Friday, 28 December 2012

The Gorgon
(Terrence Fisher, 1964)


Contrary to the grand narrative that sees Hammer going from strength to strength following the establishment of their horror brand in the late ‘50s, the early ‘60s actually proved a pretty tempestuous time for the studio, and for their star director Terrence Fisher in particular. After a series of commercially misguided Fisher-helmed projects bombed at the box office in ’61-‘62, Hammer’s American partners were getting cagey, the BBFC were taking a stricter approach to the perceived excesses of the studio’s horror subjects, and both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, apparently uneasy about their typecasting as horror stars, were cutting down their Hammer commitments and seeking work elsewhere.

As a result, many were predicting that the studio’s run of international success would run out of steam entirely during ’63-’64, and this atmosphere can very much be felt in their biggest 1964 prospect, ‘The Gorgon’ - one of those movies that seems to be indelibly marked by turmoil and bad blood behind the scenes, all the more so given the assorted disagreements that resulted from the convoluted scripting process, which saw a three way tug of war between original writer J. Llewellyn Devine, Hammer writer/director John Gilling and producer Anthony Nelson Keys, none of whom came away satisfied with the finished product.

Although ‘The Gorgon’ marked the much-heralded return of Fisher, Cushing and Lee (together for the first time since 1959’s ‘The Mummy’), the resulting film hardly seems a likely candidate to revive studio’s fortunes, being perhaps the most troubling, uncertain and generally weird entry in all of Hammer’s ‘60s output, replicating the inexplicable decision-making that helped make ‘Curse of the Werewolf’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ such financial disasters, but with arguably even less on hand to help win over a hostile audience.

Quite what possessed Hammer to green-light inexperienced screenwriter Devine’s tale of a two thousand year old Greek gorgon roaming around a turn of the century Germanic castle is anyone’s guess, but, on the surface at least, it leads to a inherently absurd, underdeveloped b-movie premise that seems to simply hang in the void, disconnected from any of the more storied gothic traditions that provided Hammer with a readymade background and familiar dramatic arc for their other horror films.

As perhaps befits this peculiar storyline, ‘The Gorgon’ is chiefly notable to fans as one of the most ambiguous and oddly existential of Hammer’s ‘60s films – a kind of brooding, bad tempered fairytale that seems to hark back more to the gothic of Goethe or Ludwig Tieck than Bram Stoker - and as an odd diversion in Fisher’s filmography, in which the strict Christian duality and comforting sense of cosmic balance with which his work is often credited seems to break down completely, leaving an unsettling absence in its wake.

Our first clue that this is some slightly unusual Hammer business comes via Cushing’s character, Dr Namaroff. Given enough screen time to suggest him as a protagonist of sorts, Namaroff is a reticent and secretive sort of fellow who seems to bully and mislead those around him whilst concealing some greater purpose, and his inconsistent behaviour will initially have those used to the simplistic dynamics of pulp storytelling performing mental cartwheels trying to decide whether he’s the hero or the villain of the piece. Seemingly spending most of the movie brusquely dismissing people from his presence, denying knowledge and refusing to answer questions, Cushing’s performance owes a lot to his similarly forceful, manipulative portrayals of Baron Frankenstein, but with the central goal of that character's single-minded pursuit replaced with, well… what? We don’t know, and he’s certainly not telling anybody.

Normally Hammer’s scripts were tight as a drum, with logical plot progression and linear motivations kept paramount, however daft the initial premise might be. Here though, things seem to have been left to unravel, as if an unseemly sense of continental randomness has been allowed to contaminate the rational imperial brew.

With a basic storyline that sees the father, and subsequently the brother, of a bohemian artist who came to a bad end during the pre-credits sequence travelling to the inhospitable village of Vandorf to investigate matters, proceedings swiftly become rather drawn out and repetitive, with little action (none that makes much sense, anyway) to help lift the overall feeling of narrative inertia. The precise nature of how the hell this gorgon business came about remains frustratingly vague, as, more pointedly, does the extent and significance of Dr. Namaroff’s apparent relationship with his young assistant Barbara Shelley. An entire sub-plot about a mad woman Namaroff keeps locked up in his surgery, and the strange autopsy he carries out after her death, fades away halfway through, having served no narrative purpose whatsoever, and… so on.

