strange_complex: (Vampira)
I'm off to the cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan tomorrow, so that's a good incentive to finish off this film review catch-up project first so that I have a clean slate for tomorrow's new entry. The first three of these should always have been reviewed together in the same post anyway, as they were part of a series of Universal Monster Movies which the National Media Museum mounted on Monday nights during October and November.

27. Dracula (1931), dir. Tod Browning
I've reviewed this in excessive detail before, while for us this particular screening came fairly hot on the heels of our own viewing of the parallel Spanish version. But this was my first experience of it on the big screen, and it certainly deserves the detail and grandeur which that ensures - especially for the scenes set in Transylvania, in the darkened garden of Seward's asylum where Dracula lurks, and in his lair in Carfax Abbey. Everything is just beautiful, from the Art Deco bat which supplies the background for the opening credits to the gentle toll of the church bells at the end as Mina and Jon(athan) walk up the curving staircase out of Dracula's crypt. I will never quite be able to come to terms with the opossums running around in Dracula's castle, the piece of paper stuck to Lucy's bedside lamp which was obviously meant to improve the lighting for shots from one angle but was left very obviously in place for shots from the other, or the utter cardboard-cutoutness of Jon(athan) Harker, though.

28. Frankenstein (1931), dir. James Whale
This was the next in Universal's series, and in the National Media Museum's screening schedule. I've seen it before, but a long time ago and never on the big screen. Two main things to say. One, Boris as the creature is amazing. There is a real sensitivity in his performance, successfully conveying a living being with an agency and agenda of its own. His make-up is incredible as well. Forget all the clunky rip-offs and parodies of it you've seen. The original is actually exceptionally detailed and carefully-designed, with the hands and arms to me looking especially convincing as those of a reanimated corpse. Two, the way the human characters treat the creature is downright distressing, and indeed I found the whole moral compass of the film shockingly off-kilter. The biggest problem for me was that the in-story explanation offered for why the creature turns bad is that when Fritz (Frankenstein's assistant) goes to steal a brain for it, he comes back with what is literally labelled on the jar an 'abnormal brain', and which we have heard a medical scientist explaining accounts for the 'brutal and criminal life' which its owner had lived. I know this sort of thinking was rife in the early 20th century, and used to justify a lot of shitty oppression too, but it makes me so angry that I would struggle to overlook it in any circumstances, while in this particular film it anyway utterly destroys the potential moral nuances of the story it is trying to tell. Labelling the creature as an irredeemable criminal before it has even been brought to life quashes all chance of exploring the impact of Frankenstein's thoughtless act on his own creation, and also pre-excuses the appalling behaviour of the humans towards it once it has come to life. In fact, it means there's no real point portraying that behaviour anyway, as the motif of the brain means the creature was always going to 'go bad', however it was treated. So there are half-hearted nods towards exploring the creature's perspective, identifiable in Boris Karloff's performance and the scenes in which the creature is ill-treated, but in the end they have no moral weight because of the pre-destination symbolised by the brain. Meanwhile, the much louder message is the depressingly-simplistic one - "Look, you shouldn't try to play God because your creations will inevitably just be bad and go bad!" At the end, the poor creature dies screaming in agony in a burning mill (again played very affectingly by Boris), and we then just switch straight to the human characters unproblematically celebrating it all with a wedding party. Horrifying, but not in the way intended.

29. The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund
The following week we had The Mummy, which I found much more satisfying. This time, its moral dimension is pretty sound, with some interesting commentary on the ethics of colonial archaeology in particular, and indeed a good understanding of how archaeology works in general (e.g. why simple bits of pottery are often much more important than golden treasures). Just one small complaint on the antiquities front - a priestess of Isis really cannot be described as a Vestal Virgin. 'Vestal' doesn't just mean generically sacred or holy - it means specifically consecrated to Vesta (the clue is in the name). This film boasts an unusually (for the time) autonomous female main character, Helen Grosvenor, who is the daughter of the governor of Sudan but has chosen to live quite independently from her parents in Cairo, expresses disdain for the various men who attempt to court or control her, and indeed ends up destroying the mummy at the end of the film in spite of the fact that she is his reincarnated lover. I've often complained about that particular trope (e.g. here re Blacula 1972), since it consistently strips women of their agency, but here far from it - instead, she actively decides that she doesn't want to be with Imhotep, and uses the resources which are her equivalent to his own magical powers (her connection to Isis, whose priestess she once was) to defeat him. All of this, of course, is pretty easily explained by the fact that story's original author was a woman. Visually, the film keeps up and indeed excels the standards of sets, make-up and costumes from the previous two films, including the wise / clever decision to show Boris in his full mummy make-up only on his first appearance, and after that have him looking more or less like a normal human being, but with a serious skin condition. He gets to speak properly in this film too, using the dialogue to infuse his character with a malevolent charm that I know well from Christopher Lee's roles. His performance is also ably supported by an adorable fluffy white cat - I wonder if he was the first film villain to have one? Finally, I was fascinated to note that in a flash-back sequence where Imhotep shows Helen scenes of their past together in a pool, the images are shot like a silent movie: less crisp than the surrounding footage, no use of close-ups, and the overlay of classic silent-movie style music (in contrast with almost no soundtrack music in main film). Like the white cat, I can't help but feel this must be a cinematic first, as the medium of film was still so new at this time that there can't have been many earlier opportunities to deliberately use the conventions of out-dated film technology to signify 'the past'. Very clever, and very creative.

30. Fear In The Night (1972), dir. Jimmy Sangster
Watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan round at her place. It's a Hammer production with Peter Cushing, Ralph Bates and Joan Collins in it, but not one of their horror films - rather, a thriller. That said, it does play heavily on the possibility that there might be something supernatural going on for a long time, which of course Hammer's reputation put them in an excellent position to do. The story is set in the time when it was made, which meant lots of very enjoyable Seventies clothes, cars and street scenes, and revolves around a young woman who is experiencing repeated and very unsettling nocturnal physical attacks. The male characters around her dismiss her experiences as symptomatic of an over-wrought imagination, and for quite a long time it looked like the grain of the story might be leaning in that direction too. I began to get fractious, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan had to convince me to stick it out. But then the real truth began to emerge, her experiences were entirely vindicated, and indeed the film proved to be very sympathetic towards those affected by mental health issues - not only the heroine but Peter Cushing's character as well. So a very satisfying watch after all, and I'll definitely want to see it again some time now that I know the 'twist'.

31. Night of the Demon (1957), dir. Jacques Tourneur
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and Andrew Hickey at the National Media Museum as part of a series of ghostly stories screened in the run-up to Christmas. I've seen it on the big screen before, and reviewed the experience. Indeed, I see that I spent a lot of that review discussing how it sits alongside Hammer's horror films, and I had similar responses this time. The importance of the deceased Professor Harrington's diary account in helping the characters figure out what Karswell is up to reminded me a great deal of how Jonathan Harker's diary functions in Hammer's Dracula (and in neither case comes from the source text), while the way Karswell turns on and mocks his own mother also reminded me of the relationship between the Baron Meinster and his mother in Brides of Dracula. Since both of those films were made after this (though only just in the case of Dracula), the direction of influence would go from here to Hammer, but that's entirely typical of how they worked - soaking up contemporary stories and conventions and building them into their own productions. Meanwhile, Andrew noted that by making John Holden a sceptical outsider literally flying into an island full of superstitious believers in the supernatural, the story also had quite a Wicker Mannish feel. It is, of course, all quite a long way from M.R. James' original, but I am reconciled to that, especially on a second viewing. In and of itself it is a great movie which deserves to be regularly rescreened.

32. Rogue One (2016), dir. Gareth Edwards
And my last film of 2016, which I saw with Mr. and Mrs. [twitter.com profile] ZeitgeistZero. It was in fact my first experience of seeing a film on an IMAX screen, as well as being a 3D screening, so it was all pretty impressive and mind-blowing both visually and aurally. The story was great, and I've enjoyed all the fantastically detailed articles about its world which have appeared since, like this one about data storage standards and this one about archaeology. Three cheers for stories which inspire that kind of fan-work! It's true that it could have had more women in it, and let's keep demanding the best on that front, but it was certainly epically better for women than any of episodes I-VI, as well as being impressive on ethnicity and disability, so let's also cheer the direction of travel. Much discussion has also been prompted by its use of CGI to recreate characters from the original trilogy, but I'm afraid I found this only technically impressive. Peter Cushing's recreated face was pretty good, but of course CGI cannot capture the unique humanness of a real person's performance - indeed, even a very convincing impression will only ever be a pastiche, missing the unpredictability of the original person. Most strikingly, the voice wasn't his at all, and since that was always such a central part of what Peter Cushing had to offer, its absence was bound to disappoint. Leia I found less problematic, partly because her face was only on-screen for a few seconds, and partly because they had been able to use an old clip of Carrie Fisher's voice from the time - but of course it was also rather heart-breaking to see her at all so soon after Carrie's sad death. Meanwhile, Darth Vader of course did not need CGI to return to our screens, and it was fabulous fun to see him in full-on evil action again. That said though, part of the power and fascination of Darth Vader in the original films is discovering slowly and with increasing horror just what he is willing and capable of doing. (Even if you have seen the films before, the reactions of the characters within the story lead you through the process of discovering this all over again.) Here, he pretty much launched straight into evil machinations and force-choking, leaving no room for the suspenseful frisson of gradual discovery from the earlier films. Still, I guess that reflects the reality of a modern audience's expectations - you simply can't keep redoing the suspense if they're just going to be sitting their with their pop-corn going "Yeah, we know he's evil - cut to the chase!" It's just a pity Darth's character-development won't ever really work now if the films are viewed in story order - but then I guess that was already ruined fifteen years ago by the whole prequel sequence giving away his relationship to Luke.

OK, I am up to date on my film reviews! Now just gotta do the same for books... and Doctor Who... :-(

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Another little blast of these ahead of the new Sherlock at 8:30.

13. Jane Eyre (1943), dir. Robert Stevenson
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan at the National Media Museum in Bradford. It has fantastic sets, plenty of nice Gothic bleakness, some lovely frocks, and Orson Welles doing an excellent line in demonstrating exactly why Mr. Rochester is a complete and utter twat.

14. City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960), dir. John Llewellyn Moxey
Also seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, round at her place I believe. I've seen it before, and indeed own the DVD, but had not watched it for at least 10 years, probably a fair bit more. It features Christopher Lee and a folk-horrorish plot involving a small American town with a history of witch-craft that turns out to be not so very confined to the past as the young female protagonist might hope. In fact, now I come to think about it, there is a lot here in common with The Curse of the Crimson Altar, watched not long before this and reviewed here. For a while, it looks like it might be quite committed to female emancipation, as Nan Barlow (the main character) sets out on an original academic research project despite her boyfriend and brother advising against it, but of course she then dies as a result, so it is just good old-fashioned Stay In The Kitchen after all.

15. The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), dir. Guy Hamilton
Watched because it was on TV and I needed distraction. I think I may still have been on bereavement leave at this point, or else technically out of it but still treating myself very gently as much as possible. Anyway, obviously again the main attraction was Christopher Lee and he delivers in very fine form in this one! Scaramanga's combination of malevolence, sexual potency, superficial charm and brute violence suit him very, very well indeed. It is a very episodic film, which could almost have worked nicely as a TV mini-series, with distinct events taking place on Scaramanga's island, in Beirut, Macau, Hong Kong, and Bangkok and finally back on the island again. I suppose most Bond stories are to some degree, but this more than most, I think.

16. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), dir. Peter Jackson
I started 2016 with the first of these films, and later followed up with the second, even though this time Christopher Lee is not featured. I enjoyed the elf-orc battle as Bilbo and his friends escaped in wine-barrels down the river, the icy goings-on in Laketown, and the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug inside the latter's enormous treasure-trove. I have the final film on DVD from Lovefilm, but seem to be taking a while to get round to actually watching it.

17. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016), dir. Mandie Fletcher
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan at the Cottage Road cinema. It was good fun and kept us entertained throughout, although I'm afraid I probably only recognised about half of the cameo roles which I was obviously supposed to recognise. Joanna Lumley's body-language as Patsy is just splendid, and she was definitely the highlight of the film for me.

18. Ghostbusters (2016), dir. Paul Feig
Also seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan (I think?), probably at the Cottage too. Splendid fun, and great to see both an all-female lead cast and lots of slashy potential between almost all of the main characters. The one thing I could have wished to make it better was that Erin Gilbert (the academic one played by Kristen Wiig) had been fully self-confident in her job at the beginning, and actually delivering a huge and important lecture to a crowded room, rather than practising for doing so, when she is approached by the guy with a copy of her unwittingly-published book about ghosts. That would have made her a full-on identification character for me, as well as giving her a much stronger character narrative for the movie - the woman who was not only a fully-functioning successful academic but also a believer in the paranormal. But no.

Here we get to films 19-23, which I already wrote up as part of my review of the Starburst Film Festival, which is frankly pretty good going. I still have an hour before Sherlock starts as well! Let's see how many more I can do...

24. Beat Girl (1960), dir. Edmond T. Gréville
Taped off the telly and watched chez moi for the usual reason - viz, it has Christopher Lee in it. I've seen it before, but years ago, and never reviewed it here. It's a youth culture film, but rather unsure about whether youth culture is something to be celebrated and glorified or indulged in moral panic over - primarily the latter, though. The main character, Jennifer, is resentful of her father's new not-much-older-than-her wife, and pruriently fascinated when she discovers the wife's past as a stripper. Soon, looking for teenage rebellious kicks, she begins flirting with the world of shady underground strip clubs herself - and Christopher Lee is the sleazy strip-club manager who is there to greet her when she does. It's not a particularly great film on the whole, and the teen characters' dialogue is seriously cringe-worthy, but I do love the music in the climactic scene when Jennifer strips at a house-party. No need to worry about what you might see if you click on that link, BTW - it's from the early '60s, so she doesn't get any further than a cast-iron bra and some knickers your gran would probably think were a bit frumpy.

25. Madhouse (1974), dir. Jim Clark
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan round at her place, this is an absolutely cracking Vincent Price film which I can hardly believe I hadn't seen before. As in Theatre of Death, he is basically playing himself ('Dr. Death', a type-cast film-star), to the extent that clips from his character's supposed past performances were taken from footage of the real Vincent Price performing in Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films. Around the story of his declining stardom, a murder-mystery unfolds, featuring Peter Cushing, lots of lovely Seventies clothes, and even some charming Seventies children. Just marvellous, and I will gladly watch it again any time.

26. The Wicker Tree (2011), dir. Robin Hardy
This is the film version of Hardy's novel, Cowboys for Christ, which I read and reviewed some years ago. Having read the novel, I had very low expectations for the film, with the result that I actually quite enjoyed it. It is pretty straightforwardly the same story, but probably a better film than the novel is a book - unsurprisingly, really, since that was how Hardy always intended it, and the novel was only what he did to get the story out while attempting to secure backing for the film. Christopher Lee appears, but only fairly briefly in a flashback, and that's probably for the best. Not as awful as it could have been, but a very poor shadow indeed of The Wicker Man. It's unwise to even think of the two as being in any way connected, really.

OK, just six more reviews to do in order to get up to date now - on films at least! But I think that's enough for one evening. Time to tag, format and heat up the last portion of the Christmas pudding ready for tonight's televisual treat...

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
This was the first of Amicus' famous portmanteau horror films, and is also one of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee's many joint credits. I've seen it before, but a long time ago now, and it was on the Horror Channel on Friday, so I settled down with a nice glass of whisky.

There are five individual story segments, one for each of five travellers in a railway carriage who successively have gruesome fortunes read for them from Dr. Terror (Peter Cushing)'s tarot pack - or his House of Horrors, as he calls it. Of the five, I had of course vividly remembered Christopher Lee's segment, in which he plays a bombastic and irascible art critic who ends up being pursued by a disembodied hand. It's a decent story, a great role for Lee, and has the bonus of also featuring Michael Gough as a mischievous artist who shows up Lee's character and pays a terrible price for it. I had also remembered fragments of two of the others - one about triffid-like sentient plants and one about voodoo music. But I must confess I had forgotten the first and last (about a werewolf and a vampire respectively) so completely that if I'd seen then in isolation and without the linking narrative in the railway carriage, I would have sworn blind that I'd never seen them before.

I suspect it's probably because they just aren't very good stories. None of them are exactly stellar, to be honest, even Lee's. Their arcs are predictable and their characters do things which don't really make sense as soon as you start thinking about it. But the film as a whole is charming nonetheless. Part of the reason why has to be its utterly unlikely cast, which includes rare film appearances for Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, Roy Castle and Kenny Lynch, as well as a young Donald Sutherland (who had already worked with Lee a year earlier in Il castello dei morti vivi 1964). Not an ensemble you'd readily imagine for a mid-1960s horror film )if, of course, it weren't for the fact that it actually happened), and yet somehow it works. Well, that is, I could do without Roy Castle's goofing around, but even he encapsulates something of the '60s vibe which makes these films so endearing, while I thought Alan Freeman was genuinely good. Meanwhile, the director Freddie Francis (dear to me especially from his work on Dracula Has Risen From the Grave) creates plenty of atmosphere with claustrophobic close-ups and deliberately disorientating action sequences, and Peter Cushing infuses the central narrative with a genuine air of fear and menace - like, of course, the true professional he always was.

The story about the voodoo music probably deserves a bit more comment, too, even if (like the others) it was never going to set the world alight as an example of the story-teller's craft. It involves Roy Castle's character, a jazz musician whose agent gets him a gig in the West Indies, and who hides in the bushes while he is there writing down the tune used in a local voodoo ceremony. Back home in London, he works it into a new jazz composition, but when his band performs it, a terrible wind blows up out of nowhere, and he flees in panic through the streets, only to find himself confronted alone in his apartment by a vengeful voodoo god. At first sight, it looks a bit like a contribution to the kind of debates people have nowadays about cultural appropriation, since several West Indian characters warn Castle's character not to steal the music for himself, or voice dialogue about how what has done is an affront to their god. But it would be quite surprising to find a British film from the mid-'60s genuinely making such a post-colonial case - and especially one which also features Castle putting on a 'comedy' West Indian accent when he first finds out where he is going. In the end, I think the way it is all coded is more like 'white people - don't get mixed up in all that nasty black stuff!', rather than 'white people - show some respect for black culture'. Still, though, it at least shows some awareness of and anxiety about the origins of jazz music, perhaps capturing a small step on the way towards thinking about these things a little more sensitively.

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
My final film watched of 2015, I recorded this one off the Horror Channel a while ago, and watched it on New Year's Eve. It's a Hammer horror classic, right from their glorious hey-day, in which the Germanic village of Vandorf is troubled by the spirit of a millennia-old Gorgon who comes out when the moon is full and turns people to stone. It is also one of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing's twenty-odd screen collaborations. I have seen it before, but a looong time ago - probably a good 20 years, I reckon.

