Saturday, 29 June 2013

Pelican Time.

(1963, cover design by Bruce Robertson.)

(1960, cover design by Larry Carter.)

(1965, cover design by Hakan Lindstrom.)

(1970, cover design uncredited.)

I always promise myself that, one day, I’m going to find time to read all of the Pelican paperbacks cluttering up my shelves, becoming a man of great (if somewhat dated) wisdom in the process, my mind fully engorged with the collected knowledge and opinion of British academia as it stood circa 1960.

Never happens though – instead I just look at the covers, and pile them on top of all the lurid crime books to make the place look a bit smarter.

To ease the heft of this blog’s current summer downtime therefore, I thought I’d spend a few posts sharing some of my favourites with you, beginning with the above selection – volumes about which I have no particular comment, having not read them. But don’t they look splendid?

Friday, 14 June 2013

Top Fifteen Hammers:
Part # 3.

Posted as an extremely belated addition to what was the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon.

5. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973)

All of the Cushing/Fisher Frankenstein movies are great, but for some reason it’s this final entry that sticks most strongly in my memory. Although they ploughed on with a few more ill-starred ventures in subsequent years, for me ‘..Monster From Hell’ really marks the bitter end of Hammer horror, and, clearly doing its best to stretch out a shoe-string budget as unrelenting gloom descended over the whole British film industry, it is a conclusion to the Frankenstein saga as sickening, pitch black and claustrophobic as one could hope for.

Many of Hammer’s later films made a point of including gruesome asylum sequences, but nothing they offered up was quite as relentlessly grim as the institution that houses the goings-on here, with almost the entire movie confined to a cramped, brick-walled dungeon that is the polar opposite of the Matte-painted fantasias beloved of Fisher’s ‘50s and ’60s films. The twinkle-eyed humour and theatrical winks of earlier productions are also stone dead by this point, as a character like John Stratton’s incompetent asylum director, who might have been a chortlesome comic relief figure in earlier instalments, is rendered simply as a weak-minded, lecherous fool. No laughs here, just cowed, brutalised inmates, bully-boys with rubber hoses and nothing no escape to outside except the cemetery. The “monster from hell” itself is – deliberately, I think – a fucking travesty of a thing, a pathetic, drooling disaster that looks like a shaved gorilla drunkenly superglued with random off-cuts from the Pinewood make up department; it’s almost painful to look at.

We all know who the real monster from hell is though, and towering above everything, Cushing. Of all of his increasingly nuanced portrayals of the Baron, I think this final outing is arguably the best. By this stage of course, his character had just about reached rock bottom, the combined weight of his previous outrages having reduced him to a truly abysmal set of circumstances. But when he first appears, Frankenstein, ever steadfast, refuses to acknowledge this at all. On the contrary, he seems like a force of order and stability, a champion of progress within the otherwise stygian and entropic world of the asylum… making the gradual realisation of how insane he is a truly ghastly thing to behold.

We know it’s coming of course, we’ve seen it all before, but even here Cushing can still make it seem fresh. The key moment for me I think is when, after it becomes clear his piss-poor gorilla-monster is nothing to shout about, he immediately starts making preparations for ‘mating’ the misbegotten thing with mute servant girl Madeline Smith, casually discussing what a triumph the off-spring of their union might be as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, leaving us to join with juvenile lead Shane Briant in our slack-jawed disbelief at such a cracked, barbaric, just plain CRAZED leap of logic, emanating from a man who still just about maintains the exterior of an efficient, gifted scientist. It’s rare to watch a Frankenstein film in which we actually, personally, feel the urge to smash the Baron’s instruments and burn the place to the ground, but that’s the level of queasiness that’s induced here.

And yet, still some sympathy remains. More than just the end of Hammer Horror, ‘..Monster from Hell’ is a grisly full stop at the end of the whole golden age of international gothic horror cinema that ‘Curse of Frankenstein’ kicked off some fifteen years earlier, concluding the cycle on a note of anguished, gore-strewn bleakness, as Cushing’s drawn, cadaverous face stares straight to camera, calmly addressing the crowd of senseless, unwashed lunatics who have just bloodily torn apart the innards of his final, hopeless monster; “Go back to your rooms. There is nothing more for you to see. It’s all over now… all over.”

4. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Although I have a soft spot for the general oddness of Conan Doyle’s characters and tales, I’m not really a big Sherlock Holmes fan to be honest. The central business of investigative logic and puzzle-solving has never interested me much… just give me mystery and monsters and inexplicable hullaballoo in my Victorian pulp. Thankfully, Terrence Fisher and his collaborators seem to have broadly agreed with my sentiment, and there is precious little investigative padding to be found in Hammer’s only proper Holmes movie – a film I would point to before any of the Frankensteins or Draculas as a perfect distillation of everything that made Hammer’s late ‘50s / early ‘60s output so special.

