The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

When it’s on: Saturday, 15 October (6.40 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

I’ve mentioned before on these pages that the best Hammer horror films were like dark fairy tales, depicting some long lost world that still had room for superstition and monsters. It’s no wonder these movies played so well in the States, that the likes of Martin Scorsese were inspired by them – as America lurched towards the Cold War stand-off over Cuba, the internal divisions caused by the Civil Rights movement and increasingly Vietnam, they must have represented the last word in escapism. For me, Hammer didn’t go in for allegory, refused to make pictures that we could dissect these days as reflecting contemporary national moods. They just went for entertainment, a bit of censor-baiting luridness but in the end nothing more noble or controversial than telling yarns.

To modern audiences without any experience of this stuff, the editing and pacing must seem quite tedious; the shocks not at all shocking. It’s all been done better and gorier, certainly within the horror sub-genre of werewolf stories. I can easily picture a 2016 viewer taking in An American Werewolf in London for the first time and coming away every so slightly terrified – those Rick Baker Practical efforts still carry some currency. The Curse of the Werewolf, on the other hand, despite being made only twenty years before Landis’s horror-comedy, feels like something from a different world. It’s undeniably gentler, and there’s that ‘Olde Worlde’ setting that makes it appear quaint compared with the modern London locations used for 1981’s American Werewolf. It’s also strangely linear, opting to tell the complicated back-story building to its protagonist’s tale in an extended flashback, which takes up more than half the running time. The narration by Clifford Evans exacerbates the film’s ‘fable’ tone, like you’re sat by the fireside alongside him, watching him smoke his elaborately designed pipe as he delivers his account. The atmosphere is something that approaches a dreamlike state.

Evans tell us we’re watching a story from eighteenth century Spain, with a nod to the studio’s set and costume designers who spent comparatively little in redesigning existing props to make it look so authentic. One day, an unfortunate beggar interrupts a cruel Marques’s wedding celebrations and for his troubles is locked up for years and years. Time passes, and the mute servant girl who’s been kind to the prisoner is jailed alongside him. He rapes her, and the resulting child is born on Christmas Day. Normally a celebratory event, the unhappy circumstances surrounding Leon’s arrival are enough to curse him as a werewolf – with each full moon he transforms into a murderous wolfman, a state of affairs that can only be broken if he finds true love…

Two elements elevate this stuff. The first is director Terence Fisher, who uses a fabulous sense of economy and some marvellous shooting to keep everything moving. The film’s points are never laboured. Fisher was a master of visual storytelling and, alongside the narrative structure, chose his images judiciously to show, for instance, the passage of time, transforming Richard Wordsworth’s tattered beggar into a hairy, dirty and pathetic figure as a consequence of his years spent in incarceration, the length of time showing on his make-up and manic demeanour. It looks lovely. As Evans tells us the beggar is travelling to the Marques’s mansion, the shot chosen is of Wordsworth in silhouette, walking before a glorious sunset vista. Not only is it gorgeous cinematography but it also gives us a glimpse of the character’s freedom, something precious that he’ll soon lose forever.

An essential of Hammer’s retelling of classic horror stories was the order that it couldn’t simply redo the old Universal entries. This extended from not being allowed to rehash the special effects and the ‘look’ of creatures to having to come up with fresh plots. That’s why Christopher Lee’s monster in The Curse of Frankenstein looks nothing like Boris Karloff, and why the action in this one moves to the past, significantly to a deeply religious and conservative Spain in its declining, post-Armada years. The source material is 1941’s The Wolf Man, a title I don’t count among my Universal favourites perhaps because I have never been enamoured by Lon Chaney Jr, the stocky star who clearly obsessed the studio to the extent he went on the play their entire stable of monsters, but as a horror player didn’t do a lot for me. What did sit well was the theme of the ‘curse’, Chaney Jr’s character becoming more suicidal as he realises he’s stuck this way forever, and this element was carried over into Hammer’s film, one I would argue is superior to its Universal forebear.

Oliver Reed plays the adult Leon. He doesn’t appear until the film’s second half, and of course it was made long before his infamous hell-raising days, so what’s left is all that brooding intensity that marks him out as decidedly superior to the material he performed. Reed was a Hammer player for some time, putting in supporting work for the likes of Night Creatures and The Devil Ship Pirates, and more significant roles in Paranoiac and The Damned, two unusual titles that are well worth a watch. The Curse of the Werewolf might be his best work for the studio. It was made before he suffered the facial scar that came as a result of his bar fight in 1963, so we get an extraordinarily handsome man with a propensity for physical performance, important for the part, and undoubted charisma levels to spare. He’s really impressive during the transformation scenes, the moments before he becomes the wolfman when the pain he’s supposed to be experiencing is conveyed via his eyes.

It’s great work, and it’s the second thing that makes this film click so well. He’s supported by a very fine cast. Desmond Llewelyn’s cynical butler goes without credit, but there’s also Anthony Dawson – impressive in Dial M for Murder and Dr No – as the evil Marques, Richard Wordsworth transferring the inner turmoil of his work on The Quatermass Xperiment to bear as the beggar, Evans and Hira Talfrey playing Leon’s surrogate parents, Michael Ripper putting in his usual sterling work as Old Soak (the clue’s in the title). Yvonne Romain appears in most of the film’s publicity, numerous stills that show her being terrorised by Reed’s werewolf. They’re fine lurid fun, though of course her character never appears alongside Reed in the film and is dead long before he turns up. I don’t suppose for one second the casting directors had Romain’s acting talents in mind when they chose her for the part of Leon’s mother, though it’s a surprisingly gutsy and sympathetic piece of work – see if you can spot what made her such an ideal Hammer star.

The studio only made one werewolf movie, oddly enough, but it’s a good one. Freed from the endless recycling of plots that blighted the Dracula series, The Curse of the Werewolf represents Hammer working close to its best and remains a fascinating artefact of what made it such a powerful and enduring influence over the horror genre. I understand that efforts are afoot to reboot the Universal classics for modern audiences, something we’ve already witnessed with 2010’s The Wolf Man. A much tougher prospect to do the same for Hammer’s efforts, rooted as they are in a fabled and fictional past, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth enjoying.

The Curse of the Werewolf: ****

Something Evil (1972)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 March (4.30 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

When putting together this site’s Steven Spielberg from Worst to Best article last year, I knew I was missing a couple of his made-for-TV movies off the list. I included Duel, which I justified thanks to its theatrical release in Europe, but the truth was I just like the film and thought it more than merited its place in the list. Two other titles, Savage and Something Evil, were omitted because I simply couldn’t get hold of copies. Neither appears to be available on DVD, and indeed where the former’s concerned it seems to have more or less vanished from existence. What I didn’t think to check on, though, was YouTube, where it turns out Something Evil is available to watch in full. Given its appearance on the Horror Channel, I thought it might be nice to see what we can learn from this semi-forgotten supernatural offering.

Among the extras on my Duel DVD, Spielberg talks about moving from making that to The Sugarland Express as though nothing else happened in between. Not true, of course. If his aim was to put some distance between himself and the two further micro-budgeted films he made then I’d argue he’s doing his own work on Something Evil a disservice. Sure, it’s cheaply made and it’s a long way from perfect. The suggestion that Poltergeist (which Spielberg co-wrote and produced) came as a glossier update of this material is hard to shake off, yet as with many TV fright flicks it isn’t without merit. I remember being terrified as a child watching the likes of Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, Dark Night of the Scarecrow and, most of all, Don’t go to Sleep. The latter, with its meditations on guilt all leading to that delicious twist in the final frame, pretty much ensured that I was unable to defy the film’s title. Like Something Evil, these titles were made on television budgets, but that meant the slack was taken up with atmosphere and suspense, which they all have in spades. Incidentally, for real fans of the form this entry also hands a starring role to Darren McGavin, who’s perhaps best known for his lead performances in the Kolchak series (two TV movies and a run of twenty episodes). As a mixture of gritty urban crime and horror, they’re well worth checking out.

