DEAD aka HORROR HOTEL

John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960
Starring: Christopher Lee, Venetia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis, Betta St. John

"I have made my pact with thee O Lucifer! Hear me, hear me! I will do thy bidding for all eternity. For all eternity shall I practice the ritual of Black Mass. For all eternity shall I sacrifice unto thee. I give thee my soul, take me into thy service."

Nan Barlow, an eager college student, takes her professor’s advice and goes to the remote New England town of Whitewood to do some research on the area’s legendary occult history. But an infamous witch, who was burned at the stake in the 17th century, seems to have returned to resume her diabolical ways. She and the rest of local satanic cult — which involves most of the town — need to find a virgin to sacrifice annually, and with Nan’s arrival, they seem to be in luck.

Basically Black Sunday (1960) meets Psycho (1960) by way of the British Isles, I can’t understand why City of the Dead is so under-appreciated. Though this isn’t technically an Amicus production, it’s the first film produced by American expats Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky just before they formed Amicus together, the latter of whom also wrote the story, so I’m counting this as the beginning of my exploration of Amicus’s horror films — despite the fact that it was produced by Vulcan (I name I will steal if I ever start my own production company one day) and distributed by British Lion, who produced a number of more obscure British horror films. Amicus primarily made anthology films, the majority of which were also written by Subotsky, and this is probably their strongest film with a standalone narrative.

Released in the US as Horror Hotel — probably the dumbest title I could think of for this moody, surprisingly doom-laden film — neither of its titles really do justice to this gem. For years, I believed it was actually an American film, because it has a New England setting and the majority of the actors were forced to speak with an American accent, despite the majority of them being English. But it is definitely a British film — though it looks far more similar to one of Val Lewton’s ‘40s horror films than it does like anything produced by Hammer — and features a great cameo from Christopher Lee, his first in a Satanic horror film. 

Lee plays the silky, ultimately slimy Alan Driscoll, whose uses his charm to send Nan right into the arms of the satanic citizens of Whitewood. This is a great case of what happens when you just take your passion for research too far and you can be sure that this would happen to me (I have a mania for over-researching things) if I had a professor remotely like Sir Lee. Patricia Jessel (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) is particularly memorable as the domineering Elizabeth Selwyn, but the film is packed with menacing side characters, like a paranoid priest (Norman Macowan of X the Unknown), who is apparently the lone participant of local church service. In this way it’s similar to one of my favorite Vincent Price movies, The Haunted Palace, which has a more colorful but similarly eerie sense of small-town atmosphere. The cult members in dark robes are reminiscent of earlier scenes in The Black Cat (1934) and The Leopard Man (1943), and, like those films and Black Sunday, this vision of New England is set bound, allowing for some wonderfully atmospheric moments that pretty accurately represent the stuff of my childhood dreams/nightmares. Either Whitewood is soaked in impenetrable, Mordor-like gloom or all the shots coincidentally take place at night. I’m still upset that downtown Boston in no way resembles Whitewhood.

It’s actually unfair to describe The City of the Dead as a rip off of either Black Sunday or Psycho, as all three films came out in the same year. Both The City of the Dead and Psycho were released in September of 1960, so it’s nearly impossible that Rosenberg and Subotsky, or capable director John Llewellyn Moxey (Circus of Fear, The Night Stalker) had any previous knowledge of Psycho’s similar plot structure, where a female protagonist in a strange town is killed halfway through the film. New protagonists — Nan’s vaguely controlling brother and boyfriend in this case — arrive in town to search for her. Also keep an eye out for the desiccated corpse revealed at the end of the film. Even more so than the sympathetic but obviously immoral Marion Crane’s death in Psycho, the sweet Nan’s murder comes as a total shock, particularly because the film seems benign in a particularly dated sort of way before this. And Bava’s Black Sunday was released in August of 1960 in Italy, so it’s equally unlikely that its opening sequence — where a defiant witch is also burned at the stake by paranoid townsfolk — had any direct influence on The City of the Dead. Perhaps it’s all just a happy coincidence and the horror genre was just bursting with new themes after a decade of relative stagnation.

The City of the Dead obviously comes highly recommended and you should immediately track it down. There are a lot of garbage, bargain basement DVD releases, so keep an eye out for the VCI Entertainment Blu-ray. It deserves to be in a Blu-ray box set of pristinely restored Satanic horror films, but I’m not going to hold my breath for that one. At the least, it’s easy to get caught up in the film’s cinematography from Desmond Dickinson, who was responsible for everything from Hamlet (1948), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), and a number of lesser seen British horror films like Incense for the Damned (1970). 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING

Peter Collinson, 1972
Starring: Rita Tushingham, Shane Briant

After lying to her mother about a nonexistent pregnancy, the young, lonely Brenda leaves her home in Liverpool and sets off for London. She finds a job and rents a room from a coworker, but what she’s really looking for is a man to love her. She comes across the beautiful Peter and kidnaps his mangy dog, later returning it — bathed and and prettied up — pretending this was an act of kindness. But Peter sees right through her, forcing her to admit that she wants a child with him, even though he’s a complete stranger. To her surprise, he allows her to move in if she’ll keep the house clean and look after for him, but little does she know, Peter has a dark secret.

