strange_complex: (Vampira)
Yesterday I travelled all the way down to London Town to see a play - or, more precisely an immersive theatre experience - in the company of Andrew Hickey, [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya and [twitter.com profile] karohemd. While my book and film reviews are both backed up to the tune of at least a year each, which is incredibly frustrating, no such self-imposed tedium applies here, so for once I can have the job of writing about something I have experienced fresh from the delights of the thing itself. Hooray!

So basically The Soulless Ones is the latest venture from the new(ish)ly revived Hammer company, and consists of a play about vampires which takes place across multiple rooms in a mid-Victorian music hall. Opening and closing scenes book-end the story, and are played out to the full audience in the main music-hall space, but for most of the evening different actors play out their own story-lines in an extensive series of parallel scenes, all happening simultaneously in different parts of the building, and moving around from one to the other. It is up to the audience to follow the actors according to personal preference, or simply wander around the building at will, meaning that each individual audience member will see and experience different things depending on where they went.

Given this expectation, of course, the story is deliberately constructed to ensure that no one scene (apart perhaps from the opening and closing ones) is utterly crucial to the production. So the experience is more about seeing the different characters unfold than about a plot in the traditional sense; and indeed about exploring the richly-dressed settings and soaking in the atmospheric sounds and smells. It's also important to understand the difference between immersive and interactive theatre in this context: this was the former, rather than the latter, meaning that the audience occupied the same spaces as the actors but were 'invisible' to them and instructed at the start to take it all in silently. No-one watching was going to find themselves a victim of the vampires, and nor were we to try to speak to them or join in on the story.

There is various documentation of the play around the web, of course. The official production page is here, and I also found useful reviews from Den of Geek, The Guardian and The Telegraph. I've used those, along with my own experience and what my friends reported having seen after we came out, to compile the following overview of the story, characters and settings as I experienced them. I'll also be sharing this with said friends, and would very much love them, and anyone else who has seen it, to comment with anything extra that I didn't catch (I know there were some characters I barely saw all evening), or correct anything I've misremembered or misunderstood (hey, there were cocktails...). Obviously, it will contain spoilers, so I have used cut-tags with a view to both that and length.

The opening scene )

The characters and scenarios which unfolded from there )

The various settings )

The closing scene )


What I actually thought of it all

In essence, I absolutely loved it. A huge amount of thought must have gone into constructing it all so that the different scenes fitted together effectively, with characters coming in and out of each other's storylines at the right times, even from completely different ends of the building, and all of the disparate parts adding up to a coherent whole no matter how the audience experienced it. The set-dressing was particularly wonderful. I wish I could have had the chance to walk around it all without the story unfolding at the same time, so that I could scrutinise every single detail at my leisure, but then again I certainly had more control over what I was looking at than is the case when watching a film or play, in that I could go into any room I chose, stand wherever I liked it in and look at whatever I liked while the action went on. I could sit on one divan while Mara was bewitching St Clair on another, feeling the tickly softness of the white animal fur draped over it between my fingers, or peer closely at the satyr-herm in the graveyard which made me think a lot of The Marble Faun. It was very exciting.

Layering the story on top of all of that really did feel immersive, as though I were standing inside the world of a Hammer film. I'm sure regular readers will realise how amazing that was for me! The story really did feel Hammer-ish, too - suitably gothic in content and atmosphere, and with nice little nods to their back-catalogue such as Carmilla being the last of the Karnsteins. The characters themselves seemed well-defined, with just the right amount of back-story and conflict between them for the audience to take in across the two hours of the show, and the acting solid throughout: sometimes (necessarily) a bit projecty and theatrical, especially in the larger scenes, but impressively naturalistic and intimate when the smaller scenes allowed the scope for it as well. I think a lot of credit also belongs to the behind-the-scenes team handling the music, lighting etc. in each room, and indeed quietly staffing the corridors to make sure people did not get too lost or confused or wander into places they weren't supposed to go.

It looks like the production has been a success: it's certainly garnered lots of media coverage, the performance we attended looked to be sold out, and the official production page is currently bearing a banner proclaiming that the initial run has been extended for an extra week. The fact that it is presented not just as a play called The Soulless Ones, but as an individual production by 'Hammer House Of Horror Live' also rather strongly suggests that they are hoping they will be in a position to do more. Certainly, I will be keeping my eye out for further productions, and strongly urge any fans of Hammer, gothic horror or immersive theatre experiences to catch this one while you still can.
strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I am very happy indeed a) that this book exists and b) that I managed to bag one of the original print run of a mere 600 copies for only £35 last year. It now goes for upward of £150 on eBay... The publishers' page is still up, though, and includes several page images which indicate what the book is like: basically a pictorial record of the seven Hammer Dracula films which have Christopher Lee in them (so not Brides or Legend), covering cast pictures, production documentation, behind-the-scenes pictures and publicity material. As such it is of course an absolute treasure-trove.

I'm fairly familiar with the publicity photos and posters, but even they are wonderful to have in high-quality printed form. Meanwhile, the really exciting content was the production documentation, including letters, set designs, pages from shooting scripts etc. From these I learnt several things which I had not known before, such as how the various sets for Dracula fitted together. I had long realised that Harker's bedroom and Dracula's crypt in this film must be essentially the same set re-dressed, because they share the same curved, pointed arches along one wall. However, I never realised before I saw the set drawings in this book that this is actally because they both make use of the area glimpsed between the very same curved, pointed arches in the dining room after they had been blocked off by book-cases to create the library set. (I.e. they are slotted into the shadowy space from which Valerie Gaunt's vampire woman first appears when Harker is in the dining room.) Nor did I know, as correspondence with the censor for Risen reveals, that the name of the Monsignor's niece in this film was originally to have been Gisela. The switch to Maria in the final film was of course a sound move, since it is more familiar to Anglophone audiences, as well as accentuating her virginal purity and connection with a Catholic clergyman. Meanwhile, Gisela did not go to waste: the name was repurposed for the unfortunate girl found in the bell at the beginning of the film, whose coffin Dracula goes on to steal once he has been reawakened from the icy stream.

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Also very illuminating were Terence Fisher's hand-written notes on Jimmy Sangster's original script for Dracula 1958. They're written on plain pages, rather than on the script itself, so you can't see what Sangster actually wrote - only Fisher's reactions. But that is enough to make it very clear that Sangster's first draft must have included far more scenes from the original novel than ever made it into even the shooting script, never mind the film. Scenes or characters which Fisher is reacting to include for example Harker in an inn before he ever reaches the castle, the three vampire brides, the 'child in a sack' scene, Harker gashing Dracula in the head, the Demeter, Renfield and Quincy Morris. And what Fisher is saying about them includes things like "cut", "keep till later?", "new character unexplained and uninteresting", "make it a pre-title sequence?" etc. This is absolutely revelatory, because the standard line until now has always been about how the efficiency of the script reflects Sangster's instinct for what could be achieved on a small budget. But I now see that his original draft must actually have followed Stoker's novel fairly closely, while most of the credit for that ruthless efficiency really belongs to Fisher.

In between the images runs a concise and generally useful supporting text from Kinsey, but I was struck by the fact that he doesn't always seem to recognise the full value of the material he himself is presenting. So, in spite of having treated us to Fisher's observations on Sangster's first draft, he still reports the usual story about how Sangster "was given Bram Stoker's novel to adapt, which he achieved again within Hammer's modest budget" only a few pages later. I spotted a couple of mistakes, too. The double-page spread on Francis Matthews in Prince calls his character Alan (rather than Charles), while a similar spread about Patrick Troughton as Klove in Scars claims that he passed on the mantle of Doctor Who to Tom Baker (not directly!).

