Thursday, 31 October 2019

Pointless List Making / October Horrors # 14:
Hammer Vampire Movies, in order.

Happy Halloween / All Hallows / Samhain / whatever everybody! I’m sorry that I’ve fallen behind on my self-imposed one-post-every-two-days October schedule over the past week or so. I was confident I could stick to it so long as I didn’t get to busy in real life, and provided nothing too unexpected or time-consuming happened... but guess what?

Anyway, having re-watched a few of Hammer’s vampire films recently, I thought it would be fun as an act of pure self-indulgence this October to rank them all in the order in which I like them, and to knock out some quick text to show my workings. The results are below, and I would like to think there are a few CONTROVERSIAL choices, so hang on to your suitably gothic hats, Hammer fans!

1. Brides of Dracula (1960)

Having not watched this one for a few years, I’d started to suspect it might actually be a bit over-rated, but revisiting it recently soon set me straight. [NOTE FOR NERDS: I finally acquired a version of the film sourced from the old Region One U.S. DVD which, unlike subsequent Blu Ray editions, is framed correctly at 1.66 and to my eyes still looks very nice – recommended.]

‘Brides..’ remains a masterpiece of gothic horror, especially during its opening half hour. Not only for its magnificent photography and production design, or for the brooding atmosphere of decadence and dread conjured by Terrence Fisher’s flawlessly classical direction, but also with regard to more down-to-earth matters of narrative and character drama. To my surprise, the story here remains gripping for a modern audience, and genuinely horrific in its implications. The script is rich with beautifully turned, evocative dialogue, and the entire supporting cast do fantastic work in bringing it all to life, with every single character who appears on screen enriching the proceedings in one way or another; far too many to list here, but to pick just one example, even the bloke manning the stable at the girls’ school gets to use his one minute of screen-time to deliver an evocative soliloquy about his collection of horse brasses reminding him of the seasons of the year.

It’s a shame then that things go a bit silly in the last few minutes – inaugurating not only Hammer’s long-running tradition of killing off vampires in really stupid, anticlimactic ways, but also of ineffectual vampire brides who dither about the place doing absolutely nothing – but until that point at least, this is Hammer Horror at its absolute finest, arguably the text-book example of the heights the studio could scale in their Bray-era heyday.

2. Twins of Evil (1972)

From October 2017: “Tudor Gates’ ultra-pulpy script drives things way over the edge of self-parody (perhaps the reason I’ve underrated the film in the past?), but the chaps in charge of production design, cinematography etc don’t seem to have noticed the shift in tone, instead delivering one of the best-looking and most atmospheric (not to mention most violent and erotically charged) films Hammer produced during the ‘70s. The result is a film that is really funny (the almost ‘South Park’-like antics of Cushing’s puritan witch-burning club), slyly subversive of the Hammer formula (no moral black & whites to be found here), and an exceptional example of straight up, late period gothic horror all round.”

3. Vampire Circus (1971)

One of the darkest (in both sense of the word) films to ever carry the Hammer name, ‘Vampire Circus’ goes off-brand in pretty hair-raising fashion, adding a brooding, Eastern European flavour to its grimly relentless and exceptionally gory reinvention of familiar “sins of the father” gothic tropes. With vampires who look like depraved ‘70s rock stars, disturbing intimations of paedophilia and nods to Camus’s ‘The Plague’ (and/or Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’ – take your pick), this is a heady brew by anyone’s standards, and Robert Young directs with an intensity that sometimes boils over into a nigh-on visionary fervour, lending a hellish, hallucinatory feel to the film’s intense and spell-binding horror set pieces.

Patriarchal authority – aided by John Moulder-Brown from ‘Deep End’ as one of Hammer’s best ever juvenile leads - may win out in the end as tradition demands, but it takes one hell of a battering along the way, making for a pyrrhic victory that leaves ‘Vampire Circus’ feeling like an unlikely cousin to the nihilistic, post-Romero horror films that genre historians like to tell us were making Hammer’s efforts look old hat by the early ‘70s.

4. Taste The Blood of Dracula (1970)

Not only my favourite of the brace of ribald Victorian London movies Hammer made in the early ‘70s, but by far the best of the Christopher Lee Dracula films, ‘Taste the Blood..’ finds relatively young n’ fiery director Peter Sasdy breathing new life into the franchise, not just through the imaginatively rendered new setting, but by delivering what is arguably the only instalment in the series since the 1958 original to have been made with serious dramatic intent (the Dracula-free ‘Brides..’ notwithstanding).

Far stronger meat the any of the earlier sequels, ‘Taste the Blood..’ pre-empts the aforementioned ‘Twins of Evil’ by pushing back hard against the patriarchal authority and Manichean certainties of earlier Hammer horrors, introducing a transgressive note of moral ambiguity as its nightgown-clad young ingénues (Linda Hayden amongst them) find themselves pushed into a perilous spiritual interzone, forced the choose between the seductive and exotic evil of Dracula and the equally predatory depredations of their own morally bankrupt fathers - a cabal of depraved big-wigs and aristos whose private pursuit of perversion not only allows the Prince of Darkness an entry-point into the ‘modern’ era, but makes his no nonsense Satanic evil seem positively sympathetic in comparison to their own sweaty, corrupt and very British hypocrisy. (Heaven knows, there are certainly a few contemporary power-brokers viewers might enjoy super-imposing onto these sorry specimens as they face their grisly comeuppance…)

5. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

Ok, I know that production difficulties, cross-cultural confusion and general creative desperation may have prevented this one from being quite as earth-shattering as the full scale Hammer horror / Shaw Bros kung-fu crossover of our dreams, but it’s still at least 75% as good as the one in my dreams, so that’s something right? In fact, the very fact this film exists at all fills my soul with joy each time I think of it, just as the sight of Peter Cushing getting busy alongside David Chiang and Szu Shih in the middle of a chaotic, Chang Cheh directed vampire kung fu brawl does each time I watch it.

I also love the crazy, proto-‘Black Magic’ Hong Kong horror type shit going down here as the genuinely horrid, cadaverous, golden masked vampires chain down writhing naked virgins in the lair and drain their blood into a bubbling cauldron; I love witnessing the exultant return of wild, expressionistic gel lighting and moth-eaten, cobweb shrouded sets to the hammer universe (Shaw Bros certainly didn’t mess around when it came to ensuring their horror movies looked the part), and I love the way the British scriptwriters seem to keep trying to rip off ‘The Seven Samurai’ during the big, climactic save-the-village battle scene (was it the only Asian film they dredge up from the memories to use as a reference point?) – yep, there’s a lot to love here, that's for sure.

What I love somewhat less however is the fact that the filmmakers were forced to crowbar Dracula into the story at the behest of Warner Bros (who then never even bothered releasing the damn thing), necessitating the last minute employment of some truly hopeless geezer to play him in Lee’s absence (no disrespect intended to the late John Forbes-Robertson, for turns out it is he, but seriously, W and indeed TF). Also, Dracula’s presence here raises a question that has long haunted me in the dark hours of the night: if, as the prologue makes clear, Dracula upped sticks and buggered off to China one hundred years before the events of this film take place, then who the hell has Van Helsing spent his life traipsing across Europe fighting..? I’ve never quite figured that one out.

6. The Vampire Lovers (1970)

From May 2013: “Delivering pretty much exactly what you’d expect in terms of lavish Victoriana, nocturnal cemetery hi-jinks, furtive hints of lesbianism and craggy-faced puritanical ass-kicking, Roy Ward Barker’s initial take on the Carmilla mythos essentially defines the agenda for the ‘70s Euro-vampire movie, setting a bar that the continent’s other purveyors of such material could proceed to soar above or mambo under as they saw fit. Although it never really achieves anything exceptional (beyond a gentle bit of first-time-in-a-British-horror same sex petting), ‘..Lovers’ is solid as a brick shithouse - as generic and satisfying as horror movies get.”

7. Kiss of the Vampire (1962)

AKA, the one everybody always forgets, this modest production is another splendid piece of ‘60s gothic horror, its atmosphere of brooding decadence very much in keeping with ‘Brides..’ two years earlier. Though perhaps a tad over-lit in places, the scenes in the castle and at the masque ball nonetheless feature some striking, proto-psychedelic photography, whilst the plight of our honeymooning lead couple is actually quite affecting, and Noel Willman and Isobel Black are wicked sinister as members of the predatory vampire family. I’m also pretty sure this must be one of the first films to have ever directly connected vampirism with Satanism and black magic, and the latter element plays directly into a bat-shit crazy climax (no pun intended) which must be seen to be believed. Fantastic stuff.

