Showing posts with label Andre Morrel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Andre Morrel. Show all posts

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.

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?