Wednesday, August 26, 2009

“I like to torture!” Sadism in the pre-Code Universal horror film

"You monster! You like to torture!"
"Yes! I like to torture!"

The above exchange - and you don't need me to identify the actor who speaks the reply - is from The Raven (1935), the film that served in many ways as a test-case for what the horror film now could and could not get away with in the Code era. By the time it appeared, Lugosi had long been established as the screen’s foremost sadist. (Lionel Atwill was perhaps not far behind.) Yet this kind of wallowing in cruelty is most definitely not a feature of Dracula or Frankenstein or The Mummy, the instigators of the first great American horror cycle. It emerged in their wake, and with its suppression after 1935, it became perhaps the most significant identifying feature of pre-Code horror. In that sense, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven are true anomalies: the three Universal horrors that rely for their effect not on atmsophere and the supernatural but on terror and cruelty and pain. That they are also the three great post-Dracula Lugosi movies is an interesting coincidence.
If there is one dominant ingredient in a typical pre-Code horror film that did not survive the Code crackdown it would have to be sadism; a morbid inventiveness in tortures and ways of dying, and a central character taking lip-smacking relish in their implementation. This was the essence of many of the horror films made by Paramount (Island of Lost Souls, Murders in the Zoo) and Warners (Dr X, Mystery of the Wax Museum); it is also, of course, central to MGM's Freaks. But it had not been a feature of the first batch of Universals. This all changed with Murders in the Rue Morgue, the consolation prize for Lugosi and director Robert Florey for not getting Frankenstein.
.Most horror writers can’t bring themselves to refrain from calling the film Lugosi’s first starring horror vehicle after Dracula. But the sobering truth is that it is not. Already by this time, he is unambiguously co-starring; in both opening title card and subsequent list of players he is second-billed to Sidney Fox, a gorgeous but not especially luminary actress of the period, best-known for playing Bette Davis's Bad Sister in 1931. (Actually, there are rumours about how she ended up top-billed but I never tell tales about ladies.)
The truth is that the film is Lugosi’s show all through, of course, with little distraction from Fox or indeed Leon Ames as Dupin, the dashing hero. (How strongly you identify Ames with Doris Day’s loveable curmudgeonly father in On Moonlight Bay and By the Light of the Silvery Moon will have a lot to do with how easily you accept him here.)
Given his shot at the big job, Florey goes jogging with it, washing the film in high Germanic style and staging the narrative as a series of vignettes and tableaux; often the plot will be advanced by our overhearing it being discussed, by elegantly staged pairs and trios of supporting actors we do not see again.
How tempting it is to attribute the tone of the finished film to the simmering resentment of Florey, at last given the chance to show what he can do but in a far less prestigious production, and instantly running foul of budget cuts and front office interference. The bosses in particular wanted to cut the period setting (no surprises there: this remains the only Universal pre-Code horror to go with a pre-twentieth century setting) and slashed the budget when Florey held out. Whatever, it is certain that the film is at once the least typical of all the Universal horrors and at the same time, the most typically pre-Code in its attitudes and effects. (It begins in carny mode, with a Parisian fair at which the entertainment is authentic pre-Code vintage: torso dancers, over whom the camera crawls and loiters. Two old roués, one like Adolphe Menjou gone to seed, the other like a slightly more refined Charles Winninger, are at the front of the crowd: “Do they bite?” asks one. “Oh yes, but you have to pay extra for that” replies the other.)
It has only the name Dupin, a body up a chimney and an ape in a lady’s boudoir in common with the Poe story to which it owes its name and swears its allegiance, preferring instead to utilise a period setting and deliberately theatrical style as mist to cloak the most blatant exploitation of sadism yet in Universal horror.

Yet it also has as daft a plot as any horror film you ever saw. This Dr Mirakle is a carnival performer with the hokiest act on the circuit. He’s done up like the Devil, with curly hair and a tall hat, but basically his act is to stalk the stage, giving a long-winded exegesis of the theory of evolution, on the level of scientific sophistication one would associate with, say, a hack Hollywood screenwriter or two. Every so often, he stops, and pretends to translate the noises made by a chained gorilla, called Erik, into banal human speech. It’s the corniest act you ever saw, he must have been touring it for years, but he does it with such an air of contemptuous menace that your heart never fully goes out to him.
. He ends with a flourish, presenting Erik to the audience with the words “Behold: the first man!”
At this point, the mood turns ugly. “Heresy!” says one man, out of his seat with indignation.
Suddenly, mortally offended, Mirakle goes bananas, stares straight at the camera and intones:
“My life is consecrated to a great experiment! I tell you I will prove your kinship with the ape! Erik’s blood shall be mixed with the blood of man!”
It’s a closer call by now, but you still have to conclude this guy is hoking it; he even ends by offering the girls in the audience a chance to come up and see the ape. (“You liked her, didn’t you, Erik?” leers Lugosi after Sidney has been introduced.)
But it is at this point that the film suddenly lurches into the nastiest sequences in all of pre-Code horror. And Lugosi, lit from below and with massive eyebrows, is terrifying.

