Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Have yourself a Hammer Horror Christmas

I wrote back here that my first encounter with Hammer Horror came at Christmas 1984, thanks to a BBC2 season of some of the earliest classic titles, and for this reason I usually endeavour to reacquaint myself with them on the relevant nights.
(I do the same with The Marx Brothers.)
So here's how my Christmas schedule's looking - why not join me and feel that rosy glow of being part of something big and almost unbelievably pointless.
Here's the dates and times for your diary:
22nd December, 12 am: Blood From the Mummy's Tomb
The odd one out of the season. The only non-original, non-Fisher, semi-sequel. I sometimes wonder if my love for this film is in fact attributable to the accident of it having been in such company at such a time of year at such a formative moment in my cinema education. But every time I rewatch it I am more convinced that no: it really is by a mile the best of the post-sixties Hammer films, and a remarkably spooky, suspenseful and clever film. And every time I watch that bit where Valerie Leon bounds towards the camera in slow motion I realise that its appeal has very little to do with Christmas either.
28th December, 10.05 pm: The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula
A six day wait, in which Christmas itself passed in a blur of irrelevance, before the big one:the double-bill to end all double-bills; the main course to which Blood was the appetiser. I watched these the following morning, partly because we now at last had a video recorder, partly because my mother insisted on watching Dracula first to check it wasn't too horrible for me to watch. My access to horror films at this time hinged somewhat bizarrely on what my mother happened to find frightening herself. Frankenstein and the Mummy, she seemed certain, were not frightening at all. But Dracula - apparently for no more scientific reason than that he bit people and the Mummy didn't - was. So she had to pass this one as fit for juvenile consumption. But the extremely gory Blood From the Mummy's Tomb I enjoyed without mediation.
29th December, 11.45 pm: The Mummy
Missed the start of this one because my sister wanted to record Duran Duran on ITV. My tape began at the point where Felix Aylmer is muttering "the mummy... the mummy..." in his padded cell. Basically loved it, though I remember feeling somewhat cheated when they simply shoot him at the end, after seeing bullets thwack into him so many times with so little effect before. Now I am struck by the insane colours on that studio bog set, and by the fact that Yvonne Furneaux is not a reincarnation of the Princess Ananka, merely enough of a lookalike to fool the Mummy. This makes him, when you think about it, a bit of a silly.
4th January, 11.15 pm: Curse of the Werewolf
Strictly speaking, this one's optional. My mother spake again: if Dracula is horrid because he bites; how much more so the werewolf, who not only nips and laps but basically rips bits off of you. It mattered not - even if we knew it at the time - that this is actually one of the most genteel of the early Hammers. I never got to see it. When I did, it didn't impress me all that much. It struck me that the film is basically three films stuck together, with all the werewolfery crammed into the somewhat pedestrian third, and that the first, most irrelevant and most impatiently sat through bit turns out to be by far the best. Still, I must wonder if my cool reaction is in some way influenced by the fact that I didn't see it as part of that seminal first batch, just as my adoration of Blood From the Mummy's Tomb may have something to do with the fact that I did...
Whatever, here are some of my first, most vivid and truly wonderful Hammer Horror memories...
Thanks to everyone who has visited the Abbey this year, and a Merry Christmas to you all!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cherry Fallen

The news that Brittany Murphy has died at the age of 32 sent me with curiosity back to her filmography, and thence to the surprising realisation that I have seen far more of her films than I realised. Most I would never dream of watching again - but however little I remember of some of them, in every case I remember her contribution, and I remember being impressed by her every time. A talented, sparky, unusual, likeable soul.
And one that I certainly will watch again, at least once every couple of years until they take me out the door feet first, is Cherry Falls (2000) one of my favourites of the post-Scream, postmodern slasher wave, (which I discuss here). She is, and looks, great in this film, investing a pretty straightforward slasher heroine character with unwritten dimensions all her own, adding immeasurably to the off-kilter flavour of the film itself.
Sad news.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Doctor Blood's Cornwall