Of course, the real reason for watching Something Evil is to see the formative work of Spielberg, to spot clues in it of the director responsible for some of the world’s biggest films honing his skills. On the surface, there’s little evidence of that here. The film uses next to nothing in terms of special effects, unless you include the technical wizardry that went into placing two glowing yellow eyes in a few frames. What it does have is a mounting sense of dread, palpable unease, all nicely teased out in several ways.

The film’s a short one, running for little over seventy minutes. Its plot is therefore understandably slight. McGavin, his wife Sandy Dennis and their two young children move into a farm house that’s well outside the bustle of New York. He’s the classic working man, an advertising executive who pulls long hours at the office and often leaves his family at home alone. Sandy admires the strange symbol she sees painted over the barn door and starts copying it in her own artwork, fashioning good luck charms. She’s told it’s a symbol of good luck, a token to ward away evil spirits. What she doesn’t know is that it was painted there to protect against ‘devils’ that reside inside the house, that the previous occupant threw himself from the hayloft rather than succumb to being possessed. Soon enough, she starts hearing strange noises in the middle of the night, the cries and whimpers of a very young child. The barn is filled with jars of strange luminescent goo that pulsates and unsettles her. The behaviour of her oldest child, Stevie (Johnny Whitaker) deteriorates and she reacts more violently than normal. A couple of friends die in a horrible car crash after attending a party at the house. Steadily, Sandy’s own spirits descend as she starts to feel she’s losing control of her own sanity.

Something Evil was made a year before The Exorcist was released, but after William Peter Blatty’s novel was published, and there’s undoubtedly a link in terms of the possession storyline, though it’s one that’s easily resolved by the film’s end. The cheapness is an issue. It has none of The Exorcist’s astonishing special effects, the visible sight of a young girl becoming the corrupted vessel for a demonic host. Instead, everything’s done with askew camera work, unsettling filming angles that emphasise the feeling that all isn’t well, often from a distance to give the impression of characters being watched by something unseen. A lot depends on the acting, Sandy Dennis’s rather brilliant portrayal of a woman being unravelled emotionally by an entity she can’t understand and doesn’t easily believe in. As the story progresses she seems to age, and she becomes jumpier and more abrupt with every ambient sound. There’s a great supporting role for Ralph Bellamy, here playing an expert on Devilry who advises Sandy on how she can cope with and defeat the spirits she becomes convinced are in her home. Bellamy’s presence comes as a neat wink to his part in Rosemary’s Baby, where he portrayed one of the Devil worshippers.

Other moments work less well. John Rubinstein plays Bellamy’s son, and has a couple of scenes in which he seems to turn up for no reason, says his piece to Sandy and then simply walks away, plus another where he appears to be making a grab for her baby girl only to exit when he hears her approaching. It’s a bizarre little performance and suggests a number of scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor. Some of the evil things tormenting Sandy’s character are a bit on the weak side, notably the jars of goo, which by their very strangeness are objects of abject terror for her though they don’t threaten and never do anything. The intimation is of a script that’s determined to throw every potential scare at audiences, hoping that bits stick; it misses the more assured hand of Richard Matheson, who of course wrote the taut and mounting in suspense screenplay for Duel.

But on the whole, I admit I found it a suitably uncomfortable viewing experience. For all the film’s shortcomings, it worked well in places, such as when McGavin is presented with some cells of footage he’s filmed outside the house and a pair of strange yellow eyes appear in the frames, for no reason that anyone can understand. Despite Sandy’s evident breakdown, there are signs like this that suggest what she’s experiencing isn’t a consequence of her own fragile mental state, and the film’s closing twist confirms that. There are some traditional tropes of Spielberg’s work that are in evidence here – the dysfunctional family, troubled children having a tough time, absent fathers – if you want to look for them; otherwise it’s a neat little frightener that more often than not hits its mark.

Something Evil: ***

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

When it’s on: Thursday, 28 January (1.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

It’s been several years since I started this blog and I’m left wondering exactly what it is. I’m uncomfortable with the phrase ‘film review site’ because that implies an impersonal and objective attempt to discuss movies, and it hasn’t evolved into that at all. With every title I cover here I try to find some personal dimension, because on that kind of level I think that’s what film appreciation is all about, finding a connection with it, whether it’s something I remember from childhood, a movie I haven’t seen before and my reasons why, because it features an actor or crew member who I especially admire. I’ve come to realise that I’m more of a film lover than a critic. My interest isn’t in lambasting a title that possibly deserves to be dragged through the gutter, but rather to find some angle that suggests a degree of love has gone into it, that even with the poorest features there are people involved who have invested bits of themselves.

As a film fan, I have found myself supporting people and studios beyond the pale. I can’t imagine proper critics discovering an awful lot to love in the varied work of Hammer, indeed on the exhaustively researched 1,000 films collated by critical appraisal on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? I believe only Dracula has figured, and then at the lower end of the spectrum. Now, I don’t suppose Hammer’s first concern was ever to produce great art. What counted was the bottom line and there are times when they even appeared to court adverse reactions because at least this meant people were talking about their work. But over time there has been an increase in affection for their movies. Many are now available on DVD, some even in HD format, and the likes of the Horror Channel screen them regularly. Sadly, this stops with their horror output – as any fan knows, the real jewels in Hammer’s crown were their black and white thrillers, inspired by the likes of Psycho and Les Diaboliques, playing to the studio’s strengths of making ’em cheap and knocking ’em out, and often featuring taut scripts and some very gripping performances. But that’s a minor quibble. As far as I’m concerned some Hammer is better than none at all.

I think the reassessment of their films and a re-evaluation of where Hammer stands as part of celluloid history comes largely from people like me, people of a certain age. I was too young to visit the cinema for any of these movies (indeed seeing The Woman in Black II: Angel of Death on the big screen was my first cinematic Hammer, perhaps my last given the way things appear to be going) so catching late night televised offerings was the order of the day. Having started my initiation into the horror genre with the Universal double bills served up on BBC2, it was a short step from there to the Technicolor blood and cleavages of Hammer and The Brides of Dracula was the first I ever watched. At best I was ten or eleven years old, and I had never seen anything quite like it. The experience was both terrifying and elating. There’s a scene where Peter Cushing’s heroic Van Helsing is investigating a castle for signs of vampirism. While he stands in the foreground of the shot, facing the camera on the right of the screen, the left takes in the long perspective of the room and at the end a door. A woman appears just on the other side, someone we know has been ‘made undead’, and quietly she approaches. It’s just a few seconds, but the forced perspective makes it an agonising wait before Van Helsing realises he isn’t alone and turns to face the woman. Moments like these, really simple scenes yet beautiful in their construction, are what sold the film to me. At the time, the faltering acting skills of doe-eyed  Yvonne Monlaur flew straight over my head, as did the clearly visible strings that held those bats in their air. What mattered was the atmosphere, which dripped with danger, the calm assuredness of Van Helsing and a plot that wrapped everything up in less than ninety minutes. By the end I was ready for more and as I remember it The Curse of the Werewolf came the following week, which was almost as good.

With more than thirty years logged between that first breathless viewing and now, and with the majority of Hammer’s back catalogue of horrors watched, the Brides of Dracula remains pretty much my favourite. Perhaps it all harks back to that first viewing; I never felt that gnawing sense of dread with any of their other films. But I think there’s more to it than that. At their best, these films played like dark fairytales, set in some remote Central European location around the turn of the twentieth century to ensure a sense of dislocation and to enforce an environment of peasant superstitions and societies that aren’t yet equipped for scientific rationality. The Brides of Dracula takes place in Transylvania. It was originally written to include Lee’s Count once again, but the actor refused to return to the cape* and Jimmy Sangster was forced to revise his screenplay, including an opening narration that introduced the concept of Dracula’s disciples taking over his diabolical work. In a great bit of casting, Hammer made matinee-handsome David Peel into the film’s villain, with Cushing’s charismatic authority figure its hero. Peel’s Baron starts the film in chains, confined to a wing of the Meinster Castle by his mother (Martita Hunt) and kept alive by the blood of the young women she brings home to him. One such is Marianne (Monlaur), bound to start a teaching job in the area but waylaid en route by the Baroness, who arranges for her carriage to leave and then invites her to stay the night at the castle. Unknowingly, Marianne is heading for Meinster’s fangs, but there’s a twist. Instead of killing her, the Baron appeals to Marianne’s good nature and begs her to find the key to his bonds. She does so, believing the austere Baroness is one horse short of a full carriage, and with that he’s free. He kills his own mother, leaving Marianne to run for her life and by lucky chance into the path of Van Helsing, who’s visiting at the appeal of a local priest to look into some strange deaths.

