strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I saw both of these with [ profile] ms_siobhan as a New Year's Eve double-bill at the Hyde Park Picture House yesterday, from our favourite seats on the left-hand side of the balcony.

45. Some Like It Hot (1959), dir. Billy Wilder

First of all, it does have to be acknowledged that this one particular film probably bears about 90% of the responsibility for the transphobic myth that trans women are really just straight dudes who want to infiltrate women-only spaces and ogle cis women. It didn't invent that idea, and nor is it now necessarily the direct cause of most people absorbing it, but it is a major theme of the film, and must surely have given it a very big cultural boost. So I think it's important to say that whenever talking about this film, as a small way of helping to chip away at the real-world potency of that very damaging myth. On a similar note, I also found the scenes in which Tony Curtis' character, in persona as Shell Oil Junior, coerces Sugar into sex by pretending to be sexually unresponsive and in need of 'help' to fix him pretty gross as well. I get that disguise and deceit are ancient staples of romantic comedies, and never more so than in this one, but she was totally into his Shell Oil Junior character anyway. She would very obviously have willingly and enthusiastically have had sex with him without that extra layer of lies and manipulation, so to me they broke through the romantic comedy genre conventions and out into some distinctly rapey territory.

But I am perfectly capable of separating out those things from the rest of the film in my mind, and seeing it for the of-its-time romantic musical comedy it is meant to be. As a star vehicle for Monroe it is magnificent, with her performance of "I Wanna Be Loved By You" capturing her appeal perfectly. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are perfectly paired as the two protagonists, the Chicago gangsters are brilliant, the music is great, the physical farce fantastic and the witty dialogue to die for. Plus, for all my reservations above, I also think that by showing male characters experiencing male treatment of women at first hand, and by including scenes with strong homosexual overtones (both lesbian ones between Sugar and Curtis-as-Josephine and the famous "Well, nobody's perfect" ending between Osgood and Lemmon-as-Jerry), it probably helped to achieve some social steps forwards as well as backwards. So, if the movie isn't perfect either, that doesn't mean it isn't still a great watch.

46. The Apartment (1960), dir. Billy Wilder

Part two of the double-bill was the next year's follow-up movie from the same production team, which brought back Jack Lemmon as the leading man. It's still a comedy, and starts out looking for all the world like a farce, but it has a dark undertone from the beginning, because of the way it portrays sleazy executives laughing it up together as they coldly conduct affairs in Lemmon's character's apartment, and him conniving in it for the sake of material promotion, while at the same time being very obviously strung along and exploited himself. Then, half-way through, the darkness bursts violently to the surface when one executive's to-him-casual (but to her serious) fling attempts suicide in the apartment. The overall arc is actually very moralistic - Lemmon discovers his moral compass and is rewarded with True Love, the chief sleazy executive gets his come-uppance, and the young lady (Miss Kubelik) rediscovers her sense of self-worth. But gosh, you do get put through the wringer along the way.

This made it a good second film for the double-bill, though. It felt a little more 'cerebral' than Some Like It Hot (if that's quite the right word), which worked well for its early evening slot once you'd been warmed up by the comedy first. It was certainly more moving, anyway - I found myself sniffing back tears as the end credits rolled, which you just wouldn't get from Some Like It Hot (unless, of course, Chicago mobsters had killed your grandmother, you insensitive clod). But it has in common with the other film all those classic qualities of slick pacing, seemingly effortless photography and of course a brilliant cast. Though his character isn't very nice, I actually thought Fred MacMurray was absolutely brilliant as Sleazy Executive Mr. Sheldrake, hitting that perfect note between oiliness and plausible charm which seems to be so characteristic of American Presidents (Nixon and Regan particularly spring to mind). It is essential to the whole plot that we should be able to believe Miss Kubelik might attempt suicide over him while simultaneously being able to see that he's a schmuck, so MacMurray had an important job to do there, and did it really well. I'd like to see more stuff with him in now on that basis. I also loved both the characterisation and the performances for the two Jewish neighbours, Dr. and Mrs. Dreyfuss - relatively small roles (especially hers), but ones which felt very human and three-dimensional al the same.

While Some Like It Hot has fun playing up the glamour of the 1920s jazz age, The Apartment is now just as fascinating for being set in its contemporary present day. I particularly enjoyed seeing how large-scale corporate office culture might have operated in 1960s America, complete with lobbies, elevators, desk diaries, rotary card index files, calculating machines and telephone exchanges. And I liked the insights into Lemmon's bachelor life-style as well, which was so close to and yet not quite the same as its equivalent today - frozen meals for heating up in the oven rather than microwave meals, a TV remote-control unit with a dial on it fixed to his table, and of course the time-honoured pokey apartment for one. In less cheery news from the 1960s, though, I was disquieted to realise that Miss Kubelik is obviously at risk of getting into trouble with the law for having attempted suicide, so that the whole thing has to be hushed up. We have moved beyond that, suicide-wise, in both the US and UK since, but that is still exactly where we are with drugs, leaving addicts unable to seek help for fear of punishment (not to mention at risk from unregulated products), and it's about damned time we sorted that out.

Back to The Apartment(!), it also turned out to be a Christmas / New Year film, which I guess was yet another reason (on top of release-date chronology and the tonal move from pure comedy to black comedy) why it needed to be the second half of the double bill. Miss Kubelik makes her suicide attempt on Christmas Eve, spends a few days recovering at Jack Lemmon's apartment, and then finally dumps her Sleazy Executive in favour of him on New Year's Eve. Not quite the Christmas-to-New-Year experience I would wish on anyone in reality, but still in its own way something to get us in the mood for our own NYE celebrations which followed.

Films watched 2014 round-up )

And now I believe it is time to get started on my films watched in 2015. :-)

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
Rewinding a few days here to the pre-Christmas period, I went to see this at Leeds Town Hall with [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy, [ profile] nalsa and Mrs. [ profile] nalsa in honour of [ profile] planet_andy's birthday. I've never been to a film screening at Leeds Town Hall before, so that was fun in itself, and nor had I seen Die Hard in spite of its classic status. It is an action film after all, which is hardly my genre, but going to see it in its reinvented pomo guise as a 'Christmas film' - now that, I could handle.

It is, of course, masses of fun. Indeed, I might well have gone to see it earlier if I'd cottoned on to the fact that it has Alan Rickman in it being deliciously villainous. His character even got in a Classical reference, too:
"And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer." Benefits of a classical education. [Source: IMDb]
Obviously, that actually boils down to your standard use of Classics to denote morally-bankrupt posh people, and is thus exactly the sort of thing which puts people off the subject, but never mind! It's still good to hear Alex getting a name-check, and it's not like it was a mainstay of the plot. Other things I particularly liked included McClane's message on the first terrorist victim's shirt: "Now I have a machine gun - ho ho ho!", Johnson & Johnson the ineffective FBI agents and Argyle happily living it up in his limousine while blithely unaware of the major terrorist incident going on in the building above him. I assumed for ages that he would spend literally the entire film like this, and just drive out the next morning wondering what was going on, but it was also cool that he got to play his part in overcoming the bad guys too.

I do realise that this bit is going to make me sound like Noam Chomsky on his day off, but gosh - you really couldn't present a more fully-developed fantasy of hyper-masculinity as a response to male anxieties about successful career-women than this film, could you? That is literally how McClane wins his wife back after their marriage has been broken apart by her promotion to Director of Corporate Affairs at the Nakatomi Corporation. But anyway! Helicopters and explosions and cool one-liners and stuff! Yay.

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strange_complex: (Cleo wink)
Borrowed recently from Lovefilm, and watched last night as a treat after a heavy day of Lib Dem Christmas card delivery.

We must have taped this off the telly some time in my early teens, as I clearly remember having a copy of it in the family house, really liking it and watching it quite regularly on boring Sunday afternoons. I hadn't seen it since I left home though (and heck knows what's happened to the taped copy), so I borrowed it to see whether it was as good as I remember. It was!