Carfax Abbey has been holidaying in Cornwall, and so naturally decided to drop in on its very good friend Doctor Blood, who keeps a coffin there.
Actually, he doesn't, but it's just one of the many delightful surprises of Doctor Blood's Coffin (1960) that it is the second part of the title that's hyperbole: he doesn't have a coffin, but the main character is called Dr Blood - Dr Peter Blood, to be precise.
Like The Ghoul, it is one of my all-time favourite British horror films, and like The Ghoul no critic in the universe has anything but the most scornful things to say about it. However, unlike The Ghoul, the low critical standing of which is a complete and enduring mystery to me, I am prepared to accept that in this case my ratio of objective/defensible reasons for liking it to subjective/indefensible reasons for liking it is probably somewhere in the region of 70-30 in subjectivity's favour.
But the objective reasons are not to be sniffed at, for all that. In the first place we have the considerable novelty of a Frankenstein movie set in present-day (that is to say sixties) England, rather than a hundred years ago in a mountain village in Switzerland. Then there's the even greater novelty - perhaps even innovation - that its hunky love interest and human vivisection-crazed villain are one and the same, the erstwhile Dr B (Kieron Moore).
And a right rotten sod he is too, descending on his father's Cornish practice, kidnapping innocent Cornish yokels, paralysing them and then taking out their hearts so as to stuff them into corpses and bring them back to life. And all in the bottom of a tin mine.
Therefore the film has no hero, only a heroine, in the form of Hazel Court, the woman they had in mind when they invented Eastmancolor. Hazel is the senior Dr Blood's widowed nurse, but when she balks at Blood Jr's attempted justification for his murders - the victims spent most of their time in the pub - he interprets this as her spurning him in favour of the memory of her late husband. So he digs him up, gives him a new heart (and that's all there is to it, by the way) and then takes her to see him stumbling about with green mould all over his face.
Hazel is of course the other great reason for enjoying the film. Though she became the first female face of Hammer horror in The Curse of Frankenstein (to say nothing of the first Hammer actress to appear nude, in mockingly lost footage from the export version of 1959's Man Who Could Cheat Death), the majority of her horror appearances were in Roger Corman's Poe movies, and Doctor Blood's remains her only other British horror (unless you count pre-Hammer weirdie Devil Girl From Mars) that features her in modern dress and settings. She spends the greater part of the film in a nurse's outfit, complete with high heels and one of those adorable little hats, photographed relentlessly from behind and frequently bending over.
At the time the film was criticised for its excessive gruesomeness, but there is little here that Hammer had not been doing for a year or two; the difference was in the fact that it was not set in some reassuringly distant place and time, and the mad scientist wore polo shirts and sports jackets rather than top hats and frock coats.
My own affection for the film is due at least in part to its familiar - to me - Cornish backgrounds (though the original script had in fact been set in Arizona). So over the past week or so, we've been tracking them down...
Dr Blood's Village
What is referred to in the film as Porthcarron is in fact the village of Zennor. Here's the first post-credits shot of a car driving into the location, followed by the same road as it looks today.
.Doctor Blood's Local
The sign above right is for The Tinner's Arms, the village pub, which, unusually, is also the building used for the location of the pub in the film. The stone work has been rusticated since the film was made; personally I prefer the 1960 whitewash.
.Doctor Blood's Cottage
Ironically, one of the few buildings used in the film to have changed significantly is the main one: the terraced cottage which doubles as Blood and Son's surgery and living accommodation. Over the past half-century it has lost its garden wall, most of its flower beds and its porch.
.The following shot of the cottage (on the right) and the white building next to the pub is still easy to locate, even though the latter has lost the blue painted window-frames and doors.

Here we see the scene in which Hazel bends down to pick up the morning milk (bending correctly at the knees) being restaged by Angela Levin (who bends at the spine, proving she's no nurse).
.Next, Hazel and Angela walk past the white building next to the pub...

... and on up to the gates outside Hazel's house - try to forget the nasty-looking car, and note instead that the gates Angela is heading for are still the Hazel originals.
.And here's the view back towards the village, shot from the same spot.
.Doctor Blood's Pantry
The exterior of the mine where Blood keeps his paralysed, dead and revived bodies is Carn Galver Mine, West Penwith, still looking much as the good doctor left it. The interior is of course a studio set. Shortly after our photo was taken a busload of Germans arrived at the site, but not being able to speak the language we were unable to ascertain if they were touring Cornish landmarks or British Horror Film locations. Obviously I'd like to think it was the latter.
Doctor Blood's Daytrip
Here we see Angela and myself, as Dr Blood, recreating the sequence in which the crazy quack takes a break from cutting out hearts to accompany Hazel to the seaside, and brag to her about when he was a Group Leader in the Cubs. The cliffs have fallen away somewhat since the film was shot, and the carefree manner in which Hazel skips back and forth over the wall would be virtually suicidal today. We were taking quite a risk, in fact, to provide you with the painstaking accuracy of the second shot, so please appreciate it.
Doctor Blood's Little Stroll
Here we see Dr Blood taking a walk, passing G. F. Morton, the local funeral director, and on, past the church, to the village. The funeral parlour is really Zennor Village Hall. I was hoping to find the old G. F. Morton sign abandoned in a hedge or propping open a gate, but no such luck. In the reconstructions that follow the originals below, I will again be essaying the role of Dr Blood, while the character role of Morton will be taken by my father, Mr S. Coniam.
Doctor Blood's Graveyard
In our reconstruction of the film's funeral scene, note that the fence leading into the churchyard is again the 1960 original. The grave that Hazel is looking at is a prop, but the large crosses in the background are unmistakable in both photos. Unfortunately, Equity rates being what they are, we couldn't afford any mourners, so you'll just have to use your imagination in the first one.
.And finally, at no extra cost, a delightfully-named nearby hostelry not featured in the film, but in which the Doc would no doubt have felt very much at home...