Monday, July 27, 2009

“If there was anything else I would do it” - Christopher Lee's Dracula in the seventies


Between 1958 and 1969, Christopher Lee played Dracula four times.
Each time he returned to the role, he did so with greater and more vocal reluctance.
Yet over the following three years he would end up donning the cape four times more - however much he wanted to give up the character, it seemingly had no intention of relinquishing him.
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By the time of 1969's Taste the Blood of Dracula - designed, like Brides of Dracula (1959) as a sequel in which Dracula himself did not appear, until Warners insisted otherwise at the last minute - he made no secret of his desire and intention never to appear as the character on screen again. Writing to the president of his fan club, he explained:
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You know how I feel about Hammer films in general and their presentation of the Dracula stories in particular. Imagine therefore my surprise when I discovered on my return from Portugal that my agent, with the very best of intentions, has virtually committed me to playing Dracula for the fourth time in yet another Hammer production, at present tentatively entitled Taste the Blood of Dracula. Words fail me... I have been assured by many people that the fact that I play Dracula does not in any way mean that I am taking a step backwards into further cheap horror movies.
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Though it in fact proved the most intelligent and original sequel so far, Taste the Blood gave Lee virtually nothing to do. Why then did he immediately accept another Dracula picture?
Therein lies one of the most interesting chapters of the saga, as Lee again explained to his fan club:
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On November 3rd I start what I hope will be positively my last film for Hammer. The tasteful title is Taste the Blood of Dracula. As usual, words fail me, as indeed they will also do in the film...
However, here comes one amusing aspect of the whole mess. I have long wanted, as you know, to do Bram Stoker's Dracula as he wrote it. I have now agreed to do this, for three weeks on location starting on October 13th. So I will be playing the role twice in the space of two months.

