Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Freddie Francis’

Sorry I’m a little slow off the mark with this one, but my online time has been extremely limited lately for a variety of reasons (not least of them a massive motivational meltdown), and I’ve only just become aware of it.  It seems that the good folks at Tor.com, fresh from a massive revamp of their already impressive website, were able on Wednesday to squeeze in my review of the latest Gauntlet special edition of Matheson’s work, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  The book is a must for any serious Matheson collector, examining this seminal creation in its multimedia incarnations, and I hope the review will whet your appetite for my forthcoming Tor.com Matheson interview.

Meanwhile, we bid a sad but affectionate goodbye to longtime genre fixture Michael Gough, a native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who—at the ripe old age of 93, and with 178 IMDb credits over the course of his 64-year film and television career—can, in all fairness, be said to have had a good run.  Sixty years ago, he appeared in The Man in the White Suit opposite Alec Guinness, with whom Gough was reunited in The Horse’s Mouth (1958) and the BOF fave Smiley’s People (1982).  He also had a small role in Laurence Olivier’s version of Richard III (1955); their other collaborations ran the gamut from The Boys from Brazil (1978) to Brideshead Revisited (1981).

Gough was in at the beginning of the Hammer renaissance with a substantial and, in retrospect, surprisingly heroic part as Arthur in Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958), which marked Christopher Lee’s debut as the Count.  The following year, he had what might be considered his defining role as a crime writer who commits murder to generate his own material in Horrors of the Black Museum.  This was to be his first of five collaborations with erstwhile AIP producer Herman Cohen, followed by several similar characters in Cohen’s Konga (1961), Black Zoo (1963), Berserk (1967), and Trog (1970), the latter two starring Joan Crawford, of all people.

With his talent for portraying slimy villains, Gough was a considerable asset to Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera (1962), although its disappointing box-office results gave Fisher’s career a serious hit.  His path crossed that of Lee’s almost a dozen times over the decades, and the next was in “Disembodied Hand,” a segment from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), the first of rival Amicus Productions’ many anthology films.  Further, if minor, roles for Amicus followed in The Skull (1965, again with Lee) and They Came from Beyond Space (1967), all three of them directed (as was Trog) by Hammer veteran and Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis.

Gough also found decent roles outside the genre in the likes of a television production of Pride and Prejudice (1967), and even his pairings with Lee straddled both worlds.  After they picked up a paycheck in the AIP/Tigon co-production Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), they joined an all-star cast headed by Charlton Heston for Julius Caesar (1970).  Other high-profile mainstream films from this period include Ken Russell’s D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women in Love (1969) and Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1970), scripted by Harold Pinter, and Gough appeared in such TV series as The Saint, The Avengers, and Hammer’s short-lived Journey to the Unknown.

Lest we forget the inevitable Matheson connection, Gough had an unbilled but significant role in The Legend of Hell House (1973), and then worked largely in television (including Dr. Who) for the next few decades.  Among his intermittent and noteworthy feature films were Peter Yates’s The Dresser (1983), Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985), John Mackenzie’s cracking thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987), and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).  Gough’s fame with the Hot Topic generation of viewers was assured when he took the role of the Wayne family butler, Alfred Pennyworth, in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).

While still finding time for highbrow fare like Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993), Gough soldiered on through the decreasing quality of the Burton-less Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).  More important, he kept working with Burton—and renewed his association with Lee—in Sleepy Hollow (1999), Corpse Bride (2005), and last year’s Alice in Wonderland, which while a bit of a disappointment to this Burton fan was a perfect capstone to his long and impressive career.  So let us salute and celebrate this consummate performer, whose many decades in front of the camera displayed such enviable breadth and depth:  R.I.P., Michael.

Read Full Post »

On the occasion of 107th birthday, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

While his work epitomized the Gothic horror tales that secured the fortunes of England’s Hammer Films, director Terence Fisher (1904-80) also made his mark in the SF genre, there and elsewhere.  After unsuccessful careers in the merchant marine and a department store, he joined the industry in 1933 as “the oldest clapper boy in the business,” and worked his way up to editor.

Aptly, Fisher’s directorial debut was a supernatural comedy, Colonel Bogey (1948), while another early indication of what lay ahead was the suspense thriller So Long at the Fair (1950).  He began his association with Hammer in 1952, receiving one of his two screenwriting credits on Mantrap (1953), adapted from the novel Queen in Danger by Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor).

Fisher and Paul Tabori also co-scripted Four Sided Triangle (1953), based on William F. Temple’s novel about scientists in love with the same woman.  Bill (Stephen Murray) believes he can solve the problem by duplicating Lena (Barbara Payton), using their experimental process of turning energy into matter; unfortunately, “Helen” also prefers Robin (John Van Eyssen) to Bill.

Tabori and Richard Landau adapted Spaceways (1953) from a BBC radio play by Charles Eric Maine, whose novels became such films as Escapement (aka The Electronic Monster, 1958) and The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970).  Howard Duff starred as a scientist planning a space trip, to prove that he did not murder his wife and her lover and conceal their bodies in a previous rocket.

As with Universal in the 1930s, Hammer kicked off its successful cycle of Gothic horror films with back-to-back adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, although in reverse order.  Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, 1958) made stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, with their signature roles.

Hammer elected to follow the fortunes of Frankenstein (Cushing) rather than his creation (Lee) in its sequels.  Except for Freddie Francis’s The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), they were all directed by Fisher:  The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).

Fisher largely left the Dracula series to other hands, with Francis following him again on Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), although he directed the first two sequels.  The Brides of Dracula (1960) brought back Cushing’s Van Helsing, but not the Count himself, who returned sans dialogue in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), due to Lee’s dissatisfaction with the script.

Also using those two stars to excellent effect was Fisher’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), with Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes among the screen’s greatest and Lee as the endangered Baskerville heir.  Soon, Fisher was revisiting horror classics left and right in The Mummy (1959), The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (aka House of Fright, 1960), and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961).

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) was a remake of a more obscure film, The Man in Half Moon Street (1945).  But the box-office failure of The Phantom of the Opera (1962) led to a brief exile from Hammer, during which Fisher directed Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes (Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, 1962), with Lee taking a turn as Holmes.

He also made a pair of films for American producer Robert L. Lippert, who distributed much of Hammer’s early output in the U.S.  The Horror of It All (1963) was a spoof, written by Ray Russell, while The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) marked Fisher’s return to SF with a low-budget, star-free tale about the survivors of an alien invasion that utilized robots and zombies.