It is almost really brilliant. Much of the usual reliable production team is here - James Bernard doing the music, Bernard Robinson the sets, Michael Reed the photography, Rosemary Burrows the costumes and Terence Fisher the direction. Quite apart from Lee and Cushing, the cast is great too. Richard Pasco, Michael Goodliffe and Patrick Troughton are all worth the entrance fee alone, but Barbara Shelley particularly shines in a role which really shows her range: kind, gentle and loving, strong-willed yet afraid and internally conflicted, while always remaining entirely convincing as a single, coherent character. I already loved her from Dracula Prince of Darkness (in which she is similarly wide-ranging), Rasputin the Mad Monk and Quatermass and the Pit, but she really excelled herself in this one, and I'm now thinking I should make a point of seeking out some of her other appearances.

What lets it down, though, is a story-line which doesn't fully work through its potential. There's a good idea on the table. But discussing it involves spoilers, and it is best to see this film unspoilt if you can )

I am also going to come right out and say that I don't think Christopher Lee is particularly good in this film either. His character is actually the good guy, who arrives half-way through the story, applies an open-minded rationalism to what is going on, figures out what the villagers are hiding and eventually dispatches the Gorgon. And this is something he is definitely perfectly capable of doing well, as his performance as the Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out shows. But for some reason he evidently decided to give his character in this film a sort of brusque gruffness which just didn't work for me. This isn't to say he's abysmal. He has some good confrontation scenes with Peter Cushing, where there is a lot going on emotionally on both sides of the equation. But of the two, Cushing's depiction of a man who, while rather unlikable overall, elicits our sympathy through the obvious mental anguish caused by his attempts to cover up spoiler's ) crimes, is distinctly more compelling and interesting to watch.

Finally, what can we make of the use of a Greek mythological creature in this film? It's only to be expected, really. Hammer in this period were clearly working their way through every monster they could think of in their search for suitable new material, and they were bound to turn to Greek mythology at some point. It also happens to make the middle entry in a nice trio with The Mummy (1959) and The Viking Queen (1967): Egypt ✓, Greece ✓, Rome ✓ - and I think there is clear hierarchy of priorities at work in the order they went about them, basically working from the culture with the most potential for macabre fantasy stories to the one with the least. The particular choice of a Gorgon I would guess probably springs from a fairly simple pragmatic equation - another spoilery bit here ), and her only non-humanoid attribute is the snakes, making the special effects relatively manageable too. (This film pre-dates Clash of the Titans (1981), so its Gorgon does not have a snaky tail - Ray Harryhausen invented that.) The effects are still pretty poor, and this is a major flaw in the film - but imagine how much more trouble they would have had trying to do the sphinx, harpies, Echidna or similar.

Meanwhile, Bernard Robinson took up the Greek cue in his set design, making a nice replica centrepiece of the Belvedere Torso for the entrance-hall of the castle where the Gorgon likes to lurk, which was used to good effect in turn by Michael Reed's photography:

The Gorgon castle.jpg

On one level, this was a reasonably obvious creative touch for a film about people being turned to stone by a monster from Greek mythology. And the particular choice of the Belvedere Torso is not difficult to explain. It's an extremely famous piece of Greek sculpture (technically a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, but that is true of most surviving 'Greek' art), of the type which you would come across pretty quickly if you picked up any book on the topic. But then again, there would have been lots of other options in the same book too, and homing in on one which expresses anguish and tragedy so eloquently through its twisted pose and fragmentary state deserves credit; as does the fact that its missing limbs and head both resonate rather nicely with what happens to some of the Gorgon's victims, and eventually also the Gorgon herself, over the course of the film. Possibly the Laocoön, with its snaky theme, would have been an even better choice - but then again I see why a replica of that statue would be considerably more time-consuming and expensive to make. Also, it left the stage clear for 28 Days Later to use the Laocoön statue in a very similar way many decades later - maybe even inspired by Bernard Robinson's set designs, who knows?

Overall, worth watching for Barbara Shelley, the Lee-Cushing pairing and the general Hammery goodness, but not in the first rank.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I didn't actually plan it this way. Before I started watching the first of these two films, Dawn Addams was nothing more than a half-known name to me, and I also didn't even realise she was in the second until her character appeared on the screen. But that's how it worked out, and having noticed her properly across these two films I'm pretty sure I will remember her again in the future, as she has a lot of screen presence and is great to watch. Checking out her filmography now, I realise that I actually saw her earlier this year in Amicus' The Vault of Horror too (though I didn't comment on her character in that review), and I must have seen her in The Robe when I watched it many years ago, though her role there is minor.

28. The Treasure of San Teresa (aka Hot Money Girl, 1959), dir. Alvin Rakoff

Anyway, the first is a black and white adventure film, involving an everyman hero, a lawyer and a fallen woman (Dawn Addams) who together attempt to recover a box-full of jewels belonging to the woman's father which had been placed for safe-keeping by the hero in a nunnery in Czechoslovakia during the war. There is various double-crossing and sadness for lost opportunities, and even sometimes a sense of aspiring to the same niche as The Third Man - but in practice, it isn't really on that level.

Christopher Lee is not part of the core trio, and indeed doesn't appear until at least half-way through the film. He had made his name in Dracula by this time, but it feels more like a pre-Dracula film for him, in that he's a reasonably important member of the supporting cast, but not even really the main antagonist, let alone the star. It is a typically villainous role, though. He plays a gangster posing as a cop who appears after our gang have recovered the jewels and tries to appropriate them. This involves wearing a leather trench-coat, pointing guns at people, being sharp and authoritative and of course eventually dying (in this case as a result of being strangled by the everyman hero). All things which he is very good at, and does perfectly.

I don't think I otherwise have a huge amount to say about this one, but I did notice that the direction was very accomplished, with a lot of really eye-catching shots from interesting angles which made the most of various locations and sets. And when I looked up the director, Alvin Rakoff, I discovered that there is a Whovian connection there, as he was married to Jacqueline Hill, well known to all Doctor Who fans as the lady who played much-beloved original companion Barbara Wright. I'm very glad to know she had such a worthy husband!

29. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), dir. Terence Fisher

The second was a loose Hammer adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately, it isn't that great. I think I can see what the central conceit was meant to be - namely that while Dr. Jekyll is busy trying to separate out the two halves of his personality through science, his apparently perfect Victorian wife (played by Dawn Addams) is already leading a double life as she conducts a secret affair with his best friend (played by Christopher Lee). But the whole effort is badly hampered by the casting of Paul Massie in the title role, who somehow manages to be utterly dull as both Jekyll and Hyde (quite a feat!). All I could really think while watching him was how infinitely much better Peter Cushing would have been in the role - indeed, some of his lines as the obsessively-scientific Jekyll could have come right out of the mouth of Cushing's Frankenstein. In spite of that, though, the script as a whole also seemed rather clunky to me. It's by someone called Wolf Mankowitz whom I've never heard of before, and who wasn't a regular Hammer writer - though apparently he had written a novel and a successful West End musical before this film.

Lee's character this time is much more prominent (basically 2nd male lead), but not a villain - rather, a louche gentleman playboy who has an unfortunate gambling habit and relies on Jekyll to service his debts, even while enthusiastically introducing Hyde to the greatest depths of decadence London has to offer. He gets some rather sweet kissing scenes with Dawn Addams, and did 'leglessly drunk but still attempting to be charming and authoritative' almost rather too well for my taste - I saw too much of that behaviour in real life in my late teens / early 20s, and don't really want to be reminded of it, especially through the person of Christopher Lee. He also - of course! - dies horribly, this time at the fangs of a snake, though we only see the aftermath, not the death itself, presumably at the behest of the censors.

This film is also notable for featuring Janina Faye, aka Tania from Dracula, in a brief non-speaking role, and Oliver Reed as a night-club patron who takes exception to Hyde leading on one of the establishment's ladies of negotiable affection and then reneging on the deal. So, worth a watch if you're a Hammer fan and want to trace the evolving fortunes of the studio and its stars. But the contribution which this one makes to the story really is to show that not all of their Gothic horror adaptations were going to be hits.

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strange_complex: (Cities condor in flight)
Last week I wrote about [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's and my visit to the Mossman Carriage Collection in Luton. That, though, was only the first leg of our Hammer-related weekend of adventure. After exhausting the delights of Luton, we continued onwards in a south-easterly direction, over the Dartford Crossing (which confused us considerably by turning out to be a bridge rather than a tunnel), and towards the pleasant sea-side town of Whitstable. Why Whitstable, you may well ask? Well, because Hammer stalwart and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's on-screen boyfriend Mr. Peter Cushing lived there from 1959 until his death in 1994.

We had booked ourselves into a nice little B&B on the edge of the town, where we arrived about 6pm on the Saturday. That gave us an initial evening to explore and have dinner, followed by a good full day on Sunday to complete our Peter Cushing tour. Equipped with maps and a list of places to visit culled from the internet we took in the following locations:

Peter Cushing's house )

The Cushing bench and view )

The Tudor Tea Rooms )

The Peter Cushing pub )

Whitstable Museum )

Not directly Cushing-related Whitstable experiences )

Even if you're not that bothered about Peter Cushing, I can certainly recommend a visit to Whitstable. And if you are, I think you will definitely come away understanding him quite a lot better than you did before. It is well-to-do, full of charming and welcoming people, and replete with a spirit and character all of its own. But it has the feeling of hailing from another age at the same time, and I can't imagine it has changed very fundamentally since Peter first moved there in the 1950s. And I can see all of that really suiting him, both in the early years with Helen and in his later life. A quaint and quiet retreat from the bustle of London and the film-sets where he worked; a genteel and unchanging world where he could be acclaimed and valued without being mobbed. Yes, I can really see him loving that, and being loved for it by the locals in return. The fact that some of them wrote this song about how cool it was to have him living in their town now makes complete and utter sense:


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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Last weekend, the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I set off on a Hammer horror-related adventure, the first leg of which took us to Luton. More or less every person to whom I mentioned the Luton part of this endeavour curled up their lips in disdain, from which I gathered that Luton's public image is more or less equivalent to Birmingham's. But, just like Birmingham, Luton is actually well worth visiting for the under-rated treasures it offers to the intrepid visitor. In our case, the main attraction was the Stockwood Discovery Centre - once the grounds of a stately home; now home to a multiplicity of attractions, including gardens, adventure playgrounds, a local history museum and the the Mossman Carriage Collection.

