Richard III (1955)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 2 January (12.00 midnight)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Laurence Olivier directed and starred in three big screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays – there were halted preparations to film a version of Macbeth, featuring his wife Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, which sounds like it has the potential to be delicious viewing, but the legacy remains Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III. The best known of these is probably his Oscar winning Prince of Denmark, and you can sort of see why it was acclaimed at the time – must of the fat cut away, all those sweeping, portentous shots of castle staircases and corridors, but of the trio it’s my least favourite and without doubt it’s been done better elsewhere. Henry V is an astonishing technical achievement. Beginning as a contemporary troupe of actors performing it on the boards at the Stratford Globe, at some stage the ‘filmed play’ transforms into Hal and his fellow soldiers crossing medieval France and building to a genuinely breathless and superbly mounted Agincourt. It was made as a propaganda exercise, a rabble rouser for the troops, and it’s great viewing, a virtuous attempt to show how such old material can have relevance and entertainment value in more modern times. Perhaps the Branagh update, with its heavy emphasis on the sweat, grime and blood of battle, carries more resonance, but there’s a lot to be said for Olivier’s romantic and patriotic interpretation.

Then there’s Richard III, quite a different character on whom to focus and a moderate success compared with Olivier’s two previous adaptations, and yet in hindsight perhaps the best one. It’s undoubtedly my choice. Fans of the political drama series House of Cards, with its fourth wall breaking of Francis Urquhart/Underwood sharing his plans and feelings with the audience, need look no further than this one for its inspiration. Olivier’s impish Duke of Gloucester waits for the other characters to leave the scene, before turning to the camera and outlining what’s on his mind with the viewer, sometimes making to take us by the arm as he talks, as though we’re a silent witness at the court, knee deep in his machinations and sworn to keep his dark secrets. I think it’s great fun, and Olivier seems to be having fun also, playing Richard as a smiling villain, utterly without scruples in his wiping out of anyone who stands betwixt himself and the crown. Those seeking a more cinematic comparison might see Richard as akin to the charming yet murderous Louis in Kind Hearts and Coronets, narrating his schemes throughout with little feeling of remorse.

As with his two previous adaptations, Olivier cut and amended scenes from the text to produce a more cinematic and muscular movie, and to increase Richard’s Machiavellian villainy. The early scene where he courts Anne (Claire Bloom) becomes more diabolical as he tells her he plans to marry her, having disturbed her procession into the church with the coffin containing her Lancashire supporting husband, killed in battle by none other than Richard himself. As disgusted as she is by his proposal, she capitulates when he makes her choose to either run him through or marry him, knowing she’s too faint-hearted to do the former. He expedites the death of his own brother Clarence (John Gielgud), and plays a more direct role in bringing about the death of the king and his oldest brother, Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke).

In one of the film’s most powerful moments, the young Duke of York (Andy Shine) makes a joke about Richard’s hunchback, and suddenly the feigned jollity falls away; Olivier turns and fixes the child with such a malevolent glare that he physically backs away, terrified by the monster that was always there, beneath his uncle’s exterior, and now unmasked. This bit of stage direction was invented by Olivier for the film, adding layers to the character’s evil for, as we know, the Duke  and his brother are fated to be the Princes in the Tower.

For all Olivier’s cuts Richard III remains more than two and a half hours in length. It’s a meaty play, a lot to take in, and yet it’s completely compelling thanks in part to the star’s performance, the amazing way he has of making Richard a charismatic protagonist, to such an extent that you almost come to wish he won’t suffer the end that’s coming to him. He’s by some distance the most interesting character in the story, funny and engaging, despite the stoop of his disabilities someone who towers over the court, a sharp contrast with and leagues ahead of its stiff manners and bland gallantry.

Production levels were high, as London Films supported Richard III with a £6 million budget following the commercial success of Henry V and Hamlet. Most of it was filmed at Shepperton, Olivier making painstaking efforts to create as authentic a late medieval environment as possible, going so far as to change a piece of heraldry on the set when it was pointed out to him that the original decoration was incorrect. Olivier didn’t want to direct, aware of how debilitating it was to have to do two key jobs on set, and initially offered the job to Carol Reed. His misgivings proved justified as Richard III developed into an arduous shoot, particularly when the production moved to Spain to film the Battle of Bosworth scenes. Along with sitting on a horse that was suddenly mounted by another, he took an arrow in the leg (fortunately for the shoot it was Richard’s lame leg) and was so ‘in the moment’ that he checked how well the accident would hold up on film before seeing the doctor.