Reunited with Hammer, Cushing, and Lee on The Gorgon (1964), Fisher still continued alternating horror and SF with two projects for the short-lived Planet Films.  In Island of Terror (1966), a solid script and a good cast, headed by Cushing and Edward Judd, helped to make up for the somewhat silly appearance of its tentacled silicates, which consume the calcium in bones.

Based on the novel by John Lymington, Night of the Big Heat (aka Island of the Burning Damned, 1967) displayed similar strengths and weaknesses.  Tensions simmer among Cushing, Lee, and the romantic triangle involving Jane Merrow, Patrick Allen, and his on- and off-screen wife, Sarah Lawson, but the rock-like alien blobs besieging them leave something to be desired.

Fisher next made the outstanding Dennis Wheatley adaptation The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil’s Bride, 1968), scripted by the acclaimed Richard Matheson.  Sadly, health problems prevented him from following through on several Hammer projects for which he was scheduled, and helped precipitate his retirement, but not before he brought the Frankenstein series to a close.

Read Full Post »

Happy Halloween!  In honor of the (apparently) late, lamented Watching Hammer, I offer this nostalgic list, written at their request just before the site ceased posting new material:

Sincerest thanks to Watching Hammer for inviting me to contribute a Top Ten.  Since Hammer’s heyday ended when I wasn’t quite old enough to drive, I haven’t had the experience other contributors did of seeing these films on the big screen, and was forced to content myself with TV, home-video and convention screenings over the years.  In my infancy as a genre-film aficionado, I thought Hammer was a bunch of pretenders who had the audacity to remake our beloved Universal classics, but our friends across the Pond had the last laugh because now, at any given moment, I’d probably rather watch a Hammer than a Universal, much as I love them both.  And the fact that my future wife and I bonded in high school by chatting about these films during chorus class didn’t hurt.

As the guy who had a hard time getting his list of favorite films on his own blog down to 100, I found it difficult to limit myself to ten, and must give an honorable mention to The Phantom of the Opera before beginning.  So, rather than subject myself to further agony, I am listing them in chronological order.  I make no apologies for including both of the films written by the object of my obsession, Richard Matheson, because I genuinely believe they were two of Hammer’s best, although this is really a list of favorites rather than those I would rank as “best” by some mythical objective standard.  Here goes…

The Quatermass Experiment:  Given my focus on writers, it’s no surprise that I think Nigel Kneale was one of the best things ever to happen to Hammer.  He might not have agreed at the time, since he was unhappy with both the casting of Brian Donlevy in the lead and the adaptation (by Richard Landau and director Val Guest) of his seminal BBC serial, but since some chapters of the TV version are lost, we’ll never be able to compare them in their entirety.  Be that as it may, Quatermass’s struggle to learn what happened to the three-man crew of his first space rocket is eerie and suspenseful from the start, as he learns that contact with an alien life-form has made one astronaut (Richard Wordsworth) absorb the others and begin mutating.  It was Hammer’s first big success, and rightly so.

Quatermass 2:  Many years ago, when New York’s outstanding Film Forum repertory cinema was still in its old Watts Street location, I arranged with my friend Greg Cox (now Matheson’s editor at Tor and a successful author of franchise fiction) to attend a screening of the Quatermass trilogy.  When I told him we might want to arrive early, he laughed and said, “Matthew, these are old British SF films from the ’50s and ’60s; we won’t have any trouble getting in.”  Well, the line was literally around the block, but we did get in.  Due to the vagaries of television programming, I think this was the first time I’d seen the original since childhood—perhaps the first in its entirety—and the first time ever for the sequel, which really wowed me.  Donlevy and Guest were back (the latter sharing script credit with Kneale this time), as Quatermass copes with a government conspiracy that turns out to represent an alien invasion.  The scene of the politician who has fallen into a vat of toxic liquid is a particular standout in this gripping and inventive thriller.

The Curse of Frankenstein:  With its unprecedented full-color gore and sumptuous period production values, this set the template for Hammer’s most famous films and established the “dream team” of their early days, including director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, composer James Bernard, and up-and-coming genre superstars Peter Cushing (as Baron Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Creature).  Cushing’s Baron is a fascinating character, and Hammer wisely built the ensuing series around him rather than the Creature, who gets dissolved in a vat of acid at the end.  Hazel Court is the delectable cherry on top as Elizabeth, and I love Cushing’s chutzpah as he yells, “Look out, Professor!”…while pushing the poor old guy—whose brain he needs—off a balcony, in order to throw anyone within earshot off the scent.

The Hound of the Baskervilles:  In all fairness, I haven’t seen a number of the screen incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, but of those I have, I would rank Peter Cushing as second only to Basil Rathbone in the role.  In most cases, Rathbone easily surpassed his material, much of which was not derived from Conan Doyle, but here, the above dream team (minus Sangster) provided a top-notch vehicle, complete with the always-welcome Andre Morell as an unusually intelligent Watson.  Although relegated to the role of the imperiled Baskerville heir, Lee adds considerable heft, and Cushing is a delight as he rips into lines like, “There are many strange things to be found upon the moor—like this, for instance!”  (Cue the loud “Thwock!” as he slams the ceremonial dagger into the table.)

Fanatic:  One might be forgiven for mistaking this as another of Hammer’s post-Psycho psycho-thrillers, written by Sangster and bearing similar one-word titles:  Paranoiac, Maniac, Nightmare, Hysteria.  But as much as I love Sangster’s seminal scripts for Hammer in the ’50s, I think Matheson far surpasses him in this adaptation of Anne Blaisdell’s Nightmare (whose title presumably had to be changed to differentiate it from the Sangster film).  Stefanie Powers is lovely and believable as the American girl imprisoned by her late former fiancé’s mother, equally well played by Tallulah Bankhead, and her growing realization that her captor is a dangerous religious fanatic rather than a harmless eccentric gives the film a satisfying dramatic arc.  Throw in the young Donald Sutherland as a mentally challenged servant, and you’re good to go.

Dracula—Prince of Darkness:  This is my wife’s favorite movie, but that’s not the only reason I’m including it.  I’m sure many would consider it sacrilege to give this the nod over what we Yanks think of as Horror of Dracula, especially since Lee’s distaste for the script (Distaste the Script of Dracula?) led him to omit his dialogue.  Still, I’ve always preferred Prince; maybe I never got over the fact that Sangster had Harker get turned into a vampire, just as Dan Curtis did in the Jack Palance television version—a plot point, I might add, that is not found in Matheson’s published teleplay.  But I digress.  Andrew Keir pinch-hits beautifully for Van Helsing as rifle-toting Father Sandor, and rich entertainment is provided by the interplay among the ill-fated Kent family, with Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer amusingly cast as Charles and Diana and the ever-popular Barbara Shelley as the prim Helen, whose transformation into a sensuous vampire is most extraordinary.