The story is based on Bram Stoker's novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars, which I must confess I have never read. Wikipedia gives good plot summaries of both, though, so I won't bother repeating either, but will simply link for those who are interested:Judging from those, the essential elements of the stories are pretty similar, but The Awakening updates everything to the present day, and puts more emphasis on the personal and psychological troubles of the Egyptologist who unearths the mummy - his marital problems, his career obsessions, his weird relationship with the teenage daughter he has barely ever seen. And there is no doubt at all about what has happened to both Kara (the mummified princess) and Margaret (his daughter) at the end.

Wikipedia also tells me, in what is clearly a rather contested Reception section, that this film is apparently widely considered rather dull. Indeed, others seem to agree. It's a fascinating phenomenon, this one - you grow up with a film in the pre-internet age, form your own opinion of it, perhaps with input from one single review (my Horror Bible thinks it's great!), and only discover years later that you are utterly out of step with the majority consensus. But in this case I really cannot understand what the people who claim this film is boring are on about. From where I'm sitting, Charlton Heston does a great job as Corbeck, the lead Egyptologist, conveying very effectively the range from his buoyant exuberance when he first makes the find of a life-time to his increasingly-unhinged vulnerability as he begins to realise where it is leading him. And the plot builds just nicely from a straightforwardly-realistic depiction of an Egyptological dig at the beginning, through a series of strange and unsettling events which reflect the parallel development of Corbeck's unhealthy obsession with his find, and via a sequence of inventive and memorable deaths to a poignant ending in which he just has time to witness his own illusions shattering before meeting his own horrible fate. There is a strong sense of inevitability as the events march towards their terrible climax, and yet always tension too as we are given reasons to hope that the characters will manage to overcome the ancient evil and escape their fates.

Watching it now, what I really liked about it was its central concern with academic obsession, and the terribly damaging effect it can have on the person experiencing it and on those around them. I can definitely relate to that. In fact, in many ways Corbeck's character arc reminds me quite strongly of Stourley Kracklite's in Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect, another film of which I am extremely fond. Both characters are obsessed with a little-known historical figure whom no-one else really cares about (Kara, Boulée), both have marital problems, both lose control of their big research projects, both put up undignified fights to get them back, both lose all sense of proportion in the process, both are aware of their own impending doom and helpless in the face of it, and both essentially end up causing their own deaths. It's just that in The Awakening, the drama and tension of this arc is manifested partly via supernatural happenings.

Obviously when I originally saw this as a teenager, I couldn't have related quite so profoundly to the academic-obsession theme, but I was of course already very geeky. I had definitely spent more than my due portion of hours shut away in my bedroom, reading about Egyptian mythology. So I think even then I would have found something that spoke to me in Corbeck's obsession with an ancient Egyptian princess, and his half-hope, half-fear that he might be able to bring her back to life. Certainly, I remember being very much taken by the climactic scene in which he carries out the resurrection ritual, at the end of which he breaks open the mummy's jaw so that she can 'breathe' again, only to first realise to his horror that the magic was all an illusion and all he has done is irreparably damage his precious find, and then realise to his even greater horror that the ritual has in fact worked, but not in the way he had imagined - Kara has indeed come back to life, but in the body of his daughter. This part, of course, is a classic 'be careful what you wish for' story - rather like The Monkey's Paw, for example.

Meanwhile, this is a surprisingly big-budget film for a British horror movie. Even the nay-sayers seem willing to concede that its sets and location footage, including extensive scenes set in actual Egypt, are superb, and the camera crew certainly get good value out of them. The early scenes on the dig are infused with a powerful sense of the close heat of the Egyptian desert - another aspect which had really stuck with me since I last saw this film as a teenager. There is some clever editing work going on as well, usually to suggest terrifying and supernatural things without actually showing them. For example, when Corbeck first finds Kara's tomb, the sounds of his hammer-blows as he opens the outer seal reverberate along the valley, where they are cross-cut with scenes of his wife back at the camp experiencing simultaneous spasms as she goes into a premature labour with their child. This is just enough to suggest, without actually stating, that there is a profound connection between the dead Egyptian princess and the new-born baby - just the right level to leave that suggestion on at this stage of the story, so that it can develop more fully and horrifyingly later on.

I will concede that the young lady who plays Corbeck's daughter, Stephanie Zimbalist, puts in a pretty unexciting performance - but even then, maybe that's only appropriate to the story, given that she is meant to be 18 years old and basically just a cipher waiting to be possessed by an evil Egyptian princess. It's probably a good thing the film ends just as that possession takes full hold, because I'm not sure Zimbalist could have carried full-on evil very convincingly. Other than that, though, I really can't see how or why this film deserves such mediocre ratings on the various review aggregator websites. That said, I note that many of the negative reviews (e.g. this one) draw their unfavourable comparisons specifically with Hammer's earlier take on the same Stoker novel, Blood From The Mummy's Tomb, and I won't dismiss that part of what they say. So it's onto the Lovefilm list with Hammer's effort, for future viewing and a comparison of my own.

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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: (Vampira)
Watched this afternoon with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy for one of our regular Sunday afternoon horror sessions.

I've seen it before, but it was some 20 years ago now, while a first-year student at Hiatt Baker Hall in Bristol. What I remember most about it was it being very slow, and that certainly wasn't a false memory. There are long, evocative shots of carriages driving along causeways, ships crossing oceans and Isabelle Adjani running through a plague-ridden town, while plot and dialogue languish neglected in the background. In all fairness, those long shots are extremely beautiful, and together with the rather dreamlike behaviour of the characters and atmospheric strains of the music they are clearly meant to capture the spirit (if not the exact characteristics) of the 1922 Nosferatu's Expressionism - just as Herzog explicitly says in a little featurette included on the DVD. But it did mean that our attention sometimes drifted rather from the story, and we found ourselves giving voice to frustrated exclamations along the lines of "FFS, get on with it!"

The story follows the template of the 1922 Nosferatu pretty closely, though it reverts to the original character names from Stoker's novel, which was safely out of copyright by the time it was made. Weirdly, Lucy and Mina's names are basically swapped over for no particular reason, so that they match up with the wrong characters - but never mind! As a Dracula adaptation, a few things particularly struck me about it, some of which I believe are also to be found in the 1922 version, though it is a while since I watched that (and not, as far as I can tell, since I started reviewing films on LJ in 2007):

Early on, a Transylvanian villager warns Jonathan Harker that Castle Dracula is nothing but a ruin, and that only people who have already entered into the world of the phantoms and spirits who inhabit it see anything more. Sure enough, when Jonathan arrives, he sees and enters a very plausibly Eastern-European-looking castle, but the scenes set within it are interspersed with long shots showing a ruined shell, as if to imply that that is the reality and his experience is an illusion. I really like this idea - it is good and Gothic and spooky anyway, and also means that the fact the historical Dracula's family castle is a ruin doesn't have to get in the way of it also being an opulent trap for the unwary traveller, if seen in the right light.

There is some lovely shadow-work involving Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu, which definitely does derive from the 1922 film, but is used in different settings. I was especially taken by a scene soon after he has arrived in Wismar (where the main human characters live), and his looming shadow falls over the house where they are gathered in the warmth and light within.

The agency in the film belongs almost entirely to Lucy (or Mina by any other name), Isabelle Adjani's character. Dr. Van / Von Helsing (the subtitles kept oscillating between the two) is utterly useless, refusing to believe in all this superstitious vampire nonsense, while although Jonathan Harker makes it back to Wismar, he never really recovers from being nibbled on by Dracula in his castle, and just sits there all feverish and vampirish in the corner. So it is she on her own who works out from a book given to Jonathan by the Transylvanian villagers what is happening and how to stop it - that is, by making the same tragic self-sacrifice as her equivalent character, Ellen, in the 1922 film. Quite a few Dracula adaptations allow Mina (aka Lucy here and Ellen in 1922) to kill Dracula at the end of the story, but I can't think of any other in which she also acts as her own Van Helsing figure, let alone in the face of cold water from the real Van Helsing. And yet its roots are in the 1922 version of the film - at least, as far as I can tell between the Wikipedia plot summary and my own hazy memory. The 1922 take seems to do less to disempower the men, while Ellen's self-sacrifice is of course the age-old and utterly sexist trope of male bestiality being tamed by feminine purity at a fatal cost to the woman concerned. But the 1979 take, while preserving that sacrifice, shifts the power-balance very much in Lucy's favour by making Van Helsing unable to grasp the truth and Jonathan unable to break free from Dracula's influence. I definitely liked it, anyway.

