Friday, 31 May 2013

Top Fifteen Hammers:
Part # 2.

Posted as part of the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon.

10. Cash on Demand (1961)

At the risk of making them sound like a particularly successful biscuit factory, there is something about the level of craftsmanship and quality control Hammer maintained during their peak years that really sets their films apart. A combination of technical know-how and creative self-belief that allowed them to take to take an unambitious b-picture like this one and turn it into something special – an engrossing, affecting and quietly timeless little number, with all the requisite elements for a fine, low budget motion picture, all in their proper place.

In lesser hands, Jacques Gillies’ source play could easily have become fodder for a teeth-grinding exercise in quota quickie tedium, centring as it does on one of the more polite bank heists in cinema history, as bullish conman Andre Morell forcibly intrudes into the hermetic world of tyrannical suburban bank manager Peter Cushing. Whilst the film’s setting may be quaint however, its crime elements are excellently handled, exemplary in their edge-of-seat tension building, generating a sense of menace and suspense here that the makers of higher octane thrillers would do well to match.

That aside though, it’s the performances that really make it stand out. Seeing Cushing and Morell – two of my favourite actors – butt heads is very much the equivalent of a British character actor title fight, with both really punching on top form. Always a genial and domineering presence when he’s given a lead role to sink his teeth into, Morell brings the same sense of authority and determination that made him so memorable in ‘Plague of the Zombies’ and the BBC version of ‘Quatermass & The Pit’, but tempered here with a caddish, upper-crust kind of destructive criminality that makes his character a truly nasty piece of work. Cushing, for his part, always excelled at playing torn, schizophrenic characters – men either conflicted and uncertain, or else hiding their true nature behind a wall of repression – and here, in the character of Henry Fordyce, he finds an opportunity to fully express this theme within a real world context, leading to what is arguably one of his best ever performances.

Fordyce’s Dickens-inspired character arc, which sees him rediscovering his long-buried capacity for human feeling by means of a Scrooge-like last reel rebirth, could easily have been played as bit of cloying sentimentality, but Cushing instead adopts a deeper, more subtle approach to the part, making sure that hints of Fordyce’s humanity break through his shell even during his most intensely dislikeable moments. For all his evident faults and petty cruelties, Fordyce’s eccentric gestures and slight uncertainties of judgement serve all the times to suggest a parallel, internalised world in which he is indeed a man who feels and loves and does what he believes to be right, away from the eyes of his cowed employees, and probably even those of his unseen family. It’s the same essential key note that is repeated throughout Cushing’s numerous portrayals of tormented villainy, reminding us that though a man may be capable of monstrous acts, there is no such thing as a man who is a monster; that within the breast of even the most craven, despicable wretch, a human heart still beats. A fairly basic point, whether examined through the prism of a horror, a crime story or a straight drama, but it is rare to see it expressed with the level of lyricism and conviction Cushing brings to his modest part in this none-more-modest movie.

9. Brides of Dracula (1960)

Although it’s probably one of the best-loved Hammer horrors amongst fans, there’s something about ‘Brides of Dracula’ that has never quite sat well with me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I really, really like it – hence its position on this list. But something about it bugs me. I guess I see it as film of two halves really; the first half, set in and around Castle Meinster is admittedly stunning, no question. One of the most awe-inspiring bits of high gothic artistry ever produced in popular cinema. The sheer depth and scale of the illusion Fisher, Robinson, Asher et al create here from a few sets, a few matte paintings and a few lighting effects is truly remarkable, probably the zenith of Bray-era Hammer’s always excellent production design, with a grand and tragic narrative to match, including a devastating turn from Martita Hunt as the mother of our errant vampire. Not that making ‘60s gothic horror movies was a competitive sport or anything, but if it ever came down to an instant KO, bare-knuckled tournament, I think the opening half hour of ‘Brides..’ takes down Corman, and maybe even beats Mario Bava on points; incredible stuff.

After that though, for me at least, it kinda gets a bit lost. All that faffing about at the boarding school kinda saps the film’s momentum and, whilst I’ve frequently heard it praised elsewhere, I can’t help but find the conclusion a bit of a let-down. Yeah, the stuff with Van Helsing cauterising his infected wound is pretty damn cool, but I get frustrated at the titular brides’ failure to do much beyond just stand around, and the method of Count Meinster’s final demise just strikes me as bloody silly – the genesis of Hammer’s unfortunate tradition of killing off their vampires in increasingly stupid and anti-climactic ways, swiftly leading to a situation where their arch-fiends seem so vulnerable it’s no wonder Dracula spent most of his later outings lurking about in a darkened crypt. Between running water, hawthorn bushes, inconveniently shaped shadows and randomly angled pieces of wood, just walking down the high street must have been an obstacle course of death for the poor sod. But anyway – ‘Brides of Dracula’. Um, to be honest, I haven’t seen this one for a while at the time of writing – probably long overdue for a re-watch, so don’t take me to task too harshly if you disagree with my assessment.

8. She (1965)

Ok, so you’d be hard-pressed to really defend this one as a legitimately good film – by any reasonable standard it’s rambling, shoddy, unconvincing and dated. But on the level of pure cinematic comfort food, it’s perfect.

