Friday, March 23, 2012

Taking the New Hammer plunge

Calling yourself ‘Hammer Films’ can work for you and it can work against you.
On the one hand it gets you and your films more attention from the first than any other fledgling independent film company could dream of – would you have even heard of Beyond The Rave otherwise? – while on the other it automatically creates a weight of expectation that is almost impossible to honour.
Some will want you to succeed whatever, just because of the name. Others, probably more, will want you to fail whatever, for the same reason.

Then there are those who’ll say, simply, what’s the point?
You can call yourself what you like, but it won’t result in any kind of instant metamorphosis. It’s interesting that there is an Ealing Films currently trading too, but oddly subjected to neither the same scrutiny nor the same challenging response to its product. There is a protective passion for Hammer out there that is almost impossible to please. Stray too far from the classic template and they’ll call you senselessly revisionist, pastiche it too accurately and they’ll call you hopelessly dated.

I suppose if I belonged in any of the categories above it was the ‘what’s the point?’ one, though as a certain devotee of Hammer House of Horror I had no inflexible objection to the name’s revival, and on the whole I liked the idea. But I wasn’t all that excited about the films themselves. I managed about two minutes of Beyond the Rave (I gather that’s a world record) and a heroic fifteen or so of Wake Wood (which it turns out isn’t really a Hammer film at all).
But The Resident I enjoyed, because it worked efficiently within its remit, and obviously because it brought Christopher Lee back. The New York setting was a touch provocative (though it shouldn’t be forgotten that the original Hammer psycho-thrillers it referenced were by no means predominantly English-set), and however much a casting coup Hilary Swank may have been, they should have known that you really need a dolly bird for woman-in-jeopardy roles.

Still, I liked it overall, but much more importantly, I found when that red Hammer logo flashed across the screen that I did care after all, and I do like seeing the name up there again.
So that’s why I went to see The Woman In Black last night in a well- rather than ill-disposed mood.
Better yet, I came out the same way.
It’s a film that has done the seemingly impossible: justified the use of the Hammer name, honoured the traditions of the studio’s past, evoked much of its style, and at the same time managed to appeal to a broad, modern audience that have no interest in, or perhaps even awareness of, the original films. As a film it’s good, as a juggling act it’s amazing.

There have been some tellingly dogmatic objections, of the sort to which even as hopelessly romantic a reactionary as I can raise only a weary ‘so what?’ in response: the original Hammer never made a supernatural ghost story; they cut the film to get a 12 certificate; Daniel Radcliffe is too young; George Woodbridge isn’t in it. (Okay, I made the last one up, but you get the idea.)
These are a priori obstacles, the kind of thing no amount of competence in the actual product can circumnavigate.
I can’t think of any defining reason why they wouldn’t have made a ghost story back at Bray; and they certainly had a long and fascinating history of cutting their films to match a certificate (including an A certificate once in a while). Curse of Frankenstein is a 12 these days too, and all I can say is that if I had seen Woman in Black at twelve years of age I’d still be talking about its seminal influence on me now (the way I do about The Ghoul). You won’t go short on scares, believe me. You will go short on people being lashed to chairs in basements and tortured with garden tools, but then that’s not what you came for, is it?

There are the expected anachronisms of course, of the sort which no modern film set in the past could now be expected to avoid, annoying though they are all the same: designer stubble, men walking about in the rain without hats, characters suggesting they “get the hell out” of places, and ugly modern metaphor-speak (Radcliffe’s boss urges greater commitment from his employee on the grounds that they “don’t carry passengers”).

And Wizard Boy is too young; there’s no point pretending he isn’t. But neither would it be right not to add that, given that initial handicap, he delivers a truly excellent performance that does everything possible to make you forget, or at least excuse, his fundamental unsuitability for the role. His commitment and intensity cannot be faulted – his facial acting alone has to carry a good fifty percent of the film – and if he never quite convinces us he’s a widowed lawyer with a four year old son, well… Julie Ege wasn’t my mind’s idea of an Edwardian feminist adventuress. Can’t say that worried me unduly either.
These are precisely the kind of eccentricities that Hammer must be allowed.
The rest of the film? Well, it’s not especially original and it’s not especially ambitious, so hyperbole would sit ill on its frail shoulders. But in terms of the limits it sets for itself, it’s really hard to find anything wrong with it at all. Almost everything works a treat.

Even rendered in tacky digital format, the art direction is astounding, the photography is rich, the locations are beautifully atmospheric. Did you not dream of seeing a Hammer character making his way up and down a baroque staircase left of frame again? Dream no more!
At least two of the big scare moments work better than anything comparable in any of the similar films to which this has been compared, and the lingering sense of dread that strings them together is better yet. There’s even a slightly sappy ending that, a meaningless close on the Woman in Black’s face notwithstanding, honours the original Hammer’s commitment to ultimately restored order, even to restored order within a framework of Christian dogmatics.

