Monday, May 31, 2010

New Caroline Munro interview in Autograph News UK

Today I received a copy of Issue #34 (May/June 2010) of Autograph News UK in the mail featuring a new interview with Caroline Munro. Caroline is the patron of the British Autograph Club and had spent a sunny September afternoon last year discussing her life, career and new projects with Graham Groom, the society's main guy, in London's Regents Park. (Sounds like a tough life, Graham!)

During the interview she mentions that she lost a potential part in On Her Majesty's Secret Service when she refused to take her elegant fur coat off and that she may have featured in one of the Highlander follow ups if it wasn't for her pregnancy at the time. She seems to keep all her fan mail stashed away safely and raises a few sympathetic points about the recent trend of celebs charging for their autographs. Her new movie Eldorado is due to come out in September and may quite possibly be the first one in ages to get a cinematic release. It features her as a "hard hitting" diner owner who killed her husband and also stars David Carradine in his last role.

Drop by their website for more details on how to join the Club. My understanding is that Autograph News UK also generally features a regular column by Ms Munro. 

Look what the postman brought

Just received my copy of Bruce Hallenbeck's The Hammer Vampire.

First impression: It's an absolute beauty! Choke full of gorgeous and often rare photos (nicely reproduced in both colour and black and white) this will surely prove to be a reading pleasure. It'll take me a few days to make it through and, once read, you can expect my full review here. In the meantime walk over to the Watching Hammer Blog and see what they have to write about this oeuvre.

Bruce is currently putting the finishing touches to a new book dedicated to the Hammer Fantasy and Sci Fi movies also to be published by Hemlock. If anything I look forward to that one even more as this is an area of Hammer's filmography that has rarely been written about extensively yet.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sinclair McKay: A Thing of Unspeakable Horror – A History of Hammer Films

I had this book lying around unread for far too long. After seeing the general slating this work got in the Hammer community when it first came out, I never bought the initial release and only picked it up when it became available as a relatively inexpensive paperback. Then put it aside and never looked at it again until now.

I know of at least one person who said that they gave up reading it when they discovered that they knew more about the subject at hand than its author so I was more than just a little wary of finally approaching this relatively straight forward history of Hammer horror. The author as expected does indeed focus primarily on Hammer's Gothics though he also briefly touches some of their other movies and also attempts to put them into a wider context with the British film industry at the time.

To cut to the chase: No, you're not going to discover anything new in this book that hasn't previously been written about the company. In actual fact one of the surprises is how little McKay seems to have bothered with proper research. Dick Klemensen mentioned in passing in one of his Little Shoppe of Horrors that this is the first book on Hammer in ages that doesn't even quote or mention his own magazine or others such as Dark Terrors or Wayne Kinsey's The House That Hammer Built.

Now this is not grandstanding from Dick's part, just a simple statement of fact. Over the last decade or two tons of original research has been published in those magazines and not referring to it when you are writing a history of the company is just plain idiocy.

Even worse: Though the author acknowledges a number of people who helped him write this book, the closest we come to genuine Hammer celebs on that list appear to be Francis Matthews and Kate O'Mara. Now if there is one thing that I have learnt in all my years as a Hammer Aficionado it is that both the original talent as well as the general Hammer Fandom is a very close community that is always easy to reach and as a rule available to help. Don Fearney's events e.g. have proven time and again how easy it can be to communicate with most of the still surviving artists in front of and behind the cameras, so it will remain a mystery why McKay didn't bother to simply contacting some of those for his book.

Little wonder so that the book contains a number of clonkers. To quote but a few random ones that sticked in my mind:

It is Olinka Berova, not Nelova. Just as it is John Van Eyssen, not Jonathan. An amusing anecdote of an exchange between Laurence Olivier and Flora Robson is quoted back to writer Matthew Sweet who, however, never seems to have heard of it. McKay also keeps repeating the old chestnut of more outré Continental or Japanese versions of their films regularly being shot by Hammer when the proven instances of that ever happening are actually very few and far between.