That is to quibble, though. On the whole this is an absolutely superb collection which huge amounts of work must have gone into, and which I am certain I will keep returning to over the years. Three thousand cheers that my favourite films in all the world have received this splendid tribute.
strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is a Pakistani version of Dracula, based very heavily on Hammer's Dracula (1958). If that sounds like a tricky thing to imagine, this trailer may help a little:


I watched it with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan a couple of weeks ago, and it took us a while to get the measure of it. Neither of us had ever seen a Pakistani horror movie before, so we had no knowledge of the genre's standard motifs and expectations. A lot of the pleasure of watching low-budget horror movies for us lies in laughing at the obvious wig glue, day-for-night filming, wooden / hammy acting, etc. But because we didn't know what was 'normal' for this kind of film, we also didn't know what was relatively successfully or unsuccessfully done in this particular example. And the fact that it was an adaptation of a British film we know extremely well exacerbated the problem. When the Pakistani film-makers interpreted aspects of that film in ways that to our eyes seemed inept, was it OK to laugh at that (in the way we would at a British cheap Hammer rip-off), or was that just incredibly racist?

After watching the film itself, we then also watched two documentaries on the DVD, one interviewing the makers of this particular film and one about Indian and Pakistani horror films in general, which between them gave us a better picture of the industry, the people involved in it, where they were starting from and what they were trying to achieve. In essence, much like Hammer in the first place, Pakistani film-makers basically churned out stuff they thought would be fun without taking it too seriously, especially during the 1980s. But this particular film seems to have been an early attempt to take on the western Gothic horror genre, so of course it was produced by people who were not hugely familiar with its tropes and motifs. In some places that meant lots of creativity and vitality, but in others it just missed the mark - at least for us. I'm sure Pakistani viewers feel the same when they see westerners trying to take on their stories.

The plot for this film is very close to Hammer's Dracula, although an opening sequence sees the 'Dracula' character (here initially a human being called Professor Tabani) using classic movie 'sciencey-science' equipment (bunsen burners, conical flasks, long distillation tubes, etc.) to make an elixir of life. By implication, he expects to remain human but become immortal when he drinks it, but instead he dies and becomes an undead vampire! This of course picks up on the scientific feel of Hammer's own take on the vampire myth (at least in the first film), where Dracula cannot turn into a bat or wolf, and vampirism is presented as a contagion with symptoms similar to addiction. In fact, for all we know, Hammer's Dracula could originally have become a vampire in the same way - the issue is never explicitly addressed in their films. In Zinda Laash, though, it does get them into a bit of trouble later on in the story. The professor is supposed to be the first ever to have produced the elixir of life, and yet it turns him into a known creature called a vampire with known weaknesses (particularly sunlight). So the plot and dialogue vacillate a little between whether the characters involved understand the nature of what they are dealing with or not.

There is also a bit of a muddle around what the Jonathan Harker character (Dr. Aqil) and Van Helsing character (here, his brother) know or are motivated by in the early stages of the story. When Dr. Aqil arrives at Professor Tabani's house, he claims that he has just turned up on spec for no particular reason, and indeed Pakistani hospitality culture probably means he doesn't need to use any subterfuge to get in there in the way that Harker does by pretending to be a librarian in the Hammer film. Aqil then proceeds to take notes on odd aspects of the Professor's behaviour, and apparently knows enough about vampires to dispatch the Professor's female companion, while his brother later confidently explains to his fiancée's family that Aqil was turned into a vampire while at the Professor's house. So far, so in line with the Hammer film - we are meant to understand that they are vampire-hunters, and know the Professor's true nature from the start. Except that towards the end of the film, when they return to the area to try to rescue the Mina-character, they seem to need the man who runs the local bar to explain to them how the Professor became a vampire and how to destroy him. It is actually this bar-keeper who comes closest of all to playing the traditional expository Van Helsing role within the story, leaving me puzzled as to what Aqil and his brother actually did know at the beginning.

Anyway, things basically settle down to the understanding that the Professor is a vampire in the broadly normal sense of that term. But many of the usual western motifs of vampirism are missing, not least of course because the cultural context is non-Christian. Crosses are never used or mentioned, and nor in fact are garlic and wooden stakes. Instead, the Professor and his minions can be killed by stabbing them with a knife, shooting them with a gun or exposing them to sunlight. (This last of course provides the exciting climax, much as in the Hammer film, except that the Van Helsing character knocks the shutter off a window accidentally, rather than pulling down curtains deliberately). Hammer's comic relief characters (the undertaker, the frontier guard) are also utterly gone, but in their place we get lots of song-and/or-dance sequences, along the lines most of us are familiar with from Bollywood films (except of course that this isn't a Bollywood film, as it is Pakistani not Indian). These were incongruous on one level, as sequences like that amongst what is otherwise ordinary acting and dialogue almost always feel quite shoe-horned in, but also amazing and awesome in their own way, and in their very incongruity - especially the first one, which was the Professor's vampirised assistant doing a drapery-flouncing dance in order to seduce and bite the unfortunate Dr. Aqil. Very different from Valerie Gaunt's exceptionally English pretence at helpless victimhood in Hammer's equivalent scene.

The assistant is the first of three women to be attacked or pursued by the Professor, and I felt we learnt quite a lot about 1960s Pakistani fears around female transgression from all of them. Certainly, Omar Khan, himself a horror film director, explained in the documentary on the DVD that female victims in Pakistani horror films are always coded as transgressive - e.g. they have blonde hair or smoke cigarettes. In this film, the assistant's fate was pretty much sealed from the moment she entered the Professor's laboratory, found him absent, and immediately made a beeline for the drinks tray on the side to pour herself a glass. This didn't directly kill her, but it did come immediately before her discovering the Professor's prone body behind the sofa (and dropping the glass in shock), and then as soon as he had been buried and come back to life, she was the first one he went for. Later on, the Lucy character (Shabnam) dies not because she persuades the maid to get rid of the garlic keeping Dracula away (as per Hammer), but because she persuades the maid, who has been sitting watching over her in person, to leave the room altogether - i.e. she is left unchaperoned. And the Mina character (Shirin) gets into trouble because she goes off on her own and gets into a taxi, which of course turns out to be being driven by the Professor himself. So, yes, there are some pretty direct messages there.

The acting seemed strangely variable to my eye. Sometimes, it was very stagey and melodramatic, but sometimes characters showed no signs of the emotional responses I would have expected given the circumstances - e.g. people staking vampires like it was utterly routine and no biggy, or simply standing stock-still on their last mark while another character did or said something dramatic. I would need to watch it again to check whether this was a case of the same actors behaving differently in different scenes, or rather a matter of clashing acting styles. The soundtrack music was also very varied, ranging from traditional-sounding Pakistani music during the song-and-dance routines, to cheerful popular music in exterior travel scenes and lots of ripped-off cues from James Bernard's original Hammer Dracula soundtrack during the most Gothic scenes. Lovely though this was to hear, it sometimes missed the mark for me by using the music 'inappropriately' - e.g. using slow, creepy music for chase scenes, or dramatic action music for seduction scenes. But that's what is bound to happen when you are not deeply familiar with a musical genre and it all sounds generally western and Gothic to you. Again, I'm sure westerners would make the same sorts of mistakes with what they perceived simply as 'Bollywood music'.