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At last he was to play Dracula exactly as Stoker conceived! What could possibly go wrong? (Answers on a postcard marked 'Harry Alan Towers'.)
El Conde Dracula (Count Dracula, 1970) is directed by Jesus Franco and it may be his best movie; certainly it is high among them. This is not to make any great claims, however.
The cult of Franco would have it that he is a true master of cinema, a neglected exploitation artist of great style and originality. True, he is sincere, and passionate, and a charming, enormously likeable and interesting character. But he's a hack, just like they always said. And as a creative artist he's pretty much inept, just like they always said. I can see there may be amazing things going on in his head when he conceives of his films, but he has far more than small budgets and limited opportunities stacked against him when the time comes to make something of them.
At his best, he doesn't quite spoil things. In Count Dracula he comes close to his best. In fact he deserves none of the blame for what is wrong with the film: that rests with profligate British producer Towers, who scripted the film under his customary pseudonym Peter Welbeck.
As if trying to build up poor Christopher Lee's hopes the better to dash them, he opens with this text:
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Over fifty years ago Bram Stoker wrote the greatest of all horror stories. Now, for the first time, we retell, exactly as he wrote, one of the first - and still the best - tales of the macabre.
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But he breaks his word almost instantly. Needless liberties are taken with the plot, many of the locations, costumes and performances are senselessly anachronistic, and the climax is simply thrown away. Franco, as is invariably the case, tries his very hardest with what talent he has. Towers, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of writing an entirely professional script (The Face of Fu Manchu, for instance) but unlike Franco he is lazy. And here he let his laziness waft away a project of the most enormous potential.
Having said all that, and I do stand by it, the time now comes to add that, wasted though it is, the potential of the project is so great, and the experiment such a fascinating one, that in the final analysis I have to say that I do love this film. It took me a few viewings to get past the clodhopping Franco touches and Towers's maddeningly half-hearted narrative, but once familiar with the film's debits I found that every viewing brought forth fresh pleasures. I now consider it a true favourite.
It gets everything wrong you'd expect it to. But it also gets things right. It remains the only film to recreate some of the creepiest sections of the book: the ride to the castle with Dracula commanding the wolves, the woman who comes to the castle begging for the return of her abducted baby, Dracula's brides preparing to feed upon it, squealing in a bag.
Lee seizes the chance to finally do Dracula just the way he wanted to and gives the best performance any actor has ever given in the role. "The blood of Atilla throws through these veins!" How he must have relished finally getting the chance to deliver all that Stoker dialogue, especially after coming from a Hammer film where the he says about a dozen words in total!
As with the Tod Browning film, the opening reels are the thing - once we're in Herbert Lom's sanatorium in seventies Budapest or wherever it is, it is obvious we've seen the best of it. But Bruno Nicolai's music score is terrific and entirely professional, Soledad Miranda and Maria Rohm are arresting indeed as Lucy and Mina, and in the Transylvania sequences - filmed in a seemingly genuine castle somewhere - Franco's hit and miss approach to locations scores a most definite hit. The long, wordless scenes of Dracula on the prowl, getting younger the more he feeds, as per Stoker, are better than anything in Hammer.
But for Lee, who seemed genuinely not to be expecting another business-as-usual Towers-Franco compromise, despite his experience with the pair in the past, the film was an inevitable disappointment.
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Back at Hammer, Scars of Dracula was rushed into production shortly after the release of the hybrid Taste the Blood. Like its predecessor, it was scripted as a possibly Lee-free affair, as the actor noted in his usual fan club letter:
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Think of it! Another Dracula! This is titled The Scars of Dracula, another subtle and intelligent title. I've read the script. I must admit it isn't bad at all. It's considerably better than the last one, but there's one extraordinary element in it and that is that no attempt is made at resuscitation. You remember that in all previous pictures he's been revived in various weird and wonderful ways after being, so to speak, destroyed in previous episodes. In this one there's no attempt at resuscitation/resurrection, none whatever. I think I know the reason for this... The reason they have brought the character back without accounting for his sudden appearance is, I'm quite certain, deliberately contrived in case I should say no and they can put in another actor (which they're always telling me they're going to do or will do one day) in which case there is no need for further continuity...
You probably are aware that the next Frankenstein they're making now is being made without Peter Cushing. I suppose they feel they can do without us now...
If there was anything else I would do it... I may have to do it, but I hope and pray, as I have for the last two pictures, that it will be the last time.
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Scars would in fact prove a different kind of film entirely to its predecessors, and with its extensive use of studio sets, including for some exteriors, it doesn't look much like a Hammer film at all.
As Lee surmises, it is as much a remake, or a rethink rather, of the original as a sequel, though the worst of both worlds was achieved when, after Lee signed on the line, a resuscitation scene was added, that did not follow from the previous film and made no sense at all. (Taste had ended with Dracula perishing in London; here his mortal remains are back in his Transylvanian castle - it has just occurred to me that Hammer never refer to Dracula's homeland as Transylvania: I wonder why - where a rubber vampire bat comes and dribbles blood on them. This causes him to reconstitute, via the simple expedient of playing his death scene from the previous film backwards.)
Director Roy Ward Baker brings a pre-Hammer sense of enchantment to the material, as he had to The Vampire Lovers, restoring Dracula's ability to communicate with animals and scale the outer walls of his castle, as well as giving him a nifty new trick of being able to open doors without touching them.
As if to underline that this is Dracula returning to his roots the film also reverts to the old 'unwary travellers' scenario, and makes Lee's Count again the sinister host - with more dialogue than even the first picture - and no acolyte responsible for his resurrection (unless you count the bat).
At the same time, however, the levels of gore and sadism are considerably upped; Dracula stabs a vampiress to death with a dagger and then (in stills, but no print I've ever seen) laps at her wounds, and tortures his servant Klove with a red hot sword.
Baker's misunderstood, deliberately artificial visual style tends to get the film dismissed as the weakest of the legitimate series, a judgement that overlooks the fact that it moves at a better than usual pace, and has in any case so unique an atmosphere that it is scarcely comparable. Only the effects prove beyond redemption, especially the rubber mask on the burning stuntman at the grand finale. "The Count is Back - with an eye for London's hotpants... and a taste for everything!"
Oh, pity poor Christopher Lee! Dracula AD 1972 (1972) was radical indeed. It revived the Count in nineteen-seventies Chelsea, brought back Peter Cushing to play Van Helsing's grandson and, to keep the recalcitrant Lee on his toes, set another potential replacement snapping at his heels: Christopher Neame, in the role of vampire disciple Johnny Alucard (an alias Van Helsing has to work out letter by letter with a pad and pencil).
The film begins with a prologue in which both Dracula and Van Helsing perish in Hyde Park in 1872. We then flashforward to Chelsea a hundred years later, where the Count is revived by a gang of thirtyish teenagers as part of a satanic ritual that begins with the solemn injunction to "dig the music, kids!" As luck would have it, one of the youngsters just happens to be Van Helsing's great-great-granddaughter (Stephanie Beacham) and, well, basically it all snowballs from there.
Curiosity, and a pre-release poster showing Dracula looming over a naked woman spreadeagled on the bonnet of a Mini Metro, made it a hit of sorts, but Lee led a chorus of protests against the liberties taken with mood and location. All subsequent critics have sided with him, but no matter how hard they try to deceive their readers and themselves, the fact is that nobody ever watches this film without thoroughly enjoying it. At one time it was illegal to say a good word for it at all; presently we are at that nervous, tentative, cowardly "it's rubbish, but I can't help liking it" phase. Ultimately the truth will out. It's a great movie. It's fast paced, it's exciting, it has a great score, it's creepy and it's inventive. Caroline Munro is in there. Nothing wrong with it at all.

