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: ****

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The Three Musketeers (1973)

When it’s on: Sunday, 14 February (8.05 am)
Channel: ITV3
IMDb Link

I’ve tried to be better at reading the classics than I am, but one title I had no trouble with was Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Fast paced, witty and fun, the novel never runs out of steam and its spirit was never better captured than in Richard Lester’s 1973 adaptation. It remains easily my favourite attempt at bringing the text to the screen, and does raise the question – given the material how can any film maker really go wrong?

It’s a film I have watched many times – in the early days of VCR, when I was a kid I saw it over and over – and in preparation for this piece catching it again was largely unnecessary. I still did it though, more out of pure pleasure than necessity, indeed a few happy hours were spent indulging in a double bill of this one and its immediate sequel, The Four Musketeers, which essentially gives us more of the same. It’s a well-known fact that Lester shot both movies at the same time, ostensibly deciding late in the process to split the story into two and in the process pissing off his entire cast, who would of course have earned more for appearing in separate works. Lester’s argument, that he learned part way through he had enough material to justify the split and thought the two films would work better than a more heavily edited single, held little water with his performers, who duly sued and increased their salaries. And yet, years later with all the legal wrangling long in the past and the two films remaining, it clearly stands as the right thing to do. There’s simply no bloat in either entry. Just like in Dumas’s novel, the action moves quickly and the characters are given time to become more than plot devices. George MacDonald Fraser scripted both, following the text closely and inserting moments of great comedy to augment the swashbuckling antics. Whilst two of the musketeers are less well developed than their fellows, it takes some screen writing genius to take so many persons and add flesh to their bones, where even a minor character like Spike Milligan’s cowardly husband gets to show off his chops and become a memorable presence.

One of The Three Musketeers’ more remarkable elements is its massive ensemble cast, a seventies trend in line with the star-filled disaster movies of the time. Originally, Lester conceived his adaptation as a vehicle for the Beatles, with whom he’d famously collaborated during the previous decade, but this was obviously not an option now. The first choice for d’Artagnan was Malcolm McDowell, who would go on to demonstrate he was a match for this sort of material in Lester’s later Royal Flash, but instead the role went to Michael York, who was already a star and a perfect match for the part. York was perhaps ten years older than d’Artagnan, yet brought a great athletic dimension to bear and conveyed beautifully the character’s youthful and sometimes too hasty sense of bravado. The other Musketeers called for older heads, and they were played by Oliver Reed as Athos, Rhichard Chamberlain (Aramis) and the late Frank Finlay (Porthos). They’re introduced to the story when d’Artagnan contrives to arrange duels with all three of them, though they become friends when they find themselves engaging in swordplay with the Cardinal’s guards instead. Again, great casting. Of the trio, Chamberlain’s Aramis is left a little in the background, though he brings suitable levels of dash to his performance. Finlay is mainly on hand to play the comic and pompous relief, and he’s very, very funny (he also turns up briefly as the Duke of Buckingham’s jeweller; there’s no mistaking that voice). The real revelation comes from Reed, derided too often for his heavy drinking lifestyle but beyond that was a superb, towering and gifted performer with whom the camera was clearly in love. The pathos of Athos’s previous with Faye Dunaway’s Milady comes in the second film, but here Reed plays beautifully the tangled mess of honour, drunkenness and his fatherly relationship with d’Artagnan that defines Athos. He also brings great physicality to his fighting. Whereas York duels with an almost balletic grace, Reed plays Athos as a bullish whirlwind, using his bulk and sheer power to overcome opponents. A story from the set has Christopher Lee (having great fun as the eye-patch wearing villain, Rochefort) begging Reed to calm down during a fight sequence – it’s only a movie, after all!

Eager to extend his range after being so typecast during his Hammer era, Lee is fine as Rochefort, deadly whilst being an effete snob. He’s an unlikely partner for Milady (Dunaway), whose character becomes higher profile in the follow-up but here still gets to tease out her villain’s combination of beauty and rotten core. They both provide unsavoury service to Cardinal Richelieu, who in a rare instance of miscasting is played by Charlton Heston. He does nothing wrong in playing France’s arch-manipulator and schemer, but there’s the sense of a performer of Heston’s stature being a little subdued and underplayed. The plot works on the Cardinal’s plan to provoke war between France and England by exposing Queen Anne’s (Geraldine Chaplin) love affair with the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward). Once the foppish King Louis (Jean-Pierre Cassel, dubbed by Richard Briers) discovers that his wife has been unfaithful with a leading light of England’s aristocracy then conflict will surely follow. Milady travels to England to steal a couple of diamond studs from the necklace given to Buckingham by Anne, and d’Artagnan, who’s involved via assocation thanks to his burgeoning romance with the Queen’s dressmaker (Raquel Welch, showing good comic timing and adorability as a haplessly clumsy heroine), follows to resolve the situation.

That’s the story, and it’s one deftly told, but what remains in the mind are the fun performances, moments of good natured humour (the likes of Milligan, Roy Kinnear and Bob Todd are on hand to raise the film’s comedy levels) and sword fights. The latter are nicely done, deftly edited, Lester filming simultaneously from long shots and in close-ups and handing real swords to his actors to add to the authenticity. This led naturally to a variety of injuries suffered by the cast; few escaped from the shoot unscathed, and Reed took a rapier point in his wrist at one stage. With all this going on, it’s easy to ignore the attention to detail that’s going on all the time. The characters in The Three Musketeers might come with modern sensibilities and dialogue, but they’re dressed very well, and the locations – it was filmed in a variety of places across Spain – look suitably ravishing. Michael Legrand’s sumptuous score is a further bonus. This wasn’t among the many Oscar nominated pieces of work he submitted over the course of a highly successful career, but it’s a lovely musical accompaniment and does well to keep pace with the tenor of the action.

