Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, Terence Fisher)

 The House of Hammer's lone lupine foray into the realms of carnivorous lunar activities, Terence Fisher's masterly 1961 offering The Curse of the Werewolf was a film that - much like it's tragically hypertrichotic hero Leon Corledo - was born out of a fiery crucible of Catholic guilt and sin.

Hammer head honcho Michael Carreras had originally envisioned the making of a Spanish Inquisition picture, titled variously The Rape of Sabena and, later, The Inquisitor, to be scripted by Peter R. Newman (yes, Who-heads, the 'Sensorites' dude) fresh from gritty anti-war polemic Yesterday's Enemy (1959), and directed by John Gilling (The Flesh and the Fiends [1960], The Shadow of the Cat [1961] and later back-to-back Hammers The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies [both 1966]).

Sabena was to give the usual Hammer audiences their share of Gothic Technicolor melodrama and lashings of Kensington Gore in the milieu of the 16th century Torquemadan auto-da-fe ('What's the auto-da-fe? / It's what you oughtn't to do, but you do anyway!' as Mel Brooks sang in his doubtless scrupulously accurate History of the World, Part One [1981]) whilst also aiming a polemic against the hypocrisy and abuse of power of the Catholic church.  However, with John Trevelyan, Celluloid-Snipper-in-Chief at the BBFC, hardening his views against the horror film after the reactions to Mark Lewis' (Carl Boehm) snap-happy slashathon in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), things were becoming decidedly tricky for Carreras and Hammer.  After the script for Sabena / The Inquisitor was returned with requests for major edits and rewrites a fortnight before shooting was about to commence, and with a threatened boycott and possible legal action from the Catholic League of Decency in the air, the executive producer's father James (later Sir James) Carreras stepped in and called a halt to production.  Faced with the cost of production already spent, and the fact that sets for a Spanish township complete with haciendas was in construction on the Bray lot, something had to be done or write off a considerable amount of money.  Fortunately, producer Anthony Hinds had just the thing.

 Guy Endore's 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris - charting the exploits of a young man cursed from birth with the appetites of an  animal - had been optioned by Universal-International, with whom Hammer had a co-production and distribution deal (as they did with Warner Brothers and Columbia for other films).  With little time or money to secure the services of a scriptwriter, Hinds opted to adapt the source material himself, under the nom de plume of John Elder, and shift the locations of the story from France to Spain in order to utilise the sets and costumes that had been readied for the now-abandoned Inquisition epic, and setting the tale in the 1760s: a compromise between the 1560 setting of Sabena and the 1870 Paris Commune date of the novel.

The film begins with the tale of an impoverished beggar (played by Richard Wordsworth with the same pitiable humanity that he gave to the tragic infected astronaut Victor Carroon in Hammer's breakout The Quatermass Xperiment [1955]) arriving in a small Spanish town overlooked by the castle of the Marquis Siniestro.  Mocked and rebuffed by the townsfolk, the simple-minded transient tries his luck at the castle, where the evil Marquis (a splendidly grotesque performance from Anthony Dawson) has him humiliated before throwing him into the oubliette of the castle's dungeons where he is forgotten and left to fester and feast upon scraps of meat.  This brutalising treatment and degradation has the literal effect of turning man into beast, and when years later a servant girl (Yvonne Romain) who has rebuffed the lascivious advances of the aging Marquis (now raddled with disease and decay) is thrown into the dungeons the animal atavism of the vulpine vagabond take over and leave the girl ravaged and pregnant with the now-dead beggar's baby.

The product of this union is Leon, born to the dying girl on Christmas Day and marked with the beast within his soul, and adopted by the kindly Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans, later to essay the surrogate Van Helsing role of Professor Zimmer in Hammer's Gothic fairytale Kiss of the Vampire [1963]).  Young Leon (Justin Walters) is raised in a loving home with the Don and his servant Teresa (Hira Talfrey) as his family, and yet finds that he suffers from 'bad dreams' of running wild in the fields at night.  When local shepherd Pepe Valiente's (Warren Mitchell) flock begins to be decimated by a wild animal, and little Leon mysteriously receives a bullet wound in his leg on one of his moonlit sleepwalks, an intervention is clearly required.  Barred windows seem to do the trick, at least for a while.

