The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 9 September (4.35 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

You are left to wonder what the Hammer dream team pairing of Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson might have developed into had they been given a series of films rather than just the one. The Hound of the Baskervilles was not a box office success in America, where the studio’s reputation ensured it was marketed as a horror and left audiences confused and disappointed. Perhaps similarly wrong-footed, much of the critical appraisal was equally negative, leaving it to time and re-evaluation for us to come to appreciate it as one of Hammer’s more delicious treats.

Much is retained from Arthur Conan Doyle’s gripping source novel, with several ghoulish embellishments from writer Peter Bryan, including a guest spot from a tarantula and Maria Landi as the film’s femme fatale. Cushing, a consummate researcher and fan of the stories, tried to appear as accurately as Holmes as possible, down to bringing his own costumes to the set, which were based on illustrations from The Strand, and taking on the gaunt appearance of a morphine addict, helped along by a bout of dysentery while on holiday in Spain. The script allows him to be superior, aloof, condescending and lacking in empathy, while Cushing’s energetic performance suggests a detective who is continually thinking twenty things at once and acting accordingly. These contrasts with the far more genial, family friendly Holmes as essayed by Basil Rathbone in a  string of successful Hollywood outings shouldn’t be underestimated. The different approach was clear enough and outlined his Holmes as distinctive, closer in style to Jeremy Brett from the long running Granada series.

Another difference from the earlier films was Morrell’s Watson. While Nigel Bruce played Holmes’s biographer and companion as a bumbler and earned a lot of affection for his easy screen charm and chemistry with Rathbone, Morrell’s is a more faithful portrayal. He’s intelligent, makes useful contributions, and you can picture him standing to one side and making notes of what’s happening for his writing up of the case. Crucially the partnership with Holmes is present and correct, but here it’s more as a pair of equals, Watson’s medical knowledge and warmth filling the gaps for his detective friend, and it’s a great shame we didn’t get to see more of them together (incidentally, Cushing and Morrell were both fantastic in Cash in Demand, a minor yet brilliant Hammer entry that draws on – and is richly rewarded for – the performances of both players). You believe that Holmes is leaving Sir Henry in safe hands when he sends him home in the company of Watson, rather than getting him out of the way while the real detective work goes on.

Of the other players, Hammer used Christopher Lee in a rare ‘good guy’ role as Sir Henry Baskerville. Convincing as the patrician heir to the Baskerville fortune, Lee is allowed to put the heavy make-up to one side and presents us with a very handsome and dynamic Sir Henry. John Le Mesurier plays Barrymore, the butler at Baskerville Hall who carries around an important secret, and there’s a great cameo from Miles Malleson as Bishop Frankland, on hand to provide some brief comic respite and stealing every scene in which he features.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was directed with typical style and economy by Terence Fisher. He starts with a ten minute prologue, setting up the legend of the ‘hound from hell’, an enormous dog that killed the odious Sir Hugo centuries earlier. Not only does the prologue work in revealing Sir Hugo to be a terrible man, an entitled rapist, it’s already laying the breadcrumbs for the story to follow. We then follow Holmes and Watson being interviewed by family friend, Dr Mortimer (Francis de Wolff), who are charged with investigating the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville and protecting Sir Henry, the last remaining heir. The pair meet the current owner of Baskerville Hall, a scene that works hard to both establish the characters and leave important clues. Watson accompanies Sir Henry to Dartmoor and finds some strange goings on, while also meeting a string of characters who could potentially benefit from the end of the Baskerville line. There’s a stranger loose on the marshes, and then there’s the landscape itself, an eerie, mist-shrouded desolation that’s potted with lethal mire.

Production values are high, despite the relative lack of money spent on the project, and it loses nothing for being the first Baskervilles adaptation shot in colour – the maudlin gloom of Grimpen is just as foreboding as it was in black and white. The only sour note is the hound itself, a trick the crew tried desperately to make work and couldn’t, meaning the beast is kept safely and yet disappointingly off screen for the most part. Cushing noted in his memoir that they attempted to make the hound appear huge by substituting the real actors for children wearing their costumes. In test screenings it was obvious the illusion wouldn’t fool anyone, so as a consequence we get a rather un-ferocious dog pawing at Christopher Lee, who does his game best to look terrorised.