The cinematography was generally pretty impressive, with some nicely-composed shots and effective chase sequences, as well as particularly good use of a crumbling old-fashioned building for the exterior shots of the Professor's house. The main action of the film is set in the 1960s (another departure from Hammer), but this building looked like it might be a left-over relic of the colonial era. I'm not well-enough versed in Pakistani architecture of any kind to be sure, but if so that added some excellent resonances to the motif of vampirism. The Professor himself was Pakistani, rather than white British, which would have ramped the symbolism up all the higher, giving us the vampire as an undead remnant of the former colonial power, still haunting the land a generation after the Raj itself had been expelled. But still, just situating him within that setting hinted at the issues without overdoing it, while affording us some nice shots of crumbling brick-work in the process.

Overall verdict - a fascinating watch, for which I'm grateful to DracSoc chair Julia Kruk for the recommendation, and which has made me curious to explore the world of Pakistani horror and fantasy a little further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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strange_complex: (Claudia Cardinale car)
The other cool Dracula-related thing I did recently was to go on a little road-trip with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan to see two exhibitions dedicated to our favourite kind of horror films: British productions from the 1950s to '70s, and especially those made by Hammer. As luck would have it, the exhibitions we were interested in overlapped by about a week (over Halloween, natch) and were both located in the east Midlands area. So although each was quite small and it would have seemed a bit of an endeavour to go to either one from Leeds on its own, between the two they made for a very agreeable day out.

Our first port of call was Northampton, where the city's Museum and Art Gallery was hosting an exhibition of film posters entitled 'Scream And Scream Again: The Golden Age Of British Horror'. It's actually a touring exhibition, put together by an organisation called Abertoir who run a horror festival in Aberystwyth, so although the Northampton showing has finished now, it's worth looking out for it at a museum near you in the future if you like the sound of it. It wasn't huge, consisting of probably about 25-30 posters plus some collected front-of-house publicity stills in a gallery about the size of a typical village hall, but it provided a very well-selected cross-section of some of the best films of the era.

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More pictures under here )

We also both really liked Northampton as a whole. Neither of us could remember having been there before, and we did see it at its best in lovely sunshine and still-mild weather, but it certainly struck us as worth visiting. In fact, a lot of people I know would enjoy the regular collections of museum itself, because Northampton has a proud history as a major cobbling centre, so basically the whole ground floor of the museum (apart from the temporary exhibitions gallery where the horror posters were) is entirely devoted to SHOES! Victorian lace-up boots, clompy glittery platforms, fancy stilettos, you name it. You can get a taste of the sort of thing they have from their Shoe of the Month blog feature.

We found lots of interesting architecture in the town centre, of which I made a particular point of capturing some of the Art Deco highlights )

Our next destination was De Montfort University, Leicester for The Monsters of Hammer: A Screen Bestiary. This is the work of the University's Cinema and Television History research centre (CATH), who now hold Hammer's scripts archive (as well as a growing collection of other Hammer-related material), and were also responsible for the unique staged reading of a never-produced Dracula script, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula which I enjoyed SO MUCH last year. Needless to say, I've been following their activities very closely ever since (and indeed before), so I was very excited for this.

The exhibition had been set up in the University's Heritage Centre, and was physically even smaller than the Northampton one, but they had packed a lot in! We spent a good hour-and-a-half there, compared to about 30-45 minutes in Northampton, and although that's probably more than most normal human beings because we are so geeky about Hammer films and needed to examine each item in detail, discuss it at length and take loads of photos, it is still probably good for almost an hour's interest even if you just look at each item and read through the text once. First, some general pictures to show the overall layout, size and feel of it all:

2016-11-02 16.28.13.jpg

Again more under here )

What I'd really like is for them to start publishing some of this material. I see in my mind's eye The Ultimate Hammer Dracula Script Collection, including a) the shooting scripts from the movies that were actually made, b) any earlier variant versions of those and most importantly c) all the ones which weren't produced at all. I don't even know if that is possible - presumably even the unmade scripts are still in copyright, so I can certainly see that it would be complicated. But I think publication has to be the ultimate end-goal of the whole project. Otherwise, for the vast majority of the public the difference between the scripts just not existing at all and lots of time and money being spent looking after, researching and cataloguing them will remain barely detectable.

Anyway, for now I would definitely encourage everyone who loves Hammer films to get along to DMU's Heritage Centre, enjoy their amazing exhibition, and fill in enthusiastic feedback forms to help support CATH's work and enable them to secure more research funding. It's open until next May, so you have plenty of time. :-)

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strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
So! Film festival, day two. Here is the overall schedule for the day:

Saturday schedule.jpg


And here's what I did:

21. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), dir. Gordon Hessler / interview with Caroline Munro / Ray Harryhausen's Lost Treasures )

Interview with Katy Manning (aka Jo Grant from Doctor Who) )

Met Caroline Munro and got her autograph )

Doctor Who season 22 show-makers' interview )

Afterwards, I joined [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat for the first 45 minutes or so of The Rocketeer (1991), a sort of larger-than-life SF comedy about a US stunt pilot in the 1940s who finds a jet-pack, with Jennifer Connelly as his under-impressed girlfriend. I could see it was good and would have stayed to watch the whole thing if there weren't competing features on the schedule, but there were: two live commentaries from the Tenth Doctor era, marking the fact that his first full season screened ten years ago now. Ten is much more my thing than Six, so off I slipped...

Live commentary on New Who 2.3 School Reunion )

Live commentary on New Who 2.13 Doomsday )

All this time, Galaxy Quest had been playing in another room, which is a pity, because once the Doctor Who stuff was over and I went to join [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey in the screening, I realised what bloody good fun it was to watch at an actual con. But then again I have seen it multiple times before, and those live Doctor Who commentaries really were great, so I think I made the right choice.

After the film had finished, we went for food at a seriously good pizza / pasta place just down the road. It was nominally just a take-away / sit-in at fixed tables place, but the quality of the food was way better than you'd normally expect for a place like that, and along with the cute student room I was staying in and the well-appointed Co-op just below it, this was one of a number of things that really made me fall for the area where we were staying. Like, on one level, it was just edge-of-city-centre ring-roadish urban redevelopment, with a lot of medium-rise new-builds, but on another it did actually feel somehow quite modern and dynamic and nice to be in. In fact, hell, let's have a picture of it which fails to do justice to the intensity of the sunset on the Friday evening:

2016-08-26 20.27.12.jpg


22. Blood of the Tribades (2016), dir. Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein )

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
The tl;dr version of this film festival is that the content was awesome, but the organisation was really pretty poor. It was a first-time event, so didn't have an established loyal customer base, and it hadn't been advertised anything like as effectively as it could have been, so that I know a lot of people who might have wanted to go to it didn't know about it until very late in the day, and in fact it is quite possible that the organisers and guests outnumbered the paying customers. The timing was also frequently off-schedule, leaving us either waiting up to an hour for something to start, or rushing from one thing to another without a chance to get the dinner we'd planned for in between. Thankfully, it was never quite so bad as to mean that I missed anything I'd been looking forward to as a result, but I really hope they get better at both advertising and timing if they run this festival again, as otherwise it is doomed to failure.