The stage is set for a showdown between Meinster and Van Helsing, but not before a couple of local girls are killed and become vampires themselves, and the good Professor has to deal also with the Baron’s human servant, Greta, played by the second billed and reliably demented Freda Jackson. There are some sweetly judged moments of comedy to be found, in the shape of Henry Oscar’s class-driven Herr Lang, and later in the foolish and greedy Doctor played by Miles Malleson. Mostly though, it’s horror all the way, and the cherry picking of the Dracula legend in Sangster’s script that makes free use of Bram Stoker’s source novel to produce something both reverential and original. Peel makes for a great bad guy. Brilliant make-up and lighting effects transform him from an Adam Faith lookalike in his ‘normal’ guise to a rather terrifying monster, not to mention a choosy one – he simply attacks the ‘ordinary’ girls while Marianne, whose adjudged to have good breeding, is actively courted. In real life, Peel was gay and he brought an effete feyness to his performance, not to mention a hunger about the way he eventually betters and attacks Van Helsing in one of the film’s more thrilling scenes. The pair’s tussles make for fine cinema. They’re nicely matched and the film draws out that fact, though it’s disappointing to see that the two girls (Andree Melly and Marie Devereux) who become the Baron’s brides have so little to do, though the former does get one scene playing alongside Marianne that carries a genuine level of threat.

It’s pulled together by the sterling work of director Terence Fisher and the cinematography of Jack Asher, two Hammer stalwarts who were arguably turning in their best work at the time. It’s Asher we have to thank for picking out all those colours in stained glass windows that festoon Meinster’s castle, casting eerie and disjointed light effects that make it feel so disorientating. and what about the scene in the stables, when Marianne is guarding Gina’s (Melly’s) coffin and in the background we hear the nervous clopping of horses, sensing at that animal level that something is very wrong? We don’t see the horses so we have to imagine their fretting, which makes the effect all the more potent. Fisher was a master of economical storytelling and really brought that to the fore here. Though The Brides of Dracula never feels rushed, scenes come and go without an inch of fat left on them, each one advancing the story and its characters towards their logical conclusion. The personalities of the people involved are teased out through little moments of exposition and some very fine acting. We learn that Van Helsing is a respected man of science through his assured manner and the reactions of those around him, nothing more than that, so when he does spring into action (and he does! Cushing brought a lot of athleticism to his roles before premature old age crept up on him) we have complete confidence in his abilities.

I would be lying if I said that The Brides of Dracula a perfect film. For a start, there’s a long shadow cast over it and that’s the absence of Dracula himself. Peel, as good as he is in playing Meinster (and it’s taken me a few watches to really appreciate his performance) is no Lee, and the Baron’s no Count. Yvonne Monlaur was one of a string of European lovelies cast not for her acting chops – I love the American trailer, which describes her as ‘France’s latest sex kitten’; a sign of the times if ever there was one. For seasoned Hammer fans the use of buxom babes over actors for their lead roles is all part of the fun – Barbara Shelley was the one exception who brought both looks and talent to the table – but I can see how her performance might grate. And there are numerous little inconsistencies that, once noticed, can undermine the overall effort, such as the Baron’s ability to transform into a bat that is somehow impeded when he’s wearing his leg iron; why doesn’t he just change and escape? I think bits like this are victims of the script rewrite, instances that might have been dealt with better by a consistent screenplay but were overlooked in the rush to get the film finished.

It takes thirty minutes, more than a third of the running time, for Cushing to enter the film. Once he does, it becomes his stage, one in which he blows everyone away as part of a commanding turn. Cushing fans routinely place this one at or near the top of the list and it isn’t hard to guess why. At the height of his powers and operating in the full knowledge that this is his picture, it’s great work and an all-round fine movie that finds the chief players at the top of their game.

The Brides of Dracula: *****

* It’s Lee himself who claims he turned down the chance to play Dracula again, whereas studio people insist the decision was more their’s. A murky, real-life sub-plot teases at Lee growing increasingly fed up at having to play second fiddle to Cushing, who was seen as Hammer’s real A-Lister, a suggestion borne out by the number of occasions when the latter played the central character and Lee was handed the ‘creature’ roles. As it is, Lee’s diffidence has stronger grounds in Hammer’s handling of the Count. Whereas Cushing’s long running character, Baron Frankenstein, went from strength to strength as the central figure of his Gothic nightmares, Dracula was less well served, the scripts reducing him to a character who did little more than make threats, bare his teeth and bark commands to the women who were under his spell, rarely letting him blossom as a character. Arguably he’s a weaker element in the direct Dracula sequel, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, in which he has to get by through sheer force of personality alone and refused to speak the hammy lines that were in the screenplay. Despite this, audience numbers kept the cape and blood-soaked fangs in business, giving the impression Hammer were doing something right, whereas in posterity the shameful truth is that The Brides of Dracula, the one entry in the series that doesn’t feature the Count at all, is almost certainly its strongest.

Night Creatures (1962)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 29 December (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

DVD has done many good things for the Hammer back catalogue, and the best surely has to be its ability to dust off forgotten films like Night Creatures and restore them for a new generation of viewers. Tucked away on Side B of the second disc within Universal’s superior The Hammer Horror Series set, Night Creatures might have none of the lustre that comes with the studio’s Dracula or Frankenstein features but that doesn’t make it inferior. Give it several minutes to warm up and this swashbuckling tale of south coast skullduggery – disguised as horror fare – is incredibly good fun, moves with the pace of a densely layered plot stuffed into 82 minutes, and features some cracking performances.

The tale of how Night Creatures made it onto the screen is legend in itself. His story is part of the adventures of the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn, the lead character in a popular series of novels by Russell Thorndike. Anthony Hinds was forced to make changes to his screenplay for the film once it transpired that Disney had bought the rights to adapt Thorndike’s books for the screen, and sure enough the tale was dramatised in a mini-series starring Patrick McGoohan (edited for cinema audiences in the UK). The main amendment in Hammer’s version saw Clegg become Parson Blyss, removing any reference to Dr Syn in the process. The character’s mythology remains, however, almost in its entirety, as does the supporting cast. Some of the dialogue between Blyss and Mipps in the film hints at a back story that could only mean anything to followers of Thorndike’s novels and, as luck would have it, gives Night Creatures a lot more depth than it might otherwise achieve.

In Britain the film was released as Captain Clegg, though curiously it’s billed here with its American title. According to its Wiki, Hammer had promised their American distributor a picture based on Richard Matheson’s novel, I am Legend, which would be entitled Night Creatures. They were warned off continuing the project because the subject matter would make it too strong for the certifiers. A contract was a contract, however, and Hammer offered this treatment instead, emphasising the spectres that haunt the marshes in the story in order to justify the title. A shame, as the story was strong enough when focusing on the derring-do of the smugglers. Ultimately, it was this that really differentiated Hammer’s picture from that produced by Disney, the latter released as a straightforward family offering whilst Night Creatures was marketed to a more mature audience.

The ‘night creatures’ – men on horseback wearing skeleton costumes with luminous paint – are actually the weakest element of the film. Of far more interest is the good Parson (Peter Cushing), who in his first scene admonishes his congregation for their half-hearted hymn signing. It’s clear that Cushing is having a whale of a time in this picture. Whether playing the angelic Blyss or flipping his character fluidly to become the leader of the smugglers (and Cushing is subtle enough to make his change look absolutely natural), he’s in imperial form and runs rings around Patrick Allen as the virtuous Captain Collier. Collier is in Romney Marshes to investigate claims of smuggling but finds next to no evidence. Fortunately for him, the community is flawed enough to give him sufficient motivation to stick around, and then there are the erratic actions of his captive Mulatto (Milton Reid) to consider. Why does the mute giant, who was rendered so and left for dead by Clegg, take such a deadly interest in the Parson? What lies behind the legend of the marsh creatures? Something’s not right, whether it’s in the scarecrow that appears to be in various places at once, and might even make the occasional gesture, or the bottles of fine wine that turn up in the cabinets of the Parson and the spineless Squire (Derek Frances).

