Friday, March 23, 2012

Taking the New Hammer plunge

Calling yourself ‘Hammer Films’ can work for you and it can work against you.
On the one hand it gets you and your films more attention from the first than any other fledgling independent film company could dream of – would you have even heard of Beyond The Rave otherwise? – while on the other it automatically creates a weight of expectation that is almost impossible to honour.
Some will want you to succeed whatever, just because of the name. Others, probably more, will want you to fail whatever, for the same reason.

Then there are those who’ll say, simply, what’s the point?
You can call yourself what you like, but it won’t result in any kind of instant metamorphosis. It’s interesting that there is an Ealing Films currently trading too, but oddly subjected to neither the same scrutiny nor the same challenging response to its product. There is a protective passion for Hammer out there that is almost impossible to please. Stray too far from the classic template and they’ll call you senselessly revisionist, pastiche it too accurately and they’ll call you hopelessly dated.

I suppose if I belonged in any of the categories above it was the ‘what’s the point?’ one, though as a certain devotee of Hammer House of Horror I had no inflexible objection to the name’s revival, and on the whole I liked the idea. But I wasn’t all that excited about the films themselves. I managed about two minutes of Beyond the Rave (I gather that’s a world record) and a heroic fifteen or so of Wake Wood (which it turns out isn’t really a Hammer film at all).
But The Resident I enjoyed, because it worked efficiently within its remit, and obviously because it brought Christopher Lee back. The New York setting was a touch provocative (though it shouldn’t be forgotten that the original Hammer psycho-thrillers it referenced were by no means predominantly English-set), and however much a casting coup Hilary Swank may have been, they should have known that you really need a dolly bird for woman-in-jeopardy roles.

Still, I liked it overall, but much more importantly, I found when that red Hammer logo flashed across the screen that I did care after all, and I do like seeing the name up there again.
So that’s why I went to see The Woman In Black last night in a well- rather than ill-disposed mood.
Better yet, I came out the same way.
It’s a film that has done the seemingly impossible: justified the use of the Hammer name, honoured the traditions of the studio’s past, evoked much of its style, and at the same time managed to appeal to a broad, modern audience that have no interest in, or perhaps even awareness of, the original films. As a film it’s good, as a juggling act it’s amazing.

There have been some tellingly dogmatic objections, of the sort to which even as hopelessly romantic a reactionary as I can raise only a weary ‘so what?’ in response: the original Hammer never made a supernatural ghost story; they cut the film to get a 12 certificate; Daniel Radcliffe is too young; George Woodbridge isn’t in it. (Okay, I made the last one up, but you get the idea.)
These are a priori obstacles, the kind of thing no amount of competence in the actual product can circumnavigate.
I can’t think of any defining reason why they wouldn’t have made a ghost story back at Bray; and they certainly had a long and fascinating history of cutting their films to match a certificate (including an A certificate once in a while). Curse of Frankenstein is a 12 these days too, and all I can say is that if I had seen Woman in Black at twelve years of age I’d still be talking about its seminal influence on me now (the way I do about The Ghoul). You won’t go short on scares, believe me. You will go short on people being lashed to chairs in basements and tortured with garden tools, but then that’s not what you came for, is it?

There are the expected anachronisms of course, of the sort which no modern film set in the past could now be expected to avoid, annoying though they are all the same: designer stubble, men walking about in the rain without hats, characters suggesting they “get the hell out” of places, and ugly modern metaphor-speak (Radcliffe’s boss urges greater commitment from his employee on the grounds that they “don’t carry passengers”).

And Wizard Boy is too young; there’s no point pretending he isn’t. But neither would it be right not to add that, given that initial handicap, he delivers a truly excellent performance that does everything possible to make you forget, or at least excuse, his fundamental unsuitability for the role. His commitment and intensity cannot be faulted – his facial acting alone has to carry a good fifty percent of the film – and if he never quite convinces us he’s a widowed lawyer with a four year old son, well… Julie Ege wasn’t my mind’s idea of an Edwardian feminist adventuress. Can’t say that worried me unduly either.
These are precisely the kind of eccentricities that Hammer must be allowed.
The rest of the film? Well, it’s not especially original and it’s not especially ambitious, so hyperbole would sit ill on its frail shoulders. But in terms of the limits it sets for itself, it’s really hard to find anything wrong with it at all. Almost everything works a treat.

Even rendered in tacky digital format, the art direction is astounding, the photography is rich, the locations are beautifully atmospheric. Did you not dream of seeing a Hammer character making his way up and down a baroque staircase left of frame again? Dream no more!
At least two of the big scare moments work better than anything comparable in any of the similar films to which this has been compared, and the lingering sense of dread that strings them together is better yet. There’s even a slightly sappy ending that, a meaningless close on the Woman in Black’s face notwithstanding, honours the original Hammer’s commitment to ultimately restored order, even to restored order within a framework of Christian dogmatics.

I liked the casting, too, which seemed to me chosen by the classic Hammer method: an attention-catcher in front, sturdy support from traditional talent (Ciaran Hinds is splendid) and a fine third-row of well-chosen rhubarbers (David Burke, probably tv’s best ever Dr Watson, gets a line or two as the village bobby; Victor McGuire gets one as an anguished father).
It’s good to see them, and they have the feel of a new Hammer repertory. If any of them showed up again in the next one it would be wonderful. (As my compadre Mark notes in his review of the film here, it would be good if they used Radcliffe again too, perhaps in a more villainous capacity, playing his easy good looks against expectation in the Shane Briant manner.)
It is in such matters as these that the true Hammer flavour can most usefully be recalled. What the studio really needs is an overarching identity that links its new films to each other, rather than something that links any of them to the past.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What am I bid for Hazel Court's nude scene?

When I first saw the original Karloff Frankenstein, on British television in 1983, it was still missing the famous sequence in which the Monster innocently throws the little girl into the lake, expecting her to float.
The notorious cut from his moving towards her to her father carrying her sodden body through the streets, vastly more unpleasant in its implications, was still unaltered, and there was little realistic expectation of the lost footage ever being restored.
When it did turn up not long after I can still remember the excitement, but now that it’s the official version and no longer surprising, I feel perversely privileged to think that I was around to see the film when it was still missing.

These sort of thoughts are foremost in my mind because of the recent announcement that Hammer is mounting a search for missing footage, and has highlighted the quest with a Top 6 hit list of dream snips.
There is a difference, though. While the Frankenstein footage was a major chunk of the movie, the absence of which disrupted the narrative and left the film genuinely incomplete, what Hammer are looking for are for the most part merely trims, a second here and there of gore which crossed the censorial line in the fifties and sixties, and wouldn’t any more.
But it’s the very fact that such moments as the head-in-acid-bath scene from Curse of Frankenstein, identified as the number one dream restoration, are no longer shocking enough to be excluded that makes their restoration an academic exercise at best. The film is not robbed by its not being there, and surely, after the first few frissons of unfamiliarity for those of us who have already seen the film a billion times, it won’t be enhanced by its being back either.
There’s something a bit defensive about the exercise, as if the studio is saying to young, modern audiences: if you think Hammer has a reputation for tameness, that’s not our fault, and just wait until we start splicing all the juicy stuff back in…
But an eyeball here and a cut throat there won’t make any difference to the story construction – which is what really dates the films – nor will it make the films any more shocking or thrilling or scary. For the first few watches the film will seem overbalanced by the new shots, in that they will command a share of the attention paid to the film overall that they were never intended to do when shot, then eventually we’ll get used to them and they’ll fade back into the woodwork again. It’s an interesting exercise for people like me and probably you, but that, surely, is about as far as it goes.

That said, the studio’s six most wanted list does make interesting reading.
There are a few surprises. No mention of Dracula’s full death scene from the ’58 original, complete with blistering face and extended shots of his crumbling hands, nor that odd shot that crops up in stills of Harker’s corrupted body after his staking. (Of course, this may have been omitted because it makes no sense: Valerie Gaunt’s body becomes that of an old hag because that’s how old she’d really be: there’s no more reason for Harker to deteriorate in this way than Lucy.)