Probably the farthest Hammer wandered from their Gothic films while remaining firmly within the horror genre, this late period effort contains elements of some of the studio’s post-Freudian thrillers like Hands of the Ripper and Demons of the Mind, but this is also the Hammer films that comes the closest to the British social realism popularized by films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Morbid and hopeless, there is nothing quite this in all of Hammer’s output, even in terms of the film’s style and visual themes. Though it is set in ‘70s London, this is a very different city than the one depicted in Dracula A.D. 1972 or The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

This is also one of Hammer’s few films to focus on a serial killer. Though there are a few murders, Straight on Till Morning utterly lacks graphic violence or gore, but still manages to be chilling. Though it gets off to a slow start, things kick off around the half hour mark when it becomes clear that Peter has homicidal feelings for anyone — or anything — that could be described as beautiful. He brutally murders his pet dog after Brenda puts bows in its hair and is seen, via numerous flashbacks, killing his paramours with a box cutter. Peter tape records his crimes and replays the screams of victims, recalling both Peeping Tom (1960) and the recorded voices of children in another Hammer suspense film, Fear in the Night (1972). And like the latter film, the central characters are clearly insane, or at best, disturbed.

I have to admit, I’m definitely the target audience for Straight on Till Morning’s major themes. I have a real weakness for these sort of psychotic romances — and there are a number of sweetly romantic moments, as well as some teary melodrama — and I also love handsome young psycho films, as exemplified by films like Psycho (1960) and more specifically British films like Night Must Fall (1964), The Collector (1965), I Start Counting (1970), And Soon the Darkness (1970), and The Night Digger (1971) — coincidentally all of which I’m reviewing for my British horror series. This would also make an interesting double feature with films like Bad Ronald (1974) and The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane (1976), as there are numerous fairytale elements. Brenda, soon to be renamed Wendy, where she pretends she is a princess and writes children’s stories. Peter, is named after and identifies with Peter Pan; the title is even a quote from Barry’s novel.


Straight on Till Morning comes with a very high recommendation, particularly for anyone skeptical about Hammer’s output. Though it is a slow burn, the concluding ten minutes are absolutely devastating, despite a lack of overt violence. This is thanks to some great sound design, as well as unusual editing. The assured direction is from Peter Collinson (The Italian Job), a minor figure in British horror who helmed a few remakes — such as And Then There Were None (1974) and The Spiral Staircase (1975) — as well as Fright (1971). I should also mention the two leads, who almost completely carry the film and are fantastic. Shane Briant  was one of Hammer’s last male stars, appearing in everything from Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell to Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. This was his first leading role and it’s definitely one of his best. Rita Tushingham (A Taste of Honey) is admittedly not one of my favorite actresses, but excels at these sort of Plain Jane roles in a way that is completely believable despite her character’s often implausible actions. For a taste of misogyny and nihilism that was rare for Hammer, pick it up on DVD.

Friday, March 18, 2016

FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972)

Jimmy Sangster, 1972
Starring: Judy Geeson, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing

Robert, a school teacher in the English countryside, has just married an innocent young woman named Peggy. She relocates to the boys’ boarding school where he works, but has an uneasy transition: she’s recently recovered from some sort of psychological collapse and is convinced that an unseen man is attacking her. Because of her mental health, no one believes her, though the attacks continue at the school. When Robert goes away for a conference, she’s left alone with just the creepy headmaster and his beautiful, but cold wife, and someone seems to be trying to drive her completely mad.

Written, directed, and produced by Jimmy Sangster, this was originally supposed to be made in the mid ‘60s as part of Sangster’s black and white suspense series for Hammer but was (fortunately, in my opinion) delayed to the early ‘70s. Sangster will certainly never be remembered as the studio’s strongest director — though he was definitely their best writer — and he only stepped into the director’s chair for three films: The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Fear in the Night. Sadly, The Horror of Frankenstein is widely regarded as one of the worst in Hammer’s Frankenstein series — probably due to the fact that it’s essentially a black comedy and is the only film not to feature Peter Cushing — while Lust for a Vampire suffered a similar fate. I have to admit that I really enjoy both films, though this is largely due to the presence of later-era Hammer star Ralph Bates.

SPOILERS AHEAD: Here Bates co-stars as Robert, Peggy’s doting new husband. Admittedly, I prefer Bates when he’s allowed to be campy and over the top — he’s sort of a more handsome precursor to someone like Jeffrey Combs — as he is in films like the fantastic Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. But part of the strength of his performance is that he has to show restraint for the first 70 minutes of the film. In a sense, if you’ve seen one Sangster suspense film, you’ve seen them all, but that curiously doesn’t take away from the ability to enjoy them. Yes, this is yet another script about a psychologically fragile woman who is left alone with someone trying to drive her mad. Yes, it is also a film where the person she trusts most double-crosses her and has been withholding a secret motivation: her husband is having an affair with Molly, the headmaster’s wife, and the two have conspired to drive Peggy to murder Carmichael, so they can get away with his money.