Anyway! I'm going to write it up day by day, to keep the entries manageable. This is the overall schedule for the Friday, which true to the organisational spirit mentioned above was released at around 8pm on the evening before the festival was due to begin, i.e. way too late for most people to make sensible arrival plans in advance.

Friday schedule.jpg


Getting there and settling in )

Scream Queens: Caroline Munro and Martine Beswick )

19. Gothic (1986), dir. Ken Russell with intro by Stephen Volk )

20. Dracula A.D. 1972, dir. Alan Gibson )

Thus our first day ended, and it was back off to my snuggly student nest-bed for a rather short night's sleep ahead of day two...

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is the second Hammer Dracula novelisation I was able to get hold of, and I read it during my holiday to Romania in May / June. I took copious notes on it at the time, in a notebook which I was also using (in a different part of it) to record my experiences of the holiday as a whole. On the day when we travelled to Actual Dracula's Actual Castle, I got confused about which part of the notebook was supposed to be for which purpose, so that the section which is meant to contain my Prince of Darkness notes now at one point reads like this:
Shandor would normally offer the hospitality of the monastery to everyone, but stops himself and decides to insist the 'wagoner' must stay outside because of the situation with Dracula. Knows nothing from the outside must be carried in.
The mountains are starker now - patches of bare, sheer rock. But still hugging the river.
A simple mistake, obviously, but somehow also a beautiful symptom of exactly what I went on that holiday to achieve - a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between the magical world of Hammer's Dracula and the reality of the Carpathian mountains. Certainly, I couldn't have picked a more perfect setting for reading the novel than my seat on a coach winding its way through the actual Carpathians, or a more perfect mind-set for exploring Actual Dracula's Actual Castle than having just put down the book to get out of the coach.

I haven't been able to check this novel against the film's original shooting script, but I am reasonably sure that, like the Scars of Dracula novelisation, it was written from the script before the film came out, rather than by sitting and watching the film. One of my reasons for thinking this is that the town known as 'Carlsbad' in the film is called 'Josefsbad' in the novel. It seems very unlikely that a writer whose brief was to create a faithful novelisation of the film would make a change of that sort, but details like that quite often were changed during the production of Hammer's films. So it's probable that 'Josefsbad' is the name used in the original script, and thus also the novel. Similarly, some of the details of what the castle looks like are different in the novel from the film - e.g. the travellers pass through a gateway before reaching the main door, and the main hallway contains a curved staircase. Again, it's unlikely that a writer working from the film would change these details, so they must reflect the descriptions in the original script, as opposed to Bernard Robinson's actual sets, which represent a compromise between the script descriptions and what was feasible with the space and budget he had available.

If I'm correct about this, the novel goes some way towards helping to resolve one of the 'controversies' around this film - namely, the issue of whether the original script gave Dracula any dialogue or not. Christopher Lee claimed the script did include dialogue for Dracula, but that he thought it was awful and refused to speak it, whereas Jimmy Sangster (who actually wrote the script) said that he never included any dialogue for Dracula in the first place. Sadly, Christopher Lee was famous for saying things in interviews which were neither plausible nor internally consistent (put less politely: lying), and Sangster's claim is certainly supported by the novel, which indeed does not include any dialogue for Dracula. But only a look at the actual original script could resolve this 100%. If it is held in the archive recently acquired by The Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, then checking should be trivially easy now - but I haven't come across anyone saying that they've looked, or what they discovered if so.

Meanwhile, although this novelisation again follows the story of the film very faithfully, Burke clearly made a conscious decision to structure his telling of it in a slightly different way, and in particular to present each of its nine chapters as much as possible from the viewpoint of a single character. I found this very effective, especially for chapter 4, which presents the ritual resurrection of Dracula entirely from Klove's point of view, and chapter 8, which covers everything from Helen's attack through the monastery window to Dracula's abduction of her from Diana's point of view. The effect is to give us something quite similar to what Angus Hall did with the Scars novelisation - that is, insights into the inner worlds of these characters of the type which can't quite be conveyed on screen - but in a slightly more sustained way. For example, we learn a lot in chapter 4 about Klove's experiences during the many years while he has watched and waited for an opportunity to resurrect his master and the extent to which he really does think of the resurrection itself as a religious ritual, while chapter 8 of course puts us inside Diana's head during Dracula's attempt to make her drink his blood from a wound which he scratches into his chest. This scene actually isn't played quite the same way as in the film - in the novel she eventually finds the will to resist, which she most certainly does not in the film. But in any case, Burke's selection of his point-of-view character for both chapters is extremely effective and adds powerful extra dimensions to the story.

I particularly enjoyed the final, climactic chapter, covering the chase from the monastery to the castle and Dracula's final demise. It had a lot of multi-sensory descriptive detail - the fading light of the sun, the dusty road, the foaming horses, the shriek of wood and iron as the run-away wagon crashes on the castle bridge - and a real sense of action and urgency. Indeed, a lot of the details in this chapter made it much clearer to me than the film has ever managed how much this sequence was supposed to recall the climatic chase at the end of Stoker's novel, with Dracula likewise being carried along in a coffin on a rough wagon through a winter landscape, and the vampire-hunters catching up with him just as the sun is about to set.

Dracula's icy demise made much more sense as described in the novel, too, freed as it was from the budget and special-effects constraints at work on the film. In the film, the final fight takes place on a solid platform of ice, and the audience is asked to accept that Dracula is somehow stupid enough to end up trapped on the only loose chunk of that ice, rather than just running the hell away as soon as the first cracks appear, and climbing up the castle wall to escape. But in the novel, all of the ice breaks up, and very quickly too. Charles just about manages to escape to one side and climb the bank, while on the other Dracula tries to edge along the last pieces of remaining ice towards a protruding buttress of the castle wall, which he could use to climb up off the ice to safety - but is prevented from doing so by a final collapse which plunges him into the water.

In fact, this scene as described in the novel reminds me somewhat of the resurgence of spring and vitality after the winter frosts which happens at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and helps to defeat the White Witch. There is a sense that nature itself - not just Father Shandor's rifle - is playing its part here, throwing off the dark grip of winter to let life through once again and defeat Dracula. I'm sure all of this was lovingly described and envisaged in Sangster's original script, and I entirely understand why realistic breaking ice was rather beyond the effects capability of the production crew. But anyway, it's nice to finally understand what is meant to be happening during an ending which I've always found very frustrating and annoying while watching the film. Perhaps I'll be able to watch it more charitably in future, now that I know what they were trying to convey.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
Now I am going to attempt some book reviews. I am seriously behind on these. I read this particular book last February, and while that's not a problem in this case because it is a Hammer Dracula book, so I took detailed and obsessive notes about it at the time, that isn't true of everything I read in 2015. So this particular review will probably be ludicrously long, but others are likely to be rather brief.

Anyway, just as Target Books began producing novelisations of Classic Doctor Who TV stories in the 1970s, usually based on the original script rather than the broadcast version (not least because these weren't always available by the time the novels were written), the same thing happened for quite a number of the Hammer films. Not all were novelised, but of the Dracula series, Brides, Prince and Scars were done in this way; and of those, Scars was the one I managed to pick up for a reasonable price on eBay first. As it happens, I also managed to obtain a copy of the Scars shooting script, written by Anthony Hinds, around the same time, as an optional extra along with a book I bought from Peveril Publishing. So I was able to read the two against one another, as well of course as considering how they compared to the film.

