Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Marcus Hearn: The Art of Hammer

It looks like a busy year for Hammer related books. Marcus Hearn's new book The Art of Hammer: Posters from the Archive of Hammer Films is due out on October 22. It promises to be a visual feast and can be pre-ordered through Amazon.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bruce G Hallenbeck: The Hammer Vampire

Finished reading the book earlier this month so might as well come up with a short review as promised....

For regular subscribers of Little Shoppe of Horrors the name Bruce G Hallenbeck over the last couple of decades has been a guarantee for first class genre research and he has easily established himself as one of a handful of leading Hammer Historians worldwide. Though Dick Klemensen is quite clearly the creative brain behind the venture, it is writers such as Hallenbeck who ensured that LSoH has been continuously available since the 1970s.

The Hammer Vampire represents the first time that Bruce dedicates an entire book to an aspect of Hammer history. Right from the start it is very apparent that this is not anything he put together over the course of just a few weeks or even months. This is the work of a lifetime. Even the acknowledgments include the likes of Ralph Bates who already passed away nearly two decades ago.

The book takes a very in-depth look at all sixteen Hammer Vampire movies: the Dracula and Karnstein series as well as the individual entries such as Kiss of the Vampire or Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. When discussing those movies Bruce is able to rely on his extensive interviews with all key Hammer staff to provide fascinating insights into the making of these films before subsequently reviewing those productions and their initial reception.

The book is richly illustrated and though I still don't like its cover (and never will) the inside pages are an absolute beauty. Tons of often rare black & white as well as colour photos adorn the entire oeuvre. Open the book at random and admire the visual treats on display. The pictures I took of some of the pages will not do the book justice but should give you an overall idea.

Mention Hammer to a general movie fan and the first thing they will come up with is Dracula. The Dracula movies (and to a lesser degree all its other vampire flicks) have been the cornerstone of the company during most of its heyday and are still remembered most fondly. As such these are the films that have already been most extensively written about before and it often appears that nothing much new could be said that hadn't been said before. Yet this is the genius of Hallenbeck's approach that he even finds new nuggets in the most unlikely places. His analysis of Carol Marsh's child-like performance mixing her coming-of-age and of-sexuality is very succinct and had me tempted to view the film again for the umpteenth time.

One common thread in this book is that every new Dracula production emphasised a new approach at how Hammer and its artists took a look at society. This is of course more than just painfully obvious in the likes of Taste the Blood of Dracula (outwardly respectable members of society visiting brothels to fulfill their decadent needs) or Dracula A.D. 1972 (a fun picture telling us a lot about how the older Hammer guard *believed* that the younger generation was living it out in Swinging London). I don't, however, recall anyone before making a such a concentrated attempt to highlight all the different takes each of their Dracula movies had on looking at society and at the way religious symbolism was handled in them.

While discussing all the vampire movies, Hallenbeck also puts these into a wider context and focuses on other similiar genre entries both from the UK and abroad and thereby charts the way Hammer gradually lost its hold over the fans and from a market leader slid into the role of a market follower.

All in all this was a fabulous read that I would recommend to anyone reading this blog. Longtime readers of LsoH may occasionally get a sense of Deja Vu as some of the material is also quoted in this book but you can't really blame a writer for referencing himself and it is nice to see the material all packaged together in one big bundle.

The book was published by Hemlock Books and though it is available through Amazon you may get it faster by ordering directly with them. In actual fact (commission be damned) I am not even going to include an Amazon link for this review as Amazon US lists this as being available for $83 from a private seller (the letters WTF were invented for this kind of deal) and Amazon UK has the regular rates but order times of 1-2 months.

The first print run had sold out quickly and new copies have now been made available. Later on this year the same team will also publish a similar book dedicated to Hammer's Sci Fi and Fantasy movies. Given that this is an area that hasn't been covered as extensively yet this could be even better than the current volume.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Stunningly Savage's Hammer inspired artwork

Do yourself a favour, folks, and wander over to the Stunningly Savage website and marvel at the tremendous artwork dedicated to Hammer. The main gallery is this one, though this one here also has some awesome art for Hammer Fans. A word of warning: Some of these may not be quite work safe.

Most of them are available for sale as prints so if you ever feel like showing your appreciation to this humble blogger, you know what to do.