There is some proper hand-stapling Gothic dialogue, like the following from Count Dracula:
Time is an abyss... profound as a thousand nights... Centuries come and go... To be unable to grow old is terrible... Death is not the worst... Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities...
In fact, there is a quite intense scene between him and Lucy in which she spouts much the same kind of stuff, so that between that and the final scene where she willingly gives herself to him in order to save the town and her husband, there is a definite sense of tragic, forbidden attraction between them, which also worked very nicely.

All in all, definitely worth watching again, especially after having seen the 1922 version (which I hadn't when I first saw this). But, as I said to [ profile] ms_siobhan afterwards, that'll probably do me for another 20 years.

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strange_complex: (Lord S not unenlightened)
I watched this last night, because I was absolutely knackered after a long week and busy weekend, and couldn't contemplate doing anything other than lying down and staring at a flickering screen. It is one of a little stock of Christopher Lee movies broadcast on a more or less regular cycle by various satellite channels, which I pick up by searching DigiGuide and then set my Sky box to record. That way, they are all there, ready and waiting for evenings like last night.

It starts out as a classic British gangster movie, with a plot which clearly owes quite a lot to the real-life events of the Great British Train Robbery of 1963. The gang in question stop a security van full of money on London Bridge, rather than a train, but motifs such as putting up false signal, a gang member injuring one of the drivers, chucking sacks of money along a human chain, and taking the money to a remote farm are all in place. At this point, though, the plot does a sharp 90 degree turn into an utterly different genre. The gang member charged with bringing the money to the farm is killed by an unseen assassin, and it winds up at the circus of the title. This is rife with human dramas, including an abusive relationship, a secret affair and at least two assumed identities. And meanwhile, Inspector Elliot of the Yard has to try and track down not only the money, but now also a murderer.

Rather as in the similarly-titled Theatre of Death, which came out the following year, Christopher Lee's established star image as a screen villain seems to be used as a red herring here. Certainly, the unseen assassin who kills the gang member with the money appears (or his hand and a reaction shot does) just after his victim has been frightened by coming across some horror masks and props, which would immediately make anyone who had noticed Christopher Lee's name on the promotional posters for this film think of him. And then his character stomps around a lot being unapproachable and shady, and does in fact turn out to be in possession of the money. But I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that nonetheless, he isn't actually the murderer. The big difference between this film and Theatre of Death, though, is that once you do know who the murderer is, it all makes sense - or it does as far as I could tell in my tired state, anyway.

Other familiar faces in this film include Klaus Kinski, who skulks around in the shadows a lot being sinister, Skip Martin, who was basically the Warwick Davis of his day and thus in everything which required a dwarf (including Castle of the Living Dead and Vampire Circus), and Cecil Parker, who plays comically exaggerated establishment figures in everything. Lee himself actually spends most of the film wearing (what now looks like) a terrorist-style mask, allegedly because his character had suffered terrible facial injuries a few years earlier after being attacked by lions, which is disappointing for those of us who enjoy looking at his aristocratic, saturnine features. He also speaks throughout in a Russian accent, which is disappointing for those of us who enjoy listening to his clipped RP accent. But he does take the mask off eventually, and also wears The Jacket, so you can't complain too much, really.

In short, very British, very 1960s, perfectly watchable, but not particularly worth seeking out and watching unless you have a thing for 1960s gang movies or a special interest in the career of one of its stars.

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
I watched this last night with [ 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: (Lord S not unenlightened)
I had a pretty epic day yesterday, going down to London for a second crack at the British Library's utterly excellent exhibition, Terror and Wonder: the Gothic imagination, followed by giving a talk on Augustus in the medieval period to a 200+ audience at the British Museum as part of a joint Roman Society / Association for Roman Archaeology conference. Both of those deserve posts in their own right, really, but between them they left me knackered to the extent that I didn't wake up until almost noon today, and meanwhile what I actually want to do with the tiny fragment of the weekend which remains to me is write about this interactive film screening which I attended with the lovely Andrew Hickey and magister on Thursday. So there it is.

Obviously, I have seen this film a few times before (previous LJ reviews are collected in the 1970s section of my Christopher Lee film list), including four times on the big screen. But it's one I will never knowingly miss in any format, still less an interactive sing-along version. So it was with high excitement (and only moderate transport-related shenanigans) that I made my way to the Holbeck Urban Ballroom with two equally enthusiastic friends - and we were not disappointed.

The full experience actually involves quite a lot more than merely singing along. On entrance, we each received not only a pagan 'hymn book' containing all of the lyrics for the film's famous songs, but also a goodie bag containing a special selection of items for later use. The point of these was to eat or do appropriate things mirroring what was going on screen at various stages during the film, and as it happened I was accidentally given two of the bags as I went in. Although I declared this fact very honestly, the chap giving them out advised me to keep quiet about it and waved me through, so I was able to bring my second goodie bag home at the end of the evening and photograph its contents. In the order in which were instructed to use them (left-right, top-bottom), these were as follows:

Sing-along-a-Wicker-Man goodies

And their purposes were:
  • Smartie - communion wafer from Howie's scene in church on the mainland
  • Shoe-lace - the poor wee lass's navel string
  • Lollipop sticks - for re-consecrating the abandoned church adjoining the graveyard
  • Frog - for curing our / Myrtle's sore throat
  • Crispy bacon - one of the foreskins from the chemist (yum!)
  • Foam banana - the closest available approximation to the apple which Howie munches while Lord Summerisle is showing him around his gardens
  • Smiley sticker - for anointing each other ready for sacrifice in the Wicker Man
I think you can already see from the list alone a) how much fun that was but also b) how it actually really did work to blur the distinction between audience and characters, making us feel on some level like we were participating in the action of the film. The singing, of course, did the same - and that, too, was more than just singing. In a warm-up session beforehand our hosts, David Bramwell and Eliza Skelton (daughter of Roy), talked a bit about the film and some of its lore, and got us laughing along at some of the stories about it - like how Lindsay Kemp (who played the landlord, Alder McGregor), stormed off down to London part-way through the production, and had to be sweet-talked back by Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer. We then collectively learnt the right actions for the Maypole dance, and got our singing voices in gear by singing 'Gently Johnny' to their live accompaniment (on the grounds that it wouldn't be in the film itself, as we were going to watch the short version). Then, as the film played, David and Eliza held up signs telling us when to sing each 'hymn', when to eat our goodies, and when to hold up our hand-bags in tribute to Lindsay Kemp's flounce, as well as commenting on some of the film's incongruities (like the bizarre rock guitar music used during the cave chase scene), and prompting us to join in with some of its big iconic lines - like Howie's screams of "Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!" as he perceives his fate, or the islanders' communal prayers as the sacrifice is prepared. Also, every time Howie got his photos of Rowan Morrison out to show to people and ask if they had seen her, Eliza and David came up to the audience with copies of the same image, asking us to pass them around. You might think on a casual viewing that Howie only does that a couple of times during the film, but actually when you get passed the picture yourself too on each and every single occasion, it turns out to be six - by the last of which the thing itself had of course turned into a running joke.

Basically, it was all about a collective celebration of a film which (nearly) everyone there knew incredibly well and loved dearly. Just being part of such a cheerful love-in, surrounded by people who greeted all the best lines with the same enthusiasm as me, was fantastic fun, but the immersive experience of participating in so much of the action really did offer a new way of engaging with the world of the film that went beyond the surface tongue-in-cheek tone of the evening. You feel something more of Howie's helpless isolation in the closing scenes when, like him, you have just had your neighbour stick a yellow circle in the middle of your forehead, and a disturbing complicity with the villagers as you are belting out 'Sumer is i-cumen in' while he burns to death. And coming still relatively fresh from my Wicker Man holiday in 2013, so that I have recent memories of having actually stood at more or less every location used in the entire film, the two experiences together combined to make it all seem very, very real indeed.

