Friday, September 23, 2011

Pirates of Blood River (German Film Program)

Scans of the Illustrierte Film-Bühne #6165, dedicated to The Pirates of Blood River (aka Piraten vom Todesfluss). This is a 4-page film program providing a lengthy synopsis amid the credits and a collage of crucial scenes. Scan 1 and 4 are effectively the front and back page, 2 and 3 are the interior pages and should ideally be held next to each other. As is, the text is unfortunately disrupted.

Alas, none of the images can even attempt to properly portray the truly awful faux French accents used by most of the actors (including Christopher Lee).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bruce G. Hallenbeck: Hammer Fantasy & Sci-Fi

Bruce G. Hallenbeck and Hemlock Books have done it again. Following their first publication (The Hammer Vampire: Read my review, buy the book, do it now!) the two have teamed up again and this time focused on Hammer Fantasy & Sci-Fi.

And just like the previous book this one's a keeper.

For starters: This is the first full length work dedicated to the Hammer Fantasy and Sci-Fi movies. As much as I have enjoyed most of the Hammer books that have come out in the last couple of years, most have covered well trodden grounds and either focus on general Hammer history or more particularly on their Gothic heritage. It's significant that a lot of the last few books about Hammer were very much visual treats. I love a coffee table book just like the next fan but the recent glut of those is symptomatic for the fact that, well, there really is only so much that can be said about them. Very soon we are going to have a situation similar to the Universal industry where writers have to depend on dragging out Dwight Frye's next-door neighbor's second cousin's grandson to come up with anything remotely new.

With Hammer we're luckily not quite there yet and some parts of their filmography are still relative Terra Incognita... or should I say Uncharted Seas? Their Sci-Fi and Fantasy output e.g. was only ever covered in a few articles here or there and even then primarily focused on some of the films individually but was never deemed sufficiently interesting enough to warrant a proper book.

Until now.

Hammer Fantasy & Sci-Fi is also a beauty to look at. Starting with one of the most stunning looking Hammer book covers I have ever seen it then follows the format of the previous work. It's richly illustrated mainly in black and white but also carries a coloured 8-page section in the middle.

So it's got a relatively unexplored subject matter. It's gorgeous to look at. But is it a good read?

And yes, this was a rhetorical question.

By now we already know that Hallenbeck is one of a handful of Hammer's most important historians. And he certainly hasn't started losing his mojo with this tome.

This is not just a film by film analysis. This is a proper history of those movies. Hallenbeck is not just contend to review the individual movies but also properly places them in a general Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Hammer movie timeline to depict what prior influences resulted in their productions and how they in turn influenced the next films down the line.

As such he bookends the Hammer chapters with a short history of Science Fantasy before and after. For the early years he even manages to draw attention to some films I had never even previously heard of (Verdens Undergang, Just Imagine). In the later chapter he highlights the similarities between James Cameron's Avatar and Hammer's Slave Girls making me for the first time wanting to see it. Avatar that is, not Slave Girls which I have already seen and enjoyed. And raises the possibility again that maybe, just maybe, New Hammer may eventually decide to tackle Quatermass one more time.

At first glance the films discussed in this book of course appear far more disjointed than, say, the Hammer vampire films reviewed in the first oeuvre. Needless to say Hammer's Science Fiction movies predated their Gothic Horrors and Hallenbeck does a great job in establishing a proper historical context for those.

He identifies the Dick Barton movies as the earliest examples of Sci Fi influence with Hammer. These were clearly part of their radio adaptations and quota quickies which led to them being involved with Robert Lippert, primarily in a series of Hammer Noirs though films such as Stolen Face also already displayed more overt Science Fiction elements. TV soon overturned radio as the prime source for entertainment, so Hammer continued the previously established trend to adapt the new medium's stories (The Quatermass Xperiment) which in turn eventually led to Hammer's more famous coloured Gothics. From then....

Ah, who am I fooling? It's all in the book and Hallenbeck narrates the history of events far better and way more in depth than I could ever do.

When it comes to reviews Hallenbeck is no undiscerning fanboy but he is able to see the beauty and fun in films that have often been unfairly relegated to the sidelines: Moon Zero Two, Slave Girls, The Lost Continent et al all get their fair due. When a turd is a turd he lets you know but in all cases he gives a very fair and always highly enjoyable evaluation of the film's merits and also includes references to Sci-Fi elements in their Journey to the Unknown, a TV show I have yet to continue covering to my shame.

Martine Beswicke provides the foreword and dispells the myth that she was one of the dancers in the Dr. No credit sequence, a myth that I was only too happy to embrace when I first came across it and probably did my fair share over the years to distribute further on. At last we can now lay this one to rest.

Denis Meikle is co-author of Chapter 3.

Hammer Fantasy & Sci-Fi is available through Amazon but I'll be damned if I give you that link as the best offers are directly from Hemlock where right now you can order this as well as The Hammer Vampire (in a new cover: Thanks for listening) for just £26.95.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The ten Hammer films I’m most ashamed never to have seen (not including “Straight On Till Morning”)

In preparation for a forthcoming post on my blog The Dennis Wheatley Project, I watched The Lost Continent for the first time the other night.
I’d owned a copy of it for ages, but I’d been saving it until after I’d read Uncharted Seas, the Dennis Wheatley novel it’s based on. (I’m reading all Wheatley’s novels in order. Don’t ask. It’s a long story.)
As usual when I catch up with a Hammer film I’ve never seen before, I enjoyed every second of it, and was struck again by the fact that there’s just something... some weird, indefinable alchemical something... about Hammer films - all Hammer films - that perfectly suits my cinematic metabolism.