Don't forget, he was basically sexy and suave all the time in Dracula, bar a few distorted close-ups as he bent down for the kill. That was Lugosi the matinee-idol vampire. This is altogether different, and if he truly wanted to avoid identification with sinister roles, he only had himself to blame for the relish with which he goes at it here.
First, after some especially fluffy romantic banter from the film’s two young pups, we see Lugosi’s coach pull up at the scene of a savage knife fight, that leaves both participants fatally gored and which Lugosi watches with pleasure from his carriage window. He then walks slowly and menacingly through the fog to the camera – it’s the best of all Lugosi’s scary walks into the camera – and past us to close in on the terrified woman who had also been present at the scene. His offer to take her to his carriage for safety is tinged with overt menace, and she protests clearly, but is too scared to resist him manhandling her into his coach.
Next we see, she is screaming, tied to a wooden cross in tattered clothes while Lugosi is crudely jabbing her with a hypodermic syringe.

Now, let us be clear what he is doing here. The mystic business with the mixing of her blood with the gorilla’s is just a preliminary task: it is not the essence of the experiment that Lugosi had been alluding to earlier. I fear he meant blood as in ‘bloodline’.
This is a kind of pre-nuptial blood test; the real experiment is to follow. That’s what he means when he says, “one more minute and we… shall know if you are to be the bride of science!”
What his magnifying glass discloses that so angers him is not incompatibility of blood but the presence of venereal disease, indicating that she, as we knew from the opening credits, is a “woman of the streets” and thus not fit to be Erik’s bride, and so yes, that was what he meant by “You liked her, didn’t you, Erik?” He wants to prove human kinship with other apes by mating a gorilla with a young woman.

There’s something of an end-of-century serial killer movie in Lugosi’s petty obliviousness to the physical torment he is inflicting, as if the victim is being unreasonable in protesting. “You’re stubborn! Hush!” he says to her at one point. We continue to see her whimpering and writhing behind Lugosi as he calmly compares blood types in the foreground. “Hush!” he says again.
Eventually she dies, of the effects of the transfusion and sheer exhaustion from torture. Lugosi dumps her through a trap door into the river. Then it’s back to another of Florey’s tableaux, this time of picturesque tramps who provide a running commentary in a kind of poetic, Samuel Beckett trampspeak, as gendarmes discover the girl’s body, washed up beneath a beautifully lit backcloth of a bridge and a quiet stretch of river.
This is chilling stuff, aiming to horrify the audience with its tortures and threats of sexual outrage. But the most contentious sequence to anybody coming to this movie from a pre-Code angle is the scene in which Erik the ape enters the bedroom of Sidney Fox and her mother.

Presumably, what actually happens there is to some degree left to our imaginations. But you have to concede that it does play very much the way Thomas Doherty would have it in his book ‘Pre-Code Hollywood’:
What transpires during the cross-cut commotion – between the attack in the bedroom and the frenzied activity in the hallway as neighbors prepare to break down the door and rescue the women from the gorilla’s clutches – can be interpreted in only one way: the gorilla is raping one of the women. Two brief shots repeat the same image: the gorilla’s head and upper torso thrusting downward as grunts and shrieks fill the soundtrack.
Well, it is certainly not true to say the scene can only be interpreted this way: it has been widely interpreted to mean that the gorilla is thrusting as he stuffs a corpse up the chimney, and this I think is probably correct – but on the other hand, Doherty’s reading is the one that most irresistibly suggests itself to an audience (particularly as it is a while before we find out anything about the body in the chimney). What is additionally certain is that this reading of the scene must have been obvious to Florey and to the studio before they put it out. By not offering any clarification, they are at least responsible for actively promoting the misunderstanding. This was, after all, the film that was to out-Frankenstein Frankenstein.
.The Black Cat of 1934 was a late revival of the sadism theme unleashed just as the Hays axe was falling. It is a haunting, visually audacious film, with many striking and distinctive sequences, but an incoherent and often ill-motivated drama.
Set in a futuristic house built on the sight of a military massacre and adjoining a mass graveyard, the style is definitely modern throughout. Everything is white walls and metal and sharp angles, no crumbling castles of a bygone age here.
And no eerie silences either: this film is fully, sometimes obtrusively, scored, though the music itself is an excellent pot-pourri of well-chosen classical themes. (If you are one of those people who wish Dracula had a music score: surely this, over Philip Glass?)

