Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Great Plague

A guilty confession: not counting Woman In Black, the only Hammer film I've seen on the big screen until yesterday was Dracula, and that was back in the late nineties at the Barbican.
So I confess to having been immoderately excited when my local cinema announced it was showing Plague of the Zombies as part of a Tuesday night season of British classics (and Quatermass and the Pit still to come!)

I expected to thoroughly enjoy myself; what I did not expect, however, was to have my opinion of the film substantially altered in any way, simply by virtue of seeing it as nature (or at least James Carreras) intended. 
I'm too young to know any real connection between my love of cinemas, where I went to see James Bond films and the like, and classic horror movies, which I saw only on television. 
TV still feels like Hammer and Universal horror's natural home for me. I've never been overly convinced by the standard assurances that seeing a film well-known from TV screenings in a cinema is invariably a transformative event; certainly I've rarely felt that way myself. (And experience has additionally forced me to be wary of attending rep screenings of classic horror films, because of the forced oafish laughter that is for some reason felt to be the correct response by large sections of the audience.)

Nonetheless, Plague of the Zombies really did come alive in a whole new way for me, to the extent that I'm now inclined to label it a late-flowered primary masterpiece (alongside Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and - sue me - Phantom of the Opera) rather than, as I'd always had it pegged until now, an example of solid, mid-period competence.
It's not merely the intended experience of being engulfed by an imaginative world I am more accustomed to seeing self-contained and safely boxed in an otherwise rational living room. And neither is it the resultant luxury of seeing deeper into the frame than ever before, though I confess it was fun to be able to actually read the letter Andre Morell receives at the beginning, and to notice for the first time that when John Carson banishes his associates from the room after he scuppers their attempted gang rape of Diane Clare, one of them simply goes to the landing at the top of the stairs and waits there.
It really did seem a better, more compelling and, yes, scarier film yesterday than ever before, and that's no small achievement given that I knew what was around every corner. Even the ironic contingent were largely silent, unleashing their guffaws only for the admittedly amusing way in which the two drops of blood Carson manages to squeeze from Clare's finger seemed to increase in quantity each time it was transferred from one vessel to another. 
But everything else - the jumps and jolts, the suspense, the effects, and the performances (especially Morell's and Jacqueline Pearce's) worked exactly as intended in 1966.

The best scare remains the first sighting of the zombie, that inexplicably but so effectively screams as it flings Pearce's body to the ground, a moment doubly striking to me because I realised for the first time that this was Ben Aris, an actor I knew well for his appearances as suave, well-bred types in TV sitcoms. 

Of course the most famous scene remains the nightmare, in which the dead rise en masse from their graves and threaten Brook Williams, though rather less muddily and messily than I remembered, and notably bereft of the planned shots of a shuffling, decapitated Pearce holding her smiling head. (The BBFC put paid to that idea, though it may have been a case of Hammer out-imagining their special effects resources anyway.)
I've often been struck by just how untypical of the Bray boys this sequence is: I can't off-hand think of any other pre-seventies Hammer film containing anything comparable. (And it's shot in such a stylised, European kind of a way, all saturated colour and Expressionist angles. Hammer traditionally deal in prose, not poetry; the strictly empiricist approach was a large part of their distinctiveness.)
It was only watching the scene this time that I realised the reason for it's being there at all - it's to get a few zombies into the movie, thus justifying the title. Apart from Ben Aris's shock cameo there's nary a zombie in sight until the finale: only The Mummy's Shroud is less keen to fulfil the promise of its title and show us the damned monster. But it is a measure of the excellence of Plague that we don't feel the lack in anything like the same way: the suspense never flags, and the detail is consistently diverting.