I can see that their best films are their best films, but even the ones that inspire nothing but complete disdain from even sympathetic reviewers – like this one – invariably give me nothing but pleasure.
From the first time I saw Lust For a Vampire I knew that it was a film I would be periodically watching again and again for the rest of my life. Dracula AD 1972 gets better every time I see it. I got The Vengeance of She as part of a box set and didn’t get round to it for over a year, so persuaded was I by its reputation as perhaps the worst of all the major Hammer movies - and when I finally gave it a chance I loved it from the first frame to the last. My most recent viewing was my fourth and it won’t be the last.

The vast majority of the Hammer films I’ve seen, and all the most famous and important ones, I saw between the ages of ten and eighteen, in a lucky, happy time when they seemed hardly ever absent from British tv, on BBC2 on Saturday nights, and ITV in the week.
Heady days they were, and I was able to indulge so regularly and with such repeated pleasure that it’s only comparatively recently that its occurred to me that there are gaps still to plug here. In the last couple of years I've tracked down - and adored - those last few major stragglers, like Captain Clegg, most of those black and white Jimmy Sangsters, and, best of all, The Mummy's Shroud. (Even the fact that those fabulous stills of the mummy looming up behind a négligée-clad Maggie Kimberly turned out to be another case of the Susan Denbergs didn't spoil it for me.)

There remain, however, just a few significant chapters in the Hammer saga that still remain just titles and stills to me.
Here are ten of the most notable – accompanied by my pledge to catch up with all of them over the next year.
Anyone got a copy of The Old Dark House?

1. X- The Unknown
2. The Abominable Snowman
I’ve seen the two black and white Quatermasses, but never did get round to these remaining black and white proto-Hammer horrors, the first written by Sangster in Nigel Kneale mode, the second by Kneale himself and with Peter Cushing in the cast. No excuse, no excuse. I always thought it would have been interesting if Hammer had retained Nigel Kneale as a regular screenwriter and just let him do whatever he wanted: his obviously more cerebral approach would have made for an interesting counterpoint to Sangster and Hinds. I can't see Sir James giving him a free hand, though. Incidentally, my former day job brought me into contact with Judith Kerr, Kneale’s widow, last year, and necessitated me visiting her at their daughter's house - which has the largest tank of tropical fish I’ve ever seen. It all seemed very Quatermass, somehow.

3. Shadow of the Cat
Bit of an interloper this. Nowadays, the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-true-Hammer-Horror battle is over, and the verdict is yes. But I got into Hammer at a time when nobody had even heard of it, and I lived through those bitter years when the pro- and anti- forces besieged each other. I sided instinctively with the nays, for some reason, despite my love of Barbara and André, and I’ve never really accepted it into the family, certainly not in the blasé way in which it now turns up in all the lists, without even a comment to indicate its mongrel status. But still, there’s no excuse for not ever having seen it.

4. The Damned
I’m beginning to notice a running theme so far: I’ve missed most of the black and white ones.
I’m sure it’s a coincidence (and in any event we’re switching to colour from this point on) but it’s certainly true that colour is, to me, one of the defining features of Hammer. Another is a certain traditional kind of ambiance, even in modern-setting productions. This, I’ll wager lacks the latter every bit as much as the former, and in truth I’m really not in any great hurry to catch up with this. For my money Joseph Losey, like Alan Parker, is one of those names that practically guarantees an infuriating time.

5. Terror of the Tongs
This looks like great fun, rather more so I should think than Stranglers of Bombay, a(nother) black and whiter with which it is invariably if mysteriously paired. Christopher Lee in Fu Manchu rehearsal, the docks of Peking recreated at Bray and the famous bone scraping scene... and all I can do is imagine it.
The same goes for The Scarlet Blade, and for The Devil Ship Pirates, and for...

6. Pirates of Blood River
I’m sure I'd love them all, but Pirates just edges ahead in my wish list because of its rare casting of two of my minor Hammer glamour favourites: Baskerville minx Marla Landi, whose uniquely mangled dialogue is a delight in that movie and I'm sure will be again here, and the incredible Marie Devereux, for whom no justifying comment is necessary.

7. She
8. Slave Girls
There are a few reasons why I really should get around to seeing this. It’s a key Hammer movie, of course, along with One Million Years BC (the closest I've got to a Hammer film I couldn't get all the way through) one of the anomalous smash successes among the studio's sandy adventure films that convinced them there was potential in the subgenre. A score of flops later they were still trying. But this one features both Lee and Cushing – which actually is a rarer event than you might have thought at Hammer – and I have, let’s not forget, seen The Vengeance of She four times, so it feels somewhat perverse to have never watched this.
And Slave Girls just looks like good fun, with Martine Beswick in a scandalously rare swaggering lead, the potential of which just pushes the film ahead of The Viking Queen and Creatures the World Forgot in my ten.

9. The Old Dark House
Can this really be as bad as they all say? Surely not.
I doubt it’s a patch on the 1932 original – few films are – but then, it doesn’t sound like it’s all that similar either. The prospect of William Castle working for Hammer is one to savour, and so is this cast: Janette Scott, Fenella Fielding, Peter Bull, Robert Morley, Joyce Grenfell...
I’m willing to bet that this is a little gem in hiding, desperately long overdue sympathetic re-evaluation. I can't even guess what it's really like. But will we ever get the chance to see it?

10. The Anniversary
I like The Nanny; love Bette Davis… So how come I’ve never made the effort to see this? Search me. Anyway, I promised to limit this list to ten, which means, as predicted, there’s no room for Straight On Till Morning.

What are the most glaring gaps in your circle of Hammer film acquaintances?