The whole idea, we are forever being told, is so inane as to make the film impossible to take seriously. Dracula in the seventies! Oh please! But isn't the guy supposed to be hundreds of years old? So we might just as well say 'Dracula in Victorian London! Oh please!'
Universal had moved him to a contemporary setting, and so of course had Stoker. Then there's the contradictory complaint that he's stuck in an abandoned church and does not interact with modernity in any way, whereas Stoker's Dracula was well up on modern communications, railway timetables and the like. Yeah, but then, Stoker's Dracula hadn't just been revived, with a century of catch-up to do.
Intriguingly, however, the next film would not only abandon making even a token gesture of explaining how he has been brought back to life (opting instead for the Universal Wolf Man tactic of simply hoping, or more likely assuming, that you will have completely forgotten the ending of the previous installment you saw about six months ago), but would also make a thoroughly modern vampire indeed of him, with an office at the top of a London tower block and a network of acolytes at the heart of the British establishment.

"I'm doing the next one under protest. I just think it's fatuous. I can think of twenty adjectives - fatuous, pointless, absurd... " Once again, Christopher Lee was proving a Hammer publicist's dream with his public pronouncements on the subject of the next modern dress Dracula which, in fairness, was at the time provisionally titled Dracula Is Dead and Well and Living in London.
Bearing in mind that he'd been saying he would do no more Draculas for nearly a decade by this time, it's tempting to scan what eventually became The Satanic Rites of Dracula for some extra special reason why this was, in fact, the one where he stuck to his guns. And it's not that it was the last one, because it wasn't. He could have had a nice trip to Hong Kong with his pal Peter to do the Seven Golden Vampires gig.
So was there some extra special reason why Satanic Rites tipped him over the edge, when the pulling-the-stake-out from Risen From the Grave and the hanging-out-with-teenagers in AD 72 left him snarling but still open to offers? Well, the short answer is no, nothing obvious; Lee did say that he called it quits because he'd finally had enough and this this one was a new low in absurdity, but he'd been saying that forever, and it isn't.
I find the film hugely entertaining, and so do most people I know when they come to it for the first time, expecting more of the AD 1972 same. Dracula is masquerading as property tycoon DD Denham and plotting to destroy every living thing (and by extension himself) with a deadly plague virus. His campaign operates from an English country house guarded by bikers in sheepskin bodywarmers. The plot is intricate spy-movie stuff and there's a plethora of Bond-style gadgets and action sequences. It's all fun and highly inventive; the only problem, really, is that someone forgot to put Dracula in it: Lee gets a self-contained thirty-second biting-a-woman scene half an hour in, then that's it for him till the big ending.
It's an interesting one, though, and the first time in the entire series that he is killed in the traditional manner of having a stake driven through his heart. Before that, however, we see him react with horror at the prospect of a silver bullet, and learn that he lives in dread of the hawthorn bush, from which was (apparently) fashioned Christ's crown of thorns. To which Lady Bracknell might have observed, watching the climax, that to therefore have one growing in your own garden may be considered unfortunate, to walk through rather than around it when Van Helsing calls you from the other side looks like carelessness.

And here, perishing in his London garden from a surfeit of hawthorn, is where Lee said finis. Whatever the final straw was (and it may well have been a far better offer from the James Bond people), when Peter Cushing travelled to Hong Kong for The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), a collaboration between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers that came off looking like a collaboration between Hammer and the Ritz Brothers, he travelled alone.
Another in the 'impossible to dislike category', this 'first kung fu horror spectacular' boasts some impressive slo-mo demon-vampire-zombies and a wonderfully lurid vampire's lair, where topless girls are strapped to boards around a bubbling cauldron of blood, as just two of its many attractions. What it cannot boast is Christopher Lee. Instead it boasts John Forbes-Robertson. You may know him as Henry Possett in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Or you may not know him at all.
The gist is that a Chinese vampire travels to Transylvania in 1804 to seek Dracula's aid in restoring to their former glory the legendary but now weak and slumbering Seven Golden Vampires, one-time scourge and tyrant-rulers of a small Chinese village. Always happy to do his bit for struggling international vampire cults, Dracula enters the body of his visitor and high-tails it to China to help out his brothers.
A century later, Van Helsing, now making his living on the proto-David Icke wacko lecture tour circuit, agrees to lend his specialist assistance to an expedition intent on getting rid of the golden vampires once and for all. He travels to China with his son (played by Robin Stewart, Sid James's son from Bless This House), Julie Ege (as a wealthy aristocratic feminist adventuress with large breasts) and a crack team of kung fu vampire hunters.
In order to allow for the requisite number of martial arts sequences the team opt to wait until nightfall for the vampires to rise and then fight them, rather than, as you or I might do, kill them in the daytime while they are still asleep.
It's a shame Lee couldn't have been tempted. It's such a nostalgic film, with whole chunks of James Bernard's original Dracula score re-used and a screenplay that returns the films to the Victorian era, meaning that Cushing is again playing the original Van Helsing, and the film is chronologically incompatible with the rest of the series. (It also contradicts itself by setting its prologue a century before the main action, and thus making it impossible for the strictly mortal Van Helsing to have ever encountered Dracula before. Hammer really didn't care by this time.)
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And that was that. Requiescat in Pace Ultima.