The adult Leon Corledo (played by the then 22 year old nephew of the director of The Third Man [Carol Reed, 1949], Oliver Reed) leaves his loving home behind him to take employment in another town, working in the vineyards of the overbearing Don Fernando (Ewen Solon), and falling in love with the Don's daughter Cristina (Catherine Feller).  this star-crossed matching is not to the liking of Fernando, however, and so Leon's thwarted lust finds him on an ill-advised night out to a bordello with co-worker Rico (David Conville), where the light of the moon brings out the beast in Leon and leads to his assignation with a lady of the night culminating in a decidedly unhappy ending.

                        Ollie was no stranger to waking like this and wondering 'What have i done?'

In the words of the priest (John Gabriel) who baptised him, Leon's soul is constantly at war with its animal half : 'during the cycle of the full moon when when the forces of evil are at their strongest, these bring the spirit of the wolf to the fore... And in turn, whatever weakens the spirit of the beast - warmth, fellowship, love - raise the human soul'.  Just as his foster family kept his bestial nature in check as a child, only the love growing between Leon and Cristina can control his primal urges now.  There is something nicely Freudian and simple about the notion that the werewolf is simply Leon's primal id and animal animus, and that the thwarting of his feelings toward that not so obscure object of his desire releases his most destructive impulses.  Leon, i feel you, man.

Terence Fisher directs with his usual flair for these things, bringing an almost simplistic fairytale ambience to this dualist Manichean myth of good and evil and the need, like Dr David Banner, to control the raging beast that dwells within us.  Sadly, the film was received with a lukewarm reception after the flop of Hammer's The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960), and was scissored by the censors of over five minutes of footage (even more in the US cut) as well as being banned in Spain by the Franco regime until 1976.  It is a film with its admirers, however (including myself) and today can be viewed pristine and restored to its growling guttural glory.

A lycanthropic legend.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)

 Of all of the auteurs of the uncanny to have emerged upon the European Gothic / horror / thriller cinema scene in the period stretching from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, there is one name that stands above all.  For all of the Hammeresque stylings of Riccardo Freda, the sleazy and sultry Euroslash of Jess Franco, the stately Gothic of Mario Bava and the sepulchral terror of Lucio Fulci, the name of Dario Argento - the man once termed 'the Italian Hitchcock' looms like the shadow of a haunted tower.

Beginning his career as a film journalist, Argento (son of Italian movie producer Salvatore Argento) broke into film by co-writing a number of the then-burgeoning Spaghetti Westerns - culminating with his collaborating with Sergio Leone on the screenplay for the epic masterpiece Once Upon a time in the West (1968).  With this celluloid pedigree, Argento soon began writing and directing his own movies, becoming the master of the Italian giallo subgenre (a term for the crime and mystery thrillers characterised in Italy for their publication in pulp paperbacks with a yellow ['giallo'] cover) with his debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and its follow-ups The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (also 1971).  His breakout film was most certainly the finely honed nerve jangling thriller Deep Red aka Profundo Rosso (1975), which co-starred the actress Daria Nicolodi who would become his long term partner and also his muse and collaborator on his next project - a film influenced by the Grimm folk tales about hauntings and Hexen (witches) upon which both Dario and Daria had been raised as children.  This was the genesis of the classic of suspense and terror Suspiria (1977).

Inspired by the idea of a film about witchcraft, Argento turned to the works of 19th century essayist Thomas de Quincey (author of Confessions of an Opium Eater) - namely 'Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow' from the Suspiria de Profundis ('Sighs from the Depths').  In this, de Quincey postulated that to correspond with the trinities of Classical Graces and Fates, there is also a trinity of Sorrows: Mater Suspiriorum (Our Lady of Sighs), Mater Lachrymorum (Our Lady of Tears) and Mater Tenebrarum (Our Lady of Darkness).  Argento and Nicolodi seized upon the idea to concoct a tale of an ancient cult, and of potent and tangible evil.

Beginning with the seemingly everyday mise en scene of a European airport, we are introduced to Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American dance student who has been accepted into the exclusive Freiburg Academy in Germany.  The naturalistic shots of Suzy walking through the airport are accentuated almost subliminally by the whispering score of Claudio Simonetti, as the tracking Steadicam shot approaching the airport doors build a sense of tension and unease that explodes as Suzy steps out through the doors and into a thunderstorm in the dead of night, and Simonetti's music crashes in with its minor chords of dislocation and we are swept along with Suzy into a strange and terrifying place.  As noted by none other than iconic horror film director John Carpenter (creator of Halloween [1978], The Fog [1980] and The Thing [1982]) in the Mark Kermode documentary Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror (2000) 'The part of the movie that gets me...I'm following this girl into a rainstorm, with fountains of water cascading... All of a sudden, i'm very disturbed by what i'm looking at.  And i don't know why'.  This tension mounts as Suzy's taxi ride takes her through darkened streets with rainwater flooding down drains to the deeper darkness of the German forest, and we have come into the land of the Brothers Grimm and black and twisted woods as the soundtrack continues to whisper and hiss, with the single audible word 'Witch' echoing amid its music box evil twinkle.  The atmosphere is thick and tense and palpable, as the trees part and we approach the Freiburg Academy's blood-red art deco walls.