What was so exciting about the Mossman Carriage Collection? Well, it contains more or less every horse-drawn vehicle ever to appear in a Hammer horror film, not to mention at least 50 other films made between 1937 (Doctor Syn) and 1985 (Out of Africa) besides. Basically, if you have ever watched a British-made film or TV production from that period which featured a carriage, the odds are it came from this collection. The man behind it was George Mossman, a Luton businessman born in 1908, who realised just at the time when horse-drawn transport was passing out of regular use that it would be a) fun and b) a good idea to buy up and restore some of the many carriages which were by then languishing away in barns and coach-houses across the country. Lending them out to film companies was of course one way of helping to make back the cost of buying and restoring them, and on Mossman's death the collection passed to the Luton Museum Service in 1991.

Before we went, I spent the best part of every evening for a week screen-capping every single carriage to feature in a Hammer Dracula film, and combing through the pictures on the Mossman Carriage Collection website to try to identify them. I'm glad to say that on arrival, my identifications proved 100% correct, so below each cut which follows you will find historical information about the carriage in question as taken from the website, pictures of it as it appears today, and screen-caps showing it in use within the Dracula films. Any pictures with me in them were of course taken by my trusty travel companion and acclaimed professional photographer, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. Oh, and it's important to note that the paint colours on the carriages today don't always match up with how they look in the films, but as the website notes explain for the Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus (first entry, immediately below), Mossman himself was quite happy to repaint them as required for film commissions. In most cases, I was able to confirm what previous colours each of the carriages had been painted by simply looking closely at the inevitable scratches in the finish to see the previous layers.

Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus, about 1880 )

Hearse, about 1860 )

Town Coach, about 1860 )

Victoria, about 1890 )

Brougham, about 1860 )

Round Backed Gig )

So far, so lovely, then. But after this, things got a bit frustrating. Because on arrival, we discovered that a wedding reception was going on inside the largest room of the collection, housing on my estimation at least half of the carriages. And we were not allowed to go in. That's pretty damned annoying when you have travelled all the way from Leeds to get there, I can tell you - especially when there is nothing on their website to warn potential visitors that this might happen. I'm pretty sure that there were at least three more carriages in that room which were used in the Dracula films, but I could only see one of them well enough to get a photograph of. Thankfully, it was the carriage I was second-most excited about seeing after the hearse, but I would really have liked to see it a lot better than I did - to say nothing of the other two which I think were in there.

Travelling Chariot, about 1790 )

There are a number of other carriages in the Hammer Dracula films which I never could identify on the Mossman Collection website, and after having visited as much as I could of the collection and looked through their excellent souvenir brochure as well, I have concluded that this is probably because they never came from it in the first place. From about 1970 onwards, Hammer must have been hiring from somewhere else - or possibly even making their own replicas, which would of course have had the advantage of being able to be bashed about a bit in the course of filming if needed. Certainly, I can't identify the Hargood family coach in Taste, the coach which Paul falls into from the window of Sarah's party in Scars, or the coach from the famous opening chase-through-Hyde-Park sequence at the beginning of Dracula AD 1972.

Meanwhile, the Mossman Collection Carriages of course had a wide and varied film career which went well beyond the world of Hammer. On the whole, I didn't worry about this - indeed, I didn't even worry about Hammer films other than the Dracula cycle. There's only so much film-geekery one brain can manage, after all. But I was excited to stumble across a replica chariot which its information panel informed us had been custom-made by George Mossman for use in Ben Hur (1959):

Replica Roman Chariot )

The fact that I was able to stand in it was in keeping with the collection's general policy, which was that genuine antique carriages had 'do not touch' labels on them, whereas visitors were allowed to sit or stand (as appropriate) in the replicas. This seems reasonable, but on the other hand I'm not sure they have thought hard enough about the heritage value of even some of the replicas, especially where they have appeared in really famous films like Ben Hur. Certainly, they don't draw very much attention to it. Only one small section of the museum mentions it, and this was the only information panel I saw which linked up a specific vehicle with a specific film. Meanwhile, as you can see in the photos, the decorative detail on the chariot is badly degraded. At first we assumed that this was just because it had been made in the first place of materials which had naturally perished over the years, but this is a picture of the same chariot from the collection's souvenir brochure:

Roman chariot from brochure.jpg

And this is it again in a video which was playing in one of the rooms of the museum:

2015-08-15 15.43.44.jpg

Judging by the hair and clothes of the people in the video, it must have been made within the last ten years at most. And meanwhile, when we looked closely at the chariot we realised that all the damage to its decoration is concentrated on the side of it which faces outwards from the arched entrance-way where it stands, and hence towards the elements. So in other words, at some point in the last ten years it has been placed facing into an open courtyard, and the result is that an iconic prop used in one of the biggest block-busters of the 20th century, which was fine ten years ago, has degraded into the state seen in the above pictures.

This makes me feel really sad, not only because it is a neglectful waste, but also because it is surely very short-sighted on the part of the museum management. Film tourism is a real thing, as our own visit proved, and the value of a prop from a film like Ben Hur is only going to grow as time goes by. Imagine being able to say at the time of its centenary in 2059 that you have a chariot used in that film! You know, a film which is famous for its chariot races... Except that a prop which is rotting away in the rain is going to be a lot less of a draw than one which has been kept in good condition.

In fact, I think the Mossman Collection could do with getting some film specialists to collaborate with them asap to draw up a proper and comprehensive list of all the films its vehicles have been used in, complete with screen-caps of the kind I've done here for the Dracula films, which could be displayed on their website and within the museum. They could reach whole new audiences by publicising that information properly - but right now, it is acknowledged only fleetingly and incompletely. It is up to geeks like me to create their own guide to the carriages used in the films they are interested in if that's what they want to see - and while I will do it and enjoyed the results enormously, even I would have been glad of a guide which covered just the other Hammer films at least.

A bit of a sad note there at the end, then, and the wedding reception thing was annoying too. But on the whole I would very much recommend a visit to the Mossman Collection, especially if you are a British film geek. You just might need to be prepared to do your own research in advance...

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
These reviews are out of sequence, in the sense that I watched four other films before them which I haven't posted about on LJ yet. I have started writing about all four, and indeed started my write-up of Romania, too, but I am not doing a great job of actually completing LJ posts right now. So I am going to suspend sequentiality in favour of what I actually feel like writing and might manage to complete.

[livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I already had a film-watching session lined up for this Sunday just past anyway, but in the wake of Christopher Lee's death we revised our programme in his honour. Since [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan is a huge Peter Cushing fan, and Lee and Cushing were such great friends, it seemed most appropriate somehow to use the occasion to watch two Lee / Cushing collaborations which neither of us had previously seen. So, I hastily acquired House of the Long Shadows and The Skull and we got stuck in.

14. House of the Long Shadows (1983), dir. Pete Walker )

15. The Skull (1965), dir. Freddie Francis )

This means that I have now seen 21 out of Lee and Cushing's 24 collaborations, and two of the remaining three are pretty spurious (Hamlet 1948 = controversy over whether Lee is actually visible on screen within the final film at all; The Devil's Agent 1961 = Cushing's scenes deleted). As for the experience of watching Lee's films now that he is no longer with us on this Earth - it feels bittersweet. On one level, his very gift was his films, and we still have those. But on another, it is sad to know for sure now that there won't be any more, that he himself can no longer be part of the discourse around the ones he made, and that one more living link with the creative output of the past is gone. It all feels a bit like someone turning up the lights at the end of a really amazing film, and having to face up to the fact that the story is over and the magic has gone. A slightly thinner, greyer world, in other words. I'm just glad he was in it for so long, and did so much while he was here.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is one of my little stock of Christopher-Lee-films-taped-off-the-telly, which I watched on Sunday night as a treat after a weekend spent delivering leaflets. It is in fact also one of the 22 films in which he co-starred with Peter Cushing, although Cushing is criminally under-used, appearing for all of about three minutes of screen time, and never on screen at the same time at Christopher Lee. It seems strange in retrospect, now that they are so widely recognised as an iconic pairing, that anyone producing a film after about 1965 could cast the two of them and not put them in lots of scenes where they could bounce off each other to their hearts' content, but this isn't the only film which does this - Scream and Scream Again (1969) is just the same, for example. I guess the truth is that it takes a while for any creative formula to move through being viewed as old hat and acquire iconic status, and by the time that really happened for the formula of Cushing + Lee, Cushing was nearing the end of his working career. As far as I can see, the only films which really self-consciously treat them as an iconic pairing (rather than simply the box-office draws of the moment) are One More Time (1970), Horror Express (1973) and House of the Long Shadows (1983). Then again, though, maybe too much knowing, self-referential usage of them would have become tiresome in itself, casting a pallor over their earlier and more serious encounters which merely failing to make good use of them doesn't do.