The root of all this uncertainty perhaps goes back to the aforementioned conflicts over the film’s script, and it seems likely that Fisher and the cast might have been left to patch up the results on set as they went along. Fisher seems to have realised how flimsy the Gorgon premise is, and wisely uses it primarily as a metaphor to frame the film’s actual drama – that of a rather anaemic love triangle between two weak, troubled men and a lonely, isolated woman, all trying to seek happiness in a stifling, repressive world where the admission of love or affection seems tantamount to death, resulting in an emotional as well as physical process of petrification.

Thankfully, the central cast all to their best inject some life into the material, and must be praised for managing to invest this rather vague and inconsequential story with a believable emotional clout. Richard Pasco in particular is excellent as a far more interesting and conflicted protagonist/juvenile lead figure than you’d expect to find in a Hammer hammer – a strange man for a strange film - whilst Barbara Shelley excels in a role that allows her to get stuck into creating a real character for once. Cushing, of course, owns, seeming to enjoy the challenges presented by his ambiguous and guilt-wracked character, and the only weak link is Lee, blundering in for the final act as a kind of ersatz Van Helsing figure whose sole function seems to be to propel the story towards a conclusion. (Still, at least it hopefully stopped him moaning about how he never gets to play the hero for a few years.)

Also very much in the film’s favour is the fact that it is perhaps the most beautiful film Hammer ever made, with Bernard Robinson’s production design returning to the near Pre-Raphaelite sense of visual splendour achieved by his best moments in earlier films, and maintaining it throughout. The exquisitely detailed matte paintings and models used to establish the landscape around the village and the derelict, neo-classical interior of the hilltop castle are absolutely stunning, as is the hillside cemetery set where Pasco digs up the petrified body of his father and (rather disconcertingly under the circumstances) shares a tender moment with Shelley. Never has Hammer’s much-remarked upon debt to the Gainsborough melodramas of the 1940s been clearer than it is in these lush, technicolour romantic interludes, of which the film boasts several.

Classic-era Hammer cinematographer Jack Asher may have left the company by this point, but Michael Reed does a fine job picking up where his predecessor left off, and even James Bernard’s music is at its best here, easing back slightly on his usual orchestral bombast and instead synchronising the voice of a lone female soprano with the sound of an early electronic instrument called the Novachord to beguiling and otherworldly effect, resulting in one of the only Hammer soundtracks that I might actually consider listening to outside the context of the movie. In all technical departments in fact, the film is impeccable in its creation of a rich, brooding atmosphere, exemplifying all of the expertise and attention to detail that makes the production design of Bray-era Hammer such a joy. Utterly unreal though it may be, the world of ‘The Gorgon’ is one of the studio’s most complete aesthetic creations – a confined, threatening landscape in which human warmth is just another mystery, lurking forever out of reach.

With its temporarily transformed human monster, its concentration on lunar cycles and incessant shots of the full moon, ‘The Gorgon’ could easily have been a werewolf movie, an idea furthered by its repetition of transgressive nocturnal journeys through the dark, dark woods, leading, inevitably, to the forbidden castle, where death or love or transformation awaits – a notion that connects the film on a near-subconscious level to a tradition of imagery that links everything from Grimm’s fairytales to 1941’s ‘The Wolfman’ to ‘Twin Peaks’.

At this point, it’s probably my duty to note that when Prudence Hyman’s Gorgon is finally encountered, the effects used in realising the monster are, shall we say, a little less effective than might be hoped. “The only thing wrong with ‘The Gorgon’ is the gorgon”, Lee was quoted as saying, but whatever consternation such drawbacks might have provoked at the time, hopefully by this stage we can at least appreciate the costume as an honest attempt to realise a creature who really only plays an incidental or allegorical role in the story Fisher and his cast are telling, making her failure to convince seem oddly appropriate (as well as continuing the noble tradition of lovably rubbish Hammer monsters that was to continue through ‘The Reptile’, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and beyond).

