Friday, November 26, 2010

Ingrid and Michael and you and me

The British horror film.
A bit like the American horror film, except for the fact that a) it had a different Golden Age (roughly 1956-1975), and b) it had Michael Ripper instead of Dwight Frye.
There may be other differences, but those are the main ones.
I'd be the first to admit that it is not the Bach Matthäus-Passion. Neither is it Mahler's third, The Brothers Karamazov or that Rembrandt painting of the female tennis player showing her bum.
But if this stuff does have lasting merit, and I think it does, it should strike us more forcefully than it tends to that we were alive at the same time as these people who helped make it.
Future fans will not be so lucky, and they will assume that we went around all day remarking on our good fortune to have actually lived in the same days as Michael Gough or Ingrid Pitt.
But we don't, we just sort of take it for granted, as if it couldn't be any other way, as we mark off the dates on the calendar: Ingrid Pitt died this week, aged 73; Michael Gough - I hope - ate a big cake with a miniature icing sugar Konga and 94 candles on it this week.
That's this week, modern life fans!
. So, firstly, we lost mad Ingrid.
When all is said and done - and, now, all is said and done - Ingrid was the female face of Hammer Horror. The stubborn facts that she only appeared in two Hammer films, and was dubbed in one of them, matter less than zip. Today is a day for printing the legend, and if anyone ever relished their association with Hammer it was Ingrid. Not for her the Christopher Lee "actually I'm more of a roller-skating song and dance man than a vampire" type of squeamishness. Ingrid loved being a Hammer gal, and you don't get to be the number one female face of Hammer for no reason. Something about her Carmilla Karnstein was uniquely iconic in a way that her peers could never quite duplicate.
If you're a regular reader in these parts you'll know why I'm bending over backwards to stress points that are for most uncontested and uncontroversial. Ingrid was not my favourite Hammer actress, and it would be disingenuous to pretend I haven't gone on record as saying so. Off screen she seemed like an exposed electric wire, onscreen I always preferred Valerie and Veronica and Caroline and Hazel.
But I do think she's a good actress, which was not something Hammer actually demanded of its leading ladies. Her two Hammer performances are real performances, with odd moments and nuances not dictated by the script but indicative of a responding intelligence in their interpreter.
Countess Dracula, even crassly dubbed, is to be commended for the way in which both actress and director seem to be inspiring each other to take the thing more seriously than necessary: the result is one of the most instantly distinctive and under-rated Hammer films of the seventies. Her performance in Vampire Lovers, the schoolboy's Citizen Kane, is even more layered: the character's existential melancholy is entirely Ingrid and entirely effective, as though she had taken Lugosi's enigmatic line "To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious..." and used it as template for the entire performance.
It is especially interesting to see how she plays her scenes with the young girls she corrupts and ultimately abandons. One might have expected her to do it Dracula-style: coldly seductive, with an obvious edge of calculating, cynical disregard. Quite the reverse: she seems almost self-loathing in her appetites and genuinely in love with her victims. Just compare her scenes with Madeline Smith with the swiftness and savagery with which she dispatches inconvenient men. You can see the difference instantly if you look at Lust for a Vampire (and it's as good an excuse as any): Yutte's Mircalla is much more the machine-like vampiress; it's not - and I mean this - a bad performance by any means, but a standard one. Pitt was never standard.
. Aside from her Hammer films, the obituaries have focused on Where Eagles Dare and, for some reason, The Wicker Man, in which she has almost literally nothing to do. According to Allan Brown's book Inside The Wicker Man she was cast against Anthony Shaffer's wishes ("I said, "Christ, must we have her?"; I wanted to avoid any further connections to Hammer Horror"), apparently because it was felt her then-liaison with George Pinches, Rank's head of exhibition, would guarantee the film a place on the Odeon circuit. But even in the full-length version she has only one tiny speaking scene before she turns up at the finale to assist the villagers in the burning of Sgt Howie. (Her only other appearance is in a gloriously unnecessary two-second shot of Howie disturbing her in her bath, apologising and leaving again: "It was quite wonderful to get all my kit off and sit in the hot water in the cold winter... When you take your kit off, everybody is so nice, everybody just loves you to bits...")
I liked this recollection, from assistant director Jake Wright, very much:

The weather was just appalling. It was always bitterly cold, with a cold wind blowing in off the sea. All our lovely crowd were dressed in little summer blouses, the men in shirt sleeves. And they froze, poor loves... Then came a moment when we needed two minutes to reload the camera, so I told the wardrobe people to give the main artists their coats to keep them warm. And Britt Ekland took hers, Diane Cilento put her coat on, but Ingrid Pitt said, "Thank you, but if the crowd haven't got time to put on their coats, I haven't got time," which I thought was lovely.

I tend more readily to think of her in The House That Dripped Blood.

This is her third great appearance, a nice little spoof of Hammer, in which she is both authentic and amusing. It's as if she just knew she was destined to be the female Christopher Lee for all time, remarkable considering that she was launched by Hammer with none of the fanfare that accompanied non-starters like Victoria Vetri or Julie Ege, and doubly so when you realise it was made before Vampire Lovers had even been released.
It's great because it trades on the idea of her being a horror star, an idea that would have been conveyed even more joyously if only Lee hadn't been so silly as to turn down the male lead. As it is, Pitt's third and - in its own odd way - most iconic British horror role remains curiously overlooked.

Farewell, Ingrid - a place in the Abbey crypt is yours.

Michael Gough might be the most neglected stalwart of British horror still with us.

I always think of him as the British horror film's equivalent of George Zucco. Like Zucco he was, to the real world, a respected character actor. Like Zucco, he never became a real film star, but did occasionally make a notable impression in the odd character role in a major film. (He's good in two of Ken Russell's, Women In Love and Savage Messiah, also an interesting Bertrand Russell in Derek Jarman's lousy Wittgenstein.) Like Zucco, he was happy - and I do mean clearly happy, not reconciled or merely content - to take roles in horror films between more earnest gigs. Like Zucco at Universal, his work for Hammer was of the unshowy, supporting variety; both men got to be the big horror star only in the shadier parts of town: Monogram and PRC for mad George, Herman Cohen for Gough.
To Herman Cohen, Gough was Chris, Peter and Vincent all rolled into one, and - again like Carradine - he rewarded the attention by really letting rip when the narrative demanded, sometimes even when it didn't quite.

He's always good value in a horror film: as the villain in The Phantom of the Opera or Arthur Holmwood in Dracula, or in stranger escapades like The Corpse or Satan's Slave. He also did a nice line in weird and/or doolally butlers: as the almost literally dusty family retainer in that joyous all-star romp Curse of the Crimson Altar, he turns in a performance almost as knowingly generic as in that fine spoof What a Carve Up.
But it's as obsessive perverts that we love him the most: watch him in Horror Hospital or Cohen's Horrors of the Black Museum if you're after the full dosage. Quite simply, nobody in British horror does uninhibited sadistic loonery with the relish, enthusiasm and delight of Michael Gough.