Peter Cushing is sparsely used as Headmaster Carmichael, but is as fantastic as ever and makes the most of his totally bananas character — though it could be said that what makes the film great is the fact that it essentially pits four totally bananas characters against each other. Of course you have the obviously disturbed Peggy, played by Judy Greeson, (10 Rillington Place, Goodbye Gemini) who should annoy me but somehow is perfect for the film. Everyone makes a huge deal about how beautiful she is and even though she’s a grown woman (allegedly her character is 22), it feels like they’re all hitting on a 14 year old. It also becomes quickly apparent that Carmichael is off his rocker when he proudly displays a room full of nooses and knots; tying and untying them is apparently his passion and he makes quite a meal out of taking a scarf from around Peggy’s hair in an effectively uncomfortable scene.

The film’s real twist — which I am going to ruin right now, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know about it — is that Carmichael was the headmaster of a school, which burned down years ago. He used his considerable wealth to restore it, has hired Robert as a fake teacher, and maintains the illusion that he runs a packed school. He even plays recordings of his old classes over the loudspeakers, so the school is full of the sounds of children. I wish I was making that up, but it’s genius and, as I said earlier, fucking bananas. And you also have to consider the two “sane” characters, Robert and Carmichael’s wife Molly (Joan Collins, who is just as bitchy as ever). Robert seems normal enough, but, with a completely straight face, refers to Peggy as “the most normal person I’ve ever met.” Though he seems to find violence personally distasteful, he seems unfazed by the fact that Molly is an obvious sadist and makes disturbing sculptures in her spare time.

I could probably go on forever about my love for this film, so needless to say it comes highly recommended and is thankfully available on DVD — though you have to be a little patient with it. One one hand, the plot is easy to figure out, but it’s still full of surprises and is one of my favorite later era Hammer films thanks to a really strong cast and great performances all around. There’s no gore, no nudity, and very little violence, but if you can stick with the central mystery, Fear in the Night is more than worth it for the last ten minutes, when Peter Cushing’s unhinged headmaster has the last laugh and Ralph Bates has a total meltdown while screaming “you mad bastard!” I was also relieved to find a delightfully dark ending that manages to be redemptive — both the schemers wind up hoisted on their own petards, as it were — but with nothing really resolved, as Peggy and Michael are both left totally mad

THE THIRD PART OF THE NIGHT (1971)

This February — coincidentally just a few days after his passing — the Lincoln Center in New York was home to a celebration of director Andrzej Żuławski’s recently restored early Polish films: Trzecia częśc nocy (1971) aka The Third Part of the Night, Diabel (1972) aka The Devil, and Na srebrnym globie (1988) aka On the Silver Globe. While I already wrote a fond, somewhat sentimental farewell to Żuławski a few weeks ago, I’ll probably never be ready to stop thinking or writing about his legacy. This is the first in a four part series on Żuławski’s early Polish films, which will conclude with an interview with writer and Żuławski collaborator Daniel Bird.

Żuławski’s debut feature, The Third Part of the Night, is a depiction of madness and violence set during WWII and the Nazi occupation of Poland. In a rural village, German soldiers murder the immediate family of Michał (Leszek Teleszynski, in his film debut, though he would return for Żuławski’s follow up, The Devil), who survives by hiding in the forest with his father (Jerzy Golinski). He plans to join the Resistance, but he is found out by the Gestapo, who chase him into an apartment building. A pregnant woman (Żuławski’s first wife, Małgorzata Braunek) — who looks exactly like his dead wife — agrees to hide him, while he helps her deliver her baby. He finds a job in a typhus lab, feeding disease-spreading lice with his own blood. He learns that the pregnant woman’s husband, who has been mistaken for him by the Gestapo, has been arrested and tortured. Even though he has fallen in love with the woman, he realizes he must do something to intervene.

On one hand, this eerie, terrifying film is undeniably effective as a parable of wartime violence, invasion, and genocide. On the other hand, WWII narratives became common fare in Eastern European cinema, often used as a stand-in for protests of the equal horrors of Soviet rule. Generally speaking, Soviet WWII-themed films were expected to have a degree of realism mixed with nationalist optimism. The Third Part of the Night is notably anything but and the young Żuławski’s film has more than a little in common with the absurdist literary tradition so entrenched in Eastern European culture. In The Most Important Art: Soviet and Eastern European Film After 1945, Antonin and Mira Liehm write that Żuławski “used expressionism and a wealth of naturalistic detail, stressing the overall atmosphere rather than the plot. His world, where the instinct of self-preservation makes man give his very blood to the lice, has all the attributes of the absurd, as it is known in the Polish literature of Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, Mrożek, and Witkiewicz. The story ends with madness and death” (378).

Here the notion of the absurd is taken to its most chaotic end. The film is grotesque body horror in anticipation of the genre, an apocalyptic time warp that introduces the sense of hysteria and disorientation that would reappear in the majority of the director’s films. Marta, the female protagonist, describes their existence as “sinking into a world where all things have become alike.” This is Żuławski’s own brand of absurdism, where he follows few of the genre’s established norms — such as the dizzying use of doubles throughout the film — and replaces comedy and satire with horror and abjection.