As much as we might enjoy its assorted ambiguities and eccentricities though, there is still something frustratingly incomplete at the heart of ‘The Gorgon’. In the midst of its behind-the-scenes wrangling and disagreements over tone, content and commercial possibilities, it is a film that often ends up merely hinting at its possibilites rather than fully embodying them. Whilst it's certainly not one of the studio’s most immediately satisfying productions though, Hammer aficionados and fans of slow, strange horror films in general will nonetheless find plenty of finer points to appreciate within.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Embalmer
(Dino Tavella, 1965)

Of the relatively few places on earth I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the years, Venice is one of my favourites, and as such, I’ve always found films set there to be a dead cert in terms of watchability. Such is the city’s unique presence, some half-decent location shooting can help invest any old rubbish with a palpable sense of grand, shadowy antiquity. And such proves to be the case with ‘The Embalmer’, a barrel-scraping low budget programmer that would likely have proved a total snooze were it not for the inspired decision to shoot most of it within spitting distance of St Marks Square, seemingly off-season, and at the dead of night.

Initially, Tavella’s film doesn’t really seem to fit the bill as a gothic horror. It’s more one of those “a bit from column A, a bit from column B” type ‘60s b-horrors (think Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory or The Awful Dr Orlof) that seems to mix up a few elements from the gothics, a bit of an Edgar Wallace Krimi type mystery, some cynical proto-giallo / bodycount business and just a pinch of post-‘Eyes Without A Face’ mad science, all to make…. well, a right bloody mess in this case. For a film that touches on so many potentially exciting generic tropes, it must take some effort to come up with a picture quite as flat and uninvolving as this one.

Basically it’s that age old story: some guy with a set of scuba gear in lurking in the canals, snatching beautiful girls and dragging them back to his subterranean lair, where he moons about in a monk’s cowl, subjecting his victims to some (off screen) taxidermy before adding them to his gallery of waxy, incorruptible beauties.

Anyone hoping for some further clarification regarding the motivation and elaborate methodology behind this character’s depredations will be waiting in vain, but fear not – whilst the cops flounder impotently, Venice’s resident hotshot investigative reporter is on the case, in the shape of singularly named actor Gin Mart, portraying a perfect example of the kind of smug, dislikeable jerk that producers of ‘60s genre movies for some reason seemed to think audiences would relate to as a hero. Within minutes on-screen, Gin has established himself a nice little sideline as unofficial tour guide to a party of rather grown-up looking school girls, and proceeds to spend much of the next hour shepherding them around like a gaggle of mindless, giggling animals, his face perpetually fixed on a kind of Connery-esque smirk/eyebrow arch as he tediously romances their teacher (nominal leading lady Maureen Brown).

As you might assume from such a set up, the girls gradually begin falling victim to our nefarious frogman, and it’s up to our intrepid reporter to blah blah blah, etc. Thus far, I’m sad to report that pacing is lumpen, with writing, performances and direction all lacklustre at best, but thankfully there are a few sundry eccentricities on hand to keep our attention simmering through the interminable yammering and faffing. I for one particularly enjoyed the scene in which a man who looks like DH Lawrence engages in a bit of unbelievably awkward jive dancing with his elderly maiden aunt, and there are a few surprisingly sleazy bits of business going on too, including a sub-plot about a creepy hotel clerk who installs two-way mirrors in the rooms so as to furtively watch ladies taking off their stockings – a pursuit he indulges at length in one sordid, borderline sexploitation type interlude.

In fact, everything about the hotel is kinda weird, including the floor show, in which the lights go down and an Elvis-alike guitar-strumming rock n’ roller emerges from a coffin – another relative highlight, especially when of course on the next evening the coffin turns out to contain one of the killer’s victims, impaled with a knife through his heart. Good pulpy fun.

Mostly though, it’s Venice itself that saves the day. Locations are well chosen and -insofar as we can judge from the beat-up public domain print under review - well used, the thick, inky blacks of the chiaroscuro photography bringing an appropriately threatening, night-haunted aspect to the city’s streets and squares, contributing greatly to the success of the film’s intermittent ‘good bits’.

And, after an hour or so of mildly diverting time-wasting, we do finally get a satisfying pay-off as the movie really revs things up for the final reel, cementing its status as a worthy addition to the Italian Gothic canon with a tremendously atmospheric conclusion that sees Maureen venturing into the soggy crypt beneath the hotel, concealed behind a secret passage, for a climatic showdown with our embalming fluid-happy villain.