Me walking along the sea-break at Plockton
Me walking along the sea-break at Plockton
Photo by [ profile] thanatos_kalos

Sing-along-a-Wicker-Man tours the country regularly and widely, and I thoroughly recommend looking out for it if you are a fan. It would probably be better to catch it in spring or summer than autumn or winter if you can - though cold days and dark nights are generally very conducive to the watching of horror films, this viewing did drive home to me that The Wicker Man really isn't a winter film, and works best when the sap is rising. But any time is very definitely better than none.

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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 [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy, [ 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: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
OK, next up on Overdue Film Review Club we have this BBC adaptation of Dracula starring Louis Jourdan, which was originally broadcast all in one go at Christmas 1977, and which I watched last weekend with [ profile] ms_siobhan. I have wanted to see it for a very long time, as it is widely acknowledged as the adaptation most faithful to the original novel, and I can now confirm that this is very definitely true. Not absolutely everything is by the book - for example, Mina and Lucy are made into sisters, while Quincey P. Morris steals Arthur Holmwood's surname, and the latter isn't otherwise represented in the story. But other than that it follows the structure, events and feel of the novel more closely than any other adaptation I have ever seen. Episodes which almost universally get discarded, like Mina and Lucy's encounter with the seaman Swales in Whitby, the scene where Dracula gets to speak out for himself and pour scorn on the vampire-hunters at his house in Piccadilly, or the shoot-out between the vampire-hunters and the gypsies at the end, are all present and correct, as Stoker would recognise them - and it was absolutely fantastic to see them.

Thanks largely to Doctor Who, I have seen enough television from the 1970s to say that by the standards of their time, the production values here are absolutely mint, too. People were still producing television quite noticeably inferior to this in the late 80s and indeed the early 90s. Some of the special effects look dated now - particularly colour-saturation and negative inversion of a type used regularly on Top of the Pops at the time (example). But even those are being used in a commendable attempt to convey the surreal, dreamlike effects of vampirism, which was actually still very effective in terms of creating the right atmosphere for the story. Other than that it has all stood up extremely well, and must have eaten up a pretty hefty chunk of the BBC budget for the year of its production. The costumes, locations, sets and props are seriously impressive, with Dracula's castle in particular looking both historically-plausible and properly unkempt and Gothic at the same time, and they had even acquired a real bat for some close-up scenes (though it unfortunately also had a rubbery, be-stringed stunt double). Whitby features prominently, as do various settings in London (including Highgate cemetery), while the internet tells me that Dracula's castle was played primarily by Alnwick Castle in Northumberland (supplemented by sets for the interiors) - and that would explain why it looked so good.

Of course, telling Stoker's story accurately, and pouring a lot of money into the effort, doesn't automatically result in a high-quality outcome. Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970) also ticks both of those boxes, and has Christopher Lee in the title role to boot, but it is still ill-paced and tedious to watch. Thankfully, this production is a great deal better. It is long (150 minutes in total), but in general used the time very effectively to develop the characters and build up the story-line. There was a short phase in the run-up to the climactic encounter with the Count in the Carpathians where we did feel that a few scenes were being rushed through in order to get to the end on time, but perhaps even that is worth accepting for the quality of the material around it. For example, the scene in which Mina and Van Helsing cower amid the snowy Carpathians within a circle made of crumbled holy wafers while the vampire brides call and gesture all around them was really well done, and worth the rather rapid montage needed to get them into that position.

Certainly, ample space is given to character development, and the actors (almost all) make good use of the material. Louis Jourdan may not be Christopher Lee, but he does turn in a great performance as Dracula here - beautifully creepy from his very first appearance, exuding a powerful, self-confident sexuality in his interactions with his victims, and yet with a note of impatient world-weariness to his character that speaks of the many centuries he has lived through. I did miss Dracula's violent out-bursts, though, which seem to have been neither scripted nor acted into Jourdan's part. Even when he catches his vampire brides dining out on Jonathan Harker, he is merely a little firm about expressing his displeasure - and I definitely like Christopher Lee's utter explosion of rage in the equivalent scene (albeit with only one bride) in Hammer's Dracula much better. Frank Finlay as Van Helsing and Jack Shepherd as Renfield also deserve special mention for two utterly compelling performances, although on the other hand it does need saying that Quincey P. Morris' 'Texan' accent was face-palmingly bad, and his performance as a whole lacklustre alongside it. In fact, it seems to have been the first role of an unremarkable career for him, and it shows.

This was never going to dethrone Hammer's Dracula as the ultimate telling of the story for me, and if only because of when it was made it couldn't really hope to outshine Nosferatu (1922) or Bela Lugosi's iconic Dracula (1931) either. But it is definitely in their league, and far stronger than some film versions I could mention. I can certainly recommend it as a way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I saw this almost three weeks ago now, and have been wanting to write about it ever since, but life is busy, and this was never going to be a short review. I thought it was great, though. It hasn't been getting the best reviews, apparently, but I haven't been reading them anyway, because I was always going to watch this with a different eye from most critics, so I don't really care what they think. Rather, it was obvious to me from the first trailers I saw that this film was going to do something I have long yearned for in a Dracula movie - make a proper attempt to explain how the historical Vlad III Dracula might have become a vampire, and do it by using something very much like the Scholomance mythos (in brief, an underground Devil's school which is part of Romanian folk-legend, is exactly where Bram Stoker says Dracula got his dark powers from, and may ultimately derive from genuine ancient pagan religious practices).

I am fundamentally positively disposed towards the idea that the Dracula of vampire legend should have begun his life as the historical Voievod. It really enriches almost any Dracula story for me to have that wealth of back-story sitting behind the character (whether or not Stoker himself used the historical figure as anything much more than a bit of vague window-dressing). I also like the idea of vampirism having its roots in ancient paganism, which the Scholomance legend can evoke without needing to be explicit about it, and which is toyed with in Hammer's Brides of Dracula. So I went into this film already loving it for even having attempted to bring all that to life on screen. And I came out feeling that even if it hadn't been the perfect movie, or told the story in quite the way I have sketched out in my own head during idle moments, it is still probably the best shot the modern-day film industry will ever take at stitching together the two.

Of course, because I'm a historian, my perfect Dracula-the-vampire origin story would respect what we actually know of the historical Dracula to the letter - but no-one else would want to go and see that film, because it would be dry, dull and dramatically unsatisfying. Meanwhile, the word is that Universal were basically using the film to fly the kite for a reboot of their 'monsters' back-catalogue in the form of a superhero-style multi-verse. So what they needed to do was to turn the historical Dracula into a classic 'troubled hero' type figure. Their take is that he was so determined to protect both his country and his family against impossible odds that he accepted the power of vampirism in full knowledge of its potential dangers, and as a result achieved what he wanted for others, but paid a terrible personal price. This adds up to a fine dramatic arc, and leaves them at the end of the film with a sympathetic superhero figure with a dark past - just what they needed! But history does get pretty distorted in the process.

As it happens, I've just finished reading a Proper Academic Book about the historical Dracula (to be reviewed in its own right shortly), so I am in a very good position indeed to spot the historical inaccuracies in this film. Here are some of them - and the reasons why Universal apparently introduced them )

Not super-accurate, then, in short. But my list is not meant as a stick to beat the film with. As I've shown, all of its deviations from the historical record (as we know it) have an obvious dramatic justification in terms of the story it wanted to tell. And in any case, this isn't a historical drama. It is a superhero / vampire movie. Having gone into the cinema to watch a film about the historical Vlad III Dracula turning into a vampire, it would be pretty churlish to then insist that everything else about the film should be entirely historically accurate (much as I, personally, would pay big money to see that film nevertheless). Meanwhile, for all that individual events are obviously distorted, embellished or entirely invented, I actually think that overall, the feel of Dracula's reign was captured pretty effectively. My guess is that someone did some pretty careful historical research during the early stages of this film's development, and that although quite a lot of what they found out was later laid aside for dramatic reasons, much of it survived to inform the outlines and atmosphere of the story.