In reality, all Collier ever needed to do was look into the background of Imogene (Yvonne Romain), the village tavern’s serving wench. Nobody that exotic should be anywhere near the Suffolk coast and there’s an easy connection between her and Clegg – alleged to be hanged and then buried in the churchyard – that any investigator worth his salt would explore. But not Collier. Like much of the audience, he sees Imogene as nothing more than eye candy, lovely eye candy for sure but that’s where her story ends. Or does it?

Neither does Collier bother much with the Squire’s son, Harry (Oliver Reed), Imogene’s lover and a key member of the smugglers. Reed is fantastic in Captain Clegg. Even though his role is that of a callow youth, the young gun to Clegg’s old hand, the actor has far too much smouldering intensity to be boring. Watching Reed in these early roles, it’s clear why he still commanded so much attention during his ‘Wild Thing’ years. The charismatic talent was there. Bags of it. Of the remaining cast, Michael Ripper is his usual likeable self, thoroughly enjoying himself as Mipps, Blyss’s sidekick and a jolly jack-tar. Everyone knows that Hammer films are onto a winner when Ripper ‘rips’ up the stage. The man gives a full-blooded turn, as ever. And then there’s Collier, who is turned into a surprisingly sympathetic character by Allen. Despite his squarest of jaws, the good Captain has some depth in the hands of this fine actor whose brief was surely just to make a two-dimensional authority figure of his part.

The smugglers’ attempts to dodge the authorities are what make this movie such good fun. In one scene, a villager sends Collier’s entire company deep into Romney Marshes on a search for the night creatures, a diversion while his mates arrange a shipment of continental wine. It’s so high-spirited that you could forget smuggling was nothing like the knockabout high jinks portrayed here and personified in Mipps’s easy laughter. There’s nothing of the desperate cut-throatery of real life where these fellows are concerned. The smugglers are the good guys, and if there is a concern that we aren’t cheering them on enough it transpires Clegg is doing it all to put money back into the community, stealing from the rich – the government – and giving to the poor.

But then, Hammer’s mandate was rarely to offer a slice of gritty, hard life in their work but rather to entertain, and Night Creatures delivers on that front. It might have been forgotten altogether if not for the efforts of a group of loving restorers, and it’s certainly deemed to be among the lesser works of the studio’s catalogue, however I would argue it represents nothing less than Hammer at its considerable creative peak.

Night Creatures: ****

The Gorgon (1964)

When it’s on: Saturday, 7 November (10.50 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

Whilst the ‘big bad’ in 1981’s Clash of the Titans is the Kraken, the film’s finest and scariest moments come when Perseus faces Medusa. One of the three Gorgon sisters, Medusa has been cursed by the gods into a figure of such ugliness that one direct look into her face and the hapless watcher is turned instantly to stone. To add to the effect, her hair is a throng of living, writing snakes. Even the approach to the ruined temple that is now her dwelling place is fraught with peril and foreboding, from the skeletal boatman who ferries Perseus and his friends to her island to the outskirts of the building, festooned with statues that turn out to be previous victims of Medusa’s stare. Having seen off his companions, Medusa is only foiled when the hero is able to catch her reflection in his shield and uses this advantage to decapitate her. It’s a thrilling and powerful sequence, and the only time in the movie when Perseus is clearly out of his depth.

Sadly, the level of threat, menace and the atmosphere of death is only partly captured in Hammer’s The Gorgon, released some years earlier. It’s a film that’s likely to appeal to ardent fans of the studio rather than those approaching it with fresh eyes. In its credit column, The Gorgon assembles an A-List cast of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley, with support from Patrick Troughton, and the element of surehandedness continues with Terence Fisher on directorial duties. Little was left to chance, Hammer reeling from a string of failures at the box office – notably an adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, not a terrible piece of work but absolutely worth a watch for the hilarious singing lines given to the performers – and bringing out the big guns for this entry. With those names behind it, the movie can’t be so bad and it isn’t. The actors bring gravitas and credibility to the table. Fisher wraps everything up in a neat package that last little over eighty minutes, treating us to a plot that takes in some easily solvable murder mystery hokum, setting it in the traditional Central European locale that’s dominated by suspicion and intrigue and of course hooking it all on the presence of a monster.

For this one, writer John Gilling reached back into Greek mythology, introducing Megaera to the Hammer oeuvre. Though long since dead, the Gorgon’s spirit has endured and attached itself to a human, though who precisely plays host to Megaera dominates the story. Someone who might very well have an idea is Dr Namaroff (Cushing), who runs the local clinic and asylum and leads a conspiracy of silence when anyone tries to dig up the truth, one supported by local police chief Inspector Kanof (Troughton). People die, and while their corpses become stone figures Namaroff cites a series of medical reasons; clearly he’s protecting someone, but who? The mad woman who makes continual efforts to escape is one suspect; Namaroff’s assistant Carla (Shelley) is another, especially as the latter suffers from spells of memory loss. When a local artist is found hanged after his lover has turned up dead, he’s quickly blamed for her murder, something his father (Michael Goodliffe) disputes. But later he too is ‘petrified’, which prompts the arrival of his son Paul (Richard Pasco), a student of the eminent Professor Meister (Lee) and the University of Leipzig. When not falling in love with Carla, Paul starts uncovering some facts, and after Meister himself turns up their research starts unravelling the spell under which the entire community appears to suffer.

I find the plot of this one a little on the nonsensical side. Whilst I can understand why Namaroff wants to keep the likely identity of Megaera a secret, the actions of the police in following his lead make no sense to me and on this occasion not even Cushing’s air of authority as the town’s intellectual figure – one he played eternally, the tipping point being the moral side on which his characters fell – can smooth over the cracks. All the story really has to do, of course, is provide a set of hangings for the Gorgon’s appearances, but given the small cast on hand – there are only occasional glimpses of townspeople outside the main cast members – the sense of fear that is supposedly gripping the community struggles to become apparent. Worse comes with Megaera herself. The film uses a different actor (Prudence Hyman) to play her in protecting the creature’s ‘human identity’, but it’s to be appreciated that special effects in the early 1960s weren’t able to capture her repulsiveness effectively, especially when it came to animating the snake hair, and the effect largely fails. Wisely, she’s shown in the shadows and semi-darkness for much of the film, only fully stepping into the light at the conclusion, which shows up all the shortcomings. She just isn’t very frightening, carrying almost none of the stink of impending death you always felt whenever Lee’s Count Dracula, as one celebrated example, strode onto the stage. Ray Harryhausen got around this in Clash of the Titans by transforming Medusa into an animated model, making her appear more fantastical and giving her a bow and arrow to draw opponents into her deadly stare, though the less said about the CGI Medusa in the 2010 remake the better, in my opinion.

Despite all that, the usual Hammer tropes remain in place, and they press all the right buttons. I’ve always enjoyed the setting they chose for their horror films, that fictional proto-Germanic hinterland pressed in on all sides by gloomy forests and Brothers Grimm folklore. It’s a perfect realm for dark fairytales, within which The Gorgon fits rather nicely. You can really imagine these places, virtually cut off from the rest of the world and dominated by some imposing and abandoned castle, having their own legends, where even men of science and reason can’t equate what they have learned with the fantastical things going on around them. Cushing is as good as ever, bringing calm command to his role as the town’s doctor even though he’s abusing it by covering up what’s happening, and he gets to bring the athletic aspects of his acting to bear later in the tale. Lee shared top billing, presumably through sheer virtue of being Christopher Lee, despite only really entering the film fully in its closing acts. To give him a professorial air, he’s made to wear an Einsteinian wig and play Meister as an older man, but as soon as he starts talking you’re sold into his performance as an open-minded intellectual who cuts the crap and knows what’s what. As always, Troughton does a lot with very little material, bringing an underplayed nervousness to his character who’s trying to maintain a failing control over the situation. As the film’s one significant female character, Shelley’s job is to make us understand why people want to protect her, and in this she largely succeeds. Hammer was renowned for picking actresses based on little more than their ability to fill out a low cut dress, but Shelley was a bit special. Undoubtedly beautiful, she more importantly gets across really well Carla’s vulnerability and her ultimately futile hopes for a better future.