Absurdist literature played an important, but unstable role in Polish culture, as the communist government banned certain authors and then later relaxed censorship (at least compared to other Soviet states). Harold B. Segel explained, “The impressive interwar Polish avant-garde exemplified by such writers as Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), who committed suicide in 1939 shortly after the German invasion, and Witold Gombrowicz, who was in South America when hostilities erupted and spent the war years in Argentina, was put under a strict ban by the communists… When the situation changed in the 1960s, younger Polish writers who had grown up in ignorance of this legacy embraced it with the fervor of zealots” (The Columbia Guide to the Literatures of Eastern Europe Since 1945, 17). Żuławski was undeniably influenced by this generation of writers, particularly Gombrowicz; in fact his final film, Cosmos (2015), is an adaptation of one of the latter’s novels.

Like fellow Poles Roman Polanski, Walerian Borowczyk, and Jerzy Skolimowski, Żuławski’s work has more of an international than strictly Polish flavor, perhaps thanks to the fact that all four directors uprooted from Poland in the ‘60s or ‘70s and pursued work in France, England, and the US. Similarly, Gombrowicz happened to take a trip to Argentina in 1939, just before war broke out, so he was stranded in South America for its duration (which likely saved his life). The rejection of traditional Polish culture that informs his work can also be felt in Żuławski’s films and it’s no wonder that his follow up to The Third Part of the Night, The Devil — about the 18th century Prussian invasion of Poland — was banned in his home country.

Like The Devil, which was made the following year, The Third Part of the Night uses the themes of war and invasion primarily as a complex backdrop, which adds a rich sense of atmosphere, emotional chaos, and complex political themes. In Film Comment, Michael Atkinson described the film as, “a wrenching nightmare about the Nazi occupation that is virtually divested of historical markers, instead focusing, in the director’s particular manner, on paranoid panic and Theater of Cruelty catharsis… The movie’s context is so abstracted and soaked with queasiness, so crowded with doppelgängers, raving lunacy, sudden corpses, secret signals, and intimations of plague, that the upshot is baldly Kafkaesque.”

The film also blends themes of biology — lice, typhus, the spread of disease, and attempts at immunization — with apocalyptic themes. The presence of the Book of Revelations looms large, giving the film its title, and the dialogue is peppered with quotes like, “And the third angel sounded the trumpet and a great star fell from heaven burning as it were a torch and it fell on the third part of the rivers and upon the fountains of waters. And the third part of the waters became wormwood. And many men died of the waters because they became bitter.”

But this apocalypse is personal, even romantic, rather than spiritual or religious. Like many of Żuławski’s later films, The Third Part of the Night is concerned with the breakdown of a romantic relationship and the corrosive nature of a love triangle, as expressed in the nonlinear story of Michał, his wife, Helena, and her double Marta. Michał’s search for redemption becomes an Orphic journey to the underworld with Lwów as a grey, putrid hell full of squirming lice and spurting, infected blood.

The Third Part of the Night was actually inspired by the wartime experiences of Żuławski’s own father, Mirosław, who is credited as a co-writer. The film is set in Żuławski’s birthplace, Lwów, now known as Lviv, in Ukraine, but then the site of a large Jewish ghetto. The majority of its inhabitants — some 120,000 people — were transported by the Nazis to the Bełżec death camp or Janowska concentration camp. While several of Żuławski’s relatives are remembered by Yad Vashem for their part in saving Jewish lives during the war, Mirosław represents the plight of many Polish intellectuals: in order to survive, he was forced to work as a lice feeder in the Weigl Institute.

In the film, Michał talks to his father about how to save their world. The older man replies, “The world has crumbled, has got smashed, has vanished.” The Third Part of the Night reflects what many felt in postwar life, particularly in Soviet countries, that the world had never really been set right since those fateful years. Personal, political, and mythic all at once, The Third Part of the Night is an astounding debut film, where Żuławski effectively filmed his own birth, a gory, realistic sequence utterly devoid of hope.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

DEMONS OF THE MIND

Peter Sykes, 1972
Starring: Gillian Hills, Robert Hardy, Patrick Magee, Michael Hordern

The Baron Zorn locks up his two children, Emil and Elizabeth, who are both young adults, because he believes they will go mad as their mother did when they were children. Since her suicide, the household has been in disarray with Emil and Elizabeth kept as prisoners, though they are desperate to be in each other’s company. Zorn enlists the aid of Dr. Falkenberg, a self-proclaimed genius whose methods are unreliable at best. Meanwhile, a raving priest and a band of local villagers are trying to find a murderer in their mist, as young girls keep disappearing in the woods near the Zorn estate…

Along with Hand of the Ripper, with which this makes a solid companion piece, Demons of the Mind is one of Hammer’s most hallucinatory, bleak films with some inspired visual flourishes from director Peter Sykes. He was allegedly chosen for this film based on his work on Venom — which is one of my favorites and I can’t really express how excited I am by this fact — but it’s nice to have a fresh perspective, despite the fact that this is late in the game for Hammer. The film’s main problem, but part of what I like so much about it, is that it veers back and forth between the studio’s somewhat formulaic earlier Gothic horror films and the sort of Freudian psychological horror that Hammer flirted with in their later years. 

