Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Peter Cushing as a Mafioso

I recently published a 15.000 word eBook dedicated to the German series of Dr. Mabuse movies from the 1960s. I am planning this to be the first in a number of overviews dedicated to classic German Crime and Thriller flicks and for my next project want to approach the eight Jerry Cotton movies featuring George Nader as the eponymous FBI Agent.

Jerry Cotton is a series of German "Heftromane", short weekly 60+ page novels that are exclusively sold through news agencies and by now has run up more than 3000 issues over the decades. Especially in the earlier years they tended to show covers with stills taken from totally unrelated movies.

So imagine my surprise when I wanted to stock up on some of them for research when I came across this cover for Die Rache des Mafioso ("The Mafioso's Revenge") featuring Peter Cushing in a scene from The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

I was reminded of the time when I posted a similar cover photo from a Jerry Cotton novel featuring Veronica Carlson.

For the Cushing cover I am particularly intrigued as the original image of course also included a crucifix which had been cropped to make him more in line with the Mafia theme of this issue (that I have yet to read).

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Ugly Duckling (1959)

THE UGLY DUCKLING used to be one of the Holy Grails for Hammer aficionados.

 Directed by prolific British B-Picture Director Lance Comfort and long considered lost, it was in actual fact hidden in plain sight in the vaults of Sony and BFI. It just hadn’t been screened for more than half a century.

 British Free-to-Air channel Talking Pictures as part of their amazing lineup of vintage movies and TV series has twice now transmitted this production and thereby allowed Hammer Fans to finally view this often discussed but rarely seen comedy.

 Must admit, given that comedy is probably the genre that easily dates the worst (never mind the fact that it often also doesn’t travel well from one culture to the other), I was at least just as anxious as I was curious about finally coming face to face with this movie.

 But I shouldn’t have worried. It is hardly a forgotten masterpiece but it also isn’t a dud. Instead it is a thoroughly enjoyable little contemporary riff on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. The film’s credits even indicate that the idea was “stolen” from that book.

 Shot in 1959, at a time when Hammer’s Gothic reinvention had already begun, it’s something of a throwback to the company’s earlier black and white pictures and seems to have purposely been planned as a comedic variation to THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, released in the same year.

 THE UGLY DUCKLING features a number of familiar faces for Hammer and classic UK movie fans, such as Bernard Bresslaw (MOON ZERO TWO as well as countless CARRY ON films), Michael Ripper and Marla Landi (THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER) as well as Jon Pertwee and many more.

Bresslaw plays Henry Jeckle (sic), great-great-grandson of the original Dr. Jekyll, and totally ill at ease amongst London’s hip youth….. who were still a few years away from being completely changed by the appearance of The Beatles and the subsequent upheavals of the 1960s. When he revives his ancestor’s notorious formula he transforms into a self-confident hoodlum who helps a gang to steal some precious jewels, only to try and give them back to the owners during his more innocent but fumbling real personality.

 And all kinds of mayhem ensues….

 THE UGLY DUCKLING is clearly a product of its time - we even see Jeckle go to bed with a golliwogg doll. – but it’s a fast moving and enjoyably breezy comedy that may have even inspired Jerry Lewis to venture into similar territory with THE NUTTY PROFESSOR four years later.

 The film also features a number of dance band pieces, possibly inspired by producer Michael Carreras lifelong love for jazz. Those musical interludes do at times overstay their welcome quite a bit.

 Ultimately the film probably suffered from a different kind of bad timing as it is depicting a cultural landscape that just a few years later would irrevocably be changed for good and thereby quickly aged this production.

 Still, it is good to finally be given a chance to appreciate this rare Hammer production, remarkable for its balancing act between comedy, musical numbers and the occasional digression into horror-lite with its well lit transformation scenes.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Captain Kronos vs The Mummy (Titan Comics Releases)

Recently read two officially licensed Hammer comics published through Titan Books.

 Titan had previously issued Marcus Hearn’s excellent HAMMER STORY, HAMMER GLAMOUR, THE HAMMER VAULT and THE ART OF HAMMER, so is the perfect choice for Hammer Studio related publications.

 In the past you were able to enjoy Hammer related comic book stories in the pages of the legendary “The House of Hammer” magazine, predominantly adaptations of their films, at the time an ideal way to immerse yourself in their movies when easy access to them via DVD, Blu Ray or streaming was unheard of.

 Titan Comics’ recent THE MUMMY – PALIMPSEST and CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER both go a different direction by taking the original Hammer movies and using them as a spring board to develop new stories.

 Each of those two are perfectly readable and enjoyable in their own right but CAPTAIN KRONOS is the one that has the edge with regards to truly carrying the Hammer torch whereas their version of THE MUMMY really is only tangentially linked to any of the Hammer mummy flicks.

 Though often flashing back to previous incarnations, most of THE MUMMY – PALIMPSEST is set in modern day London.

 In the late 19th Century members of a secret society, the Sect of Anubis, discovered how to cheat death and gain eternal life via the Palimpsest ritual, which required them every 33 years to drink the blood of a female victim chosen to be the host for the ancient Egyptian Priestess Nebetah. Their current chosen one, Angel Kostenko, has been brought to London by sex traffickers but proves resilient in her fight against both her kidnappers as well as the Sect. She is somewhat aided by another group battling the Sect of Anubis, however, soon learns that those guys’ motives may also not be quite as benevolent as they seem to be.

 This is a very effective mummy story but it is only borderline related to Hammer’s original MUMMY (a few brief glimpses of Kharis here or there) and despite the focus on a female mummy also has little to nothing to do with BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB.

