strange_complex: (Clone Army)
This is a good, solid Hammer production, shot when they were more or less at the height of their commercial success, and about a year before they moved out of Bray Studios. I'd vaguely seen bits of it before (mainly on the Horror Channel, I think), but decided it was worth watching properly - and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was kind enough to lend me the disc.

It has everything you would expect from Hammer in this period1 - ambitious sets, a coherent script, a reliable cast, some heaving bosoms and a few soft shocks. I also remember thinking while watching it that the editing was rather good, with some nice cuts from Scene A featuring one set of characters, to Scene B featuring another set doing something which either cast new light on the actions in Scene A or was thematically linked to it in some way. But that was a couple of weeks ago, I didn't write down any specific examples and I have of course forgotten them now. So we'll have to take that on faith.

Most of the zombie stories I have encountered in my time (some of which are gathered under my 'zombies' tag) have post-dated Night of the Living Dead (1968), and thus presented their zombies as brain-hungry corpses, reanimated by some kind of natural or scientific disaster which lies beyond human control. But this one belongs to an earlier phase in the evolution of zombie mythology, which engages directly with Haitian voodoo tradition. The zombies of this film are reanimated deliberately by a local squire, using voodoo rituals which he learnt during a spell in Haiti, so that he will have mindless slaves to work in his tin-mines.

This set-up actually makes zombies functionally very similar to vampires, and certainly this is how Hammer treats them here. The squire himself is a rather arrogant aristocrat who makes romantic advances towards the heroine, Sylvia, but turns out to have a dangerous and violent dark side. In other words, he is basically Dracula. Even more strikingly, he 'attacks' his victims by engineering situations in which they will cut themselves (e.g. on a piece of broken glass), so that he can steal their blood and use it later on to enslave them via his voodoo rituals. Once this has happened, they become pallid and sick-looking, begin to respond hypnotically to his will, and soon die, only to emerge from their graves again as full-blown, grey-skinned slaves to the squire's command.

Meanwhile, an eminent doctor is summoned to the village where all this is happening by the young male lead, investigates the phenomenon by opening coffins (only to find them empty, of course), and eventually manages to defeat the squire by setting his voodoo dolls on fire, which in turn causes the zombies they control to do the same. The doctor isn't quite the same as the original Van Helsing from the Dracula films, because he doesn't know about zombieism before the film begins, and thus has to find out about it from a book. But he is very definitely a close equivalent to the Van Helsing-type figures of Hammer's later Dracula / vampire films.

So, yes, a tried-and-tested formula is being applied here (Hammer had three Dracula films plus Kiss of the Vampire under their belt by the time they made this, whereas this was their first and only foray into zombieism). In fact, the Cornish setting also functions much like Transylvania - remote, rural and replete with superstitious locals. But at the same time, its tin-mining industrial history also offers the scope for approaching zombieism as an allegory for the aristocratic exploitation of the poor - something which vampirism can also do of course, but which wasn't particularly deeply woven into any of Hammer's Dracula films until The Satanic Rites of Dracula, in which he appears as a property magnate.

But while the squire's industrial slavery was clearly handled critically, no such critique is apparent in the film's treatment of race relations. This, of course, comes up due to the voodoo themes of the story, but all of the black actors who were cast as a result are either scary Others who bang drums and wear grass skirts, or a servant of the squire's who literally calls him 'masser' and tries to impede the good doctor in his quest to Defeat Evil. I'm not sure whether this is better or worse than having no ethnic minority characters at all, which is what most Hammer films do - probably worse on balance. But while I think it's important for 21st-century viewers to call this stuff, I also think it's pointless and blinkered to dismiss films from the 1960s for reflecting the social attitudes of the age. That, in fact, is part of their value.

Overall, then, a cracking little number which is a good example of Hammer's capabilities and very nearly an entry in their vampire canon, even while actually being an interesting mile-post in the history of zombie films.


1. Close chronological siblings include Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), The Witches (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967).

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
On the way back from the 2010 Fantastic Film Weekend, fresh from having seen The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, I remarked to [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy that in recent decades people had managed to make vampires, werewolves, ghosts and witches sexy, but I couldn't see how it could very well be done for zombies - what with all the rotting flesh, brainless lumbering and so forth. "Aha!" said [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. "Actually I've got this book at home where somebody has done exactly that. It's a high-school zombie romance - would you like to borrow it?" So I did.