The question remains which is the best version of the tale, this or the Twentieth Century Fox take from 1939 that foisted Rathbone and Bruce onto an unsuspecting world? The latter I own on Blu-Ray, where the sound stages are all too apparent, but the quality of the work shines through. Slightly brisker than Hammer’s version and arguably carrying a greater number of plot-holes, there’s little to beat its effort to replicate Dartmoor as a perma-fogged, unsettlingly silent portent of doom, nor the eternal, never bettered partnership of the two stars, both likeable and perfectly complementing each other, who went on to own the roles for many years. And yet this version runs it close, very close, and remains great entertainment for a dark afternoon. The biggest regret upon watching it is the nagging feeling you get from knowing this is Cushing and Morrell’s one and only outing as Holmes and Watson. The mouthwatering desire for more of their adventures in detection is palpable, but sadly never quenched.

The Hound of the Baskervilles: ****

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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: ****

Dracula (1958)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 2 December (10.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

BBC Four are screening Dracula today, and The Curse of Frankenstein at 11.00 pm tomorrow, and while they are exhibited with reasonable frequency it’s always a pleasure to revisit these old Hammer classics, both responsible to a large extent for the studio’s success and a revolutionising of the entire horror genre. They may look old and slow now (someone I know who teaches A-Level Film Studies told me that her students groaned throughout Dracula), but at the time they were very big deals, cutting edge cinema, and they deserve our respect.

Despite the BBC’s scheduling, it’s worth pointing out that The Curse of Frankenstein came first of the pair, its quick success giving Hammer licence and funding to follow up with their adaptation of Dracula. On the sort of budget that must have made even contemporary producers weep with frustration, they nevertheless turned out a profitable picture, one that looked good and sustained Frankenstein’s use of colour, blood and cleavages. These were innovations within horror cinema at the time; compare Dracula with something like Night of the Demon, which came out the year before, and note the latter’s black and white photography, buttoned down characters and largely gore free thrills. Of course, Jacques Tourneur’s entry has since been hailed as a classic, and rightly so, but it’s important to see that at the time, Dracula looked like a real step forward.

For modern viewers, the good news is that this film plays like a reasonably close adaptation from Bram Stoker’s original novel. I don’t suppose any screen version has stayed entirely true, and this I believe is correct given the book can be a rather stuffy experience in places and never quite gets across the Count’s demonic power; in other words he’s a character made for the screen. Hammer chose Christopher Lee for their vampire, one of those casting decisions that goes down in history as a no-brainer, and yet it was a bit of a leap given the main use of Lee previously as taking advantage of his height to give him the ‘monster’ roles. Made up heavily as the creation in The Curse of Frankenstein, what Dracula brought out was his good looks, dark charisma and presence. His is a Count you can imagine seducing women with a stare, all those suggestive leers that verged on the scandalous in 1958 but from Lee seemed wholly credible. The actor famously attempted to distance himself from the role in later years, understandable as Hammer were churning out sequels of varying quality to order and Dracula became increasingly a classic screen bogeyman rather than a character with motivation, but in truth he was a victim of his own success. As soon as he appears in this film, shaded in subdued colours at the top of the castle staircase, hopelessly eclipsing John Van Eyssen’s Jonathan Harker who can do naught but stare up at him, he kills it. A legend was born.

Speaking of legends, Dracula’s main opponent in this version is Doctor Van Helsing, played by Peter Cushing. I’ve made little secret of my admiration for ‘the Cush’ on these pages, and this performance is a very good reason why I feel that way. Bear in mind that Dracula cost £81,000 to make; it was a relatively small scale production, so it would have been understandable to watch actors going through the motions. Nothing of the kind. Cushing threw himself fully into the part, already capable of exuding great intelligence and authority from his work as Baron Frankenstein, but here adding a physical dimension that makes the climactic scenes between Van Helsing and the Count such an action-packed thrill. Requiring a crucifix to help him in the sequence, it was the actor himself who suggested forming a cross from two candlesticks, which the props department quickly whipped out of storage and onto the set for use in the film.

