Tuesday, September 25, 2007

How I fell in love with Hammer Horror

I loved horror films long before I saw any. 
At primary school I would spend hours looking at a friend's copy of Alan Frank's book Horror Movies, imagining what it would be like to actually see one, to see those gorgeous colour and black and white stills actually move. (Even today I am instantly struck when a moment in a film corresponds with one of those stills - Peter Cushing sawing a skull open in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, for instance, or Christopher Matthews with a spike sticking out of him in Scars of Dracula - it feels odd, like a trick, or when film-makers stage a scene to look like a classical painting.)
Perhaps more than any other body of films, my love of Hammer Horror is inseparable from my childhood memories of it.
All horror films seemed like hidden treasure to me then, and without doubt the first of the three great milestones in my film-lover's boyhood was when I at last caught up with the Universal sequence, thanks to a series of Saturday night BBC 2 double bills in the Summer of 1983. (The second was my discovery of the Marx Brothers that Christmas.)
But though I loved the Universals, I still dreamed of Hammer. After all, they were in colour, there was blood, Dracula had pointy fangs, the women all wore nightgowns, and the fact that both they and I were British somehow made them seem scarier to me - nearer, I suppose.
Watching Hammer films today, I seem to be more aware of the limitations to their style and methods than the strengths, and I actually now prefer the earlier Hollywood versions. But when I finally got to see them they were everything I was hoping for. In fact, I'll happily watch any Hammer film, and I've never seen one I didn't enjoy. (And that includes The Vengeance of She, so lay off this movie, everyone!)

So Hammer was milestone three, thanks to yet another BBC 2 season, Christmas 1984, consisting of Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula double-billed, then The Mummy, Curse of the Werewolf (which I missed at the time and has never been quite as comparable a favourite for no better reason) and Blood From the Mummy's Tomb.
The latter was the odd one out. Shown first, but made over a decade after the originals from which the rest of the season was drawn, it's unromantically photographed on sound stages and real streets, lacking the artificiality and elegance and uniformity of the films made at the tiny, ramshackle Bray Studios (which Hammer stopped using in 1967). Yet it remains one of my very favourites to this day.
Whether its presence in my pantheon, like Werewolf's absence, is therefore attributable to the accident of its having been shown at this time in this company is a moot point, but I don't think so: it's head and shoulders above most of Hammer's seventies output.
Odd, because it was completed under the most arduous of circumstances: original star Peter Cushing dropped out after a day's work to tend his ailing wife, and original director Seth Holt dropped dead halfway through.
An adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Jewel of the Seven Stars, it denies audiences the mummy seemingly promised by the title and instead offers a complex plot about reincarnation that, stopping only for a few gratuitous gory deaths, moves elegantly and with a persuasively sinister atmosphere to a neatly ironic ending. Perhaps because his greatest successes had all been in monochrome, Holt does not make the error of bathing the Egyptian flashbacks in studio sunlight, which makes the sets look obvious and drowns everything in sickly yellow. Instead he goes for the simple but so much more effective gambit of setting them all at night: the sets look great, picked out in candlelight and shadow, and the strange, other-worldly aura thus achieved is so effective it makes you wonder why it's never night time in ancient Egypt in any other horror films.

