Dracula: Prince of Darkness was Hammer’s third Dracula film and the second to feature the sartorial talents of Christopher Lee in the lead role. Because of Lee’s reluctance to become too firmly associated with the role of Count Dracula Hammer had to wait eight years before Lee was willing to accommodate a repeat performance. Unfortunately it wasn’t worth the wait, though the public at the time embraced the film and made it a commercial success. Lee was united with other key personnel from the 1958 production; Jimmy Sangster provided a screenplay based on an Anthony Hinds story, stalwart gothic horror director Terence Fisher was on hand to bring the film to visual life, James Bernard provided another memorable score, and Bernard Robinson endowed the film with his customary lavish production design. However the absence of Peter Cushing as Dracula’s nemesis Dr. Van Helsing leaves a void in the proceedings that Andrew Keir’s savant Father Sandor is unable to fill. Keir does a professional job, but his brusque and boorish manner lacks the air of intellectual dignity and physical vulnerability of Cushing’s more subtle and nuanced character.
First serialised in 1886 H. Rider Haggard’s exotic fantasy adventure She provided just the right ingredients for the early pioneers of silent cinema. Adaptations of the durable tale appeared in 1908, 1911, 1916, 1917 and 1926. RKO raised the bar considerably in 1935 with a lavish version of the tale which cast Helen Gahagan as the eponymous immortal and Randolph Scott as Leo Vincey. This rendering still remains the most impressive thanks to excellent sets, costumes and optical effects. Thirty years later Hammer Film Productions were attempting to diversify their output further, and Haggard’s source material provided the company with the possibility to develop a strain of lost world/prehistoric adventure films. In 1965 Hammer were enjoying one of their most lucrative periods, and the evidence of this is illustrated by the increased budget and epic scale afforded to She. But this is Hammer’s interpretation of the word ‘epic’ and despite shooting in cinemascope the film never quite reaches the grandeur of the 1935 film, nor does it do full justice to the rich imagery of Haggard’s novel. But perhaps the greatest failing of David T. Chantler’s screenplay is that for large periods of the film very little happens. This has to be one of the most limp and lifeless epic adventures of all time; in short She is a crashing bore.
AKA: Are You Dying, Young Man? Young Man, I Think You're Dying
The Beast in the Cellar is one of the more eccentric and peculiar British horror films of the 1970’s. In a way its unconventional narrative is entirely in keeping with Tigon’s general approach to the horror genre. It formed a double bill with one of Tigon’s most creatively successful films The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and a comparison of both films tells you all you need to know about the companies inconsistency. To be fair to James Kelley who both wrote and directed The Beast in the Cellar his vision was continually hampered by Tenser’s efforts to make it marketable. The powerful family melodrama that Kelley envisioned soon gave way to the prurient title Tenser chose and a series of inserted murder sequences, which stylistically at least, are totally at odds with the rest of the film. One such sequence opens the film, and while we are afforded some beautiful shots of a rural landscape courtesy of Desmond Dickinson and Harry Waxman, this is soon forgotten as the camera spins and weaves to indicate the chaos of a violent attack. I’m not sure who directed these set pieces, but their strategy of shaking the camera around uncontrollably makes these killings feeble and unimaginative. The victims of these frenzied outbursts are exclusively soldiers, who are regularly on manoeuvres in the woodlands (thus continually in harms way) and this makes for an element of intrigue that just about merits further viewing. The early conclusion that a leopard might be responsible for the attacks is an absurdity that is soon thankfully forgotten.
The patchy and uneven directorial career of Freddie Francis sits in stark contrast to his career as a cinematographer. Francis the director worked almost exclusively in the horror genre and constantly struggled to stretch his poverty row budgets too accommodate typically overambitious projects. Nevertheless Francis still managed to infuse his horror projects with visual panache and stylistic energy. Although Francis helmed a number of popular British horror films, it was extremely rare that he would push the boundaries of the genre. In my view he managed this on just two occasions. The brilliant and often surreal The Skull (1965) showed evidence of a purely cinematic form of storytelling to which Francis was well suited, and Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1970) stands out in Francis’ filmography for its peculiar eccentricities and weird offbeat tone. In 1973 Francis saw his nineteenth feature film released and there was a certain inevitability about him making a picture for Tigon. Tigon were known for a slightly off kilter approach to their horror productions, so it was something of a surprise that Francis was invited to direct The Creeping Flesh, which is easily Tigon’s most rigorous attempt to imitate Hammer’s brand of gothic horror.
Italian filmmaking pensioner Dario Argento has an ongoing obssession with monstrous matriarchs and parental failure. In his masterpiece Deep Red (1975) the mother of homosexual pianist Carlo turns out to be a raving homicidal maniac who murdered his father and is forced to resume the slaughter to cover up the past. In Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007) Argento takes his hatred of mothers to mystical and supernatural degrees by exploring an omniscient trio of tyrants who are united by cruelty and sadism. Argento positions these evil harridans at the heart of all human misery and suffering. If Argento’s films do not feature a grotesque mother figure then they invariable present a world that is entirely absent of parental figures. In Phenomena Argento prefers the innocent world of childhood, and the wondrous and often mysterious world of insects. But Phenomena is unique in that it features a hideous homicidal parent in the shape of Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi) that works in tandem with parental absence. The horribly deformed child who was conceived after his mother was raped in an asylum is the only child in the film whose parent is ever present. This is in itself is abnormal enough to merit insanity and deformity in Argento's universe. The children who find themselves at the Richard Wagner boarding school have all been abandoned, and the protagonist Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) comes from a broken family in which her father is often absent due to his profession.
At this point in his career Wes Craven was known for the mindless sadism and cruelty of The Last House on the Left (1972), an amateurish and vile exercise in screen grotesquery that he has since spent a career trying to defend. I’d have much more respect for Craven if he were to admit that his repugnant debut was an implement purely intended to make money. Instead he lives up to his surname by suggesting it is more than what it is. This shows contempt for the horror audience, a contempt he has shown throughout his career. But despite this obvious disdain, horror fans have, by and large, bought into Craven’s assertions about his debut film. Some will even argue that The Last House is a classic! Personally I’ll stick to The Wicker Man (1973) and Suspiria (1977) and anyone who wants scenes of women being made to piss themselves are welcome to them. The thematically similar The Hills Have Eyes (1977) however is far superior, and showed at least that Craven could actually a decent looking film. He took this visual competence a step further with his third theatrically released feature film Deadly Blessing. The film is notable for its lack of savagery and sadism. This is a sanitised Craven on his knees begging for entry to a mainstream he always craved. It is little more than a rural slasher, and although Craven enters into the realm of sub Halloween (1978) trickery (this just goes to highlight how inferior a filmmaker he is to John Carpenter), Deadly Blessing still manages to emerge as a lot of fun.
Like a bullet from a Yakuza gun a new blog has been fired into the blogosphere and hopefully it will lodge firmly in your brain. I refer to Lone Wolves and Hidden Dragons, a new concern written by myself in collaboration with Brian Bankston aka Venoms5 of the brilliant Cool Ass Cinema. We both share an interest and fascination in the films of the far east, and this blog will allow us the opportunity to express our curiosity and attraction to the often wild and frequently wonderful films produced in Japan, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, and South Korea. So if giant radioactive monsters, noble samurai’s, long haired avenging ghost women, martial arts experts, and everything from art films to cult gore fests gets your attention head on over and lend your support.
After the resounding success of their first portmanteau horror film Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) it was inevitable that Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky would initiate a second. In the meantime Amicus had produced eight single narrative films with varying degrees of success. The commercial high point of this two year period was without a doubt Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD (1966). But in terms of creativity Amicus hit a home run with the peculiar contemporary set gothic chiller The Skull (1965). The short story that formed the basis of this distinctive film was written by Robert Bloch, and it was to his short stories that Amicus would turn for their second anthology Torture Garden. This time Subotsky took a back seat with regards to the writing and allowed Bloch the opportunity to adapt his own stories. One of the weaknesses of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was the clichéd nature of Subotsky’s screenplay, the stories themselves were highly predictable, but the movie was saved by an ingenious framing narrative. Although Torture Garden has aged very badly (it is easily amongst the weakest of Amicus’ anthologies) the stories themselves do at least possess a certain off kilter originality, and a weirdness and unpredictability that makes them far more intriguing propositions than the desultory generic retread Subotsky had provided two years before.
AKA: The Creepers The Night the Creatures Came Night of the Silicates The Night the Silicates Came
While director Terence Fisher showed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and flair for the gothic horror productions he made for Hammer, his approach to films with a contemporary setting was significantly less accomplished. The two science-fiction pictures he made for producer Tom Blakely’s Planet Film Productions are ample evidence of this. Although I enjoyed both Island of Terror and its thematic sequel Night of the Big Heat (1968) it’s clear that Fisher’s heart isn’t in either project. This is despite the erstwhile support of Peter Cushing in both films. Where Fisher conjures up moments of sublime inspiration for Hammer, here his direction is bland and awkward, as featureless and uninspired as any hack invited to direct a low budget genre film. But somehow Island of Terror still manages to possess a certain charm, almost as if the ultra low budget is seen by the filmmakers as a challenge to their ingenuity. With its extremely silly and unconvincing monsters Island of Terror is very reminiscent of early 1970’s Doctor Who, and like Doctor Who a greater reliance is placed on the writing. Although the screenplay by Edward Mann and Al Ramsen is entirely unpersuasive in its badly researched science, the film moves along at such a quick pace that it doesn’t really allow an audience time to laugh at the absurdity…that comes after the end credits have rolled.