In the absence of the above, the continued fascination with the acid bath shots from Curse of Frankenstein is intriguing, especially since they have been at least partially restored now: the version currently available on DVD has shots that were still missing when I first saw the film in 1984, notably of the lowering of the head into the tank (covered at the time by a meaningless cutaway to Robert Urquhart looking stern, spliced in from earlier in the scene.)
On the other hand, what is this “eyeball” shot they’re looking for? Surely not the close-up of the eyeball through a magnifying glass? Yes, it’s excised in the Warners TV print that still serves as primary source for reissues, but it was present and correct in the version I saw on television in Christmas ‘84. Not missing at all, just absent sometimes.

The only other inclusion in the list that I predicted would be there is the tongue scene from The Mummy. Ever since I was a boy, long before I’d seen the movie, I had been fascinated by the ‘before, during and after’ shots in Alan Frank’s book Horror Movies, and especially by the look of genuine revulsion on the face of the slave looking at the flaccid tongue in the third image. It was weirdly shocking to catch up with the film and discover these shots were not there. (The same goes for another on the list: the broken bottle stabbing from Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, reproduced over two full pages in Frank’s later book Horror Films.)

But the other Mummy trim, what the studio charmingly calls the “underdressed maidens”, is of an altogether different order.
I had always thought that this was not a cut, so much as an alternative take prepared for more liberal foreign markets, and so the question is raised: just what is the definitive, authentic version of a Hammer film? I would have said it was the version prepared for the home territories, perhaps with a bit of censor-fiddling undone if you really feel the need. The idea of adding extra sensationalism, however, via the insertion of footage that was never intended to be seen in Britain, might be thought to cross the line between legitimate restoration and artistic interference, like adding new CGI effects, especially since including the underdressed maidens would entail not merely adding footage to the film but removing some as well to make room for it.
I suspect that for many behind this project, the definitive version of any Hammer movie is going to be the one with as much tits and blood as possible, regardless of how, when or why such footage was shot. (And if the underdressed maidens do make the list, despite this reservation, surely it should have included the holy grail of Hammer alt-edits: Hazel Court’s nude scene from The Man Who Could Cheat Death?)

Intriguing too to see the studio’s admission that they did not keep the trims in their film library. No reason why they should, but it reminds us that they have a film library, and raises the much more interesting question of what they do have there.
I’ve often been struck, despite the massive cult interest in Hammer films, by how little has ever been seen by way of rare or behind the scenes footage. Call me an old fogey if you will, but I’m personally much more interested in the talk here of how “the original UK title sequence has been reinstated on Plague of The Zombies” – the first I’ve heard of such a thing – than in the prospect of seeing a few extra drops of blood on Christopher Lee’s cape.
If I were asked to compile my own personal dream list of missing Hammer footage, it would be things like test shots, outtakes, and whole scenes cut for time rather than taste.
So what else is still loitering in the archives?
Did they really junk the Peter Cushing sequences from Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb? Are there no pre-dub soundtracks with Ingrid Pitt and Susan Denberg and Mike Raven using their real voices? Interesting though it may be to compare the existing and an “extended, more explicit version” of The Viking Queen, I’d rather go looking for one of the original edits of To The Devil a Daughter, before they ruined the ending: it might even be enough to turn it into a classic.
As for my number one choice of all, it just has to be that legendary, perhaps even apocryphal, test sequence for The Hound of the Baskervilles, with an ordinary-sized dog on a scaled-down set, grappling with children dressed as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson...

POSTSCRIPT: As this page makes clear, as the BBC news report does not, the films on the list are those selected to undergo the first wave of restoration, with more to follow, so the top six missing moments refer to these films only, not the entirety of Hammer's output.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: As Holger notes in the comments, the reason why the search for the Dracula finale is not top priority is because they actually found it last year.
Just testing, just testing...