Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The House of Hammer, and other horrors

I have been meaning to write about Hammer films and now seems as good a time as any - as BBC4 here in the UK has been running some programmes on the horror genre by devotee Mark Gatiss and they have been screening some treats. I loved THE BRIDES OF DRACULA back in 1960 and it was good to get it on dvd a while back, now that it has been screened again by the BBC a lot more should have appreciated it. Also the classic 1935 THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN - those early Bela Lugosi Draculas were not really scary but Christopher Lee was terrifying in Hammer colour!

Like most kids I liked the first Hammer FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA films in the late 50s in lurid colour and making stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Lee's second outing as Dracula in the 1966 DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS is one of the best. Gatiss in the BBC series is lucky to have got interviews with Barbara Shelley and Barbara Steele, as well as Gloria Stewart and director Roy Ward Baker before they died, as well as Hammer regulars Jimmy Sangster and others.

BRIDES OF DRACULA is a delirious example of the genre, as directed by Terence Fisher, and ticks all the boxes: the carriage racing through the woods as darkness falls, the scared locals at the inn (led of course by Michael Ripper), the fresh young virgin (French starlet Yvonne Monlaur) as the teacher on her way to the girls school. Enter Baroness Meinster (the wonderful Martita Hunt in one of her best roles, as good as her Miss Havisham) who takes the girl off to the sinister castle where her son is locked away in chains.... I wonder why? Monlaur of course releases him and the young vampire (surely he could have changed himself into a bat?) goes on the rampage, after turning on his mother and making her too one of the undead. Cushing as Van Helsing returns and cue a nice moment when the Baroness confronts him with a "Do you know who I am?" and he says "I know who you were". The Baroness understands and submits to the stake and is then at peace. Meanwhile there is consternation at the girls school as teacher Yvonne is courted by the handsome if rather effete young Baron as teachers Mona Washbourne and Miles Malleson happily look on - but one of the girls (Andree Melly, sister of George) is feeling unwell and soon dies, as the Baron has also been calling on her at night. Then there is that amazing eerie scene where the Baron's aged retainer Freda Jackson (as malevolent as ever) urges the freshly buried vampire to emerge from her resting place .... its all splendidly done and one of the best of the vampire cycle as Van Helsing and the Baron confront each other.

I also liked Hammer's 1959 THE MUMMY which looks great in colour and of course Christopher Lee is he - we start with a prologue in Ancient Egypt as he tries to resurrect his dead queen and is mummified alive for centuries. Cushing of course is the professor whose wife - the very attractive Yvonne Furneaux - is the exact likeless of the dead queen and she is taken off to the swamp by the lumbering mummy. Lee,like Karloff, brings a lot of pathos to the role. These are solid well crafted movies like their '59 version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.

Hammer also divered into other genres which we all lapped up at the time: I now have a 4 disk set of their pirate and oriental titles: THE DEVIL SHIP PIRATES, THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (featuring Lee again and interesting casts including the young Oliver Reed), TERROR OF THE TONGS and THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY with that sinister Marne Maitland, and there is also THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (or is it THE BLOOD ON CAMP ISLAND). Then there was SHE in 1965 with Ursula Andress as the glacial exotic queen, John Richardson as her reincarnated lost love, Cushing and Lee again, Andre Morrell and lovely Rosenda Monteros. This was the era of double features when we enjoyed THE REPTILE, THE GORGON, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT. Like the CARRY ONs Hammer kept going throughout the 60s but soon the early 70s soft porn took over as Lesbian Vampires came to the fore in LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, COUNTESS DRACULA etc. At its best though Hammer was terrific at what it did in the 50s and 60s starting with those QUARTERMASS films.

What I did not care for though were those early '70s Amicus compendiums of titles like TALES FROM THE CRYPT, VAULT OFF HORROR or ASYLUM - cheapo productions with that tatty early '70s look and luckless actors (Richard Todd, Sylvia Syms, Michael Craig etc) reduced to mugging in silly stories, though I dare say Ralph Richardson in TALES FROM THE CRYPT made appearing in these almost legitimate, soon Joan Collins, Anna and Daniel Massey and the like were signing up for them. The trend soon passed though.

Back to Hammer and Joseph Losey did one of his more fascinating early 60s films for them: THESE ARE THE DAMNED with Oliver Reed as the leader of the teddy boys "terrorising" the seaside town of Weymouth as sinister civil servant Alexander Knox has his own secret laboratory and Viveca Lindfors scores as the sculptor (using Elizabeth Frinck's artworks). It looks terrific in black and white widescreen.

Also in the '60s of course we had Roger Corman producing in the UK those two Vincent Price classics THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH with its great imagery and sets, and colour by Nicholas Roeg, with Price in his element as evil prince Prospero with those rooms in different colours, and the lovely young Jane Asher as well as stalwart Hazel Court, and the stylish THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Price though was utterly terrifying as the THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL in 1967, a grim look at life back in the Civil War with superstitious villages isolated from each other. It's young director was Michael Reeves whose early death was surely a great loss to the horror genre, but Vincent was soon back in high camp mode in THEATRE OF BLOOD and the DR PHIBES films.

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