There is a fairytale element and the lush forest setting of some of Hammer’s best films, as well as a misguided ending that involves a mob of villagers getting fiery vengeance on the Baron, the overused theme of villainous aristocracy, and even a bizarre pagan ritual that the locals refer to as “calling out death.” The beautiful but troubled siblings locked up in a musty castle could just as easily be vampires as they could be mad and it’s a little disappointing that Hammer turns to the same old buxom blondes as victims — though when the reason for this is unveiled, it makes things a bit more interesting. Like Brides of Dracula, the plot hints at incest but, to my dismay, never fully delivers.

Speaking of the siblings, there are subdued but strangely charismatic central performances from  Shane Briant and Gillian Hills. Briant, quite easy on the eyes, was something of an up and coming Hammer star, with performances from around this time also in Straight on Till Morning (1972), Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell (1974), and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974). Actress and singer Gillian Hills — amazing replacing Marianne Faithful, who was originally considered for the role — was not only a yé-yé pop icon in France, but was fresh off small but noteworthy roles in Blow-Up (1966) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). I can’t help but wonder why she didn’t develop a bigger cult film following, and she’s great here even though she’s given very little to do.

Briant and Hills are overshadowed — actually completely blown out of the water — by the insane amount of scenery chewing from a fantastic supporting cast. Robert Hardy (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) as Baron Zorn and Patrick Magee (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne) as Dr. Falkenberg chew scenery with a gusto rarely matched throughout Hammer’s years of admittedly superb scenery chewing. They’re matched only by the wonderful Michael Hordern (Where Eagles Dare), who must be seen to be believes as a totally wacko priest, who preaches forgiveness but winds up staking someone to death with a burning cross.

Yes, you read that right.

This is undoubtedly one of the studio’s most unhinged, hysterical films, though it helps that the main theme is madness. Based sort of vaguely on the life of Franz Mesmer, this has more gore and nudity than the studio’s earlier films and those skeptical of Hammer’s restrained Gothic horror may find a lot to love here. I wish they had kept going further throughout the ‘70s, as I love this period where they begin to experiment with their own tropes. For example, they relied firmly on the cold scientist trope — most notably with Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing — but here there are two versions: an insane, possibly schizophrenic priest capable of brutal violence, and Dr. Falkenberg, who may have some genuine ideas but overall is a brash faker, a man seduced by his own theories and methods, not unlike the psychiatrist in Hands of the Ripper. Demons of the Mind is available on DVD and though you may not love it as much as I do, it comes recommended.

Monday, March 14, 2016

HANDS OF THE RIPPER

Peter Sasdy, 1971
Starring: Angharad Rees, Eric Porter, Jane Merrow, Keith Bell

On the verge of being caught, Jack the Ripper murders his wife right in front of their young daughter. Years later, she is a deeply troubled teenager, barely surviving on the streets of London. She lives with a fake medium — a woman who mercilessly exploits her — until a kind psychiatrist, Dr. Pritchard, takes her in. Determined to cure her with some experimental therapies, he doesn’t realize the extent of her problems: she appears to be possessed by the spirit of her father and lashes out violently when confronted with physical contact or shiny objects, sending her on a murder spree that Pritchard struggles to control.

Really Hammer’s only example of a proto-slasher — made well before Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) or John Carpenter’s more publicly renowned Halloween (1978) — Hands of the Ripper is one of the studio’s last great films, an underrated effort that isn’t nearly as celebrated as it should be. Tonally, it falls somewhere between the Gothic revenge horror exhibited by some of the Frankenstein entries and the more effective suspense films penned by Jimmy Sangster, like The Maniac or Scream of Fear, which contain Freudian themes and are generally centered on dark inheritances and disturbed families.

In terms of plot structure, Hands of the Ripper also has a fair amount in common with other Hammer films that feature a reluctant female villain, like The Gorgon, The Reptile, and Frankenstein Created Woman. In these films, the female protagonist is usually sweet and innocent, and often ill or psychologically damaged in some way, but commits murders while generally unaware of her actions — or unable to present them. Particular in their early years, Hammer had some questionable sexual politics in the sense that they simply didn’t have many interesting or strong female characters and the first decade or so is awash with damsels in distress. The sorts of lady villains present in Hands of the Ripper and Frankenstein Created Woman, as well as The Gorgon and The Reptile, are monsters because they have been shaped that way by others, often by scientists or father figures.

In this film, Pritchard is a lot kinder than Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, but is also a divisive figure. He appears to care for Anna, but at his core he is really no different from Hammer’s cold, rational, and opportunistic scientist type, caring more about the “cure” or the experiment than the people around him. He knows she is killing and despite the horrific nature of her crimes, he doesn’t attempt to stop her, being too concerned with his own methods and their results; even Pritchard’s own son Michael and his blind fiancee become involved in one of the film’s most suspenseful sequences. 