'Nuff said.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My Top Ten Tuesday!

My 'Top Ten Tuesday' pick of my ten favourite Hammer films has gone live over at Watching Hammer - thanks again to that excellent site for allowing me to indulge two of my keenest pleasures at the same time: numerical list-making and waffling about Hammer.

The only trouble with the list is that just looking at it fills me with guilt over the ones I had to leave behind: The Mummy, Vampire Circus, Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hands of the Ripper, The Lady Vanishes, Taste of Fear, Plague of the Zombies, The Mummy's Shroud, Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Reptile... in fact just about all of them, up to and most definitely including The Vengeance of She.

But I think I've picked a pretty solid ten. Do please feel free to violently disagree with me!
.(Matthew Coniam)

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Whistler Movies – Operation: 101010

So it looks like I have managed to finish another one of my Operation: 101010 categories as I have watched the entire series of Whistler movies over the last few weeks:

The Whistler
The Mark of the Whistler
The Power of the Whistler
Voice of the Whistler
Mysterious Intruder
The Secret of the Whistler
The Thirteenth Hour
The Return of the Whistler

Eagle eyed readers of my blog will notice two things:

First of all, yes, this is a new category. I had previously not chosen these movies as contenders for the Operation: 101010 as I wasn't aware at the start of the year that I would watch them all or even that I would finally be able to get a hold of anyone of those productions. As such I am dropping my Mario Bava challenge and replace it with these films.

See, the original Whistler movie from 1944 was always one of my absolute favourite  films. I first watched it in the early 1980s on German television. Usually movies there are always dubbed but in this case they showed the flick in English with German subs. Which meant that this was one of the very first shows that I was able to practice my school English on. That alone was a fab experience for a young movie/language buff.

But the film itself also had me hooked outside of the language challenge. At first glance this is nothing much more than yet another take on Jules Verne's TRIBULATIONS OF A CHINAMAN IN CHINA: Man hires his own killer, then comes across news that'll make him want to live again but can't seem to be able to cancel his contract. Hammer itself had also once covered this ground with Paid to Kill/Five Days, yet another unofficial Verne adaptation.

For me The Whistler was the first time I remember coming across this premise and it had me hooked for the novelty factor alone then as I really liked the moral conundrum posed by this scenario shrouded in the mood of a classic bargain basement Film Noir.

Even more importantly I really liked the persona of the actual Whistler, a mysterious figure of the night who we only ever see as a shadow on the wall and who acts as the omniscient narrator of the movie. In this first entry of what was ultimately going to become a series, the character also acts somewhat as a convenient Deus ex Machina as his idiosyncratic whistling tune approaching the scene of a crime is also indirectly responsible for events taking a slight turn one way or the other.

The character of the Whistler was based on the eponymous classic radio series that ran from 1942 to 1955. These moody half hour mystery shows always ended in a (sometimes-not-so) surprise twist and always started off with The Whistler's immortal words:

“I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes ... I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.”

The movies weren't really all that focused on surprise twists but instead relayed good basic Noir plot standards. From the second film on The Whistler (and more in line with the radio show) also exclusively became a narrator again and was never again responsible for turning things around with his sudden appearances.

What set those films apart is that with the exception of the last one they all starred Richard Dix, however, never in the same role twice. Sometimes a villain, sometimes a victim, he graced 7 of the 8 films with his solid performances and deep, melifluous voice.

The reason these films succeeded despite the fact that they had been very cheaply produced is that they had such reliable talent in front of and behind the camera. Half of the films were directed by a pre-gimmick William Castle in some of his first outings. Two of those (The Mark of the Whistler, Return of the Whistler) also were based on stories written by Roman Noir ace Cornell Woolrich.

So needless to say: Did those films hold up well?

Hell yeah!

Apart from the first film I had also seen one or two of the others as well before (though couldn't quite tell you which ones they were). So when I finally had a chance to revisit these as well as the remaining films of the series I jumped at it though with a slight dread as to whether my memory may have been playing tricks with me. Nothing worse than rediscovering a teenage classic that would have better been left alone as a rose tinted memento in one's personal memory box.

