Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Skull (1965)


“Christopher Maitland sat back in his chair before the fireplace and fondled the binding of an old book. His thin face, modelled by the flickering firelight, bore a characteristic expression of scholarly preoccupation. 
Maitland’s intellectual curiosity was focussed on the volume in his hands. Briefly, he was wondering if the human skin binding this book came from a man, a woman, or a child. 
(…) It was nice to have a book bound in a woman’s skin. It was nice to have a crux ansata fashioned from a thigh-bone; a collection of Dyack heads; a shrivelled hand of Glory stolen from a graveyard in Mainz. Maitland owned all these items, and many more. For he was a collector of the unusual.” 

The Skull is one Amicus’ first horror films. Coming hot on the heals of their first portmanteau flick, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, this is actually a feature length movie though ironically based on a short story, The Skull of the Marquis de Sade, by Robert Bloch, i.e. the kind of material that they would later typically use for the anthology productions.

Horror films about obsessive collectors are a fascinating sub-genre that have very rarely been explored outside of Amicus where Robert Bloch appears to have been the driving force behind that niche (see also “The Man Who Collected Poe” segment of Torture Garden).

For The Skull Milton Subotsky co-adapted Bloch’s screenplay about an esoteric collector (Peter Cushing) who starts a descent into murder and madness when he is being offered the genuine skull of the Marquis De Sade.

Though the movie by and large follows the general plot of the short story to the point where certain lines of dialogue are even lifted verbatim, given the requirements of a feature length production there are added sections that are virtually dialogue free in which the film truly shines.

For these scenes director Freddie Francis managed to create some memorable bravura images that clearly demonstrate the cinematographic skill that would ultimately lead to him winning an Oscar. (Official Director of Photography here was John Wilcox.)



A Gothic pre-credits scene is bathed in a very Bavaesque light and depictures a silent, moody grave robbing. At one stage everything is filmed from the point-of-view of the corpse. It appears as if the corpse was lying in a glass tomb and could look through it to see the dirt removed from the coffin.

The film has lots of those strange angles and we often get to see everything from the perspective of the skull, a type of imagery that Alfred Vohrer was also very fond of in German Edgar Wallace Krimis at the time.

Long periods without sound or talk other than musical cues and purely visual imagery dominate this production that is also chock-a-block with little unnerving details such as somewhat distorted mirror reflections or bizarre camera angles.

The most famous of these scenes is midway through and could have been taken straight out of TV’s AVENGERS series: Maitland appears to get arrested and is brought to a Kafkaesque location, a large but mainly empty room only presided over by a judge surrounded by demonic statuettes who communicates through mute sign language and forces him to play a game of Russian Roulette, probably the most drawn out one prior to Deer Hunter. Maitland afterwards escapes through a maze of red corridors, and is threatened by gas and crushing walls while the skull is seen floating through the air. It’s a wonderfully filmed surreal nightmarish vision that vastly improves on the short story’s equivalent which features a rather more conventional form of torture by Iron Maiden.

The visual opulence of this production is furthermore highlighted by some of the most stunning set designs to be found in a 1960s horror production (courtesy of Scott Slimon and Bill Constable).

The characters all live in individually styled surroundings emphasizing their various collecting interests: Maitland’s library; an opulent billiard room with tribal masks; a phrenologist’s apartment featuring a range of masks and dragons as well as lots of books, crystal balls and skulls; the paintings in the shady dealer’s room.

According to Deborah DelVecchio and Tom Johnson in Peter Cushing: The Gentle Man of Horror and his 91 Films all this was filmed in Shepperton Studios “on one composite set which consisted of five rooms and a hallway”.

The Skull is probably the closest we have to a Cushing/Lee-Team-Up in which Peter Cushing plays a Baddy against Christopher Lee’s Good Guy though Cushing’s character is never inherently evil just involuntarily under an evil influence. (And Lee is not really a Goody, just scared and not-evil.) In actual fact the film ramps up the body-count in comparison to the original short story where there were decidedly less killings and none of which were cause by Maitland. 

The film is a major tour-de-force for Cushing who features in the vast majority of the scenes and often is required to silently act within the confines of a dialogue-free atmospheric scenery.