8. The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

Notorious for playing out more like a ‘70s pulp spy novel or an ITC action show than a traditional vampire movie, this tale of the diabolical Count using a Satanic coven as a front for manipulating a gaggle of weak-willed politicians and scientists into providing him with enough super-charged bubonic plague to blackmail the entire globe is…. well, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher, to be honest. It certainly left me happily confused when I videoed it off late night TV as a teenager, that’s for sure, but you’d be hard-pressed not to find it one hell of a lot of fun too. In retrospect, it’s wild tonal inconsistencies and cavalier approach to genre expectations kind of reminds me more than anything of Gordon Hessler & Chris Wickings’ wonderfully bizarre Scream and Scream Again from a few year earlier.

Cushing in particular plays a blinder here, proving once again that he could lend gravitas to an outer space volleyball match should the need arise, and, as I mentioned in the comments on this blog just a few months back, the scene he shares where the late Freddie Jones – playing a tormented bacteriologist – is a real highlight, a tour de force of thespian muscle, with a few fistfuls of ominous dialogue helping out too. Likewise, the desk-bound confrontation between Van Helsing and Dracula is great, perhaps reigniting some of the fire of their original ’58 face-off for a stranger new age.

In fact, Lee gets some considerably more interesting stuff to do here than in most of the previous Dracula instalments, what with the Count passing himself off as some kind of reclusive Eastern European billionaire, more like a blood-drinking Bond villain than anything else, with the genuinely horrifying prospect of Count Dracula presiding over a global plague pandemic inadvertently returning the figure of the vampire to the rat-like death-bringer of Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’, perhaps.

Elsewhere meanwhile, we’ve got, oh, I dunno – motorcycle stunts, shoot-outs and moody, hirsute cops running around, loads of campy Satanic hoo-hah, plus a few moments of startling, mean-spirited gore and…. Joanna Lumley being consumed by the Sapphic attentions of the chained up vampire brides…?! Good lord.

It’s a shame the whole thing culminates in the most egregious you’ve-gotta-be-fuckin-kidding-me ending of any film on this list (hawthorne bushes, I ask you), but… that in itself was almost a tradition by this point, I suppose.

9. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

Oh, man…. I mean, what can you say? I mean, as bad as ‘1972 AD’ undoubtedly is, I don’t know if there’s a single fan of British horror who could refuse to unconditionally love it on some level. If you’re reading this, you know the score, I’m sure. Stoneground performing ‘Alligator Man’! Reversed tape recordings and Caroline Munro getting blood all over her cleavage at Johnny Alucard’s swinging Black Mass! And how about that opening prologue with Dracula getting a cart-wheel where the sun don’t shine? Beat THAT, Terrence Fisher!

10. Dracula (1958)

A bit of a shocker I realise, but, despite the impossibly vast scale of this film’s influence on genre cinema, as a stand-alone viewing experience, it’s never really clicked with me, despite numerous attempts to go back to it with a fresh eye.

Moreso than any of the other early Hammer horrors, ‘Dracula’ strikes me as having dated really badly, making it difficult to dredge up much contemporary relevance from it. All of the scenes that don’t directly involve Dracula feel dry and tedious, suffocated by those plush, Gainsborough interiors and formal, stiff upper lip acting styles. The dismissive treatment of the female characters within the film meanwhile plays as flat-out comical to modern audiences (even more-so than in Stoker’s novel, where Lucy and Mina are allowed at least a certain amount of agency), and, personally, I’ve always found the make-up and hair-styling in this one to be pretty disastrous too.

On the plus side however, marvellous performances from Cushing and Lee, obviously, and the final confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing is impossible to fuck with – an immortal and historic scene, still exhilerating to this day, without which this film would likely be languishing even further down this list, despite it’s having directly fathered all of the other entries.

FUN TRIVIA: I know everyone has heard this story before, but my dad was working in a regional cinema in South Wales when ‘Dracula’ was released, and he actually did once tell me that he remembered people screaming and fainting in the aisles, and complaining to the management that they hadn’t been able to sleep for a week etc. after seeing it. Imagine that! Incredible to reflect upon how thoroughly our senses must have been blasted over the subsequent six decades, given that this film is now barely able to keep most modern viewers awake, to be perfectly honest.

11. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968)

The boilerplate script for this ho-hum ‘Dracula’ sequel may be thoroughly uninspired, but I nonetheless have a soft spot for the film, based largely on the extravagant, fairy tale-like production design overseen and quite beautifully captured by master cinematographer turned uneven horror director Freddie Francis. Never has mittel-European fantasyland of pre-1970 Hammer looked as richly colourful and unreal as it does here, with the entire movie seemingly taking place inside some dark recess of Tim Burton’s fevered childhood brain, where he keeps the long-supressed good stuff. The climax, which as I recall sees Dracula impaled upon a massive stone cross on a windswept mountainside as lightning flashes above him, is pretty cool too.

12. Countess Dracula (1971)

Hungarian director Peter Sasdy’s under-stated take on the Countess Bathory mythos is a perfectly creditable historical drama, with fine performances from Nigel Green and Sandor Elès, but its dour formalism and pointed refusal to dish out the horror / exploitation goods soon becomes a drag. Despite her top billing, Ingrid Pitt has very little to do here, whilst the special effects brought in for her brief supernatural scenes feel silly and incongruous, and the sketchy vampire component has all too obviously been grafted onto the script for the sake of commercial necessity, creating a ruinous disjuncture between the film promised by Hammer’s marketing, and the one which Sasdy actually delivered.

13. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

Like a number of films on the lower reaches of this list, ‘Prince of Darkness’ has always struck me as simply playing like a realisation of the Hammer back office’s idea of what a bog standard, utilitarian vampire movie should look like. No spark, no invention, and certainly no unnecessary expense; just eighty-something minutes of the same old stuff, assembled in the customary order to appease the market. You’ve got some coaches rumbling through the woods, a big ol’ pasteboard castle, a few rubber bats, some bits with Dracula popping up in ladies’ bedrooms and rather comically enfolding them in his cloak… what more do you want, blood? (Sorry.)

I dunno – am I missing something here? I remain eternally disappointed that the Fisher / Sangster / Robinson dream team turned in a picture this uninspired. Basically the only things which really stick in my memory are Dracula’s initial resurrection scene (which is pretty damn cool), and Andrew Keir as the priest, warming his arse on the fire in the tavern.

14. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974)

I know this one has its fans, so I’ll throw in a “I’ve only seen it once, quite a while ago” disclaimer, but I remember being decidedly underwhelmed by this one. In theory, the idea of letting Brian Clemens re-invent the Hammer vampire film as a swash-buckling, action-adventure type franchise sounds like a brilliant one, but sadly I recall the result delivering precious little action and a total lack of adventure. Perhaps budgetary constraints and production difficulties were to blame, who knows, but Horst Janson is certainly wooden as a box of stakes in the title role, little of interest happens in the script, and basically the cast just seem to spent half the movie half-heartedly trudging around in a patch of woods and some out-buildings. On the plus side, well…. Caroline Munro. That’s all I’ve got. Perhaps I should give this one another try some time?

15. Lust for a Vampire (1971)

The story of how Jimmy Sangster made the transition from an incisive and inspired scriptwriter to a frankly terrible director, crassly attempting to reinvent Hammer’s most iconic franchises as low-brow, self-parodic comic capers, may have been told many times, but you’ll get to revisionism from me on this score. ‘Lust for a Vampire’ is witless, embarrassing guff which can’t even seem to get the simple business of being sexy right, replacing the genuine eroticism of ‘The Vampire Lovers’ with woeful, sub-Benny Hill type tomfoolery. I’ll confess, I happily sat through this one a few times on late night TV back in the day and wasn’t too appalled, but woe betide anyone who tries to watch it sober.

16. Scars of Dracula (1970)

I think my review from last year’s October Horrors marathon probably already did a pretty good job of setting out the extent to which I hated this one. Let’s just say that it gets my vote as Hammer’s absolute worst (‘Holiday On The Buses’ possibly notwithstanding) and leave it at that.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

October Horrors # 13:
Dark August
(Martin Goldman, 1976)

By far the biggest revelation unearthed by Arrow Video & Stephen Thrower for the second volume of their admirable American Horror Project, ‘Dark August’ is a low key supernatural thriller shot in Stowe, Vermont in 1976. Never a high profile cult item, the film has, I would suspect, flown entirely beneath the radar of the vast majority of cult movie aficionados prior to its HD resurrection this year; a circumstance that seems extremely unfair after watching it for the first time.