OK, so the book has about 300 pages which means that this still leaves it to be 90+% correctish if somewhat superficial and marred by constant attempts at ultimately not very funny humour by the author who also seems to have felt the need to often interject the flow of the text with hints that – I paraphrase - “more will be explained in chapter 8”.

What I found most annoying, however, was that McKay for the most part seems to view the Hammer movies as “camp” and something that is generally being laughed at when viewed these days. This is one of my pet peeves. Say what you will and feel free to dislike Hammer movies or even to find them too old fashioned or even, gulp, boring, but very few Hammer oeuvres deserve to be called camp. Moon Zero Two or The Lost Continent may come to mind as possible contenders but overall their output was just about as un-camp as can be. In actual fact after harping on a few dozen times about the camp enjoyment to be got out of Hammer movies, McKay then even does a 180-degree U-Turn and declares that “Hammer, on the whole, did not do camp” (p. 263). Hmm, methinks it's serious Make-up-your-mind-time on this aspect, Mr McKay.

If at this stage you get a feeling I may have wanted to chuck this book into the bin after reading it, you'd be wrong. If this had been the first book on Hammer I'd have adored it warts and all, but the trouble is that so much has already been published on the subject by much better Hammer historians than McKay is that he ultimately faced a losing battle with his irreverent approach. Over the next couple of months at least another three books on Hammer are scheduled to be published and my hunch is that every single one of them will be better than this Thing of Unspeakable Horror.

Those books, however, will also very likely be considerably more expensive. Hammer over the years has spawned a cottage industry of highly collectable, well written and/or wonderfully illustrated books on her history that are all aimed at the serious Hammer Collector who doesn't mind paying a bit extra for a new fix. What has been missing in the Hammer related book market is a relatively inexpensive mass market paperback aimed at cineasts who may only be marginally interested in Hammer movies in general and may not want to spend more than a tenner on a purchase.

McKay has aimed to fill that gap and it is just a pity that he didn't go just this extra bit further in his research and writing to make this a truly worthwhile addition to the genre related book shelves.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Little Shoppe of Horrors #24 now available

Little Shoppe of Horrors #24 is now out and can be ordered through their website or through Hemlock Books. The last is the best option for anyone in the UK/Europe as you'll be able to save on postage fees.

I have only begun reading the mag but by now you will of course know that any issue is mandatory reading. Dick Klemensen (and his contributors) just seem to be unable to come up with anything sub par. This issue is focusing on Hammer's Mummy movies, a series that has never received the love and attention that the Dracula and Frankenstein counterparts got.

The most exciting bit of news is that all the old LSoH are now available has reprints. Given that some of the very first ones can now raise $100+ this is a very welcome option that I will avail of in order to fill up the few remaining gaps in my collection.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Operation: 101010 – Japan and Yakuza

As much as I liked the idea of my 999 Challenge last year I had promised myself not to get involved in such a project again this year as I sucked so awfully in it. When Final Girl, however, unveiled that she is going to have a similar Operation: 101010 I decided to give it another try with the proviso that I would not necessarily be blogging about the movies (errrghh, too much work) but instead may also just be allowed to tweet about them.

Five months in I have watched a number of movies in some of my chosen areas and now finished the first complete category: 10 Japanese movies (apart from Kaiju Eiga).

So if you have followed me on Twitter you would have noticed me referencing the following Japanese productions:

Yakuza Graveyard
Street Mobster
The Yin-Yang Master
The Street Fighter
Return of the Street Fighter
The Street Fighter's Last Revenge
Cops Vs Thugs
The Hidden Fortress
Graveyard of Honour
Japan Organized Crime Boss

Some of my tweets vanished into thin air, others generated some interesting discussions. What is quite clear from this list is that I may nearly have called this category “The Kinji Fukasaku Challenge” as this director clearly predominates the list and was quite a discovery for me.