As a result, I can be 100% confident that this novel was indeed written by working directly from the script. The plot and dialogue follow it exactly, and the descriptive passages in the novel often use the exact same wording as the descriptions of actions and locations found in the script (which, of course, unlike the dialogue, could not possibly have been taken from the film). Indeed, some of the location descriptions used in the novel don't match what was eventually shown on the screen (budget restrictions often led to scaling-down), but do match the original script. This isn't to say novel and script are identical, though. Hall was clearly at liberty to embellish, and in this spirit has taken some sequences described in the script in a slightly different direction from what was done in the film. He has also included some scenes that aren't in the version of the script I read at all - though they may have been in earlier drafts. Certainly, the version of the script I read has quite a lot of notes in it stating that scenes had been deleted or omitted, and sometimes that is exactly where the extra scenes appear in the novel. Both novel and script also confirm what I've read about Dracula's opening resurrection scene in various books about Hammer films - that it was added at the last minute at the request of Hammer's distributors at this time, EMI. This matches up with the fact that isn't in the script or the novel.

Another way in which both script and novel differ from the final film relates to the castle - and now that I've read them I finally understand what the film was trying to get at here in a way I never did before. In the film, we see the main body of the castle being set on fire early in the story, but then soon afterwards Dracula and Tania are living in the very same rooms perfectly happily, without any sign of fire damage. Dracula mentions that the beautiful furniture etc visible in the rooms is 'all that was left - after the fire', but we never see any visible signs of fire-damage. The script and novel both reveal what was meant to be the set-up, though - that the Great Hall of the castle had collapsed in on itself in the fire, leaving only two usable areas: the servants' quarters, where Dracula moves his remaining good furniture, and one bedroom, with the two connected only by slimy / charred / draughty corridors. This would have been really cool and interesting, picking up rather nicely on Stoker's original vision of Dracula living in visibly straightened circumstances, yet with the evidence of once-great wealth all around him, but it just wasn't followed through in the film - probably for the practical reason that the interior sets were reworked from Horror of Frankenstein, made just before this, while the exterior sets and long-distance models were developed separately. The result is that the exteriors and interior don't match up sensibly, and the interiors are all rather too grand to look convincingly like servants' quarters. That's just what they had, so - whaddayagonnado?

Comparing the novel to the film, Hall gives us a slightly more supernatural Dracula than what we see on screen. Right from the start, Hammer had elected to write out Dracula's ability to adopt anything other than human form for budget reasons - Peter Cushing's Van Helsing calls the idea that he can turn into a bat or wolf a 'fallacy' in the first film. With Scars, a sequence in the script describing a sleeping Dracula locking eyes with a bat which flies into his crypt is interpreted in the film as meaning that he has given the bat telepathic instructions, which it then flies off to obey, but in the novel Hall turns this into Dracula himself actually becoming the bat, and flying off to wreak his revenge on the local villagers directly. Similarly, as Paul stumbles through the forest after being kicked out of the village inn, Hall describes the mountain mist crawling down his collar as though it were alive - perhaps just atmospheric embellishment, but perhaps also meant to make us wonder whether it is actually Dracula or one of his vampire hordes who have temporarily adopted a misty form, and are checking him out as a potential victim?

Hall also proves himself good at creating a suitably Gothic atmosphere through his descriptions of rugged, inhospitable landscapes, vegetation and weather. He has to do this to create the right effect in the absence of Gothic-looking visuals, of course, but Hall's writing is successful enough to make some scenes distinctly more chilling than they are in the film. This is true for the afore-mentioned scene of Paul stumbling through the forest through enveloping mists, and for another one of Klove advancing on Sarah with ill intent towards the end of the story, which Hall makes ten times more obviously rapey than it comes across as on screen. (I'm not saying having rapeyness in stories is a great thing, but if you are going to do it, you should convey the horror as clearly as possible, which Hall does.) In short, Hall's novel is overall slightly better qua novel than the film is qua film - though, in fairness, Hall didn't have to come up with the original plot, so could concentrate more on stylistic matters instead when he wrote it up. Also, let's be honest, we are starting from a pretty low bar with this particular film. ;-)

This isn't to say he always had his eye entirely on the ball - after all, we are basically talking about a cheap paperback which was probably knocked out in no more than a month. For example, he gives us a big scene all about how tired Julie is because her last customers have stayed until 2am and she has then had to clear up after them before going to bed, only to be followed by dialogue two pages later about how no-one in her village will open up after dark. He also makes both Paul and then later Simon recognise the name Dracula, and know something of his terrible reputation, before they meet him - something which the film itself steers clear of, and is a mistake in my view. The logic of the films is always that the large towns which people like Paul and Simon come from represent the normal, civilised world, within which horrors such as Dracula are unimaginable, and that he can only flourish in out-of-the way villages where the combination of isolation, ignorance and fear allows him to get away with his terrible acts unchecked. If normal chaps like Paul and Simon know about him all the same, that begins to fall apart, which in turn erodes the very delicate balance of disbeliefs which allow the whole story-world to function.

On the other hand, Hall sometimes strives to smooth over unresolved plot peculiarities from the original script, including one which I hadn't even noticed. This came in chapter 15, when Hall seeks to explain why Simon and Sarah would hitch a ride in a farmer's cart when they go off to look for Paul, when they're clearly both from wealthy families who would have their own carriages. Hall's explanation is they think they'll get more response from the locals if they pretend to be a penniless couple - a nice idea, and it does more or less match up with Simon's attempt in the film to pretend they're students. Another possibility which occurs to me, now that I'm alerted to the issue, is that they are trying to hide what they're doing from both sets of parents, who would naturally worry, and might even insist on involving the police, who would then try to arrest Paul for his alleged assault on the Burgomaster's daughter.

Meanwhile, because he is writing a novel rather than a film script, Hall can offer us some insights into the inner lives of his characters. He does this for most of them, but it is particularly striking and interesting for Dracula, who is usually so aloof and impenetrable. E.g. at the start of chapter 10, when Dracula first sees Paul, we learn that he feels jealous of Paul for being young, human and vital. I'm not sure that's quite how I see Dracula, but it certainly has a basis in Lee's performances, in which he always attempted to convey what he called 'the loneliness of evil'. Hall also gives Dracula some considerable extra dialogue towards the end of the novel, especially when Simon comes face to face with him in his crypt having just discovered Paul's grisly fate. There are no deletions marked in the script I have at this point in the story, and I think it's unlikely that Hinds would have written such a long talky scene into what is more or less the climax of the film, so I think this must be original to Hall. But in a novel its very welcome to have the main protagonist and antagonist confronting one another properly, and of course more than welcome to have some extra lines for Dracula himself, who here shows us his arrogant (or self-confident, depending on your point of view!) faith in his invulnerability just before his fall.

Hall also makes the characters of both Julie and the Priest considerably more plausible than they come across on screen. In the case of the Priest, this isn't entirely Hall's doing - the Priest was already rather more convincing in Anthony Hinds' script than he comes across as in the final film, where he behaves so bizarrely (trying to stop the villagers attacking Dracula, wimping out for no clear reason whenever an attack does take place) that it is possible to read him as being in league with Dracula. In both script and novel it is much clearer that he is supposed to be a re-hash of the Priest from Risen, and as such is simply a weak and scared man with some traumatic memories. But Julie's transition from a plot avatar to a believable character seems to be entirely Hall's doing. Her dialogue and actions are much the same as in both script and film, yet the glimpses into her inner thought-world which Hall adds somehow give them a purpose and meaning which weren't at all obvious before. This is very definitely an improvement.