The changing production codes also allowed for a shocking level of gore, at least compared to Hammer’s earlier films. Though, somewhat ridiculously, Anna’s mania is triggered by physical affection or shiny objects reflecting light in her field of vision, she’s responsible for quite a lot of gore — including a cut throat, a sword through an abdomen, and a hatpin in an eyeball — with some scenes that horrified contemporary viewers. This also has an unusually nihilistic flavor, including (SPOILER ALERT) a bombastic finale sequence in the Whispering Gallery that features a downbeat, surprisingly bleak ending for a Hammer film: the deaths of both Anna and Dr. Pritchard on the floor of St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

Directed by Peter Sasdy — responsible for horror films like Taste the Blood of Dracula, Countess Dracula, excellent TV film The Stone Tape, and Nothing But the NightHands of the Ripper comes with the highest possible recommendation and even you don’t like Hammer, you should really give this one a chance. Fortunately it’s available on Blu-ray, where the film looks absolutely fantastic. Though some genre fans roll their eyes at Hammer’s colorful period pieces, this features a menacing turn of the century London atmosphere and gloomy cinematography that enhances the downbeat tone. Though it lacks any of Hammer’s major stars, there are some nice performances, particularly from Eric Porter (The Day of the Jackal) as Pritchard and the underrated Angharad Rees (The Wolves of Kromer) as Anna, who is particularly well directed compared to some of Hammer’s other wide-eyed blondes.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Daughters of Darkness: Episode 1

Check out the first episode of a podcast on cult cinema that I'm co-hosting!

From the Diabolique site:

"In the inaugural episode of Daughters of Darkness, Kat and Samm explore the history of lesbian vampire films. This first episode of three begins by examining the lesbian vampire from her origins in eighteenth century Gothic literature, particularly Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished poem “Christabel” (1797) and Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s story “Carmilla” (1871), both of which explore themes of monstrosity, repressed sexuality, and female identity. “Carmilla” — the source material for the majority of lesbian vampire films — follows a lonely young woman named Laura, who makes a strange, seductive new friend, Carmilla, whose designs on Laura are decidedly sanguinary. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s surreal horror film Vampyr (1932) was the first to adapt “Carmilla,” however loosely, but was followed soon after by the more straightforward Universal horror film, Dracula’s Daughter (1936). The latter — with its depiction of an elegant, sympathetic female vampire reluctantly driven to act out her bloodlust out on female as well as male victims — was among the first to portray vampirism as a blend of madness, female hysteria, sexual dysfunction, and addiction. Dracula’s Daughter would influence subsequent adaptations of “Carmilla,” like Roger Vadim’s lush arthouse effort Blood and Roses (1960) and obscure Italian Gothic horror film Crypt of the Vampire (1964). The film co-starred Hammer star Christopher Lee, who spends much of the running time in an outrageous smoking jacket.

Speaking of Hammer studios, the episode wraps up with a discussion of their Karnstein trilogy, a watershed moment for lesbian vampire cinema. Films like The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971) — as well as some of the studio’s outlier efforts like The Brides of Dracula (1960) or Countess Dracula (1971) — left a bloody mark on vampire films. With minimal violence and plenty of nudity from buxom starlets like Ingrid Pitt, these films generally depict aristocratic vampires preying on innocent young ladies in pastoral settings. A film like The Vampire Lovers was famous for its use of lesbianism and casual nudity, but is quite restrained compared to the films discussed in episode two by European directors like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin."

Find it here.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

CRESCENDO

Alan Gibson, 1970
Starring: Stefanie Powers, James Olson, Margaretta Scott

An American graduate student, Susan Roberts, is invited to travel to France to do research for her thesis at the home of celebrate late composer Henry Ryman. Susan will be staying at Ryman’s home, an isolated villa in the countryside, with the composer’s widow and wheelchair bound son, Georges. The household is rounded out by a creepy valet and a rude French maid, who has a strange hold over Georges. As Susan and Georges grow closer, a number of strange events occur around the villa: a piano plays by itself at night, Susan finds a smashed mannequin that disappears, and she learns that she’s identical to Georges’ former girlfriend. 

Crescendo is sort of a strange throwback to writer Jimmy Sangster’s run of 1960s suspense films for Hammer — titles like Taste of Fear, The Maniac, Nightmare, and Hysteria — which were nearly the complete opposite of the studio’s lushly colorful Gothic horror films. Sangster’s thrillers were primarily all contemporary, black and white affairs set in Europe and involving stories of past trauma, disturbed families, and protagonists being driven to madness. The project was actually in development for a few years before it actually went into production and was supposed to be directed by Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General), but instead later-era Hammer regular Alan Gibson (Dracula A.D. 1972, Satanic Rites of Dracula) took the helm.

And while Crescendo has much in common with Taste of Fear, Nightmare, and Hysteria — at least on the surface — it is really a failed attempt at the weird sort of ‘70s horror themes that would appear in more obscure giallo films like Lisa and the Devil (1973) and even Macabre (1980). Like the earlier Hammer suspense films, there is a lack of nudity or gore, though Crescendo had to compete with a much bustier effort from the same year, The Vampire Lovers. There is really only one key murder sequence, a nicely shot but reserved underwater death that sort of makes you wonder why Gibson thought so much restraint was necessary.