This is all ultra-stylish, but the censors’ ears were pricked: the combination of modernity and monstrosity was noted with disapproval, as was the streak of sexual perversity. Karloff’s character is an architect, aesthete, Satanist and sexual decadent, who first tricked Lugosi’s wife into marrying him, then, when she died, had her preserved in fluid in a glass case and married her daughter (whom he will eventually kill). There is devil-worship, much talk of torture, and a crazy, delirious climax as Lugosi (in his most sympathetic horror performance) ties Karloff (in one of his least) to an embalming rack and skins him alive. (“Slowly! Bit by bit!”)
Some of the incoherence of the end-product is in fact attributable to a number of re-shoots and a deal of post-production re-editing, designed to lessen the oppressive atmosphere and make a more conventional good guy out of the Lugosi character, who had originally been far more ambiguous and is now just plain weird.

David Manners and Jacqueline Wells (an elegant thing who had come to Karloff and Lugosi a year after working with Laurel and Hardy) barely make it out alive as the house blows up. (Karloff, as I said, is an architect, and his home is full of such handy labour-saving devices). The film ends with Manners and Wells on a train, reading a review of his latest mystery novel, which complains that the plot is too far-fetched to be believable. They look at each other cutely, and we fade.
There’s mischief here somewhere; it wasn't to last.

The Raven was the last straw. A Poe-obsessed surgeon and eroticist of torture is driven to sexual mania by the young dancer whose life he saves, and with the unwilling aid of a violent criminal on the run ("You put the burning torch into his face... into his eyes!"), whom he deliberately deforms, he plans to torture the girl and her obstinate father and fiancé to death during a weekend party...
The British said no. The ban extended beyond one film and took in the whole genre. The decision crippled horror production in the US. An era ended.
Odd, now that the horror film is, once again, first and foremost a means of aestheticising sadism. Perhaps it always was, deep down. The trouble with The Raven was simply that it wasn't deep down enough.

Death of a Brooklyn Gorilla

Sammy Petrillo, Jerry Lewis impersonator and star of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla - Lugosi's most prestigious film of the nineteen-fifties - has died at the age of seventy-four.
There's a few obits doing the rounds, this is a particularly interesting and sweet one.
Mitchell only made four films - but what a four: both halves of a married couple in Doris Wishman's Keyholes Are for Peeping (1972), an uncredited bit in Joseph Green's mesmerising The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962), the lead in Shangri-La (1961), as a zookeeper who visits a series of nudist camps, and - above all this - his Lewis-a-like turn opposite Lugosi. (What did Lugosi make of the film? His expression in the third still, below, speaks a million words.)
"Brooklyn chumps become island monkeys in a jungle full of laffs" claimed the posters, and they were right. That is exactly what happens. Watch it tonight.
See ya, Sammy.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

“I needed to earn a living” - Kevin Francis, Tyburn and The Ghoul

Confession time...
The Ghoul (1975) has long been one of my favourite British horror films, if not my favourite of all time.
I can't remember when I first saw it from start to finish, but I do remember the first time I attempted to watch it. I got halfway through the first scene.
Veronica Carlson is slowly making her way up the stairs of a creepy old house, holding a candle, while on the soundtrack we hear a man's voice whispering her name. After agonising seconds she reaches a door, slowly turns the handle and is confronted by the grotesque spectacle of a man hanging by a spike through his neck, drooling saliva, yet still faintly alive, and whispering her name.
I'm ashamed to say I fled in terror from the room. (Had I stayed a second longer I would have seen it revealed as a prank, and watched the man get down unharmed.)
But from then on, The Ghoul remained in my mind the quintessential horror film, everything I imagined horror films to be before I'd seen any: richly coloured, flesh-creepy, with spooky music, blood, thick fog, quicksand, something unspeakable locked upstairs, pretty girls running and screaming.
It was only later that I learned that it was critically despised, and invariably dismissed as being of no merit whatsoever.
I have never quite understood why.
When I was at university in 1995, Tyburn, the company that made it, still had offices at Pinewood Studios. I wrote to producer Kevin Francis, the man behind the company, with a questionnaire. He replied on Tyburn Film Productions headed paper with brief, occasionally irascible replies to my questions.
What gave you the idea to form Tyburn?
I needed to earn a living.
How easy was it to get off the ground?