Quatermass and the Pit:  Feel free to criticize me for devoting almost a third of my list to ol’ Bernie, but remember, I could have included Kneale’s The Abominable Snowman, as well.  Reuniting Keir (as Quatermass) and Shelley, this is truly a thinking man’s SF film, as Quatermass discovers a five-million-year-old Martian spacecraft that is buried beneath London and holds surprising secrets about mankind’s evolution.  With Roy Ward Baker [see “A Career to Remember”] succeeding Guest, and Kneale bearing sole script credit, it once again showed the triumph of good writing over pathetic special effects—in this case, those finger-puppet Martians.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave:  Yeah, we Bradleys love us our vampires (Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter almost made the list as well), and I’ve always had a big soft spot for this follow-up to Prince, an affection that not merely the presence of Veronica Carlson can explain.  The redoubtable Rupert Davies as the monsignor has a lot to do with it, as does the spectacular climax, with Dracula knocked over his own battlements and impaled on a giant cross.  One of Fisher’s periodic hospitalizations forced Freddie Francis to direct this, but although he told me when I interviewed him that he was more interested in the young lovers than in Dracula, I think that once again, the story of the non-nosferatu characters is strong enough to keep us going in between visits from Lee.

The Devil Rides Out:  A pinnacle for all concerned.  Dennis Wheatley justifiably praised Matheson for his exciting adaptation of Wheatley’s somewhat verbose novel, and Lee has a rare heroic (not to mention sizeable) role as the Duc de Richleau.  Charles Gray is also outstanding as the Satanist villain, Mocata, and although the usual complaints are leveled at the skimpy special effects, see Quatermass and the Pit for my response to that.  With the usual superior contributions from Fisher and James Bernard, this is horror at its fast-paced, non-jokey and intelligent finest.  Lee and others have argued that it is ripe for a remake, but since you know it would just turn into another CGI-fest, I’m not sure I agree.

The Vampire Lovers:  I’d be lying if I said that naked women in general, a naked Ingrid Pitt in particular, and lesbian vampires didn’t influence this choice.  But, in my defense, look at the record:  you’ve got Cushing as the devoted and devastated father, General von Spielsdorf.  You’ve Jon Finch, soon to be brilliant in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, in a supporting role.  And, perhaps most of all, you’ve got what may be the most faithful adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s oft-filmed “Carmilla,” with Baker at the helm.  Threadbare production values be damned, this is a good movie.

BOF Addendum:  Now I’ll sit back and wait for Drax to complain (albeit with love) about the absence of visuals.  I keep telling him I am the Word-Man.  Word-Man.  WORD-MAN!  BWUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Read Full Post »

Last night, I was surprised to learn that director Roy Ward Baker passed away on October 5 at the age of 93; surprised because, as is so often the case with someone so long off my personal radar, I had assumed he was long gone already.  I see now from the IMDb that he was working in British television as late as 1992, although the most recent credit I’ve seen is Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death (1984), with frequent Baker collaborator John Mills as Watson to Peter Cushing’s Holmes.  Of course, most people in the mainstream wouldn’t recognize his name in the first place, although they should thank him for giving Marilyn Monroe a solid early dramatic role opposite Richard Widmark in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) during a sojourn in Hollywood.

Said sojourn also included, of all things, the 3-D thriller Inferno (1953), with Robert Ryan as a wealthy man stranded in the desert by his adulterous wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover, but soon afterward he was on his way back home to England.  There, Baker made the best film I’ve seen about the sinking of the Titanic, the 1958 adaptation of Walter Lord’s nonfiction bestseller A Night to Remember.  Unlike other Titanic films, e.g., the eponymous entries directed by Jean Negulesco in 1953 and that What’s-His-Name guy in 1997, Night found sufficient drama—to say the least—in the historical events themselves, without focusing on fictional characters and their soap operas, with Kenneth More heading a “usual suspects” cast (including Honor Blackman).

Baker was a prolific television director, notching episodes of such series as The Avengers, The Saint, Department S, The Champions (Alexandra Bastedo—woo-hoo!), Journey to the Unknown, The Persuaders!, The Protectors, and Return of the Saint (starring Ian Ogilvy, a fave of Madame BOF).  But to genre fans, Baker will always be recognized as one of the best of the second-tier Hammer directors, by which I mean most of those below big dogs Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis.  According to Dennis Fischer’s worthy McFarland tome Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990, his association with Hammer was an indirect result of A Night to Remember, since they wanted a technically savvy director, familiar with special effects, to helm Quatermass and the Pit (1967).

Known Stateside as Five Million Years to Earth, this SF epic was adapted by Nigel Kneale from the third of his BBC-TV Quatermass serials, with Hammer stalwart Andrew Keir in fine form as the titular scientist, who investigates the contents of a Martian spaceship found buried beneath London.  Oddly, top billing was given to James Donald, fondly remembered from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963), as Quatermass’s self-sacrificing colleague, Dr. Matthew Roney.  The effects are wildly uneven, with the finger-puppet Martians seen in the flashback sequences a hilarious low, but Baker’s command of the complex material was firm, and he wisely reunited Keir with his Dracula—Prince of Darkness (1966) co-star Barbara Shelley.

Having known Bette Davis in Hollywood, Baker next replaced Alvin Rakoff when the latter did not hit it off with the star in The Anniversary (1968), a black comedy scripted by the studio’s resident expert on psycho-thrillers, Jimmy Sangster.  I have seen neither that film nor Baker’s next Hammer outing, but given the conspicuously low reputation of Moon Zero Two (1969), I should perhaps be grateful that it is somewhat elusive today.  Perhaps notable only as the first space Western—a dubious precedent, perhaps, for Peter Hyams’s Outland (1981)—it was co-written by second-generation Hammer honcho and mediocrity-meister Michael Carreras, and as much as I love The Andromeda Strain (1971), I doubt that leading man James Olson set the screen on fire.

My other favorite among Baker’s Hammer credits is The Vampire Lovers (1970), with Ingrid Pitt as J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” backed by Peter Cushing and Jon Finch, and although its lesbian bloodsuckers pushed the envelope for its time, Baker kept it tasteful and, above all, serious.  His vampire credentials thus established, he bracketed Hammer’s ill-conceived modern-day Dracula films with two period outings that merit a closer look.  Scars of Dracula (1970) gave Christopher Lee a little more to do than usual, even throwing in a few dollops of material from the novel for a change, while for me to note that The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) was the first kung-fu vampire film is misleading, bolstered as it is by Peter Cushing’s presence as Van Helsing and Baker’s atmospheric direction.