There are also more sleazy elements than your average Hammer film, many of which are exemplified by actress Jane Lapotaire (The Asphyx), who plays the household’s slutty French maid. She plays some strange sexual games with Georges — despite the fact that he later claims to be impotent — which include shooting him up with heroin, and in one scene she prances around the house in a negligee, “practicing” for when she’s going to be the lady of the house. On the other hand, Joss Ackland (The Hunt for Red October) is wasted as a sinister-looking servant who at first seems to be a red herring, but whose role quickly peters out.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that while Crescendo includes a number of elements that should work in its favor, none of them really do. It suffers from a story that’s just not gripping with dull characters and a lackluster twist — SPOILERS, not that you’ll care — involving an evil twin, which just feels impossibly lazy. There’s an interesting dream sequence that opens the film, but this is repeated seemingly any time Sangster didn’t know what to do with the plot. An effectively eerie scene where Susan sees a mannequin with a smashed face that disappears just moments later is a teaser for what the film should have been, but sadly failed to be. It doesn’t help that the protagonist is played by Stefanie Powers, one of my least favorite Hammer actresses, who nearly managed to ruin Fanatic, which she would have done if it hadn’t been for Tallulah Bankhead.

I’m sad to say that I can’t recommend Crescendo, but Hammer completists will definitely want to check it out, if only to appease their curiosity. Luckily it’s available on DVD, though it would be a nice curio to include in the Hammer suspense film Blu-ray box set of my dreams — more as a special feature than as a substantial reminder of Hammer’s lesser seen but still worthy forays into the world of thrillers.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

THE ANNIVERSARY

Roy Ward Baker, 1968
Starring: Bette Davis, Sheila Hancock, James Cossins, Jack Hedley, Elaine Taylor

“If I could stuff you, I’d put you in that cabinet there with my other beautiful possessions, and that’s love.”

A one-eyed, razor sharp matriarch, Mrs. Taggert, brings her family together every year to celebrate her anniversary with her beloved late husband. She has total control over her three adult sons — the submissive eldest, Henry, who lives at home and is a transvestite, the fearful middle child, Terry, who has a wife and five children, and the charming youngest, Tom, who is the only one his mother seems to like — but two of them are announcing their plans to escape from her. Terry and his family declare their plans to move to Canada, partly because Terry’s wife Karen is desperate to get away, while Tom introduces his (secretly pregnant) fiancee Shirley. Will any of them survive the weekend with mommy dearest?

Based on a play by Bill MacIlwraith and with a script from Hammer’s resident screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, this is quite a departure from the studio’s first “hag horror” effort with Bette Davis, The Nanny. More of a black comedy or dark melodrama than an outright horror film, this is perhaps Davis’s most enjoyable role as an older actress and she obviously enjoyed every minute of the shoot. Her opening scene says it all: she descends the stairs to musical accompaniment — wearing a matching red eyepatch, dress, and lipstick — but trips at the bottom step and mutters, “bloody hell,” as her first line of dialogue.

Sangster actually re-wrote the script just for Davis to come on board and the studio went as far as replacing the original director — Alvin Rakoff of City on Fire — with Hammer regular Roy Ward Baker when Rakoff and Davis clashed on set. It’s a good thing too, as Davis drips glee and malice in equal measures, making for a dialogue-heavy but absolutely delightful 90 minutes. She chews scenery better than probably anyone but Vincent Price, though she never goes completely off the rails as she did in The Nanny. Of course, I’m a huge Davis fan, so I’m biased; I love her in everything from The Letter (1940) to All About Eve (1950) and original hag horror films What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), as well as later appearances like Death on the Nile (1978) and The Watcher in the Woods (1980).

Part of what makes her so wonderful here is that she doesn’t completely upstage the rest of the cast and this is far more of an effective ensemble piece than The Nanny. Actors from the stage production such as Jack Hedley (in everything from Lawrence of Arabia to New York Ripper), James Cossins (Fawlty Towers), and Sheila Hancock (Night Must Fall) reprised their roles. Cossins is particularly great as the cross-dressing Henry, who provides some much needed comic relief and manages to be deeply sympathetic at the same time. His scene with the lovely Elaine Taylor (Casino Royale, wife of Christopher Plummer) is one of my favorites in the film: after she catches him in the guest bedroom, wearing her lingerie, they have a sweet moment where she attempts to understand his “affliction.” He explains, in one of the film’s many quotable lines, “If I didn’t do what I do, there’s no saying what I might… do. You know what I mean?”

Be forewarned: this is more of a restrained chamber piece than a horror film and if you’re expecting something as off the rails as Fanatic or The Nanny, you’re going to be disappointed. Apparently the film was a commercial failure, I think primarily because audiences just didn’t know what to make of it. It eventually becomes obvious that no one is actually going to be murdered, though Mrs. Taggert torments the women of the house, nearly driving them to violence. She convinces her daughter in law, Karen, that her five children were in a car accident and are in critical care. Later, in another absolutely off the wall scene, Tom convinces Shirley to have sex on his mother’s bed, but she rolls over and finds one of Mrs. Taggert’s glass eyes, provoking so much hysteria that she nearly has a miscarriage. This the point where I would have liked to see things erupt in violence, but instead there’s a subdued, almost more wicked ending where it’s clear that Mrs. Taggert has just had the time of her life and there will never be any clear resolution for her poor family.