In the end, The Gorgon is one for the individual to decide upon. It’s one you are perfectly entitled to find terrible, a hopeless misfire featuring a poor monster and a plot that fails to hold up. Then again, when the performances are as good as this and the direction so reliable, there’s an awful lot to like. A note of appreciation for Terence Fisher. Even with a story as daft as this, he could film these things really well, picking out all those inky recesses and shadows to emphasise the threat closing in. It also features a great score by James Bernard, punctuated by haunting female vocals that run through the film.

The Gorgon: ***

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

When it’s on: Thursday, 2 July (10.55 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

Dracula: Price of Darkness is appearing as part of the Horror Channel’s evening of Christopher Lee films, a nice dedication to the late, great actor who was remembered recently on these pages. Clearly, the channel has the rights to Studio Canal’s Hammer catalogue, with this entry featuring alongside Lee’s two appearances in two Dennis Wheatley adaptations (The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter) and a further donning of the Count’s cape in The Scars of Dracula.

Of the quartet, Dracula: Prince of Darkness is possibly the best known and certainly stars Lee in his most famous and iconic recurring role for Hammer. I remember writing about this one for the gone but not forgotten Film Journal network a number of years ago, and at the time being rather sniffy about it. Despite the calibre of the cast and crew involved – the studio brought its A-Team to the table for this one – it just felt lazy, as though the very presence of a new Dracula film was enough without anyone needing to try hard in making it all work. Watching it again, I now realise I was overly harsh, in fact I would go so far as to agree with the most consensual comment made about Dracula: Prince of Darkness and see it for what it is, the quintessential Hammer horror experience.

I should note that isn’t a guarantee of quality. Hammer was capable of making really good films on limited budgets, as well as a number of outright stinkers. This straddles the two opposites. In places it’s fantastic, making you remember what it is you love about these cheap horror flicks from a more innocent time. At other times it misses the mark entirely, a fact encapsulated by the performance of Lee himself. Already bored with the role and refusing to play Dracula again before finally agreeing to this one, Lee puts in a sulky, ‘by the numbers’ body of work, refusing to speak the lines given to him in Jimmy Sangster’s (writing as John Samson) script, describing them as ‘literally unsayable’, and limiting his character to menacing stares and hisses. There’s a point at which it’s still Christopher Lee as Dracula, and all the natural charisma, physical imposition and sinister qualities such a playing implies, but the urbane Count he essayed during the early moments of 1958’s Horror of Dracula is gone, slain for the pantomime villain to which he’s been reduced here.

Lee doesn’t appear until the film is more than halfway through its running time. Everything up to that point is building up to the big reveal, a careful construction of suspense that really works because director Terence Fisher ekes out the tension for all its worth. The story returns to the fictional, mid-European village of Carlsbad, an area of thick woodland, dark secrets and suspicious locals. It’s been ten years since Dracula was smote and life is taking some time to return to normal, the people retaining their superstitions and unwilling to acknowledge the presence of an enormous Gothic castle dominating the skyline. Into this simple world come four unwitting English travellers, eager for adventure and obviously lambs to the slaughter. Before too long, they’re spirited to the castle, where they come across Klove (Philip Latham), the servant of a dead master with instructions to show hospitality to anybody who stumbles across these parts. Wined and dined, they go to their beds in the castle, but strange noises prompt Helen (Barbara Shelley) to wake her husband Alan (Charles Tingwell) and make him investigate. Big mistake. Klove kills poor Alan and dangles his prone body over Dracula’s tomb, opening up his veins so that the blood can revive his diabolical master. Helen then goes to find Alan and instead comes across the reanimated Dracula, who duly claims her as his first victim.

Until this moment, the film has been all about the foreshadowing, Helen’s pleas for the group to leave the castle, which go unheeded, their meeting with Father Sandor (Andrew Weir) who warns them to steer clear of Carlsbad, which naturally is precisely where they’re headed towards. It’s rather brilliantly done, the inevitability of their folly that will lead to Dracula’s reappearance, the complete contrast between Shelley’s prim and timid Helen, and the wanton siren she becomes after falling under the Count’s thrall. Latham’s Klove is exactly as ominous as you would want him to be. His first appearance in the castle is by means of his shadow appearing before he does, the camera taking a gleefully long time in order to transfer from the silhouette to the man himself, tall and gaunt, almost a Nosferatu figure before he’s finally revealed. And then there’s the castle, that superb use of Bray Studios with its dark recesses, stained glass windows casting strange lights and corridors that lead to goodness knows where. It’s just the perfect place for horrible deeds to take place within its walls, which often enough is exactly what happens there.

The two remaining survivors (Francis Matthews, playing the closest thing this film has to a dashing hero, and his pretty, virginal wife, Suzan Farmer) join Sandor at his monastery and plan the overthrow of Dracula. Also present is Ludwig (Thorley Walters), a kind of doddering inmate kept there for his own good and also becoming the film’s take on the Renfield character. Ludwig falls into helping the Count and Helen, as though under a hypnotic spell. Klove puts in the hard yards, protecting the carriage that contains their coffins. After some further encounters, the gang race back to Castle Dracula in order to vanquish him in an ending that feels rather rushed and thought out entirely with economy in mind.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness cost £100,000 to make, a a pittance by the standards of glossy Hollywood productions but a big deal for Hammer. It was made and marketed as a premier attraction, though to save time and money it was filmed at exactly the same time as Rasputin: The Mad Monk, Lee flitting from one eponymous starring role to the other whilst the same locations and studio sets were recycled to resemble either Carlsbad or St Petersburg. Elsewhere on the lot, even less cash was spent on the two films’ support features, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, an identical process of sharing everything between the two pictures cutting costs to a minimum. And yet, as though proving that budgets alone can count for little in terms of quality, this film’s twinning with John Gilling’s little zombie flick showed up the latter’s atmospheric thrills against the mixed bag served up here. Sadly, it loses interest with Lee’s appearances, appropriately enough as he displayed little pleasure of his own in the part. But until he arrives, it’s great stuff, the reanimation sequence a complicated series of special effect overlays that shows the Count returning to the world from a mere pile of dust, the ghoulish methods to bring about that moment chilling even now.

It’s a shame that Hammer produced to order, responding to demands and cash from America to make further entries in the series. Five more Dracula films followed, varying in quality, most featuring some memorable moments but ultimately casting a bored beyond belief Lee to do some disinterested terrorising before being dispatched within the customary sub-ninety minutes, in increasingly ridiculous and even easy ways. A pity also that Peter Cushing could not be called back to reprise his role as Van Helsing. Whilst Cushing took the starring role in that other long running Hammer series of Frankenstein features, here we get Andrew Keir, by no means a poor actor and carrying a good deal of authority, yet still something’s missing.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness: ***

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 24 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

One day, off sick from work and feeling sorry for myself, I scanned through the hinterland of the Sky Movies database to find some B-rated schlocker that I’d never normally watch. Sure enough, I ended up with the 1999 remake of The House on Haunted Hill, a title I’d avoided like the plague previously thanks to my memories of Jan de Bont’s reimagined and frankly bloody awful The Haunting. This one was much better, mainly because it was clearly such demented fun that didn’t even try to make sense, also the source material wasn’t as strong and certainly not as enduring as Wise’s original trip to the house where they walk alone. The reason I mention it here is down to Geoffrey Rush’s lead turn, taking on the role occupied by Vincent Price in the 1959 classic. Rush is made to essentially channel Price. His character’s name is Stephen Price, and he even wears the great man’s signature thin moustache. It’s a lovely touch, a bit of homage that the following film rarely bothers with thereafter, but as accomplished a performer as Rush is, the one thing he shows in The House on Haunted Hill is that there was, and only ever could be, one Vincent Price.