Compared to those made in the sixties, these later Draculas, including the one Hammer in which Lee did not appear and the non-Hammer in which he did, are certainly a wilder bunch, and it is true that they lack the simple excellence in photography, design, and production value shared by their predecessors: Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (my favourite for all sorts of reasons, some of them verging on defensible) and Taste The Blood of Dracula. But neither should any of them be dismissed, and it's a pity that Lee found so little to enjoy about making them, understandable though his fear of typecasting was.
For better or worse, these films are a large part of the reason why his name and image and presence will endure long after the majority of his acting peers - including many of those on whose careers he must have looked with the utmost professional envy - are forgotten.

(The Christopher Lee quotes are taken from Wayne Kinsey's Hammer Films: The Elstree Studios Years, his highly readable follow-up to Hammer Films: The Bray Studios Years, which is also highly readable, as well as easily the best book ever written on the company.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Mummy (1932): “Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?”


If Ancient Egypt had not already existed, Carl Laemmle Jr would have had his lawyers look into getting it invented.

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The story of the tomb of Tutankhamen, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, set its visual signature on the Jazz Age and Art Deco and brought a touch of ancient mystery to a world that had in most other respects an aggressively forward trajectory.

And then there was that delicious nonsense about vengeful curses, striking down the members of the expedition one by one. It may have been journalistic hooey, but it was also irresistible.

Here was a horror film ready written: an expedition opens a sealed tomb, and meets some dreadful supernatural peril - exactly the fusion of ancient and modern Universal had been seeking in their screenplays, and in the most romantic setting imaginable. No problem with Carla Laemmle and her guidebook turning up here: here, in reality, was a land like Universal’s Transylvania, where modern conveniences and ancient evils rubbed along together. It could have been invented for the express purpose of Universal horror movies. Howard Carter’s first thought as he made that hole in the entrance to Tutankhamen’s tomb and peered though should have been, “Universal are certainly going to get some mileage out of this one.”

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There had been mummies in literature before; Arthur Conan Doyle had written a story about them, Edgar Allan Poe had ruminated in more than usually puckish mode too. But this story, this mix of two ideas (the revived mummy and the killing off of Western archaeologists after a sensational find), this essence of every single mummy film you ever saw, this is copyrighted Universal Studios, 1932.

There was never any question, for instance, that the Tutankhamen story would have inspired a supernatural mystery set entirely in Ancient Egypt. No, it is precisely that collision between old and new, the literal break in the wall that Howard Carter’s chisel made between the age of mystic rites and strange forces and the age of twenties freedom and glamour, that is the commodity in which this film trades.

Here was a world that was at once dark and creepy and not fully explained, and at the same time already central to Western culture and familiar to the American filmgoer. It was the film they had been trying to make all the time. Whichever way you look at it, after Dracula and Frankenstein, it just had to be the Mummy on next.

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Is The Mummy the masterpiece of Universal horror?

It is not (quite) my favourite: that, as for so many of us, is the one I saw first. But it does represent the perfection of that formula Universal was tinkering with in the early thirties. No other of their films mixes ancient superstition, supernatural evil and modern trappings quite so easily and reasonably. The atmosphere is beautifully maintained throughout (the best-directed Universal horror?) and there are none of the uneasy juxtapositions and lurches in tone that resulted from the attempts to modernise Dracula and Frankenstein.

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Now, here we need to stop and remind ourselves that the original mummy movie, a directorial reward at last for German camera wizard Karl Freund, is not part of the Universal mummy series that played to delighted twelve-year-old boys throughout the war years, any more than The Wolf Man is a sequel to Werewolf of London. This is, in fact, about as different as a movie can be while still being about a resurrected Egyptian mummy at large in the present day.

Outside of one amazingly sophisticated opening scene, we do not even see Karloff bandaged. Even here, we get only a few quick shots of a brilliant mummy make up that took Jack Pierce hours to put on Karloff.

We see him in his sarcophagus, we see him come very dimly to life, and we see one arm move. A moment later, we see his hand, and finally a single bandage trailing behind him as he leaves. And that’s it for one of Jack Pierce’s best ever make-ups.

As an aesthetic decision it’s perfectly justified: the scene is suggestive and creepy to a degree far greater than anything in the later Kharis movies, one of the few Universal moments that really do rival the subtle effects of Val Lewton at RKO. (But how it was got past the value-for-money front office is mysterious indeed.)

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If The Flying Serpent is a remake of The Devil Bat (and don’t you just love knowing exactly what I’m talking about there?) then The Mummy is a remake of Dracula.

