Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Ugly Duckling (1959)

THE UGLY DUCKLING used to be one of the Holy Grails for Hammer aficionados.

 Directed by prolific British B-Picture Director Lance Comfort and long considered lost, it was in actual fact hidden in plain sight in the vaults of Sony and BFI. It just hadn’t been screened for more than half a century.

 British Free-to-Air channel Talking Pictures as part of their amazing lineup of vintage movies and TV series has twice now transmitted this production and thereby allowed Hammer Fans to finally view this often discussed but rarely seen comedy.

 Must admit, given that comedy is probably the genre that easily dates the worst (never mind the fact that it often also doesn’t travel well from one culture to the other), I was at least just as anxious as I was curious about finally coming face to face with this movie.

 But I shouldn’t have worried. It is hardly a forgotten masterpiece but it also isn’t a dud. Instead it is a thoroughly enjoyable little contemporary riff on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. The film’s credits even indicate that the idea was “stolen” from that book.

 Shot in 1959, at a time when Hammer’s Gothic reinvention had already begun, it’s something of a throwback to the company’s earlier black and white pictures and seems to have purposely been planned as a comedic variation to THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, released in the same year.

 THE UGLY DUCKLING features a number of familiar faces for Hammer and classic UK movie fans, such as Bernard Bresslaw (MOON ZERO TWO as well as countless CARRY ON films), Michael Ripper and Marla Landi (THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER) as well as Jon Pertwee and many more.

Bresslaw plays Henry Jeckle (sic), great-great-grandson of the original Dr. Jekyll, and totally ill at ease amongst London’s hip youth….. who were still a few years away from being completely changed by the appearance of The Beatles and the subsequent upheavals of the 1960s. When he revives his ancestor’s notorious formula he transforms into a self-confident hoodlum who helps a gang to steal some precious jewels, only to try and give them back to the owners during his more innocent but fumbling real personality.

 And all kinds of mayhem ensues….

 THE UGLY DUCKLING is clearly a product of its time - we even see Jeckle go to bed with a golliwogg doll. – but it’s a fast moving and enjoyably breezy comedy that may have even inspired Jerry Lewis to venture into similar territory with THE NUTTY PROFESSOR four years later.

 The film also features a number of dance band pieces, possibly inspired by producer Michael Carreras lifelong love for jazz. Those musical interludes do at times overstay their welcome quite a bit.

 Ultimately the film probably suffered from a different kind of bad timing as it is depicting a cultural landscape that just a few years later would irrevocably be changed for good and thereby quickly aged this production.

 Still, it is good to finally be given a chance to appreciate this rare Hammer production, remarkable for its balancing act between comedy, musical numbers and the occasional digression into horror-lite with its well lit transformation scenes.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Captain Kronos vs The Mummy (Titan Comics Releases)

Recently read two officially licensed Hammer comics published through Titan Books.

 Titan had previously issued Marcus Hearn’s excellent HAMMER STORY, HAMMER GLAMOUR, THE HAMMER VAULT and THE ART OF HAMMER, so is the perfect choice for Hammer Studio related publications.

 In the past you were able to enjoy Hammer related comic book stories in the pages of the legendary “The House of Hammer” magazine, predominantly adaptations of their films, at the time an ideal way to immerse yourself in their movies when easy access to them via DVD, Blu Ray or streaming was unheard of.

 Titan Comics’ recent THE MUMMY – PALIMPSEST and CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER both go a different direction by taking the original Hammer movies and using them as a spring board to develop new stories.

 Each of those two are perfectly readable and enjoyable in their own right but CAPTAIN KRONOS is the one that has the edge with regards to truly carrying the Hammer torch whereas their version of THE MUMMY really is only tangentially linked to any of the Hammer mummy flicks.

 Though often flashing back to previous incarnations, most of THE MUMMY – PALIMPSEST is set in modern day London.

 In the late 19th Century members of a secret society, the Sect of Anubis, discovered how to cheat death and gain eternal life via the Palimpsest ritual, which required them every 33 years to drink the blood of a female victim chosen to be the host for the ancient Egyptian Priestess Nebetah. Their current chosen one, Angel Kostenko, has been brought to London by sex traffickers but proves resilient in her fight against both her kidnappers as well as the Sect. She is somewhat aided by another group battling the Sect of Anubis, however, soon learns that those guys’ motives may also not be quite as benevolent as they seem to be.

 This is a very effective mummy story but it is only borderline related to Hammer’s original MUMMY (a few brief glimpses of Kharis here or there) and despite the focus on a female mummy also has little to nothing to do with BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB.

 Even though the connections to Hammer are tenuous, this is a highly enjoyable read within the sub-genre of mummy literature and films with an ever so slight – cynics may say: token – feminist slant given that the current sacrifice is both a victim of sex traffickers as well as a pawn between two male-only member societies.

 For Brazilian artist Ronilson Freire THE MUMMY – PALIMPSEST is arguably his biggest English language assignment yet as he is mainly known for work in his native country though has also been involved with DOCTOR WHO graphic novels and a number of other UK/US projects.