Anyway, while we don't get much of Peter Cushing in this film, we certainly get lots of Christopher Lee, who plays an evil Caliph with magical powers ruling over a fantastical Arabian kingdom. The main plot involves a dashing young prince from Baghdad who hopes to marry the Caliph's step-daughter, but is sent to prove himself worthy first by bringing back a Magic MacGuffin known as the Rose of Elil. This is supposed to be a Hopeless Quest At Which Countless Others Have Failed, but TBH I have seen a lot of fantasy films, and the barriers between prince and rose in this film are no great shakes. In fact, I'm pretty sure Dorothy works her way through worse in order to bring the Wizard of Oz the Wicked Witch of the West's broom. In any case, obviously the prince succeeds, with help from two sidekicks - one a simple boy with a magical gem and a cute monkey on a lead, and the other one of the Caliph's more incompetent guards who is sent to undermine the mission, but of course ends up helping in spite of himself. And although the Caliph was planning to use the Rose to make himself invincibly powerful while reneging on his promise to the prince, they naturally manage to defeat him, while freeing the city and the people into the bargain. In other words, it could not be more tropish if it tried.

This is great news for Christopher Lee, who gets to ham it up to the nines in a fantasy villain role complete with a floor-length black robed costume with red accents (but obviously he'd moved well beyond Dracula by this time, you understand). Perhaps not such great news for the film as a whole, though, which looks more or less indistinguishable from a load of other fantasy films of the late '70s and early '80s as a result. It reminded me in particular of a number of Ray Harryhausen films, to the extent that it almost seems like a missing link between his two mid-'70s Sinbad films and 1981's Clash of the Titans. Certainly, I'd be astonished if Arabian Adventure wasn't designed as a conscious attempt to capitalise on the popularity of the Sinbad films. Apart from the obvious matter of the setting, it shares with them motifs such as quests for magical items, princes seeking the hands of princesses, cities under curfews, evil magicians, people being turned into animals, battles with giant creatures, genies in bottles and so forth. Of course all of these are standard tropes in a story-telling tradition ultimately rooted in the One Thousand and One Nights, and here encompassing especially The Thief of Bagdad (1940), but it was very definitely Harryhausen's Sinbad films that were bearing the popular torch for them when this film was made. The cycle of influence seemed to me to travel in two directions rather than just one, though, as there are motifs from this film which appear in turn in Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans - for example, in the resemblance between the dank and terrible swamp where the Rose of Elil grows and Calibos' very similar lair in Clash.

Speaking of the One Thousand and One Nights, I am never quite sure where I stand when faced with a film like this on the issue of whether westerners re-telling and re-working its stories are inevitably engaging in Orientalising cultural appropriation, or simply drawing on a rich and interesting story tradition in the same way as we have (for example) drawn on those of the ancient world. Those examples obviously aren't equivalent, since western European culture views itself as the inheritor of ancient stories, and tends to express both a right to use them and an admiration for them in its retellings, whereas the relation between western and Islamic culture has centuries of hostility, othering and aggressive imperialism behind it. But the difficulty is that we can't separate out our engagement with its stories from that context - i.e. we can't tell what sort of reception the One Thousand and One Nights would have had in the west if the culture they came from was viewed differently in relation to ours. Would people in Britain still have lapped them up anyway, in the same way as we have the Germanic stories collected by the Brothers Grimm or the Danish ones of Hans Christian Andersen? Or has their appeal traditionally stemmed from their perceived status as the product of an exoticised Other? We can't tell (and it's a false dichotomy anyway).

What we can do, though, is look at culture dynamics of individual takes on the stories. This one scores pretty badly in its casting, which fills most of its the main roles with western people made to look a bit swarthy, while putting actual middle eastern actors (of whom there are a few) in minor secondary roles. In fairness, the innocent boy with the monkey, who is the film's main point-of-view character, is played by an actor of Indian descent (though even he was actually born in London), but I don't think that actually helps. It pretty much seems to amount to saying "Oh, brown people - they're all the same, aren't they?" All of this is of course still a problem in 2014, but that doesn't make it any less of one in 1979. On the other hand, where the story could have stuck at portraying middle eastern society as inherently characterised by autocratic tyrannies (as personified in Christopher Lee's character), there is actually a sub-plot in which a heroic band of local freedom fighters are working to overthrow him and reinstate Peter Cushing's character, a political prisoner of the Caliph who was once the enlightened and democratically-elected leader of their city. That said, even that may well just be an attempt to reproduce the role of the rebel alliance seeking to overthrow the Empire in Star Wars (released two years earlier), rather than to than reflect the political complexities of the Islamic world.

In short, tropish, unoriginal and politically unreconstructed, but it does have a minor role to play in the history of cinematic fantasy stories, and Christopher Lee is definitely good value in it.

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
I watched this last night with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan after a lovely home-made lasagne and over half a bottle of wine. We really needed the wine. It is a hokey sci-fi movie, in which alien beings land on a British island called Fara, and cause a freak mid-winter heat-wave. Doctor Who fans will instantly understand how carefully thought-through and plausible the plot was, how compelling and nuanced the dialogue and how well-delineated the characters if I say that much of the screen-play was written by Pip and Jane Baker. For those fortunate enough not to be familiar with their work, I will simply explain that it displays none of the characteristics referred to in my previous sentence.

I recently used the broadcast of Death in Heaven as a prompt for some musings on the general phenomenon of the New Who season finale, which regularly sees writers boxing themselves into corners which only dei ex machinis and magic reset buttons can get them out of. Well, the plot of this film made every single New Who season finale ever broadcast look sober, realistic and meticulously thought through. The alien invaders were initially described as beings made entirely of light or heat waves (it was never clear which), who had been attracted to a space observation station based on the island because of the radio signals it had been broadcasting. Later, they turn out to generate heat, to be attracted to light, to have physical bodies after all (rather like huge glowing jellyfish), and to burn up random things - sheep, people, car batteries, gas cannisters. So it's all a bit incoherent, really, and not surprising that neither the characters in the film nor the writers can come up with any convincing plan to defeat them. The characters decide to set fire to some haystacks in the hope of attracting the aliens and then blasting them with dynamite, which utterly fails, while the best the writers could come up with was a freak thunderstorm and downpour, which kills the aliens by essentially dousing them out. That's it - the whole plot.

And that would be fine, if there was a compelling and convincing drama going on around it. But there isn't. The main attempt at human drama is a story-line about a couple whose marriage is threatened when an old fling of the husband's arrives on the island and starts trying to seduce him again. But this literally switches on and off from scene to scene, depending on how the main plot is progressing. So for example the wife eventually catches her husband kissing the old fling, and is supposed to be really upset about it. Then we get a couple of scenes where she appears to have forgotten all about it while some expository dialogue about the aliens goes on. And then she is all upset again. And so on. Also, it didn't help that the husband attempted to win his wife back over by saying that the old fling was a "common slut" who meant nothing to him, and that the wife responded to this by smiling and apparently being mollified. Or that the old fling was made to be the object of a gratuitous attempted-rape scene from a heat-crazed islander at one point, either. No indeed.

So why did we watch it? Oh, you know why. Because it stars both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, that's why! Both were playing very much to type - Peter as a kindly local doctor, and Christopher as an arrogant and irascible (though not actually evil) scientist. They even played out a very typically-them gentlemanly hierarchy through their costumes, too. While most of the male characters in the film responded to the heat-wave by unbuttoning their collars and rolling up their shirt sleeves, Christopher Lee's insisted on wearing a tie throughout, while Peter Cushing's kept his jacket on to the last! Bless. Other familiar faces included Patrick Allen as the cheating husband, who also plays the captain of the king's troops in Captain Clegg, Sydney Bromley as an old tramp killed by the aliens, who likewise appears in Captain Clegg as poor old Tom Ketch (and thus dies within the first few minutes of both films) and Sarah Lawson as the wronged wife, also famous as Paul Eddington's wife in The Devil Rides Out. It's quite the Hammer reunion, then, right down to having Terence Fisher as the director. But I guess Terence Fisher didn't have the same feel for sci-fi as he did for Gothic horror, and that there are limits to what anyone can do to bring a flat script to life.

As a Christopher Lee fan, the film offers a certain value. His character appears very early on, remains prominent throughout, and even makes it almost to the end of the film without dying - though not quite. He wears smart-specs quite a lot, exclaims impatiently at people, and does lots of sciencey stuff. Very nice. Actually, in plot terms he essentially serves as the Doctor Who character in this story, since he comes to the island to figure out what is going on, has to convince everybody else that what he claims is happening is true, and concocts a plan to defeat the aliens at the end (though this is a failure). But if so, he is ruder and grumpier than any real Doctor who has ever appeared on screen, including the Sixth for whom Pip and Jane Baker went on to write. Meanwhile, of course, his character, like all the others, suffers from being pretty two-dimensional, and having a lot of extremely banal dialogue to deliver. So it is worth watching once if you really like him, but is neither one of his best performances, nor his best films.

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strange_complex: (Claudia Cardinale car)
I didn't so much read this book as listen to an abridged audio version of it, read by Cushing himself, while driving along in my car. But still, it is a book which I have experienced, so I will review it anyway. That is, insofar as an autobiography really can be 'reviewed'.

In fact, this is Cushing's second autobiography, following on from a earlier volume called Peter Cushing: An Autobiography published in 1986 (which I haven't read, or listened to). But, as he explains in this one, apparently fans were disappointed that the first one focused so much on his personal life, rather than on the film career for which he is famous, so he wrote another volume to satisfy the demand.

That said, it is still a very personal book. It begins with his utter devastation following the death of his beloved wife, Helen, in 1971, and more or less ends with his own experiences of being diagnosed with, and surviving, prostate cancer in the early 1980s. There is also a lot about life in his home town of Whitstable, and his hobby of collecting and painting military miniatures.

But he does talk about his film and television career as well, while making no bones about what unglamorous hard work it really is. I particularly enjoyed a section in which he enumerated the many and varied ways in which he had been killed on screen - while also being well aware that if Christopher Lee attempted a similar listing, you could go off for a three-course meal and night on the town, come back, and he would still be only about half-way through it. And yes, of course, he talks about their collaborations and their friendship, in the very warm and grateful tones that both of them have always used when speaking about each other.