Edward Van Sloan is Van Helsing gone bats on Egyptian folklore, subjecting leading lady Zita Johann, under the monster’s spell, to leading questions in the drawing room, while David Manners resumes his strategy of standing a pace or two behind her looking worried. Statues of Isis are handed out in place of crucifixes. There is even a civilised drawing room confrontation scene between wise Van Sloan and the monster.

This seems one of the safest projects of the early Universal movies, a surefire package like the monster rallies of the forties. The sedate, heavy, almost perfumed atmosphere, however, was not, presumably, what the studio ordered, but Freund’s intention seems to have been to recreate an opiate nightmare, a fleeting, flesh-creeping thing, rather than just another fight on the ramparts.

Observe the gorgeous scenes of Karloff loitering in the Cairo museum at night; intoning by candlelight. And look again at the most famous sequence, where the mummy first comes to life. It is so slow, and unfolds in such glorious Dracula silence, every shot counts, every moment is held just long enough… until the sudden eruption of maniacal laughter. (“You should have seen his face!”) This must have poleaxed them in 1932.

Only the flashback sequence interrupts the rhythm. Embedded within the movie, introduced by Karloff as “memories of love and crime and death”, it is a cracking, pacy, beautifully acted five-minute silent movie in its own right, with wonderful baroque performances (one-time silent actor Karloff still knows how it’s done), Cecil B DeMille costumes, Karloff entombed alive, and even a bit of good old-fashioned gore as a line of servants is bloodily impaled.

The rest of the film is as sedate and measured as the movements of Karloff’s crumbly and decrepit (but still good for his age) Egyptian scholar, who insinuates himself into the British expeditionary party for obscure motives that eventually resolve themselves in a reincarnation fantasy, as Karloff recognises Zita Johann as his long lost Egyptian queen reborn. (“Ancient Egypt! Nothing modern!” she swoons approvingly when she sees his interior décor.)

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Johann’s is widely regarded as the most nuanced female performance in the Universal sequence, and certainly, few actresses playing a hypnotic trance have proved so hypnotic. Even so, her reputation is smaller than her fascinating, brief filmography and extraordinary looks warrant: she should be an icon alongside Barbara Steele or even Louise Brooks.

She only made seven movies in her three-year career between 1931 and 1934; The Mummy being her third (after The Struggle [1931] for D.W. Griffith, and macho fishing drama Tiger Shark [1932] for Howard Hawks.) After her trip to the tombs, she led Luxury Liner (1933), a big project from Paramount, and then one of the truly odd films of Hollywood, The Man Who Dared (1933), Fox’s semi-fictional drama based on a true event in which a man was killed in the line of fire during an assassination attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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But most fascinating of all, she made one of the most unusual and provocative independent oddities of the pre-Code years, The Sin of Nora Moran (1933), playing an innocent woman about to be executed for murder.

This is a strange and relentlessly gloomy meditation on fate and mortality, told partly in flashback and partly in semi-symbolic form, in dreams and fantasies, which constantly butt into each other. It's pre-Code so, innocent though she is, she dies anyway, the real killer puts a gun to his head, and a character who has perverted the course of justice twice sums up for us and walks free.

Adultery, murders covered up by characters who go unpunished, and a supernatural climax, this really should have been Johann’s springboard to stardom. But maybe the studios weren’t looking; maybe her style is just that bit too unusual. She would have gone over in silents, for sure.

To get the most from Johann’s performance in The Mummy it’s good to come to it after watching Nora Moran rather than the other way round. That abrupt cut to our first glimpse of her, eighteen minutes in, seems instantly loaded with portent if you’ve just watched her grappling with destiny for an hour, if you already know what those soulful eyes are capable of conveying.

Watch the sequence where Karloff summons her while she is at a dance, and she walks from the dance floor, out of the building and into a taxi. It is beautifully shot, with an especially well photographed reverse tracking shot as Johann separates from her dancing partner and walks directly towards the camera, short-haired, round-faced, massive-eyed. And I‘m not sure what she’s wearing in that back-of-the-taxi shot, twenty-two minutes in, but what a fantastic composition!

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Once in Karloff’s clutches, he wastes no time getting her into a snake headdress and jewelled bikini resembling one of Claudette Colbert’s fetishistic outfits from DeMille’s Cleopatra; it makes you realise just how overrated historical authenticity can be. But enjoy it while you can: like Maureen O’Sullivan’s two-piece in the pre-Code Tarzan movies, costumes like this were not to survive the purge of ’34.

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And here’s David Manners, again, as I said. Who remembers now that he was actually a lot more than the guy that turns up here and in Dracula and The Black Cat... that through the pre-Code years he maintained a leading man career that constantly hovered on the brink of real stardom?

He’s certainly chiselled and dapper, and always extremely likeable; as an actor... well, I suppose it would be fair to say that the day after they handed out great dramatic talent, they made him chiselled and dapper and extremely likeable. He was in Journey’s End and The Last Flight; he’s with Stanwyck in The Miracle Woman for Capra; he’s the fiancé Katharine Hepburn spurns to look after her insane father in Cukor’s Bill of Divorcement.