Cushing had nothing but praise for the professional spirit that turned Dracula into a success, belying its slim budget to produce a slick and racy horror experience. In charge was Terence Fisher, establishing himself as Hammer’s go-to director for its horror releases. The challenge was to make something that played differently to the 1931 Universal film, which Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster did in various ways. One was to transform the main characters, Dracula and Van Helsing, removing the latter’s stuffy, professorial air as essayed by Edward Van Sloan in the earlier movie, whilst having the Count put in a more physical and sensuous performance than Bela Lugosi’s cape swishing antics. Whereas Universal’s production owed much to Dracula’s run as a Broadway hit, actually filmed in many places as a stage play, this version is far more obviously cinematic, with its heavier emphasis on action and the sight of Lee shown biting his victims, a real shock at the time. The colour is used brilliantly, even if the blood is obviously fake, yet there’s still room for the castle’s gloomy shadows and dark corridors, adding to the place’s claustrophobic sense of foreboding. When Harker is the only human in Castle Dracula, aware that its other occupants are the Count and Valerie Gaunt’s sexy bride, both after what flows in his veins, the cloying air of doom that surrounds him is palpable.

It would be wrong to try and claim that this is the best version of Dracula out there. These days, it looks its age; try watching it after more recent vampire flicks like 30 Days of Night or A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (I’m halfway through this one, it’s good!) and it plays like what it is, a mild horror made for prior generations. Arguably there have even been better Dracula offerings. I’m a fan of the John Badham adaptation from 1979, an altogether glossier affair, though for the sight of a cadaverous Jan Francis stumbling through the sewers rather than Frank Langella’s eponymous Count, who looks and acts like a Dracula for the Dynasty crowd. His vampire retains Lee’s smooth sexuality but fails to bring out the more dangerous side of his character. Gary Oldman tried both in his playing for the 1992 version, and modern effects made him appear as both the old man we first come across in Stoker’s novel and the powerful, apparently younger model when he arrives in England. Another film with lots of money spent on it, and sadly spoiled by an endless cavalcade of visual metaphors, along with heavily nuanced performances as though the actors are begging for attention in the middle of all those expensive special effects.

So whilst this might not be the best Dracula adaptation, something that’s surely up to each viewer to decide, it’s certainly my favourite and I would argue that it marks a milestone within horror cinema.

Dracula: ****

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: ***

The Mummy (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 11 July (2.05 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Saturday is Christopher Lee day. The great actor who sadly passed away a month ago is remembered on BBC2 with a Talking Pictures special, followed throughout the day by three of his films. Appropriately, they’re three Hammer flicks. Late in the night, the station is screening a fantastic double bill, kicking off with Dracula, which really introduced Lee as a powerful and versatile leading man. Later there’s The Curse of Frankenstein, more a vehicle for that other Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing, but featuring Lee as the hideous monster, utilising the actor’s height to great effect.

It’s easy to imagine Sir Christopher being miffed about having to accept roles that just took advantage of his physical attributes. You take the work that’s available, I guess, and two years after playing the monster he embarked on a similar role, as the eponymous bandage wearer in The Mummy remake.

There have been various Mummy films over the years, but the two that stick in the mind are the Universal entries from 1932 and 1999. The earlier version was made during the Golden Age of the studio’s Gothic horror output and is creepy even now.  The bandaged Imhotep is on the screen for a fraction of the time, and instead the film’s suspense hinges on the performance of Boris Karloff, incarnated as the Egyptian Ardath Bay and intent on reincarnating his long lost love. The actor was at the considerable height of his powers, bringing undoubted presence to his scenes, whilst made up to look as though his face had been weathered by thousands of years in the ancient sand.

When Stephen Sommers revisited the material in 1999, the decision was made to do The Mummy as an action adventure romp, removing much of Imhotep’s fright value in favour of thrills, stunts and lashings of computer generated imagery. The result was either a mess or a delight, depending on the mood of the individual viewer. Certainly, not much of it made sense, but I remember going to see it at the time and enjoying it immensely.