As for Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula: well, I dread to think how many times I watched my Betamax copy of them throughout 1985.
They still seem to me perfect examples of low-budget horror, the underrated first as much as the rightly lauded second, and fascinating in the confidence with which they took the genre away from the gothic excess of the American model and reinserted it into a Gainsborough/Tod Slaughter milieu (that swiftly became the new orthodox among the plethora of imitators appearing in their wake).
Everything about them works, and the central performances of Peter Cushing (as Frankenstein and Van Helsing) and Christopher Lee (as the Creature and Dracula) set a new standard. They are both less than 85 minutes, and while many of the later Hammers are uncertainly paced, these rattle along like steam trains. Director Terence Fisher, who had come to the studio after a long apprenticeship at Gainsborough and elsewhere but whose work would come to define the Hammer style, does an amazing job with a tiny budget, cramped sets, short shooting schedule and the studio's generally low aspirations for and expectations of the projects. Later, when the first receipts were in, and Hammer and Fisher realised they had stumbled onto something incredibly potent, self-consciousness set in, and the effortlessness and ease characterising this first pair seemed often to elude them both.
Both films take the old myths and make them smaller. This Frankenstein works from the attic room of an English country house (supposedly in a mountain village in Switzerland) as far removed from Colin Clive's wet-walled fortress as Lee's raw and mangled Creature is from Karloff's electric green giant. The Count and his victims are only a border-crossing apart, and Cushing's Van Helsing dismisses transformation into bats as "a common fallacy". (These prosaic touches are the work of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and would largely disappear when his place as chief writer was taken by John Elder.)
The Baron is now a Tod Slaughteresque wicked squire, disposing of his inconveniently pregnant serving wench like Squire Corder polishing off poor Maria Marten in the Red Barn, and Lee's Dracula is deadpan and underplayed, replacing Lugosi's "I am... Dracula!" with a stiffly British "Mr Harker, I am glad that you have arrived safely." (For all his attempts to escape the character's shadow - and yes, he does have one here - Lee has never since filled the screen with such sheer presence, acting with height and bearing and poise, and with the elegant, expressive hands that glide, white and sinister, at the end of his black, mile-long arms.)
Not part of the season, however - though I wish it had been - was the film that seems to me Hammer's finest of all: The Phantom of the Opera. It is far and away Terence Fisher's best job of work as a director, with a larger than usual budget extremely well-spent, superb editing, music and screenplay, and a wonderfully detailed Victorian atmosphere. It was also a flop, ended Fisher's dominance of the studio's product, and has been criminally underrated ever since.
Basically a romantic tragedy, with the Phantom a noble outcast punished for his naivety in a world of philistines and crooks, it is an affecting and sad film; the scene in which tears stream from the Phantom's eyes when he hears his protégée singing on stage for the first time, is genuinely moving. But it's also supremely eerie, it boasts a lovely fake opera by Edwin Astley, and scene after scene displays careful, considered, masterly film-making. (One particular stand-out being the sequence in which the heroine is abducted and taken to the Phantom's lair, in which direction, editing and music collaborate brilliantly to deliver one hell of a shock when she opens her curtains.)
.I started thinking about Hammer because, even as murmurs are heard yet again of plans to revive the brand (such plans are aired, sometimes with considerable detail and fanfare, every five years or so) another link in the chain dissolved this week. Producer Aida Young has died at the age of 86.
The obituaries have been generous: interesting to see the Draculas described without qualification in The Times as “horror classics”, which would have been going a bit too far, old chap, even in the early years of my lifetime. (The same paper's claim that she had to “overcome the waves of sexual discrimination within the film industry” sounds a bit overcooked though: I can't imagine Hammer, the smallest and friendliest family firm in the business, worrying too much about things like that.)
In interviews, the real old guard of the studio would occasionally be less than generous in their assessments of her; all were in agreement that she was not overly concerned with the quality of the movies themselves. Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of some of them, especially Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Taste the Blood of Dracula may be a more serious achievement, and Dracula AD 1972 a more joyous entertainment, but this late-sixties penny dreadful remains my favourite Dracula sequel.

You'll probably have guessed that it was the second I saw, some time in '85 I think (though somewhere around this time I also saw The Satanic Rites of Dracula at a friend's house; the exact chronology eludes me now.)
I loved the vivid opening credits, I loved the exuberantly gory (if both physically and chronologically impossible) first scene, which plays somewhat in the manner of a James Bond pre-credits sequence, and most of all I loved the ending, the most inventively gruesome in the entire series, with Dracula tumbling down a cliff and ending up kebabbed on the shaft of a huge golden crucifix, weeping tears of blood.
Now when I watch it I am also struck by the beauty of the photography and the sets, the little winding streets and rooftops, uniquely stylish and charming among the post-Bray studio films, and also by all the theological huffing and puffing in the screenplay. (It seems inarguable to me now that this subtext, betrayed overtly by the cribbing of a couple of visual ideas and the key scene in which church patriarch Rupert Davies grills his atheistic prospective son-in-law, was lifted from Fred Zinnemann's film of A Man For All Seasons.)

Hands of the Ripper, a later Young production, is also among the finest of the studio's later output, though it more obviously betrays its era in its flat lighting and obvious sound stages.
Other than that, however, it is terrific stuff, gory and spooky, but also oddly romantic and touching, and benefitting enormously - at a time when Hammer tended to look to Playboy for its female leads - from the casting of Angharad Rees, a china doll rather than an inflatable one. It is the most poignant Hammer Horror since Phantom of the Opera; the finale, as the Ripper's tormented daughter leaps from the whispering gallery of St Paul's into the arms of the protector she had earlier tried to murder, is exceptional.
.Aida Young (1920 -2007)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Karloff's Last Waltz: Boris, Bogdanovich and Targets