To put it simply, ‘Dark August’ is excellent. If you’re a fan of subtle, slow-burn horror, films with a folk-magic / witchcraft element or independent ‘70s U.S. cinema in general, I would recommend obtaining a copy of Arrow’s new transfer and watching it post-haste.

Although this was a 100% independent production, written, directed and performed by a small collective of Vermont residents with no external funding or distribution deals in place, the finished film exists on an entirely different plain from most of its competitors in the regional horror sweepstakes. Not a “higher” plain necessarily (I don’t want to sound like I’m belittling the noble tradition of independent commercial filmmaking in the USA here) - but a different one, for sure.

The first thing which struck me about the film is its uncanny mixture of stylish, technically accomplished filmmaking (particularly in terms of its editing, camerawork and presentation of the natural environment), and candid naturalism in terms of its performances, plotting and character interactions. A very ‘70s combination, I would suggest, but one which was rarely attempted, let alone achieved, by filmmakers outside of the artier end of the Hollywood industry.

Far away from the work of even the most sophisticated of ‘70s independents (Romero, Hooper etc), ‘Dark August’ instead feels more like a distant cousin to such studio-backed quasi-horror films as Altman’s ‘Images’, Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ (definitely a conscious influence, I suspect), or even Philip Kaufman’s remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (which admittedly was made a few years later, but still).

Plot-wise, director Martin Goldman and actors/writers J.J. & Carolyne Barry keep things pretty minimal here, with a set up that on paper sounds like TV movie / short story material at best, but through careful attention to detail, and by zoning in on psychological nuance, they still manage to create an intriguing and open-ended narrative.

Following a messy break-up with his wife, forty-something New York advertising artist Sal Devito (J.J. Barry) has relocated to a small Vermont town to start life afresh, apparently following in the footsteps of his best friend Theo (Frank Bongiorno), who lives nearby and appears to have given up the rat-race to become a potter. During his first year of rural life, Sal has instigated a swell new relationship with Jackie (Carlyne Barry), who has recently established a small art gallery in the town.

Less happily however, Sal has also caused the death of a local young girl, killed when she ran in front of his jeep on a lonely road (a traumatic event which we repeatedly relive alongside him in flashback through the course of the film). Although Sal has been cleared of responsibility for this tragic accident in court, coming to terms with it is not so easy, particularly given the suspicion which already hovers over him as a loud and gregarious outsider moving into a small, insular community.

As the film opens, we see the dead girl’s grief-stricken grandfather turning to age-old sympathetic magic to exact vengeance upon Sal, who, as a result, is about to find himself haunted by something a little more tangible than mere repressed guilt and mid-life angst.

The very definition of a ‘slow burn’, ‘Dark August’ keeps its horror content simmering down at the level of vague, background uneasiness for a good forty-five minutes or so, but in the meantime, it gives us a generous and detailed portrait of the lives of this small group of interlocking friends (Sal, Jackie and Theo, plus the latter’s new age-y girlfriend Lesley (Kate McKeown)) as they haphazardly attempt to establish an idyllic, post-counter-culture environment for themselves in the depths of Vermont’s green hills, reinvigorating the sleepy local community with their arts n’ crafts, pot-smoking, tarot-card reading take on rural life.

Given that much of the film was reportedly shot in director Goldman’s own house, and that Bongiorno, McKeown and the Barrys all seem to have been real-life escapees from NYC, I’m guessing that ‘Dark August’s creative team had very direct, personal experience of the situations experienced by the characters herein, and as a result the quiet, subliminal tension between the locals and more cosmopolitan incomers is believably conveyed throughout.

Indeed, although we see this world through Sal’s eyes, there is a distinct ambiguity here regarding who we were actually supposed to sympathising with, suggesting that the film’s supernatural storyline could easily have functioned as an analogue for the filmmakers’ sense of uneasiness regarding their own intrusion into the community around Stowe, Vermont.

It is interesting to note that legendary comics artist Stephen R. Bissette, a lifetime Vermont resident who grew up near the film’s shooting locations, states in his essay accompanying the Arrow release that he finds J.J. Barry’s Sal a deeply dislikeable protagonist and was rooting for the locals throughout, gleefully anticipating the grandfather’s spiritual vengeance. As a city-dweller watching in his London flat though on the other hand, I personally found Sal and his friends to be quite relatable (his refusal to button up his shirt properly notwithstanding), and I enjoyed spending time with them. In keeping with the film’s inevitable designation as “folk horror”, could there be a deeper comparison to be drawn here with the moral ambiguities of ‘The Wicker Man’?

As Sal is increasingly plagued by stomach pains, inexplicable losses of control and unnerving glimpses of a hooded, “spirit of dark and lonely water”-like revenant haunting the woods around his property, Goldman does an excellent job of conveying the character’s increasing sense of paranoia and disorientation, ratcheting up the unease into full-blown menace and setting the stage perfectly for the late introduction of the film’s one ‘name’ performer, Kim Hunter – the widely esteemed method actress who played opposite Brando in 1951’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and went on to earn a steady living as Zira in the ‘Planet of the Apes’ franchise.

Here, Hunter plays Adrianna Putnam, a backwoods witch and psychic counsellor who takes up Sal’s cause after Lesley urges him to consult her - and by anyone’s estimation, she does so brilliantly, using her reportedly genuine interest in the occult to invest the role with the kind of unassailable, “shit just got real” gravitas which adds greatly to the film’s genuinely hair-raising finale.

The organic / atavistic treatment of magic(k) in ‘Dark August’ feels disarmingly matter-of-fact, yet also horrifically tangible, and as things build to a magic circle-bound, battle-of-wills showdown, there is a sense of real exhilaration to be savoured as we realise that a film which initially felt an off-brand version of one of those New Hollywood-type movies where Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton hang around on their porches mumbling to each other, has transformed itself into a full-on ‘The Devil Rides Out’ type proposition, having reeled us in slowly but surely until this transition seems completely natural, and indeed pretty terrifying.

‘Dark August’ is not a perfect film by any means, and I hope I’m not overselling it here. Since you’re asking, my chief complaint would probably be that the story could have worked a lot better if the revelation that the grandfather character actually was instigating a magical attack against Sal had been withheld until the end, thus allowing us to relish the possibility that his problems were solely the result of his own supressed guilt and paranoia, and making the blood n’ thunder action of the finale that much more powerful.

Given that this was a regional independent production offering little in way of obvious exploitation thrills though, I’m guessing that they simply had to put some horror signifiers up front in order to get the film even the very limited distribution it did achieve on the drive-in circuit; so, I won’t hold this missed opportunity against them, and it certainly doesn’t stop ‘Dark August’ from standing out as a vastly more rewarding film that I ever would have suspected – one of my top horror discoveries of the year, without a doubt.

Increasingly these days, dedicated genre film fans could be forgiven for thinking that mid-20th century English language horror films have been picked over so thoroughly – analysed, fetishised, celebrated and monetised – that we surely must have reached the end of the line by now. It’s all too easy to feel that everything special, weird and noteworthy within this finite canon must by this point have been identified as such and commended to our collective attention, leaving critics and blu-ray labels increasingly dredging up the silt as they struggle to remain relevant.

Huge and heartfelt thanks are therefore due to Arrow, and to Stephen Thrower, for renewing our faith and for reminding us of one of the core motivating principle underpinning any adventurous movie fan’s endeavours: there’s always another one. There’s still gold in them there green hills, and ‘Dark August’ is a nugget that proves it.

Friday, 25 October 2019

October Horrors # 12:
A Flipside Halloween with ‘Legend of
the Witches’ (1970), ‘Secret Rites’ (1971) & More.

Back in the halcyon days of 2009-11ish, I was a regular attendee at the monthly ‘Flipside’ screenings which took place at the National Film Theatre / BFI Southbank here in London, organised in support of the BFI’s then flourishing DVD/Blu-Ray imprint of the same name. Bearing witness to the assorted oddities unearthed from the archives by curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler was always a joy and a privilege, to the extent that I pretty much bought my tickets blind, confident that whatever they came up with would prove both surprising and rewarding, even if it was something I would never have voluntarily signed up for in any other circumstances (a Q&A with the late Michael Winner springs to mind).