Though I'm sure the printed book contains more material, I think listening to Cushing reading out his life history in his own voice adds a great deal to the experience. He is kind, gentle, polite and utterly un-self-pitying throughout, as anyone who has ever seen or read his behind-the-scenes interviews will expect, even when talking about experiences which were clearly utterly devastating for him at the time. I would defy anyone to listen to it and not feel immense fondness for him, no to mention considerable sorrow that he is no longer with us. Certainly, he makes for an excellent travelling companion up and down the M1.

Very many thanks indeed to the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan for *ahem* enabling me to listen to this! ;-)

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
OK, I'm on a roll. I am going to get on top of film reviews today. I'm going to do it. Not Doctor Who reviews or book reviews. That would be crazy! But film reviews - yes. So here we go.

I saw both of these last night in a Halloween-themed double-bill at the beautiful Art Deco Stockport Plaza, each one introduced by a man playing an organ which rose up at the front of the theatre, and in company with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, Andrew Hickey and a young lady in a Dracula T-shirt.

36. Thir13en Ghosts (2001), dir. Steve Beck

We were disappointed to find ourselves sat in front of the 2001 remake of this film, rather than the 1960 original by William Castle, complete with Illusion-O which we had been expecting, but so it goes. We had paid, so decided to sit through it. Part-way in, I realised that I had seen some of the middle sections of the film before while channel-hopping on TV, and yet it also became clear not much later that I hadn't seen the end. In other words, I had been sufficiently unimpressed at the time not to bother with more than about half an hour of it.

Now that I've seen the whole thing, I can't say I've changed my mind. It has Tony Shalhoub in it, who is most famous as Monk, and whom I really like in that role. And I guess it helps to provide a small extra insight into his career, since he started as Monk the year after this film, which also features him playing a man broken by the death of his wife in a fire, and (in this case literally) haunted by her ghost. So it looks like a pretty major factor in why he was cast. Otherwise, though, it is a fairly standard modern horror film full of under-developed characters and nonsensical business about ancient magical machines, and relying on crude shocks to excite the audience. As a Classicist, I did like the concept of the titular ghosts of the story being contained by Latin words written on glass, but then again we were never given any idea what the Latin said, or even allowed to read it properly as the cameras scrolled over it, so even this boiled down to little much more than "Latin! Isn't it cool?", which is nice but a bit unsatisfying.

In summary, I'm glad I didn't drive all the way to Stockport just for this.

37. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), dir. Terence Fisher.

This, on the other hand, was more than worth it! I have seen it before of course, including on the big screen, which experience I reviewed earlier this year, so I won't repeat the points I made there (mainly about queer readings). I will repeat my enthusiasm for it, though. The lavishness and ambition of the production (by Hammer's standards at the time) are obvious, but I think what really gives it staying-power are all the small but beautifully-observed details (whose equivalents in Dracula (1958) very much fuel my ongoing passion for that film, too). For example, the way the horse rears up when the body of the condemned criminal which the Baron has just cut down from the gallows falls into the wagon it is hitched to, as if to signify the horror of the natural order at what he is planning - a horror which the Baron is of course completely oblivious to. Or the way that after the Baron has killed Professor Bernstein, destroying a wooden balustrade in the process, the continuity is carefully set up to show us that the balustrade is never repaired properly for the rest of the film, but merely patched up with a single beam of wood, so that we are constantly visually reminded a) that the Baron has little interest in anything other than his experiments, and b) of the lengths he is prepared to go to in their pursuit.

It's possible to pick flaws in this film if you want to. For example, though Phil Leakey's design for Christopher Lee's make-up as the Creature is epically good on the whole, there are a few scenes where it become apparent that he didn't quite think hard enough about how it would match up with the collar of his costume, so that you can quite clearly see where the latex face-covering abruptly stops and Christopher Lee's neck begins. Also, the person who plays the blind grandfather in the woods (one Fred Johnson, apparently), is frankly awful, to the extent that he is roundly out-acted by the all-of-seven-years-old little chap playing his grandson. But next to the genre-defining Gothic visuals, the utterly compelling performances by Lee and Cushing, James Bernard's pitch-perfect music and the crisp efficiency of the script, those are very small beans indeed. I will happily watch this one again and again.

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
Regular readers may have spotted that I have been watching quite a few films with Christopher Lee in them over the last few months. This was all kicked off by me going to see Dracula (1958) on the big screen in Manchester last autumn, and it's still Lee-as-Dracula that I am truly interested in. But there are only so many Dracula films with Lee in them available, and I have watched all of those since that fatal night, in several cases repeatedly. Once they ran out, I had no choice but to keep myself going with a) other tellings of the Dracula story and b) other films starring Christopher Lee - ideally ones in which he played a character as similar to his Dracula as possible.

My personality inclines towards the systematic and the completist, so once I get into this sort of mind-set, I quickly start wanting to Make Lists, so that I can tick things off on them and see how far I have got into whatever fannish territory I am exploring. This is why I am still ticking off every classic horror film I see in my personal Horror Bible, even though I know it's meaningless. And I have been here before with Christopher Lee as an actor, too. Ten years ago, I printed out the full list of screen appearances from his IMDb page, and I have been faithfully ticking off each one as I saw it on that ever since as well. Here are two pages from the list - the front one, including the symbols I used to distinguish between films I had merely seen at some point, had seen in the cinema, and owned my own copy of, and a typical page from further into the list:

CL print out front page CL print out typical page
Click to embiggen, obvs, if you're mad enough.

Recently, I've been using that list quite intensively to choose new films to watch, and of course to tick them off when I have seen them. But after printing it out in 2004, I also began systematically blogging all of the films I watch on this journal in 2007. The obvious step forward, then, is to convert the list into digital form, meaning that it can easily be updated (unlike the printed copy) whenever Sir Lee makes a new film, and that I can link directly from the master list to every single one of my reviews (where they exist). Beautiful!

So that is what this post is for. Fleetingly, people will see it on their friends pages, but really it is a permanent master-list for me, to keep track of my Christopher Lee film-watching and to add in the links when I write up new reviews of his films. Times have changed enough to mean that I no longer care very much whether or not I own any of his films, since most of them can now be rented within a few days from Lovefilm or the like, so I have discarded that category from my original IMDB print-out. I do, however, still care about whether I've seen them on the big screen, since that is quite a different experience from the small, so that is indicated by the word 'CINEMA' in all-caps after the entry. Simple bold text = seen, link = reviewed, a number after an entry relates to second or subsequent reviews, and I've also separated them into decades for ease of reference.

2010s )

2000s )

1990s )

1980s )

1970s )

1960s )

1950s )

1940s )

Now that I have updated and compiled the list, I am in a position to report that I have seen just over a quarter of Christopher Lee's screen appearances. If you walked up to Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman or even Kevin 'six degrees of separation' Bacon and gushed about how you were such a huge fans of theirs, and had seen a quarter of their films, an awkward silence would probably ensue, because what you would be saying was that you had watched 17, 16 and 20 of their films respectively. They would probably conclude that you weren't really that big of a fan. But with Christopher Lee, the quarter-point comes at 70 films - more than Brad and Nicole (though not Kevin) have yet made. I have actually seen 75.

That said, I'm pretty clear that it would be a really bad idea to attempt completion on this list. Lee has appeared in a lot of films I really love, particularly in the two decades between 1957 and 1976 (as you can see from the concentration of bolded text around that portion of the list), but he has also appeared in a lot of utter tripe, too much of which I have already found myself watching recently in my quest for something - anything - to scratch the Dracula itch. I also don't much like war-films or thrillers, both of which belong to a category of films which I disparagingly dub 'men with guns', and he didn't half make a lot of those in the 1940s and '50s.

That said, there is once sub-category of his films which it is worth aiming for completion on, and that is the ones in which he co-starred with Peter Cushing. They are not all classic horror films, but the combination guarantees a much closer match to my personal preferences than Lee on his own does, and even when they aren't horror films, you are still getting to see an iconic screen pairing developing and maturing. With that in mind, I was careful to grab a complete list of their screen pairings with someone recently posted to a community I'm a member of on Facebook, and that follows below with the same basic mark-up as before of bold = seen, though without linking to the relevant reviews, because those are in the above list already.

Lee and Cushing's joint screen appearances )

So I am actually within reach of completing that list, with only 7 6 5 3 out of 24 entries (some of them rather spurious) still to go. Now that one is worth shooting for!

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strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
Watched this afternoon with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, this is one of those films I should have seem bloomin' years ago, but somehow hadn't. It's an Amicus portmanteau film, featuring four stories about tenants in the same creepy, isolated old house, and starring not only Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (each in their own separate segment), but also Denholm Eliot, Ingrid Pitt and (slightly more surprisingly) Jon Pertwee. It is not, of course, to be confused with Hammer's The House That Bled to Death, which I did see many years ago, and is an episode from their Hammer House of Horror TV series featuring a house doing pretty much exactly what it says in the title.

The stand-out characteristic of this film for us was the sheer volume of meta references to the wider horror / fantasy / macabre tradition. The agent who lets out the house to each set of tenants, for example, is a Mr. A.J. Stoker of Hynde Street, Braye (this review includes a screen-cap of his to-let sign). The significance of 'Stoker' should be obvious; Bray Studios was Hammer's main base in the late '50s and early '60s, and I think Hynde is probably a reference to Anthony Hinds, one of Hammer's most prominent and prolific producers and screen-writers (though the spelling obviously also recalls Hyde of 'Jekyll and...' fame).