Stylistically, what were you trying to achieve with the Tyburn productions?
To get as much on the screen as possible with the money available.

The story behind The Ghoul, and Tyburn Film Productions, is an interesting one.
The company came into existence at the lowest ebb of the traditional British horror film, just moments, really, before its flame was extinguished permanently.
Hammer, grappling with international disinterest and seemingly unfathomable changes in fashion, had been trying for the previous five years to freshen, reinvigorate and reinvent their formulae to keep track with emerging trends. All had, to varying degrees, failed at the box office. Then, in the midst of the darkest days of 1974 comes Tyburn, a new company, putting out movies that strive to look as much like Hammer as possible, and furthermore Hammer at its most traditional, re-employing casts, writers, directors and composers closely associated with the ailing company.
The idea that Francis (son of director Freddie) ever went into such a venture "to make a living" seems disingenuous in the extreme. This was more like suicidal aesthetic defiance.
When you watch a Tyburn film, you are never quite in danger of mistaking it for Hammer. But the chances are vastly higher than if you're watching The Skull (Amicus) or The Blood Beast Terror (Tigon) or Island of Terror (Planet).
But Tyburn did take care to establish their own identity, with the same graphics used for their title sequences, and the phrase "A Tyburn Tale of Terror" appearing prominently in all the posters and advertising materials.
Did you see The Ghoul more as a tribute to Hammer, or as your own contribution to the genre?
Persecution (1974), the company's debut feature, now looks like an unofficial trial run. With Hammer's Ralph Bates supporting Lana Turner in the lead, it was a late addition in the Baby Jane stakes; a garish melodrama with horror trimmings rather than a Gothic.
How did you get Lana Turner to appear in Persecution?
I rang and asked her.
What is your opinion of that film today?
Much the same as it was when we finished it.
What Persecution lacked most pointedly was the presence of Peter Cushing.
More than anybody else before or behind the cameras he was the soul of Tyburn, its reason for existing; indeed it was a childhood love of Cushing's Hammer performances and a desire to make films with him that had inspired Francis to enter the movie business in the first place. "Peter was my dearest friend and a much valued colleague," Francis wrote in his letter to me, "and in both capacities I shall miss him more than I can say."

Appropriately, then, The Ghoul showcases one of Cushing's best and most serious pieces of screen acting. The film is near as dammit a remake of Hammer's The Reptile (by the same writer, John Elder) only with a greater degree of mystery, stronger mise-en-scene and a much less AIP-ish monster.
It has often been said that Cushing never gave a piss-about performance and it's certainly true here: as Dr Lawrence, a tormented ex-clergyman in a permanently fog-shrouded (and marsh-encircled) Cornish mansion, who keeps the diseased cannibal son he cannot bring himself to destroy locked in his attic. Playing a sensitive, civilised man forced to procure human food for his inhuman child, he is affecting and entirely credible; vainly mumbling prayers in his private chapel and surrounding himself with relics of better times; we feel his agony.
Thanks to its appropriation of sets and costumes left over at Pinewood from the lumpen 1974 version of
The Great Gatsby, the film has a gorgeous twenties atmosphere that is both effective in itself and especially pleasing in context; it's a setting that has rarely been used in horror films. By mixing this with decidedly modern horrors - cannibalism, and a rotting, green-skinned monster that would be more at home in a later Fulci film than at Hammer - the Francises (Producer Kevin and director Freddie) came up with a fascinating hybrid that really should have given the ailing genre a fresh lease of life.
Odd, too, to note the similarities with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which emerged the same year and is usually cited as exactly the kind of horror film that was making the Hammer sort obsolete.
The film begins with four young travellers getting lost in the middle of nowhere (a nicely diverse group: Hammer favourite Veronica Carlson, here at her iconic peak, former Champion and Blood-Spattered Bride Alexandra Bastedo, Ian McCulloch before his similar encounter with Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters, and two-time Pete Walker victim Stewart Bevan).
Some look for assistance in a nearby house, while Bastedo's car is forced off the road by Lawrence's gardener (John Hurt), a knicker-sniffing Great War deserter who lives in a shed filled with caged animals, and who leaps about maniacally in the road in a manner uncannily reminiscent of Edwin Neal's hitch-hiker.
Once killed, Lawrence's Indian housemaid lovingly converts the former bright young things into long pig soup. And while Lawrence's well-appointed house and civilised tastes seem leagues away from the homelife of the deranged chainsaw family, Hurt's shed, with its caged animals, general chaos and relics of earlier victims (the underwear in his bed), is not at all dissimilar to their abattoir-like dwelling.