If there is a problem with Manners, it is that he rarely seems to be in quite the same class as his leading ladies. Actors need real stature if they’re not to be pushed off the edge of the frame by the likes of Stanwyck and Hepburn. Zita Johann is the same. When she asks him “Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?” and he seems unable even to acknowledge that the question is provocative, we realise that some movie heroes really are too chiselled and dapper for their own good.

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If you want to see what he’s like in a straight movie as opposed to a horror (or you can just take my word: he’s pretty much the same), a fine choice to plump for is Man Wanted (1931), prime pre-Code society drama from Warners.

Manners, who gets to do some comedy here, is a department store demonstrator who becomes magazine editor Kay Francis’s male secretary after he turns up at her office at 9pm to sell her a rowing machine. (Whatever happened to great plots like this?) Naturally, his girlfriend is against the idea (the peerless Una Merkel, in perhaps her funniest ever performance) and Francis’s philandering husband is just looking for an excuse to divorce her…

Another good reason for watching Man Wanted is that Manners’s boss at the department store, the guy who motivates him to get out there and sell that rowing machine, is our old pal Edward Van Sloan.

Strange to hear that voice, which we are so used to hearing delivering mystic mumbo jumbo in as mannered and heightened a fashion as Lugosi’s, here rattling its way through slangy American dialogue with pace and confidence and the emphases in all the right places. This is what Lugosi dreamed of being able to do, though of course Van Sloan ended up in The Phantom Creeps just as surely as he did.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Britain's scariest castle


Rather than a location that has been featured in a horror film, I thought I'd introduce you to a location that hasn't been used in a horror film but should have been.
To the best of my knowledge, the only time that Berry Pomeroy Castle in Devon has been featured in a movie it was in one of those ballboilingly witless Comic Strip Presents Famous Five parodies.
Never, so far as I'm aware, has it been recognised for what it is: the greatest unused standing horror film set in Britain.

In the book James Herbert's Dark Places, the great Mr H writes: "It's said that present-day visitors to the site frequently shiver from inexplicable chills, even on bright afternoons."
You can't see it from the main road. You arrive by turning down a long, winding road shrouded on both sides by overhanging trees that entirely obscure your view both left and right. Then, suddenly the road widens, you come to a clearing, and there she is...
True, it is no longer as eerie it was. Built in the fifteenth century, and at one time the home of Edward Seymour, governor of the boy king Edward VI and brother of Henry VIII's wife Jane, it has been a ruin since the early eighteenth century.
For generations after, its origins and history were lost beneath a mantle of ivy and neglect. When I used to visit it as a young boy it was still in total, untended disrepair; you could drive up and wander in at any time, and watch bits fall off the walls. At dusk especially, the atmosphere was extraordinary.
Lately it has been purchased by English Heritage, who have done some excellent renovation (and discovered a splendid late medieval wall painting beneath a thick growth of moss) but also quite a bit of restoration, which always seems to subtract at least as much as it adds. Now you have to pay to get in, everything is signposted and labelled, the dangerous bits are fenced off, and something of the romance has inevitably gone.
But it's still an amazing place; every young boy's dream of a spooky castle, with ramparts, dungeons, narrow concealed passageways, and a wealth of ghost stories which, if I believed in such things, I'd be bothered to tell you about.
If you'd like to see some more great photographs of Berry Pomeroy Castle, please click here.

Trends in Modern Horror 1: The Postmodern Turn


The story so far...

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The Horror Film was invented in America in 1931, specialising in supernatural subjects inherited from European literature and folklore.

By the end of the Second World War, familiarity had blunted their horror value, and they had become fitting subjects for parody.

The genre retreated, its place taken by radiation-enlarged insects, alien visitation and the other terrors of the horror-science fiction film.

In the late fifties, Hammer, a British company, remade the old supernatural horrors with a new kind of realism in the acting and - most importantly - with onscreen blood and dismembered body parts. The result was the fluke revival of traditional horror not only in Britain but also America, Spain, Italy and elsewhere.

By the seventies, the public had again tired of monsters but the realism of Hammer's style, coupled with the collapse of American film censorship spawned a new kind of intense and disturbing modern gothic, led by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House On The Left.

What these films were not, however, is mainstream successes in the way that the '31-'45 and '57-'73 cycle had been. That was achieved by a low-budget horror called Halloween, which brought the new style into a crowd-pleasing suspense format.

The result was a whole wave of similar slasher movies in which teens are stalked and killed by masked outsiders in either high school or woodsy settings, often on significant festival days, and the third big horror cycle.

This became played out around 1984, shortly after the last freak hit of the cycle, an unusually supernatural variation called A Nightmare On Elm Street.