Sometimes, all it takes to win me over is a good candelabra walk, and whilst Brown certainly isn’t up there with Barbara Steele in her mastery of the art, the one in ‘The Embalmer’ is still a winner. Filmed in what I can only assume were genuine Venetian catacombs of some description, the shots are tightly framed, with rough, handheld camerawork that works very well, as she descends the seemingly endless stone steps toward pitch black doom.

The inky, slimy, lightless feel of the subterranean world she find herself in is conveyed with an eerie realism borne from the use of real locations, and only intensified by the distancing of the fuzzy, VHS-derived print. And when the villain makes his entrance, striding through the echoing chambers in a hooded cowl and an honest-to-goodness leering skull mask(!), he is suddenly a genuinely terrifying presence, making up for all the drab lack of menace in the film’s earlier horror scenes – literally the last thing you’d ever want to encounter in a dark alley, never mind a blackened medieval crypt full of ossified skeletal monks(?!). Unexpectedly violent, visceral and shockingly morbid, this finale is almost good enough to completely outweigh the preceding hour of faff. It’s a shame things have to wrap up so quickly once they’ve finally got going, but with the 75 minute mark approaching, wrap up they must, and…. shall I spoil the ending for you? Oh go on then. [Skip the next paragraph if you actually care.]

Turns out the villain is none other than…. some guy who for turned up for one scene earlier in the film and neither said nor did anything of particular note! Can you believe it? And there we all were thinking it was the creepy guy from the hotel! *palm-face* Nice one Dino, next time maybe let someone else have a go at the script, huh?

Well as it turns out, there wasn’t a next time, because ‘The Embalmer’ seems to have marked the end of Mr. Tavella’s brief career as a film director. In fact with the exception of one other obscure film released the same year (‘Una Sporca Guerra’, which I think translates as ‘A Dirty War’?), he has no other film credits whatsoever. Trying to research ‘The Embalmer’ a bit via IMDB, it’s interesting to note that almost everyone who worked on it proves a similar dead end, with many of the cast making their only screen appearance. Production company ‘Gondola Films’ followed Tavella into the great unknown after overseeing his two directorial efforts, so reading between the lines, I’m guessing this out-of-nowhere horror effort wasn’t quite the money-spinner they’d hoped.

After a US release alongside Michael Reeves’ The She-Beast (I wonder what audiences made of a double bill in which BOTH features were cranky, zero budget 75 minute oddities?), ‘The Embalmer’ tumbled into what I can only assume to be unremitting obscurity, although apparently it at least made a sufficient impression on Dutch exploitation director Dick Maas for him to effectively remake it in 1988, relocating things to his own canal-centric home town for the self-explanatory ‘Amsterdamned’.

So there ya go. ‘The Embalmer’, everybody. Worth a watch? Probably not, but what can I say, I had fun with it. The good bits were good, Venice played itself beautifully, and even the bad bits (which, I should remind you again, comprise most of the run time) sort of lulled me into submission in comforting bad movie fashion. You could do worse.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Fall of the House of Usher
(Roger Corman, 1960)

Thinking over this latest round of gothic horror reviews, it occurred to me that thus far we’ve not really touched upon American International Pictures’ hugely influential (and more to the point, hugely enjoyable) series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Having previously only previously covered the cycle’s decidedly inglorious swan-song Cry Of The Banshee, now seems as good a time as any to return to the beginning, and marvel at the difference ten years can make.

Reportedly shot by Roger Corman for the princely sum of $200,000 over a marathon (by his standards) fourteen days, it’s safe to assume AIP must have made a pretty good return on their investment, as ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ proceeded to kick-start a series of releases that spanned the whole of the following decade, defining the aesthetic of gothic horror cinema to such an extent that, perhaps even more-so than Hammer’s early successes, it is this film that can take responsibility for flooding the world’s screens with a tide of coffins, crypts and candelabras in the years that followed.