. Veronica Carlson as she appears in The Ghoul: a bad horror film, apparently.

All the film's contributors give of their best.
Harry Robinson's score and John Elder's screenplay are both so much recycling, yet in each case the borrowed parts coalesced into a whole that stands as their definitive contribution to the genre.
Similarly, Freddie Francis, a horror director rarely comfortable with the genre, was never so confident and in control, his prowling camera seeking out every dark corner of the imposing house and fog-blanketed moors. Especially well-judged is the decision to delay a full sighting of the Ghoul until the end, forcing us in the meantime to build our own picture based solely upon repeated shots of his feet, all green skin, weeping sores and sandals.
Though generally hated by critics and writers, I have never known it fail with new audiences, including the many to whom I have shown it who don't usually like 'that sort of thing'. The opening scene, already mentioned, with the drooling hanged man, the sequences on the moors, and the H G Lewis-worthy finale in which McCulloch tumbles down the stairs with an ornamental dagger jutting from his forehead always work as intended.
So why does nobody like it?
Well, I have discovered three potential explanations.

1. Some critics found it derivative of Psycho, and there's no question that the murder of Carlson's character is staged in deliberate emulation of the Janet Leigh death scene, with a mosquito net standing in for a shower curtain and Francis attempting to convey violence through rapid cutting and no actual shots of the knife making contact with her body.
But the other similarities - the old house, the nasty family secret, the murder of a man who tumbles down a flight of stairs - are incidental, and to harp on them reveals a lack of awareness of just how much cliche and convention went into
Psycho itself.
2. Oddly, among knowledgeable - and ostensibly more sympathetic - genre fans, it tends to enjoy an even worse reputation than among the straights, especially if the writer in question belongs to the smartarse fringe, like the berks from the Aurum Encyclopaedia and others, who like to pretend that the film is 'racist' in its suggestion that Lawrence's son became corrupted by a cannibal cult in India. ("At last!", Elder must have thought when given the commission, "my chance to finally express my contempt for India in a metaphorical context!")
This notion spurred Francis to greater loquacity than he expended upon all my other questions combined:

It is only recently that I have learned of these comments on The Ghoul, which are inordinate rubbish as well as being deeply offensive to all concerned with the making of the film. If those who accuse the film of being "racist" honestly believed such to be the case, why do they not comment similarly on The Reptile?
Frankly, I believe some of these pseudo-intellectuals attempt to read too much into what are, after all, fantasy films. You may be interested to know that my accountant (who is Indian and Hindu) thinks The Ghoul is the best traditional horror/thriller he has ever seen.
So that's two: me, and Kevin Francis's accountant.
3. Weirdest of all, the other reason usually given for dismissing The Ghoul is that it simply isn't any good. They say it's boring. They say it's scareless and sexless and witless and silly.
I can only grope in the dark for an explanation as to how they can have possibly seen the same film that I find so nearly faultless in editing, music, script, acting, visual style, suspense, plot and pace.
Part of it I think is because the Tyburn story has to be judged a failure in order to fit the story of British horror, in which it has been assigned the role of irrelevant death bed folly. The whole idea was a disaster, ergo the films themselves must be terrible.
I mean, everyone knows that reviewers at the time hated them, and audiences stayed well away. Right, Kevin?

You must have been reading different reviews than me. The Ghoul received rave reviews at the time of its release. Legend of the Werewolf was received quite well, I always thought.
And how did they fare at the box office?
The Ghoul, fantastically; Legend of the Werewolf, reasonably.

And the strange thing is, he wasn't trying to sell me a crock. He's absolutely right.