That isn’t always a good thing, incidentally. Whilst any fan of classic horror has some love for the man my dad used to refer to as Mad Vince, his willingness to take pretty much any part meant that he appeared in some total rubbish. His tendency to ham it up on order meant that he was never taken as seriously as he might have been, leaving a sliver of subtle turns that hinted at some genuine lasting talent – I really like his playing of The Last Man on Earth, also the slow menace and evil he oozes in The Witchfinder General. There are many other good roles, incidentally, certainly from the period before he moved almost exclusively into horror acting, and I love that one of his last parts was the small but cherished work he did for Edward Scissorhands, a few years before he died and easing some emotional resonance from his few precious minutes on the screen.

One director who knew exactly how to use Price to glorious effect was Roger Corman. Together, the pair made a string of low budget films inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe in the early 1960s, of which The Masque of the Red Death is probably my favourite. The films worked, despite their slender outlays, because of decent production values and the fun of watching Price in full throttle, also the prestige of attaching the name of a pre-eminent American writer. Like all Corman’s other Poe adaptations, The Masque of the Red Death really used the source as a jumping off point, and there’s little surprise given the story is really very short (I read it as part of my research for this piece, and it didn’t take long). The aim was to make it straight after House of Usher, but instead the project dragged due to problems in producing a good script. Regular Twilight Zone writer, Charles Beaumont, turned in a draft that pleased Corman but he was too ill to travel to Britain and work on it, and indeed Beaumont passed away several years later at the tragically young age of 38. Robert Wright Campbell, who had been nominated for a writing Oscar in 1957, completed it, borrowing elements and characters from other Poe stories to beef up the screenplay. All the same, Corman remained concerned about the script, trying to avoid similarities with Bergman’s The Seventh Seal in the film’s representation of Death. It was filmed at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, which ensured it received tax benefits and could consequently increase both the budget and the shooting time. Whereas a normal Corman Poe adaptation could afford three weeks to complete filming, here they were able to expand to five.

Poe’s short story was more a meditation on plague and how the different classes were affected by it than one designed to scare his readers, and the resulting film turns out to be a similarly sombre and thoughtful piece of work. Certainly, it’s largely faithful to the text, retaining all Poe’s broad brushstrokes along with the seven different coloured rooms in Prince Prospero’s castle that have an enigmatic meaning but serve to unsettle his guests. The film expands Prospero (Price) into an outright worshipper of Satan. The last of the seven rooms is black, closely guarded, and the centre of his exhortations to the Devil. Alongside him is Juliana (Hazel Court), his paramour with similar interests in the occult. Prospero is the ruler of the locale, somewhere in medieval Italy. He treats the peasants appallingly, burning their village when he discovers that the Red Death – a plague, possibly a reference to the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century, and here is visually represented with sufferers sweating their own blood before dying – has hit. Before this, though, he makes off with Francesca (Jane Asher), a young woman to whom he’s taken a fancy, as well as capturing her father and lover for his own sport.

Prospero’s plan is to remain during the Red Death in his castle, safe among his invited rich guests and shutting the plague outside. The devil worship and cruelty continue, and Juliana escalates her own commitments to Satan once she finds he favours the younger Francesca. Like the prince, the castle’s guests are an equally horrible lot, spoiled and greedy. They’re headed by Patrick Magee’s Alfredo, a sadist who takes pleasure in inflicting pain on others. Prospero has little but contempt for any of them. He believes he’s secure in his worship, that God has been defeated by Satan in a world where death is occurring on a massive scale. In the meantime, death wanders the land in the shape of a strange figure, solemnly spoken (I want to believe it’s Christopher Lee, but he isn’t credited) and hooded and cloaked entirely in red. Before the end, death will visit Prospero’s castle in dealing out judgement with an even hand…

Whilst Prospero’s allegiance to Lucifer is a nice plot device, it only really serves to heighten the character’s latent evil and add poetry to his comeuppance. The element of Satanism is represented metaphorically, particularly in scenes involving Juliana’s conversion, shown in a famous dream sequence where she is sacrificed by priests from various world religions. Court’s smashing in the role, ravishing and revelling in her whirlwind of mature sexuality, and the dream scenes are masterly stuff that were too much for the censors at the time (they are of course impossibly tame by today’s standards, the censors riled either by the waving knives or the fact Court is obviously naked beneath her gown). She utterly overshadows Asher, who comes across as rather callow in comparison, as a representation of good and innocence. It’s this quality that Prospero resolves to corrupt, and Price is excellent value, ever sinister and full of patrician confidence until he realises, at the film’s end, how his entire world has been built on folly.

Like the other Corman ‘Poes’ The Masque of the Red Death was filmed in colour, and the use of it is sensational, especially in the seven coloured rooms, all very striking. The cinematography was the work of none other than Nicolas Roeg, on his way to becoming an acclaimed film director in his own right and here adding to the film’s stylised look, creating the world of the film as a dark fairy tale. Best of all is the climactic masquerade, in which the guests cavort happily until the figure of death arrives and transforms the room into a haunting and surreal dance of the dying. It’s very effective and chilling, though the film’s overall tone is melancholic and belonging to a fable rather than made for shocks. It’s perhaps this quality that made it less of a hit with audiences than previous entries, though many critics loved its intelligent script and artful representations of the diabolical.

The Masque of the Red Death: ****

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 16 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

Blood aside (and that’s blood shown in lurid color, folks), what Hammer sold was sex, and the levels of flesh shown offer a neat mirror to what was permissive within a society getting steadily in touch with its sensual side. Lust for a Vampire was shown when I was the ideal age (14 or 15) to really enjoy it, and the reason I did was the copious serving of naked female flesh it offered up. These were vampires, but they were also women who abandoned any pretence of being anything other than what they were, highly sexual beings in touch with their femininity and what they possess that attracts others. For a teenager just beginning to come to terms with such business, Lust for a Vampire was the optimum viewing experience. When I got the opportunity a few years ago to buy it – on a double bill set with The Vampire Lovers – I didn’t hesitate, and for a little while I got to catch it again with the memory of those adolescent sensibilities in mind.

Let’s get one thing straight here and now – Lust for a Vampire isn’t a very good film. In fact it’s rubbish; even its director, Hammer’s über-writer Jimmy Sangster, said so, and no one was better placed to deliver such a scathing verdict. Of the ‘Karnstein Trilogy’, it’s routinely seen as the least placed and I think that’s about right. Peter Cushing, tending to his ailing wife wisely steered clear, which says it all.

And yet I have a lot of affection for it, largely because of my first viewing experience and the incomparable Yutte Stensgaard in various states of undress. Lovely Yutte. One of the apparently endless production line of Amazonian models from Scandinavia who made the obvious career step into Hammer productions, Stensgaard emerged at a time when on-screen nudity was very much the order of the day, something with which she had little trouble complying. I can’t imagine Stensgaard impressing anyone as Jutland’s answer to Helen Mirren, but even to try would be missing the point. She’s simply beautiful, sexy as hell, almost custom built to appeal to the film’s target audience and she never disappoints. Stensgaard can’t really act. That becomes apparent during the film’s lovemaking scenes, to which she brings unintentional comedy by mistaking crossing her eyes for being lost in ecstasy. But this never diminishes her smouldering presence, the way the camera loves her and allows her to shine even when she’s being filmed in a room filled with young women. There’s also a mysterious aspect to her character, whether this is teased out by the direction or her acting. Check out the scene where Ralph Bates’s would-be acolyte is pleading with her to convert him; she says nothing, just smiles, as though that’s all she needs to do in order to make men’s hearts melt over her sheer gorgeousness. The camera emphasises her effect by keeping its focus on her generous bosom.

It’s fortunate the film has Stensgaard to leer over because parts of it are jaw-droppingly awful. Sangster’s name may be a Holy Grail around these parts, but that’s for his writing talents. As a director, his work is at best pedestrian. There’s nothing very wrong with it, but neither does it make any attempt at cinematic flourishes, as if he told the camera where to point, let it shoot and held his head in his hands the rest of the time. He wasn’t helped by a leaden script by Tudor Gates that is almost driven by plot holes and stuffed with characters that aren’t especially likeable.