Horror Hospital (1973), one of the weirdest and most fabulous British horrors of the seventies, was the work of eccentric showman and Wardour Street legend Antony Balch. An occasional film-maker and full-time importer and distributor, he was perhaps best known for the imagination and ingenuity with which he retitled foreign films, correctly reasoning that The Kinky Darlings could well take a shilling or two but Per Una Valigia Piene di Donne was on a hiding to nothing. (Other, equally unpromising titles went through his back door to emerge out the front as The Doctor In The Nude, Pussycats, The Pornographer, Massacre For an Orgy and, my particular favourite, Weird Weirdo. These titles usually had nothing to do with the film in question, and the last two, as the more observant among you will have spotted straight away, don't actually mean anything at all. According to David McGillivray he retitled Juliette de Sade as Heterosexual in the hope that punters would assume the term referred to some obscure perversion.)
He wrote and directed Horror Hospital seemingly on a whim. Robin Askwith is the hero, so it's a winner before it even starts, but audiences will realise within two minutes that this is one of the strangest darned films ever. Sillier than any spoof, but not a spoof... just talented people messing about. It's like a horror pantomime. Watch it this Christmas after the Queen's speech.
And happily, Gough seems to be enjoying it most of all. He plays Dr Storm, a lunatic scientist who runs a health farm cum holiday camp as a front for his attempts to build an army of zombified tenagers. He talks a great deal about his scientific innovation and sophistication in this regard, but as far as we can see he just lobotomises them, and spends the rest of the time being pushed around in a wheelchair by his devoted accolyte (a German lesbian and former brothel owner nicknamed Harris on account of her fetish for harris tweed suits), cracking his knuckles (the sound of which Balch amplifies horrendously) and caning his dwarf assistant about the face. He also has a customised Rolls Royce in which he pursues would-be escapees: as the car pulls up alongside the runaway, a decapitating blade shoots out of the side and the severed head is caught in a string bag attached to a hoop.
But Storm is not just a nutso scientist: in a glorious twist inspired (if that's not too ordinary a word) by Mystery of the Wax Museum we learn that his wiry body and fully expressive face and hands are just a synthetic suit and rubber mask concealing his true form: a hideous pink mutant blob, substantially larger than when he's got the Michael Gough suit on.

I've no idea what Gough's position is on his horror career now. I do know I've never read an interview with him on the subject. Perhaps he shuns such unworthy attention? I only hope it's not just that nobody's asked. In the great pantheon of British horror stars, he's the next best thing to Tod Slaughter - or even Edward Lionheart. Many happy returns. May he live forever.


Jinx said...

Bloody Marvellous. Such a lovely tribute. The coat refusal story was really wonderful.
Hell yeah, Michael Gough too!
Also, any mention of Robin Askwith is guaranteed to make me joyous and glad to be alive.

Holger Haase said...

My favourite blog post of the year.... even if I panicked and thought Gough had also passed away and this was a tribute. Glad to see he is still with us.

James said...

Wonderful tribute, Matthew.

RoseOfTransylvania said...

I agree, lovely tribute to these two actors. Goodbye Countess Carmilla Dracula!
I must admit than when David McGillivray dies, I just politely keep my mouth shut.

Mykal said...

"Farewell, Ingrid - a place in the Abbey crypt is yours."

Amen. Best tribute among countless. "Mad Ingrid" says it all.

Matthew Coniam said...

Jinx - Glad you liked it. Tower of Evil is another good one if you fancy a Robin Askwith horrorfest...

Holger - Thanks - and I'll get something up on H&B very soon, now that I'm back to my normal schedule!

James - Thanks!

R of T - Have you issues with Mr McG??? Glad you liked the piece.

Mykal - Thanks as ever. Expect an email from me very soon: I've just finished an amazing novel.

Mykal said...

Matthew: I couldn't help but notice that the first picture of Mad Ingrid had an exposed, female breast complete with areola.

Matthew Coniam said...

I think we should make it our mission to get one into every post from now on.

(Confused and/or distressed readers should look for context here: )

RoseOfTransylvania said...

Well, man whose career outside sex business was exploitation - and flopped - and who can´t even bother to find out what schizophrenia means while co-scribbling a movie about subject should not attempt to ride in high horse - it can buck him off.
Just interview I found about him in Jonathan Rigby´s book English Gothic - he seemed like a hypocrite and hypocrisy is such slimy and irritating thing.

Matthew Coniam said...

I see!
He wasn't criticising Antony Balch though; he loved his inventiveness.

Joe The Ghoul said...

I miss her so much

Holger Haase said...

I know you didn't write this as an obit but as a tribute for Michael Gough. Unfortunately now it is a wonderfully written obit after all. R.I.P.

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks for letting me know, Holger: I hadn't heard. I'll do an obit straight away.