Alexandra Bastedo as she doesn't appear in The Ghoul. I'm afraid I couldn't find a still with her in it. Do the best you can with this.
Legend of the Werewolf (1975) is not quite up to the standards of The Ghoul, but it is still first class trad-horror, with Cushing giving an equally graceful and untypical performance as an eccentric pathologist given to disconcerting unwelcome visitors to his lab by waving about dripping windpipes and other detached body parts.
Also in the cast is iconic fifties nude model Pamela Green. Did she simply audition or was somebody at Tyburn a secret Pamela Green fan?
Sorry to disappoint you but the answer is 'neither'. Pamela Green is actually Mrs Doug Webb. Doug Webb was Tyburn's stills photographer at the time, who merely mentioned to me that Pamela was not working, so I hired her.
The film is obviously indebted - not least in its near-identical werewolf make up job - to Hammer's Curse of the Werewolf, with which it again shares screenwriter Elder. But sorry, purists, the Tyburn film is better.
The script was in fact inspired by a story idea Kevin Francis had offered to Hammer in 1969 under the title
Plague of the Werewolves, mixed by Elder with a treatment of his own (called Wolf Boy).
The story of a boy raised by wolves and exhibited in a travelling carnival, who becomes a wolf when stirred to anger, jealousy or sexual passion, it is a far more interesting and balanced piece of writing than Elder's Hammer script, which is half finished before the issue of werewolves is even raised.
There's more striking visual work from Francis Sr, this time red-tinted werewolf POV shots and effective shock-cuts to closeups of its bloodstained teeth. The film is also notable for ending, as did
The Ghoul, on an unexpected note of pathos, with both monsters turning to Cushing and whimpering "help me". (In both cases it's the first time they speak and in both cases highly effective: because we had assumed that the werewolf couldn't speak, so it's a real surprise, and because the Ghoul has a gentle, high-pitched voice.)
. Legend was released on a shrewd double-bill with a reissue of one of the best and most compatible later Hammers, Vampire Circus, and the balance sheet in the BFI's improbable but compulsive tie-in book Making Legend of the Werewolf shows that, like its predecessor, it went more than comfortably into the black.
Yet there was little more from the company.
As with Hammer, the distribution deal the company signed with Rank excluded the vital territories of America, Canada and Mexico, and in some territories Francis sold straight to television. An adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's
The Satanist was announced but dropped, while other suggested titles - including something enticingly called Dracula's Feast of Blood - were probably never more than that.
Clearly, television was the future, as Francis had accepted in 1975. The BFI's book quotes him as saying that:

My business is to make films and sell them... It's not up to me to say that people have to see that film in the cinema. If I decide to sell a film to the cinema or to TV I make that decision on commercial grounds. TV is too important a communications medium and too important a market to ignore.

And so when the company returned nearly a decade later, it was strictly small-screen. There was a highly regarded Sherlock Holmes production called The Masks of Death (1984) with an elderly Peter Cushing as a post-retirement Holmes, a thriller with Hywel Bennett and Ali McGraw called Murder Elite (1985) and a feature-length interview with Cushing, A One-Way Ticket To Hollywood (1987). In the latter, the frail-looking actor heaps praise on Kevin Francis, and announces that he had turned down a second Holmes production for the company, to have been called The Abbot's Cry: unsurprisingly, the project was soon abandoned.
Is there anything new in the pipeline?
Tyburn has no present plans for further feature film production.

So that was that.
We didn't get a lot from Tyburn, and judging by the critical reaction, what we did get we didn't deserve. But we did get a first-class werewolf movie, and we did get
The Ghoul.
As far as the latter is concerned, I will never be convinced that it is not one of the half-dozen greatest British horror films ever made.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Harry Alan Towers: A life of flickering shadowlike