I liked the casting, too, which seemed to me chosen by the classic Hammer method: an attention-catcher in front, sturdy support from traditional talent (Ciaran Hinds is splendid) and a fine third-row of well-chosen rhubarbers (David Burke, probably tv’s best ever Dr Watson, gets a line or two as the village bobby; Victor McGuire gets one as an anguished father).
It’s good to see them, and they have the feel of a new Hammer repertory. If any of them showed up again in the next one it would be wonderful. (As my compadre Mark notes in his review of the film here, it would be good if they used Radcliffe again too, perhaps in a more villainous capacity, playing his easy good looks against expectation in the Shane Briant manner.)
It is in such matters as these that the true Hammer flavour can most usefully be recalled. What the studio really needs is an overarching identity that links its new films to each other, rather than something that links any of them to the past.


Mark said...

Yeah you've watched it!

And at last, someone else who agrees David Burke was the best Watson :)

I now also feel better I only lasted 40 mins of the dire Wake Wood (great cast, rotten production) and have never seen Beyond The Rave (perhaps it will be a Dracula AD 1972 for kitsch naff value in yrs to come. Or perhaps it wont) but I wasn't as pleased with The Resident as you were. But I'm glad to see we're both on the same page re The Woman In Black :)

Ashley Shannon said...

Great article, I think there also were a lot of crappy films that exploited Hammer's success back in the 60s, Straight on til Morning is one I recently watched.

Like you I was bored by Wake Wood but enjoyed The Resident, I notice nobody's mentioning Let Me In. Perhaps you don't class it as an offical Hammer production but I really loved that film and still think it's the best thing they've done since rebooting the studio.

That's not to say that The Woman In Black isn't awesome. Would really appreciate some feedback on my own Review of the movie,

Cheers guys

Mark said...

Ashley hi, for me personally Let Me In remains unwatched; I saw and loved the Swedish original that I simply don't care about the English language remake even if though it went under the Hammer banner.
I actually loved Straight On Til Morning though, a bold step in a new direction for that era away from the usual vampire tales that were frankly, pun intended or no, bleeding the studio dry at that stage.

Matthew Coniam said...

Me too, I'm afraid - not seen it. Or the original for that matter.

Holger Haase said...

Haha, thanks, Matthew. I am excited to see that barely a week after you said the Nude Hazel Court piece would be the last for a while, you posted another piece. Keep'em coming. ;-)

You really made me more curious about WOMAN IN BLACK than anything else I have read about it so far. I now officially missed it in the cinema but will definitely watch it when it's out for home viewing in any shape or form.

I still believe this will be a film I'll like but won't love. And given that I very *very* VERY rarely ever these days actually frequent the picture houses, it won't be unusual for me to simply wait it out until it knocks at my own doors.

As for the new Hammer summaries... They really caught me by surprise. THE RESIDENT was not bad but pretty much bog standard thriller fare. WAKE WOOD was actually quite decent and a tad more original than THE RESIDENT. And LET ME IN was imho far superior to the Swedish original (that I personally think is quite overrated)and clearly the best New Hammer has yet produced.

As for BEYOND THE RAVE: Your 2 minutes are hardly a world record. I watched the whole damn thing in its entirety when it was first released on MySpace and paid my Hammer dues entirely with this feat. I rarely ever hate films completely but this ranks as one of the worst productions ever.

Holger Haase said...

And just as prove that there was a time when I did actually produce blog posts (and was even allowed to interview Simon Oakes):

LET ME/THE RIGHT ONE IN thoughts can be found here - - and here

With BEYOND THE RAVE I had even attempted to write up each ep as it happened. Bad mistake. The collected pieces are here - - and the best blog post about it was again not written by me but taken with kind permission from another board:

Oh, and take your time to read some of the comments on the last blog post that prove that BTR actually had ardent admirers. ;-)

Matthew Coniam said...

Well I nearly missed it; saw it on the last day it played in my city. (I hardly ever go to proper big cinemas either, and this was enough of an endurance test to make the next time even less likely: every advert and every trailer separately and uniquely hateful. EVERY SINGLE FORTHCOMING MOVIE was a fanatsy film.)
Like you I expected to quite like it and not love it, and I still wouldn't say I loved it, but I was surprised at how it avoided almost all the pitfalls I was expecting.
I wouldn't, and don't think I did, make any great case for The Resident: but I thought it was good enough. Like Crescendo. And the big point was that, against my expectation, I was truly excited by the Hammer logo at the start, and suddently realised that I did care, and that I wanted them to be good and successful after all.
We agree about Beyond the Rave and I have no axe to grind with Let Me In: I've simply never see either version, for no particular reason. So our only real divergence is with Wake Wood, which I gave up on because it looked only marginally more professional than Beyond the Rave to me.

Matthew Coniam said...

And you deserve some sort of medal for sitting through BTR all the way!
So strange that it had defenders, but I suppose age is against me, in that younger audiences are more used to, and accepting of cheapo camcorder-shot stuff. I have a hard time sitting through it even if the material is worthy.
Though Christ knows, it surely wasn't on this occasion.

Holger Haase said...

Oh, it wasn't so much what you wrote about the New Hammers that caught me by surprise as the general rankings as they appear diametrically opposite to mine.

Yours was something like (from bottom to best):
LET ME IN (no intend to watch it)

Mine would be: