Sunday, November 27, 2011

Matthew's Watching Hammer Top Ten

Encouraged by Holger's decision to republish his Top Ten Hammers (see here), here's mine, also lifted from the fine and much lamented Watching Hammer blog.

Comparing the two lists, I guess I'm slightly surprised that mine and Holger's list have only one film in common; perhaps even more surprising is the fact that it's Dracula AD 1972!
Incidentally, I watched this again recently and was stunned by how little attention Caroline Munro gets: not only is she the first victim, killed off the moment Dracula reappears, but note just how little of the dialogue goes to her, and just how few close-ups she is given, not just in the party scene (where you can blink twice and even imagine that she's not present at all) but also in the ritual sequence - at which she ultimately proves the central presence. Watch as the camera pans around the assembled gang, and observe how few times it lights on Caroline.
For the studio's big new star discovery this is simply inexplicable.

Lovely to then watch Captain Kronos for the first time in maybe twenty years: the contrast was so great it almost nudged Kronos into a revised top ten.
In fact, in the year or so since I posted the below, I've caught up with several of the Hammer Films I had not seen at the time, and reacquainted myself with others I had only seen once and a while ago. I now think Curse of the Werewolf is a much better film than I remembered, and a few others have 'rearranged themselves' in my affections too.
But as my ultimate choice of ten, I stand by what I originally posted, as follows.

Right. The brief is to pick my ten favourites, not necessarily the ten I think are the best. But pride of place has to go to Phantom, which is my favourite, but it’s my favourite because it’s also the best, and nobody seems to think so but me. Incredible how a film’s reputation can continue to be influenced by its original reception, and how people decades later can watch this so sure it’s going to be the lacklustre disappointment they all said it was in ’62 that they come away still believing it’s the lacklustre disappointment they all said it was back in ’62. Personally, I’d triple-bill it with Curse of F and the big D and challenge any newcomer to spot the difference – saving, of course the regrettable absence of Messrs Cushing and Lee, not that Gough and Lom aren’t fine and dandy in their roles. I can’t think of a single thing about this film that isn’t superb. It’s the best re-imagining of the plot we have on film, it’s atmospheric and spooky, and it has a terrific music score (including a fake opera devised for the film by Edwin Astley; my second favourite fake opera devised for a film after the one Oscar Levant wrote for Charlie Chan at the Opera). There’s also not an ounce of flab on it anywhere, which you can’t always say about Hammer in the sixties. You can slice big slabs of fat off Curse of the Werewolf and Dracula, Prince of Darkness, but here we’re back to the 82-minute tightness of the very originals. I’ve written elsewhere about the magnificence of the film’s editing but it needs repeating: just watch the scene prior to the abduction of Christine by the dwarf and note how superbly Fisher combines music, staging and (mis)direction, so that we get that magnificent shock when she opens her curtains, with the sound of the window being pushed down acting as a percussive bridge between the lush romantic music of this scene and the scary organ music of the next. A true masterpiece.

My mother wasn’t too keen on my obsession with Dracula and horror movies as a kid, and eventually being allowed to see them was a major milestone in my life, so nostalgia must inevitably loom large here: all those countless lunchtimes and midmorning breaks at primary school huddled over my friend Steven’s copies of Horror Movies (by Alan Frank) and House of Horror (edited by Allen Eyles), gazing at the pictures, and trying to imagine what those movies could possibly be like. I still get that odd feeling, when I watch, say, the brain operation in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, that I am watching a still picture come to life, as if someone had deliberately recreated The Night Watch on film or something. My memory tells me that the first Hammer film I ever saw – illicitly at a friend’s house – was The Satanic Rites of Dracula, but for some reason that didn’t make the kind of impression on me I would have expected it to, looking back. What did, was the short season of classics BBC2 showed at Christmas, 1984, when at last I caught up with Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, the first two double-billed.
There’s no point me boring you with why Dracula is brilliant – everybody knows it’s just one of those movies with nothing wrong with them whatsoever; that you can watch over and over again without even slightly dimmed pleasure. I will, however, put in an extra word for Curse – fractionally my favourite of the two - as it is too fashionable now to claim that it is an enormously important film but not a great one, and that it was only with Dracula that everything really clicked for the first time. I’ve always found it a barnstormer from first to last, fully the equal of its more cherished follow-up. I love the grotty Eastmancolor, I love Hazel Court – always the queen of Hammer for me – and I love the rumbling opening bars of that theme music. It excites me rather more than Dracula.

Interestingly, that 1984 season consisted of the earliest Bray films and this – which, to make things even odder, they showed first. I’ve often asked myself if nostalgia is the main reason why I think this is far and away the best film the studio made in the seventies. But no, I absolve myself of the charge: this is a masterpiece, pure and simple. In a sense it is an original, of course, not really the fourth mummy film but a first adaptation of a Bram Stoker novel, very compellingly told with some beautifully photographed sequences, great music and – as it’s the seventies now – very gory scares. But it’s spooky in an almost Val Lewtonish way. I love the Egyptian flashbacks, filmed at night, and so much more atmospheric than the usual sort, bathed in unsubtle, baking arc light. And then of course there is perennial Carry On bit-parter-cum-set dressing Valerie Leon, who – let us first note – is entirely credible, and memorably otherworldly, in her one and only dramatic lead, before adding as supplementary information that yes, she is also built like the world’s most sexually attractive battleship. (If you can imagine such a thing.)

Funny thing, but I actually got quite blasé about Hammer after that. Talk about ungrateful. By the time I saw Risen From the Grave, some time in ’85 I think, it was like I’d been watching Hammer films all my life and I remember thinking ‘ah, look: here’s another of those cute little Hammer films I used to be obsessed with…’ Now I know better. It’s the best of the post-Dracula Draculas, and the most Bray-like, in its look and atmosphere, of all the post-Bray Hammers: those scenes of the young lovers scuttling over the beautifully designed rooftops are just gorgeous. And then we have Veronica Carlson; we have an excellent opening theme and title sequence; we have a fabulous (albeit physically and chronologically impossible) post-credits sequence; we have some fascinating theological angst involving a stuffy cleric and a cocky young atheist (borrowed, along with a couple of giveaway visual ideas, from the recent film of Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons); we have the heavy use of amber-edged filters which is always distracting but not unattractive; we have some complicated business about Dracula being able to pull the stake out that annoys vampire purists – always a good thing, and most of all, of course, we have a grand finale involving Christopher Lee falling off a cliff and getting kebabbed on a giant crucifix.

Oh yes, we must find room for this in a list of favourites. Had it been the ten best it might have been just edged out by Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), but that’s such a bleak and mean-spirited film; never one I turn to for pleasure. Unlike this beauty: so weird, so Grimm’s fairy tale, such excellent use of sets and locations: Black Park at its most verdant and inspiring, the old inn, those windy streets… Susan Denberg, kittenish one minute, savage the next, is terrific.
“You see: the hair has changed colour…” Somehow, we never doubted it would, Peter.

I caught up with most of the studio’s seventies output in my middle teens, when ITV launched 24 hour television and suddenly realised there were a lot of hours that needed filling. Mircalla to the rescue! I’m virtually alone in my (strange) love for this, I know (though I seem to remember David Pirie being surprisingly positive about it). But once we get past that naff Mike Raven prologue this is a rich, ripe stilton of a movie, and of all the Hammers that pussyfoot around with nudity and sex it’s by far the most happily, healthily and uncomplicatedly sexy. Does Yutte Stensgaard give a bad performance? I don’t know: how would a fresh-revived 19th century vampiress attending a girls’ finishing school behave in real life, d’you think? Until you produce the evidence to the contrary my guess is pretty much the way Yutte gives it to us, so lay off her. I also like the outdoor aerobics class.

8. DRACULA AD 1972 (1972) and MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE (1973)
Two wonderful evocations of London in the early seventies, and how I look forward to the day when I will only need to bend over backwards justifying my love of the second one. I mean, don’t you think it’s about time we stopped pretending Dracula AD 1972 is anything less than a classic? For years we had to pretend it was irredeemable rubbish, painful to watch. Now it’s at the guilty pleasure stage, so bad it’s good and all that. True recognition will come, so why not just save time and say it now: it’s great fun, exciting, scary, moves like a bat out of hell, and the change of time and setting works a treat.
And Man About the House is basically more of the same, only without the vampires.

Too young to have ever seen a Hammer at the cinema (I’ve still only seen one on the big screen: Dracula, at the Barbican in 1996) my memories of them are entirely bounded by the small – and square – television screen. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always nurtured a fondness for the TV films made under the Hammer House of Horror banner. Never saw any of those Mystery and Suspense ones; I gather they’re not so hot, but a good half-dozen of the first batch are more than commendable attempts to do what Hammer-proper died trying to do: make traditional but modern horror films. And this one is a masterpiece, as good as anything the studio did in the seventies, except for one annoying trait it shares with most of the series: an annoying pre-credits sequence that gives the game away before it’s even started. Unlike the majority, however, it does have a proper (albeit grim) ending, whereas most of them don’t end but just sort of stop, in a would-be Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected kind of a way, and you have to pretend it’s a Hammer feature film you set your video to record but the tape ran out two reels from the end. Set in a wonderfully creepy house in a wonderfully creepy forest, this has some great lines, real suspense, one of my favourite ever pull-back-the-curtains shock moments, Diana Dors being quite brilliant, and Robert Urquhart for circularity. A small thing of considerable beauty.


James Gracey said...

Great list! Some of my favourites are present in the form of Blood From The Mummy's Tomb, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave and Dracula AD 1972. I have to admit though, I haven't seen Phantom of the Opera, Man About The House or Children of the Full Moon. Yet! Your musings have prompted me to consider a wee Hammer marathon this afternoon - I might start off with The Nanny (one of my favourites) and maybe wander through some of the Dracula titles, too. Hope you are keeping well, Matthew! :)

Holger Haase said...

Haha, you're right: Between our Top 10s we have quickly and effectively covered a whopping 19 of Hammer's movies in just two posts. Always great to see Caroline Munro getting yet another mention. My next post (hopefully over the next couple of days) will cover her first appearance in a Hammer film. And no, it will not be AD72. ;-)

Jack Veasey said...

How nice to see "Children Of The Full Moon" get some recognition. It's one of my favorites, despite how clearly it telegraphs how it will end. The subtle transformation of the ax-toting woodsman is wonderfully eerie for being so understated. Unfortunately, the easiest DVD version to find is intrusively hosted by Elvira.

Sam79 said...

Love both Dracula AD 1972 and Blood From The Mummy's Tomb (a masterpiece indeed) and LOVE Children Of The Full moon - Soaked in such brilliantly foreboding atmosphere. I'll pass on Lust but great list otherwise! :)

night person said...

You speak genius truth. I thank you for your candor.

Anonymous said...

Happy to see Lust for a Vampire get the love at last. For me, it's a real guilty pleasure, and whilst I suspect part of this is because I first watched it when I was about 14 (the perfect age), possibly on that same late night ITV screening, I think it's also pretty compelling, tries to tread the same old ground but differently, and it never gets dull.

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb - really is a great performance from Valerie Leon, when - as you say - she seemed to be window dressing otherwise.