Right from its opening moments, ‘House of Usher’ seems intent of defying the limitations imposed by its low budget, as a wide tracking shot across a bleak, mist-laden moor haunted by dead, overhanging branches leads directly to a spectacularly overwrought matte shot of the titular house that remains breath-taking, in spite of its evident unreality. In fact, Daniel Haller’s production design in this opening sequence is so grandiose it suggests a cartoonish, almost ‘disneyfied’ take on gothic horror – diving headfirst into the kind of heady romantic imagery that Hammer hinted at, but were always reluctant to dwell upon, let alone take to the level of garish excess seen here. Such impressions are reinforced by Les Baxter’s quirky, over-bearing score, featuring a preposterous main theme that anticipates Danny Elfman’s oeuvre just as thoroughly as the accompanying visuals succeed in inventing about 90% of the cloying, comfort blanket gothic aesthetic that Tim Burton would later call his own.

As soon as future Italian b-movie stalwart Mark Damon his dismounted and made his entrance to the house however, it becomes clear that this bombastic introduction has overplayed things somewhat, and that, initially at least, we’re in for a drama that is considerably more sombre and low-key than casual viewers might have been anticipating. In fact, lacking any capacity for special effects or rampant supernatural shenanigans, the first half of the movie very much becomes a challenge to see how well the audience’s attention can be held by a cast of only four actors discussing largely abstract concerns within the confines of a few finely adorned sets. Not exactly a recipe for runaway box office success you might think, but when Corman is in the director’s chair, the script is by Richard Matheson and one of the actors in question is Vincent Price, you can rest assured that the viewer’s attention is not going to waver for long.

Price’s smooth-skinned, albino-like appearance will initially come as something of a surprise to those of us used to his more haggard demeanour in later films - but when he begins to speak, all doubts fade. Whilst it’s easy to throw such distinctions at any number of the films he made in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, for my money this is truly a career-best performance from the great man, with the hyper-sensitive recluse Roderick Usher seeming very much like the role he was born to play. The speech in which he describes the “morbid acuteness of the senses” with which his character is afflicted is rightly the stuff of legend, and just hearing his inimitable voice roll across Matheson’s perfectly turned Poe-esque dialogue is an absolute joy (“Two drops of fire… guttering in the vast, consuming darkness..”).

Like the film itself, Price’s art lies in taking things to the very edge of camp, but NEVER stepping over the line, maintaining an old world seriousness of purpose that allows him to invest a line as simple as “believe me sir, I bear you no malice” with a crushing pathos, his delivery alone telling us all we need to know about the dark secrets and untold years of torment that the remainder of the film proceeds to elaborate upon in more colourful detail.

As would become the norm with the Poe films, Matheson’s script takes considerable liberties with its literary source, but necessarily so in this case, given that a direct adaptation of Poe’s characteristically peculiar story would probably last about twenty minutes and include a lengthy poetry reading and scenes in which a guy recites quotations from a fictional medieval romance. Nonetheless, I think Matheson captures the feel of Poe’s work excellently, the dialogue-heavy format allowing him to pluck choice phrases from the original text and extrapolate them into icy, tormented soliloquies that – I would contend – stay remarkably true to the author’s pitch black intent.

One of literature’s blunter tales of the conflict between entropy and death and the eternal urge to life, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ of course exemplifies the underlying themes of all classically composed gothic horror, and Matheson’s script very much maintains that focus. “Something crept across the land, and blighted it,” Price intones with chilling relish at one point, as Poe’s central device of allowing psychological malady to assume physical form and transform the world of his characters remains paramount, more-so than the more conventional supernatural hi-jinks that took centre stage in later instalments.

Even the film’s nominal supernatural conceit – that of the house literally becoming possessed by evil as a result the misdeeds of its former inhabitants – remains true to Poe’s original notion of a psychological subjectivity and his understanding of the way a curdled mind can infect its surroundings, even as Price’s descriptions of the “savage degradations” of his ancestors express a wonderful, fairground ghoulishness sure to tingle the spines of a 1960 horror crowd (“Vivian Usher – blackmailer, harlot, murderess… she died in the madhouse..”).

(The portraits themselves incidentally are wonderfully striking, expressionistic works (the tormented canvases seen in Roderick’s study even more so), far more memorable than the usual knocked-up-in-a-few-hours-by-the-set-designer efforts that tend to pass for great art in films like this. Interestingly, the paintings are credited to one Burt Shonberg, a guy who, along with art department credits on several Corman films, is probably best known as co-proprietor and chief decorator of the legendary Laguna Beach beatnik hang-out Café Frankenstein. He subsequently painted murals for other LA counter-culture venues such as The Purple Onion and Pandora’s Box, and created the spectacular cover to Love’s Out Here album in 1969.)