The only other two actors in this production with any decent screen-time to speak off are Patrick Wymark as a wonderfully sleazy procurator of artefacts and Christopher Lee as a friend and fellow-collector who first of all gets embroiled in a bidding war over some demonic figurines and afterwards wants nothing more to do with them. It’s rare that we ever hear fear in Lee’s voice but this is one of the few occasions where he is made to portray a man at the end of his tethers.

Also watch out for Michael Gough as an auctioneer and Patrick Magee and Nigel Green as a coroner and police officer, all three in tiny blink-or-you-miss-them short appearances that beg the question why so many reasonably well known actors at the time constantly show up in what amount to little more than extra parts at that stage in their careers.

All in all, The Skull is one of Amicus’ best productions if not even THE best. Though the studio is mainly known for their portmanteau movies, it required a feature length adaptation of a short story to help them properly unleash a highly atmospheric feast. Some may consider this to be a bit short on actual horror but for me this is one of the most intriguing visual treats the studio had to offer.





Sunday, December 7, 2014

The ever-changing faces of Victoria Vetri

Or should I call this: The ever-changing hairstyles of Victoria Vetri?

Either way, I just happened to come across two of Vetri’s TV appearances this weekend:

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.’s The Indian Affairs Affair still features her under her alternative nom-de-plume Angela Dorian.

The episode is the series’ Season Two finale and with its exaggerated “Cowboys’n’Inchuns”-imagery already gives a taster for the campy madness that was to follow in the subsequent season.

All of the Native Americans on display may be American but they’re hardly native. Even Illya Kuryakin joins in and dons a dark wig and a fake accent.

Dorian/Vetri plays Charisma Highcloud, the daughter of an Indian Chief (played by familiar in face if not in name, Ted de Corsia) held captive by Indian hating L.C. Carson who intends to drop a hydrogen bomb and apparently needs the Indian’s reservation for his schemes. (Don’t ask.)

Seriously, whatever happened to the hydrogen bomb? Isn’t it time we get a decent hydrogen threat again? Atomic warfare is so lame in comparison!

Much to her father’s annoyance, Vetri’s character sustains her student’s lifestyle by becoming a Native go-go dancer in New York.







For MISSION IMPOSSIBLE’s Squeeze Play she is back again to her more paler real self. This Season 5 episode is one of the shows with Leonard Nimoy and Leslie Warren in its line-up, both of which also have prominent roles infiltrating the hide-out of a dying Mafia don (Albert Paulsen, who had previously also appeared in a variety of other roles for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE) with the intention of obtaining his secret list of heroin distributors and causing an internal struggle in its ranks.

Vetri again plays a “Chief’s” younger family member, this time the grand-daughter who is pretty much innocent but has inklings of the nefarious activities of all those sharp-suited men in sunglasses around her.





Truth be told if the mention of “Angela Dorian” hadn’t triggered something in my memory I may never have connected her with the blonde-haired bewigged cavegirl of Hammer’s WHEN DINOAURS RULED THE EARTH. Strange that someone who has become something of an iconic figure in Hammer Fandom, should ultimately be so unrecognizable in most of her other performances but such is the fate of Brunettes who briefly become famous as Blonde Bombshells.

The MISSION IMPOSSIBLE episode is currently available on YouTube or Netflix US. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. may be on YouTube for some…. but not for my region. I watched this courtesy of my fab U.N.C.L.E. box set.

Now I better be off trying to come across some more of Vetri’s TV work. It seems that due to her looks she was often hired for more “ethnic” roles and therefore featured in a number of Western series as well, not just 1960s Spy shows.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Four Sided Triangle (1953)


Given that Hammer’s official YouTube channel has made some of their lesser known and previously only difficult to get a hold off early black & white productions more readily available, it is pretty pathetic that I haven’t spent a few sleepless nights yet in front of the screen in my endeavor to plug a few more of my holes in my Hammer filmography.

Time to change this…..
(Spoiler Alert: Please continue reading only after watching the film first.) 

FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE was Terence Fisher’s first Sci Fi movie and some of its concepts indeed seem to predate some of their later Frankenstein flicks (e.g. CREATED WOMAN).