I wrote about it a little bit here, but to reheat a few key points; like ‘Captain Clegg’, Bernard Robinson’s gorgeous gothic production design and Jack Asher’s photography render this a horror movie in all but name – I honestly think it’s one of the most beautiful films Hammer ever made. Just about every element of the colour, lighting and mise en scene pleases me greatly on some deep, sub-conscious level. And even more so than ‘Captain Clegg’, the cast is a phenomenal assemblage of oddball British talent. Cushing and Morell are so definitive as Holmes and Watson, I get unbearably disappointed whenever I see the characters played by other actors, and in addition we’ve got the combined ham-age of Francis DeWolff, John LeMesurier and Miles Malleson to contend with, plus Christopher Lee in what I think is one of his most tolerable and sympathetic performances as the nervous and incompetent Sir Henry Baskerville, a great villainous turn from the somewhat-less-renowned Ewen Solon, and Marla Landi as a memorably deranged femme fatale. Despite being assembled from elements that could very easily have produced a film as static, dated and dreary as anything to come out of Britain in the ‘50s, Fisher as usual keeps things moving at a steady pace, with no shortage of exciting goings on thrown in at regular intervals (sacrificial knife murder! spider attack!), and, well… like many of the films on this list, it’s just BLOODY GOOD essentially, and on some days there’s no higher accolade than that.

3. The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Brief thoughts on this one can be found in my old 25 Favourite Horror Films run-down, and probably don’t need repeating in a similar format here. But if you’ll allow me to begin on a bit of a tangent: did any of you lot catch all the controversy surrounding the blu-ray re-release of ‘Devil Rides Out’ last year? I had it pre-ordered and was really looking forward to catching up with it again (I’ve currently still only got it on an old VHS), until I caught wind of the new edition’s compulsory ‘improvements’ (see here for details), at which point cancelation was the only option.

My refusal to accept these changes has less to do with a kneejerk hatred of digital tinkering with old films (although I’ll admit, there’s probably an element of that), and more to do with the fact that they’ve gone and 'fixed' some of the things that I actually liked best about the original film. I know that writers and fans often tend to gripe about the poor quality of the effects in ‘The Devil Rides Out’, and that apparently the filmmakers weren’t entirely satisfied with them either, but I would like to go on record as saying that, personally, I think those scenes are great. I like the fact that the supernatural apparitions in this film simply appear, plain as day, with no thunder or lightning or palaver. The way that bug-eyed genies and giant spiders just turn up like they popped round to borrow a cup of sugar makes things all the more frightening, and surprising, and just plain weird. So many of the more ‘sophisticated’ Satanic cult movies that followed tried to present their demons in a more allegorical or hallucinatory terms, but there’s no need to worry about the devil’s subtle machinations here – look, there he is, over there! The Goat of Mendes himself! Quick, run the bastard over!

In some ways, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ seems like a film that should have been made in 1938 rather than 1968; it seems absurd to think that a treatment of the material this pompous and straight-faced turned up in cinemas mere months before the far more modernist, self-aware approach taken by ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, but (and you probably saw this one coming) the sheer, bloody-minded imperial old-fashionedness is precisely what makes me love it so much. Throughout the history of cinema, black magic / Satanism movies have tended to be a rather peculiar business- even going back to ‘The Black Cat’ (1934 version) and ‘The Seventh Victim’, they’ve been couched as grotesque dreams or ambiguous psychological mysteries or as unearthly fantasias of some kind. But there’s no room for any of that bloody nonsense here. All you need to take on Hammer’s Devil is the love of God and an elephant gun. And a firm handshake, an aristocratic title and a state of the art motor car would probably help too. And look out for those foreigners – they’re sure to be up to no good, with their bad manners and shifty pagan ways. Who knows what really goes on in those dark, sultry nights in the depths of…. what? Well I don’t care if he is from Birmingham, where did he go to school for god’s sake? Keep an eye on him, that’s all I’m saying. Praise the lord, and pass the brandy.

Though it may have arrived a few decades late, it was ‘The Devil Rides Out’ that really set the standard for the kind of ‘normal’ Satanist movie that subsequent entries in this persistently strange sub-genre would proceed to mimic and spoof and deny and generally trample all over, and rightly so of course – the whole thing is antiquated and offensive and ridiculous. But for establishing the instantly dated rules and proceeding to stick to them with stiff upper-lipped determination as everyone else looks on and laughs, and for still managing to produce a powerful, entertaining and captivating film in the process, I will love Terrance Fisher & co. forever.

2. The Damned (1961)

Jospeh Losey’s ‘The Damned’ (‘These are The Damned’ to US readers) was one of the first films I ever wrote about for this site, and whilst I honestly wouldn’t recommend you go back and read that review (say what you like re: recent content here, but I’ve certainly got a lot better at writing about movies over the years), the film itself remains a mindblower.

