Monday, January 25, 2010

Herman Cohen: An American Weirdo in London

by Matthew Coniam
It’s 1959.
Hammer’s Gothic horrors have only just gotten underway and already, here we are, in present-day London.
Here is a red London bus, and here is a red London post van.
The van stops outside a row of elderly Edwardian terraced houses, sectioned into flats. This is not rural Transylvania, or one hundred years ago in a mountain village in Switzerland. It could be the real world the audience is headed back to when the movie ends, redressed in the sickly primaries of the Eastmancolor palette.
The postman gets out, rings a doorbell, and the door is answered by a busty blonde, cut somewhat imprecisely in the image of Diana Dors. She takes a parcel from him, thanks him, calls him “dearie”.
We go inside to the flat she shares with a little French brunette, accented and perky, perhaps a language student, perhaps an au pair. The package contains a pair of binoculars, and the blonde walks to the window to try them out. The brunette turns to observe, and screams. The blonde has crumpled to the floor, her hands are clasped tight over her face, and there is blood seeping through her fingers, a garish, paint-thick Eastmancolor soup. The discarded binoculars are on the floor beside her, a pair of metal spikes jutting from them, and collecting in a pool on the carpet underneath: more of that blood. Drip, drip, drip...
.This is Horrors of the Black Museum. For Hammer, its inspiration, it was a declaration of war – and proof that they had accidentally kick-started something they would not be able to control. For Anglo-Amalgamated, its producers, it was the first of a notorious trio of modern-dress horrors that aimed to beat Hammer at their own game and resulted instead in a plague of journalistic outrage. (The others were Peeping Tom and Circus of Horrors.)
But for Herman Cohen – the film’s producer and co-writer it was a calling-card: an eccentric new force in British horror had arrived.
Born in Detroit in 1928, Cohen was a film fanatic from infancy, becoming a cinema usher at 12 and graduating to salesman and film exhibitor. By 24 he was an associate producer, with Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) to show for his labours. It began a lifelong relationship with men in gorilla suits.
By the following year he had formed Herman Cohen Productions, and released Target Earth!, in which Chicago is invaded by Venusians, in 1954. A team-up with AIP was inevitable, and the results defined an era: I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (both 1957), Blood of Dracula (1958, and don’t let the title deceive: it’s about a high-school girl who becomes a vampire with enormous black eyebrows and hair that resembles an afro hacked into some vague approximation of a Lugosi widow’s-peak) and How To Make a Monster (1958), shot on the AIP lot, where a disgruntled make-up designer, on the scrapheap when his studio switches from horror films to musicals, uses his creations – including the teenage Frankenstein (still played by Gary Conway) and the teenage werewolf (no longer played by Michael Landon, who had gone on to Bonanza) – to murder the studio heads.
By this time Cohen had garnered sufficient clout to take offices in London’s Wardour Street, a stone’s throw from Hammer House (which is why a packing-case is addressed there in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein). He began full-scale British production with a haunted house comedy called The Headless Ghost (1959). It made little impact, but Horrors of the Black Museum was just around the corner.
At its heart, the film was more or less a remake of How To Make a Monster, again featuring a dedicated professional in a disreputable industry hypnotising their assistants into killing off their oppressors. (In fact, the film that Monster’s villain is working on is actually called Horrors of the Black Museum!) But this time the looney is a true crime writer (Michael Gough, for Cohen what Cushing was to Hammer) who stages the crimes he then writes bestsellers about. (One is called The Poetry of Murder.) “There’s no doubt we’re dealing with a brilliant maniac!” the police exclaim.
Hammer Horror was scarcely a welcome new phenomenon at the BBFC, but this was something more again. Secretary John Trevelyan (in his memoir What the Censor Saw) recalled it as not “a standard horror film” but instead “both sadistic and nasty”. He particularly disliked the binoculars (“Of course we had to see the blood trickling down her face”), especially since Cohen made a point of boasting that the contraption was based on one used in a real British murder case.
Even grimmer is the film’s other showpiece murder, of Gough’s mistress, who has made the fatal mistake of laughing once too often at his walking stick. We watch her come home, undress to her girdle, stockings and suspenders, and then lie invitingly on her bed… whereupon she is decapitated by a guillotine blade above her pillow.
Despite a British setting and a British director (Arthur Crabtree, once a leading light at Gainsborough Studios) the film’s heritage is unmistakably that of Cohen’s drive-in past, with funfairs, tunnels of love, hypnotism, and a snarling AIP-ish killer, his murderous fits accompanied by an unexplained facial transformation, leaping to his death from the top of a big wheel. There was even the claim that it was shot in ‘Hypnovista’: US audiences got a six minute prologue ostensibly explaining its marvels.
Next, the ape-suit got a dusting-off for Konga (1960), still for Anglo-Amalgamated, but as different in tone from Horrors as conceivable. Michael Gough is a professor with a Lily Munster white streak and the hots for sweater girl Claire Gordon, who develops a growth serum that enables him to create giant plastic carnivorous plants that eat kippers and transform a chimp into a man in a gorilla costume. The ape goes on the rampage, trampling miniature sets and clutching a stiff wooden doll standing in for our mad Mike. This time the phony process is ‘Spectamation’ and the title was originally to have been I Was a Teenage Gorilla.
After a brief return to America for 1963’s Black Zoo (made not for AIP but for Allied Artists, the former Monogram, with Gough still on board as a zookeeper who hypnotises his animals to kill and serenades them on his Hammond organ), Cohen came back to England to set up Fog, a film he had devised as an encounter between Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. Learning that Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger had something similar in mind, the two parties agreed magnanimously to pool resources on what would become A Study in Terror (1965). It was probably the classiest product with which Cohen, credited solely as executive producer, was ever associated.
Next up were his lunatic collaborations with Joan Crawford, luminous former princess of MGM and Warners, whose sensational comeback in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? had condemned her to a twilight in cheapie horror films. With a couple of collaborations with William Castle already behind her it was perhaps inevitable that Cohen would come calling.
First was Berserk! (1967), an aptly-named big top melodrama with Joan as the ringmaster (the part had been written for a man so it’s ideal for Joan), Diana Dors getting sawn in half and Gough – innocent this time – having a tent-peg hammered into his head in one of the film’s several logically-impossible killings. The identity of the killer does come as a genuine surprise, however, so if you don’t want to know that it’s Judy Geeson, look away now. It’s Judy Geeson.
But seven years was a long time for Cohen to go without using a man in an ape suit, so both it and Crawford were pressed back into service for Trog (1970), the first of two Cohen films to use proper director Freddie Francis. Joan finds a frozen troglodyte in a cave, thaws it out and teaches it to catch a ball in her garden; nasty Michael Gough sets it loose on a murder spree. (For more on Cohen’s collaborations with Crawford, see here.)
Cohen’s final British production could well be his weirdest: which, if you’ve seen any of his others, you’ll know is no idle boast.
Craze (1973) stars Jack Palance, an excitable actor at the best of times, here left to run riot by Cohen and Francis, as an antiques-dealer compelled to arrange blood sacrifices for an African idol that rewards murders with money and to which he chants in Latin. No Gough this time, but surely only Cohen could have talked Trevor Howard and Edith Evans into taking thankless support roles in this joyous farrago.
This film simply makes no sense at all: at least in Cohen's earlier titles the abundance of drive-in excess - the gorillas, the hypnosis, the mad special effects - never let you forget that what you were seeing was basically just a romp. But this plays straight - it could be Amicus or Tigon at a push - yet the thing itself obeys no rules, either of cinema or of logic. It's like a madman's dream.
Herman Cohen produced some of the craziest horror films ever produced in Britain, flipping an oddly invigorating bird to the occasionally po-faced Gothic seriousness of Hammer. His films really couldn’t be any sillier had that been their specific aim, but all are supremely entertaining and Horrors of the Black Museum, almost despite itself, remains a highly important milestone in the story of British horror. Cohen, who died in 2002, can rest content with that.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Operation: 101010.... Lite