Like the French New Wave directors, Peter Bogdanovich began as a critic before going on to make movies heavily informed by his passion for directors like Hawks, Hitchcock and Welles, imbued with a poignant sense of loss that chimed well with the so-called ‘nostalgia boom’ (when audiences suddenly realised that, with the collapse of the studio system, something cherishable had been lost beyond recall.)
Targets (1968), his directorial debut, is many things: a thoughtful and brilliantly tense thriller, a love letter to the past and a poison pen letter to the present, an elegy for Hollywood’s golden age, and – for its star Boris Karloff – the kind of loving valediction of which all actors must dream.
Karloff plays Byron Orlok, a horror star who decides to cancel his next film and retire because he has grown to loathe Hollywood, and the modern world, and feels like an anachronism amidst slick new kinds of film-making and vapid young audiences:
Everybody's dead. I feel like a dinosaur. Oh, I know how people feel about me these days - old-fashioned, outmoded... 'Mr Boogeyman, King of Blood' they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream... I couldn't play a straight part decently anymore. I've been doing the other thing too long... and even that isn't the point. You know what they call my films today? Camp, high camp.
Wait a minute, I want to show you something. My kind of horror isn't horror anymore. Look at that. [He produces a newspaper, headlined YOUTH KILLS SIX IN SUPERMARKET.] No-one is afraid of a painted monster.
He will honour one last professional commitment - to introduce his new film (actually Karloff's 1963 Corman quickie The Terror) at its drive-in premiere. As we follow him through the day in the company of his director friend Sammy (played by Bogdanovich), Karloff/Orlok holds court on old age, the decline of the movies, the golden age, and modern society. We see him argue with agents and studio heads, reminisce, get drunk and fall asleep, and even watch himself on television in Howard Hawks's The Criminal Code.
Karloff told Bogdanovich that one of his lines in the film was the truest he had ever delivered. When the writer-director asked him which one, he replied: "The one when I'm looking out the car window at the city streets and I say, 'God, what an ugly town this has become.' My Lord, it's never been truer."
Perhaps the most impressive moment comes when Orlok is, with the utmost reluctance, meeting the moronic, trendy interviewer who is going to speak to him as he introduces the movie ("When I was a kid, Mr O, I must have dug your flicks four zillion times. You blew my mind." "Obviously.")
So infuriated is he by the inanity of the questions he decides instead to tell a story to the audience, and launches into it. It's a short, clever tale of the unexpected about a man who meets Death in person, delivered hypnotically by Karloff in a single fluid tracking shot that moves slowly to extreme close-up in time for the punchline. It is utterly mesmerising, and the crew burst into spontaneous applause after shooting it. Later Bogdanovich noticed that Karloff's wife Evie had been discreetly crying. "Do you know how long it's been since a crew has applauded for Boris?" she explained quietly.
Throughout all this, Bogdanovich is constantly cuting to a second, seemingly unrelated story, concerning a disaffected young man, living a sterile, joyless existence with his wife and parents who, we soon learn, is dangerously disturbed. Eventually, he murders his family and we watch him matter-of-factly take his gun collection to a water-tower, climb it, and shoot randomly at the cars passing by on the nearby freeway.
As the two stories alternate, they begin to brush against each other. ("Guess who I saw coming home? Byron Orlok!", the young man tells his family at dinner. "Did he scare you?" jokes his father, explicitly evoking Orlok's own analogy between his tame, old-fashioned horrors and the new horrors of the real world.)
We realise that each man is moving in ignorance of the other to the same ultimate destination: the drive-in. Here, as Karloff approaches to make his public appearance, the young killer climbs the scaffolding behind the screen and, through a small hole in the fabric, begins shooting at the audience.
They finally meet in the film's final moments in a confrontation that is dramatic, clever, and moving. Walking blithely into danger, Orlok disarms the killer and slaps him hard in the face, encountering for the first time not just the evil but also the banality of this new kind of horror. "Is that what I was afraid of?" Karloff asks in sadness and disgust.
As I said, this is a gripping thriller, a profound rumination on cultural decline, and a salute to a great star that allows Karloff a chance, at just the right moment in his career, to show exactly the kind of work of which he is capable. He made other films after, Curse of the Crimson Altar in England and some terrible back-to-back quickies in Mexico, but apparently always referred to Targets, with metaphorical if not literal accuracy, as his final film. One can easily imagine many another old actor watching it and wishing that they had been given an opportunity to round off their career so show-stoppingly.
Bogdanovich's next movie, The Last Picture Show (1971, left) filtered the same bittersweet sentiments through a beautifully observed portrait of small-town life in 1950’s Texas, as played out in and around a run-down movie theatre; comparisons were made with Citizen Kane and it won many awards. He followed it with two smash-hit pastiches of classical Hollywood formulae: What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a funny if exhausting screwball comedy closely modelled on Bringing Up Baby, and Paper Moon (1973), a depression-era fable with something of the flavour of Ford or early Capra.
The films that followed reflect not so much a decline in achievement as a sense of being left behind by fashion. Though major commercial and critical flops, there's not much wrong with At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon (1976) except, perhaps, miscasting. But their failure resulted in Bogdanovich spending the rest of his career in the wilderness. And though he certainly returned to form with the excellent The Cat’s Meow (2001, left), another Hollywood insider story, in the final analysis, Targets remains his best film.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

She never left the island

Had she lived, my favourite Hollywood actress Fay Wray would have been a hundred today. In fact, she was just a month shy of an impressive 97 when she passed away in 2004.

It struck me at the time that the reaction from the world’s press was curiously muted. She was not ignored, of course, and all the obituarists had nice things to say.
But nowhere did one sense the recognition that this really was pretty much the last one, the end of that most important generation of Hollywood stars who came to prominence in the early nineteen-thirties after apprenticing either in silents or on Broadway.
Facially somewhat reminiscent of Gloria Swanson, she was never a major star, never in the Davis or Crawford or Stanwyck league, mainly because she freelanced for most of her career and rarely stayed under contract to a single studio for more than a year or two.
This meant that no studio head could be bothered to devote to her sufficient time and resources to cultivate the myths and mystique necessary for true golden age stardom. Neither was she a Hollywood animal; she preferred the company of writers to actors. Her husbands were screenwriters: angsty lost generationer John Monk Saunders and cheery Capra scribe Robert Riskin.
So she remained a jobbing actress rather than an icon, never treating her career as more than a job, never quite able to fully capitalise on the acclaim she received after Von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece The Wedding March (1928) or the immense popularity of King Kong (1933).
Nonetheless, immortality can be won by accident, and as the girl in Kong’s paw (and as the talkies' foremost screamer: a spurious reputation if ever there was one) she has found her way into screen history after all – proof that posterity is always, ultimately, a lottery.

Wray is terrific in Kong, of course, just as she is as the satin-clad victim of inhuman passions in those three monuments of pre-code grotesque Dr X, Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Most Dangerous Game. But her other films are eminently worth tracking down too.
She attempted most genres, and invariably pleased in a romantic lead. Her stint at Paramount in the early thirties catches the best of her; she’s young, incredibly beautiful and still flushed with confidence after her triumph with Stroheim.
As with all pre-Code cinema, these films are fascinating for the manner in which they capture now unfamiliar fads, fashions and sub-genres. Behind the Make-Up (1930) is a gloomy road to ruin saga with a sharply-etched vaudeville background and some prime hysterics as Fay squares up to love rival Kay Francis, pre-code’s premier man-eating sophisticate. Pointed Heels (1929) is a backstage Broadway drama with a Technicolor sequence and the delightful pairing of Fay and Helen Kane as sisters-in-law. (The title refers both to Fay's footwear and her resilience.)
Cast against type as a femme fatale she plausibly dominates Gary Cooper in One Sunday Afternoon (1933), a fine example of thirties bucolic nostalgia. (Also one of her comparitively few 'bad girls'; her best bitch role of all is unquestionably Vida, the scheming, mercenary 'oil wife', in The Woman I Stole [1933].)
And the early thirties fad for South Sea exploration saw her menaced by cannibals in The Sea God (1930), possibly the first of the many films in which she ends up with her clothes hanging from her in shreds, and subject of this memorable review from Photoplay Magazine:
If you don’t like this picture you’re just an old introvert or worse. For here is wild adventure, cannibals, pearl diving, sailing vessels, love, melodrama. Dick Arlen, just a bit of South Sea flotsam and jetsam, is charming, virile and utterly natural. There’s your old friend, Eugene Pallette, as the comic and Fay Wray being beautiful as the girl. Dialogue is grand. Lots of things to interest you. See it.
The fact that few of her early thirties films were big box office hits is not reason enough to disregard them; she worked for Capra (in the excellent Dirigible [1931]) and Sternberg and Raoul Walsh, and audience reaction of the time is always a bad index of a film's qualities: let's face it, they could afford to be choosy back then.
She was stunning in these years, her screen persona an odd, characteristically pre-code mix of elegance and exhibitionism. Though the films invariably cast her as a prim good girl, with quiet, precise diction and a fragile beauty, only those of Miriam Hopkins rival the casual regularity with which script contrivances conspire to get her down to her underwear.
When you return to her more famous horror films after a few of these, you realise how underused she was in them. Mystery of the Wax Museum (1932), for instance, gives her hardly anything to do: she doesn’t appear at all for ages and does very little even then. The contrast with Glenda Farrell’s wisemouth reporter is striking and you wonder why they couldn’t have simply stuck the two roles together and made Wray’s character the journalist. The idea that such a delicate beauty was impossible casting as a hard-boiled journo at the time is contradicted by the evidence of Loretta Young in Platinum Blonde (1931), and for that matter Fay herself in The Finger Points (1931) or The Jury's Secret (1938).
Wax Museum’s companion piece Doctor X (1931, below) gives her more to go on, including greater relevance to the plot and some nice scenes with Lee Tracy. (Tracy specialised in reporter roles like this one, much in vogue for a few years; his career petered out after he was fired from the film Viva Villa! (1934) for standing naked on his hotel balcony and urinating on the crowd below.)
But her best horror role remains in Most Dangerous Game (1933). Rather than merely a menaced bystander she gets a full share of the action, and the film is notable for its use of King Kong sets, more shredded clothing, and eye-opening pre-code severed heads and sado-eroticism.
The secret of her success in these roles is I think attributable to an odd streak of perversity that comes rushing to the fore whenever she is in distress, terror or the throes of passion. She pants loudly, whimpers, her chest heaves, and she throws herself back in complete submission, her arms flailing. In direct contrast with her cut-glass accent and mannered style, these sudden moments of eroticised abandon hint at strange depths to her personality. When threatened by lusting maniacs it is not her famous screams that make the deep impression so much as the instant capitulation, tinged with what really does seem like arousal, that comes swiftly in their wake.
Her career stalled after Kong and it’s hard to say exactly why, though disinterest on her part surely was a factor. (She retired completely in 1942 but returned as character support in 1953; Joan Crawford, on behalf of the old guard, sent her a note saying "welcome back, we need you".) She doesn’t even appear in Son of Kong (1933, Helen Mack does), though she would have been relieved when this rushed production (released the same year as the original) proved a surprise flop.