Certainly, the basic situation of Dracula as a warlord in a small, geographically-remote country, vastly out-resourced by a neighbouring imperial power, is pretty effectively conveyed. The outlines of his conflict with the Ottomans are roughly right, too, even if the outcome of the final confrontation with Mehmed II is bobbins. And the landscape through which the action unfolds feels plausible too - the castles, the forests, the monasteries - even if the details aren't precise. OK, so it's all a bit Game of Thrones-ified (directly in the casting of Art Parkinson as Dracula's son and the location filming in Northern Ireland, and indirectly in the feasts, drapery and Dracula's improbably-blonde wife), but again, this is a fantasy film, and as such jolly well should be in dialogue with other productions in the same genre. Also, the special effects employed when Dracula used his vampire powers to control the weather and lay the smack down on the Ottoman army with his cloud of bats almost made me wonder if they'd been developed on the basis of some of the descriptions of those very same battles from the Ottoman primary sources. This is the sort of passage I'm thinking of:
Being told about the defeat of his army which he had sent to prevent the Moldavians' attack, [Vlad] Țepeș found nothing better to do than to attack the mighty Sultan. On a dark night, his heart full of wickedness and accompanied by his Infidel army, he flew like a black cloud towards the army of the wise Sultan, attacking him... At midnight the army of Wallachia started like a torrent towards the Imperial camp and made their way on horse into the middle of the triumphant army. The Turkish soldiers thrust their fiery swords deep into their black hearts. The heaps of corpses which poisoned the earth were so high that the victims of the slaughter could be easily seen even on such a dark night. [Source: Appendix II.E, Treptow 2000]
OK, so in the film the heaps of corpses are Ottoman, rather than Wallachian, but if you've seen it I think you'll recognise the sorts of scenes which are being described here.

There is an obvious political problem with telling the story of Dracula's historical conflicts with the Ottoman empire in a 21st-century context, though. It is essentially an east vs. west narrative, and if your superhero origin story requires you to cast Dracula as the hero, that means the Ottomans - i.e. a bunch of Muslims - are going to appear in the role of the enemy. Some of the problems with the way the Ottomans are portrayed in the film are outlined in this New Statesman article, although I'm afraid the article as a whole really annoyed me, because it perpetrates massive historical inaccuracies about Dracula even while complaining about the film's inaccuracies regarding the Ottomans. (For the record, the Ottomans did not attack Wallachia to 'quell' Dracula's 'blood-thirst', but because he had stopped paying tribute to them, and nor did the Hungarians arrest him because they had 'had enough of his grizzly antics' either, but for their own reasons of political expediency.) The issue is definitely there, though. I don't think it's quite as bad as the similar set-up in 300, where the Persians were literally portrayed as inhuman monsters, but it's true that the Ottoman characters in Dracula Untold are portrayed as aggressive, arrogant, amoral, authoritarian and materialistic, in contrast to the brave, honourable, individually-developed and impoverished Wallachians (or Transylvanians, as the film has it). Some of the dialogue also reflects very contemporary-sounding prejudices. In one scene, two Wallachians / Transylvanians approach the Ottoman camp, and say something along the lines of "Have you ever seen anything like it?" "Soon everyone will be Turks". I could really have done without that - and, rather sadly, I don't think I can really conceive of a world in which an American-made east vs. west film would ever be made without at least some of it.

But so far I've talked about this largely as though it were a historical drama, and it is not. On the supernatural side of things, I've already said how thrilled I was to see that the film-makers had decided to have Dracula become a vampire thanks to an encounter with a devilish creature in a cave - i.e. something very much in line with the Scholomance mythos. Apparently, in earlier drafts of the script, this character, who is played by Charles Dance, was explicitly presented as the Roman emperor Caligula, which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense. Certainly, as filmed, the character is portrayed as power-hungry, eaten away with corruption, and keen to become master of his own deadly set of supernatural games. (His last line, "Let the games begin", seems to suggest that he has only just got started on an elaborate master-plan, presumably to be unveiled across a series of further films.) All of that matches up well enough with Caligula, but seems to have been ironed out during production into a more generic back-story, in which Dance's character is simply an ancient magician, rather than any specific individual. And honestly, although the prospect of a film about Dracula which also had a Roman emperor in it would have been Really Quite Exciting, I think that was the right choice. The original conception would have distracted from and complicated the main story, while the more generic version allows room for him to be whomsoever the viewer might choose - including Zalmoxis if you like it that way (which I do!).

Anyway, Dance is absolutely fantastic in that role, bringing to it every ounce of the great British villain tradition in a manner which Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes or indeed Christopher Lee could be proud of. Indeed, most of the cast were pretty impressive, although some of the characters which they were playing could have done with being developed better by the script. After Bram Stoker's Dracula, I think there is a whole generation of film-goers who react viscerally against the idea of any story-line involving Dracula's love for his wife surviving over the centuries and being rekindled by her reincarnation, which unfortunately does happen at the end of this film, but if you can bring yourself to give that a pass I think it was quite effective to include his wife in the story, so that we could see the impact of the changes which he undergoes on that very personal relationship. She is the first one to realise that something very bizarre has happened to her husband, to try to help him cover it up, and eventually (of course!) to suffer for it, while he has to grapple with and try to resist the intense urge to drink her blood. And although she obviously has to act within the framework of an essentially medieval society, she is clearly delineated as strong and capable character - again in quite a Game of Thrones-ish sort of way.

Meanwhile, the overall look of the film, and especially the clouds of killer bats, was just great, and I particularly loved the spectacle of hordes of properly ghoulish-looking vampires stalking through the battle-fields towards the end of the film, helping Vlad to wreak hideous vengeance on his enemies. If you think you might like it, those visuals alone make it worth catching in the cinema, rather than waiting for the DVD. And thankfully, I've just about managed to get this review up while you still have time for that.

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strange_complex: (Metropolis False Maria)
Another Thing Wot I Sore recently was this, at the Hyde Park Picture House. It was the 2010 147-minute restoration, which I have seen before on the big screen and reviewed here. I've also previously reviewed the 2-hour restored version, which was the best one available before 2010, here. So we can take it as read that all the things I enthused about in those previous reviews thrilled me once again this third time - the surreality, the balletic quality of the movements, the homoeroticism, the imaginative vision, the scale and ambition of the production, the wonderful restored score, etc. It really is a remarkable film.

A couple of things struck me this time which I hadn't really reflected on much on previous viewings, though. One was the sense of history built into the city of Metropolis. The main focus of the story and the cinematography, of course, is on its futuristic aspects - the soaring skyscrapers, flyovers, machines, night-clubs, aeroplanes, etc. It's easy to come away from a viewing thinking that Metropolis the city is entirely a futuristic fantasy-city - and indeed, that's what it has become a short-hand for in modern cultural discourse. But beneath it are catacombs which are explicitly glossed as being two thousand years old, Rotwang's house, which looks early modern and is described as being 'untouched by the centuries' and the Cathedral, which isn't given any specific dating, but is in the European Gothic style, and thus most naturally belongs to some time between the 12th and 16th centuries. These three settings do a lot to make the city feel like more than just a futuristic fantasy, but a real place with a real history which has evolved and grown organically over the centuries. They also, of course, add a lot to the story, and particularly its religious dimensions.

The catacombs in particular are set in direct opposition to the mechanised hierarchical world of the city above, where the exploited workers can gather in a crude and simple setting, and hear the words of their Christian preacher-figure, Maria. They carry all the resonances of early Christianity as a literal underground resistance movement which are popularly associated with real catacombs (e.g. those in Rome). The Cathedral meanwhile, sits both physically and temporally between the catacombs and the skyscrapers, and is thus the site of compromise. At the end of the film, it is the location where the film's central tension, between the modernistic over-lords of the upper city and the simple workers of the lower city, is resolved. In other words, it is the heart which we are repeatedly told must mediate between head (the over-lords in the skyscrapers) and the hands (the workers in the catacombs). It is neither too simple and crude, like the catacombs, nor too hierarchical and exploitative, like the skyscrapers, but a place where the best of the modern and the ancient worlds can meet.