Suzy finds herself in the strange world of the Academy, run by the austere Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, former Hollywood star of the 1940s, in her final role) and the icy and domineering Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and filled with strange magic and an air of fear.  Argento's brilliant combination of eerie music, slow tracking camera shots and ingenious use of colour give the movie an atmosphere like no other - like a waking dream, or being trapped in a nightmare. Influenced by Jean Cocteau (La Belle et la Bete [1946] and Orphee [1950]) and Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), a strange world of wonder and dread is concocted.

Suzy's only friend in this school of sighs is Sara (Stefania Casini, of Blood for Dracula [1974]), who is beginning to unravel clues as to the evil that lurks at the heart of the building - the identity of the mysterious Directress: Helena Markos, The Mother of Sighs.  I don't want to get into too many spoilers here for those who have not yet experienced the film, but the consequence of Sara's catlike curiosity is one of the most vivid depictions of a nightmare on the silver screen that i have ever seen - Fuseli on film, as 'twere.  You know those dreams when there is a terrifying presence that you just can't escape from, your limbs can't move and the something gets closer and closer?  Like that - in limpid blue / green gel lighting like a sunken cathedral beneath the sea.

Argento and Nicolodi crafted a movie redolent of every childhood fear - witches, darkness, a presence behind the door, sounds you think you hear snatched upon the wind - that stands today not just as one of the finest examples of a scary movie, but as an Operatic (in every sense of the word) work of art.  The black arts, perhaps. Stylish, eerie, enigmatic and unique, Suspiria lives up to its name - a sighing breath, like the wind of the wings of madness, or the breath at the back of the neck that causes the hairs to stand each on end.  A Technicolor fairytale of tension and terror.

Mesmerising.  In the true sense of the word.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Cash On Demand (1961, Quentin Lawrence)

 Another of Hammer Films' slightly less well known monochromatic offerings, Cash on Demand is a taut and thrilling little noirish potboiler blessed with a solid script (co-authored by Lewis Greifer of The Man Who Finally Died [1963]), some excellently-crafted direction from Quentin Lawrence (helmer of the original TV version of The Trollenberg Terror [1956] and assorted installments of the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre strand) and powerhouse performances by it's two leads - the incomparable Peter Cushing and the wonderful Andre Morell.

Unfolding in real time over it's 84 minutes, the film opens with the mise en scene of Christmas shoppers giving to a Santa Claus garbed charity collector in the festive spirit outside the doors of the City and Colonial Bank (Haversham Branch).  We are then treated as the credits roll to a subjective camera, prowling and moving through the empty rooms of the bank and down into the vault in lingering shots before the bank opens for the morning and its staff begin to arrive.  Early mutterings by employees of 'Is His Lordship in yet?' set up the character of bank manager Harry Fordyce (Cushing) as something of a prissy and fussy martinet (we first see him arriving at the bank and fastidiously wiping down the plaque outside the door to get rid of some errant stains / fingerprints / dirt).

 The Scrooge-like Fordyce has little time for socialising with his employees, complaining about Christmas cards on the desks of this 'dignified profession', and engaging in a clash of both personality and class with his deputy Pearson (Richard Vernon) that is reminiscent of a dramatic re-versioning of the Mainwaring / Wilson dynamic of Dad's Army.  Within minutes of his appearance we know that this methodical man of Victorian clothing and Victorian manner is a creature of strict rules and habit - a man who, like Conan Doyle's Mycroft Holmes, lives his life so by routine that he seems to have rails from which he never deviates.

This day, however, Fordyce will find that his life goes off the rails entirely, with the arrival of one Colonel Gore Hepburn (Morell), who announces himself with insouciant charm as a representative of the bank's insurance firm and is granted an audience in Fordyce's office.  Hepburn's urbanity barely slips when there is a sudden change of atmosphere in the room as he calmly informs the frosty Fordyce that he is there to rob the bank's vault, that he has Fordyce's wife and son, and that Mrs Fordyce will catch a jolt from some electrodes and be fried like a Cajun catfish unless Fordyce co-operates.

                                           'What do you want?'   'Oh, just a bit of money...'