In between, Baker directed Hammer’s offbeat Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), my enjoyment of which will be forever hampered by my loathing for Ralph Bates, and—like Francis—worked the other side of the fence by making several films for local rival Amicus.  These included two of their trademark anthology films:  Asylum (1972), adapted by Robert Bloch from his own stories, and The Vault of Horror (1973), based on the E.C. horror comics of the 1950s.  He also directed one of the better stand-alone Amicus films, —And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973), and after that company’s dissolution, Baker was reunited with producer and co-founder Milton Subotsky for another omnibus film, The Monster Club (1980), based on the stories of R. Chetwynd-Hayes.

Read Full Post »

Marking the 89th birthday of co-founder Milton Subotsky, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

As a purveyor of cinematic horror in the 1960s and ’70s, Amicus Productions was Britain’s only serious rival to Hammer Films, whose personnel (e.g., Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, directors Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker) it borrowed on a regular basis. Ironically, the studio was founded by the American producers Max J. Rosenberg (1914-2004) and Milton Subotsky (1921-91).

Also a screenwriter, Subotsky received the story credit on an early effort that was technically a Vulcan Production, John Moxey’s City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960), a splendid tale of witchcraft featuring Lee in a solid supporting role. He later scripted the first official Amicus production, Francis’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), which started a signature series of anthology films.

Subotsky based one of the earliest Amicus films, Francis’s The Skull (1965), on horror author and screenwriter Robert Bloch’s classic “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Bloch was then hired to adapt his own published stories into Francis’s Torture Garden (1967), Peter Duffell’s The House That Dripped Blood (1970) and Baker’s Asylum (1972), each of which utilized the anthology format.

Amicus eventually became the first studio permitted by publisher William M. Gaines to film stories from the eponymous E.C. horror comics of the 1950s in Francis’s Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Baker’s The Vault of Horror (1973). But it also made several significant contributions to the SF genre, including the only feature films to date based upon the long-running BBC-TV series Dr. Who.

Unveiled in the Doctor’s second adventure, “The Daleks” (aka “The Dead Planet”), the titular mutants inside their metallic casings, whose primary goal is to “Exterminate!” humans, soon became the most enduring of his interstellar adversaries. Thus, an adaptation of Terry Nation’s serial seemed a safe bet for Amicus to introduce the Doctor to the big screen—and in color—for the very first time.

Written by Subotsky, with additional material by the show’s script editor, David Whitaker, Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) changed the Doctor from the Time Lord of the series to an eccentric human inventor, played by Peter Cushing. The film was directed by Gordon Flemyng, who worked almost exclusively in British television for the thirty-odd years of his decidedly unremarkable career.

The Doctor’s invention, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), is disguised as a police call box, and can travel through time and/or space. It does both, whisking the Doctor and his granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Roberta Tovey) to the planet Skaro in the distant future, when Barbara’s clumsy boyfriend, Ian Chesterton (Roy Castle), stumbles against the controls.

Poisoned by nuclear war, Skaro is inhabited by two races: the peaceful, humanoid Thals, and the deadly Daleks, which are protected by their mechanized armor. Joining forces with the Thals, the Doctor and his companions undergo the usual quotient of captures, imprisonments, and escapes, but ultimately defeat the Daleks by interfering with the magnetic forces that control their futuristic city.

Cushing and Tovey were back, with a bigger budget, the same screenwriters, and essentially the same crew, for Flemyng’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966), based on Nation’s second Dalek serial, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” Ian and Barbara were supplanted by police constable Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins), another comic foil, and the Doctor’s niece, Louise (Jill Curzon).

In 2150, the Daleks are excavating in England with evil intent, hoping to blow out the Earth’s magnetic core by planting a bomb in a fissure, effectively turning the planet into a giant spaceship. This ambitious plan is put to rest when the Doctor reprograms their human slaves, the Robomen, and diverts the bomb down an unused shaft, so that the magnetic pull draws the Daleks down to the core.

Allan Bryce’s Amicus: The Studio That Dripped Blood tartly (but not necessarily inaccurately) dismisses their next SF efforts, Montgomery Tully’s The Terrornauts and Francis’s They Came From Beyond Space (both 1967), as “the two worst films the company ever produced.” Each was based on a decidedly pulpy paperback (Murray Leinster’s The Wailing Asteroid and Joseph Millard’s The Gods Kate Kansas, respectively).

Francis told me in an interview for Filmfax that after budgeting for both movies, Amicus spent most of the money on The Terrornauts, leaving very little left over for him. “So we were trying to do this film with not much money, and I thought it was a rotten film anyway,” he said. “That was another Subotsky script [indeed, his writing was widely considered the studio’s weakest link], which I didn’t interfere with.”

In The Terrornauts, a group of humans is spirited off into space and subjected to a series of intelligence tests, before being plunged into the middle of a war between alien races. Francis’s film concerns another alien race, this time taking over humans to effect their mysterious plan, which turns out to be nothing more menacing than trying to get from our moon to their own world to die at home.

More ambitious and intelligent, but faring badly at the box-office, was Alan Cooke’s The Mind of Mr. Soames (1969), based on the novel by Charles Eric Maine. Reminiscent of Charly (1968), it stars Terence Stamp as a thirty-year-old man awakened from the coma he has been in since birth, with Robert Vaughn and Nigel Davenport as doctors in disagreement over how to educate him.

Scream and Scream Again (1970) was an odd hybrid of horror and SF, and of personnel from both Amicus and American International Pictures, then expanding into England. Star Vincent Price, director Gordon Hessler, and screenwriter Christopher Wicking had already worked together at AIP, while Rosenberg and Subotsky produced the film, and Lee and Cushing co-starred.

Based on Peter Saxon’s The Disorientated Man, this historic teaming of horror’s “big three” is a disorientating experience indeed, with multiple settings and plotlines that seem unconnected at first. Finally, it becomes clear (relatively speaking) that Price’s character has been creating a race of deadly, super-strong “composites,” which are infiltrating various governments to control the world.

Amicus also produced some of the few films based on SF novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known as the creator of Tarzan. Financed—and distributed in the U.S.—by AIP, The Land That Time Forgot (1975), its sequel, The People That Time Forgot (1977), and At the Earth’s Core (1976) were all directed by Kevin Connor, as was their last anthology film, From Beyond the Grave (1973).

Land and People concern Caprona, a lost continent on which, as in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, dinosaurs still exist at the time of World War I. The survivors of a British ship, including American Bowen Tyler (Doug McClure), are taken aboard the U-boat that torpedoed them, and clash with the crew before encountering prehistoric creatures and mysterious tribes of cavemen.

At the Earth’s Core is set in another fictional world, Pellucidar, to which Tarzan himself paid a visit in one of Burroughs’s sequels. McClure starred as David Innes, who journeys to the center of the Earth in a giant drilling machine, with Cushing as Abner Perry, the absent-minded professor who accompanies him, and Caroline Munro as Dia, the primitive princess he rescues from assorted perils.

Amicus was in fact disintegrating as the Burroughs films were being made; Subotsky left the company in 1975, after Land was completed, and the company was officially dissolved even before People was released by AIP. But while its track record was mixed and its production values never as high as Hammer’s, Amicus is fondly remembered for the genre entertainment it offered for a decade.

Read Full Post »

In recent years, England’s FAB Press has performed an invaluable service by publishing large, handsome volumes on hitherto neglected subjects, such as Troy Howarth’s The Haunted World of Mario Bava, with which we had to make do until Tim Lucas’s definitive tome appeared. Augmenting their list of titles on Dario Argento, Abel Ferrara, and Lucio Fulci was John Hamilton’s Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Film Career of Tony Tenser (2005), and although I am not a big fan of Tenser’s work for the most part, it was a significant story that needed to be told. It reads like a who’s who of the most ubiquitous names in horror films, e.g., Roy Ashton, Herman Cohen, Peter Cushing, Freddie Francis, Richard Gordon, Michael Gough, Louis M. Heyward, Boris Karloff, Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Dennis Price, Vincent Price, Michael Reeves, Peter Sasdy, Barbara Steele, and Harry Alan Towers.

Between 1961 and 1972, Tenser produced thirty-six films through the two British companies he co-founded and later left, Compton (1961-66) and Tigon (1967-72), with the name and symbol of the latter representing a cross between a tiger and a lion. Some were softcore “nudies” with self-explanatory titles like Naked–As Nature Intended (1961) and Love in Our Time (1969), while others such as Black Beauty, Hannie Caulder (both 1971), and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1972) aspired to mainstream success, but the best-known were in the horror and SF genres. Shrewdly covering all the bases, Tenser was also active in exhibition and distribution, obtaining the sometimes belated U.K. rights to films ranging from Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow and Missile to the Moon to Fires on the Plain and Last Year at Marienbad, as well as works by Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson) that featured future Tigon stars Lee, Steele, and Robert Flemyng.

As Hamilton explains, Tenser’s formula was simple: by giving the public what it wanted to see (as good a definition as any of exploitation filmmaking) and keeping costs strictly contained, frequently sharing them with other companies, he ensured that almost every one of his films turned a profit, however modest. Of course, scantily clad–or less–girls didn’t hurt, and Tenser paraded the likes of Francesca Annis, sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, Diana Dors, Hilary Dwyer, Julie Ege, Linda Hayden, Suzanna Leigh, Helen Mirren, Yutte Stensgaard, Raquel Welch, and Virginia Wetherell across the screen, often in various stages of undress. The conflict between art and commerce came to a head most notably when Roman Polanski clashed with Tenser over the escalating budgets and shooting schedules of his first two English-language films, Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-Sac (1966), shortly after which Polanski headed to hoped-for greener pastures in Hollywood and Tenser left Compton to found Tigon.

Perhaps Tenser’s biggest claim to fame was producing two of the three films made by Reeves, the controversial and short-lived director who had already worked with Steele in Italy on La Sorella di Satana (aka Revenge of the Blood Beast, The She-Beast; 1965). For Tigon, he then made The Sorcerers (1967) with Karloff and Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm; 1968) with Price, and had several additional projects in the pipeline when both Karloff and Reeves died in February 1969, dealing the company a serious blow. Like the oft-imitated Witchfinder General, Vernon Sewell’s Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka The Crimson Cult; 1968), which starred Karloff, Lee, and Steele, and Michael Armstrong’s The Haunted House of Horror (aka Horror House; 1969), which was to have featured Karloff, were contentious co-productions with American International Pictures, about which I’ll have a great deal more to say at a later date.

Tenser also joined forces with other notable producers, including Cohen on A Study in Terror (1965), the first film to pit Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper; Gordon on The Projected Man (1966); and Towers on Black Beauty. Like Hammer Films (which Tigon almost acquired in 1972) and Amicus Productions, Tenser had conspicuously less success in the SF genre with such non-starters as The Body Stealers (aka Thin Air), the interstellar sex romp Zeta One (both 1969), and Sasdy’s Doomwatch (1972), spun off from the eponymous BBC-TV series. Consciously evoking the style of his homegrown rivals, The Creeping Flesh (1972) was Tenser’s only effort teaming frequent co-stars Cushing–who called Sewell’s Tigon opus The Blood Beast Terror (aka The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood; 1967) his own worst film–and Lee, reuniting them with Hammer and Amicus veteran Francis.

There may be a better book to be written about Tenser, especially since Hamilton’s prose is rarely scintillating and marred by poor proofreading, but I doubt there’s a more complete one, given that he drew on exclusive interviews, original production files, and private correspondence to make the story of Tenser’s business dealings genuinely absorbing. In particular, Hamilton had enviable access to his candid subject, who produced one more film, Peter Walker’s Frightmare (1974), after leaving Tigon and died in 2007, two years after Beasts in the Cellar was published. Tenser’s time in the spotlight was barely a decade, due to the collapsing market for the kinds of films he made, yet his was an important chapter in genre history, and this comprehensive, lavishly illustrated account more than does him justice.

Read Full Post »

Yeah, I know, I just missed his 88th birthday, which was Thursday, but is there ever a bad time to talk about Christopher Lee? “Not from where I’m standing,” to quote a certain British agent in Lee’s The Man with the Golden Gun. Focusing on the films he made with Hammer and Mario Bava, as we have done here already, it’s easy to lose sight of the wonderful work he has done in other movies and television shows (some of which were otherwise not so wonderful), so we’ll attempt to rectify that oversight now. Since I’m a firm believer that Lee’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s represented the Golden Age of cinema, this representative sampling will concentrate there, starting today with the ’60s. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his more recent collaborations with Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Alice in Wonderland), Peter Jackson (as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and George Lucas (as Count Dooku in the Star Wars CGI-fest prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith).

La Vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, aka Horror Castle, The Castle of Terror, Terror Castle; 1963): During the Italian Renaissance of horror films in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Lee followed in the footsteps of his transplanted countrywoman, Barbara Steele, and made films with both Bava (Ercole al Centro della Terra, La Frusta e il Corpo) and Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson). This one reunited Margheriti with the producer (Marco Vicario) and leading man (Georges Rivière) of his first film with Steele, La Danza Macabra; for good measure, Vicario also published the eponymous story by Frank Bogart upon which the film is based and supplied his wife, Rossana Podestà, as the leading lady. Here, Lee has a decidedly second-banana role—dubbed by another actor, as he was in his Bava films, alas—as the scarred and sinister-seeming family retainer in a German castle. The bride of the current occupant (Rivière), Podestà is tormented by dreams of his scarlet-clad ancestor, The Punisher, who tortured girls to death in the family dungeon. But it turns out that his deranged father, turned into a living skull by Nazi scientists for taking part in the plot to kill Hitler, sees himself as The Punisher, a plot twist aped in the inferior Il Boia Scarlatto. Shot in gorgeous color, the film features some gruesome effects.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Lee made his American debut in the 1964 episode “The Sign of Satan,” adapted by Barré Lyndon from Robert Bloch’s story, and plays Karl Jorla, whose involvement with a Satanic cult takes his acting career down a most unusual path; the creepy black-and-white cinematography is positively Bava-worthy.

La Cripta e l’Incubo (The Crypt and the Nightmare, aka La Maldición de los Karnstein/La Maledizione dei Karnstein [The Curse of the Karnsteins], Crypt of Horror, Terror in the Crypt, The Crypt of the Vampire, The Vampire’s Crypt, Karnstein, Carmilla, Catharsis; 1964): This oft-retitled Spanish-Italian co-production is a restrained adaptation of J. Sheridan le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” filmed previously and subsequently as Et Mourir de Plaisir (aka Blood and Roses) and The Vampire Lovers, respectively, although it also owes a lot to Barbara Steele’s genre debut in Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of the Demon, aka Black Sunday). That’s appropriate, as director “Thomas Miller” (Camillo Mastrocinque) went on to work with Babs in Un Angelo per Satana (An Angel for Satan), apparently his only other noteworthy genre credit, but it’s a shame he didn’t have her for this film, which somewhat makes up for her absence with a boatload of black-and-white Gothic atmosphere and, above all, the presence of Lee. Unlike many of his Italian efforts, it features his real voice, to boot.

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965): The first official Amicus film, after the wonderful City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, also with Lee), written (badly) by co-founder Milton Subotsky and directed by studio mainstay Freddie Francis. Kicking off their successful series of anthology horror films, it gets better than it deserves from Peter Cushing as the titular fortune-teller and frequent co-star Lee as an acerbic art critic tormented by the hand he severs from artist Michael Gough. Donald Sutherland is a small-town doctor convinced his wife is a vampire, and Bernard Lee (“M” in the Bond films) appears in a silly story about a killer vine. One segment concerns a werewolf; another is shamelessly plagiarized from “Papa Benjamin,” a Cornell Woolrich story that was also adapted on the TV series Thriller.

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965): First and best—which isn’t saying much—of Lee’s five similarly titled (The [fill in the blank] of Fu Manchu) appearances as Sax Rohmer’s evil genius, with Nigel Green letter-perfect as nemesis Nayland Smith and old Hammer hand Don Sharp directing. Brides followed, with Sharp but sadly without Green, who was replaced by Douglas Wilmer in both that and Jeremy Summers’s Vengeance. But worse was yet to come, in the form of director Jesus (aka Jess) Franco and Richard Greene as Smith, with the two final entries, Blood and Castle. Other than Lee, the only constants in this precipitously declining quintet were writer-producer Harry Alan Towers and Tsai Chin as Fu’s twisted daughter, Lin Tang.

Circus of Fear (aka Psycho-Circus; 1966): The hooded Lee was, as I recall, a knife-throwing red herring in this big-top caper from Towers, based on an Edgar Wallace novel and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (City of the Dead). Klaus Kinski, who appeared in innumerable German krimis (crime films) based on Wallace’s work, and Leo Genn co-star.

Theatre of Death (aka The Blood Fiend, The Female Fiend; 1967): I have only the vaguest memories of this contemporary thriller with Lee playing the head of an ill-fated Grand Guignol-type theater. Director Samuel Gallu is suitably obscure; Julian Glover also appears.

Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (The Snake Pit and the Pendulum, aka The Blood Demon, The Snake Pit, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, The Torture Room; 1967): This German mishmash was allegedly inspired by Poe, with Lee as the reincarnated and vengeful Count Regula (who presumably ate all his prunes), reassembled after being drawn and quartered for killing twelve virgins—what a waste!—in his torture chamber; erstwhile Tarzan Lex Barker plays the hero. Director Harald Reinl was then married to leading lady Karin Dor (who, like Tsai Chin, also appeared in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice).

The Oblong Box (1969): An okay AIP film with an interesting history, this is another alleged Poe adaptation, which supposedly has more to do with Kipling’s “The Mark of the Beast.” It was to have been the next film by writer-producer-director Lawrence Huntington, who dropped dead leaving the hilariously awful The Vulture as his last effort. Meanwhile, Michael Reeves, fresh from Witchfinder General, was slated to direct Richard Matheson’s script for De Sade with Gordon Hessler, an old friend of Louis M. “Deke” Heyward (AIP’s so-called “Third Man,” who headed their European operations), producing. When Heyward was asked to produce that film personally—with disastrous results—and Reeves bowed out due to personal problems, he and Hessler were reassigned to this project, with Huntington’s script substantially rewritten by AIP and Hammer scribe Christopher Wicking (Cry of the Banshee). But before it could even go before the cameras, Reeves bowed out once again and was soon dead of a drug overdose, forcing Hessler to tackle the direction as well. The film features Vincent Price as a nobleman who keeps his insane and disfigured brother, the victim of a voodoo curse, locked up in an upstairs room. It also marked the first teaming of Price with fellow horror legend Lee, although their sole scene together consists of Price finding Lee dying of a throat slit by the brother, so the dramatic possibilities were limited…

To be concluded.

Read Full Post »

Continuing our idiosyncratic survey of some noteworthy Hammer films and related items.

Kiss of the Vampire (aka Kiss of Evil; 1964): A minor effort directed by Don Sharp, in which the absence of any of the studio’s major stars is sorely felt, but You Know Who requested it because of its subject matter. Edward De Souza of Phantom of the Opera fame (or, more accurately, obscurity) is once again the stalwart hero, who is aided by a poor man’s Van Helsing (Clifford Evans, Oliver Reed’s father in Curse of the Werewolf) when his new bride (Jennifer Daniel) is menaced by a vampire cult, led by Noel Willman. The climactic destruction of the vampires by a swarm of bats (originally planned for Brides of Dracula) was butchered in the U.S. release prints.

The Old Dark House (1964): Talk about strange bedfellows: this remake of the 1932 James Whale classic teamed Hammer with producer-director William Castle. It’s a lame horror comedy starring Tom Poston, of all people, and scripted by Robert Dillon, whose credits include one each of John Frankenheimer’s best (French Connection II) and worst (99 and 44/100% Dead) movies. Hammer alumna Janette Scott (Paranoiac) joins comedic vets Robert Morley, Joyce Grenfell, and Peter Bull.

Fanatic (aka Die! Die! My Darling!; 1965): Richard Matheson wrote three scripts for Hammer, but only two were filmed. The censor put the kibosh on Night Creatures, which he adapted from his classic novel I Am Legend, so the studio sold the project to sometime distributor Robert Lippert (recycling the title as an alternate for Captain Clegg), who had it rewritten by another scenarist and filmed in Italy as The Last Man on Earth. Luckily, they gave Matheson another gig with this film, directed by Silvio Narizzano (best known for Georgy Girl). Based on Anne Blaisdell’s novel Nightmare, it’s highlighted by two standout performances, one by Stefanie Powers as a young American visiting her dead fiancée’s mother in England. In her last screen appearance, Tallulah Bankhead plays the mother, who ends up imprisoning Powers in her home and terrorizing her to show her the error of her ways; a very young Donald Sutherland appears as the retarded handyman.

Dracula—Prince of Darkness (1966): Hammer’s output for 1965 also included two more Jimmy Sangster-scripted psycho-thrillers, Freddie Francis’s Hysteria and Seth Holt’s The Nanny (based on a novel by Evelyn Piper of Bunny Lake Is Missing fame), as well as a new version of H. Rider Haggard’s classic adventure novel She, starring Ursula Andress (Dr. No, Casino Royale [1967]). But the big news came the following year when Christopher Lee finally returned to the part of Dracula. He has no lines (supposedly they were so bad he refused to utter them), and takes a while to appear, but it’s okay—Terence Fisher’s direction and the other characters are good enough to keep you busy. Stars stalwart Andrew Keir, Cary Grant sound-alike Francis Matthews, Hammer über-heroine Barbara Shelley in one of her best roles (as a vampiress), and Thorley Walters as Fritz.

The Plague of the Zombies (1966): Hammer continued to move in multiple directions in 1966, teaming up with Ray Harryhausen for the stop-motion remake One Million Years B.C. and reuniting the three leads of Dracula—Prince of Darkness (Lee, Matthews, and Shelley) for Sharp’s historical thriller Rasputin the Mad Monk. Meanwhile, John Gilling directed this lesser effort, a companion piece to his film The Reptile, also set in Cornwall. The highlight is the spooky dream sequence showing the zombies leaving their graves. Starring are Andre Morell; John Carson, later of Taste the Blood of Dracula and Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter; Jacqueline Pearce, who had the title role in The Reptile; Brook Williams, the doomed radio operator in Where Eagles Dare and the son of playwright Emlyn Williams (Night Must Fall); and Hammer mainstay Michael Ripper.

The Witches (aka The Devil’s Own; 1966): Another of Hammer’s lesser efforts, although written by Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale. Joan Fontaine joins the mid-’60s menopausal horror set in this tale of witches (aw, you guessed) at an English school. My wife likes this, so I have a soft spot for it.

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967): Hey, he must have been doing something right! But seriously, folks… Fisher directed, as he did all but the third film in the series, and Peter Cushing returns as Baron Frankenstein, who puts the soul of a wrongfully executed youth into the voluptuous body of a formerly scarred beauty played by August 1966 Playmate of the Month Susan Denberg (née Dietlinde Zechner), who also starred in “Mudd’s Women” on the original Star Trek.

Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth; 1967): Hammer was still mucking about in those musty tombs to little effect with Gilling’s The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), but luckily that same year saw the third and most elaborate of their trilogy featuring Professor Bernard Quatermass (ably played here by Keir, reunited with Dracula—Prince of Darkness co-star Shelley). Kneale himself wrote the script, with excellent direction by Roy Ward Baker and James (The Bridge on the River Kwai) Donald inexplicably top-billed. The story, which predates and prefigures 2001: A Space Odyssey, postulates an “invasion by proxy” similar to that in Village of the Damned (also starring Shelley—what’s going on here?), in which Martians not only altered an evolving mankind five million years ago (hence the American title), but also are responsible for mankind’s collective image of the devil (hence the British title). It’s marred only by sporadically cheesy special effects.

Journey to the Unknown (1968-69): I have only seen scattered episodes (eight of which were cobbled together into four faux telefilms) of this short-lived anthology series co-produced by Hammer and Twentieth Century-Fox, utilizing Hammer directors old and new, e.g., Don Chaffey, Alan Gibson, Peter Sasdy. Needless to say, the one I’m most familiar with is “Girl of My Dreams,” faithfully based by Robert Bloch—who also adapted his own “The Indian Spirit Guide”—and Michael J. Bird on Matheson’s story. Unscrupulous Michael Callan (Mysterious Island) uses his wife’s precognitive dreams to extort money from folks who will pony up to avert a disaster. “Miss Belle” and “The New People” were based on stories by Matheson’s late friend, Charles Beaumont.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968): Directed by Francis, who hastily replaced Fisher when the latter broke his leg in a traffic accident, this is one of the better installments in Hammer’s series, and reportedly one of their most successful films ever. But the scene where Dracula pulls the stake out of his chest because the hero didn’t say the requisite prayers while staking him offended purists like myself. With the vivacious Veronica Carlson, who also joined Cushing for a rousing round of musical brains in Fisher’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969).

The Devil Rides Out (1968): See “Bradley’s Hundred #21-30” (or, better yet, Richard Matheson on Screen).

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970): Still going every which way at once, Hammer churned out two more Sangster psycho-thrillers, Baker’s The Anniversary (1968) and Gibson’s Crescendo (1970); the Andress-less sequel The Vengeance of She (1968); and a reputedly crappy SF film, Moon Zero Two (1969), none of which I’ve seen. I did see The Lost Continent, their other 1968 Dennis Wheatley adaptation (following the far superior The Devil Rides Out), about which the less said the better. But they also continued to keep their hand in with Dracula entries like this one. Ralph Bates conspires with three debauched, hypocritical Victorian swine to resurrect the Count through bizarre means. The double whammy of Bates and Sasdy, one of Hammer’s more overrated latter-day directors, is painful, but James Bernard’s score is memorable.