Naturally, I was sad to see the ‘Flipside’ slot gradually muscled out of the BFI’s schedule, presumably to make way for no-doubt-more-lucrative extra screenings of whichever restored Kubrick epic was currently doing the rounds (or, perhaps it was the decision, apropos of nothing, to screen the largely unheralded 1982 post-apocalyptic movie ‘Battle Truck’ with the director in attendance which proved the final straw for the accounts department, who knows).

The absolute highlight on the Flipside calendar of course was the programmes of shorts, TV episodes and documentaries which Pratt & Fowler used to pull together for Halloween (you can read my thoughts on the 2010 Halloween special here) and it has been a joy and a privilege this month to be able to relive the spirit of those strange evenings in my own home, as the Flipside label has risen from its slumber and produced a shiny new release which pretty much exemplifies the kind of thing which used to pop up at those October screenings.

Beginning with our feature presentation for the evening, Malcolm Leigh’s 1970 documentary Legend of the Witches opens in surprisingly meditative fashion, with a near ten minute sequence of uninterrupted nature footage. In what certainly seems like a boldly experimental gambit for a film which saw its only theatrical exhibition as a supporting feature for ‘Not Tonight, Darling’ aka ‘Sex in the Suburbs’ (Anthony Sloman, 1971), we see seaweed ebbing and flowing on the tide in a manner that I’d be tempted to tag as a tribute to Tarkovsky but for the fact that he had not actually made ‘Solaris’ yet at this point, reeds and branches swaying in the breeze, and a sunrise presented in real time.

(For some reason, Leigh and “lighting cameraman” Robert Webb seem to have had a particular yen for this kind of ambient / landscape footage, inserting seascapes, cliff faces and foliage throughout the film. Even when visiting a haunted house, the camera seems more concerned with the peacocks in the garden and the grain of wood on the staircase than the supposedly spooky goings-on.) (1)

Over this opening footage, our stentorian-yet-faintly-ironic narrator Guy Standeven intones what purports to be the “creation myth of the witches”, involving a tryst between the moon goddess Diana and Lucifer the light-bringer, representing a union between the feminine/lunar and masculine/solar ideals. (2)

Under the circumstances, this yarn does a pretty good job of sounding authentically old-as-the-hills, supporting the film’s contention that modern witchcraft has risen organically from the natural world and the impossibly ancient worship thereof. In reality however, this “creation myth” was likely knocked up from scratch by the film’s ostensible star, self-styled ‘King of the Witches’ Alex Sanders, and the references to the Greco-Roman Diana and the Christian figure of Lucifer will no doubt have already made the blood of any Wiccan purists in the audience start to boil.

We’re on safer ground though as we join Sanders’ skyclad coven (or at least, the younger and more photogenic members thereof, I suspect) as they circle their ceremonial fire in some suitably remote and inaccessible deep forest clearing, undertaking a series of elemental initiation rites for a new member.

Chances are, if you’re familiar with Sanders’ name, you probably know him in his capacity as a media / showbiz fixture, a relentless self-promoter and, arguably, an out-right charlatan. Here at least though, Leigh & Webb’s striking, high contrast black & white photography and solemn, naturalistic pacing succeeds in imbuing Sanders’ rites with a degree of dignity and gravitas, framing the coven’s matter-of-fact nudity in a way that often seems closer to Francis Bacon-style anatomical expressionism than yr common-or-garden exploitation.

After quite a lot of this, we veer into slightly more routine paranormal documentary territory, as Standeven essentially delivers a lecture on the early Christian church’s tendency to incorporate pagan tradition into their architecture and practice, and a sympathetic, Margaret Murray-ish take on the subsequent persecution of ‘the old religion’, all illustrated with visits to some churches and standing stones, medieval woodcuts, an examination of the weirder goings-on in the Bayeux Tapestry, and so forth.

This all leads up to a second staged ritual, which will no doubt have those hypothetical Wiccans spitting horse feathers, as Sanders and his wife Maxine are seen conducting a quote-unquote ‘black mass’, complete with full Xtian paraphernalia – looming crucifix, altar boys, sacred host and ecclesiastical music on the soundtrack. Presumably dreamed up in order to add a frisson of blasphemy to proceedings, this sequence ends like some Ken Russell wet dream, with Alex apparently instigating a menage-a-trois with two naked ladies inside the magic(k) circle. Good heavens.

Next up, we get an intriguing tour of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, on the north coast of Cornwall. It’s still there today, and I have long wished to pay it a visit, although my failure to persuade anyone to drive me there has thus far stymied that ambition. I mean, I’m sure they must have changed things around a bit in the past half century, but on the basis of what we see here, it looks pretty amazing.

This transitions into another staged ritual, in which – extraordinarily, given that they were supposedly aiming to popularise and win respect for their beliefs – we see Sanders and his followers demonstrating the rites through which a coven might place a death curse on an enemy. This also incorporates a strong sexual element, as Alex and Maxine again put on a bit of a show for the camera, enacting the simulated conception and “birth” of the curse object.

Thus far, ‘Legend of the Witches’ has served up an odd mixture of sombre, moody atmospherics and increasingly questionable content, but happily, the film’s final stretch is by far the most entertaining, committing fully to the cause of wonderful, silly-ass nonsense.

For no particular reason, we ditch witchcraft for a while, and instead visit a haunted house (I’m currently unable to identify which one). Here, a mod-ishly dressed young lady is left alone to shiver in “the most haunted room” whilst – in a development guaranteed to produce rapturous excitement for those of us with a fetish for vintage audio equipment and/or The Stone Tape – a team of paranormal investigators begin hauling their elaborate electronic gear up the stairs!

I’m pretty sure this stuff was all staged for the film (the ‘psychic’ girl in the haunted room re-appears in later scenes, still wearing the same outfit), but it’s still great fun.

Rather than waiting for a conclusion to this paranormal stake-out, the film soon changes course again to take in psychic phenomena and, uh, electronically-induced hypnotism? Yes, there are whirring oscillators, “stroboscopes” and a big ol’ hypno-wheel on the wall, as we are invited to note the similarities between “traditional “and “modern” means of generating a trance state, leading us directly into the film’s big finale, in which all pretence of documentary realism is merrily discarded in favour of a wild, studio-bound happening (ostensibly the preparation for a scrying ritual) which feels like a cross between an early Velvet Underground photo-shoot, an outtake from ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and a Jess Franco night club scene.

Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in here, as we get a giant hypno-wheel projection, a guy wearing a goat mask, several naked girls, Alex Sanders (I think) turning up in an owl mask, ceremonial whipping and light bondage, clouds of incense, strobe lighting, and even a soundtrack of ragin’ sitar music (because there’s no better way to get your psychedelic witchcraft party started than with some totally random cultural misappropriation). Speaking with what I hope is the authority befitting a connoisseur of this sort of thing, I declare it to be absolutely amazing. Wow.

Moving on the Flipside disc’s second billed attraction, we find Secret Rites, a 50-minute item directed by sometime horror scriptwriter and notorious sexploitation maverick Derek Ford. Originally released as a supporting feature for Ford’s ‘Suburban Wives’ in 1972, we find ourselves presented here with a case study in how two films dealing with exactly the same topic, made at roughly the same time, with the same central participants, can be entirely different from each other.

Once again, Alex Sanders takes centre stage, but he and his coven seem to have left the neo-primitive rural environs depicted in ‘Legend of the Witches’ far behind, instead heading straight for the heart of London’s swingin’ scene and the urban sprawl of Notting Hill Gate. Their rituals are now a riot of tinfoil, black candles, theatrical make up, big moth-eaten goat heads and costumes from the psychedelic dressing up box, and are now staged in what looks like a cramped subterranean night club done up to resemble a faux-medieval dungeon, all captured by Ford’s camera in blazing, over-saturated faux-technicolor.

A queasy mixture of ‘fact’ and fiction, the flimsy narrative around which ‘Secret Rites’ is constructed concerns Penny Beecham, a real life model and actress who went on to become a regular on ‘70s TV, appearing in ‘dollybird’ roles in ‘Up Pompeii’ and ‘The Morecombe & Wise Show’. Confusingly, Beecham uses her real name in the film, despite the fact that she seems to be playing the role of a fictional trainee hairdresser who, having “always been fascinated by the occult,” has decided to get herself hitched up to the nearest witch cult.

(Note the poster for Harry Kumel’s ‘Daughters of Darkness’ visible on the tube station wall in the screen-grab above.)

Venturing into the patchouli-drenched bohemian hinterland of Notting Hill, Penny meets Alex and Maxine Sanders down the pub to discuss the possibility of her initiation into their order.