There is much more, though. The house boasts a fabulous library of horror-related books, both literary and academic. Just a few of the titles I can remember seeing on screen include Dracula (of course!), The Vampire: His Kith and Kin by Montague Summers, The Haunted Screen by Lotte H. Eisner, a compilation of stories by authors such as Mervyn Peake (as [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out, a portmanteau book for a portmanteau film), another book called The House Of Death, etc. Meanwhile of course the established star image of the leading cast members was milked for all it was worth. Denholm Elliott's character was tormented, Peter Cushing's a kindly gentleman, Christopher Lee's brusque and stand-offish and Ingrid Pitt's alluring and (before long) a vampire. As for Jon Pertwee, who had been playing the Third Doctor for about a year on screen by the time this was broadcast, his first appearance was in a yellow vintage car - not actually Bessie, but jolly similar-looking.

Each story segment was individually very good. They are all the work of Robert Bloch, and contain twists which make it almost impossible to discuss them without being spoilery. But anyone who enjoys British horror films of this era will definitely like them. They are very nicely directed indeed by Peter Duffell, who explains some of his aims and techniques in a 20-minute featurette included on the DVD - like coloured lighting, and good dramatic use of a large staircase and gallery, at the top of which characters can appear, looming above / behind others down below. The location settings are excellent, too - obviously the house itself above all, but also some nice scenes on the streets of a local small town in Peter Cushing's segment.

Of the four segments, though, we felt that although the fourth was very good in itself, it was a bit out of place alongside the other three. The film is full of meta-references, as I've noted above, but this one tips into playing them overtly for laughs, and that felt a bit jarring after the atmosphere of disquiet carefully created in the three previous stories. The fourth story is Jon Pertwee and Ingrid Pitt's, and I've already mentioned its opening scene with him in a pseudo-Bessie above. Things continue from there. He is a horror film actor - perhaps a role which might better have been given to Cushing or Lee, but then again it is played so meta and hammishly that it might have seemed over-kill hanging on their shoulders. He declares that he grew up with the great classic horror films, including Dracula, but carefully specifies that he means the one with Bela Lugosi, "not this new fellow" - the new fellow whom we had just seen in the previous segment, of course. Then he buys a vampire's cloak from the elderly proprietor of a costume shop, played by Geoffrey Bayldon - then famous as Catweazle, but, as [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan realised, made up and costumed to resemble Dr Pretorius from Universal's Bride of Frankenstein (1935). And then the full-on vampire stuff with Ingrid Pitt begins, and it is all very silly and great in and of itself - but just not quite right after a series of tense psychological horror thrillers.

Other than that, though, a real classic, and one which certainly delivered the goods as a Christopher Lee film. He wears The Jacket (fans will know the one I mean) in some scenes, but also a very nice finely-tailored dark suit in others, speaks in the clipped, authoritative manner that his Dracula uses when he gets the chance (beginning of Dracula (1958), several scenes in Scars), and stands around being tall and looking down his nose at people quite a lot. We also get a good range of cold politeness, violent anger, suppressed fear and some excellent painful roars and contortions. I'm fairly sure [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan would express the same satisfaction with Mr. Cushing's contribution to the work, and can certainly report that she made some very approving comments about his wearing of cravats.

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strange_complex: (Lord S not unenlightened)
Teal dear summary - both of these films are incoherent messes, and Christopher Lee isn't even in them terribly much, but the moments when he is on screen are excellent!

29. 1941 (1979), dir. Steven Spielberg )

30. Scream and Scream Again (1970), dir. Gordon Hessler )

If the world were a truly good and beautiful place, someone would by now have extracted all of the scenes with Christopher Lee in them from 1941, and all of the scenes with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price in them from Scream and Scream Again and stuck the results on Youtube. However, as far as I can tell, they have not. We must suffer onwards in our imperfect and fragile existence.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
These were both re-watches, so I have linked to my previous write-up from the title of each, and am just noting here what struck me this time round.

25. Captain Clegg (1962), dir. Peter Graham Scott

This film depends a great deal on concealed identities, which of course means that the second watch is an entirely different experience from the first, since you know this time in advance who everyone is. It would be worth watching it a second time for that reason alone, in order to read the behaviour of the main characters in the knowledge of their secret identities before they are explicitly revealed, but I think this one would be worth watching a second time anyway.

Peter Cushing is genuinely magnificent in it, carrying the film with very much the same effortless authority as his character leads the village within the story. A 'making of' documentary on the recently-released DVD version which we watched first reported on how he had done things like consult a friend in the clergy in order to learn how to play his role as the Rev. Dr. Blyss convincingly, and it shows - as indeed the same meticulous approach usually does for all of Cushing's roles. He doesn't carry the full weight of the film alone, though. The story is rich with well-defined and well-played characters, each with complex agendas of their own, and much of the pleasure of it lies in seeing how they all play off against one another towards the dramatic climax.

The DVD also included a short documentary about the Mossman Carriage Collection (now housed at the Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton), which provided most of the horse-drawn vehicles used in Hammer's gothic films, and often also their drivers in the form of collection owner George Mossman. [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I both agreed that we would love to visit this collection, and also slightly scared ourselves by alternately exclaiming things like "Ooh, that's the hearse from Risen from the Grave!" and "I'm sure that's in Curse of Frankenstein!" throughout the documentary, only to have our identifications confirmed moments later by the narrator. We may just be a little bit geeky...

26. Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

It was well worth seeing this a second time, too, as the surreal nature of the film and the way that characters drift in and out of it with little dialogue can make the story quite hard to follow. To some extent this stems from the deliberate concealment of identities, as in Captain Clegg - in particular, the identity of the vampire is revealed only slowly. But it is also a more general function of a dreamlike and fragmentary narrative. Even on a second viewing, when we knew in advance who everyone was, there were still several scenes which puzzled us, as characters went off and did things for no discernible reason that we could fathom.

But it remains beautiful and atmospheric and hugely worth seeing, and there are also definitely some aspects of the story which you can appreciate better if you are already familiar with the characters. For example, the story has no real 'Van Helsing' figure in it, but a book of vampire lore left to the hero by the deceased father of the girl who is being attacked plays the same role of informing previously ignorant and sceptical characters about what vampires are and how to fight them. At regular intervals, characters in the story sit down and read sections from this book, which scroll slowly across the screen so that the audience can read it too, and then in the next scene we see the very principles which we have just learnt about in action. For example, we read in the book about how a vampire was once helped by a local doctor, and then see the doctor in Courtempierre doing the very same thing. On first viewing, this is all supposed to help us work out who the vampire is and that the doctor is in league with her, but on a second viewing when you already know this it can be recognised as a nice piece of structuring with overtones of dramatic irony (since the characters are not yet in a position to understand what the viewer has realised).

I wrote in my last review of this film how it uses motifs which also crop up in some of Hammer's Dracula films, such as a woman at an inn greeting a late-night traveller from an upstairs dormer window (Julie and Paul in Scars (1970)), or an older, wiser man passing on a book of vampire lore to a younger man on his death so that the latter can take on the job of protecting his female charge (the Monsignor and Paul in Risen (1968)). Another one I would add now is the idea of vampirism as a compulsion which those in the grip of it cannot resist, even though they are revulsed by their own behaviour, which is explained in the book and is also very much how Van Helsing describes it in Dracula (1958).

The chain of links from one to the other need not be direct in any of these cases, especially since Vampyr was not exactly a huge hit in its own day, and I'm not clear that it even got a contemporary UK cinema release. Most of these motifs can also be found in other vampire films - e.g. vampires as revulsed by their own actions is in Dracula's Daughter (there, as here, applied specifically to a female character). But the similarity of the passing-on-the-book motif especially is so strong that it does make me wonder whether Anthony Hinds, who wrote Risen (and in fact Scars as well), had seen Vampyr and recycled the ideas directly. He would have been a bit young, I think, at the age of 10 in 1932 to see it on first release even if it had been available in the same country as him, but it's possible he got the opportunity at a film club or something like that.

Anyway, a most enjoyable afternoon, and long may they continue!

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Dracula marathon

Thursday, 24 April 2014 21:57
strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
You know a person is a true friend when they say: "Why don't we have a Dracula film marathon?" Especially when it turns out that they mean not merely a day spent watching different cinematic tellings of the Dracula story, but a day spent specifically watching Hammer films. Thus it was that [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I got together on Easter Saturday to mainline the following:

14. Dracula (1958), dir. Terence Fisher
15. Brides of Dracula (1960), dir. Terence Fisher
16. Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), dir. Terence Fisher


We had a brilliant and unashamedly geeky time, swapping bits of Hammer trivia and both considering it perfectly normal to discuss issues such as who exactly the someone who came along and caused Lucy to run away in Tania's account of getting lost in the first film might be. We stuffed ourselves silly with strawberries and crunchy snacks, drank vampires and laughed a very great deal at both ourselves and the films.

As for the films themselves, I am not going to try reviewing them individually yet again. Previous reviews are available at the following locations, for anyone who is interested:

Dracula - June 2008, May 2013, November 2013, January 2014, February 2014.
Brides - January 2014.
Prince - September 2010, November 2013.

But it is my habit to record all of the films which I watch each year here in this journal, and I think it's not unreasonable to say a little something about the experience of watching these three together in close succession.

For one thing, I ended up feeling that although in the past I've tended to sideline Brides on the grounds that it doesn't have Christopher Lee in it, actually it really is part of the sequence and shouldn't be omitted. For example, Prince begins with a scene which only really makes sense if you haven't skipped straight there from Dracula. The scene in Prince traces a distraught woman running through the forest as she tries to prevent the local priest and his chums from staking her recently-deceased daughter. The point turns out to be that a pre-emptive staking isn't actually necessary, because the area is free of vampires. But we never encountered any such local funeral customs in Dracula anyway. It is Brides which depicts them, by showing a similar young woman, who, as it happens, has been killed by a vampire, but is buried with a garland of garlic flowers around her neck anyway as a matter of course, before anyone establishes this for certain. Without this depiction of normal local customs, the scene in which they are challenged at the start of Prince is a lot weaker.