It's still a slight exaggeration to say that this book makes zombies sexy as such. But it does manage to make them sympathetic and teen-romantic. The basic set-up is that some recently-deceased teenagers (and only teenagers) have started coming back to life for no reason that anyone is very clear about. It happens pretty much straight after death, so there are no half-rotten corpses clambering out of graves. Rather, the people come back - but they aren't the same. They are pale, and slow of movement and thought, but surprisingly strong and resilient to injury. Some of them are rejected by their horrified families, but others are accepted and put back into high-school. And the book deals with everyone's responses to this - embarrassed friends, concerned adults, bullying jocks, and fascinated strangers.

Mainly, the returned teenagers are treated as a metaphor for any outsider or minority group of the reader's choice. Polite terminology has been developed to describe their condition - 'living impaired' or 'different biotic, rather than 'undead' or 'zombies', although some of them choose to adopt and reclaim that term. A research institute called the Hunter Foundation has been set up to try to find out what is going on, and particularly why it is that some of the returned teenagers have almost the same capabilities as their living peers, while others do not. And those who have been rejected by their families have set up their own hide-out in an abandoned house, where they hold all-night parties and develop their own subculture.

Meanwhile, the main plot focuses on a living goth girl called Phoebe, who knows what it is like to be treated as an outsider herself, and becomes fascinated with a living-impaired football player called Tommy. Tommy keeps a blog (available as a real-life spin-off) in which he chronicles the life of an undead person, and the violence and murders being perpetrated against them - yet never reported in the news. But as their friendship grows, and touches on becoming a romance, this culture of violence draws closer and closer in on them, until it has terrible consequences for one of Phoebe's oldest friends.

It's a sweet story, and I certainly enjoyed it - though more simply as a high-school story with a supernatural slant than as anything hugely challenging or ground-breaking. But there are aspects of it which feel unsatisfying, and particularly the sub-plot with the Hunter Foundation. All sorts of hints are dropped that this may be more sinister than it appears, as living impaired kids disappear off for 'testing' and are never seen again, but this is never resolved, and seems simply to be dropped in the last few chapters of the book. Then again, there are apparently two sequels, so maybe the story of the Hunter Foundation is picked up and continued there?

Anyway, it won't change your life, or indeed probably make you squirm with pleasure over the delightful possibilities of the English language. But if you're up for a high-school zombie romance, then this is exactly the book for you.

(See, told you I had this one ready-written. And that is 2010 done - woo-hoo and yay and hoorah!)

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I saw this early yesterday evening at the Hyde Park Picture House with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, to the accompaniment of a 'live re-score' by a Sheffield outfit named Animat. It stars Vincent Price, and is the earliest adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 book, I Am Legend. Later versions of this book are generally better-known: The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston and I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith. But all of them tell the same basic story of the last man left alive (here Vincent Price's character) after the rest of human-kind have either been killed or turned into vampires by a deadly plague.

I'm afraid the general consensus was that the film was great, but that we would have preferred to see it with the original music. The sound-balance wasn't very carefully handled, meaning that the music was slightly too loud for the film the whole way through, and frequently drowned out bits of dialogue. And although it was funny and post-modern for five minutes to hear tracks like Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' while the vampires were attacking Vincent Price's house, complete with his own spooky voice-over, on the whole the joke wore thin pretty quickly. We agreed afterwards that we'd have preferred to hear the original gramophone records which he listens to during that sequence (in order to drown out the voices of the vampires calling him by name), as they probably added a lovely period atmosphere to the film which we didn't get to experience.

I'd also hoped to come away from the film with some idea of how one inserts new music into a film which already had its own original music, but without removing the dialogue. It's obviously easy to do for films from the '20s which didn't have any soundtrack in the first place, but I thought that most films with soundtracks were released with the dialogue and the music inextricably mixed together as part of the same recording, so I don't really understand how you can strip the music out while still keeping the voices. Anyway, I'm afraid I am still none the wiser on that front. All I can tell you is that the film was played from a DVD (I know, 'cos we saw the title menu at the beginning and end), and all the music we heard came from these two chaps sitting off to one side with laptops and a keyboard. Maybe this particular DVD somehow has the option of turning off the music? I don't know.