Richard III’s almost ridiculously classy cast was not the group of players Olivier intended to assemble. He wanted Richard Burton, Richard Attenborough and John Mills. Orson Welles was his preference for the role of the duplicitous Duke of Buckingham. Instead, he worked with the actors routinely considered the stage titans of their century – Gielgud, Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson, not to mention Olivier himself. Helen Haye, who had been acting on film for as long as there’d been a British industry, made her screen swansong as the Duchess of York. There were roles for not inconsiderable presences like Andrew Cruikshank, Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer, and Stanley Baker played the future Henry VII, while Hammer staples Michael Gough and Michael Ripper took small parts as Richard’s hired executioners, getting the ghoulish delight of drowning Gielgud’s Clarence inside a barrel of wine.

Olivier’s performance earned him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination, yet perhaps the film would have done better but for producer Alexander Korda’s fateful agreement with NBC. For a fee of $500,000, Richard III made its American premiere on the small screen as well as being theatrically exhibited. This no doubt had an effect on its box office takings, and dismayed Olivier who felt that the film’s widescreen production would not be showcased to best effect on television. Korda might have argued that Richard III wasn’t Olivier’s most cinematic offering. Until the climactic Bosworth scenes, it’s filmed as though shooting a play, the focus on the characters and their dialogue rather than interpreting the action with a screen audience in mind, as in Henry V. It’s justified because the material is so good and Olivier’s adaptation crackles, but the 1995 version starring Ian McKellen takes a more imaginative approach to the text.

For all his attempts at accuracy, Olivier ignore the revisionist approach that makes it clear this Richard III is almost entirely fictional. The play was written by Shakespeare for a Tudor audience and ties in with the propaganda following Henry VII’s ascendance that Richard had been a murderous usurper. Shakespeare toed the line, turning his minor physical defects into outright deformities and his circuitous route to the throne a consequence of ruthless scheming against family members. None of it is actually true, or at least it’s unsubstantiated. though at least its presentation of the villainous king as a reader of The Prince, Machiavelli’s guide book for rulers that was in circulation at the time, sounds about right. Personally, I would love to see an interpretation of the play that hints at the string of deaths as being ambiguous rather than pointing the finger squarely at Richard. There’s no doubt, however, that Olivier’s playing of him as a blood-soaked monster allows him to let rip on the character, performing Richard with twinkle-eyed glee and remaining true to his potential as the Bard’s most thoroughly entertaining baddie, leaving viewers to feel somewhat unsettled by their enjoyment while following his mounting crimes.

As a footnote, I am happy to refer to the BFI’s comment that in being screened on American network television and watched by audiences of up to 40 million, Olivier became responsible for Richard III being seen by more people than the total of its entire theatrical run since 1592. It’s a little sad that they didn’t get to enjoy the full Vistavision presentation, which we can thanks to recent restorations. I own the Network Blu-Ray, which contains a glorious print, and includes as an extra The Trial of King Richard the Third, a BBC production from 1984 that determined Richard’s guilt or innocence via the means of a courtroom trial.

Richard III: ****

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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 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: ****

The Reptile (1966)

When it’s on: Sunday, 26 April (3.45 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

The economical approach to film making taken by Hammer Studios was the stuff of legend. The Reptile started life as a support feature to the more prestigious Rasputin: the Mad Monk, and was produced back to back with The Plague of the Zombies (itself made as the B-picture to Dracula: Prince of Darkness), the two films sharing the sets, cast and crew in a supreme attempt to cut costs. Ironically, there are many who feel that the supports are better than their main features. It’s for certain that, of the four mentioned here, The Plague of the Zombies was and remains an outright classic. But The Reptile, probably the least known of those mentioned, is no churned out quickie, despite appearing to be exactly that.