From Charlton Heston's autobiography, In The Arena:
The worst film I ever made... (was) The Call of the Wild. How can you possibly screw up that story? You may well ask... The root of our troubles was the producer, a sort of rogue Brit who flickered shadowlike in and out of the country to avoid his various creditors... What we finally ended up with was a joint British/American/Norwegian/German/French/Italian/Spanish co-production... There are many good actors in all these countries whose English is perfectly competent. Our producer did not hire them.
Chuck never names his rogue Brit, but to more than one generation of off-centre film fans there is only one name that fits the bill.
And though he remained an indefinite quantity to the filmgoing public at large, Harry Alan Towers, who died on July 31st at the age of 88, was also instantly familiar to critics and industry insiders as an exceptionally colourful character of whom, as Halliwell put it, "neither subtlety nor competence should be expected."
He was a walking film machine, seemingly everywhere at the same time, making movies and making deals; his directors often discovering mid-shoot that he is hundreds of miles away, overseeing (or not, as the case may be) two, three, four films at once. Sometimes he left countries for other reasons: because he had to, and quickly. Charged in the sixties with running a call-girl ring, supplying high class girls to UN diplomats, his name has been linked to a number of scandals, including the Profumo affair and the 1975 remake of And Then There Were None.
Ironically, the news of his death came in just after I'd had a bit of a dig at Harry in my previous post, where I blamed him for the fact that El Conde Dracula (1970) was not the masterpiece is so easily could have been. True enough, but international oddball cinema was a better place last week, with him in it, than it is today, with him gone.
Born in 1920, Towers was a child actor, radio writer and ITV producer before graduating to movies in the early sixties. As well as producing, he frequently wrote screenplays under the pseudonym Peter Welbeck, often on the plane on the way to the location with the cast and crew ready to go. The sheer vastness of his output prevents any clear assessment of where his interests lay; the frequency with which he returned to certain subjects reflecting more their saleability and/or public domain status than love of the material.
But he certainly seemed to have a fondness for And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie's celebrated murder mystery set on an isolated Devon island. His first version, Ten Little Indians (1966) featured Shirley Eaton and Fabian in the cast, and switched the location to a Swiss mountain chateau; his second (1975) took a sleepwalking Herbert Lom and Richard Attenborough to the Iranian desert; his third and final (1989)tried a jungle safari setting and starred Lom again and Sylvester Stallone's brother Frank. Those who have seen this version assure us it is the worst yet, though God knows the 1975 one takes some beating. The 1966 one, despite a whodunnit break towards the end and a ghastly score, is by far the most watchable, though it has nothing on Rene Clair's masterly 1945 version, from which it unofficially borrows a couple of original plot deviations and character names.
The same feeling of inspiration running dry permeates his Fu Manchu films, which began in high style in 1965 with unquestionably his best screenplay, and probably his best film, The Face of Fu Manchu. For Towers, this was high class indeed, virtually indistinguishable from a sixties Hammer film, and frequently mistaken for one, with Christopher Lee as Fu and Tsai Chin as his sadistic nymphomaniac daughter Lin Tang. Pitted against them is Scotland Yard's most experienced Sherlock Holmes rip-off Nayland Smith, played by Nigel Green in the first film, Douglas Wilmer in the second and third and Richard Greene in the fourth and fifth. (Wilmer's recent autobiography dismisses the films as "preposterous twaddle" and informs us that during production Lee carried his spare change around in a sock.)
The standard dropped even by the time of the second film, as Lee recalls in his autobiography:
Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) was tosh, in which an extravagant publicity stunt almost sank the picture. At the instigation of producer Harry Alan Towers, who took an enthusiastic part... I toured European countries choosing from each the winner of a national beauty competition whose prize was a part in the film. They tittuped and titted about the set, draped themselves about pillars in Fu Manchu's great stone den, and between takes some draped themselves about members of the unit... But they could not show themselves off to best advantage because they were not members of Equity and therefore they had not a line to speak between the whole dozen.
When Wilmer left the series (after 1967's Vengeance of Fu Manchu), Towers seems to have lost interest altogether, handing the final two to director Jesus Franco, summed up by Towers himself as "a terribly nice man, but he shouldn't have been allowed to direct traffic."
Castle of Fu Manchu in '68 was a Spanish/Italian/West German co-production shot in Turkey, beginning with Fu freezing the Atlantic and wrecking an ocean liner via spliced-in clips from the British Titanic film A Night to Remember, tinted a spectral blue in a game if unsuccessful attempt to disguise the fact that they are in black and white and the rest of the film is in colour. Then came Blood of Fu Manchu (1969), shot in Brazil and Spain, and a chaotic, near-indecipherable mess: part horror, part James Bond, part spaghetti western, featuring female assassins with poisonous kisses and a superfluous last-minute subplot with Shirley Eaton in a leather cap as 'The Black Widow'. Towers had scored a huge critical and commercial hit with The Face of Fu Manchu, oversaw a superb production with impeccable period detail and earned the praise of original author Sax Rohmer's widow. Then he just seemed to give up on it.
I discussed El Conde Dracula in my previous post: another Lee-Towers-Franco collaboration, and a generally pleasing one, if one marked more by the production values of Blood of Fu Manchu than Face. It was another example of Towers not going the extra half mile and letting a project of enormous potential fall by the way.