Anyway, music aside, Vincent Price was everything you would expect, and I can certainly see how the film had an influence on later zombie films like those of George A. Romero. In fact, having recently seen 28 Days Later, I could see quite a few shared topoi - e.g. general scenes of Price's character moving about in deserted urban spaces; a scene of him going into a supermarket and pushing trolleys aside to get in; and a church sign reading 'The End Has Come', which reminded me of the words 'The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh' daubed on the wall of the church in 28 Days Later. It follows the book reasonably faithfully, but also establishes a legacy for Charlton Heston's The Omega Man in the ways that it deviates from the novel. Two things which they certainly share are a) the main character getting hunted down and killed in a rather Christ-like fashion, rather than imprisoned and committing suicide and b) the possibility of a happy ending of sorts, in that although the main character is dead, he has already passed on a proper cure for the disease to others before this happens. I haven't seen the Will Smith version, so can't comment on what happens there.

The film is set in America, and nearly convinced as such, but a scene set on the steps of the Colosseo Quadrato gave away the real location in Italy. I wished I'd known that when I went in, in fact, so that I could have looked out for other iconic buildings from around Rome, but I only realised while I was watching (and confirmed it afterwards from t'internet). Now that I've seen the film, I can also report that the Gothic mansion depicted on the publicity poster for it is rather misleading, since no such building features at any point during the film. It's far from the only movie poster from this era to feature generic images which have nothing much to do with the film, of course, but it's interesting to see in this case what particular image was chosen. It seems pretty clear to me that the poster was trying to evoke the Roger Corman-style Gothic horror numbers that Price was most famous for in order to get bums on seats. It suggests that contemporary audiences were being assumed to have pretty conservative tastes, given that in fact the whole point about Matheson's story was that it broke away from the Gothic legacy, and tried to update vampire mythology by making it more modern and scientific.

Anyway, a lovely evening out - but as I say, we came away resolved to get the DVD and see it in its original format for ourselves. Live re-scoring may be good for silent films, but it would have to be absolutely brilliant to make it worthwhile for films which already have their own original soundtrack - and this really wasn't.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Whew! It's taken me a couple of days to type this lot up, as I saw a lot of films on the final day of the festival, and I think we all know I am a bit prone to tl;dr reviews, even when I think the thing I'm writing about was rubbish. But I've managed it now! It's up to you to decide if you are brave enough to read it all. ;-)

15a-f. Short Films )

TV Heaven: Children of the Stones (HTV, 1976) )

16a. Intrusion (1961), dir. Michael Reeves )

16b. The Sorcerers (1967), dir. Michael Reeves )

17. Robocop (1987), dir. Paul Verhoeven )

18. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), dir. Jorge Grau )

So that was a pretty intensive weekend of film viewing all told - in fact, coming out of the other end of it I find that I am now well ahead of 2009's total of 14 films seen over the entire year, even though it is still only June. I absolutely loved it, though, and have found myself haunting Amazon and eBay ever since it ended, swooping up copies of films I saw, or other works by the same actors and directors to add to my collection. Debate is currently raging on miss_s_b's journal about what form next year's festival should take. But whatever the final line-up, unless life conspires to stop me I'm pretty sure I'm going to be there.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
12. Horror Express (1973), dir. Eugenio Martin

I have to admit to not having seen this one before, despite having been a massive Lee and Cushing fan for over twenty years and knowing perfectly well that it was one of their great classics. And I've been really missing out, because it's completely brilliant )


13. 28 Days Later (2002), dir. Danny Boyle )

The screening of 28 Days Later was actually only one half of a double-bill along with 28 Weeks Later. I've seen that before too, and indeed enjoyed it very much, so was sorely tempted to stay and see it again, especially so that I could compare the two films back to back. But I opted for a new experience over a tried-and-tested one - and I've got to say that on this particular occasion it was a real mistake...


14. Mark of the Devil (1970), dir. Michael Armstrong

See, Mark of the Devil sounded great in advance )

In short, this is 90 minutes of solid torture all right. But for the audience, not for the characters. I spent the rest of the weekend having to carefully avoid the director's eye, in case I accidentally blurted out "Your film was embarrassingly dreadful! What were you thinking?" Some horror films are bad in ways which are unintentionally funny, and that is a major source of the pleasure in watching them. But this one was just a huge, steaming crock o' shite, and definitely the low point of the festival for me.

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