Claiming it as “the closest thing Hammer ever did to an Indiana Jones movie” seems a bit wrong-headed given the film’s origin in the H. Rider Haggard novel that at least partially formed the basis for the exotic pulp adventure aesthetic that the creators of the Jones films drew upon so heavily all those years later, but nonetheless, it’s a good one-line summation of what’s going on here, and Peter Cushing, in his tougher-than-usual portrayal of Haggard’s Major Horace Holly, is every inch the precursor of Harrison Ford, rocking stubble, leathers and an ever-present hipflask (pity he wasn’t around for casting when Sean Connery got the dad part in ‘..Last Crusade’).

Post-dubbed Ursula Andress doesn’t do a lot for me here I’m sad to say, but I suppose there’s only do much you can do with the role of a stone-faced 1,000 year old goddess, and needless to say, the rest of the cast more than more up for her lack of charisma – Morell! Lee! And, uh… Cribbins?! Well, why the hell not. It’s even kinda nice to see John Richardson from ‘Black Sunday’ as the juvenile lead, even if he is characteristically annoying. Likewise, you may chuckle at the polystyrene boulders and wobbly columns, but I’d defy you to make a better film set in the uncharted wilds of North Africa without leaving Herefordshire – well done people! (Actually it seems they headed over the Isreal for some of the desert stuff, but, uh… my point still stands, more or less.)

A perfect exemplar of my firmly-held belief that nothing that begins with Peter Cushing and Bernard Cribbins instigating a brawl in a belly-dancing club can possibly be bad, ‘She’ is utterly undemanding, hugely enjoyable, and basically I want it on TV every rainy afternoon from now until the end of eternity.

7. The Reptile (1966)

Another one I’ve written about previously, but what else can I tell you friends - I love The Reptile. I mean, you’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking that a b-level production with a plot synopsis that barely extends beyond “there is a reptile” might not add up to much, but as was so often the case during Hammer’s classic years, John Gilling and his collaborators really rise above. Fetid Cornish moorland atmosphere, weird echoes of high imperial decadence, Michael Ripper finally getting to step up to the plate for a steadfast hero role, Jacqueline Pierce’s big dark, dreamy eyes, and of course, Noel Willman’s sitar-smashing frenzy – one of the most brilliant and beserk moments in any Hammer picture. Yeah, an evening with this Reptile is time well spent.

6. Captain Clegg (1962)

So, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this one: how do you fancy watching an early ‘60s Terrence Fisher film based on Russell Thorndike’s Edwardian pulp classic ‘Dr. Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh’, in which Peter Cushing plays a notorious pirate captain who narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose, reinventing himself as the mild-mannered vicar of the rural Kent parish in which his former self is ‘buried’, and from which he now orchestrates an intricate smuggling operation? With the help of cohorts including coffin-maker Michael Ripper and two-fisted libertine Oliver Reed, Clegg and his gang gallop across the night-haunted marshes in the guise of luminous, skeleton-suited ‘marsh phantoms’, running rings around His Majesties sour-faced revenue-men in a noble quest to raise the living standards of the local peasantry and provide the upstanding folk of South-East England with a steady supply of cheap booze, aaaand… well, basically, if your aesthetic sensibilities are anything like mine, you are probably straining at the leash by this point to watch what surely must be one of the GREATEST FILMS OF ALL-TIME, much as I was before I finally tracked down a decent copy of this harder-to-find-than-it-should-be Hammer epic and sat down with some nut-brown ale to experience what was sure to be a rare state of Bodhisattva-like oneness with the universe.

As it turns out, the reality of ‘Captain Clegg’ (better known in the US as ‘Night Creatures’) couldn’t possibly live up to my off-the-scale expectations, but that didn’t stop it from still being really, really good. With both feet firmly planted in the tradition of Hammer’s “pirate movies without pirate ships” half-term swashbucklers, there is perhaps a tad more theatrical faffing about and inconsequential toing and froing going on here than 21st century viewers may be comfortable with, but that aside, there is still so, so much to enjoy. Even though it’s not strictly a horror film, the fog-shrouded nocturnal atmosphere, the fixation with graves, executions and premature burials and the sight of the ‘marsh phantoms’ charging across the moors like precursors to the Blind Dead all add up to one of Hammer’s best ever gothic fantasias – an approach that is very much in keeping with the feel of Thorndike’s decidedly weird stories. Seeing Cushing transform from an absent-minded country parson to a merciless criminal gang leader in a split second is a sheer joy, and when the great man takes up his blade for a bit of chandelier-bothering swashbucklage towards the end, well… I’m certainly a happy camper. I probably don’t need to tell you that the supporting cast are superb, the production design is second to none, and aside from anything else, how great is it to see a Hammer film in which we’re invited to cheer on a bunch of booze-sozzled lags, decadent romantics and scurvy outlaws as they get one over on the forces of austere state bureaucracy? It’s like a version of ‘Whiskey Galore’ where shit just got real, and another kick in the pants to those over-reaching auteurists who’d seek to identify Fisher directly with the puritanical morality of his horror films.

To be concluded...

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

Brides is my favorite Hammer vampire film aside from several of the Lee films. It really is Hammer in its most classic production style and format. Peel is much more aristocratically repulsive than Lee ever was. About the Brides not doing much, that kind of action didn't start until Count Yorga Vampire shock-reinvented the genre.