Meanwhile, the crooked, ancient character of Rotwang's house sets him apart from both the over-lords and the workers in a different way. Unlike the workers, he seems to have chosen to reject the march of modernism, isolating himself away from it in his house. And although in one sense he is the archetypal mad scientist, with the bubbling flasks and the robot in the attic, details like the pentagrams on the doors of his house show that he is really more of an alchemist or even a magician, meddling with forces which mankind was not meant to tamper with. The crooked house captures that very nicely, too.

Actually, I found myself fascinated with Rotwang generally on this viewing, much more than I have before. I guess it wasn't until the 2010 restoration that his story arc really became clear, but the first time I watched it, I was too busy with the story-arcs of characters like Freder and his father to really have time for it. This time, though, Rotwang really rose to the surface for me, and I thought he was fantastic. As the villainous alchemist-scientist with the mechanical hand, he has left a clear legacy in characters like Darth Vader, Dr. Strangelove (OK, not actually a mechanical hand, but an evil one all right) and perhaps even Peter Pettigrew (a magical hand, rather than a mechanical one, but the line between the two is of course famously blurry in fantasy stories). He is also surely an important bridge between the Baron Frankenstein of Mary Shelley's novel, who must be one of his ancestors, and the various filmic versions of the same character, who are certainly his descendants.

I also can't believe I didn't notice before now that Rotwang's missing hand means that he is inherently shut out of the film's proposed solution to society's ills: the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart. His mechanical hand shows him to be out of balance - he is all head, and indeed has used the intelligence which that gives him to replace the hand which he has lost in his quest to create the Machine-Man. But unlike Joh Fredersen, the industrialist, who is capable of compromise if only shown how, Rotwang has lost that capacity - hence the fact that it is he who grapples with and tries to kill Maria at the climax of the film.

All clever stuff, then, which was always there, but which I hadn't consciously thought through before. And of course it's a sign of a rich and carefully-structured film that it is all there for the discovering.

Meanwhile, viewing this only a few days after returning from Vienna, and finding that German isn't actually a completely closed book to me after all, but a rather neatly-structured language with rules which I am starting to grasp, it was also very pleasant to discover that I could fairly reliably read the German-language intertitles, without needing to rely on the English-language translations underneath. Obviously intertitles in silent films tend to be in fairly simple language - they are largely statements and explanations in the present tense. But still, that was nice.

And having said this last time I saw this film but done nothing about it, I now really, really need to get myself a copy of the soundtrack. Or, more like, pop it on my Amazon wish-list so that my family will have something they can buy me for Christmas, I think. But it will be mine!

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Still trying to catch up on reviews, and this one is a quick win, because I don't have all that much to say about it. I think I'm reviewing it a bit out of sequence, because I actually watched it in late August, when I spent a few days in Warwick with my sister and her family, and I have definitely already written up several films which I've watched since returning from that visit. But never mind.

I took this film down with me because Charlotte was spending quite long stretches of time breast-feeding Christophe, so she suggested bringing a few DVDs along so that we could settle down and watch something nice while she was doing it. And this one had been on my 'to-watch' pile for quite some time, since somebody recommended it to me at a conference on receptions of Hercules which a colleague of mine held. They had waxed lyrical about how incredibly funny it was... but I'm afraid we weren't entirely convinced.

The basic plot is that a guy working for a huge corporate cinema chain in Australia gets fired for contradicting his control-freak boss, and decides instead to re-open an old-fashioned single-screen picture palace on the other side of town. He pulls together a team, consisting of himself, a friend and a young lady whom they meet in a bar, and they decide that for their opening night they will show the last film screened in the same cinema: the Italian Hercules movie Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili. In other words, it is basically an early '90s Australian remake of The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), which tells much the same story of small, independent, old-fashioned cinema vs. the mega-corporate conglomerate.

Where this take on the notion differs, though, is in what happens when the opening-night movie is screened. Just as their excited patrons are streaming through the lobby, the team realise that the copy of Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincibili which they have acquired is in undubbed, unsubtitled Italian. So they have to do the only thing they can do in the circumstances - over-dub the film in English from the projection box, even though they've never seen it themselves and don't know the plot.

On paper, that certainly has potential, and for a while it was quite funny. But Charlotte and I both agreed that the joke wore a bit thin after a while. Looking at the running times for both films, I can see that the original Italian film must actually have been edited down to fit within the Australian film, since the Italian one is 94 minutes long, whereas the Australian one is 82. But nonetheless, from about 20 minutes into the Australian film until about 5 minutes short of the end, you are almost constantly watching a second-rate '60s peplum movie over-dubbed with jokes which basically revolve around giving the characters names like Labia and Testiculi, and making the plot be about which of the muscley strong-men will be able to give the best performance at the local night-club.

It's not that it was awful, but after ten minutes or so, we kind of stopped laughing at the 'satirical' over-dubbing, and agreed that the establishing story about the guy getting fired and the team re-opening the old cinema had been a lot funnier. From time to time, the story broke out of the over-dubbing set-up, to show what was going on in the projection booth - in particular, the team's increasingly ludicrous efforts to reproduce the right kind of sound effects for the film being shown on the screen, such as creating the appropriate sound effects for a hog roast by, well, roasting a hog in the projection booth. But those moments were too few and far between for us, and on the whole we weren't particularly impressed.

Maybe if you were watching it without the inevitable occasional interruptions caused by a small baby, there would turn out to be all sorts of incredibly clever and subtle plays around the relationship between 1990s Australia, 1960s Italy and the ancient Greek world, but if so they were largely lost on us. That said, the whole thing is available for free on Youtube if you want to make up your own mind. Knock yourself out.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
Watched this afternoon with [ 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 [ 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 [ 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 [ 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: (Sherlock Holmes trifles)
I'm just watching anything with Christopher Lee in it now. What can I say? He has a nice face - and by that I don't just mean that I think he's good-looking (which, of course, I do), but also that because I have been watching his films since childhood, he is also simply very comforting and reassuring to have around on the screen. This is exactly what I need right now to de-stress in between all the conference prep stuff, so I have alerts set up in DigiGuide to tell me when he is on TV and my Sky box primed to record it all. Then, whenever I need an evening on the sofa staring at something mildly diverting, there he is - just waiting for me.

This was shown about a week ago on a channel called 'True Movies 2' - surely a misnomer, because this story at least did not in any way purport to be 'true'. It belongs to a TV mini-series called Sherlock Holmes: the Golden Years, for which the crack is that Holmes and Watson are a little advanced in years, but also now so famous that they are constantly mingling with the celebrities and royalty of the Edwardian era. Hence Lee was able to play Sherlock opposite Patrick Macnee as Watson, both at the age of 69, and there are lots of cameo roles for figures such as Edward VI, Theodore Roosevelt and Lillie Langtry. The mini-series consists of two 200-minute instalments in total - this one, and a predecessor called Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady, which I saw some years ago. I wasn't in the habit of writing up all the films I saw on LJ at that point, so there is no past review to link to, but I do remember that I didn't think it was very good. Unsurprisingly, the same applies here.

Both were made by a Euro-pudding-style consortium of British, Belgian, Luxembourgeois and Italian production companies (including - and I am not making this up - Silvio Berlusconi Communications), and filmed on location - in this case, mainly in Zimbabwe. A lot of money has clearly been spent on extras, costumes and expensive vehicles like steam-trains and paddle-launches, but alas the dialogue is lacklustre to the point of banality, the characters are so under-developed that it's impossible to understand their motivations, and the plot is just not Holmesian. Oh, there is some convoluted business about a fake diamond, a real diamond, various murders and a treasure map, but it has none of the precision of a proper Sherlock Holmes story - above all because of the under-development of the characters. For all that we have learnt about them by the end of the movie, any one of them could have turned out to have done what they did or been who they were, so that the eventual 'solution' seems utterly arbitrary.