The version that tends to get lost in the mix is Hammer’s take, a 1959 release that was made on the back of the studio’s loose reworking of old Universal classics. They’d given us Frankenstein and Dracula, and The Curse of the Werewolf was a couple of years away, so why not have a go at the Egyptian tale? At the time, it was another success within a sound run of hits, inspiring further entries within a slimly connected franchise, yet it’s less well known now and falls way short of the fond memories fans have for many other Hammers.

In spite of the surefooted Terence Fisher on directorial duties,  Jimmy Sangster’s script, and Messrs Cushing and Lee in the cast, there are several good reasons why it’s less well known than other Mummy movies, let alone the Hammer Gothics. The first is that it’s surprisingly boring. This should be more or less impossible for a sub-90 minutes film from the studio that appeared to have found the formula for delivering well-crafted shocks, yet the Mummy (played by Lee and in the film known as Kharis) takes an incredibly long time to appear, and when he does seems to follow similar territory to that trodden by Frankenstein’s monster. Perhaps the sight of a lumbering figure wrapped in sodden bandages was the height of terror to contemporary audiences, but it seems a bit lame now. There’s some good stuff to be found here. The first sight of Kharis is of him emerging slowly from a swamp in a scene loaded with sweaty atmosphere. He turns out to have almost Golem-like qualities of indomitability, as evidenced in the moment when Cushing’s hero shoots him twice and then impales him through the stomach, and Kharis just keeps on coming, which both hints at the power he possesses and the anger that drives him, and is well acted by two performers who could put great physical work into their work.

But these scenes are rather too few and far between. Much of the running time is taken up with exposition, endless lashings of exposition. It isn’t the only Hammer film guilty of this, but whereas the later The Curse of the Werewolf contains real horrors in its back story, giving us not only the origin of the curse but applying a real sense of hopelessness to Leon, here it just feels like filler, adding extraneous detail to a story that viewers can already follow easily enough.

As Kharis, Lee is physically imposing and adds a neat combination of pathos and anger to what is a fairly one-note character. Using little more than his eyes, as the rest of him is swathed in bandages, Lee breathes more emotional depth in to the mummy than ought to be possible, elsewhere he’s retreading his character in The Curse of Frankenstein. A shame, as he’d proved his chops with his nuanced and menacing portrayal of Count Dracula and deserved better here. Cushing gets his usual ‘man of science’ role, but there’s little of the texture he was able to bring to Frankenstein and Van Helsing in his portrayal of John Bannon. This isn’t the actor’s fault, more a script that fails to suggest a man with anything like the moral ambiguity of Victor Frankenstein or Doctor Van Helsing’s academic background and faith in his methods. Bannon’s there because the tale needs him to emerge as the mummy’s nemesis, and that’s it. Better served is Yvonne Furneaux as Bannon’s wife, a doppelganger for Kharis’s ancient love. She’s a plot point, inserted into the script to give the unstoppable mummy a weakness, yet Furneaux at least adds some humanity to the part, a sense of peril that isn’t apparent elsewhere as the tale goes through its motions.

For a film costing a princely £1250,000, The Mummy looks fantastic, which is nothing less than viewers would have expected. Whilst the scenes in Egypt are rather obviously filmed on a stage, it looks decent enough with gorgeous levels of detail within Ananka’s tomb. But Marcus Hearn had it about right when he described it as ‘little more than a string of picturesque and nice-lit killings’. There are better versions of the story and scant surprise that, in this instance, Hammer’s effort is the one that has faded into obscurity.

The Mummy: **

Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960)

When it’s on: Saturday, 25 April (7.20 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Regular readers of this site might suspect that I have a bit of a liking for films about Robin Hood, and they would be right. Like many Britons I grew up on the legends, read the stories, watched the various TV shows and movies. It probably helped that the HTV Robin of Sherwood series was a Saturday evening staple when I was a child. The mid-eighties show might look a little dated now, and anyone who caught it would be justified in wondering how Michael Praed’s wolfshead maintained such well conditioned hair whilst living rough in the forests of ye olde England, but the production had atmosphere and a nice link between the classic Robin Hood mythology and even older mystical belief systems.