Though it’s probably not a film many people would recognise as a Hammer production after the opening credits have rolled, said credits reveal that ‘The Damned’ was indeed part of the studio’s core output rather than one of their “farmed out” ventures, with such familiar figures as Anthony Hinds, Michael Carreras, Bernard Robinson and Arthur Grant all taking a bow on this decidedly uncharacteristic and controversial feature… and who can forget James Bernard’s singular (I hope) attempt to get down with the kids and play some rock n’ roll (“black leather, black leather, crash crash crash..”)?

Presumably ‘The Damned’ was initially cooked up to cash-in on the previous year’s successful ‘Village of the Damned’, but in Losey’s hands the material takes on a far more challenging, conflicted and multi-faceted aspect than the rather one-dimensional allegory of Wolf Rilla’s Wyndham adaptation, or indeed any of the era’s numerous other British sci-fi films. Never less than immoderately ambitious, and on fine straining-at-the-leash form here, the director mixes up a whole mess of decidedly unusual parallel story arcs – Oliver Reed’s pre-Clockwork Orange psychopathy and quasi-incestuous domination of his sister, Alexander Knox’s anguished humanism and self-destructive pursuit of cold war oblivion, Viveca Lindfors’ rootless beatnik sculptress – ploughing them all into a central aesthetic conflict between the quaint, parochial atmosphere of contemporary British cinema and the brutal reality of military-industrial Ballardian bleakness lurking just around the corner, beyond the barbed wire fence on the clifftops; Losey (as usual) offers no apologies to anyone as he instigates what must surely be the most unrelenting torrent of politicised, quasi-avant garde b-movie destruction ever wrought upon the quiet streets of Weymouth.

A ridiculous, unsettling and completely unique car crash of pulp sci-fi absurdity, misunderstood teenage nihilism, eerie seaside atmospherics and tormented mid-century paranoia, I think it’s safe to say that anyone who enjoys the kind of stuff I write about on this blog but hasn’t seen ‘The Damned’ should rectify that situation immediately. Since I wrote my original review, a cheap, dandy looking Region 2 DVD has become available, so now you have no excuse – see it, see it, see it, as critics who get quoted on the side of buses are apt to say.

1. The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

The tone of this list has focused heavily on the nostalgic reveries and general comfort factor of watching Hammer films, and as such it seems fitting that it took me about 0.3 seconds to decide that my favourite one is ‘Plague of the Zombies’.

Few would contend that it’s the studio’s BEST film (although it’s pretty damn solid), and it’s certainly not as weird or challenging or accomplished as my top tier of favourite non-Hammer British horrors, but nonetheless, it’s the one that provides the warmest memories for me – the one that I can watch again and again without ever getting sick of it. It’s like a member of the family. I wish I could marry it, or take it on long walks, or… well, probably best end this paragraph right there. You get what I mean.

I ranked it at a surprisingly low #13 in my Favourite Horror Films list a few years back, and, as per ‘The Devil Rides Out’, you can read some of my primary thoughts about it there.

I don’t think ‘Plague..’ was the first Hammer film I saw during my formative years of late night TV viewing (if memory served, I might have sleepily suffered my way through ‘Satanic Rites of Dracula’ and ‘Lust For a Vampire’ before getting to this one), but it was the first one that I REALLY LIKED; the first one that really struck a chord with me, that made me laugh and made me feel shivery and enchanted and made me want to watch a lot more films like it and find out about who made them, and where, and why. As such it played a pretty pivotal role in bringing me to where I am now, writing this blog and so forth. Most of the late night horror films I watched in those days, I enjoyed simply because they were funny and crazy, but (whilst it still had a lot of knowing humour about it) ‘Plague..’ was the first one I remember seeing (beyond some of the obvious classics) that I felt I could watch seriously, as a good story well told, and could enjoy for its rich atmosphere, and for the craftsmanship and obvious enthusiasm that went into its production design and performances. It’s the first one that really drew me into the British (and by extension, European) Horror World, so to speak, rather than just leaving me a smirking spectator.

I liked it so much in fact that I recall I sampled most of the dialogue and music from it, pushing a microphone against the mono TV speaker, ostensibly to use it in some sort of botched music project, but actually just so that I could walk around playing it in my headphones, reliving the experience of the film, meaning that to this day I can recite half of Andre Morell’s dialogue from memory, and do most of the voodoo chanting too. Quite what inspired such obsessive behaviour, who knows. I’m sure I could bore you senseless talking about how superb I think Morell’s performance is in this film, about how my respect for John Gilling as a writer and director grows each time I (re)watch one of his films, about how utterly jaw-dropping and endlessly evocative the graveyard dream sequence with Jacqueline Pierce’s decapitation is, and how it pretty much encapsulates everything that I love about horror movies in the space of about three minutes…. but I’ve done all that before, and probably will again, so let’s just leave it at that, and say that after viewing it approximately once a year for about a decade, I still can’t wait until the next time I get a chance to sit down and watch ‘Plague of the Zombies’ again. It really makes me happy.