The film’s hero, writer Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson, a poor man’s Robert Powell), is actually a lecher who smarms his way into the posh girls’ finishing school so that he can be near to and woo Mircalla (Stensgaard). Even worse served is Bates, who strikes me as Hammer’s kicking dog by being available for all manner of degrading roles that did nothing for his natural charisma. He plays a stuffy History teacher whose job seems to be to perpetually lead the girls around the ruins of Karnstein Castle, with barely disguised lust that’s perhaps a single notch below the business that took place in an average episode of Benny Hill. Suzanna Leigh has the thankless task of being the film’s good girl, the school’s physical fitness instructor who’s secretly in love with Lestrange.

The nadir is yet to come. Step forward Mike Raven, Radio 1 DJ who was attempting a move back into his first love of acting. Raven is as much ill done to as he is terrible. He channels the spirit of Christopher Lee as a kind of mentor/guardian for Mircalla, his voice dubbed over with something approaching the great man’s solemn overtones, and there’s even a moment when the film uses stock footage of Lee’s eyes in a scene where Raven’s own clearly weren’t sinister enough. Elsewhere, swirling his cape and half smiling over his evil derring-do sums up his turn. All that’s missing is the top hat and waxed moustache.

And yet it just about works when Stensgaard is lighting up the screen. A bit like Victoria Vetri in the similarly exploitative When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, there’s no escaping her presence in the film as adding up to anything more artistic than pure decoration, but what a decoration she is! It almost makes it possible to get over the truly horrible ‘Strange Love’ pop song that plays over her lovemaking scene, even though the tune is intended to tease out the film’s one interesting dimension, that a vampire can fall for a human. This is hardly a plotting feat of staggering imagination to current viewers, indeed these days you can only think there’s something wrong with a vampire that doesn’t long for a mortal’s affection. But it was quite a stirring hook for the time, even if Mircalla’s choices are the odious Bates character or Lestrange, who to me comes across as quite charmless and not a little creepy. It shouldn’t work, and indeed it doesn’t as the villagers, tired of their virgin daughters being defiled, finally take their torches and pitchforks to Castle Karnstein for the film’s obvious, though dramatically staged climax.

Made towards the end of Hammer’s remarkable run of horrors produced on a shoestring, Lust for a Vampire has the feel of a film that’s scrabbling desperately for ideas and inspiration. It’s cheap; that’s clear enough as the recycled sets make it a spotter’s guide for fans wondering where they’ve seen that castle wall before. It’s most certainly exploitative, throwing tits on the screen at every possible opportunity, the girls’ school setting allowing for several bedroom scenes and making the audience complicit in its uncomfortable, On the Buses sensibility (incidentally, Hammer was also churning out the first of its ‘Buses’ movies at the same time as this, and – as an indicator of British audience’s tastes – it became a big UK box office hit). It’s a fairly shoddily made exercise, all told, Sangster famously rubbishing his own efforts and Ingrid Pitt equally notoriously turning down the chance to star in it, leading to Carmilla’s unlikely metamorphosis into Stensgaard. That it’s not down there with the very, very worst of Hammer (which for me includes such nonsense as The Viking Queen and the surprisingly dull Vengeance of She) is purely wrapped up in its nubile star, built for a young male viewer to go nuts over and doing everything to make it work.

Lust for a Vampire: **

PS. This piece originally appeared on Scream of Fear, a blog I was writing a couple of years ago. The aim of the site was to collate every film article I’d written into one place and throw in the occasional Goodreads book review. It didn’t last, mainly because I lost heart whilst transferring old Film Journal stuff, but I do like the Spun WordPress theme chosen at the time.

Dune (1984)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 May (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones, both the TV series and George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Towards the end of the first series, I bought the novel, devoured it before HBO’s run had finished, and by that summer had covered the rest. I’m now one of those poor Joes waiting for Martin to publish his sixth instalment, offering a silent prayer that he’ll stay alive long enough to complete the thing, or at least stop doing so many conventions so that he can instead sit alone and write. Nice, aren’t I? One thing seems obvious about the show. That is it had to be a TV show, the ten hours of each season doing at least some justice to the source material, its swathe of many characters and plot points, the vast sweep of the narrative, forgiving some omissions and lamenting others – no Lady Stoneheart?

Exploring Game of Thrones, it struck me how much it was reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I’d read years before, around the time that David Lynch’s film adaptation was doing the rounds. The same sprawling plot, many characters, political intrigues that dazzled with their complexity and interweaving. I remember seeing the film at the cinema, bowled over by many of its images but utterly lost when it came to the story, seeing when I read the novel that it could do little but grab-bag from Herbert’s text. By necessity, Lynch had to focus on the main character, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), but so much of the other stuff was condensed or simply dropped, so that the story’s richness, told on the widest of canvasses, was lost.

Dune’s marketing didn’t help. Some forty million dollars was sank in the project, an enormous sum for the time, and it was therefore perhaps logical that it was promoted as a Star Wars style adventure, playing up the science fiction action when the work was intended to be more complicated and multi-layered. This must have confused audiences who went, expecting one thing and getting another, indeed I was there and suitably nonplussed by it all. Reviews were uniformly sniffy, accusing it of being boring and borderline incomprehensible. Viewers felt much the same way and Dune went on to tank at the box office, not even clawing back its production costs.

Years later, and what’s left? Dune makes the unfortunate mistake of many films adapted from complex source material by slapping exposition-heavy scenes on the screen in its early acts. The opening has Virginia Madsen’s face on the screen, explaining the backdrop to the story in a way that makes little apparent sense, throwing terms and names out with careless abandon and then disappearing; she barely appears in the rest of the film. We next meet the Emperor (Jose Ferrer), who discusses more bits of business with the guild navigator, a sluglike alien being that floats in a massive fish tank and is treated with due reverence, which never really translates into anything. But then the action moves to the home planet of the Atreides family, quickly established as Dune’s heroes, and things become more interesting. Duke Leto (Jurgen Prochnow) is being put in charge of the all important spice trade, which is mined solely on the desert planet Arrakis, commonly known as Dune, and travels there with his concubine Jessica (Francesca Annis) and son Paul (MacLachlan) to start work. Leto is unaware that it’s all a trap. The Emperor is working with another planet, led by the villainous House Harkonnen, to ambush Atreides and remove a clan that could threaten his position over time. The trap is sprung; the Duke is killed, Paul and Jessica finding themselves stranded in a remote part of Dune, prey to the massive sand worms that can detect movement on the world’s surface and strike with little warning. What none of them figure on is that Paul – as we learn via a series of foreshadowing moments – has some special, latent messianic power, which will be activated when he comes across Dune’s native population, and it’s their teaming up that will trigger the film’s climactic fight back.

Dune was the debut performance of MacLachlan, the entire film resting on his young shoulders to convince as the precocious, seemingly ordinary lad who will grow in ability and charisma as the plot develops. As such he’s the Luke Skywalker of the story, and he’s actually pretty good at holding together many of its scenes where Paul has to command the screen. It should also be said that many of Dune’s special effects sequences work remarkably well. In a pre-CGI era, the worms look suitably big and menacing, and do a reasonable job of interacting with the antlike humans, especially Paul’s company that come to control and ‘ride’ them into battle. There’s also a rather beautifully mounted sequence when Duke Leto is leaving his world to make the journey to Arrakis, his ship becoming one of many that make their steady way into the cylindrical object that will use the spice in order to ‘fold’ space and make their journey almost instantaneous. The procession of identical vessels suggests a much wider story, of which Paul’s adventure is only one. What’s in all those ships? Is this what space travel of the future might look like?

But these are moments, within a plot that remains jumbled and at times downright incoherent. I was particularly put off by the Harkkonen narrative, which removes any sense of their purpose in favour of presenting them as uniformly repulsive, from the obese, floating Baron (Kenneth McMillan) to his henchman, played by Sting as a beautiful, yet dangerous assassin, who has virtually nothing to do until the final scene, a duel with Paul that exists apparently to give them something to do.