Morell gives a fine performance, by turns urbane, witty, charming, and sinister, with a steel always there beneath the smile.  (Coincidentally, on my current Avengers marathon, i not so long ago watched the episode 'Death of a Batman', in which Morell played crooked banker Sir Basil Teale.)

Cushing is the star here, however, giving a powerhouse performance as we see the usually strictly in charge of both his bank and his emotions Fordyce beginning to crumble under the pressure of the next hour's events.  As he barely suppresses his ire and indignation towards Hepburn but is powerless to do anything but go along with something that is anathema to him - opening the bank's vault and assisting in the theft of over £90, 000 - for the sake of his family, his haughty Patrician facade begins to crack and we can begin to empathise with the panicked and terrified man within.

By the time we pass the tension-filled scenes of the emptying of the vault and approach the thrilling Catastrophe and Denouement, Fordyce has passed through his trial by fire and, like Scrooge himself, been redeemed as a man in this Christmas Carol - cum - crime caper set in the festive frost.

Also featuring performances by the excellent Norman Bird (as a fellow bank employee) and the always wonderful Kevin Stoney (as a police inspector), this Hammer thriller isn't filler as we see the transformation of a tyrannical teller into a broken and humbled feller.

Hammer House of Horror: 'Visitor from the Grave' (1980, Peter Sasdy)

 As a long-time fan of the House of Hammer and their output from the Gothic chills of their Frankenstein and Dracula sagas, to the pyscho-thrills of their 1960s monochrome crime and thriller dramas, one of the areas of their prodigious outflow i have neglected to see properly is the two TV series, Hammer House of Horror (1980) and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984).  I had always meant to get round to remedying this, and thanks to the Horror Channel recently re-running the former series late on Friday nights i got to catch up with a few of them (i sadly kept forgetting when they were on due to an awkward timeslot, so the full run remains sadly sight unseen).

                                    This is a typical Sunday dinner time in Hammer Land.

This particular episode, 'Visitor from the Grave', is one that i'd wanted to see for quite a while.  It seems not to be high on the list of recommended episodes from fans, who see it as one of the weaker entries, but i wanted to see it anyway.  Mainly because of the cast, director and writer: Kathryn Leigh Scott, Simon McCorkindale and Gareth Thomas (Dark Shadows' Maggie Evans / Josette DuPres, the titular Manimal, and Roj Blake himself) in a psycho-horror outing directed by Peter Sasdy (of Taste the Blood of Dracula [1970], Countess Dracula [1971], The Stone Tape [1972] and Nothing but the Night [1973]) from a screenplay by Anthony Hinds, under his usual nom-de-plume of John Elder (The Curse of the Werewolf [1961], Captain Clegg, aka Night Creatures [1962], Kiss of the Vampire [1963] et al)?

Yes, please.

We open quite atmospherically, with a solitary cottage in the British countryside wherein dwells (and sleeps, because it is the wee hours before dawn) American woman (don't stay away from me) Penny Van Brutten (Scott) who has a rather rude awakening when a strange man augments his nocturnal prowling activities with a spot of breaking and entering and attempted sexual assault / rape.  This quite tense for television of the period sequence, directed expertly by Sasdy, results in a panicked Penny blowing a hole out of her assailant's face with a shotgun.  Fair do's and self-defence and all that, maybe, but as the hysterical Penny's returning partner Harry (McCorkindale) tells her, the law in Britain ain't the same as that thar Yew-Nited States, and so the best thing they can do to not attract unwanted attention or invite trouble is of course for Penny to calm down and clean up the blood, while Harry gets a shovel and buries the blown-away bandit in the woods before he stinks up the place.


We get an insight into Penny's backstory when Harry stills her protestations over his plan by asking her if she wants to 'return to the institution' - explaining Scott's constantly on the edge of panic performance and her constant pleading for her 'pills'. The poor lady obviously had enough anxiety on her plate before an attempted rape and self-defence killing.  Oh, and now the corpse has apparently risen from his pastoral plot in the forest to wreak some kind of haunted vengeance.  Typical.  I've had weeks like that.

 Matters are not helped when a local policeman (Thomas, sporting a... what?  Norfolk?  West Country?  Generic Mummerset accent) calls at the cottage, throwing Penny almost into blind panic and having to have the situation 'managed' by the by strokes diffident and stern Harry.  It turns out that the recently returning revenant goes (or at least went) by the name of Charles Willoughby (Stanley Lebor) , and had a grudge against Harry and had let it be known that he was 'going to sort him out'.  Mind you, if i go round someone's house who owes me money and they're not in, i generally find that whilst i'm there i may as well try to sexually violate any female i might find there.  You don't want to have made a wasted trip, do you?  Jesus.  Charlie seems to have been a lovely bloke.