In a pastoral English village, Robin (John Van Eyssen who is better known as (HORROR OF) DRACULA’S Jonathan Harker) and Bill (Stephen Murray), two friends since childhood, are collaborating together to create what was apparently going to become a prototype for Star Trek’s replicator. They are assisted by Lena (Barbara Payton), a childhood sweetheart who has just returned back from a stint in the States, and makes up the third (and later on also forth) side of their triangle.

Payton’s character is potentially the most interesting one in this movie as she is so decidedly off-centre, yet the film seems to treat most of her later decisions with the utmost normality.

We first see her in a flashback playing knights and lady with the boys and clearly already favouring Robin. Following a lengthy stay in the States she meets up with Dr Harvey (James Hayter), the narrator of this film, and proudly proclaims that she intends to spend all her money and subsequently “die in some reasonably unmessy fashion”.

This is quite possibly one of the most casual suicide declarations ever filmed and even more shocking as we never seem to get a proper idea why she considers herself such a failure and disappointed with life. What a way to get introduced to a character!

Meeting her old friends again, however, seems to give her a fresh purpose in life and she acts as their assistant and quickly rekindles her mutual infatuation with Robin, leaving Bill just longing after her.

Most of the research work is depicted as taking place in a laboratory that could easily have also been used in both the Universal or Hammer Frankenstein productions. Where at first the goal was to replicate inanimate objects, duplicating life is the obvious next step, especially given that Bill comes up with a plan to copy Lena giving him at last a chance for some quality time with her artificial twin but leading the viewer with a few more choice head-scratch moments with regards to her dubious decision making skills.

Not only does she readily agree to volunteer without batting an eyelid for this untested replication process. Her artificial twin (called Helen) is a carbon copy even down to her emotions for Robin yet out of some misdirected sense for – yes, for what exactly? it is never clear - , she decides to marry Bill, only to attempt to drown herself. To make things even worse, she subsequently believes that getting her memory wiped just so she can forget about her real true love is indeed a good idea (“an empty mind and a new beginning”).

And never during any of this do we get a feeling that this is anything else but common sense decision making! Any single one of those decisions is actually beyond creepy so not emphasizing that creep factor in the movie and making all those actions appear downright normal is in the end an awfully wasted opportunity and a missed chance.

This could have become a proto-Cronenbergian Mind Fuck but just ends up being a very average and mercifully short production based on a preposterous idea. Even a potentially disturbing surprise ending is solved amicably, unlike the literary original that appears to have gone just this extra bit further with regards to the final outcome.

William F. Temple’s original story was adapted to the screen in collaboration by both Terence Fisher and Paul Tabori, a Hungarian author who on top of writing some English language pulp fiction novels wrote a number of screenplays as well and was also involved with Terence Fisher’s next film, SPACEWAYS, yet another early Science Fiction movie by Hammer.

Whereas most of the talent in this film was just at the beginning of their careers, sadly 26-year-old Barbara Payton was already approaching the end of hers.

Once an up and coming potential Hollywood Star she was a true-life Femme Fatale and after having made the rounds through a number of her leading men and nearly being responsible for the death of one of them following a vicious brawl over her, she was deemed toxic in Hollywood and reduced to shooting the likes of BRIDE OF THE GORILLA.

Going to Bray was meant to be a new start for her. FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE was filmed from August – September 1952 and shooting on her second Hammer film BAD BLONDE/THE FLANAGAN BOY started right afterwards on September 25.

Alas, there was little else to come for her careerwise. She fell into a vicious spiral of alcoholism, drug abuse and homelessness, was at one stage reduced to sleeping on park benches and ended up selling her body. She died much too young at the age of just 39 as a result of heart and liver failure.

Though it’s easy to blame the Hollywood system for her downfall, it must also be said that there are ample examples of normal folks out there pressing the self-destruct button out of their own volition.

A cover story in CONFIDENTIAL magazine published an exposé: “How I went from a $10.000 a week movie queen to a $5 party girl!”