Lee seemed to place unerring trust in Towers and Franco, however, no matter how often he was let down by them.
Legendary is his participation in Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1969), one of a couple of Towers-Franco movies to draw inspiration from the puerile writings of the Marquis de Sade. It, too, is among Franco's better works, with that distinctive Euro-sexploitation atmosphere for which he is best known operating at pretty much full power.
Lee plays Dolmance, the chief and most active libertine in the book, but here more of a kind of master-of-ceremonies, standing by in Lee's own velvet Sherlock Holmes jacket and providing a robotic running commentary of Sadean aphorisms and observations.
A last minute replacement for an indisposed George Sanders, he must have known the nature of the original work, but insists in his autobiography that all the dirty stuff was either shot elsewhere and edited in later or in some cases going on literally behind his back:
Everybody I could see kept their clothes on. There was nothing a boy scout could have quivered at. Little did I know that the woman on the altar behind me was naked, and that as soon as 'Cut' was called, drapery was swirled over her. Little did I know that the same scenes were re-shot when I was back in London, and the actors then peeled. Little did I know of the cross-cutting from me to scenes of debauch that would take place. I first knew of it when I heard that despite being only a guest star my name figured at the very top of the credits on a cinema in Soho frequented by a phalanx of men in raincoats. I was peeved. I told the producer so. He said all the big names were doing much more. It was true. That was not, strictly speaking, relevant to my complaint.
A De Sade film fit for boy scouts? You can just see the queues forming outside the cinema...
De Sade was a passion of Franco's but for Towers merely good value for money: a name that sells in the public domain. Accordingly, he did a lot of pseudo-literary adaptation, spiced up wherever possible with decadent trimmings. Massimo Dallarmo's Dorian Gray (1970) had no feeling whatever for Wilde's delicately subversive morality tale and cast Helmut Berger, a blonde German in a tweed hat, as his quintessence of male beauty. Treasure Island, starring and co-written by Orson Welles, was begun by Franco in 1964 and finished by John Hough in 1972, by which time Welles's Long John Silver could only be filmed from the waist up because he was too fat to bend his leg at the knee. Biographer Charles Higham calls it "Welles's worst performance on screen."
Towers mounted a relatively high-profile remake of The Phantom of the Opera in 1988 with Robert Englund in the lead, here no misunderstood and sensitive artist but a belligerent Faust with a penchant for mutilation and rotting skin that has to be stitched in place.
For Night Terrors (1993) directed by a slumming Tobe Hooper, Englund got to play the Marquis de Sade in flashbacks and a descendant in the main narrative, sinister ringmaster of a Sadean cult in modern-day Egypt. The two plot threads never come together, the latter ending with heroine Zoe Trilling, a contemporary Eugenie, suspended in chains in her lingerie being menaced by Englund with some sort of pneumatic retractable spike thing, the former with De Sade telling a priest at his death bed to "take your priestcraft and your palfrey and kiss my ass."
.The modern Towers project with the strongest whiff of nostalgia was The Mummy Lives (1993). This little beauty began its days as an Anthony Perkins vehicle, with Ken Russell down to direct. By the time it appeared Russell had been replaced by prolific hack Gerry O'Hara; and Perkins, sadly deceased, by Tony Curtis! The result was one of the most endearing monstrosities of the decade and already a cult favourite, filled with the kind of buffoonery you may have despaired of ever seeing in a horror film again:
Perkins did work for Towers, however, in Edge of Sanity (1989), a cross-breeding (neither the first nor last) of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde with Jack the Ripper, heavily informed by the look and manner of Russell's Crimes of Passion. Perkins plays Jekyll and Hyde, Budapest plays London; David Lodge and Glynis Barber are in it; there's a Roman Catholic-themed brothel with sexy nuns, and characters wear nylon lingerie and use one pound coins (the latter a deliberate anachronism, the MFB suggested touchingly). "Oh my God," says Hyde before slaughtering one of several victims, "this is going to be so horrible!"
Whether director Gerard Kikoine was shooting in sequence and Towers stopped sending the cheques I don't know, but this remains the only version of the story to end with Jekyll unapprehended and his secret undiscovered. It's abrupt and oddly effective. The police come round to question him but get nowhere, and the film ends with a shot of them trudging dejectedly away and Perkins watching malevolently through a chink in his net curtains.
The nineties also saw him put his name to a series of Edgar Allan Poe movies which, in long-standing cinema tradition, basically just bagged the titles of the stories and went hog wild making up new plots. One of them, Edgar Allen Poe's Buried Alive (1991) didn't even use a real title, and spelled Poe's name wrongly. (It is a riot, however, set in a home for wayward girls, with John Carradine getting mere seconds of screen time in his final role, Robert Vaughan leaving teeth-marks in the scenery as the surprise villain who keeps his face concealed even in front of his victims until the time comes to reveal the secret to the audience, Donald Pleaseance as a prowling red-herring in a disconcerting toupee, and a character getting killed with an egg-whisk. It's the essence of Poe, pretty much.)
These are some of my favourite Harry Alan Towers moments; no doubt you have your own. Or maybe you don't. Maybe you thought that all his films were tripe. But it would still have been obvious that, as the last professionally active survivor of the golden age of British exploitation, cinema will be the poorer without him.
More has ended here than the certain likelihood of anyone ever producing a movie quite like The Mummy Lives ever again. An era has ended here.