That said, it isn't a complete waste of time, partly because the location scenery is nice and quite well-photographed (though at a level of definition which makes it all look slightly blurry on a modern TV), but mainly, of course, because Christopher Lee is in it. Even as Holmes, he doesn't exactly get scintillating dialogue, but he plays what he has with a sort of gentle, slightly-put-upon charm that makes his scenes worth watching. And the script does manage to serve up a couple of quite fun moments for him, like when he sits on the nose of a steam locomotive chatting to Theodore Roosevelt while it rattles through the Zimbabwean landscape, or when he has to shoot a pouncing lion on safari at more-or-less point-blank range because another member of the party has deliberately manufactured the attack in an attempt to kill him. Plus he has a nice old-married-couple vibe going on with Patrick Macnee's Watson, who annoys him by snoring in their shared hotel suite and whom Lee's Holmes at one point complains is "worse than a wife". I wouldn't quite go so far as to call it slashy, but there is a touch of the domesticated old Queens about them.

Overall verdict - just about worth it for Lee completists, and possibly for Holmes completists I suppose, but otherwise don't bother.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
(Also known as Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel, The Snake Pit and the Pendulum,The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism and about a zillion other alternative titles. Not to be confused with Castle of the Living Dead, which is completely different. Obviously!)

Another entry here in the series 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price', and this one was a corker! Well, at least, it is a corker by 1960s Euro-horror standards. Here are three reasons why it is worth watching:

1. It is visually splendid. This is mainly thanks to being filmed in Bavaria, and making exceptionally good use of the setting. I was particularly charmed to recognise Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which does a huge amount to create the appropriate fairy-tale atmosphere for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and is such a perfect gingerbread town that it is a struggle to believe it can possibly be real. But in all fairness, the set, prop, make-up and costume departments are all performing at a very high level too. It isn't exactly an expressionist film in the full-blown sense of German cinema from the inter-war period, but it definitely has many of the same sorts of visual design touches, and these are some of its biggest strengths. See, however, point 3 on my 'downsides' list, below, which alas means that a film which must have looked absolutely bloody fantastic when it first came out is now difficult to discern through all the dust and scratch-lines.

2. It is utterly unashamed to ramp the Gothic horror clichés up to the absolute max. The basic approach is quite similar to Castle of the Living Dead, in that this film is essentially a pastiche made up of scenes and motifs drawn from successful previous horror titles. This time, the two chief source texts that I could recognise are Edgar Allan Poe's 'Pit and the Pendulum' (very obviously mediated through Roger Corman's 1961 film) and Dracula, Prince of Darkness, which had come out only the previous year. Poe / Corman contribute a castle full of dungeons and torture chambers, where a group of travellers experience new and more inventive horrors at every turn, while Prince contributes an evil Count who is supposed to be dead, but gets resurrected by a creepy and incredibly loyal servant. According to Jonathan Rigby, Mario Bava's La maschera del demonio is a big influence too, and while I haven't seen it myself the Wikipedia description certainly backs him up. Rather than merely repeating or mimicking its predecessors, though, the watchword for this film seems to have been to make everything about them MORE - more blood, more dungeons, more dark and scary forests, more unsettling interior décor, more bubbling potions, more mad villains, more distressed damsels. That's not always a good thing in horror films, because often all the subtlety of the earlier takes on the story dies a horrible death in the process, but somehow here it just came across as really joyous and exuberant and fun. It's like they said to themselves, "Let's not muck about! This is a Gothic horror film. We know what our audience wants, and so do they, so let's do it properly!" And they did.

3. It has Christopher Lee in it, playing a character very similar to Dracula. This is of course a subset of point 2, but it is a very important subset! His character is called Count Regula, which clearly (as for Count Drago in Castle of the Living Dead) was the closest name they could think of to Count Dracula without attracting a law-suit. The film opens with a flash-back of him being executed in the town square 35 years before the main story begins for drinking the blood of 12 women in an attempt to secure immortality. He didn't quite manage it, needing 13, but thanks to some hand-waving and some kind of elixir of life, his servant is able to resurrect him for the main story anyway, so that he can chow down on his final victim and seal the deal. He looks a bit grey about the face, wears a floor-length black coat, and suffers from an aversion to crosses, while his first words to the travellers who have been unfortunate enough to end up in his dungeons are "Welcome to my house". All in all then, he is set up as a first-rate Dracula-substitute, and he utterly delivers the goods in his performance, too - lots of good icy aristocratic vengeance-fixated evil, some nice bursts of anger when he is thwarted, and some fine anguish when everything starts going horribly wrong for him at the end. In short, this film is even better than Castle of the Living Dead if you're after a cheap Lee-as-Dracula fix and have run out of actual Dracula films to watch - which is, of course, exactly my position.

On the down side:

1. The dialogue is all dubbed in post-production. Although Christopher Lee definitely speaks his own lines in the English-language version, and I'm pretty sure most of the other actors do too, still actors recording their lines in a studio almost always come across as wooden by comparison with in-context performances recorded on set. Also, I'm not sure all the actors were of a terribly high calibre in the first place anyway - particularly someone called Vladimir Medar, who plays a highwayman-disguised-as-a-priest comic relief character.

2. The gender politics of it are utterly Victorian. The main female character, Baroness Lilian von Brabant, is actually quite well played by Karin Dor, especially in a scene where she has been drugged and convinced that she is someone else, but gradually comes to realise that something isn't quite right and she can't be who she thinks she is. Nonetheless, the character clearly exists purely to function as a victim and / or sexual object. At one point, I thought she might experience a bit of character growth by having to face up to her fears in order to rescue her male companion (much as Willie does in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), but no - she just ended up fainting with terror instead, while he got on and rescued himself. In fact, at the end of the entire experience, she begs him to tell her that it was all just a dream - and he reassures her that it was. Bah! This sort of stuff is, of course, characteristic of both the genre and the period, but it's not inevitable. Compare, for example, Diana in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (one of this film's sources), who is full of the spirit of adventure from the start, and even grabs a gun and has a good old shoot at Dracula at the climax of the film. Strong women could exist in horror, even in the 1960s - but this film does not have any.

3. The visual quality of the DVD transfer is absolutely appalling, especially at the beginning. I don't normally get particularly exercised by this sort of thing, but what you get if you borrow this movie from Lovefilm is basically an utterly unrestored film projection, complete with visual noise, distorted colours and massive streaks running down the screen, all simply transferred to a digital disc. I don't mind any of those features on an actual original film reel which I'm viewing in the cinema, as there it is all part of the experience of engaging with a vintage print. But I kind of expect a DVD print to have undergone at least some very basic clean-up in the process of being transferred to a digital format, and this just really hadn't.

In short, not perfect, but one of the downsides isn't the fault of the original film-makers, and the other two are pretty much par for the course in this genre, so it's not like anyone who likes this sort of film won't be expecting them. Meanwhile, the upsides more than compensate. Don't expect it to change your life, but do expect it to make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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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. [ 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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strange_complex: (Anas Penelope)
The title of this film is so long that it's brought me up against the 100-character limit for LJ entry titles - something which I can't remember ever happening before. So I'll have to note here that the full name of its director is Felix Herngren, and its original Swedish release title is Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann. I saw it earlier this week with the lovely [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and we laughed like drains the whole way through, punctuated by the occasional wince. The version we saw was subtitled for the most part, but where the main character spoke off-screen in a narrative voiceover (which he did quite a lot), it was dubbed with by an English-speaking (though Swedish-accented) voice. There was also one character, a wide-boy Cockney gangster, who was English anyway and didn't speak any Swedish, so fair portions of the dialogue must be in English in the original version, and presumably sub-titled for Swedish audiences.