In her memoirs I AM NOT ASHAMED she wrote choice nuggets such as:

"I went out with every big male star in town. They wanted my body and I needed their names for success. There was my picture on the front pages of every paper in the country... Today I live in a rat infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rose wine. I don't like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men. I love the Negro race and I will accept money only from Negroes. Does it all sound depressing to you? Queasy? Well, I'm not ashamed."

Having long been out of print and commanding high prices, the book was re-published a few years back (and is still available cheaply for the Kindle) as well as a biography about her, KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE, named after one of her films. I hope to review these books a bit more extensively in the near future but you know me: I may also just vanish again for a while from the blogosphere.

In the meantime: Do check out the movie. After all it comes free courtesy of Hammer’s YouTube channel. It may just be an average production overall but with the Frankensteinian vibes and some off-beat moments courtesy of one of Tinseltown’s most miserable real life stories, this is worth a quick glance.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Deadly Bees (1967)

A contemporary Amicus horror film directed by Freddie Francis, starring Suzanna Leigh and a wild eyed, over-the-top and eccentric Frank Finlay, also featuring Michael Ripper as a publican, with songs by Elkie Brooks (dubbing Leigh) and The Birds on screen with Ronnie Wood and a screenplay co-written by Robert Bloch based on H.F. Heard’s bestselling Holmes pastiche A Taste for Honey.

So what could go wrong?

 Actually not all that much at first glance.

Though mainly known for their anthology horror concepts, these always were a bit hit and miss and it’s therefore good to see one of Amicus’ proper feature length forays into horror. Not making this a Gothic horror production wisely set them apart from Hammer while at the same time securing some of Hammer’s key personnel guaranteeing a certain recognition factor.

Suzanna Leigh plays a popular singer on the verge of a mental breakdown who is sent off to a remote island for some respite. (The doctor who diagnoses her is played by a blink and you’ll miss him Michael Gwynn.) The vibes of Swinging London are represented by Swinging Cameras going back and forth while capturing a performance by The Birds (and the bees… nudge nudge). In contrast rural England is frequented by merry publicans, cheerful lasses, eccentric characters and a dysfunctional couple, the husband (Guy Doleman, best known as SPECTRE agent Count Lippe from Thunderball), a brooding farmer/bee keeper who keeps his raging emotions only barely under control and whose venomous, chain smoking wife (Catherine Finn, Michael Ripper’s wife in real life) never lets him forget who it is that has the money in the relationship and out of spite never even bothers answering the phone even when she sits right next to it.

Watching this kaleidoscope of 1960s genre characters is a joy but of course this is the first killer bee movie ever made and based on a popular Sherlock Holmes pastiche, so how does this fare as either a horror or mystery movie?

Not that well, is the short answer……

The only thing frightful about the killer bee attacks is how awful they look. Given that Freddie Francis was a future Academy Award winning cinematographer it is surprising how bland the production looked. The bee attacks in particular are badly process shot in slow motion while the actors were flailing wildly with plastic insects of a kind stuck to their faces.

And for a mystery there really is very little of that. We only ever have two suspects for being the mastermind behind the bee attacks and one of them is so blatantly obviously suspected by just about everyone that the real killer simply must be the other one.

Given that this is an adaptation of a popular book it is surprising to see how much Amicus didn’t even bother with the novel’s main attraction: the fact that its hero, Mr Mycroft, is a very thinly disguised Sherlock Holmes enjoying his retirement as a rural bee-keeper!

In the movie there is no reference to either Holmes or Mycroft or indeed the male Watson substitute and book’s narrator. It appears that in Bloch’s original version of the screenplay these references were much clearer. Bloch had seemingly envisaged Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff in the main parts. Amicus and/or Freddie Francis, however, took a dislike to Bloch’s concept and changed it further on leaving only the barest hints of its initial source idea.

Still, this may be both a failed mystery and horror thriller and at the time those aspects may have been the primary reason for it being critically dismissed. Nearly 50 years after the movie first hit the cinema screens, however, the then current horror flick has started carrying a patina that easily masks its short comings.

For me it will always be a pleasure to watch Michael Ripper behind a bar and encountering a range of off-beat English characters as well as 1960s starlets, a trip back in time to a mythical England where animals attack and civil servants wear bowler hats. Freddie Francis may just be a journeyman director but he is my kind of journeyman director and the film is a very enjoyable way to spend some 83 minutes.