The increasingly on-edge Penny begins mixing her brain medicine with booze (and you don't want to do that) as she continues her downward spiral and keeps seeing Charles - at the window, in the main street whilst shopping, carrying a tray of drinks at a party (look, being an avenging ghost is a bit like being an actor - you find you have to hold things down by waiting tables sometimes), even after Harry rather unsympathetically drags her into the woods and unkindly offers to dig up the body (which is nicely covered with maggots by this point) to 'prove' that what she's seeing can't be real.

It is of course an obvious plot.  Poor pusillanimous Penny is so obviously being Gaslighted (Gaslit?) that by halfway through i was beginning to wonder if the twist was going to be that there was a ghost after all.  By the time of the fraudulent seance, and an appearance by an alleged Indian swami so blatantly played by Gareth Thomas in a joke beard, turban and a bit of brownface (had he raided Tom Baker's Sinbad cupboard?) all was confirmed, and Miss Van Brutten is driven into madness and suicide by shotgun, all for her considerable bank balance.  There's a last minute 'twist upon a twist' that attempts to restore a bit of supernatural air to proceedings, but obvious twist is pretty obvious.

                                            'It's not racist, Sandifer, it's part of the plot'

                                        'What was your PIN number again, dear?  Oh shit.'

Not a complete letdown by any means, but i can see why fans of the series don't rate it among the best installments.  Still, if you can't be bothered to watch all of Cukor's Gaslight (1944) or Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955) and have a spare 50 minutes, or even just a hankering to watch '70s and '80s telefantasy stars directed by an assured Hammer veteran, you could do worse.

           Oh, look: Kathryn Leigh Scott as a Playboy bunny.  Because it's my blog and because i can.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Snorkel (1958, Guy Green)

Another Hammer thriller co-production with Columbia Pictures, this time directed by Guy Green (Academy Award-winning Cinematographer for David Lean's masterful 1946 Great Expectations) from a Jimmy Sangster co-authored screenplay, based upon a story by Anthony Dawson (he of the long visage and thunderous expression, the evil Marquis of The Curse of the Werewolf [1961] and the treacherous Professor Dent of Dr No [1962] among many other roles).

This little thriller killer begins with a strangely Columbo-esque opening, as we see the killer's meticulous preparations and planning for the murder that is about to occur, then watch the deadly act being carried out.  This particular murderer is Paul Decker (German actor Peter van Eyck, later to appear in classics such as The Longest Day [1962] and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [1965], as well as many a Teutonic Dr Mabuse semi-sequel), arranging the death of his wife via gassing in a room locked from the inside, whilst he survives hidden in the room breathing through the titular device which is attached to a tube to breathe air from outside.  So the police arrive to be confronted with a sealed room murder (Columbo meets Jonathan Creek?), as van Eyck gives a seething and malevolent performance in silence from his hiding place beneath the floorboards.

The particular 'One more thing'-ing one-eyed detective on this case however is Decker's stepdaughter Candy (played by fourteen year old child actress Mandy Miller), who had already suspected him of murdering her father in a 'boating accident' and is now convinced he is responsible for the death of her mother.  Her pleas to the local police inspector (the wonderfully named Gregoire Aslan, later star of epics King of Kings [1961] and Cleopatra [1963]) and her guardian Miss Edwards (Betta St John, of Corridors of Blood [1958] and the memorable role of avenging witch Patricia Russell in the quite marvelous The City of the Dead [1960]) falling on deaf ears, Candy takes it upon herself to prove her wicked stepfather's culpability in this 'impossible murder'.

Miller's performance as Candy is so annoyingly and unrelentingly adolescent that i did find myself (as i always did with Peter Falk's televisual investigations) sort-of hoping that the killer would get away with it.  However, Decker's willingness to murder loveable and inquisitive dog Toto after it uncovered a clue was unforgiveable (even if it may have given a certain green-hued Ms Thropp a thrill from whichever dimension in which she now resides).

Nicely tense, well played and with assured direction from an Oscar worthy ex- Director of Photography, this is yet another gem that deserves to be more than a curiosity obscured by its burgeoning Gothic Horror Hammer brethren.

(Though Decker's plan to give drugged milk in order to murder did make me wonder if the women in this family were related in some way to a certain Mr Baracus who didn't want to get on no plane.)