 Up until I read the mini bio at the end of the comic, I was convinced that writer Peter (X-STATIX) Milligan was American as the weakest part of this graphic novel is the often ridiculously clunky, archaic and faux-English Upper Class dialogue by the members of the two Secret Societies battling each other. I was totally convinced that no one born in the UK would write lines like: “I am popping up to Scotland for a spot of shooting.”

 Goes to prove how much I know…..

 The CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER comic on the other hand is directly related to the characters in the movie and develops their story further.

 The main hero was always one of the most original vampire hunters, a young, debonair, swashbuckling, pot smoking slayer who at one stage was even planned to be a time traveller, hence the name: Kronos.

 No time travelling in this comic by writer Dan Abnett (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) and artist Tom Mandrake (THE SPECTRE). Instead the plot reunites the three main characters from the movie –Kronos with his trusted sidekick, the eccentric Professor Grost, and sexy gypsy girl Carla who they encountered in the movie and who has now joined them along their way - for a new adventure following the film’s events.

 Their journey brings them to a little village besieged by powerful vampires. When Kronos ventures out to investigate he doesn’t just discover that these are immune to sunlight but also unearths an even bigger mystery.

 What this story does really well, apart of course from some grandiose fight scenes, is to depict the fact that in Kronos’ world there are all different types of vampires that each require a new strategy to defeat them, again setting this character apart from the more traditional vampire hunters.

 Both comics also contain short articles by Marcus Hearn about the history of the original Hammer movies these new stories were inspired by. CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER also contains a foreword by Caroline Munro.

 Overall am quite impressed with New Hammer’s comic book excursions into Old Hammer material with a modern twist and I’m hoping there’ll be more to come… but have a funny feeling this will be yet another short lived attempt to try and breathe new life into an otherwise moribund company.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Paying my respects to Oliver Reed

 I moved to Cork (Ireland) Christmas 1995 and had previously travelled back and forth for a good few years. As such I was very well aware of the fact that Oliver Reed was living quasi in my neighborhood, in Churchtown, a little village just about 50km to the North of Cork City, just off the N20.

 There he lived a fairly quiet life, made friends with the locals and all in all seemed to enjoy that no one made a major deal about the celeb living in their midst. He became a regular to O’Brien’s Bar and despite all the rabble rousing stories told about him, the only time his stay in Churchtown garnered any attention during his lifetime was in a very positive light that would endear him to the locals for years to come: When he heard about a young local girl who suffered from Tetra-amelia, a very rare syndrome that had her born without arms and legs, he arranged a fundraising campaign that would ultimately help to raise IE£ 800.000 towards her treatment.

 So at the time I knew what I had wanted to do. Drive over to Churchtown and plank myself on a bar stool in O’Briens until Reed would show up. Things always came in the way but I always assumed that I’d have all the time in the world to get this arranged.

 Alas, Reed surprisingly died in a bar in Malta during the filming of GLADIATOR. A good few years ago I had managed to visit the bar while visiting the island and noticed that at least at the time the owners had turned this – not necessarily tastefully – into an Oliver Reed shrine to attract the punters and in another bar by chance even met the guy in whose arms Reed had died. (More details on this encounter can be read in my article about it for THE HUNGOVER GOURMET #7)

 Following his death, his corpse was laid to rest in Churchtown, proof how attached the actor had been to his last place of residence. The funeral ended up being a 10-Day-Wake with a number of celebrity mourners such as Michael Winner and Alex Higgins, leading to an influx of visitors that this village would likely never seen again.

 And yet, despite living so close to Churchtown it took me until last summer to finally make it up there and in the end it took a visit by Hammer fan and historian Robert Simpson to get me off my backside and up to Reeds’s gravesite.

 What struck us first was how utterly non-descript the place is: a village square, a pub or two, a church, a couple of small roads and that’s really it.

 Bruhenny Graveyard, the cemetery in which Reed is buried is located just off the main square and O’Brien’s Bar and can be entered through a narrow lane that can easily be missed unless you look out for it.

 Inside one is struck by a feeling that this must be one of the most deserted cemeteries ever which makes it easy, though, to locate Reed’s grave which is just as spare as most of the other graves on the site. It has been reported that over the years visiting fans had drowned so much alcohol in his honour over the gravesite that flowers no longer grow on it which may explain why it now doesn’t stand out much anymore.

 Instead a simple gravestone carrying his name (Robert Oliver Reed) and dates (1938-1999) together with the faded inscription “He made the air move” is all that now marks the final resting place for one of cinema’s most notorious rebel rousers.

Robert and I remained a few minutes in front of the grave until heading to O’Brien’s for a refreshing drink just across the road.

 In contrast to the total overkill in Malta’s bar there is very little that serves as memory to their most famous patron. Where they respected his boundaries in real life and just treated him as one of their own, they continued doing so after his death and all that serves as a reminder now is a single photo of Reed whereas most of the other walls are dominated by horse racing images and memorabilia that reflect the importance of equestrianism for the area.

 I guess we could have stayed and ask the elderly lady behind the bar or some of the few patrons that day about Reed and extract a story or two.

 But we didn’t.

 Truth be told it just didn’t feel right to interfere. No doubt no-one would have minded had we asked but we came to pay our respects and saw no need to further intrude.