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 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: ****

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.

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: **

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dracula: Prince of Darkness: ***

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 Devil Rides Out (1968)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 March (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
IMDb Link

In an effort to properly research The Devil Rides Out, one of the jewels in the crown of Hammer Studios, rightly or wrongly, and a first visitation from this site to the Horror Channel, which is now available on Freeview, I went back to the source and read Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel.

I recall seeing rows of Wheatley’s paperbacks on my parents’ bookshelves as a child, usually with the lurid cover art featuring scantily clad women cavorting around a stern looking goat-man. This no doubt is a reflection on the author’s massive popularity, which lasted into the late 1960s, and reading The Devil Rides Out now, I can see why that must have been the case. Essentially, it’s a bit like Agatha Christie, replacing murders for Occultism, but still featuring upper class heroes and villains and presenting the inter-war years as a kind of Home Counties arcadia where society was deferential, everyone knew their place and the only thing wrong was those damned Devil worshippers. I enjoyed it immensely, racing through the novel in a few days thanks to some brisk pacing and a genuine atmosphere of unease created by Wheatley. There’s an argument for saying it’s an updated Dracula, which I get. Critics pointed out the long periods of exposition, endless scenes of two posho’s discussing the history and nature of Satanism; personally I found all this to be quite riveting. I learned, for instance, that World War One didn’t come about as a consequence of the collapsing Great Powers system of diplomacy, but because Grigory Rasputin used an arcane talisman to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There was also some love for the Swastika, rightly cited as an ancient good luck charm before it was appropriated by the Nazis. Understandably, the Swastika does not put in an appearance within the film.

It was a most entertaining read, though I could tell that with novels like Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and the subsequent film adaptation, bringing tales of Devil worship firmly into the modern world, time was up for Wheatley’s cognac-quaffing heroes. There’s talk even now of further reworkings for the screen, both large and small, and I wonder how that would work. When I read a book, I try and visualise the action, imagining how it would play; it’s just something I’ve always done, and try as I might there seemed to be too many good reasons to forget revisiting these old adventures and let them fade into memory.

It was a different story in the 1960s, when Wheatley was still a bestselling author and had a good friend in Christopher Lee, one of Hammer’s main stars. The studio had owned the rights to The Devil Rides Out for some time and submitted a draft screenplay to the censors in 1962, only to be told in no uncertain terms that Satanism was not an appropriate subject for the movies. Later in the decade, restrictions were lifting (though nothing like to the extent they would later) and the project was revisited. Hammer put a lot of money behind their adaptation, recruiting the services of their A-list director, Terence Fisher, placing Lee in the starring role and commissioning no less a figure than Richard Matheson to update the script. The legendary writer took the hatchet to Wheatley’s book, chopping much of the Occult-related dialogue but otherwise turning in a treatment that was rather faithful, even keeping certain lines intact – ‘You fool! I’d rather see you dead than meddling with black magic!’ might sound a bit laughable now, but it was powerful stuff back in the day, especially when delivered with Lee’s baritone voice.

The result was a somewhat refreshing change from the endless Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy sequels, made to order but working as crowd pleasers rather than offering anything new. Even an old Hammer apologist like me can look back with a furtive wince at yet another Dracula flick in which the Count goes through the motions, Lee acting almost from a horizontal position as he found the business of donning the fangs to be increasingly tiresome. There’s none of that here, Lee in lithe, commanding form as the Duc de Richleau, an amateur expert in black magic who realises quickly that one of his best friends has succumbed to a circle of Devil worshippers. Alongside Rex (Leon Greene), de Richleau works hard to keep Simon (Patrick Mower) on the side of good. But he’s made powerful enemies, none more than Mocata (Charles Gray), Satan’s High Priest, who’ll stop at nothing to ‘baptise’ Simon and the willowy Tanith (Niké Arrighi), for whom Rex harbours romantic feelings.

The film, set in the late 1920s and featuring a fine convoy of vintage cars, turns into a cat and mouse effort as the Duc and his friends try and get the better of Mocata, who can command all manner of dark forces to work for him. This culminates in a brilliant scene where the Duc, Simon and two further friends (played by Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson) are at siege, trapped in the library and protected only by a pentagram chalked on the wooden flooring, as Mocata sends vision after vision to terrorise them into submitting. The special effects of the giant tarantula and later the angel of death riding into the room look tame now, but the build-up to their appearance is taut and terrifying, punctuated by long silences and shadows creeping across the walls. Lee’s character is superb, feeling every ounce of fear that the film is trying to convey and trying to maintain a sense of authority.

Despite Lee’s excellent performance, he’s matched by Gray as Mocata. Many times in his film appearances, particularly in the limp Diamonds are Forever, Gray had a tendency to descend into campness, but here the role is played completely straight, the actor channelling both Mocata’s latent evil and his lazy charm, which works really well, even if he doesn’t look much like the bulbous fallen Priest who appears in the book. When Mocata visits Lawson’s character to demand the return of Simon and is made to leave, he pauses long enough to say ‘I shall not be back – but something will’, the malice dripping with relish from his tongue. Mostly, it comes from the eyes, Fisher doing a great job of emphasising the icy blue in Gray’s eyes to suggest a constant power of hypnosis and persuasion.

Over the years, The Devil Rides Out has dated. Arguably, it already appeared so at the time of its release, coming out in the same year as the contemporary Rosemary’s Baby, the latter holding back none of the nudity or blood where Fisher’s work shows restraint. No question about it, Polanski’s film is better, delivering more effectively on unsettling chills, whilst The Devil Rides Out’s period setting gives it the feel of something more suited to the past. And yet it was a daring move by Hammer, a fine effort and an important change in direction at a time when the studio itself was starting to look out of step with audience tastes, and for that it deserves some appreciation. The only sad postscript is that they didn’t return to Wheatley until eight years later and 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, too late to save the studio and a mixed, unhappy effort for all concerned.

The Devil Rides Out: ****