AKA: Creatures Creatures from Beyond the Grave Tales from Beyond the Grave Tales from the Beyond The Undead
Amicus Productions’ seventh horror anthology film From Beyond the Grave is one of the better efforts from Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg. This is largely due to an even tone throughout the stories, and a more inspired visual style. Although it doesn’t quite compete with The House that Dripped Blood (1971) and Tales from the Crypt (1972) it is a significant improvement over Amicus’ previous anthology film The Vault of Horror (1973), which was a tired and perfunctory affair that didn’t do justice to the EC comics source material. Instead Subotsky turned to the chillingly well crafted short stories of R. Chetwynd Hayes and by and large Raymond Christodoulou and Robin Clarke’s screenplay does justice to the tales. This is probably one of the most fondly remembered of Amicus’ anthologies due to the memorable framing narrative. The cadaverous Peter Cushing plays the doddery proprietor of an antiques store called Temptations Ltd. Within its dank and dusty interior Cushing busies himself at his vast collection of object d’art, disappearing and reappearing with unnerving and eerie regularity. For each customer that enters the shop and makes the bell above the door chime, the proprietor seems to have exactly the item they desire. Their fate rests upon their decision to acquire the item with honesty and openness or deception and lies.
Dir: DOUGLAS CAMFIELD Writer: ROBERT BANKS STEWART Country: UK
Original Transmission Dates: 31/01/1976 - 06/03/1976 (6 Episodes)
Season 13 (1975-76) of Doctor Who saw the programme reach a pinnacle of derivation under the stewardship of producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. In the wrong hands this might have been disastrous, but in fact the stories that emerged were highly inventive variations on a theme shot through with an enthusiasm only matched by Tom Baker’s beaming smile. The season opener Terror of the Zygons explored the mythology of the Loch Ness Monster within the framework of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Planet of Evil was a direct take on Forbidden Planet (1956), and Pyramids of Mars and The Brain of Morbius delightfully recreated the saturated style and atmosphere of Hammer’s gothic horrors whilst finding time for innovative uses of TheMummy and Frankenstein motifs. The season finale was the most ambitious of all. A six part adventure encompassing both the Antarctic and the English countryside and recycling the themes and plot devices of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Quatermass Experiment (1954), and The Thing From Another World (1951). The resulting tale The Seeds of Doom is one of the most enjoyable stories of Tom Baker’s tenure, and perhaps most impressively is that all too rare six part adventure that doesn’t suffer from too much padding, and doesn’t have episodes that feel tacked on in order to extend the story.
Director Sidney Lumet and actor Sean Connery collaborated a number of times on some interesting and diverse projects. Lumet would be the filmmaker to which Connery would return most often, and his trust in Lumet’s abilities is best exemplified by the director being invited to helm this harrowing tale of brutality and psychological breakdown. The territory wasn’t entirely new for both men. In 1965 Connery appeared in Lumet’s sadistic war drama The Hill, and Lumet would return to the theme of police corruption in the Al Pacino vehicle Serpico (1973). The Offence however is far more interesting than either of these films. It was made at a time when Connery had finally severed his ties with the James Bond franchise, in fact this film directly followed Diamonds are Forever (1971). It seems interesting to me that Connery would pursue a role that explores a crisis in identity and motivation due to exhaustion and mental fragmentation at a time when his own iconic screen image was in a state of flux. The Offence is without a doubt a self-conscious attempt on the part of Connery to distance himself from the role for which he would forever be known. To be fair to Connery he is a revelation here. His Detective Sergeant Jonhson is a very disturbing creation indeed. Early in the film we see him treat his colleagues with contempt, bully his way through a crime scene and show a singular lack of patience and empathy for his fellow human being. This is a police officer on the edge, and an ineffectual investigation into a series of horrendous child molestations is the event which tips him over the edge.
The celluloid highway has some interesting intersections and junctions, some are unjustifiably overgrown, others deserve to be riddled with potholes. The slasher film is a road that is very well travelled, but deserves the utmost neglect. If one is a fan of genre films, one must inevitably accept that derivation is something the genre fan not only accepts, but is comfortable and happy with. The genre fan searches like a gold prospector for those rare genre films that attempt to do something radical within a highly commercialised and derivative form. My reason for dismissing slasher films is that, in my view, this is the one subgenre that has the least amount of imagination. Few subgenres hold so rigidly to a template as the slasher film. The mean spirited nature of the films are fine with me, the wonderful make up effects and scenes of graphic violence are also fine, the rampant misogyny that masquerades as gender equality through the insulting device of the ‘final girl’ is also fine with me too. But the singular lack of revisionism makes this subgenre a wasteland of creativity. The slasher film represents the horror genre at its most juvenile and moronic. This has nothing to do with the adolescent concerns of the screenplay, but it has everything to do with a mindlessly literal attitude to the propagation of a genre. I’m sure my esteemed readership will offer individual examples that may challenge this reading, but in the main the slasher film remains such a stupid, hollow and vacuous experience because of the inability of filmmakers to think even slightly outside of the box.