It’s a pity that few film adaptations have been so successful, in fact I have an awful feeling of confidence in suggesting that 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood remains the unimpeachable version. Nothing wrong with that film; it’s a wholly delightful and thrilling piece of work and I love it, but they’ve had nearly eighty years to improve upon it and nothing I have seen in the years since has come close. It was with a growing sense of disappointment that I viewed Ridley Scott’s recent take; such a great pedigree and leading actor, but I’ve never seen it more than once.

Today’s entry, Sword of Sherwood Forest, was made in 1960 as a spin-off from the long-running television series. Its star, Richard Greene, was retained, and indeed he was also a producer of the film; some of the other basic tropes were kept on, such as Alan A’Dale’s little odes to introduce and close the story. Made by Hammer, the production moved to County Wicklow, drafted in both the studio’s A-list director, Terence Fisher, and its most bankable actor, Peter Cushing, to take on the role of the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham.

At a mere 76 minutes long, the film feels like an extended episode, and featured the usual high production values whilst maintaining a strict budget. It says nothing about Robin’s origins, as though Greene is picking up from where he left off on the small screen, and involves him instantly in a tale of evildoers who are attempting to assassinate the Archbishop of Canterbury (Jack Gwillim), now in effective control of England whilst King Richard is fighting on foreign shores. A fatally wounded man (Desmond Llewelyn) rides into Sherwood where he’s tended by the merry men, who are led by Robin and Little John (Nigel Green). The mystery of his attack seems to lie in a golden amulet, which the Sheriff is after. It turns out he’s part of a plot to kill the Archbishop, one led by the Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco), who unknowingly recruits Robin because he believes the outlaw’s superior bowmanship will make him the perfect murderer. As Robin’s skills are tested, he uses his time with Newark to gain information about the plan and hopefully foil it.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to Sword of Sherwood Forest. One is that it’s a bit of a stinker, surprisingly slow moving and badly scripted, meaning the tension of Robin’s efforts to save the day get lost amidst an unengaging story. The other sees it as the archetypal slow burner, wringing suspense from Robin’s realisation of how exactly he is to be used by Newark and his cronies (one of whom is played by a foppish Oliver Reed, in an early role, his voice dubbed by an uncredited French actor). I’m afraid I fall into the former camp. At such a short running time, I hoped for an action packed adventure with little room to spare. What I got was a yarn that was too thin, so it’s spread across the film that way, a lengthy portion taken up with the Earl testing Robin’s abilities, even though it’s obvious he’ll never fall in with his schemes. There’s precious little of the merry men, just enough to show that Little John is very strong, that Alan can play a minstrel and that Friar Tuck (Niall MacGinnis) is the butt of every joke, none of them especially funny. It’s as if writer Alan Hackney (who also scripted several episodes of the series) had little interest in this element so barely bothered to cover it, similarly when it came to the part of Marian (Sarah Branch), who has very little to do, and despite her zero chemistry with the much older Greene somehow goes from despising him to suggesting marriage.

Fisher does his best with the scant material. The sword fight between Greene and the more athletic Cushing offers a hint of what this film could have been, but the climactic duelling is strangely stilted, the actors often pausing mid-combat as though awaiting their cues. Sadly, the Sheriff is on screen little and even suffers the ignominy of being killed off before the finale, leaving the end to involve Robin and the more insipid Newark. It’s a real letdown. Hammer were capable of putting out some fine swashbuckling pictures, as their two Pirates films demonstrated, but this falls short, even compared to the later A Challenge for Robin Hood, of which I thought little but enjoyed more. Alan Hoddinott’s rousing score suggests a much more exciting experience than that shown, which adds to the sense of people making Sword of Sherwood Forest out of obligation and putting little effort – and certainly no heart – into it.