 Even though the connections to Hammer are tenuous, this is a highly enjoyable read within the sub-genre of mummy literature and films with an ever so slight – cynics may say: token – feminist slant given that the current sacrifice is both a victim of sex traffickers as well as a pawn between two male-only member societies.

 For Brazilian artist Ronilson Freire THE MUMMY – PALIMPSEST is arguably his biggest English language assignment yet as he is mainly known for work in his native country though has also been involved with DOCTOR WHO graphic novels and a number of other UK/US projects.

 Up until I read the mini bio at the end of the comic, I was convinced that writer Peter (X-STATIX) Milligan was American as the weakest part of this graphic novel is the often ridiculously clunky, archaic and faux-English Upper Class dialogue by the members of the two Secret Societies battling each other. I was totally convinced that no one born in the UK would write lines like: “I am popping up to Scotland for a spot of shooting.”

 Goes to prove how much I know…..

 The CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER comic on the other hand is directly related to the characters in the movie and develops their story further.

 The main hero was always one of the most original vampire hunters, a young, debonair, swashbuckling, pot smoking slayer who at one stage was even planned to be a time traveller, hence the name: Kronos.

 No time travelling in this comic by writer Dan Abnett (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) and artist Tom Mandrake (THE SPECTRE). Instead the plot reunites the three main characters from the movie –Kronos with his trusted sidekick, the eccentric Professor Grost, and sexy gypsy girl Carla who they encountered in the movie and who has now joined them along their way - for a new adventure following the film’s events.

 Their journey brings them to a little village besieged by powerful vampires. When Kronos ventures out to investigate he doesn’t just discover that these are immune to sunlight but also unearths an even bigger mystery.

 What this story does really well, apart of course from some grandiose fight scenes, is to depict the fact that in Kronos’ world there are all different types of vampires that each require a new strategy to defeat them, again setting this character apart from the more traditional vampire hunters.

 Both comics also contain short articles by Marcus Hearn about the history of the original Hammer movies these new stories were inspired by. CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER also contains a foreword by Caroline Munro.

 Overall am quite impressed with New Hammer’s comic book excursions into Old Hammer material with a modern twist and I’m hoping there’ll be more to come… but have a funny feeling this will be yet another short lived attempt to try and breathe new life into an otherwise moribund company.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Paying my respects to Oliver Reed

 I moved to Cork (Ireland) Christmas 1995 and had previously travelled back and forth for a good few years. As such I was very well aware of the fact that Oliver Reed was living quasi in my neighborhood, in Churchtown, a little village just about 50km to the North of Cork City, just off the N20.

 There he lived a fairly quiet life, made friends with the locals and all in all seemed to enjoy that no one made a major deal about the celeb living in their midst. He became a regular to O’Brien’s Bar and despite all the rabble rousing stories told about him, the only time his stay in Churchtown garnered any attention during his lifetime was in a very positive light that would endear him to the locals for years to come: When he heard about a young local girl who suffered from Tetra-amelia, a very rare syndrome that had her born without arms and legs, he arranged a fundraising campaign that would ultimately help to raise IE£ 800.000 towards her treatment.

 So at the time I knew what I had wanted to do. Drive over to Churchtown and plank myself on a bar stool in O’Briens until Reed would show up. Things always came in the way but I always assumed that I’d have all the time in the world to get this arranged.

 Alas, Reed surprisingly died in a bar in Malta during the filming of GLADIATOR. A good few years ago I had managed to visit the bar while visiting the island and noticed that at least at the time the owners had turned this – not necessarily tastefully – into an Oliver Reed shrine to attract the punters and in another bar by chance even met the guy in whose arms Reed had died. (More details on this encounter can be read in my article about it for THE HUNGOVER GOURMET #7)

 Following his death, his corpse was laid to rest in Churchtown, proof how attached the actor had been to his last place of residence. The funeral ended up being a 10-Day-Wake with a number of celebrity mourners such as Michael Winner and Alex Higgins, leading to an influx of visitors that this village would likely never seen again.

 And yet, despite living so close to Churchtown it took me until last summer to finally make it up there and in the end it took a visit by Hammer fan and historian Robert Simpson to get me off my backside and up to Reeds’s gravesite.

 What struck us first was how utterly non-descript the place is: a village square, a pub or two, a church, a couple of small roads and that’s really it.

 Bruhenny Graveyard, the cemetery in which Reed is buried is located just off the main square and O’Brien’s Bar and can be entered through a narrow lane that can easily be missed unless you look out for it.

 Inside one is struck by a feeling that this must be one of the most deserted cemeteries ever which makes it easy, though, to locate Reed’s grave which is just as spare as most of the other graves on the site. It has been reported that over the years visiting fans had drowned so much alcohol in his honour over the gravesite that flowers no longer grow on it which may explain why it now doesn’t stand out much anymore.

 Instead a simple gravestone carrying his name (Robert Oliver Reed) and dates (1938-1999) together with the faded inscription “He made the air move” is all that now marks the final resting place for one of cinema’s most notorious rebel rousers.

Robert and I remained a few minutes in front of the grave until heading to O’Brien’s for a refreshing drink just across the road.

 In contrast to the total overkill in Malta’s bar there is very little that serves as memory to their most famous patron. Where they respected his boundaries in real life and just treated him as one of their own, they continued doing so after his death and all that serves as a reminder now is a single photo of Reed whereas most of the other walls are dominated by horse racing images and memorabilia that reflect the importance of equestrianism for the area.

 I guess we could have stayed and ask the elderly lady behind the bar or some of the few patrons that day about Reed and extract a story or two.

 But we didn’t.

 Truth be told it just didn’t feel right to interfere. No doubt no-one would have minded had we asked but we came to pay our respects and saw no need to further intrude.

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.