It's a black comedy which reminded me in equal measures of Ealing comedies about criminal gangs (e.g. The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers) and 'charmed life' movies such as Being There and Forrest Gump. As the title suggests, it follows the adventures of Allan Karlsson, a 100-year-old man who climbs out of the window of the retirement home where he has been placed, and by chance and coincidence finds himself on the run with a suitcase full of money and a neo-Nazi gang hot on his tail. But interspersed with it are a series of flash-backs covering his own life from birth to the present day, in which he stumbles largely accidentally from one to another pivotal moment in the history of the 20th century. Without guile or design, and with little more than an 'easy come, easy go' attitude and a fondness for blowing things up, Allan variously meets, helps or sometimes pisses off Franco, Oppenheimer, Truman, Stalin, Regan, Gorbachev and many others, never quite getting found out for the chancer he is, and always just managing to avoid the disastrous potential consequences of his actions.

It was the long sweep of the flash-back narrative which reminded me more of Being There and Forrest Gump, while the criminal gang narrative sits closer to the Ealing comedies. But of course the two genres are not that different really, since they both depend on coincidence, farce and the human willingness to project qualities onto other people which they don't really possess, which is why the two threads of the film worked so well together as different perspectives on the same central character.

It's got to be said that the humour is pretty black at times. The audience is invited to laugh at things like the sight of an essentially-innocent person's decapitated head bouncing off the bonnet of his car while his mistress sits screaming in the passenger seat, for example, and quite often Allan and his friends are the cause of these deaths - though their actions are always carefully coded as accidental, and the victims as (to a greater or lesser degree) criminal. Whether you find the film funny and enjoyable or not is going to depend on whether you are willing to suspend normal morality (in the same sense as suspending disbelief) in order to laugh at that. That said, I don't think that kind of humour is utterly bereft of a moral compass either. There can be quite some moral heft in a film which encourages you to laugh at someone's death, while at the same time squirming with the realisation of what you are doing - which is why our laughter was also punctuated by winces.

And meanwhile the film is packed full of utterly brilliant character observations - like the over-thinking perpetual student, the lady at the retirement home who is more worried about what she's going to do with an unwanted giant marzipan cake than the fact that one of her charges has gone missing, the police inspector who pursues both Allan and the criminal gang as half-arsedly as he possibly can without actually losing his job, or the rejected ex-boyfriend who wants to pull angrily away from his girlfriend's house with tyres screaming, but has got himself into a position where he has to shunt the car around about 5 times before he can leave, with everybody watching him and giving advice as he knocks things over at every turn. Also, how often do you get to see a bunch of people going on the run with an elephant?

In short, watch this film if you get the chance, but be prepared for a few winces along the way.

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
I've also recently chalked up two further entries in the series 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price'.

21. Castle of the Living Dead / Il castello dei morti vivi (1964), dir. Warren Kiefer and Luciano Ricci

This is one of Lee's many European films, shot in Italy, but with the dialogue in English and Lee speaking his own lines (though they are studio-dubbed rather than recorded on-set). It is also notable for being the screen début of Donald Sutherland, who reportedly named his son Kiefer as a tribute to the director, while a young Michael Reeves (of later The Sorcerors and Witchfinder General fame) may have been responsible for some of the camera-work - it depends which of the conflicting accounts of those involved you choose to believe.

It is basically a mash-up / rip-off of a zillion-and-one horror clichés, with some of the most prominent being as follows:
  • Dracula - Lee plays a weird and reclusive aristocrat called Count Drago who lives in a huge castle around which no birds sing, lures people there on false pretences and turns out to have murderous and (in the case of a young and attractive woman) fatally romantic designs on them. His first line, spoken to announce himself upon entering unseen into a room where his guests have been discussing what the owner of the castle might be like, is 'Count Drago; welcome to my home', and he later claims that he doesn't drink.
  • Psycho - his castle is full of what appear to be stuffed birds and animals, though it later turns out that they have in fact been frozen in perpetual suspended animation by a serum which he has invented.
  • Frankenstein - he has been using science (of the bubbling-flasks variety) in an attempt to unlock the secrets of death.
  • Macbeth - a witch makes prophecies in rhyming couplets.
  • Edgar Allan Poe stories generally - Drago's wife is perpetually suspended in the act of looking at herself in a mirror in a cobwebby bed in a room upstairs in the castle. He talks to her as though she is still alive, apologising for the way his current guests are disturbing her.
  • The Masque of the Red Death specifically - I'm not sure how direct the relationship can be here, since the Roger Corman film was released on 24th June 1964 and this was released on 5th August 1964, but in this film too the castle functions as a protective bastion against a chaotic world outside, and a likeable performing dwarf manages to get one over on the baddy. Both of those elements exist in separate Edgar Allan Poe stories anyway ('The Masque of the Red Death' and 'Hop-Frog'), but they were only brought together for the first time by Corman, and I don't think this film was working directly from literary sources.
  • House of Wax - what initially appear to be extremely lifelike figurines turn out to be real people frozen by Count Drago's serum; Count Drago dies at the end as a result of his own serum.
So, yeah, not super-original, but it is lots of fun spotting all the different sources of the story and the ways in which they have been adapted and combined, just as it often is with Doctor Who stories which do the same thing. Plus there is a stylish look to the film as a whole, helped enormously by the Italian locations used - the 'Parco dei Mostri' at Bomarzo, which is packed full of gigantic monstrous sculptures, and the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Bracciano. As for Christopher Lee, he is absolutely perfect in the role, as you would expect given how hard it draws on what had become his 'type' by this time - menacing, aloof, icily polite, given to unnerving bursts of unexpected passion or mania, and generally everything I was hoping for when I rented this film. Bang on the money and I'm glad I saw it.

22. Theatre of Death (1967), dir. Samuel Gallu

This one it turned out I actually had seen before, but only once and a long time ago, so it didn't really matter as I could hardly remember any of it. This time, I watched it with the lovely [ profile] ms_siobhan for one of our regular horror film get-togethers, and we had lots of fun picking it apart as we watched.

It is basically supposed to be a murder-mystery story, with a Gothic feel and plenty of hints towards the supernatural as a way of building suspense and ambiguity, but nothing actually supernatural in it in the end. Most of the characters are the cast or crew of a Grand Guignol theatre, and this too is used to raise questions about what is 'real' and what is play-acting, and to explore the psychology of the uncertain boundaries between the two. The plot is full of red herrings, and Christopher Lee's character is perhaps the biggest red herring of all. As in Castle of the Living Dead, he is knowingly used as a horror genre star, and characterised as nasty and controlling, so that we can be mis-directed towards assuming that he is the murderer. Even when he goes missing, for a long time we are kept in suspense about what has happened to him, and allowed to believe that he might still be perpetrating the murders. But in the end it turns out that he is not the murderer at all, and has fallen victim to the true villain just like a whole string of other characters.

That probably makes it all sound quite good, but unfortunately it isn't really. The main problem is that when you present a plot full of mis-direction which encourages the audience to examine its twists and turns carefully and to build up guesses based on what they have seen, you need to make sure that that plot is really tight, because it is going to have to stand up to some pretty solid scrutiny. Unfortunately, this one does not. Even once the true solution was revealed, there were all sorts of loose ends left untied and character moments which didn't make sense. For example, Lee's character, who is the director of the theatre, treats one of his two main female leads appallingly. This obviously serves the purpose of building him up as a red herring for the murderer, but it doesn't make much sense as the plausible actions of a man in his position, since all it really does is drive her so close to madness that she is no longer capable of acting for him. Then there are all sorts of back-stories and sub-plots which don't really go anywhere - like a former police surgeon who can no longer work due to a hand injury, which is repeatedly emphasised but never has any plot pay-off whatsoever.

So, basically, the experience of watching it is a bit like having half a ton of red herrings dumped directly onto your head, finally shaking them off and being presented with a single non-red herring which you are told is the 'solution', but not really being able to spot any discernible difference between that and all the fake herrings lying gasping and flopping on the floor around you. Still, as ever, an afternoon of rolling my eyes at it with [ profile] ms_siobhan was marvellous fun - and hopefully now that I've written it up here for future reference, I will remember this time not to bother watching it again.

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