The Anniversary is only going to appeal to a very specific audience — probably one who enjoys black comedies and unusual melodramas — and if you’re expecting one of Hammer’s traditional Gothic horror films, that’s the last thing you’re going to get. Personally, I think this attempt at something new is refreshing and Davis is wonderful to behold; her performance makes the film well worth watching. Pick it up on DVD. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK

Don Sharp, 1966
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco

Rasputin, a depraved monk and healer in rural Russia, begins to move up in the world when he travels to St. Petersburg and hypnotizes, then seduces Sonia, one of the Czarina’s ladies in waiting. He manipulates Sonia to injure Alexi, the Czar’s heir, so that he can worm his way into the palace and the Czarina’s heart. When Rasputin orders Sonia to kill herself, his associate, a down-on-his-luck doctor, meets secretly with Sonia’s brother and friend to plan Rasputin’s destruction once and for all.  

Though known for their horror films, Hammer produced films in a wide ranges of genres, including fantasy, action, sci-fi, and historical drama. Hammer’s 1966 film, Rasputin: The Mad Monk, which piggybacked on the production of their more famous Dracula: Prince of Darkness, is a key example of the dark, historical fantasy the studio occasionally churned out in the 1950s and ‘60s. Due to a series of legal issues, this is not a factual interpretation of the life and assassination of famed mystic and healer Grigori Yefimovitch Rasputin. Instead, the great Christopher Lee channels the mythic elements of Rasputin’s legend, resulting in a lesser seen but impressive character study that blends horror and drama.

Historical accuracy is not a reason to watch Rasputin. The film was originally intended to be an adaption of Prince Felix Yusupov’s Lost Splendor, a memoir about Yusupov’s alleged involvement in the assassination of Rasputin. A number of prior legal issues with Yusupov’s book and other Russian aristocrats suing over portrayals of their lives on stage and screen contributed to Hammer’s growing anxiety with the original plot. Ultimately this became a complete work of fiction with names and events changed. It is easy to be disappointed that this film lacks any exploration of the political climate of Czarist Russia, a deeper understand of Rasputin’s motivations or effect on people, or even a cursory explanation of the court system. The Czarina has a few brief scenes, but bafflingly, the Czar is not mentioned, nor are any of Russia’s political troubles.

The best way to approach Rasputin is as a dark character study. Because of its fantastical elements, this does feel more like a horror film than a historical drama and includes moments of violence and some slight gore (a dismembered hand, a face disfigured by acid, etc). Though the other actors in this small ensemble cast all give solid performances, especially Barbara Shelley, Christopher Lee is the real draw. He does bring a lot of his Dracula into the performance, particularly the hypnotism, sexual allure, and force of personality, though he finally gets the amount of screen time his iconic character deserved, but was denied in Hammer's nine film Dracula series. Lee also allows moments of humor and pathos, making Rasputin just likable enough to carry us towards the violent conclusion.

Rasputin isn’t perfect and suffers from a very limited budget, a constricted set and a flat script, but it remains an enjoyable, compelling piece of filmmaking regardless. The film definitely does not deserve to be so neglected and will appeal to die-hard Hammer fans and anyone who enjoys moody period pieces. Rasputin is out on Blu-ray from Studio Canal in the U.K., so be forewarned that this is a region B Blu-ray and will only play in multi-region or region B players. Rasputin was released as a loose trilogy with two Hammer classics, the superior The Devil Rides Out, where Lee had the rare chance to play a protagonist, and The Mummy’s Shroud. The 2.55:1 aspect ratio looks great and gives a better glimpse of the claustrophobic sets, beautifully designed by Bernard Robinson.

Despite the low budget, the set looks almost opulent and serves to define Rasputin’s character, who appears in nearly every scene. Colors pop, particularly in the detailed costuming. This new aspect ratio does justice to the lovely work by director Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire) and cinematographer Michael Reed, both just off Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Reed, in particular, does a breathtaking job with lighting choices and his work is one of the many reasons to seek out this lesser known effort from Hammer.

The disc includes a number of appealing extras. There is a commentary track with actors Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer, all of whom reflect on fond experiences making the film. Lee discusses his in depth knowledge of the historical Rasputin and relates the time he met two of Rasputin’s alleged assassins as a child. If you were disappointed that the film veered so far into fantasy, definitely give this a listen. Two new documentaries are included, Tall Stories: The Making of Rasputin the Mad Monk and Brought to Book: Hammer Novelisations. Tall Stories further explores the factual Rasputin and how the characters in the film relate to his real history. Overall this is a fascinating look at the making of the film and the legal struggles adapting Yusupov’s book.

Brought to Book is enjoyable, but sort of unrelated to Rasputin. It examines the tie-in novels and novelizations of a number of Hammer films throughout the history of the studio. Also included is The World of Hammer episode, “Costumers” is narrated by Oliver Reed, who takes us through most of Hammer’s historical dramas. He discusses some of the early drama-suspense cross overs like The Stranglers of Bombay, pirate films like The Pirates of Blood River, and even makes fun of his own performance in The Brigand of Kandahar. Finally, a fairly extensive stills gallery includes posters, lobby cards, behind the scene photographs and more.