Still, other moments hint at what Dune might have turned into had it been given wider scope with a television series. A lovely bit that teases at Paul’s dormant power comes when he and the Duke are about to inspect Arrakis. Max von Sydow, who plays a local guide, is checking both men’s uniforms to see if they’re desert-ready, and finds that Paul’s is already in perfect order. The Duke’s son explains that it just seemed the right way to wear it, yet it suggests something much more significant. But the film misses a trick with its introduction of the ‘Weirding Way’, a kind of mental acumen that can move and even destroy objects. This was an important facet of the plot, but in a mid-eighties production it can, in its vaguely explained way, only be derivative of another, well known ‘force’ firmly established within science fiction cinema.

Cast members – Dune features some really big names, including Dean Stockwell, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, Brad Dourif, Richard Jordan, Everett McGill and Freddie Jones – come and go, their own stories only hinted at because there isn’t time to do anything more with them, whilst a preponderance of dream sequences and inner monologues fire information at us in a way that gives the impression of a film trying to rush through all its main elements in as economical a way as possible. It sort of works. The build-up to Dune’s final battle has a loose degree of logic that makes it feel appropriately hefty and significant, but it can’t help but be a bit of a mess all told. Lynch, whose stock as a director had risen to this point with The Elephant Man garnering both critical and commercial success, was never as high profile again. Plans for a Dune sequel were understandably abandoned, and Lynch removed his name from an extended version of the film for television that spliced in an hour’s worth of cut footage and extra narration in an effort for greater narrative cohesion. But he would go on to produce his best work, Blue Velvet, a more personal movie that reunited him with MacLachlan in a story about a small-town mystery that becomes increasingly a nightmare. Twin Peaks, which developed the theme further and again starred MacLachlan, would follow.

Dune: **

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

When it’s on: Sunday, 10 May (3.40 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

The Plague of the Zombies was, even by Hammer’s thrifty standards, made on the cheap. Filmed back to back with The Reptile and making use of the same sets, along with a cast that slipped from one production to the next, it was intended to be released as a B-movie partner for Dracula Prince of Darkness. Though its low overheads are occasionally shown up in the final movie, The Plague of the Zombies naturally turns out to be a much better and more interesting affair than the illustrious vampfest. According to the various fansites and reviews I have read, it is much loved, and the reason is simple. It’s nothing more or less than pure entertainment. It has the usual Hammer staples – creepy atmosphere, ‘ye olde worlde’ setting – and attaches these to a plot that never lets up, making full use of the limited running time and some very good performances.

The film is set in a tin mining community of Cornwall, sometime during the nineteenth century. People are dying at an epidemic rate, and bemused doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) is at a loss to explain the causes. When his young wife, Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) also begins to express the fatigue and listlessness that are the typical early warning signs, he writes to his old mentor, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) to lend a hand. Sir James agrees, taking his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare) with him.

The pair’s first encounter with the community is with its upper class. They comes across a fox hunt, led by the retainers of local Squire, Clive Hamilton (John Carson). Hamilton clearly has the town in the palm of his hand. His henchmen have no regard for the people, demonstrated to ghoulish effect when they pass a funeral and force the coffin to crash into a ravine, revealing its occupant. Peter explains to Sir James that he’s unable to carry out autopsies on any of the corpses at Hamilton’s behest, who along with his other duties is the closest they have to a coroner. Without proper research, there’s no way he can work out what’s happened to these people. The pragmatic Sir James offers a solution – they’ll simply have to dig one up for themselves.

Peter and Sir James go about their grisly business, and sure enough the grave they exhume is empty. Worse still, their antics have spiked the attention of the local bobby (Michael Ripper), who turns out to be on their side once the doughty Sir James explains their intentions. In the meantime, Alice slips out of the house, and starts making for the woodlands that surround their community. Sylvia shouts after her, but Alice doesn’t appear to hear. When the former resolves to pursue, she runs afoul of Squire Clive’s malevolent retainers who summarily whisk her off to the big house. Alice, in some sort of trance makes for an old tin mine, where she’s about to come a cropper at the hands of a monster, but is the ashen-faced zombie the real creature, or are both victim and attacker being manipulated by something much worse? The goodly Squire, perhaps? Back at his house, Sylvia is in some trouble. Teased by a gang of toffish rakes, all Sylvia’s high-minded confidence seems to vanish until she is rescued by none other than Clive Hamilton himself. The Squire is mortified at her treatment – he can’t be bad, can he? Maybe not, but the sliver of blood he collects from her during a later meeting tells an altogether different story…

And that’s just the first half of the movie, breathless swathes of story hurtling past whilst its horrors are introduced at a masterfully gradual rate. The suspense builds steadily. By the time the zombie makes its first appearance – actually quite a scary sight – we already know roughly what’s going on. We have a pretty good idea who the baddies are, what’s happening to the dying folk and it remains to see how Sir James will resolve all this. As a result, much lies on the shoulders of Andre Morell, a veteran actor who chews up the scenery to delicious effect. There’s a scene where his character is trapped in a room that’s on fire – as he tries to find a way out, Sir James grows more desperate and almost feral. It’s a classy moment, the camera simply pointing in the right direction and following his movements.

Talking of cinematography, the film is another example of the crew effectively making much from a small budget. Though the Bray Studios sets ought to be familiar to any seasoned Hammer viewer, they’re used exceptionally well, never more so than in the little graveyard that features prominently in a number of scenes, each one nudging up the horror a little further. The village is nothing more than a studio backlot, but it looks authentic enough, and with scenes set in the local pub and police station it develops a real sense of small town community. Better still are the moments of claustrophobia that are captured during the film’s more frightening sequences. The bit where one of the main characters comes to undead life is creepily effective, the camera jumping from the face of the reanimating corpse to close-ups of Sir James and Peter, filming them from a slightly askew angle to unbalance the viewer. Simple stuff, but played brilliantly.

Credit goes to the crew responsible for creating a late nineteenth century backdrop to the action. The costumes add to a detail of authenticity, and the film’s largely rural setting means much of the shooting can take place in the wild and makes The Plague of the Zombies appear to have a much broader setting than it actually does.

Not that it’s perfect. In terms of its acting personnel, the film gives us a mixed bag. Carson is fine as Hamilton, and makes his character more three-dimensional than you might expect for a B-movie baddie. Check out his wooing of Sylvia. It’s almost possible to believe he has some genuine affection for her, but of course he wrong foots both her and the audience. Pearce is great as the dying Alice. She’s given some stock ‘waking up screaming from a bad dream’ bits to do, yet shows sufficient vulnerability during her early scenes to show why Sir James invests so much of his time and energy into getting involved, and later in the film puts in one of the sexier undead performances to be committed to celluloid. Weaker are Williams and Clare. The former should aim for an air of exhausted frustration, which would happen if you’re the local doctor working in a village where death after unexplained death is taking place, yet he never pulls it off, instead maintaining an expression of vague concern throughout. As Sylvia, Clare looks suitably scared when the scene calls for it, though otherwise she’s monotonous and rather blank-faced, her lines spoken like blank, wooden readings.

Thankfully, Morell holds it together. Not only does he manage to dish out some of the fairly silly dialogue with a straight face – ‘I find all kinds of witchcraft slightly nauseating and this I find absolutely disgusting‘ – but he exerts a degree of elder statesman authority from the moment he steps foot into the village. It’s his turn that really elevates the film, and perhaps it’s the fact he was cast in this rather than The Reptile that makes this the more memorable piece of work.

The zombies look great, mainly because they’re genuinely scary. With their ashen faces, bulging white eyes and staggering gait, they set a template for much of zombiekind – you can see their performance in many subsequent entries. The Plague of the Zombies was released two years before George A Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, a similar instance of a director putting his tiny budget to good use. And though it isn’t quite up to the standard of Romero’s subversive, politically-charged shocker, which took the genre on an entirely new tangent, it’s possible to see Gilling’s shuffling automatons as benchmarks for every walking dead that followed.

The Plague of the Zombies: ****