Sword of Sherwood Forest: *

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

When it’s on: Friday, 20 February (1.20 am, Saturday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Like many fans of classic horror, I first got into old monster movies via the BBC’s nighttime screenings back in the early 1980s. Typically shown as a double bill, it was possible to get a pair of ancient Universal frighteners like Dracula and Frankenstein, or a couple of hoary Hammer offerings, which by this point already looked like something from a bygone age. Needless to say, I loved them, talking mine parents into setting up the Betamax to record so I could get up in the morning and experience a blast of the sort of thrills that had little place amidst the more lurid, contemporary likes of Halloween and Poltergeist. These double bills are of course the stuff of aching nostalgia now. Whilst a minority of viewers would love nothing more than to see their return, they belong in a distant past, though one has to wonder, given those dead hours in the middle of the night, would it be so difficult to bring them back and, you never know, introduce a whole new generation to the joys of antiquated horror?

The Abominable Snowman is not being shown as part of a late night monster double, but its late, late place in the schedules teases at a return to this sort of caper; alas a tease is all it is as normal service resumes the following Friday. All the same, it’s a thing of joy to see this semi-forgotten entry from the Hammer archives given a rare outing. It’s a title I watch often, and unashamedly so. At the time, the studio was beginning to flex its creative muscles. The success of The Quatermass Xperiment, adapted for the big screen from Nigel Kneale’s BBC drama, had brought Hammer to the attention of major American players. Further horrors were commissioned. Hammer took the money, stretched the modest budgets it received and started a production line of sensational, melodramatic fright flicks that have since become the stuff of legend. In the same year as The Abominable Snowman came The Curse of Frankenstein, filmed in colour to give audiences the terrifying sight of blood that dripped often and starkly red. They never looked back.

The first Hammer Frankenstein adventure set the studio on a course of further scary treats, taking advantage of colour, special effects, glorious costumes, make-up and set design, and an increase in heaving bosoms, all of which left The Abominable Snowman looking dated nearly as soon as it was released. It’s only more recently that opinions about it have revised and it’s since been held up as a great entry in the canon, a surprisingly low key outing for the maligned Yeti, which only turns up late in the film and is cast in a wholly sympathetic light. Like Quatermass, the film was adapted from a television drama, The Creature, again written by Kneale who returned to write the screenplay. Reliable studio hand, Val Guest, was behind the camera as director. Peter Cushing, who was on the cusp of becoming the its major star thanks to his starring role as Baron Frankenstein, reprised his role from the small screen as Dr Henry Rollason, whereas the part that had been played on television by Stanley Baker went to American actor, Forrest Tucker, as part of Hammer’s deal to have a US star in exchange for funding.

The story is set in the Himalayas, where in reality the sight of enormous footprints in the mountains’ snowy passes (identified by no less a figure than Sir Edmund Hillary on his way to conquering Everest several years earlier) had turned the mythical Yeti into a bona fide monster mystery. Rollason heads a botanical expedition that is staying in a Tibetan monastery. A second group of ‘scientists’ arrives, led by Dr Tom Friend (Tucker), which claims to be researching the possible existence of the Yeti, and Rollason is persuaded to join them, even at the objections of his wife (Maureen Connell) and the temple’s Lama. As the expedition reaches ever higher points in the mountain ranges, following possible Yeti tracks and finding itself pursued by unknown assailants, presumably those wishing to protect the creatures’ secrecy, it emerges that Friend wants nothing less than to achieve fame by capturing a live beast and returning with it to America. Tensions rise between the two men, the avaricious Friend and Rollason, motivated by nobler instincts. Other members of the company start dying, the creatures close in, and the potential that they could be cut off, stuck in some high, desolate place far away from civilisation, becomes a terrifying possibility.

The film is given an air of authenticity as those mountain passes look real enough, though as Cushing explained in his memoirs, a back lot at Bray Studios in Berkshire was covered in tonnes of salt to represent snow, whilst the production designer, Bernard Robinson, constructed an authentic Tibetan village even with the limited financial resources he could call upon. Later, the same lot would become a Transylvanian village for Dracula, Baron Frankenstein’s home village of Karlsbad, Dartmoor for Hammer’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, even India when The Stranglers of Bombay was being filmed there, an impressive recycling of props and sets for the seemingly never ending line of productions. Additional filming, the long shots of explorers traversing the mountain routes that required none of the principal actors, took place high in the Pyrenees.

