Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Horror Unlimited, a new website dedicated to classic horror, has just been launched and I am proud to be a part of that new - and hopefully soon burgeoning - community: Check out my lengthy piece dedicated to the two made-for-TV horror movies LOOK WHAT'S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY and OMEN IV: THE AWAKENING.

What will differentiate Horror Unlimited from many other horror website out there is that they don't just offer in depth articles about various aspects of the horror genre but - if you sign up with them - will also allow access to a wide range of historic documents, merchandise and collectibles.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

STARCRASH lobby cards... as promised

Starcrash Blu Ray and Curved Space book out

Today is the official release day for the Starcrash Blu-Ray disc. Parallel to this we will also see the publication of Curved Space – The Adventures of Stella Star, a collection of short stories featuring the further adventures of the movie's scandily clad space heroine as well as forewords by both Luigi Cozzi and Caroline Munro.

I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am about this announcement... even though I don't even own a Blu Ray player yet (and certainly no region free one as this is a Region 1 release). Starcrash has always been one of my absolute favourite films of all time. And I am not ashamed to admit that this is meant in a totally irony free way. This is one of the movies that have accompanied me throughout my entire life and that regularly gets rewatched. It would probably be also fair to say that watching it as a kid in the cinema all those years ago has probably been one of those life changing moments for me.

I am not going to bore you to tears with why this film is the bee's knees. There are tons of reviews out there about this by people who either love it or hate it so no need to go into any of it again. Suffice it to say, though, that this was the first film I ever saw with the lovely Ms Munro. Well, either that or At the Earth's Core. I can never quite tell but I vividly remember seeing both of them a very short time apart at a relatively tender and impressionable age in the cinema.

At that time I already was a bona fide and probably rather precocious under-age film buff who had started to take note not just of the movie stars but also of the directors behind the movies. It must have been around that time that I had also just started my Hammer love affair though by and large it was then still the usual classics that I was fascinated with: actors such as Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne as well as folks like Jean-Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon who were huge on the Continent at the time.

Starcrash changed all that.

These days it is difficult to fathom but when the film was shown in the cinemas at the time the effects did actually look very convincing and exciting to the impressionable 11 year old that I was. More importantly, however, I quickly learnt that laser swords and space battles seriously improve when performed by a fit looking Amazon scantily clad in fetishistic costume. This is something that the original Star Wars was seriously lacking. Ìn all fairness: Anyone who prefers Leia Organa over Stella Star (Love the name alone!) needs to get their head examined.

Needless to say I told all of my friends about it, most of which didn't have a clue what I was on about. I quickly discovered that once you venture through the gates of B-Moviedom, you are bound to be confronted with the uncomprehending looks in the eyes of normal folks who can barely appreciate a general film obsession, let alone one that leads up some barely trodden movie paths. Pre-Internet - what am I saying? Pre-DVD or even pre-VHS! - this could be a very lonely experience. How easy would it have been to just let things go and focus on the more easily obtainable film goodies. But, no, I soon learnt to appreciate and even love that feeling of smugness that all of us B-Movie Fans feel coming over us when we know we've discovered a gem that few others are aware of.

So as annoying as it initially was when people tried to correct me when I raved on about Caroline Munro (“Of course, you mean Marilyn Monroe, don't you?”), I soon learnt to answer this with my own branded look of smug arrogance when I subsequently corrected those folks in turn.

Learning more about Caroline Munro became my first cinematic mission. Over the following years I managed to see most of her 1970s output in the cinema. (At the time those films were still shown on the big screen years later in Sunday kiddies matinees or during special summer events.) Maybe more importantly, however, I also started getting involved collecting film memorabilia outside of the translated Citadel film books that had made up most of my collection at the time. I discovered that there were a number of English language magazines out there that often had articles about her and quickly needed to learn how to score them and – of course – how to read those buggers given that English was a language I had only just started learning at school. Though always easier to master than the French language mags I also occasionally sourced.

When over the years I got in touch with other Hammer Fans in Germany (got giddy with excitement when I learnt that there were indeed others like me) I also started learning about promo pics and lobby cards and guess whose were my first buys? I also started my small autograph collection by writing letters to my favourite stars: Cushing, Lee, Price, Jacqueline Bisset and Caroline Munro. And was pleasantly surprised when every single one of them actually responded back. Then waited feverishly for the next time a Film Collector's Fair was staged near my area.

When I finally learnt how to access the Internet John Scoleri's old website dedicated to Caroline Munro was one of the first I ever visited. I also started my own CM discussion group all those years ago and set up my very first website dedicated to Hammer Glamour in the days of dial up. (It subsequently was taken down without explanation.)

Other stuff I eventually did thanks to Starcrash included a stay in the Hotel Cala di Volpe in the Costa Smeralda where Munro's scenes for The Spy Who Loved Me were filmed, a little pilgrimage to Luigi Cozzi's Profondo Rosso Shop in Rome (co-owned with Dario Argento) and having lunch with Caroline herself.

I am not usually the type to endlessly upgrade my movies but Starcrash is one I have watched in just about any popular medium at the time: watched it in the cinema, then taped it off TV before purchasing the regular VHS tape and sourcing a French DVD that was the closest to a proper DVD release we so far had of this production (yet still only featured a VHS style presentation albeit with some grainy extras that also included old interviews with Cozzi & Co as well as the completely unofficial nudey rip off Starcrash 2/Escape from Galaxy 3). I even seem to recall watching some Super 8 reels at a friend's house. So now hearing that this is available on Blu-Ray at last has me jumping up and down with joy.... in a very distinguished way, of course. This is now likely going to be the release that will eventually push me over and make me search out the deals for region free Blu-Ray players.

I also always thought that the character of Stella Star was one that was just crying out to be serialised in any kind of form: movies, books, comics, audio books, you name it. Hearing that we will finally have more of her adventures to look forward to makes Curved Space also an essential purchase for me. It's just a pity that the Making Of book that was announced a couple of years ago has hit troubled waters and will not be released anytime soon.

To celebrate the release of the Blu-Ray/Book combo I will also publish a couple of my lobby cards in a separate post. Some of those were previously available on my old Hammer Glamour site but I have also added new ones and re-scanned the old ones.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Phantom of the Opera (1961)

At the time Hammer filmed The Phantom of the Opera, the subject had not yet been overkilled through musicals or countless other adaptations. Over the previous decades there had been a small number of other films made based on Gaston Leroux’ novel – most notably Lon Chaney’s famous silent movie from 1925 and Arthur Lubin’s 1943 production -, but time was ripe for a new interpretation and the folks at Hammer were hoping to do for the Phantom what they had previously done for Dracula and Frankenstein and to introduce a new generation to this classic monster.

The production was ambitious. At one stage Cary Grant was even being courted for the lead which could have opened up a whole new audience for Hammer movies. In the end, it was Herbert Lom who accepted the part and brought a lot of class to his role. His acting is very reminiscent of Christopher Lee’s in The Mummy. In both cases we have classic examples of actors overcoming the limitations of a facial mask and demonstrating an incredible acting range that lesser actors without the hindrance of the special makeup can’t even begin to reach. Lom’s mellifluous voice just adds to the subtle range of emotions he is able to display for this role.

Perhaps not unusual given the subject matter, but not very typical for a Hammer movie, The Phantom of the Opera is a very musically oriented production. An original opera based on the life of Joan of Arc was composed for this film by Edwin Astley, lengthy excerpts of which are shown throughout the movie. The cinematography is often stunning. The picture is saturated in full, rich colours and makes the movie not just a feast for the ears, but also for the eyes. Trouble is, however, that it just ain’t very horrific as those lengthy musical interludes, beautiful as they are, just end up distracting from what little horror there is in it. It seems that by aiming this film at a slightly different and more main stream audience, Hammer ran the risk of alienating its loyal fan base as this has little of its usual horror set pieces and also only a small number of Hammer’s regular team of players. Apart from Michael Gough - who as often the case with his roles relishes chewing as much scenery as he can as the truly despicable Lord Ambrose d’Arcy - and Michael Ripper – surprise, surprise in a cameo part – there are few familiar faces.

The film proved to be Edward De Souza’s first major screen role. His next was in Kiss of the Vampire before he became a successful actor in a range of different TV series. Here he convincingly, though not very memorably, plays the part of the bland hero who needs to save Heather Sears’ character out of the clutches of Michael Gough’s lecherous Lord and to ensure that Lom’s Phantom does not cause all too much damage.

Sears as the heroine is terribly miscast. She sure isn’t the type who could infatuate three men all at the same time. Certainly not with that bird’s nest of a hair cut. Sears’ singing voice was dubbed by opera singer Patricia Clark.

The most memorable scene involves future Dr Who Patrick Troughton as a disgusting rat catcher who freaks out some ladies of the night who were visiting the Opera (that atypically is not located in Paris)…. just to be killed by a dwarf (Ian Wilson) through a stab in the eye.

Also look out for Thorley Walters and Miles Malleson.

Overall, this is an interesting and beautiful movie that nevertheless ends up a bit of a failed experiment when it comes to delivering the goods as a horror production with splendid opera scenes aplenty that do, however, drown out most of the action.

Operation: 101010 - Hammer Movies

Finished another one of my Operation: 101010 categories, this time the most obvious one given the nature of this blog: Hammer Movies.

These are the ten Hammer movies I have watched so far this year and that I also blogged/tweeted/FB'd about:

Wings of Danger
Paid to Kill
The Unholy Four
The Stranglers of Bombay
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Rewatch)
Danger List
The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb
Rasputin – The Mad Monk (Rewatch)
To the Devil a Daughter (Rewatch)
The Man Who Could Cheat Death

Not sure if I will be able to finish the entire Operation: 101010 by the end of the year. I am nearly done with some more of the categories but with some others have barely started. Still, nothing better to keep me focused.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hammer Films – The Unsung Heroes book launch

My bags aren't quite packed yet but I am ready to go: Flight and accomodation are booked; tickets are requested. Cine Lumiere, here I come.

Don Fearney's London based Hammer events are always absolute highlights for every Hammer Fan, generally mixing book launches and cinematic presentations with a wonderfully informal approach to meeting your favourite Hammer stars and mingling with other likeminded fans.

This year's launch of Wayne Kinsey's new book – Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes (The Team Behind the Legend) – promises to be yet another unmissable event.

It takes place on October 30 (right in time for Halloween) at the Cine Lumiere (17 Queensberry Place, Kensington, London).

The following is planned so far:

  • Exclusive book signing with Barbara Shelley (no charge for book signing)
  • On stage interview with Vera Day
  • On stage interview with Joyce Broughton (Peter Cushing’s secretary)
  • On stage Hammer panel discussion with 3 Hammer guests
  • The premier of Donald Fearney’s full length feature, Grave Tales (a portmanteau film in the tradition of the best of Amicus)

As usual with those events you can expect a large number of other Hammer celebs to drop in during the day. At a guess I dare say that some if not all of the following may have a chance of showing up as well as all of them have been regular guests in the past: Caroline Munro, Ingrid Pitt, Jimmy Sangster, John Hough, Edward de Souza.

I am particular looking forward to meeting Barbara Shelley as I never had a chance yet to meet her face to face.

I also can't wait to read Wayne's new book that promises to take “you behind the screams at the House of Hammer, department by department, to meet the team that made Hammer’s films a cult success”.

It will be available as a soft back at £25 and as a special limited edition hardback at £35 and will feature “488 pages loaded with blood rare photographs including 8 pages of colour”. Just the right kind of book to start or update one's autograph collection.

Tickets for the event are available for just £15 from Donald Fearney at 25 High Hill Ferry, Bakers Hill, London, E5 9 HG (tel: 0208 8066915).

Anyone reading this who is planning on coming please leave a comment as it would be great to meet up for a chat. You'll likely be able to find me shmoozing in the cafe over a beer or three as the most enjoyable aspect for me is always to meet up again with old buddies and make new Hammer friends.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Madeline Smith (*August 2, 1949)

Maddy, Madeline or even Madeleine Smith. All three versions of her first name appear in Hammer literature, sometimes even inconsistently in one and the same article. For the sake of continuity I will stick to the most appropriate one: Madeline.... simply because that is the way she signs her own autographs.

Anyone who thinks that the cult of being a celebrity just for celebrity’s sake (read: the likes of Jordan or Paris Hilton) was something recent, needs only to look at Madeline Smith’s career. Though she’s one of the ladies who managed the Hammer/Bond (Live and Let Die)/Carry On (Matron) hattrick, only Hammer – the studio that discovered her with Taste the Blood of Dracula - really took full advantage of her status and wrote reasonably large parts for her in The Vampire Lovers, the wet dream for Hammer Glamour lovers, and as the mute girl Angel in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. In most other movies she gets very little exposure and – taking all her non-Hammer feature performances together – you’d be hard pressed to get enough screen time to fill 2 hours. It is quite clear that even in her Hammer movies she is not exactly hired for her acting talent as her voice is dubbed in the The Vampire Lovers or mute in Monster from Hell.

For a period in the early 70s, however, Smith consistently appeared in photos in the press and managed to raise many a male heartbeat with her innocent looking English Rose doll face combined with a general disregard for clothing. In actual fact, she was so popular during that time that comic strip artist J. Edward Oliver regularly featured her and her talents in his ongoing series of strips. He once even designed an entire one-page comic about "The Life and Habits of the Madeline Smith". When Smith finally complained about her portrayal, Oliver stopped drawing her… but not before drawing a final farewell strip about the call he received from her.

Born in Hartfield (Sussex), she was discovered while working in a boutique and hired to perform a striptease in a London play. Interesting career path for a former convent school girl.

She was married to actor David Buck (The Mummy’s Shroud) who passed away from cancer at the age of 53.

She also played the character of Mollie on stage in Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap.

Away from Hammer, Smith’s other notable genre appearances were in Theatre of Blood and Silent Night, Deadly Night. She was more prominently featured in a string of typical British sex comedies that often gave her a chance to show off her ample physique and also starred fellow Hammer Girl Julie Ege: Up Pompeii, The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins and Percy’s Progress. She also appeared in Up The Front and The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones.

Strictly Ink's Hammer Horror 2 set of trading cards

When Strictly Ink released their first set of Hammer Horror trading cards I was seriously impressed. Now it looks like they're on the verge of releasing a second set that promises to be equally worth having. Will write more about this, when/if I get my own set and would in the meantime appreciate comments from folks who may already have seen it.

It looks like a good number of Hammer Glamour stars have signed their cards for the series and that some of the cards have been designed by well known artists such as my good buddy Neil Vokes.

Hammer Films – An Exhaustive Filmography

Tom Johnson, Deborah DelVecchio: Hammer Films – An Exhaustive Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland 1996.
This is one of my two favourite books on Hammer and an absolute Must Have for every serious Hammer fan. It’s by McFarland which translates as “very pricey, but in depth” and covers every single movie Hammer ever made with extensive reviews. This includes a plethora of info on some of those rare earlier pictures that otherwise are often overlooked. My own copy is well thumped. True, it’s not a cheap purchase, but you only live once and can’t take anything with you. So save a few bucks and live on bread and butter for a few days if you need to, but do buy this book!