It’s the little details that can make a big impression in things like this, and, whilst Alex was droning on in his drowsy Mancunian tones about how much hard work it is learning to be a witch (lots of reading, lots of study, he keeps stressing, they don’t just spend all their time horsing around in the nude, he’ll have you know), I couldn’t help noticing that the couple both seem to have been enjoying half pints of a rather tasty-looking ale served in stemmed glasses, whilst Alex has his fags and his wallet set out on the table in front of him, like a seasoned man-about-town. Somehow, I found myself entranced by this curious mixture of pious new age esotericism and down to earth ‘70s masculinity (and Maxine’s paisley-patterned dress is a knock-out too).

After this, most of the rest of the film consists of kinky rites in the groovy day-glo cellar, in which the remnants of respectably sincere pagan practice (the ‘hand-fasting’ marriage ceremony for instance) find themselves napalmed by a retina-scorching aesthetic of fancy dress pop-porno psychedelic excess, culminating in the “rarely witnessed and never before photographed” Invocation of Ra, whose gold-foil bedecked explosion of high camp Egyptology must be seen to be believed.

Sanders, during his interminable invocations, even makes reference at one point to “the Terrible Domain of the Dread Lords of the Outer Spaces”, which seems pretty way out there, even by his standards. Perhaps some of those Ladbroke Grove Hawkwind/Moorcock type vibes had been rubbing off on him whilst he was down the pub?

Those in a position to know about such things have noted that Sanders’ “coven” seems to have had its numbers boosted on this occasion by at least some performers who also appeared in the harder sex films and illicit porno loops which Ford was producing during this period, and indeed, rumours persist that a ‘harder’ cut of ‘Secret Rites’ may have been prepared for the export market (perhaps explaining the awkward 50 minute running time of the version which made it into UK cinemas). No one involved in the BFI release seems to have been able to verify the truth of this however, so who knows.

Also of note in ‘Secret Rites’ is the soundtrack, which, perfectly in keeping with the film’s visuals, comprises a way-out smorgasbord of ominous, effects-drenched psychedelic jamming, credited to an otherwise unknown outfit identified as ‘The Spindle’. No one seems to have been able to ascertain the provenance of this music, or to identify any of the players involved, but writer Rob Young puts forward a pretty intriguing theory in the booklet accompanying the BFI disc.

And…. that’s about all I can think to say about ‘Secret Rites’, really. Suffice to say, it is essential viewing for… well, I mean, I hesitate to say everyone, but if you’re still reading this post by this point, then suffice to say, you’ve found a perfect little number to project onto the wall during your next occult-themed drug orgy, at the very least.

This being a Flipside release of course, the fun doesn’t end there, and my top pick from additional shorts included on this disc is – joy of joys – another episode of Out of Step, a series of short programmes which essentially seem to function as a more stridently judgemental 1950s version of a Louis Theroux type thing, in which presenter Dan Farson – yes, the same nephew of Bram Stoker and “charismatic Soho bon vivant” who later turned up in the wonderful BBC documentary The Dracula Business in 1974, no less! – tracks down some quote-unquote “oddballs” and basically bothers them about their unusual beliefs.

Farson’s witchcraft episode – broadcast in 1957 -may not achieve quite the same level of hilarity as his UFO one (which I briefly wrote about here), but he certainly managed to assemble an impressive line-up of interviewees, speaking first to the 92-year-old Dr Margaret Murray, whose 1921 book ‘The Witch-Cult in Western Europe’ played a pivotal role in establishing the more sympathetic narrative surrounding historical witchcraft which developed through the 20th century.

(Brilliantly, a note in the booklet accompanying this set reports that Farson had to re-shoot his ‘question shots’ for this segment of the programme in the studio, because he’d been involved in a drunken brawl the night before the Murray interview took place, and was nursing a black eye.)

Still an alert and engaging speaker at her advanced age, Dr Murray’s responses to Farson’s demand to know whether witches “actually have special powers” are non-committal, but he gets a far firmer statement of belief from Gerald Gardner, the man who essentially established modern Wiccan practice in the UK during the 1950s.

Definitely a card-carrying oddball, Gardner was living at the time in an abandoned mill in Castletown on the Isle of Man, surrounded by crudely carved magical effigies. Worryingly, he regales Farson with a tale about how he and his fellow witches successfully placed a curse on an unscrupulous property developer, and he also begins cackling devilishly when Farson broaches the subject of nudity. Let’s just say that I’d advise any residents of the Isle of Man who happen to be reading in the 1950s to keep their daughters well away from that there old mill.

Farson’s final guest meanwhile is Louis Wilkinson, an intimate friend and literary executor of Aleister Crowley. Unhelpfully from the point of view of a witchcraft documentary, Wilkinson claims that he was chiefly interested in Crowley’s talents as a wit and raconteur, and largely ignored all that magickal hoo-doo he got up to (which strikes me as being rather like claiming that you were friends with Joseph Goebbels because you liked his cooking and his singing voice, but never really paid attention to all that political stuff - but whatever).

Nonetheless, Wilkinson comes through with some great anecdotes about the control Crowley exercised over his disciples, and about the conduct of his followers during his memorial service – and, as with just about all stories concerning Crowley’s extraordinary life and conduct, it’s interesting stuff to say the least.

Next up, I turned my attention to another of the disc’s extras - Getting it Straight in Notting Hill Gate, a rather hap-hazard but still fascinating short film which takes a look at the same West London counter-cultural milieu from which ‘Secret Rites’ arose, presumably shot and directed by some proud denizens thereof.

I’ll skip over this one quickly, as it’s a bit off-message re: our Halloween/horror theme, but it should certainly prove enthralling viewing for anyone familiar with the Notting Hill area, as rambling, handheld street footage takes us through the Portobello / Ladbroke Grove area in all its post-psychedelic squalor and post-windrush finery, wringing a few moments of “Oh, it’s THAT place” type excitement even from me, and I barely ever visit that part of town.

Highlights include Caroline Coon of the influential legal rights organisation ‘Release’ interviewed (next door to the offices of Oz magazine, no less) by a young hipster going by the unlikely handle of Felix Scorpio, a visit to the flat of psychedelic artist Larry Smart (whose work looks genuinely mind-blowing – definitely worthy of further investigation), and a lengthy jam session from the band Quintessence, who we see laying down some seriously funky flute and guitar-led gear in their practice space in All Saints Church, improvising around the local anthem which gave this film it’s name. Oh, and there’s a bloke playing a sitar on a rooftop too. Top stuff.

All that, and this Flipside release still has more to offer; there’s a cine-poetic tribute to William Blake based around footage of contemporary London, directed by Robert Wynne Simmons, who wrote the script for ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’, and a 1924 silent short entitled ‘The Witch’s Fiddle’, produced by the Cambridge University Kinema Club and utilising the talents of a bunch of keen young chaps who seemingly all went on to live lives which sound like the plots of Eric Ambler novels.

I haven’t even had a chance to watch those at the time of writing…. too much, man. Needless to say, we’re looking here at a wonderfully researched, beautifully restored and incredibly generous package of tantalising glimpses into the stranger and more marginal corners of British cinema, fascinating cross-cultural connections sparking off each of them like some out-of-control generator. Fantastic work from all concerned, and here’s hoping it opens the metaphorical floodgates for more collections of shorts, documentaries and suchlike under the Flipside banner.


(1) Unfortunately, IMDB credits for the Robert Webb who worked on ‘Legend of the Witches’ seem to have been garbled with those of the American director of the same name, but I’m assuming THIS Robert Webb was probably the one who worked on music hall documentary ‘A Little of What You Fancy’ (1968) – co-directing with Michael Winner, funnily enough – and directed a short film entitled ‘Dancing Shoes’ (1969), before dropping out of sight..?

(2)Though it seems he rarely had the chance to give his voice much of a work out on-screen, Guy Standeven is notable for appearing uncredited in the background in just about every film ever made. Nice work if you can get it!

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

October Horrors # 11:
The Creeping Flesh
(Freddie Francis, 1973)

Although I can’t 100% confirm that this is an accurate memory, I seem to recall that, long ago in the distant past, my initial viewing of a VHS copy of ‘The Creeping Flesh’ might well have marked the point at which my interest in old British horror films first surpassed the level of idle, time-killing curiosity, prompting me to think, “my god, these things are amazing – I think I should probably try to watch as many of them as possible”.