Best of all is the treatment of the Yeti itself. In an era when many of Hammer’s films presented their monsters as purely evil, there’s nothing abominable about this film’s snowmen. Rather, in witnessing the follies of mankind and awaiting the human race’s capacity to destroy itself, it becomes clear the Yeti have opted for living in secrecy until this moment, and the wise likes of the Lama recognises and supports their wishes. Rollason comes across the same truth, setting up his climactic clash of ideals with Friend, and his ultimate decision to deny the expedition came across anything when he’s eventually rescued. Considering the demand for gaudy thrills, the film’s sympathetic treatment of the Yeti comes across as a nice humanist touch, though upon its release it was clear this did not chime with what the public wanted and ensured The Abominable Snowman, unlike The Curse of Frankenstein, made little impact with audiences. A shame, considering the largely successful effort to create an atmosphere of paranoid claustrophobia into which the Yeti need to make little impact.

The Abominable Snowman: ****

Let It Go

A mazy and disjointed ramble through Christmas films…

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, well apart from me as I still have some sort of bloody virus that’s stopping me from those little holiday luxuries like a good sleep. In fairness, being ill – not really ill, as in ‘sorry, I can’t make it in today’ proper sickness, more what we refer to as being ‘a bit under the weather’ – has driven this site’s churn of watching and writing about films. The Glenn Miller Story is currently cued up, ready to go, and, let’s be honest, there’s never a bad time to see it, is there?

A cursory glance through the schedules reveals to me that Frozen is Sky’s big Christmas Day premiere. It’s a sound choice, obvious even. Doing my present buying in recent weeks, I’ve been confronted with endless merchandise, image after image from the Disney flick that has bucked tradition by becoming increasingly popular long after its initial release, so that it’s now a juggernaut with faulty brakes, gaining a kind of snowball effect with viewers. Generally, I have little to say about it that disagrees with Badblokebob’s excellent review; like Bob I quite enjoyed Frozen, though I saw nothing that really made it stand out for me, and in true middle-aged man style my Dreyfus tic kicks in whenever I sense a song on the horizon. If I remember rightly, it isn’t even a Christmas film per se, in the same way Jingle Bells was never in fact written for Christmas, but it’s become part of the season thanks to its snowy subject matter and Disney’s canny alignment with all things Yule. Look, if you really want to know, I thought Maleficent was a far better picture.

As for genuine Christmas movies, Mrs Mike and I went to the delightful Picture House in Hebden Bridge yesterday afternoon to catch It’s a Wonderful Life. I know, I know, it’s an obvious choice, and somewhere down the line it became the archetypal film of the season. My father was a fan of classic cinema and sat me down before it back when I was a kid because ‘it’s good and you might learn something’, and I’m sure in those days it didn’t hold the special place in peoples’ hearts that it currently occupies. And it remains a disturbing watch, the grim tale of an essentially decent man driven towards such untold levels of despair that a guardian angel is sent to show him what his hometown and its citizens would be like if he had never been born. The film’s final few minutes are unashamedly sentimental, but that’s just a payoff for the main character’s nightmarish vision of coming across dear old friends and a wife with no idea who he is, their lives and outlooks hard and cynical because he was never there to provide the friendship and optimism we all need in order to carry on. At the heart is James Stewart’s George Bailey, a note-perfect performance from someone keen to subvert his wholesome image as a man who seems to visibly carry the worries of the world on his shoulders. The film is marketed as heartwarming, ‘the most loved Christmas film of all time’ goes the tagline, yet the image that stays with me is Bailey before he gets his vision, bags under his eyes, grey in his hair, all slumped posture, a picture of utter defeat. It might very well be wonderful, but it isn’t light viewing.