The next decade or so were perhaps the darkest year for horror, the genre kept alive only by an insular clique of fans, the films rarely rewarded with cinema release. Endless rounds of sequels to Freddy and Jason kept the genre out of mainstream consciousness, and the place of horror on screen was taken by another related genre, just as it had been when science fiction nudged it aside in the fifties. This time it was the serial killer film, inspired by a nasty, silly smash hit called The Silence of the Lambs, in which genius mass-murderers on killing sprees leave elaborate clues and ritualised crime scenes for the police to unravel.

Once again, the traditional horror film had been left looking old-fashioned and no longer viable.

Now read on...

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Scream (1996), ostensibly another film about a masked psychopath stalking American high school girls, is in fact one of the most important films in the history of the genre, as central as Halloween (1978), Psycho (1960) or, indeed, Dracula (1931).

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It is the fate of all true innovators to become commonplace almost overnight, and like many another milestone it is already a period piece. (“What are you doing with a cellular telephone, son?” the police ask one character).

Yet its achievement was vast. It rescued horror from the doldrums of what future chroniclers will call the genre’s ‘straight to video years’, and enabled it to once again to engage with mainstream audiences and get serious critical acclaim.

It rescued Wes Craven from a declining career post-Freddy Krueger, and even gave the genre an era-defining rep company of recurring players, reinforcing the feeling that a renaissance was underway. (But unlike the horror icons of a previous generation, these were all young women: Neve Campbell, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar.)

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The twist was Postmodernism. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson was a Tarantinoesque film fanatic devoted above all else to Halloween and its progeny, and his screenplay seemed fresh in that it unfolded within an explicitly horror movie context.

The film is as much about films where teenagers are killed by a masked maniac as it is a film where teenagers are killed by a masked maniac. Heroine Neve Campbell bemoans the tendency of horror film heroines to run up stairs rather than out the front door, an error she promptly repeats when confronted with a 'real' killer. The murderers wear a ghoulish ‘Father Death’ costume, but the choice does not ‘mean’ anything, nor does it relate to some earlier circumstance; it’s simply the sort of thing the killers wear in a horror film, and that is how the murderers view themselves.

All the characters relate to each other via the set of movie clichés most befitting their station: the police employ the psychobabble of the serial killer movie (indeed Scream was able to bring horror back to public acclaim via a close alliance with this subgenre), the girls wonder who will play them in the inevitable movie, and the frat house element sit around watching horror movies and attempting to decipher the generic rules that might just give them the survivor’s advantage above others in the victim pool.

The scene in which movie geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) explains the rules for surviving a horror film is one of two that most impressed genre-savvy critics, (“Behind you!” he shouts repeatedly to Jamie Lee Curtis as he watches Halloween, unaware that the real killer is lurking behind him); the other of course being the prologue, in which first victim Drew Barrymore is quizzed on her horror film trivia knowledge before being gruesomely dispatched.

The film's strength, however, is that it did not merely coast on these touches (as the sequels would) but grounded them in brilliantly directed suspense sequences and a genuinely effective and surprising whodunnit script.

It also had a hip young cast, a rock soundtrack and a new kind of attitude: basically one of extreme callousness, as censorship campaigners were quick to notice. The film is about characters who apply a film script glibness to real acts of horror and murder themselves inspired by cinema. No wonder it contains moments in which characters remonstrate with others over their heartlessness and detachment from reality (most notably Henry Winkler’s uncredited High School principal).

But the killers are allowed to dictate the overall tone of the film itself, and it is surely beyond dissent that the film glamourises brutality and the cult of murder, with all of the frivolousness and insincerity it purports to wag its finger at. It certainly goes out of its way not to distance itself from the killers’ glib certainty that violence is cool.

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Nonetheless, it was the self-reference and sass that got everyone talking about horror films again, and - crucially - that got them going to see them again; that pulled off the old trick of making a moribund genre cool again.

There were precedents, of course - there always are once you know what you're looking for.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) had the intertextual postmodernism, if not, perhaps, the humour, but An American Werewolf in London certainly had both back in 1981. Meanwhile the genre’s re-engagement with mainstream young filmgoers, intertextual sass and new stars had all been first assembled in The Craft (1996), a fun film about high school witches that helped re-establish the teen credibility of horror, and thus not only pipped Scream to the post, but also paved the way for tv off-shoots like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the latter of which had ironically begun its days as a totally uncool movie about which nobody had cared much at all.

But then - how far back do you want to go? Wasn't Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein plainly on a road heading this way? What about Lugosi's The Ape Man, through which wanders a mysterious, unidentified character, revealed at the end to be the screenwriter. ("Screwy idea, wasn't it?")

You can go mad chasing these kinds of rabbits down these kinds of holes. In the end it's the winner that gets the gold cup, and Scream won because it took those ingredients - the ratio of inheritance to invention will be lost to time so we may as well let it rest - and put them all together and did it right, at just the moment that people seemed to want it. That's all there is to it.
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The film spawned two sequels, the most inept and pointless parody ever made (Scary Movie - unquestionably the work of mental defectives), and a legion of imitators.

