Thursday, March 15, 2012

What am I bid for Hazel Court's nude scene?

When I first saw the original Karloff Frankenstein, on British television in 1983, it was still missing the famous sequence in which the Monster innocently throws the little girl into the lake, expecting her to float.
The notorious cut from his moving towards her to her father carrying her sodden body through the streets, vastly more unpleasant in its implications, was still unaltered, and there was little realistic expectation of the lost footage ever being restored.
When it did turn up not long after I can still remember the excitement, but now that it’s the official version and no longer surprising, I feel perversely privileged to think that I was around to see the film when it was still missing.

These sort of thoughts are foremost in my mind because of the recent announcement that Hammer is mounting a search for missing footage, and has highlighted the quest with a Top 6 hit list of dream snips.
There is a difference, though. While the Frankenstein footage was a major chunk of the movie, the absence of which disrupted the narrative and left the film genuinely incomplete, what Hammer are looking for are for the most part merely trims, a second here and there of gore which crossed the censorial line in the fifties and sixties, and wouldn’t any more.
But it’s the very fact that such moments as the head-in-acid-bath scene from Curse of Frankenstein, identified as the number one dream restoration, are no longer shocking enough to be excluded that makes their restoration an academic exercise at best. The film is not robbed by its not being there, and surely, after the first few frissons of unfamiliarity for those of us who have already seen the film a billion times, it won’t be enhanced by its being back either.
There’s something a bit defensive about the exercise, as if the studio is saying to young, modern audiences: if you think Hammer has a reputation for tameness, that’s not our fault, and just wait until we start splicing all the juicy stuff back in…
But an eyeball here and a cut throat there won’t make any difference to the story construction – which is what really dates the films – nor will it make the films any more shocking or thrilling or scary. For the first few watches the film will seem overbalanced by the new shots, in that they will command a share of the attention paid to the film overall that they were never intended to do when shot, then eventually we’ll get used to them and they’ll fade back into the woodwork again. It’s an interesting exercise for people like me and probably you, but that, surely, is about as far as it goes.

That said, the studio’s six most wanted list does make interesting reading.
There are a few surprises. No mention of Dracula’s full death scene from the ’58 original, complete with blistering face and extended shots of his crumbling hands, nor that odd shot that crops up in stills of Harker’s corrupted body after his staking. (Of course, this may have been omitted because it makes no sense: Valerie Gaunt’s body becomes that of an old hag because that’s how old she’d really be: there’s no more reason for Harker to deteriorate in this way than Lucy.)

In the absence of the above, the continued fascination with the acid bath shots from Curse of Frankenstein is intriguing, especially since they have been at least partially restored now: the version currently available on DVD has shots that were still missing when I first saw the film in 1984, notably of the lowering of the head into the tank (covered at the time by a meaningless cutaway to Robert Urquhart looking stern, spliced in from earlier in the scene.)
On the other hand, what is this “eyeball” shot they’re looking for? Surely not the close-up of the eyeball through a magnifying glass? Yes, it’s excised in the Warners TV print that still serves as primary source for reissues, but it was present and correct in the version I saw on television in Christmas ‘84. Not missing at all, just absent sometimes.

The only other inclusion in the list that I predicted would be there is the tongue scene from The Mummy. Ever since I was a boy, long before I’d seen the movie, I had been fascinated by the ‘before, during and after’ shots in Alan Frank’s book Horror Movies, and especially by the look of genuine revulsion on the face of the slave looking at the flaccid tongue in the third image. It was weirdly shocking to catch up with the film and discover these shots were not there. (The same goes for another on the list: the broken bottle stabbing from Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, reproduced over two full pages in Frank’s later book Horror Films.)

But the other Mummy trim, what the studio charmingly calls the “underdressed maidens”, is of an altogether different order.
I had always thought that this was not a cut, so much as an alternative take prepared for more liberal foreign markets, and so the question is raised: just what is the definitive, authentic version of a Hammer film? I would have said it was the version prepared for the home territories, perhaps with a bit of censor-fiddling undone if you really feel the need. The idea of adding extra sensationalism, however, via the insertion of footage that was never intended to be seen in Britain, might be thought to cross the line between legitimate restoration and artistic interference, like adding new CGI effects, especially since including the underdressed maidens would entail not merely adding footage to the film but removing some as well to make room for it.
I suspect that for many behind this project, the definitive version of any Hammer movie is going to be the one with as much tits and blood as possible, regardless of how, when or why such footage was shot. (And if the underdressed maidens do make the list, despite this reservation, surely it should have included the holy grail of Hammer alt-edits: Hazel Court’s nude scene from The Man Who Could Cheat Death?)

Intriguing too to see the studio’s admission that they did not keep the trims in their film library. No reason why they should, but it reminds us that they have a film library, and raises the much more interesting question of what they do have there.
I’ve often been struck, despite the massive cult interest in Hammer films, by how little has ever been seen by way of rare or behind the scenes footage. Call me an old fogey if you will, but I’m personally much more interested in the talk here of how “the original UK title sequence has been reinstated on Plague of The Zombies” – the first I’ve heard of such a thing – than in the prospect of seeing a few extra drops of blood on Christopher Lee’s cape.
If I were asked to compile my own personal dream list of missing Hammer footage, it would be things like test shots, outtakes, and whole scenes cut for time rather than taste.
So what else is still loitering in the archives?
Did they really junk the Peter Cushing sequences from Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb? Are there no pre-dub soundtracks with Ingrid Pitt and Susan Denberg and Mike Raven using their real voices? Interesting though it may be to compare the existing and an “extended, more explicit version” of The Viking Queen, I’d rather go looking for one of the original edits of To The Devil a Daughter, before they ruined the ending: it might even be enough to turn it into a classic.
As for my number one choice of all, it just has to be that legendary, perhaps even apocryphal, test sequence for The Hound of the Baskervilles, with an ordinary-sized dog on a scaled-down set, grappling with children dressed as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson...

POSTSCRIPT: As this page makes clear, as the BBC news report does not, the films on the list are those selected to undergo the first wave of restoration, with more to follow, so the top six missing moments refer to these films only, not the entirety of Hammer's output.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: As Holger notes in the comments, the reason why the search for the Dracula finale is not top priority is because they actually found it last year.
Just testing, just testing...


Holger Haase said...

Great article again, Matthew.

Reason why the Dracula scene has not been mentioned is probably because it no longer is missing and was instead discovered by Simon Rowson in Japan about a year ago. Check this out:

In actual fact I wouldn't be surprised if that find wasn't the spark that lit the new missing footage search...err, light. (Pheew, needed to bring the spark analogy to some kind of proper conclusion.)

Holger Haase said...

And you already got yourself a nice little write up:

Matthew Coniam said...

"Reason why the Dracula scene has not been mentioned is probably because it no longer is missing and was instead discovered by Simon Rowson in Japan about a year ago..."

Ah, well that would explain that then.
Sorry, I'm always last to find out these things.
Like when I said I doubted I would ever get to see The Old Dark House and it was waiting for me on YouTube all the time.

So there we are: my dilemma becomes real.
I really, really want to see this lost footage, but I'm not certain I want it to become the 'official' version of the film for evermore.
I loved it when that longer version of The Ghoul showed up on video, and treat that as the standard edition now, but there's something a bit more sacred about Dracula...
Or am I just being silly?
I honestly don't know.

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