Revisiting the film all these years later, it’s easy to see why my response was so favourable – in a profound sense, it really does the business. Whereas contemporary productions such as Amicus’s And Now The Screaming Starts and Don Sharp’s ‘Dark Places’ appeared to show the British gothic horror tradition on its last legs, exhaustedly dragging itself toward its own grave, ‘The Creeping Flesh’ by contrast is an exuberant, imaginative and confidently realised production, seemingly inheriting a sense of joie de vivre (and, it must be said, a few plot details) from Cushing & Lee’s previous assignment, the equally wonderful ‘Horror Express’.

Although this co-production between Tigon and the utilitarian-sounding World Film Services may not have been planned as an epitaph for this particular strain of British cinema, it was certainly amongst the last batch of such titles to enjoy widespread distribution, and in retrospect, it can’t help but feel like an attempt to give the classical approach to the genre the all-guns-blazing send-off it deserved. (1)

Whilst the film makes a point of evoking as many of the tropes that had helped define the legacy of the preceding fifteen years as possible though, imbuing proceedings with a warm feeling of tried-and-tested familiarity in the process, it also engages intelligently with the more psychological / visceral approach which was already beginning to twist the genre into weird new shapes as budgets plummeted and declining audiences began to demand harder-edged exploitation content (perhaps taking a few notes from Hammer’s envelope-pushing ‘Hands of the Ripper’ (’71) and ‘Demons of the Mind’ (’72)) – a cake-having / cake-eating combo, which, against all the odds, works brilliantly.

An introductory framing narrative features an infirm and unhinged looking Peter Cushing in his lab, ranting about the nature of good and evil and the grave responsibility he holds for saving humanity from a plague of darkness, and so on. As he begins relating his sorry tale to a younger doctor who has apparently turned up to assist him, we move into ‘flashback’ mode as the story proper begins with a scenario akin to what might have happened had Cushing’s character from ‘Horror Express’ managed to return home without incident, and with his crated up specimen still intact.

Upon arrival at his isolated country home, Dr Emmanuel Hildern (for such is Cushing’s character name) is immediately reacquainted with his devoted daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), whom he has left alone at the house during his costly and arduous expedition to the wilds of New Guinea. Naturally enough, Penelope declares her wish to catch up with her beloved father over tea and toast, but Dr Hildern has other priorities, immediately retreating to his laboratory to unpack his big crate.

Excitedly filling his assistant (George Benson) in on the results of his trip, Hildern reveals his prize discovery – a gnarly-looking, giant sized skeleton of some ancient, previously unknown species of hominid, whose very existence throws conventional theories of human evolution into disarray!

Consulting his surprisingly extensive library of work on “the spiritual beliefs of the New Guinea primitives”, Dr Hildern is subsequently inspired to make some even more earth-shattering claims concerning the veracity of his discovery, including the suggestion that it in fact belongs to an ancient race of “evil giants” who once went to war against the people of the islands – and his speculations become even more far-fetched after an attempt to clean the skeleton reveals that the dead bones are capable of actually regrowing their living flesh when exposed to water.

Soon thereafter, Hildern makes the astounding declaration that the blood samples he has taken from this freshly-grown flesh actually contain the essence of pure evil, determining that he and his assistant must get straight to work preparing a prototype vaccine from it, which I suppose in theory should function to rid mankind of all its negative impulses?! (Whoa, back up there Doc, one thing at a time please...)

Whilst begrudgingly taking a break to partake in that aforementioned familial breakfast meanwhile, Dr Hildern gets stuck into his years’ worth of unanswered correspondence, and swiftly learns that his wife, who had been committed to an asylum many years previously, has passed away during his absence. Significantly, it transpires that he had lied to Penelope about her mother’s fate, telling her that she had died whilst she was still a child – so now of course, he must stick to his story and hide his grief from his daughter.

Even more awkwardly for Dr Hildern, the proprietor of his friendly local asylum is none other than his half-brother James, played by Christopher Lee (I suppose the “half” has been appended to the script to account for their obvious lack of family resemblance). Another scientist of questionable propriety, this younger Dr Hildern is soon revealed to be an ice-cold authoritarian who manages his mental hospital with an approach to patient well-being seemingly inspired by Torquemada, whilst spending his spare time engaging in his own Frankensteinian experiments (you know, hand-crank generated electrical charges applied to severed arms in tanks of formaldehyde – all that kind of good stuff).

Clearly there is no love lost between the brothers. Apparently suffering from a severe case of sibling rivalry, James lords his superior wealth and public standing over the grief-stricken and destitute Emmanuel, announcing straight off the bat that he will refuse to subsidise any of his brother’s foolish expeditions, and furthermore declaring that he intends to go head-to-head against Emmanuel to win the much-coveted Richter Prize!

As you’d rather imagine, Emmanuel’s frantic and rather sloppy attempts to knock up a vaccine against Original Sin, Penelope’s calamitous discovery of the truth about her mother (it turns out she was a former Parisian night club performer who allegedly succumbed to a form of hereditary insanity!) and James’s attempts at scientific espionage add up to a whole heap of trouble for all concerned -- especially when you factor in an escaped lunatic rampaging around the place and a big, gnarly skeleton which threatens to turn into an atavistic remnant of a lost race of pre-human destroyers as soon as it’s left out in the rain.

And, as life in the Hildern house becomes ever more dysfunctional, the older Dr Hildern’s extremely bad decision to test out his vaccine on his beloved daughter (I mean, it’s only injecting a solution made from the blood of an ancient evil giant into the blood-stream of an emotionally unstable teenage girl…. what could possibly go wrong?) is basically the last straw that tips the whole thing into complete chaos.

With Cushing and Lee as rival mad scientists, a hot-house gothic house melodrama with overtones of sexual repression and parental abandonment, an ancient, atavistic supernatural menace and a lurid Victorian milieu of hellish asylums, riotous taverns and buxom wenches, ‘The Creeping Flesh’ delivers everything a gothic horror fan could possibly wish for, but, rather than merely coming across as a mega-mix of Brit horror clichés, Peter Spenceley & Jonathan Rumbold’s admirably ambitious screenplay actually succeeds in incorporating all this stuff into an example of that rarest and most valuable of horror movie virtues – a good story, well told.(2)

Critics of the film have tended to draw attention to the unlikelihood of Dr Hildern’s extraordinary leap of logic in determining that he has extracted ‘the essence of pure evil’ from his pet skeleton, and have taken a dim view of the film’s apparent endorsement of the grimly puritanical, Manichean worldview this implies – especially once the injection of the botched ‘evil’ vaccine into Penelope appears to provide the catalyst for her catastrophic sexual awakening. Rarely, it seems, has a horror movie’s “sex = evil = death” message been so explicitly spelled out, and even given scientific credence, no less.

What is easy to overlook on first viewing however is that what we are seeing here is the story as recounted in flashback by Dr Hildern himself – an unreliable narrator to say the least. Whilst the supernatural nature of the creature he has unearthed remains unquestioned, we are never actually given any verifiable proof that the Doctor’s babbling about ancient mythology and good and evil has any basis in fact. Indeed, Spenceley & Rumbold’s script subtly undermines the doctor’s reactionary assumptions at every turn, clearly implying a far more mundane, psychological explanation for the tragedies which plague his family life.

Although Dr Hildern is a genial, sympathetic figure when we first meet him, as the film goes on it becomes increasingly clear that his problems run far deeper than mere bumbling absent-mindedness and nutty-professor style eccentricity. Beyond all of the mad science and monster movie hi-jinks which result from his sloppy professional practice, the clear implication here is that the malady which sends Penelope out on the town in a scarlet dress is the exact same one which drove her mother to the asylum -- and that Emmanuel himself is chiefly responsible for it, irrespective of any botched vaccine injections and vague talk of hereditary insanity.

Through his insistence that his wife and daughter remain closeted from the outside world, and through his failure to understand their needs or to return their affection, Emmanuel has inadvertently destroyed the lives of the two women he loves, and his transition from a lovable bumbler to a tragic, ruined lost soul is, of course, brilliantly realised by Cushing, adding yet another variation to the gallery of morally tormented patriarchs he had previously essayed in films as varied as The Flesh & The Fiends, ‘Cash on Demand’ and The Gorgon. Working here just a few months after his return to active service following the devastating loss of his wife, it is spiriting to see him firing on all cylinders, bringing energy, commitment and emotional nuance to a demanding lead role.