I always loved the idea of my old 999 Challenge (well, I would say that wouldn't I?): Watch 9 films from 9 different genres in 2009 and blog about them. Of course, I fell flat on my face with that one. Watching those movies was not so much the issue - I think I may have come at least close to that last year -, but writing up about them was what ultimately killed the puppy.

And just when I thought this challenge was dead and gone, Final Girl resurrected it with an evil laugh as Operation: 101010. She is, you guessed it, going to blog about 10 movies from 10 different genres in 2010.

And just like one of those pulp heroes who thinks he has hung up his boots and gone into retirement I hear the siren's song and feel myself dragged back into the murky waters of year long challenges and broken promises.

Of course, they say that the first sign of madness is doing everything exactly the same as before and expecting different results. If I didn't manage to write 81 blog posts last year, what makes me think I can handle 100?

Well, the truth is: I am already admitting defeat before I have begun. There is indeed no way on Earth that I will end up writing all that much this year.

But there is always Twitter. And I'll be damned if I don't manage to watch those flicks and then come up with a 140 characters about them. In factual fact, hmmm, let me see: If I was going to watch Dr Strangelove... or how I stopped worrying and love the bomb the title alone would already account for 61 characters. OK, so maybe I may end up writing the occasional second tweet about the films.

What is important, however, is that I am not going to post those on Hammer and Beyond, so if you want to see what I have to say follow me on Twitter. Maybe I will occasionally give a status report to make sure everyone knows how I am doing, but for the most part this is going to be a Twitter acticity for me. I think it may also be a good idea to use the hash tag #101010 (another 7 characters less to worry about).