To be continued.

Read Full Post »

Continuing our idiosyncratic survey of some noteworthy Hammer films and related items.

The Snorkel (1958): Right around the time they began continuing the adventures of everybody’s favorite bloodthirsty Baron in Terence Fisher’s The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Hammer made this neat suspense film. Except for director Guy Green, the crew is pretty much the usual suspects right down the line. Ice-cold killer Peter Van Eyck (The Wages of Fear, The Longest Day, The Brain) knocks off his spouse in the opening scene, and then must cope with the suspicions of his step-daughter. The attractive and charming Betta St. John (Horror Hotel) co-stars. The title is the key to not one but two aspects of the murderer’s unusually clever m.o., and the ending is superb.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): Fisher et al. tackle Sherlock Holmes, and the results are quite impressive. Peter Cushing is second only to Basil Rathbone as an outstanding screen Holmes (a role he later played in a BBC-TV series I’ve never seen), Andre Morell is a reasonably intelligent Watson for a change, and Christopher Lee is definitely an also-ran but welcome as always as the imperiled Baskerville heir. “Elementary, my dear Watson; there are no tarantulas in South Africa.”

The Mummy (1959): Fisher’s remake conflates several films in the Universal quasi-series (i.e., it actually involved two different mummies). Lee has little to do except get his tongue cut out before he’s bandaged up, and then stomp around strangling people, but Cushing is great as the archaeologist, particularly in the brilliantly-written scene where he deliberately baits Ananka-worshipper Mehmet Bey (George Pastel) to elicit some information. He’s so acerbic it’s hilarious.

Brides of Dracula (1960): Fisher’s non-Dracula Dracula movie. Cushing returns as Van Helsing, and the annoying David Peel plays Baron Meinster, an alleged “disciple” whose connection to ol’ Vlad is never elaborated, despite the title, although there are a lot of fetching young women flitting about, with and without fangs as the story progresses. It’s not bad, considering Lee didn’t come back to the role of the thirsty Count for six more years, but his absence is keenly felt. Nice climax.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (aka Never Take Candy from a Stranger; 1960): Offbeat effort about child molestation, photographed by future Hammer director Freddie Francis. I’ve only seen this once, and don’t remember it well, except that its treatment of the subject is mature and tasteful.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (aka House of Fright; 1960): Fisher’s version of the R.L. Stevenson classic has Lee…in a supporting role. He had to wait until the lamentable Amicus film I, Monster to get a shot at the dual role himself, and it’s a shame, because this cries out for a real star like Lee instead of Paul Massie (who he?), while that film gave it to him but just wasn’t very good. Lee also had a supporting role in Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear; 1961), Hammer’s first psycho-thriller.

Curse of the Werewolf (1961): Hammer had less luck with werewolves than with Dracula and Baron Frankenstein, or even mummies; in fact, Fisher’s film, adapted from Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris by screenwriter John Elder (aka producer Anthony Hinds), is their only stab at lycanthropic legends. It’s a bit slow, but features the handsome young Oliver Reed in the title role.

The Shadow of the Cat (1961): Both star Barbara Shelley and writer George Baxt told me director John Gilling was a real pill to work with on this fun film about a group of people who kill an old lady for her inheritance, and then go nuts trying to kill off the black cat who knows they are guilty.

Captain Clegg (aka Night Creatures, Dr. Syn; 1962): Cushing stars as a clergyman who doubles as the masked leader of a band of British smugglers in this version of the same spooky story filmed by Disney with the late, great Patrick McGoohan in the title role of The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

The Phantom of the Opera (1962): As with Dracula, some say this version is the most faithful to Gaston Leroux’s lousy novel, but don’t you believe it. In fact, “Elder’s” script not only transposes the story to London, but also conflates and subverts its traditional set pieces of the unmasking and the falling chandelier in an offbeat ending. With Herbert Lom as the composer betrayed á là Claude Rains in the 1943 version, Heather Sears as the object of the exercise, the strangely underutilized Edward De Souza as the stalwart hero, Patrick (Dr. Who) Troughton as an ill-fated ratcatcher, and Michael Gough as the true villain, who oddly enough goes completely unpunished, except for having to look at the Phantom sans mask. Sadly, the same can’t be said for Fisher, who found himself wandering in the wilderness for two years after the film (a comparatively lavish one by Hammer’s frugal standards, and intended as a vehicle for Cary Grant, believe it or not) flopped.

The Damned (aka These Are the Damned; 1963): While churning out one-word-title post-Psycho thrillers like Michael Carreras’s Maniac (1963) and Francis’s Nightmare (1964), both written by Hammer mainstay Jimmy Sangster, the studio released this little-seen SF effort, which I believe had been filmed a couple of years earlier. Directed by blacklisted American expatriate Joseph Losey—previously bumped from X the Unknown—it stars Alexander Knox (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a scientist who creates a group of irradiated children intended to survive a possible nuclear war. Macdonald Carey (Shadow of a Doubt), Shirley Anne Field, Reed, and Viveca Lindfors also star.

Paranoiac (1964): Reuniting the Francis/Sangster team, this stars the then-ubiquitous Reed as an unstable young man who is more than mildly discomfited when his dead brother reappears. All is, of course, not what it seems here… Janette Scott (The Day of the Triffids) is the lovely leading lady.

The Gorgon (1964): In 1964, Hammer was temporarily floundering with the more traditional movie monsters in the likes of Carreras’s The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, which sounds like another Universal rehash but has no connection with their earlier The Mummy, and The Evil of Frankenstein, with Francis directing Cushing but, by his own admission, not really engaged. Luckily, Fisher returned to the fold with this minor but worthwhile effort co-written by Gilling and featuring the powerhouse team of Lee and Cushing. Shelley plays the titular mythological villainess who turns folks to stone, which is supposed to be a surprise (sorry, spoiler) but, trust me, is decidedly obvious.

To be continued.

Addendum:  Coincidentally, four of the films in this installment have just been released on DVD as part of Sony’s “Icons of Suspense: Hammer Films” collection. I can’t vouch for the set itself, which I have yet to see, but The Snorkel, Never Take Sweets [aka Candy] from a Stranger, and [These Are] The Damned are all eminently worthy of your attention. The other titles are The Full Treatment (aka Stop Me Before I Kill!), Cash on Demand—a crime thriller with Cushing that I’d love to see—and Maniac.

To be continued.

Read Full Post »