Finally, here is a list of small points of world-building detail which Hall inserts into the novel, but are not made explicit in the film or the shooting script:
  • Chapter 1 - states explicitly that the story is set in Transylvania, and that Kleinenberg is 10 leagues (i.e. 30 miles) from the village / castle area.
  • Chapter 7 - the border which Paul crashes through in the run-away carriage divides Transylvania into two self-governing states. This means than both Kleinenberg and the castle are in Transylvania, but also helps to explain the unwillingness of the police officers from Kleinenberg to go as far as the castle in their investigations.
  • Chapter 8 - the inn in the village near the castle is called the Castle Arms.
  • Chapter 21 - Dracula's coach is driven back to the castle from the village after Sarah and Simon have used it to escape by 'Klove perhaps - or one of his allies in the village'. Actually it can't be Klove, who was left behind in the castle and wouldn't have had time to catch up with Sarah and Simon and collect the coach. But the passing reference to Klove having allies in the village is interesting. I think he must, as indeed must Dracula, directly or indirectly, in every one of these films to exercise the control he does over the local area. (The film, by contrast, doesn't attempt to explain how the coach gets back to the castle, although from what we see in Prince it's reasonable enough to assume that the horses simply returned home by themselves, responding to Dracula's supernatural influence over animals.)
  • Chapter 22 - this provides more detail about Klove's connections with the local community, specifying that he has a cousin who is an apprentice to a local blacksmith, and who helps return Dracula's coach whenever it gets abandoned, which happens two or three times a year. This in turn suggests that Dracula uses his coach to lure victims to his castle on a regular basis, but that those schemes quite often go awry.
  • Chapter 24 - here we learn that Klove himself used to be an apprentice in Kleinenberg, where he regularly saw Sarah as a child, before being sold into Dracula's service. Also, since going into Dracula's service he has sometimes seen her there again on journeys to Kleinenberg. Backstory FTW! Personally I like the bit about Klove being an apprentice and Dracula regularly visiting Kleinenberg, but not so much the bit about Klove being sold into Dracula's service. Hall has some further dialogue which specifies that he is sold for money, but this is to completely overlook Dracula's supernatural powers, and thus what is distinctive and interesting about him as a character. He shouldn't need to buy servants when he can clearly use his hypnotic powers to compel them into loyal service for nothing, and / or the promise of dark powers to string them along in the hope of some eventual reward.
  • Chapter 26 - this offers a few glimpses into what might happen after the end of the story as filmed, in the form of a flash-forward set during Sarah's journey from the church which she has fled after the bat attack to the castle: "Later, when asked by the police how she had reached the castle, she was unable to give a coherent answer." Her fragmentary memories include trying for help at the inn, being thrown out, and riding a stolen horse up to the castle (as opposed to running / walking there, which is what the script and film have). It is of course perfectly obvious that Sarah and Simon would end up being interviewed by the police after their experiences in the castle, since the police are already in pursuit of Paul over his alleged treatment of the Burgomaster's daughter - but heaven knows what they would make of Simon and Sarah's story!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gorgon castle.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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strange_complex: (Rick's Cafe)
This was one of my stock of Christopher Lee films broadcast on TV which I've systematically recorded on my Sky box. I watched it last night because I had had a stressful day at work and needed to wind down - and then today managed to be even more stressful, which wasn't entirely the plan! (The cause of the stress isn't anything long-term or serious - just byzantine nightmares around the catering for an event I'm running tomorrow. But I've swerved wildly over the last two days between fearing I might have no lunch at all for 60 people tomorrow, and fearing I would have to pay for their lunch twice, neither of which were very attractive prospects - so it's been pretty grim for me in the short-term.)

Anyway, the film! It just pre-dates the beginning of Lee's career with Hammer, but in hindsight it almost looks like a road-map for where he was going. Alongside Lee in the cast we find John Van Eyssen, better-known to me as Jonathan Harker in Hammer's Dracula (1958), Anton Diffring, star of The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959; which I haven't seen and really must) and Rupert Davies, better-known to me as the Monsignor in Dracula has Risen from the Grave (1968). Also, the house at which most of the action takes place is also better-known to me as the country home of the Eatons in Hammer's The Devil Rides Out. Lee himself is not the villain, but the point of the film is that any one of the characters could be the titular Traitor (and hence also a murderer), and he does a good job of being suitably suspicious. There is a lot of clipped impatience, polishing of glasses, and social awkwardness. There's also a case for saying that he over-does some of those things in the performance; but then again he spends the entire film looking extremely pretty in either a black-tie dinner suit or a silk dressing-gown, so I'm willing to forgive him.

The actual plot involves a group of German ex-resistance fighters from a town called Leipzberg (I guess a fictional place invented by giving Leipzig a different ending?), who gather together once a year to remember their former leader, who was executed after being betrayed to the Nazis. This year, though, things are different, because after they have all gathered together, they discover that an extra guest will be joining them - one who knows the identity of the traitor who betrayed their leader. There are various twists, murders, and unexpected extra visitors, as well as a lot of lovely cabin-feverish tensions between the characters, before everything is resolved and we finally discover the truth. There is also some nice music along the way, as one of the characters (Anton Diffring's, in fact), is a pianist, and has written a haunting and beautiful prelude to express the sorrow and loss felt by the whole group, which he plays at every available opportunity.

Besides the pianist, the group is presented as a diverse range of types, all of whom we are introduced to via little vignettes at the beginning of the film. Christopher Lee's character is a doctor; others include a mayor, a business-man and a heavy-drinking play-boy. In true Smurfette tradition, there is also one character who was clearly scribbled down on the first draft of the cast list as 'the woman one' (played by Jane Griffiths). Thank you, 1950s. She herself is great, though - utterly modern and self-assured, and treated by all the others as a full member of the group. She even slips out of the house at one point to determine for herself whether a supposedly broken-down car really is out of order or not - and does so perfectly effectively. So she was fun to have around, but the film as a whole was a very long way away from Bechdel-compliance.

The plot is somewhere between a sadness-of-war film, an Agatha Christie-style country house murder mystery and An Inspector Calls. It's not the sort of thing I would go out of my way to watch if Christopher Lee weren't in it, and I think it possibly suffered from having slightly too many characters, so that several of them were never very fully developed. But it kept my attention throughout, and certainly did the job as far as providing a stress-relieving evening snuggled up on the sofa was concerned. It's black and white, and the print I saw was dreadful quality - so bad that much of the colouring actually looked green where there were a lot of complex different shadings going on at once. But I suspect it would look very beautiful properly remastered and on a large screen. I'll be quite happy to sit through it again if I ever get the chance to see it in those circumstances.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
This was not actually a film in the conventional sense - rather a staged reading of an unproduced film script - but I'm including it in my 'films watched 2015' tag nonetheless, because it was very close, and I know that's where I'll look for this review in the future. The script in question was written by Anthony Hinds, joint architect (along with Michael Carreras) of Hammer's horror heyday, and it was originally intended as the seventh entry in their Dracula franchise, to follow after Scars of Dracula (1970). There's a good blog post here which explains the production context and what happened - basically, Hammer's distributors, Warner Bros., had some assets locked up in rupees in India, and this was intended to be shot on location as a way of unlocking them. In the end, it never came to pass, and the script instead lay forgotten in Hammer's script archive, until the collection was passed to the Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester, and examined properly by some experts. The obvious interest of this one was quickly recognised, and arrangements put in place for its first ever public airing in Nottingham last Saturday evening as part of the Mayhem Film Festival.