I had previously only seen a few modern Yakuza movies by Takashi Miike and now wanted to familiarise myself with the classics of which I knew pretty much nothing about. So I borrowed Yakuza Graveyard and Street Mobster not knowing that they were from one and the same guy. Being absolutely wowed over by their very unusual styles it didn't take much to figure out that they were shot by the same director.

Imagine my surprise when I then also learned that Fukasaku was also behind the likes of The Green Slime and Battle Royale, two films I have always admired. I was absolutely stunned by the fact that Battle Royale, a production that feels like it was shot by a vigorous, highly talented, up-and-coming young film maker, was indeed made by a guy in or around his 80s at the time!

Needless to say I needed to learn more about his films and subsequently hired a couple more.

If I learnt a bit of a new director (for me at least) during that challenge, I also learnt a sad truth about myself that will likely expel me from the University of Movie Snobs forever and that is.... I really don't take to Akira Kurosawa. There, I said it. And it feels good.

Don't get me wrong: I am actually in awe of Rashomon and quite like The Seven Samurai, but over the last couple of years I noticed that it feels like quite a slog for me to make it through his other films. I never even made it through Kagemusha. And it now took me nearly two weeks and a handful of small attempts to make it through The Hidden Fortress. At that stage then I felt that I had cheated myself for far too long and needed to stand up and openly proclaim that, yeah, Kurosawa is really not my thing. (Give me Fukasaku over him any time.)

What else was there?

I pretended I was Christian Slater and watched the Streetfighter trilogy in the space of just 24 hours. I had seen the first one before but in a God awful copy and as a result wasn't all too impressed, but seeing the trilogy in all its goresome Martial sequences was a lorra lorra fun. Now how all I need to do is to get a hold of the Sister Streetfighter movies.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

Just rewatched The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires again last night. God, I love this movie! It's so much unadulterated fun seeing Hammer and Shaw Brothers create their own unique take on the Vampire/Martial Arts genre. I really like the fight sequences, love the Eastern setting, am in awe of the colour schemes used, find Ms Ege's Scandinavian accent quite charming and even get a kick out of the heavily lipsticked John Forbes-Robertson's take on Dracula. And, hey, don't know about you but screaming, topless Chinese ladies always do it for me, too.

As such it is timely that BuySoundTrax Records will be releasing a limited edition of the Lo7GV soundtrack on June 7. This will also include the Peter Cushing narrated The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires story album that was released in 1974. I had listened to that before all those years ago and still have it on a cassette somewhere (kids, check out Wikipedia if you don't know what that is), but apart from the fact that this tape was claimed by the attic that swallows all I also don't have a workable tape deck anymore, so it is about time I re-acquaint myself with this recording.

And speaking of Cushing related CDs, the second part of his autobiography Past Forgetting will also soon be released on CD in July. Apart from his narration it also includes a bonus feature by David Miller (author of The Peter Cushing Companion) in which he introduces clips by the likes of Christopher Lee, John Hough, Jimmy Sangster, David Prowse and – sigh - Caroline Munro discussing their encounters with the Gentleman of Horror. Well worth getting! A full review of this CD will be available from me prior to its release on the Den of Geek website.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Stranglers of Bombay (1959)

After a while spent travelling and focusing on other projects and articles for other websites and magazines, it is now time to start digging into my pile of unwatched Hammer movies, primarily the three Icons sets that I recently obtained.

First on my list: The Stranglers of Bombay.

Now call me shallow, but the first thing on my mind when I started watching this was: “Black and White? What the hell?”. Somehow I was expecting a story filmed in the lush colour tones of Hammer's Gothic horrors or other Adventure movies. Yes, I am aware that – although the company made their mark with colour movies – they have a large selection of black and white films in their back catalogue as well. Black and white, however, for me was always associated with their Hammer Noirs, their psychological thrillers or war movies and I generally associate their foray into adventure cinema with colour productions. I do suspect that economic reasons may have deterred them from using their usual cinematographic choice.