Lee, for his part, falls back on his tried and tested ‘archly superior, cold-hearted cad’ routine, and I’m sure we all know how great he was at doing that. I’m not sure what his characteristically strident thoughts on this particular production may have been, but he certainly seems to be enjoying the opportunity to indulge in a slightly more refined form of full spectrum villainy than his horror roles usually allowed for.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast is excellent too, with Heilbron (who went on of course to work with Jose Larraz on ‘Symptoms’ the following year) on fine, hysterical form as Penelope, and some great one-scene-wonder bits from a few old favourites too; Michael Ripper as one of the porters who carries Cushing’s crate into the house, Harry Locke improvising wildly as the pub landlord, and Duncan Lamont as a drawling Scottish police inspector. There’s even an extended cameo from Jenny Runacre as Cushing’s late wife during some flashback-within-a-flashback scenes of Parisian debauchery.

(The only disappointment in fact is that the hulking, mute asylum escapee is inexplicably NOT played by Milton Reid. Perhaps he was on his holidays at the time? [Cue mental image of Milton relaxing on a sun-lounger drinking a cocktail with an umbrella in it, as Hawaiian music plays.] Oh well, you can’t have everything I suppose.)

Freddie Francis was always rather uneven in his work as a horror director, but he certainly had his moments, and ‘The Creeping Flesh’ is undoubtedly one of them. In particular, he was always a director who seemed to have a good feel for production design, and the staging, props and set dressing here are indeed all top notch. I don’t know where ‘The Creeping Flesh’ actually sat in budgetary terms, but it certainly looks like one of the more extravagantly realised British horrors of its era, with location shooting taking place both around Thorpe House in Surrey and the London Docklands, whilst the standing sets used for the urban exteriors (identified as such by the film’s entry on the Reel Streets website) are so elaborate that I actually mistook them for genuine streets given a period make-over.

Meanwhile, the special effects used to realise the monster – in both its skeletal and fleshy form - are satisfyingly icky and menacing, especially during the film’s climactic nocturnal coach crash – a genuinely thrilling, beautifully evocative sequence featuring great, blue-tinted nocturnal photography, lashing rain, thunder crash editing and a sense of all-consuming chaos as the newly reconstituted revenant makes its getaway in a sutiably menacing hooded cape.

And, as to the ending, well – oh my gosh, it’s so good. The hooded creature banging at the doctor’s door with its clammy paw is just so ‘Weird Tales’, and the vengeful, sanity-wrecking price it eventually exacts from him is so E.C. Comics – just absolute classic stuff (even if Francis does ill-advisedly revive his “camera inside the skull” gimmick from 1965’s ‘The Skull’ to considerably lessened effect).

As you will have gathered, I like ‘The Creeping Flesh’ rather a lot. For some reason, it seems to have remained a fairly under-rated and infrequently discussed entry in the British gothic cycle over the years, but it really is one of the very best, managing to embody all of the arcane joys which this form of filmmaking represents for its fans, whilst at the same time presenting a solid, serious and exciting tale, compelling enough in its own right to make a perfect ‘gateway drug’ for any British horror neophytes who stumble across it. If for some reason you’ve overlooked it until now, please do make the effort to track it down - you’ll be in for a treat.

Check out this amazing poster artwork from Italy (title translation: “The Terror From The Rain”(?)), West Germany (“At Night, The Skeleton Awakens”), and Belgium (more or less direct translations of the English title in French and Dutch).

In the UK meanwhile, Tigon put this out on a double-bill with Mario Bava’s ‘A Hatchet For The Honeymoon’ – now THAT’S what I call a good night out!


(1)An eclectic production outfit to say the least, World Film Services appear to have had a hand in everything from Peter Watkins’ ‘Privilege’ (1967) and Joseph Losey’s ‘Boom!’ and ‘Secret Ceremony’ (both ’68) to the sub-Amicus portmanteau effort ‘Tales That Witness Madness’ (1973), the inexplicable David Niven vampire comedy ‘Vampira’ (1974), and post-E.T. kid’s sci-fi movie ‘D.A.R.Y.L’ (1985).

(2)Given how accomplished their script for ‘The Creeping Flesh’ is, it is surprising to learn that neither Spenceley nor Rumbold had much of a background in the film industry, and nor did they go on to much recognisable success. Spencely worked intermittently as an assistant editor in the UK, whilst Rumbold next popped up in Greece in 1978, directing a film which no one ever seems to have seen, before occasionally contributing script work to a number of low key productions based out of Greece, Yugoslavia and Iceland.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

October Horrors 2019 # 10:
Humanoids From The Deep
(Barbara Peeters, 1980)

He’s a tricky devil isn’t he, that Roger Corman? Though he has sometimes been praised over the years for promoting female talent within the none-more-male-dominated arena of ‘70s/’80s exploitation film-making, it is also notable that, whenever he offered the director’s chair on one of his New World Pictures productions to a woman, it was for a project that might otherwise have drawn fire for its misogynistic content - thus neatly defusing the critical backlash whilst still delivering the, uh, shall we say, ‘provocative’ content his less enlightened audience demanded.

Think Stephanie Rothman on ‘The Student Nurses’ (1970), Amy Holden Jones on ‘The Slumber Party Massacre’ (1982), or, in this case, Barbara Peeters on ‘Humanoids From The Deep’, aka ‘Monster’, a film whose poster artwork alone would likely have incited its fair share of feminist outrage, had there been a male name sitting in that all-important slot at the end of the credits.

In all of these cases, the directors in question were presumably sufficiently thrilled at the chance to get their name on a feature film that they were happy to take Corman up on his offer, accepting pre-packaged projects with script and marketing materials already more-or-less locked down… and of course, strict orders from the boss regarding the required level of nudity, violence and so forth.

And, in all of the above examples, I believe these women did very creditable work with the material they were handed -- but the terrible irony of the situation of course is that, whereas a roll-call of New World’s male alumni includes Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante and Jack Hill, none of the female directors listed above managed to make the transition to mainstream industry success (or even cult recognition) off the back of their Corman pictures. (It is at this point that we pause to shake our fists and spit bitter invective at the ‘Hollywood’ sign.)

Anyway, back to the matter in hand, and in late 1979, Peeters basically found herself staring down the barrel of a script that amounts to a cross between ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Creature from The Black Lagoon’ with added rape, and a few weeks shooting time in an off-season fishing town near Fort Bragg to get it all in the can. (I’ve not read any background on the film’s production, but surely there must be some great material here for a behind-the-scenes docu-drama or Christopher Guest style mockumentary or something?)

What most struck me most about the first half hour of ‘Humanoids..’ is just how authentically grim life in the film’s fictional fishing community of Noyo seemed to be. I suppose I’d been expecting something pretty breezy and tongue-in-cheek, in the vein of Dante’s ‘Piranha’ (1978), but this is a whole other kettle of genetically-modified fish.

Not only does this place seem cold, grey and permanently overcast, but the people, when they’re not being actively horrible to each other, seem glum and withdrawn, whilst the town’s economic decline and cultural isolation are clear for all to see. Amity Island this ain’t. In fact, that isolated mining town from ‘My Bloody Valentine’ (1981) seems positively idyllic by comparison.

As the film opens, controversy surrounds the arrival of representatives from a Big Corporation, who are looking to open a “canning plant” up-stream from the town, securing the area’s economic survival, and, they claim, increasing fishing yields through the application of exciting (read: untested) new scientific techniques. (UH-OH.)

Naturally, the gang of beer-swilling racist goons headed up by Vic Morrow are pro-canning plant, but they face opposition from a rival fisherman, a young man named Johnny (Anthony Pena), whom they address as “The Indian” on the basis of his Native American heritage. Unhappily for all concerned, this beef is brought to the boil when something crawls out of the sea and slaughters the men’s dogs (some cheery shots of staged doggie carnage here for animal lovers in the audience). For reasons which do not seem entirely clear (but then, I’m not a stereotypical racist goon, so who knows), Vic and his boys blame “The Indian” for this massacre, and promptly kill his dog in retaliation.

This leads to a showdown, as Johnny interrupts the all-important town hall barn dance at which the townsfolk were due to be introduced to the representatives from the Big Corporation. Throwing down his dead hound in the middle of dancefloor and demanding an explanation, he earns himself a public beating from the goon squad, which soon spills over into a full scale parking lot brawl when some slightly less goon-ish citizens come to his defence, leaving the town’s entire male populace nursing bruises and black eyes, and the canning plant guys no doubt considering their options.

Frankly, unless you like dead dogs, salmon fishing, geriatric bands playing slow, old-timey dance music and simmering small town resentment, there is precious little to enjoy in Noyo, even before it becomes clear that any woman of child-bearing age who strays close to the waterline now also risks being assaulted by a raging, seaweed-covered gillman trying to forcibly copulate with her. Oh boy, just what we need.