The event was billed on the Mayhem website as "Jonathan Rigby to narrate long-lost Dracula script from Hammer archive", with the further information that he would be "accompanied by a group of actors" - and quite honestly, that was more than enough for me and I went on that basis. But in practice it really undersold how much effort they had gone to to bring this script to life. What actually happened was that Rigby read all the scene descriptions and directions from the original script, while a cast of seven voice actors did the dialogue, sound effects were provided by a two-man crew with laptops and a mixer, a live sitar player did his thing at the appropriate moments, and occasional visual effects were projected onto a screen in the middle. These included opening and closing credits, as well as a close-up of Christopher Lee's eyes in full Dracula mode whenever his signature character was required to stare piercingly at a variety of young ladies during the story - which happened quite a lot. I took a few photos myself, but this one, which Jonathan Rigby posted on Facebook after the event, best captures it:

Full view of cast and eye by Ashley Bird.jpg

You can also see thirty more from an enthusiastic audience member here, including perhaps the most touching moment of all - the words ‘In memory of Sir Christopher Lee, 1922-2015’ displayed as part of the closing credits, to great cheers and applause from everyone present.

In short, then, it was a lot like watching a live recording of a radio play, except for the occasional use of the screen. And this was absolutely excellent for me, because I went there knowing that this might be the only time I ever had the chance to hear the contents of this script, but that I was also going to want very badly to be able to revisit and reconsider the story. So I took a note-book, and was able to sit in the second row, right behind the sound crew in the seats of the first row, looking up occasionally but mainly just listening intently and scribbling and scribbling madly across the page, until I had filled up 33 A5 pages in two hours with basically everything that happened in the entire script, including some verbatim dialogue. Meanwhile, as I wrote and listened, an entire film played out, as if by magic, in the inside of my head. I have read a few Hammer scripts before, and their descriptive text usually goes quite well beyond the purely practical. This one was no exception, describing a decaying Maharajah's palace as a ‘gaunt edifice’ whose corridors are lined with faded brocade and crumbling trophies, or speaking of the 'cold light' of the early dawn and someone being 'ground to bone-meal', for instance. So it was very easy to visualise the right sorts of settings from Rigby's narration, while the sound effects gave them the appropriate texture and the voices of the various actors populated them with living characters. Indeed, I am well enough steeped in Hammer's visual style to mean that often I could see in my mind's eye exactly the sorts of sets and costumes they would have used, the camera angles they would have chosen, and the composition of the shots.

All of which was incredible and amazing and breath-taking, because Hammer's Dracula franchise is my favourite film sequence bar none, and yet its last entry appeared in 1974, and I was born in 1976, so I never had the opportunity to see any of its films fresh on first release at the cinema. Indeed, it's some 25 years since I saw a Hammer Dracula film for the first time at all in any context, so I find it difficult now to remember or imagine what devouring one I haven't seen before is actually like. The raw experience of an entirely new Hammer Dracula story, with absolutely no idea what might happen next at any point, was something I never expected to have again - and this performance was the closest I have or will ever come to experiencing that not only on my own at home in front of a video, but live and completely fresh in the cinema with a whole audience around me doing the same. Walking up the cinema aisle at the end of the performance, I found myself overwhelmed almost to the point of tears at the sheer magnitude of what I had just witnessed, coupled of course with the sad knowledge that I may never have such an experience again... Well, that is, unless the same team get themselves together and do a performance of Lord Dracula - the other unmade Hammer Dracula film lying in the CATH archive, which is an 'origins' story linking the Hammer Dracula with the historical Vlad III Dracula. I don't think I have to explain to regular readers of this blog how and why that is basically the story I consider myself to have been put upon this earth to hear.

So, having talked about the performance at the Mayhem Film Festival, I'm now going to review this story qua story, in the way that I have every other Hammer Dracula story on this blog. The obvious difference of course is that you, dear reader, are almost infinitesimally unlikely to have 'seen' it. That means we need to start with a brief plot summary. It is utterly spoilerific, as is everything I say from this point onwards in the review. But given that as far as we know at the moment, this story will never be released in any other format, you may as well read on and at least find out what happens in it. )
strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
Believe it or not, I am still catching up with back-logged film reviews from things I saw before I went to Romania. There's just one more to come after this one, but I am not sure I will finish both this evening, so I'm posting this now in order to get at least half the job completed.

Having recently re-watched and enjoyed The Awakening (1984), I sought out this film as Hammer's take on the same source material - Bram Stoker's novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars. I didn't have hugely high expectations, because even the most ardent Hammer fan will generally admit that they started to go off the boil from about 1970 onwards. Also, it was clear from all the still images I'd seen that it was going to really objectify its star, Valerie Leon. But then again, this particular film does seem to be spoken of quite highly by fans amongst Hammer's later output. So I figured I'd give it a shot.

It does have to be said that I was right about the objectification of Valerie Leon. She plays two characters in the film - the Egyptian queen Tera, and the present-day archaeologist's daughter Margaret Fuchs - and she appears on screen for the first time in her role as Tera, lying dead in her sarcophagus. Unlike most mummies, though, she is perfectly preserved, not wrapped in any bandages, and clad instead in a beaded bikini-top and skimpy skirt. In other words, she is the perfect female body, lying there passive and unconscious. The camera then proceeds to introduce her by panning up her body from her legs to her face, lingering salaciously over every curve and dip - and there are plenty of similar scenes later on in the film. That said, one of the pleasures of vintage horror films is that it is also a standard trope to present women who are both attractive and unusually powerful. For male audiences, this is presumably meant to be a horrifically perverted paradox, but for female viewers it offers entirely different readings - though you do have to reconcile yourself to the fact that these characters always inevitably die. Anyway, as characters both Margaret and Tera are extremely autonomous and self-assured, with Margaret quite explicitly seeing Tera and her ancient powers as her ticket to a world in which she is free to do whatever she likes. Obviously, in the end this is coded as a tragic misjudgement - but it's fun while it lasts.

Meanwhile, the overall storyline, the characterisation, the acting, the set design and the direction are all very impressive - and this is quite an achievement, given that both the film's intended leading man (Peter Cushing) and its director (Seth Holt) were rendered hors de combat (in different ways) during the course of the production. I particularly enjoyed the series of death-scenes visited on those who had dared to open Princess Tera's tomb, all of which were conveyed via tense music and suggestive images, rather than direct on-screen violence. The very best of these was for a character called Berigan, who has already been driven insane and committed to an asylum as a result of his involvement with Princess Tera. Trussed up in a straight-jacket by two malicious hospital orderlies who tell him it'll be no good screaming as no-one will take a blind bit of notice, he is left isolated, terrified and unable to trust the evidence of his own senses, while a snake statuette from Tera's tomb comes to life and kills him. Revolving camera angles, disembodied laughter and close-ups of Berigan's terrified face convey the necessary sense of madness, periodic shots of empty hospital corridors outside his cell remind us of his isolation and helplessness, and extended periods of absolute silence really rack up the tension - all while we remain uncertain how much of what we are seeing is a manifestation of his insanity, and how much the 'real' power of Princess Tera. It really is a tour de force of direction, acting, lighting and sound effects - but also indicative of the quality of the whole film.