The Three Musketeers put in regular appearances across the TV schedules, and I’m surprised if there’s anyone who hasn’t seen it at least once. All the same it’s ever a welcome presence, and it effortlessly bounds over the films released in 1993 and 2014 that both squandered the richness of the source material they were working from.

The Three Musketeers: *****

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 Four Musketeers (1974)

When it’s on: Friday, 25 May (2.55 am, Saturday)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

It’s not very often that I feel like walking out of a film before it’s finished. Normally, there’s something – and it doesn’t have to be much – that keeps me interested, but the last time I could happily have hit the ‘Off’ switch halfway through was when Lovefilm delivered Paul WS Anderson’s 2011 version of The Three Musketeers. For me, Dumas’s yarn provides the kind of source material you shouldn’t be able to mess up (it’s a rollicking good read also), but Anderson’s decision to excise much of the plot for his ham-fisted alternative was deplorable. The 1993 release, directed by Stephen Herek as a vehicle for the ageing Brat Pack, is also eminently missable.

Trying to pinpoint exactly where both films failed is the subject for an article in itself, but as a starter I submit the performers in the pivotal role of D’Artagnan. In the 1990s, Chris O’Donnell carved out a niche as the bland, boyishly good looking actor who always seemed to orbit these kinds of parts. At best, he was hopelessly forgettable, yet the role is a pivotal one, being the glue that holds the entire narrative together. It requires a combination of callow youth and charisma, which isn’t easy to find* and a brilliant example of how to get it right is Michael York, who played the Gascon swordsman in Richard Lester’s The Four Musketeers. York was in his early 30s and already a star, which made him ideal for the ensemble cast being assembled for Lester’s multi-national production. Handsome, athletic, able to convey his character’s eternal sense of irritating enthusiasm and possessing a knack for comic acting, York’s one of the best things about a film that never takes itself entirely seriously and delivers on the premise of adventure romps.

The Four Musketeers was filmed at the same time as its prequel and both films straddle the plot of Dumas’s novel. Originally, the idea was to make one picture, but it was realised there was enough material to split it, which meant two releases in as many years (there was a further year’s delay in releasing the film in the USA and UK), and indeed Lester’s The Three Musketeers was screened yesterday. York’s name was just one on a staggering roll call of big names. His fellow Musketeers were all respected character actors – Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain and, most impressively, Oliver Reed. ‘Mr England’ is just brilliant here, playing a booze-soaked Athos (no doubt acted via ‘the method’) who has a lifetime of regrets behind him, many of which are linked to Milady De Winter, played by Faye Dunaway. There’s also Raquel Welch as D’Artagnan’s love interest, Roy Kinnear (the comic relief Planchet), Charlton Heston (a shadowy Cardinal Richlieu), Christopher Lee (Rochefort, with Lee making a noble attempt to once again escape his Dracula image), Geraldine Chaplin (Queen Anne) and Simon Ward (a foppish Duke of Buckingham). Phew! Sybil Danning makes an appearance, whilst the voice of Jean-Pierre Cassel’s King Louis is that of Richard Briers. Double-phew!

The film turns out to be no less fun than The Three Musketeers, but whereas the earlier release was played as much for laughs as adventure, Four takes a much darker twist. This is thanks to Dunaway’s femme fatale, De Winter, a consummate survivor who turns out to have been the former wife of Athos. Now in the employ of  the Cardinal and having nearly exposed Queen Anne’s affair with Buckingham in the first film, she’s imprisoned by the Duke and put in the care of his Puritan gaoler, Felton (Michael Gothard). Supposedly incorruptible, he’s eventually won over by Milady’s charms and helps her to escape, from where she vows to wreak her vengeance on D’Artagnan. The film builds to a surprisingly sad climax, which gives Dunaway (as one of D’Artagnan’s lovers; the other being Welch) much to chew on within one of the story’s most interesting roles. She’s roundly more watchable than the rather vapid Welch and, I think, far more ravishing, especially in the scenes where she’s led to her ultimate fate.

As in The Three Musketeers, the costumes and attention to period detail are absolutely marvellous. The script, by historian and Flashman author, George MacDonald Fraser, is fast paced and witty, and correctly shoehorns in the narrative flashpoints concerning the authorities’ battles with Hugenots. There’s also room for the good-natured thrills of The Three Musketeers. This is evidenced best in the heroes’ efforts to have breakfast in a castle that’s under attack, but there’s much room also for Lester’s trademark use of extras making comments about the main characters, adding to the entertainment value.

It’s an altogether cracking film, possibly best viewed in tandem with its prequel (both were released last year on a Blu Ray double-set) and on an afternoon to capture the matinee thrills it was made to provide. The only real downside is ITV’s decision to schedule it in the early hours, which seems utterly bizarre.

The Four Musketeers: ****

*The perfect embodiment for me is, naturally, Mark Hammill as Luke Skywalker. Think of some of the awful, dumb things he’s called on to say and do (he certainly doesn’t have the rogueish gift of a part offered to Harrison Ford) in Star Wars, and yet somehow he carries it off.