In a development reminiscent of Ray Russell’s sleaze-horror opus ‘Incubus’ (published a few years earlier in ’76), it seems that the primary aim of these monsters – which we are later informed have evolved into humanoid form from at hyper-speed after some test-tube mould made a getaway from hard-headed lady scientist Ann Turkel’s lab, or somesuch – is reproduction. They attack (and sometimes abduct) women solely for the purpose of trying to impregnate them, but this tactic has a low success rate, as the majority of human females are simply torn apart by the creatures’ amorous assault. Delightful!

(As I write this, I’m conscious of the fact that rape and violence against animals seem to have inadvertently become recurring motifs in this October’s reviews. It’s entirely accidental, I swear! For the record, I didn’t even intend to watch this one, but ended up throwing it on in an emergency when  my DVD of ‘Mr Vampire III’ failed to play.)

The monster effects in ‘Humanoids From The Deep’, are, I would say, rather uneven. The early scenes in which the beasties attack and molest women on the beach take a no-nonsense “man in a suit” type approach, but elsewhere we get some rather more interesting animatronic type creations. In some shots, they seem outright comical, but, especially towards the end of the film, there are also moments when they look totally awesome. In particular, I loved the way that they sometimes shamble around the place with big, toothy grins and their unnaturally long arms raised above their heads, looking like some kind of Satanic, fungoid Tickle-Me Elmo.

Going back to those early attack sequences, I’m pretty sure I remember reading somewhere that Peeters actually refused to shoot the more exploitative footage demanded by Corman, and that as a result he simply brought another director onto the set to film additional footage without her participation. (IMDB credits these sequences to Jimmy T. Murakami.)

As such, I’m not sure who should really take the blame for these “bikini beach attack” scenes, but either way, they’re pretty damned peculiar and unedifying, temporarily threatening to turn the movie into a humourless, sleazoid update of Del Tenney’s ‘60s drive-in classic ‘The Horror of Party Beach’ (only without the great rock n’ roll music or hipster wise-cracks). (1)

The biggest problem here I think is that the beach itself looks horrible. Clearly the filmmakers had to take what they could get in terms of the weather and location, but even so - with grey, gritty sand, perilous rocks, crashing waves and freezing, overcast skies, it’s safe to say that young people would need to be out of their minds to choose this particular spot for frolicking in bikinis or making out in the surf, immediately adding both a fabricated, surreal quality and an air of bleak, bloody-minded nastiness to proceedings. (Perhaps it could have been this, as much as her objection to the stronger sexual content, which led to Peeters refusing to film these scenes?)

Things get even weirder meanwhile when at one point we cut to a random couple of youngsters who are getting to know each other better in a tent they’ve erected on the sand, and, not only does the poor girl have a sea-monster to deal with, the boy she’s screwing turns out to be a goddamn ventriloquist. We’re really looking at a perfect storm of bad decision-making on her part here, as her partner whips out his dummy and starts running through his ‘gottle-a-geer’ act, but… as you’d imagine, she is given little time to reflect on the sequence of events which led her to this unenviable situation before a rampaging monster intervenes.

(Actually, I think the addition of the ventriloquist’s dummy must have been someone’s attempt to introduce some low-brow, frat-house humour – there is much strained, double entendre type dialogue (“you’ve got to let me see more than just the head”, etc) – but this feels quite out of keeping with the dour tone taken by much of the rest of the film. Frankly the whole thing is just really bizarre.)

Meanwhile, our first line of defence against the fungoid menace is headed up by the mighty Doug McClure, taking a well-earned break from punching cavemen in the face and harpooning dinosaurs in Kevin Connor’s wonderfully entertaining series of Edgar Rice Burroughs-inspired ‘70s adventure movies. After all that, you’d think a mere bunch of spongy ‘humanoids’ would be a walk in the park for this dude, but McClure is actually on pretty reserved, naturalistic form here, keeping his fists to himself and playing slightly ‘older’ than was usually the case.

Alongside Doug is the aforementioned Ann Turkel, who looks as if she’s been grown in a vat to be a leading lady in a ‘70s monster movie. I don’t mean that in a negative sense - in fact her performance here is a stand-out - but… can’t quite put my finger on why, but something about her face, her bearing, that hair – I was sure I’d previously seen her as the female lead in ‘Piranha’, or as somebody’s wife in ‘Grizzly’, or, y’know - something like that.

In fact, it turns out ‘Humanoids..’ is one of the only genre movies Turkel has ever appeared in, and I don’t think it was a very happy experience for her (rumours suggest that she actually petitioned the Screen Actors’ Guild to try to stop the film being released, after she learned of the additional footage Corman had added to it).

The sections of the film dealing with these folks and their response to the monster threat quickly fall into the familiar ‘Jaws’ mould, but the difference is that, whereas it’s become a truism that the success of ‘Jaws’ was down to its characters rather than the shark, ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ simply can’t cut it on the same level. Sure, McClure, Turkel and Prena are ‘good guys’ by vestige of the fact that they speak to each other civilly and don’t behave like dicks, but when they set out together in a motor-boat to seek out the monsters’ breeding-grounds, we couldn’t really say that we like them, or particularly care what happens to them.

In fairness however, the film quickly picks up steam in its second half, beginning with our heroes aforementioned monster-blasting excursion, during which they rescue an abducted girl who has been ickily encased in seaweed, which actually turns out to be a pretty fun and exciting action sequence.

Turkel’s character meanwhile does become increasingly forthright and likeable as we get to know her better, and anyone still looking for a gossamer thin thread of potential feminism running through this movie can take heart in the scene back at the lab, which finds her directing an absolutely fantastic tirade of invective at her weaselly male colleague, who wants to try to keep the monsters’ existence secret.

Speaking of ‘Jaws’ meanwhile, you will of course understand that the mayor of Noyo can’t POSSIBLY let the spree of sea-monster rape-murders get in the way of the town’s annual Salmon Festival! And, boy oh boy, it’s during the wonderful, wonderful outburst of absolute mayhem which follows as the monsters attack the town’s nocturnal water-front carnival en masse that this movie really redeems itself - and how! The film’s Japanese title, incidentally, translates simply as ‘MONSTER PANIC!’, and that’s a pretty good two-word summation of everything which follows after this point.

Thrill, as the local pop DJ broadcasts live from the scene, sticking to the mic even as the monsters besiege his booth trying to get at his station’s roller-skating hype girls! Cheer, as loads and loads of ply-wood carnival booths are smashed to pieces by rampaging monsters! Shed a tear (possibly), as Vic Morrow gains last minute redemption by sacrificing himself to save a little girl from the jaws of doom! Laugh uneasily, as the people fight back, and a bunch of guys arms with spiked planks are seen encircling a stricken gillman, seeming slightly unsure of what to do next. Feel slightly confused, as McClure and Turkel enact a plan to spray gasoline across the bay and set the water on fire (because, apparently that will help?).

Even better, all of this fantastic, life-affirming craziness is intercut with the film’s strongest and most convincingly realised horror set-piece, which finds McClure’s wife and young son isolated in their remote beach house, trying to defend themselves from the stalking gillmen. There is some brilliantly tense stuff here, faintly reminiscent of the Timmy-and-Grandma-alone-in-the-house sequence from Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, and I’d like to think (though I have no particular evidence to back up this claim) that this perhaps represents an example of the slightly more classical suspense filmmaking that Peeters was ideally aiming for, before Corman stepped in to enforce the “monsters tearing off bikinis on a rainy beach” approach.

The frantic cutting between this scene and the wacky carnival mayhem meanwhile struck me as pretty exhilarating, rather than jarring, and, perhaps feeling the benefit of a couple of glasses of wine by this point, I was overjoyed to realise that I was suddenly having a really great time with ‘Humanoids from the Deep’.

In conclusion then, let it be known that ‘Humanoids..’ opens with a dour, mean-spirited vibe that, combined with a surplus of clumsy, joyless sleaze, makes its opening hour pretty difficult to hang with. Adventurous viewers are advised to hang on in there however, because the last few reels make it all worthwhile, delivering exactly what I wanted from a movie like this – which is apparently ABSOLUTE CHAOS - and oh so much more besides.


(1) A complete digression I realise, but why does ‘Horror of Party Beach’ only score 3.0 on IMDB?! It’s brilliant! I dunno… fuckin’ *people*, eh?