Artwork aside, the design of the film’s interior sets is of course executed in definitive gothic style, with Haller & Corman’s décor and choice of visual motifs exerting a huge influence upon the aesthetic of ‘60s horror in general, and upon the Italian school in particular. For an example, just check out the rusty, wrought-iron gateway to the family crypt, and the way that not only this device itself, but also the decision to frame characters behind it as some kind of broad signpost of mental instability, turned up in all kinds of movies over the next few years (Whip & The Body and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock to name but a few).

In fact, the entirety of the film’s crypt sequence (featuring the revealing of brass name plaques identifying coffins as belonging to the still living, the obligatory disinterment of an uncannily preserved relative, etc etc) was reintegrated so persistently by the Italian directors that it became a cliché almost immediately, making it difficult to really judge the original effectiveness behind what now seems like ‘House of Usher’s most conventional horror movie moment, when a coffin falls open to reveal a dusty skeleton (“shit, they’ve sat through twenty five minutes of this stuff, let’s give ‘em a skeleton”).

With such a limited range of dramatic possibility, things do start to get slightly creaky as the picture creeps toward feature length, but in fact this inadvertently allows ‘House of Usher’ to add another notch to its impressive list of ‘firsts’, as the tradition of the psychedelic dream sequence that would follow through all the AIP/Corman films is hereby established. A characteristically enjoyable blue and purple-tinted fantasia ensues, as Mark Damon’s sleeping spirit is harangued not just by the ghosts of Usher ancestors, but by swatches of coloured mist and sharp, expressionistic frames and shapes… that strange, slightly LA-beatnik tinged strain of modernism shining through again, maybe..?

Anyway, the deftness with which Corman handles the sombre tone of the material here is hugely impressive, given that his most successful directorial efforts up to this point (‘A Bucket of Blood’, ‘Little Shop of Horrors’) had been comedies, and that the Poe series itself would veer off into similar territory almost immediately with the knock-about matinee fun of ‘Tales of Terror’ and ‘The Raven’. All of those are great movies, no question, but immeasurably different in tone from this one, in which – despite occasional hints of knowing humour - a genuine feeling of crushing morbidity predominates, evoking a macabre atmosphere that is easily on a par with the grimmest of the Italian epics that followed. Whilst conventional horror ‘shocks’ are few, in Corman’s capable hands the story still builds to a tremendously suspenseful conclusion that, though it would be reiterated a thousand times over the next decade, is still powerful enough to make an indelible impression upon anyone who has allowed themselves to be caught up in the drama.

“At least she has been spared the agonies of trying to escape”, Roderick Usher here proclaims after his sister’s apparent death - a blunt reminder of the unflinching pessimism at the heart of Poe’s universe that few if any subsequent adaptations of his work would dare touch upon.

Round III

As temperatures fall toward freezing in the British Isles, as rain hammers our casement windows and bare tree branches groan and shake in the wind, and as the Winter Solstice approaches with its seventeen-ish hours of blackened night per day (not to mention its accompanying warnings of dire apocalypse), what better opportunity to stick two fingers up to the notion of xmas cheer and retreat into the catacombs of gothic horror?

Reviews commencing imminently and continuing, well… beyond the end of the world, at the very least.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Appendum:
More Moorcock

I swear, one day I’m going to panel the walls of my living room with Mayflower Science Fantasy paperbacks. I think the chicks will dig it.

All of these are 1970-72, cover art uncredited, but clearly all the work of the great Bob Haberfield.

More proper movie review type stuff coming up SOON, by the way.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Round-up, part # 2:
The ‘70s

A few more random gems from the golden era of this sorta thing post-1970, including a double-bill from the perennially mindbending Peter Goodfellow.

(Quartet, 1973 [originally published 1957] – cover uncredited)

(Panther, 1972 – cover uncredited)

(Fontana, 1978 – cover illustration: Peter Goodfellow)

(Mayflower, 1978 – cover illustration: Peter Goodfellow)