The Deadly Bees was sometimes paired in a double feature together with The Vulture.

 

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Peter Cushing Scrapbook


Ever since I got my Kindle a little bit less than two years ago my reading and book buying habits have changed quite a bit. 

Whereas previously I was a regular client with the local bookstores and often purchased normal paperbacks at normal prices, this has now nearly completely gone down the river. Unless I receive a book voucher, I generally don’t spend any money on bog standard paperbacks anymore.

I quickly learned that I can easily get the classics for free and when I want a current novel or non-fiction book I get them cheaply and often at a great discount in an eFormat.

I am also a great fan of classic pulp fiction, easily get bored with the cover design for most modern editions and regularly frequent the Second Hand book stores, again getting my regular reading fix from discounted second hand books.

On the other hand, however, I have over the last few years spent a crazy amount of money on some exclusive edition coffee table books that may cost an arm and a leg but that truly deserve a special place on my shelves.

Especially us Hammer Fans have over the years been able to reserve some of our shelf space for beautiful tomes on all aspects of Hammer. 

Wayne Kinsey is one of the most prolific authors in this field and when his Hammer Films on Location failed to find a regular publisher he simply set up his own publishing house, Peveril Publishing.

The Peter Cushing Scrapbook is his second venture and limited to 2000 copies.





Printed landscape in an oversized scrapbook format this is a beautiful accumulation of Cushing memorabilia and a celebration of the life and career of the Gentleman of Horror who would have turned 100 this year.

The material is published on a film-by-film basis with short introductions provided by co-author Tom Johnson. None other than George Lucas has provided the foreword; the afterword is by Janina Faye.

The heart and soul of this work, however, are a myriad of pictures accompanying each chapter and generously provided by his secretary Joyce Broughton or on loan from a range of collectors worldwide.

These range from often rare and previously unpublished private and on-set photos to theatre programs, snippets of newspaper publications and most importantly countless reproductions of Cushing’s own copiously annotated scripts and sketches for costume suggestions as well as cartoons and phonetic rhymes created for his beloved wife Helen and other friends and colleagues. More than any written word can do, these give a wonderful insight into the true nature of Cushing, the man, and his vast range of interests and talents. Yes, we of course also get a good idea of all those scarves he designed, his toy soldiers, dollhouses and watercolours. And if you ever wondered what his well-travelled passports looked like, then wonder no more.

The most amazing insight into his professionalism as an actor comes from noticing the extent of notes he prepared in advance of any film shot, regardless how big or small the production may have been. Even lesser works such as The Uncanny or Hitler's Son had his full attention. No wonder he was incapable of ever providing a bad performance.

Those coffee table publications stand and fall with the quality of their printing and the reproductions here are faultless. I had no issue deciphering any of the script pages or other written material. The binding also appears to be made to last. The landscape format is unusual but ultimately a good choice for the subject matter.

This book is exclusively available through Peveril. When ordering it is also possible to purchase an additional DVD-R with some of the pictures in the book as well as a few others that didn’t quite make the cut. That DVD-R is not really essential but a nice extra to have.

As long as Wayne and some of the other authors will continue with their sterling efforts in creating those visual master-pieces, my book shelves will find a welcome space for those. No fear of me ever wanting to have these in anything else but a physical copy.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

New Hammer to remake THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN


Over the last couple of years New Hammer has risen from the grave and started producing a range of excellent horror movies that by and large were quite effective but didn't really share much of a link with the classic Hammer films.

True, THE WOMAN IN BLACK, probably their best new production, was a Gothic horror film and THE RESIDENT featured a cameo by Christopher Lee but overall the connections to the older films were tenuous.

This, however, will soon change.....

There have been rumours about Hammer reviving some of their older franchises before but today's press release (full text below) confirms that they are now going to remake their own ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN production.

When it comes to remakes, this is quite an excellent choice as they are approaching a movie that has its share of fans but that isn't widely recognised yet and features a monster that has not yet been done to death. As such they can explore new angles and approaches without being steeped too deeply in preconceived lore.

I for one am looking forward to it and am planning to revisit the original again over the next couple of months plus maybe review its literary background and other Yeti movies. Let's see.....

HAMMER TO RE-ENVISION THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN

London – 21st November, 2013:  President & CEO of Hammer and Vice-Chairman of Exclusive Media, Simon Oakes, announced today that Hammer, an Exclusive Media company, will produce a new version of The Abominable Snowman. The project is being developed by Hammer in association with Ben Holden (The Quiet Ones, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death).

In this modern take on the Yeti myth, a scientific expedition’s illegal ascent up an unclimbed peak of one of the World’s most formidable mountains accidentally awakens an ancient creature that could spell a certain end for them all.

The original screenplay by Matthew Read (Pusher, Hammer of the Gods) and Jon Croker (The Woman In Black: Angel of Death, Desert Dancer) will put a modern twist on the 1957 iconic original film from Hammer’s extensive canon of work. The project marks a continuation of Hammer’s ongoing campaign to maintain their heritage of producing enduring British horror films which are original, current and relevant for modern audiences, following on from The Woman in Black which became the most successful British horror film of all time.

Simon Oakes said of the project: "The success of Let Me In and The Woman In Black has shown that there is an appetite for quality horror films so it is exciting to draw on Hammer’s unparalleled source material in this genre which can be reimagined and updated for a new audience”.

Ben Holden is currently collaborating with Hammer on The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, which is in production in the UK now.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I. Have. Returned.

Well… kind of.

After too long a time spending far too many hours working too many jobs, I have now simplified my life, quit the corporate world and am focusing entirely on my own projects, meaning predominantly working away as a private German tutor in Cork. 

If you want to pick up some tips and tricks on learning German, please feel free to visit my Facebook page

Oh, and I also give lessons through Skype.

What that means is that I should also finally have more time at hand to again focus on this dangerously abandoned blog of mine. I am not putting any undue pressure on me as to how often I might post again, but you should definitely see an upsurge in new posts over the coming weeks and months.

And for starters I would like to draw your attention to Flesh and Blood, Book 3.

If you remember, I was quite ecstatic about the first issue of this new 4-part horror comic series and had also featured an interview with the creators, Neil Vokes and Bob Tinnell, who had succeeded in creating a unique Gothic induced comic book world that was obviously influenced by the imagery of Hammer’s classic production without ever resorting to a simple rip-off of their tropes and themes. 

BOOK 2 had finished with a tantalizing hint of a time travelling Victor Frankenstein and BOOK 3 kicks off about half a century into the future in the late 19th century, a period of more than a passing familiarity for us Hammerheads.

Rather than being an all-encompassing demon slasher monster mash, the current issue focuses predominantly on Frankenstein and his attempts to regenerate a certain Dr Jeckyll who passed away while being possessed by his evil Alter Ego. He transfers Jeckyll’s persona into that of his final female victim and, hey presto, Frankenstein Created Woman and Dr Jekyll becomes Sister Hyde!


Just like in the previous parts, Tinnell and Vokes both manage to create a slice of genre comic that is clearly inspired by the magic of the Hammer Horrors, yet do it in such a unique way that this remains a genuinely new and unique piece of story telling.

With its new focus on the Jekyll & Hyde story and moving away from the Carmilla/Dracula/Werewolf angle of the first two books, BOOK 3 could easily be read independently by those readers who are not yet familiar with the FLESH AND BLOOD universe.

And a proper universe this is soon becoming as theoretically nothing should now be able to stop Mssrs. Vokes and Tinnell to further expand on these topics and set them up with any new monster and at any possible period of time. Kind of like what CAPTAIN KRONOS may have become had that film turned into a series.

In addition to the main graphic novel, we also get the continuation of two other far shorter comic books stories written by Tinnell (Baron Frankenstein drawn by Adrian Salmon and Operation Satan by Bob Hall). Tom Savini provides the foreword and with it one of my current favourite quotes: “The more you do, The more you get to do!” And an article by Michael H. Price with an overview of horror comics rounds up the entire oeuvre.

What can I say? It's good to be back.