If you would like to see this film yourself, it's currently available for free here, and Berigan's death scene starts at exactly 45 minutes in. I can highly recommend it.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I'm out campaigning more than ever now, and very much need undemanding downtime when I'm not if I'm to keep on top of my day-job alongside it. Watching films is a good way to achieve that, but reviewing them not so much. So the goal here is to rattle through four film reviews in a hundred words or so each - and I'm not allowed my dinner until it's done. With a bit of luck that will clear the slate for the time being, so that I can watch another one this evening!

7. The Resident (2011), dir. Antti Jokinen )

8. The Vault of Horror (1973), dir. Roy Ward Baker )

9. What We Do In The Shadows (2014), dir. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement )

10. Nocturna (1979), dir. Harry Hurwitz (as Harry Tampa) )

Well, that'll be a slightly later dinner than I was intending, but hey - I'm up to date, and can happily watch one of the (classic) Hammer horror films I borrowed from [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan last night while I'm eating. :-)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010s )

2000s )

1990s )

1980s )

1970s )

1960s )

1950s )

1940s )

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

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

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

Lee and Cushing's joint screen appearances )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Yesterday, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I hankered down with pop-corn, rose creams and mugs of our steaming hot drinks of preference for another vampire film marathon. We started out by carrying on where we had left off last time, with the next in Hammer's Dracula sequence, Risen from the Grave, but [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan had seen the film after that, Taste the Blood only a few weeks ago, and drew the line at carrying on to Scars of Dracula, so for our second film we watched a recent acquisition of hers instead, Vampire Circus. We'd both seen it before, but alas too long ago to quite remember what we were letting ourselves in for. By the time we'd dragged ourselves to the end of it, I think we'd both have welcomed Scars of Dracula as a masterpiece by comparison. That's not to see we didn't enjoy laughing ourselves silly over its utter shonkiness, though.

17. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968), dir. Freddie Francis

Despite the fact that this is my favourite of the Victorian / Edwardian Dracula sequels (AD 1972 wins if you include the Seventies ones), I have only reviewed it once before in this journal, so it's not too crazy to say a bit more about it here. Although in a way all I really want to say is "I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it." I shall try to be a little more articulate about why, though.

Everything I said in my last review still stands - the perfect contrast between the cheerful inn scenes and the properly dark Gothicism of the dank cellar or rocky mountainside; the sense of purpose given to the narrative by its central theme of faith vs. atheism; and the wonderful effectiveness of having Dracula spend so much of his time lurking in the shadows and manipulating other people into doing horrible things for him, rather than doing them directly himself. I don't think I really said anything about how great the direction is last time, though. I said that the sets were good, and they are, but good sets need good camerawork to really bring them alive, and this film very definitely has that. We get lots of interesting angles and nice compositions - like framed shots, or shots looking past a significant prop towards the main action. Apparently, Terence Fisher was originally lined up to direct this film, but was replaced by Freddie Francis due to illness (or injury, depending on what you read), but I think it's quite likely that the film gained a fair bit from this substitution.

Actually, one thing which I particularly love about the world-building for this film is that we don't just get some very nicely-made studio sets - we also get a proper attempt to convey something of the landscape which they belong within. The previous films in the sequence have given us long shots of Dracula's castle, but this one also inserts establishing shots of the little village at the foot of the mountain, the larger town where most of the action takes place, and the landscape of mountains and rivers around it. And yes, OK, those establishing shots are basically just postcards held up in front of the camera, but even this simple touch makes the whole thing seem so much more real and engaging to me. Since this was the first film in the sequence not directed by Terence Fisher, and suddenly we get this opening-up of the landscape, I assume it reflects Freddie Francis' input, and am very grateful to him for it.

I should also have said more in my previous review about the (unnamed) Priest, and how very much he adds to the narrative, but since I didn't it is perhaps best now in any case to point the way towards this excellent review which I've found since, and which I think really hits the nail on the head about the Priest. As its author points out in the fourth paragraph down, the Priest is the true protagonist of this film. It is his weakness which leads to Dracula's resurrection in the first place, and his eventual discovery of strength after a long and clearly very traumatic struggle which defeats him at the end. Where the Monsignor represents straightforward faith and Paul represents straightforward atheism, the Priest in between them represents a much murkier middle ground - a faith too weak to protect him against evil. He himself is a far more interesting character as a result, while his weakness also gives Dracula just the opening he needs for his manipulative evil, in turn making this film's Dracula one of the most deliciously domineering and chilling of the sequence. So the Priest-as-Protagonist is a very important device here, underpinning a lot of what I really like about this film, and I'm grateful to the author of the linked blog post for articulating that for me.

18. Vampire Circus (1972), dir. Robert Young

So, yeah - from the sublime to the ridiculous, eh? Like I said, we'd both seen this before, but in my case that was at least 15 years ago now, and while drunk, so I had remembered vague things about a circus of travelling vampires entertaining some villagers with tumbling acts before turning all fangy, but had not remembered how nonsensical the story as a whole is, how unconvincing the characterisation, how banal the script and how mannered the acting. The IMDb tells me that this was Robert Young's first go as a director, and I'm afraid it really shows. It's not like he hasn't done good things since - the first series of ITV's Jeeves and Wooster, for example, or the whole of G.B.H. (which is amazing!). But while the raw materials here (script, actors, sets) might have been knocked into shape by an experienced director, Robert Young clearly wasn't in a position to do that. You can tell, because there are actually some actors in this film capable of putting in a decent performance - Thorley Walters, for instance - but it just doesn't happen.

The result was that we spent pretty much the entire film in MST3K mode, laughing at the bad wigs and utter density of most of the characters, giving them advice which we knew they weren't going to take, and trying to figure out what on earth we were even supposed to think any of them were doing, or why. Which was fine, and we had a great time doing it, of course, because that is part of the charm of Hammer films - even when they are beyond shonky, they provide plenty of chuckle-fodder for anyone familiar with the conventions of the genre. Particular hilarity was derived from the obvious sock-puppet panther which at one point attacked some characters in a forest, and from the wobbly (though in fairness nicely-designed) Eastern Orthodox church set which was suddenly introduced out of nowhere at the end. Oh, and I also enjoyed spotting this (modern) bust of a youthful Augustus in the local doctor's house, as well as a set of Piranesi prints of Rome remarkably similar to ones also seen on Dracula's castle walls in Scars just a couple of years earlier.

The film definitely belongs to the era when Hammer was increasingly relying on shocks and nudity to rake in the audiences, rather than characterisation, narrative or atmosphere. The back of the DVD box reported that it was banned for a while due to its suggestions of bestiality, and the horror film reference book I've had since 1986 also mentions the 'hints of bestiality and incest'. It's certainly true that there is incest in it (a pair of non-identical twins who also seem to be lovers), and the fact that some of the characters can turn into animals does I suppose suggest bestiality of a sort, although none of them get up to sexytiems with human beings while in their animal forms - only ever their human forms. But neither my 1980s book nor the 1970s censors apparently seemed to think there was anything to say about the fact that almost all of the vampires in the film seemed intent on preying on children - an element which is played much more blatantly than the incest or the bestiality. Vampires feeding off children does go right back to Stoker's novel, of course, and it can be played non-sexually, with the emphasis on a more abstract form of evil vs. innocence. But in this post-Operation Yewtree world the sight of a male vampire with bad make-up and a frilly shirt advancing on a child with lustful eyes conjures up all-too-real horrors. The fact that no-one seems to have batted an eyelid over it at the time certainly tells a story of changed values.

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