And yet it’s a million miles removed from most Christmas films, loaded with sentiment and a bit like being tied down while someone straddles you and pours syrup down your forced open mouth, sugarboarding if you like. Heck, there are entire Cable channels that show nothing but Christmas movies. Most of them I don’t like. Elf? Nope. The Santa Clause? No thank you. Those interminable Disney films where dogs are the heroes? Someone must like that sort of nonsense, but not for me. I will admit to a fondness for Robert Zemeckis’s animated take on A Christmas Carol from 2009, largely because no one can make a camera do those impossible swoops and dives through computer generated scenes quite like Zemeckis, but the source material has become so familiar and readapted that watching any version is like an easy wander down some local path that I’ve taken many times beforehand. The best, again handed down from my dad, is the 1951 vintage directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim, though its by no means Sim’s finest performance (without thinking hard about it, I have nothing but love for his professional bounder in School for Scoundrels) and, perhaps because it’s the one that was circulated most frequently when I was young, the musical Scrooge from 1970 remains close to my heart.

Perhaps my favourite Scrooge film isn’t even an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at all, but is instead Hammer’s Cash on Demand, in which the old curmudgeon is reimagined as a stuffy bank manager, played by Peter Cushing. The story takes place on 23 December. Harry Fordyce runs his provincial branch on a short leash, setting impossible standards for the staff, especially Richard Vernon’s hangdog underling. The bank’s workers prepare for their Christmas party in the full and sure knowledge that Mr Fordyce will not wish to be involved. Into his world strides Colonel Gore-Hepburn (Andre Morell), a bogus investigator from ‘Head Office’ who turns out to be a bank robber with the perfect plan to empty the branch’s vaults and somehow co-opt Fordyce as his willing accomplice. It’s brilliant, tense viewing, running a breathless 80 minutes as, steadily, Fordyce’s stiff veneer is undermined until the desperate and emotional core is on full display. Cushing has been in many bigger films but he’s rarely been better, entirely convincing as his entire raison d’etre is stripped away. Morell is like all three Christmas ghosts rolled into one, an effortlessly charming criminal who is far more likeable and personable than the austere and remote Fordyce. It’s fortunate that Sony cleaned up and released the film on its Icons of Suspense boxset several years ago; previously, it was a forgotten footnote in the Hammer back catalogue, rarely screened and largely unavailable.

Otherwise, I submit for your approval Millions, the little Danny Boyle film from 2004 that I see as completely charming without resorting to cheap sentiment. Reviewed on these pages here, it was made for very little money and raked in enough to be considered a minor success, though its impact on the box office was minimal compared to the juggernauts of the time. That said, its release was an exercise in mishandling. It’s a Christmas film that came out in April, and its semi-regular appearances on network television have it bouncing around the calendar, as though no one knows quite what to make of it. The barebones plot is that of two young boys who come across a suitcase full of money, the classic MacGuffin plot device that served Boyle previously in Shallow Grave. Unlike that earlier film, in which the characters attempt to cheat and harm each other in an effort to gain all the cash, Millions’ kids are cute with their newfound wealth. The older one, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), is savvy and uses it to gain status with his peers; his younger brother Damian (Alex Etel) wants to give it to the poor. Damian’s knowledge of and conversations with real-life saints is both a reflection of the wonder of children, whilst also serving as a reaction to the boys’ recent loss of their mother. Clearly affected, Damian’s mourning is shown in his inquiring of the saints whether they’ve come across Saint Maureen; as he explains, she’s new in Heaven.

Their dad is played by the ever-underrated James Nesbitt, obviously just about holding it together despite his grieving. There’s a rubbish nativity play, a series of televised adverts about Britain’s imminent conversion to the Euro that star Leslie Phillips, and the film’s villain, the ‘poor man’ played by Christopher Fulford whose search for the suitcase turns him into an understated yet deeply sinister character, like Death itself ever on the fringes of the action. Set in a modern and very real Widnes, it never pushes its morality too hard whilst charming the socks off its viewers with its really big heart. Damian is an adorable character without ever trying to be; he’s entirely relatable. Such a shame that Millions remains in semi-obscurity; take this as a plea from me to check it out.

So anyway, it’s (Glenn) Miller time, to be accompanied with coffee and York Fruits (the supermarkets had been cleared of Celebrations and Quality Street by the time we arrived, so some improvisation was required). Please enjoy your Christmas, whatever you choose to watch, though I heartily recommend The Lady Vanishes, and I’ll see you on the other side.