It takes place in Cornwall, some time around the turn of the twentieth century. A man walks across the moors to his home, where he finds a note imploring him to come to the palatial Franklyn house. He does. Whilst exploring the dark corridors for some sign of humanity, he’s suddenly attacked by something that leaps out from the shadows, leaving him with a blackened face and frothing mouth, dying from what looks like the bite of a king cobra. The killing is watched by an aghast Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman), along with Indian servant, the Malay (Marne Maitland), who removes the body to the village cemetery and dumps it there. Clearly, this isn’t the first mysterious death this community has seen. No one can explain it, not least pub landlord Tom (Michael Ripper), or eccentric local resident ‘Mad’ Peter (John Laurie). What they can do is warn visitors from staying around, which is what they try to do with the dead man’s brother, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) and his wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel), who are bequeathed the house.

Spalding is made of sterner stuff and insists on making a go of settling down in the area, despite Tom and Peter’s concerns, along with the way he’s shunned by the villagers. When Peter succumbs to the mysterious illness, Spalding finds himself increasingly in the company of Dr Franklyn, while Valerie befriends his daughter, Anna (Jacqueline Pearce), a lovely yet sad girl who’s in a constant state of near terror. It becomes apparent that the troubles being experienced have their origins in the doctor’s home, something to do with Franklyn’s time spent in India and a curse that has followed him back to England.

So far, so generic, and it would be easy to dismiss The Reptile as a knocked out frightener, short on cash and long on the usual stuff – random killings, a horrific mystery, scared, ignorant locals. What it does have, however, is atmosphere. Bags of it. If the film seems to fail a little when the Franlyn secrets are unraveled, then that’s partly because everything leading up to this point is really quite good. There’s a great sense of closing in doom to the village, its classic Cornish mist, rundown houses and a spooky graveyard at the centre, as though death is the very focal point of the community. Hammer veteran John Gilling directs it as a slow burning thriller, punctuating the mood every so often with a grisly death but letting the tone focus on the contrast between the melancholy locale and its urbane newcomers, proactive and determined to get to the heart of the matter.

Also worth mentioning is the dark underbelly of Britain’s empire building, the possibility that Englanders abroad come into contact with native myths and superstitions and bring back more than they bargained for. The character of the Malay, who barely speaks but continually seems to be watching from the corner of the frame, is fascinating, not least for his status as servant yet the fact he appears to have the upper hand on Franklyn and complete control over Anna.

It’s a great cast. Barrett and Daniel are fine as the outsiders, punctuating their otherworldliness within a superstitious and insular part of the realm. There’s an authentic air of ruin, both morally and physically, to Willman’s performance, the facts of his time in India never fully explained though one can guess, and the tortured relationship he has with Anna just raises more questions. The brilliantly tense sitar scene, set during dinner at the Franklyn’s in a room heated way beyond necessary, where the almost unfairly beautiful Pearce strums away to the rising consternation of her father, the characters glaring intently at each other, exposes levels of exoticism and sexuality that suggest a far more complicated back story than the film ever reveals. Rounding off the cast are an excellent unhinged Laurie, soon to achieve stardom as Private ‘We’re doomed!’ Frazer in Dad’s Army, and the reliable Ripper, the supporting actor’s supporting actor in so many Hammer productions. It’s good to see Ripper get a larger presence than he normally enjoys.

If The Reptile has a weakness, it’s in the denouement, when the mystery has been solved and the the eponymous monster emerges. Though it features a rather striking visual shock when Franklyn goes to the bed of his daughter only to find what appears to be skin without a body inside, the creature’s reveal is more than a little underwhelming, even more so by current standards. I’ve deliberately chosen a poster that avoids an emphasis on the reptile, because I’d rather focus on the story rather than the disappointing make-up. It’s this that exposes the good sense shown by Gilling in under-lighting many of his scenes, ensuring the reptile is shown as often as possible as a creature of the shadows. Its demise is similarly unfulfilling and dealt with a little too quickly.

That aside, The Reptile is a cracking little thriller, no classic but an underrated gem. Sadly, it’s also been unappreciated by its restorers, with my copy of the film – part of the Ultimate Hammer boxset – suffering from colour loss and clarity issues. It deserves better.

The Reptile: ***