A big mistake, career-wise, was her decision to take up a lucrative offer from British Gaumont in 1935; she considered herself resented by the British actors, and few Hollywood careers could have been sustained by imported appearances in Jack Hulbert movies. Still, it's nice to see her on the London Underground in Bulldog Jack (1935), and the holiday did result in one excellent film, The Clairvoyant (1935), a creepy thriller with Claude Rains, featuring Wray in a terrific stage outfit, working the audience in a mind reading act. (Watch this film here.)
Back in the States she drifted into B-films, usually for Columbia (though she also turns up at Universal, where she had started in B-westerns in 1926, and even Monogram). Don't write these off either. After setting a giant octopus on her in Below the Sea (1933), Columbia got her mixed up with voodoo sacrifices in Black Moon (1934), a forgotten semi-horror from director Roy William Neill with an almost Val Lewtonesque feel, and a real find. Murder in Greenwich Village (1937) is a sparky comedy murder mystery, with dialogue and characterisation clearly inspired by It Happened One Night, as most romantic comedies were around this time. Fay is the spoiled heiress, obliged to pretend for the sake of an alibi that she is engaged to an oafish photographer; they have some good bantering dialogue and there are a number of funny scenes in which their heated rows are interrupted and they are forced to switch instantly to devoted cooing. The film is further notable for Fay’s first appearance, in which she climbs out of a skylight, jumps from one building to another and then shins down the fire escape in her underwear.
Most of her films can be found on public domain DVD, and I’ve yet to find a one in which she, at least, is not worth the effort. Look out for They Met In a Taxi, The Lawyer's Secret, Woman in the Dark, Navy Secrets, The Vampire Bat, It Happened in Hollywood and especially The Richest Girl in the World, in which she more than holds her own in support of Miriam Hopkins. It's a charming romantic comedy, and early go through of the millionairess-swaps-places-with-her-secretary-in-pursuit-of-true-love scenario, and an obvious influence on Jane Russell's The French Line.
Though in the public consciousness she remains tied to a post on Skull Island, Fay’s now seems one of Hollywood’s most interesting careers, albeit one all too rarely rewarded at the box-office or by posterity. It’s also one of the most useful careers for the film historian in that it encompasses the entire history of classical Hollywood, via ingénues in silents, romantic leads in the early thirties, character roles and television in the fifties.
For an instant retrospective to celebrate the centenary of this most elegant of stars, start with The Wedding March, then try Pointed Heels, then a horror (Dr X or Most Dangerous Game, perhaps, rather than Kong) then take your pick from The Finger Points, One Sunday Afternoon, The Unholy Garden (1931), Ann Carver's Profession (1933) or Madame Spy (1934). As a finale, I suppose playing Leslie Nielsen's mother in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) has novelty value, if nothing else.