Still, not a biggy, as I do like black and white in general and Arthur Grant's stark contrasts make this a very enjoyable (if unusual) choice for this viewer.

Next thing on my mind was: “Ah..... Guy Rolfe” followed by memories of seeing him at one of Don Fearney's events just prior to his death. To my utter disgrace I hadn't at the time been consciously familiar with this actor, but when he strolled into the Cine Lumiere building it became obvious that we were in the presence of a man just oozing charisma. Resembling a latter day John Carradine, Rolfe's gaunt features and tall stature, even when walking on a stick, commanded a presence that resulted in a lot of the event's visitors respectfully moving aside to make way for him.

It was clear to me from then on that eventually I would just have to make myself more familiar with him, especially when I subsequently noticed that I had of course already seen him as Mr. Sardonicus and as Andre Toulon in some entries of the Puppet Master series as well as in Hammer's excellent Yesterday's Enemy.

Still, The Stranglers of Bombay had eluded me up till now. Rolfe gives a fantastic performance as Capt. Harry Lewis, an expert in Indian Affairs working for the East Indian Company who is trying to expose the realities between the mysterious disappearances of hundreds of locals and the continuous attacks on company caravans. Whereas he suspects the workings of the Thugee cult devoted to the Goddess Kali, his superiors ignore his findings and force him to research on his own.

Rolfe – tall, dark and handsome - makes for a convincing leading man not without some small personal issues. It is fun to see him constantly talking over his wife who doesn't seem to be able to get a word in edgewise no matter how much she wants to express her support.

Rolfe heads a list of actors that are second string only in relation to their overall recognition in the Hammer canon but first rate in terms of acting quality. So look out for George Pastell as a Kali High Priest and Marne Maitland as the Indian Patel behind the Cult's exploits. Allan Cuthbertson, familiar from scores of TV appearances, makes for a convincing arrogant officer who only sees the truth when faced with his own death.

Hammer's only exposure to Glamour here comes in the form of Marie Devereux in a silent role as one of the Cult's female accolytes and practically bursting out of her top.

When Hammer failed to obtain the rights to John Masters' novel The Deveivers, they simply based their script on the memoirs of Major General Sir William Sleeman who was primarily responsible for bringing the Thugees' reign of terror to an end. As such they had the veneer of a factual approach though I doubt that historical accuracy was at the top of their mind with this picture, especially given that the main character's name was not even identical with that of its historical model.

Still, though some of the scenes, as usual with Hammer, had to be cut upon its release, the censor seemed to have let them get away with quite a lot probably because of the historical pretense. As such we see scenes of men being blinded, murdered, cut and tortured while Kali's followers ecstatically look on. One sequence that you could not expect in modern movies any more features a real fight between a mongoose and a snake. Not sure whether no animals were harmed in the making of this film. Biggest WTF moment comes when one of the Cult members not only joyfully looks forward to his own hanging, but willingly jumps into the noose before the hangman has a chance to do his job.

Terence Fisher is the ideal man to head this production, combining the more gruesome elements of the story with a sense of more epic adventure. Hard to believe that all of those scenes of the Indian subcontinent were filmed in Bray's own backyard.

What is highly unusual about this film is not only its exotic set up (Thugees were rarely ever given centre stage in a movie before), but also its bleak approach to the subject matter. When Lewis gets stone walled he may ultimately be able to expose the cult, but fails to prevent a single attack and instead is faced with a freshly dug mass grave and a prime villain still at large.

Indeed if there is one thing that may drag this film down a bit, it is the rushed and rather unsatisfactory ending. A character who previously had no compunctions about killing his own brother all of a sudden shows remorse when he recognises a necklace our hero wears and helps him escape. And though the major villain of the piece then sees a heavy suspicion fall upon himself, he is far from being outed and able to continue his rule of terror for a while.... and likely for a sequal that may have been hinted at but never came to pass.

One certainly wishes that more thought could have been spared for a more conclusive finale to an otherwise interesting film.

Go see it.... in Strangloscope!