I quite liked most of last year's categories and will therefore keep most of them. So without further ado, this is what I am going to focus on this year:

  1. 10 Hammer movies – Well, this category as well as the next couple really go without saying given the nature of this blog
  2. 10 Movies directed by Hammer directors (non-Hammer)
  3. 10 Movies starring Hammer actors or actresses (non-Hammer)
  4. 10 Movies that I haven't seen before starring non-Hammer Horror icons (such as Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff)
  5. 10 Mario Bava movies – One of my other goals this year is to finally finish reading Tim Lucas' mammoth Mario Bava book, so accompanying that read I also want to watch the flicks he discusses. I will also include films that don't have Bava as a director. Rule of thumb: If Lucas discusses it, it is fair game
  6. 10 Giallos – Love the genre, but haven't seen a hell of a lot of gialli lately, so time to re-acquaint myself
  7. 10 Movies to be watched in the cinema – Whatever happened to the times that I went at least once a week? Oh yes, that was when I actually gave a shit about stuff that was released.
  8. 10 Kaiju Eiga – I have recently started learning Japanese and intend to surround myself with all things Japanese, hence two Japanese categories
  9. 10 Japanese movies (apart from Kaiju Eiga)
  10. 10 Sherlock Holmes movies – I have always been a bit of a Holmesian though somewhat lapsed over the last couple of years. Thanks to the new movie the sleuth is everywhere, so no excuse for me not to indulge

Wish me luck. And pray that I survive this new challenge. If I don't make it, Final Girl is to blame.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Hammer Horror Show

Following the success in London The Hammer Horror Show has now moved to England's North Eastern regions: From January 22 - February 21 the Opus Art Gallery will present the exhibition featuring rare photos, posters and other Hammer related items. As I am based in Ireland I won't be able to make it but would love to hear more about it from people who may be able to make it. Anyone willing to share some photos or a review?

More info can be found at the gallery's website. And here's a little review of the London event.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Announcing new guest blogger for Hammer and Beyond

I am very pleased to announce that Matthew from Carfax Abbey has volunteered to provide regular monthly guest posts for Hammer and Beyond. He contacted me about this following my year end post and I was only too delighted to see him on board.

I have followed Matthew's blog for a while and he is an excellent writer covering a variety of horror movie related subjects and has written a lot on Hammer lately. He is also somewhat of a Blogaholic and besides Carfax Abbey also has blogs dedicated to classic cinema, Dennis Wheatley and The Marx Brothers. So definitely a man to my heart.

Needless to say I am quite excited to see what posts he will come up with for us here. His plan is to provide some themed pieces about once a month about Hammer's rival studios, independent Brit-horror producers, notable personnel and of course anything just on Hammer that crops up.

While we're at it: I would always welcome other guest bloggers either for regular columns or for the occasional guest post. The more the merrier. As you may have noticed I am not the most proficient writer yet there is still so much to be covered in the area of Hammer or general Brit or even Classic Horror. So if you feel that there is anything you would like to contribute, be my guest.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hammer and Beyond awarded the Kreativ Blogger Award

Nothing says “a good start to a New Year” more than being awarded with a Blogger Award. Rhonny Reaper from the Dollar Bin Horror Blog awarded the Kreativ Blogger award to Hammer and Beyond. Thanks a million, Rhonny. That really made my day. Hell, it even made my year. So far.

These are rules associated with the award:

1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated

So without further ado, here are 7 things about me:

1.I have recently started learning Japanese. And while we're at it: I also started a Massage Therapy course last year that will have me certified in September.
2.I once shook the hands of someone who shook the hands of someone who was going to shake the hands with someone who shook the hands of Lenin.
3.I once got my arse burnt on a nudist beach in Germany. Very embarrassing.
4.For the longest time of my life I didn't do any sports, but for the last two years have started running and Kickboxing. Longest run so far was a 15 miles race between Cork and Cobh. Maybe this year I'll finally crack a Marathon.
5.I love travelling. Don't care whether it's near of far, but I am happiest whenever I am on the road. Favourite country: Italy. Have been there numerous times since I was a teenager and have still only seen a fraction of what it has to offer.
6.I am absolutely useless at DIY. Contrary to what the Blonde has to say: I CAN put a nail into the wall. But that's about as far as it goes.
7.Don't mind spiders, mice, snakes or other creepy crawlies, but absolutely hatehateHATE jelly fish.

As for nominating another 7 Bloggers. That's a tough one. There are so many good blogs out there, but I'll go with the following (in alphabetical order):

1.Divine Exploitation
2.Final Girl
4.The Groovy Age of Horror
5.I'm In A Jess Franco State of Mind
6.Marisa Mell
7.Tomb It May Concern

Thanks again for this award, Rhonny. Looking forward to a good year here at Hammer and Beyond. I will very soon be able to announce my first regular guest writer. So stay tuned.