Not so with this series. I cherished every single moment of every single one of those hour long features. Even the last one without Dix had not suffered from that dreaded serial malaise but instead had one of the series' most outstanding plots courtesy of Cornell Woolrich's original Noir story.

In case I haven't made myself entirely clear but this is by far the best classic film series you likely never heard of before and a prime contender for a classic in most urgent need of a DVD release. I understand that in the US some (though not all) of these movies may show up every once in a while on TCM. If they do, then do yourself a favour and set the timer the next time this may be on.

I mentioned at the start of this post that you may notice two things about this Operation: 101010 entry and the second aspect is that the Whistler series of course only contains eight movies, not ten as generally required for this challenge. To this I have a choice of the following responses:

My challenge. My rules. Live with it.

Alternatively - and to be a bit less confrontational - I may highlight that I have also listened to a couple of the original Whistler radio shows since the start of this year. They are available on, but I also have them stored on numerous CDs from way back when I first came across them. So if I extend the challenge to an overall Whistler challenge on film and radio, I could easily close the gap.

And as a last possibility to show you I wasn't slacking I could also highlight that I have watched two Mario Bava movies for my previous (now dropped) challenge and could of course also just add them:

Roy Colt & Winchester Jack
The Road to Fort Alamo

Yes, two Bava Westerns. Say what you want but if there is one thing Bava is not, it is a Western director. Both productions verged between the utterly ridiculous (Roy Colt and Winchester Jack) and the utterly Meh. Certainly not two of his master works.

Either way, pop the cork. Another category down, eight more to go. Will I make all ten categories until the end of this year? Only time will tell.

Oh, and do yourself a favour and drop by this website dedicated to Richard Dix with a wonderful collection of Whistlerana.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Words fail me

Based on the comments on YouTube this is not really Christopher Lee but pretty damn accurate. And so hilarious that it's actually quite disturbing.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Danger List (1959)

I just received a spare copy of Hammer's Stolen Face today and was going to give it away as I already have the movie as part of the Hammer Noir boxset. To my surprise, however, I discovered that this single disc Region 2 release contains not only a 24-page booklet with stills and information about the film written by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby but also a Hammer short movie Danger List with Honor Blackman that I was previously not familiar with and that both were not included in the Region 1 boxset version of the movie (which on the other hand contained introductory comments by Richard M Roberts). Needless to say I decided there and then that this DVD would stay in my possession.

Danger List is a 22 minute short movie directed by Leslie Arliss in his one and only Hammer movie connection. Blackman plays a doctor who discovers that one of her assistants under the influence of a vicious “mee-graine” accidentally dispensed a lethal medicine to three of her patients. In a race against time Blackman and her colleague (played by Philip Friend) need to locate all three patients before they can take the medicine.

I wish I could say that this was a lost masterpiece but the best I can offer is that this was professionally shot and didn't overstay its welcome during its short running time.

Ultimately, however, none of it really makes all that much sense. The film is all over the place with plot holes galore and also can't quite seem to make up its mind where it wants to go to. Scenes of suspense (an old man stoically refusing to pick up his phone) are followed by attempts at very poor humour (a young child gets her stomach pumped and handed over to her mother by the altogether far too cheerful doctors, yet she never took the pills and had them in her hands all along but could never make herself heard) which in turn are followed by a twist ending that is both quite foreseeable as well as badly executed leaving you with a very awkward taste in your mouth as to what the ultimate message of this production was meant to be. It sure doesn't end up qualifying as a feel good movie.

None of that, however, matters. What does matter is that one of Hammer's rare shorts has now been made available to the Hammer-Fan-who-has-all. If there is one aspect of the company's history that so far is underreported it is its history of shorts. Very few of them have been made available. Some of them appear lost. Others may not have even been listed as Hammer productions. So anytime I get a rare opportunity to explore this aspect of Hammer's productions I am game regardless of the overall quality of the production.

I did quite enjoy the scenes set in a cinema with promotional stills of Gordon Jackson and John Agar clearly to be seen on the walls. Its posters also seem to advertise Checkpoint, a Rank movie. Quite surprising given that Hammer could have possibly pulled a plug for one of their own movies.

Phil Leakey provided Make up. And it sure was nice to see Honor Blackman given that up till today I only ever thought of her as a Hammer actress in two other films (The Glass Cage, To the Devil a Daughter).