Just as Halloween was used as a template by a decade of other movies not just in its essentials but its incidentals also, so Scream bequeathed a generation of movies that were structured as whodunnits, with the killers usually revealed to be one of the main cast rather than a masked outsider, monster or freak - an innovation with far more precedent in Italian gialli than the previous generation of American slashers ostensibly being referenced.

..The big surprise with the official follow-ups was how ordinary they were. Scream 2 and 3 (1997 and 2000) both feel much longer than the original to sit through, though their running times differ only slightly. Invention is strictly rationed, even with a whole new box of mirrors to play with. (The first sequel is set around the release of Stab, the movie based on the events of the first - with Heather Graham amusingly reprising Drew Barrymore's iconic opening scene, this time with old-style cliches intact, including a shower scene - and is full of discussion about the merits of horror sequels. The second concerns the making of Stab 3, and features one memorable moment in which Neve Campbell finds herself being chased by the killer through an exact replica of her house on a Hollywood sound stage.)

On the whole both films are considerable disappointments, suffering from a lack of freshness that is perhaps forgivable, and a rampant hubris which surely is not. Both sequels are outrageously in love with themselves, expecting us to remember every minor plot turn from the first film, and love the characters enough to welcome their constant survival of plainly fatal butcherings.

In both the killer turns out to be someone who only came in to the story for that movie, and in neither case is their identity a surprise. Which is not to say you'll necessarily guess who it is, merely that who it is doesn't matter. It could be any one of them, and it turns out it is.

The trouble with horror films is that they've always reproduced not in a Darwinian way, retaining the beneficial features and casting off the unsuccessful, but in a Rank Xerox way, reproducing every single chance innovation of the great defining template movie, be it Dracula or Psycho or Halloween or Scream.

There's no dramatic or stylistic reason why so many of the first-wave slashers should revolve around specific times of the year: it's just that Friday the 13th copied Halloween and so My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night and Happy Birthday To Me became a mathematical inevitability.

So, instantly, the post-Scream variations settle into a rut where the characters watched horror films on the television, icons of the genre appear in cameos and the poster would feature a large scary image beneath which the cast were shown in a line, looking cool, often in fan mag poses rather than their film costumes.

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This way the films very quickly lose their crossover appeal - which is rooted in their novelty - and become again the property of audiences who 'like that sort of thing'. The result is ossification. It was ironic but inevitable that Scream's witty dissections of horror conventions, sharp enough to draw huge crowds of folks who ordinarily wouldn't dream of going to "some Wes Carpenter flick", should almost instantly become generic conventions, so that critics very soon started heaping praise on films that played the horror dead straight for their very absence of those qualities they had recently hailed as a breakthrough.

And when Williamson popped up again to wave his postmodern wand over the sci fi horror (The Faculty) and even the werewolf movie (Cursed), the general feeling was that the joke isn't funny anymore.

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I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997, my favourite of the bunch) was a hit, and cleared a space alongside Neve Campbell for Jennifer Love Hewitt to establish her scream queen royalty status, still being put to good use in her tv series Ghost Whisperer, an odd mix of great scares and sappy new age hugging and crying. The film, written again by Williamson but seemingly marking a conscious effort to put some layers of skin back on the genre onion, also featured Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose bubbliness and subsequent Buffy-derived reputation for invincibility makes her murder here, and even more so in Scream 2, a genuine shock.

Successful too, by and large, was Final Destination (2000), which applied the new rules to the supernatural, and revived the moribund trope of naming the characters after significant directors and stars.

But Urban Legend (1997, my other favourite) - which spun a chance remark in Scream into an an entire screenplay, kicked off with a great first scene and welcomed Alicia Witt and Rebecca Gayheart to the pantheon - and Valentine (2001) - which riffed on Carrie, borrowed David Boreanaz from Buffy and had a bikini-clad Denise Richards killed in a swimming pool with a road drill - played to noticeably smaller and more specialised crowds. No longer scoring the crossover success of Scream and Last Summer, the genre was showing worrying signs of slipping back into its teen male ghetto.

Cherry Falls (2000), which cleverly took on the original slashers' tendency to kill the young lovers and leave the wholesome girl alive by having its killer target high school virgins, didn't even get a cinema release. By the time Urban Legends: Final Cut and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer rolled around it was obvious that history was repeating itself.

Final Destination took three episodes to reach itself. I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer went straight to video. The unimaginable Scream 4 is apparently still on course for a 2010 release.

Clearly the genre was going to have to reinvent again, and quickly, if it was to stay a mainstream concern. This, surprisingly enough, it would do, but the formula would mutate at least twice more on the journey.

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(To be continued, in Trends in Modern Horror 2: Revenge of the Remake)