We also noticed that between Dracula and Prince, our Chief Vampire in Residence has quite a noticeable taste for bling. I don't think anyone can ever have watched the first film without thinking "A shiny white coffin? Seriously?", but it's more than just that. He is resurrected in Prince from dust kept in an almost equally blingin' white marble casket, and while I know it is perfectly reasonable for any person watching the following scene to train their eyes primarily on the quite extensive stretch of naked Christopher Lee chest which it affords, let's also just take a moment to notice Dracula's shirt, shall we?

Disco-Drac

Yes, that's right - all that time, under all those layers of austere black fabric, he has secretly been wearing a frilly shirt all along. Disco-Drac! But perhaps there is some perverse kind of sense in all this. After all, this is also the man who calls at least two of his servants 'Klove', despite his revulsion for garlic. It's almost like he deliberately enjoys playing around with what, from his perspective, is horrible if not actually deadly. So perhaps for him the white coffin and frilly shirt work in a similar way? They are his rejection of vampire conventionality (you know, hanging around in dank cobwebby castles full of ruin and despair), in favour of embracing what for him is truly dark and terrible - 60s / 70s kitsch. In other words, he's the inverted vampire equivalent of a great big Goth.

Well, it's a theory anyway.

Meanwhile, with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's equally-geeky help I worked out all sorts of minor canon and continuity issues for an enormous file which I am still gradually compiling on the ins and outs of the Hammer Draculaverse. But I'm increasingly of the opinion that those don't really belong here, but rather on some separate stand-alone blog where fellow Dracula geeks can readily find them. Setting that up, though, will I suspect have to be an 'after the Augustus conference' project.

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strange_complex: (True Blood Eric wink)
Fandom can take you to some terrible places, can't it? Just as every really enthusiastic Doctor Who fan eventually ends up watching stories like The Twin Dilemma or Warriors of the Deep, knowing full well that they are terrible, because they love the series as a whole so much, it seems that sooner or later the avid Hammer Dracula fan finds themselves face to face with The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. I've gone down this road once before in my life, and had hoped to avoid ever retreading it. But now that I've got the idea in my head of trying to make the entire Hammer Dracula franchise fit together into a single coherent canon, it had to be rewatched. [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was kind enough to accompany me in the endeavour, fortified in her case by the prospect of some Peter Cushingy goodness. I, alas, had no such comfort, since Christopher Lee was noticeable only by his absence - but even as a massive fan of his Dracula, I have to admit that he called this one right.

The film is a co-production between Hammer and the Hong Kong-based Shaw Studio, filmed entirely on location in Hong Kong, which attempts to marry up the '70s kung-fu craze with the successful Dracula franchise for Much Box Office Win. Apparently (according to this book about Peter Cushing from which [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan emailed me some relevant details), Shaw insisted on the Dracula character appearing within the film, even though Christopher Lee has refused to do it, as they believed it would pull in the audiences. I guess Hammer weren't so convinced, as Dracula isn't actually mentioned in the UK release title (The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), but he was in some of the foreign release titles (e.g. the USA, Singapore).

In my view, the Hungarian title, Van Helsing és a 7 aranyvámpír, is actually what the film should have been called everywhere (with appropriate translation, obviously), because essentially that's what it is - a Van Helsing adventure which takes our man to China, rather than any kind of Dracula film. I found myself opining in a comment on my Brides of Dracula review that although personally I'm glad that Hammer (mainly) used Dracula as the thread to link their sequels together after the first film, as far as story potential goes it would have been equally valid to do the same with Van Helsing. That's essentially what Brides of Dracula does, in spite of its title, and it's also what The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires does, in spite of including a character called Count Dracula. [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's book also reports that a further film entitled Kali, Devil Bride of Dracula was planned for after Legend, and presumably this would have been much the same, but this time taking Van Helsing to India. Indeed, Google informed me that Hammer got as far as mocking up promotional posters for this film, and Peter Cushing is certainly on them.

Bodged-on Dracula book-ends )

An actually quite decent Van-Helsing-goes-to-China story in the middle )

But with too much chop-socky action, poor treatment of the Chinese characters and even worse treatment of the women )

And some nods to The Seven Samurai (probably), Dracula 1931 and Nosferatu 1922 )

OK then - so I'm properly done with watching and reviewing every possible entry in the Hammer Dracula franchise. Next to ramp up the geekiness yet another notch while I rake over their in-story canon and continuity in immense and obsessive detail.... *rubs hands with anticipation*

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
It seems an awfully long time ago now since the Hammer horror / M.R. James weekend which I began writing up in this post, but I do still want to record the rest of it, as it really was spectacularly awesome.

In my previous post, I wrote up individual reviews for the three Hammer films which we saw at the Media Museum, but I also wanted to note down a few thoughts on the experience of watching all three together over the course of a single weekend )

Anyway, the course did not end with the third film, but culminated instead with a trip down to the Media Museum's archives to see the most relevant items from their Hammer special effects make-up collection, acquired from the estate of Roy Ashton (but also including material used by his mentor and colleague, Phil Leakey). I saw some of this material in 2012 during a Fantastic Films Weekend, but on that occasion it was all on display in glass cases, and my mobile phone camera at the time was definitely not as good as the one I have now. So this time I was able to see the material at a much closer range, including getting to see inside the exciting tins with labels reading 'vampire bites', 'eye pouches' etc., rather than just seeing them from the outside, and I was also able to get rather better photos )

The importance of not touching any of the material was, of course, strongly impressed upon us, resulting in some of us having to carefully hold our hands behind our backs to stave off our all-too-natural urges - especially where Dracula's lovely shiny curving fangs were concerned. And then of course there was general banter around the fact that 56 years earlier those very fangs had been in Christopher Lee's mouth, and there was probably enough biological material left on them to clone him. And somehow on the bus back to Leeds and during our walk into deepest Holbeck in search of M.R. James stories, this turned into a film script entitled Touch the Teeth of Dracula, which would involve some poor innocent soul succumbing to the urge to reach out and touch the fangs, and pulling their finger away with a shock to find it bleeding profusely, and the Count himself taking over their body and being reincarnated in 21st-century Bradford.

miss_s_b and I would then start fighting over him, and somehow (presumably after a thrilling coach chase to the Carpathian mountains) it would all end up with a fight to the death on the battlements of his castle, by the end of which we would both be on fire, and one of us would do Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 1 (falling forward) while the other did Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 2 (falling backwards), so that we tumbled in opposite directions to our doom. It was one of those classically geeky conversations where everyone is madly chucking in ideas, and no-one is quite sure where any of it came from, and all of it is completely ridiculous but somehow the sum total of it adds up to a thing of genius. I love those conversations - and the people I have them with.

All the while, we were traversing a landscape of Victorian industrial chimneys rumoured to have inspired Tolkien's Two Towers, moving steadily further from the traffic and lights of Leeds city centre and penetrating deeper into a domain of crumbling warehouses, cobbled side-streets and eventually open urban scrub waste-land. Catching up with a huddle of people ahead of us wearing long coats and wide-brimmed hats, we confirmed that we were indeed on the right course for the Holbeck Underground Ballroom, which was frankly welcome news as we started to pass work-yards populated with barking dogs and burly-looking men stoking oil-drum braziers. But the journey was well worth it. Inside, we found cheerful people serving wine in chipped white mugs for £1 a pop, free hot water-bottles to make up for the lack of central heating, and a room furnished with tatty sofas, drapes and various antique nick-nacks to mill around in while we waited for the show.

Eventually, we were ushered into the main performance space to snuggle up together on creaking sofas veiled in fabric throws, and watch Robert Lloyd Parry bringing M.R. James to life )

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
The local cultural offerings of last weekend could not have been more perfect for me. Not only did the National Media Museum in Bradford put on a Hammer Horror themed film course, but Robert Lloyd Parry, who played M.R. James in Mark Gatiss' documentary about his life on Christmas Day, was to be found doing live readings of Lost Hearts and A Warning to the Curious in a derelict warehouse in Holbeck on the Sunday evening. Fitting it all in to a single weekend was a bit of a logistical challenge, but I am so glad that I did.

The film course was entitled Sex, Death & British Horror: Hammer in the 1950s, and involved screenings of the three iconic films which made Hammer's name as a horror studio in the late '50s - The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy - each preceded by about half an hour's worth of introductory talks. On the Sunday afternoon, we were also taken into the museum's archive to see some of the most relevant items from their Hammer collection, while each day ended with tutor-led discussions of the films in the Media Museum bar. Seeing the films and the archive was awesome, of course, but I have experienced those before, whereas the chance to sit around with equally-geeky people steeped in the same material and keen to discuss it in depth was in many ways the best part of the weekend for me. Really, that wasn't exactly unique for me either, since many of the most vocal people in both discussions also happened to be my friends already, so I can have that experience almost any time I like - as indeed we did as we walked out of each screening, or on the bus afterwards. But it's still nice to do it in a slightly larger group, and with some extra perspectives and opinions in the mix.

7. The Curse of Frankenstein, which turned out to be basically a doomed bromance )

8. The Mummy, which turned out to be a serious attempt at cinematic epic, and with strong contemporary political resonances to boot )

9. Dracula, which somehow even after all this time and all these viewings yielded up yet another discovery and a whole raft of backstory which can be built upon it )

I was going to write about the effects of viewing the three films so close together, of our visit to the Media Museum's Hammer make-up effects archive, and of the M.R. James readings in this post as well, but it's already got pretty long, and I won't have time to do any more until Monday evening, as I have to spend the weekend at my parents'. So this will do for now, and I'll pick up the rest next week.

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