And Now The Screaming Starts #5 – ‘Cushing, The Creature and The Curse: A Peek at Hammer’s Franken-Frights!

“And Now The Screaming Starts!” – UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature by Rosie Gibbs

antss‘Cushing, The Creature and The Curse: A Peek at Hammer’s Franken-Frights!’

It is now 200 years since the 18-year-old Mary Shelley first began writing her classic tale of ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’, and in the two centuries that have passed since she first crafted the original story countless subsequent stories, television programmes, plays and of course motion pictures have surfaced which either re-tell or are in certain ways clearly inspired by Shelley’s novel concerning the young doctor Victor Frankenstein and his quest to create new life through scientific study and experiment. Hammer Productions is certainly one film production company which focused on Shelley’s Creature – eventually to become of course one of the line-up of ‘classic’ monsters alongside Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman etc. – and took inspiration from it to create spin-off tales of its own.

Shelley’s tale and monster became legendary certainly, and their posterity has in no small way been assisted by Hammer Productions, and in turn its most prolific and long-standing director – the late Terence Fisher. Hammer actually made a total of seven ‘Frankenstein’-based pictures, over the course of fifteen years, and while they each achieved varying degrees of success, it can certainly be argued that a good chunk of the clout the company eventually gained as a film-making business was down to Shelley’s notorious doctor and his insatiable thirst for cracking the secret to creating life, and any success they gleaned down largely to Fisher’s direction. Indeed, Hammer charted through these seven different films what could be called a ‘Life and Times’ saga of Victor Frankenstein (or the Baron as he would become known in this particular medium) – brought to life himself in all but one of these films by the incomparable Peter Cushing (and in the seventh, it must be mentioned, by the excellent Ralph Bates). In this article, we take a glance at three of Fisher’s ‘Franken-films’ – at the particular Creatures brought forth in each, the representation of the Baron himself, and how Hammer contributed to the development and furthering of the Frankenstein story…

franken1‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957)

The first of the true Hammer ‘horrors’, this film also saw Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing acting on celluloid together for the very first time. Terence Fisher achieved in this first Frankenstein flick commercial and critical success, with Hammer stalwarts Jimmy Sangster and Anthony Hinds providing screenplay and production respectively in what many critics hail as a ‘return to form’ for the horror genre, which had in the 1950’s seen something of a lull in its ability to pull in the crowds at the box office since the heyday of the original Universal ‘monster movies’ of the 1930’s and 40’s.

In Hammer’s first crack at the Baron’s life tale, we are given (I suppose naturally) more of an insight into his early life; we see him take on the baronetcy at an early age after his father’s death – with characteristic curtness and practicality – and meet his wife Elizabeth (Hazel Court), as well as nurture an amiable working relationship with his tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). Life is toddling along enjoyably for the Baron until his ‘ideas’ and experiments begin to really take hold of him and he first suggests his plans for what will become his life’s work. Cushing in this film initially presents us with a slightly more sympathetic Frankenstein – certainly single-minded and brusque but not necessarily heartless.

franken2However, when re-animation becomes his obsession, he gradually morphs into a maid-bonking, manipulative, typically self-absorbed mad scientist, showing little to no regard for his wife, friends or indeed Christopher Lee’s wonderfully confused, child-like Creature. The progressively more diabolical Baron was lapped up by cinema-goers at the time and Fisher’s directorial eye created rich, colourful cinematography which would have packed an extra punch in line with the higher level of gore – many critics of the time found the picture distasteful and ‘salacious’, and that was even after a sequence involving Cushing nonchalantly dipping a severed head in acid was cut out for British audiences!

The film overall is a striking debut for Hammer which is still today an entertaining version of the classic Gothic tale which serves as a timeless warning against playing God, as well as having the honour of establishing both Fisher as a bankable director and Hammer as a fondly-loved film production company featuring rich talent, both in front of and behind the lens.

franken3Frankenstein Created Woman’ (1967)

With Fisher once again at the helm, and Cushing in his fourth appearance as the Baron,this much-loved Hammer offering released a decade after ‘Curse’ was produced by Anthony Nelson Keys with Anthony Hinds taking screen writing credit again. Coming after earlier Hammer sequels ‘The Revenge of Frankenstein’ and ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’, which saw the legend foray into brain transplantation and again general re-animation of male corpses / living subjects, the company this time offered a new slant on the tale – touching on the theme of the soul and its transference to flesh, between different bodies and genders, no less.

Baron Frankenstein, now living in an atypical ‘mittel-Europe’ town much the staple of Hammer story-telling, finds himself embroiled in the initially tragic story of tavern hired hand Hans (Robert Morris) and his sweetheart Christina (Susan Denberg), who is taunted over her facial disfigurement by three local yobs. In revenge for Hans having stood up to them, they ransack her family’s tavern and brutally murder her father – and Hans is unjustly found guilty of the crime and guillotined. Distraught, Christina immediately drowns herself. The Baron, having been handily working on experiments to determine whether or not the soul departs the body at the point of death, manages after some time to transplant Hans’ soul into Christina’s now re-animated body – her mind that of an amnesiac, but her soul full of Hans’ vengeful lust for the murder of the three villains.

‘Woman’ (admittedly a Franken-flick which doesn’t lend itself amicably to the one-word title abbreviation) does seem to stand out from the others in a number of ways – most obviously in that the Creature is for the first time a female. Perhaps this is not a staggeringly ‘out of the box’ deviation from the original story, but what I personally like is that unlike in the Shelley tale, or indeed in the classic 1935 film ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ in which a female creature is manufactured purely to provide a companion for the lonely male one, in this we see the female being re-animated to carry out a certain task, i.e. a murder of vengeance – Hammer could have easily have gone down the simple ‘make a mate’ route here and still had a success on their hands but they chose this plot line instead.

franken4Of course, Christina’s mind is still dulled and her body is still beautiful, and the very soul that drives her basically to live is still that of a man, but at least the film in the end creates a woman who is dangerous rather than distressed. Cushing’s Baron in this film, while still of course an obviously vital component, somewhat takes a smaller spotlight in favour of the young romance and the central theme of Christina’s agenda, however he is shown as less of a brute and more of a logically detached, morally ambivalent character who focuses on his work as virulently as ever but perhaps with less of a flagrant disregard for any person or thing which might stand in his way.

The originality of the plot provides arguably a less shock-heavy, gory feel to this film in comparison to the other Hammer Frankensteins – no angry marching mobs, death-defying stunts or fights to the death at the climax here, yet this gentler outing is still sensationalist and gory enough to have satisfied 60’s horror buffs. Indeed, it is the one of the few Hammer features to properly explore the notion of the soul and theories surrounding the concept – of course even the title references the Bible and the Creation myth. Martin Scorcese is reportedly a big fan of the film, having been quoted as saying, “…here they actually isolate the soul, a bright blue shining translucent ball. The implied metaphysics is something close to sublime.”

Whether or not Hammer were trying to delve especially deeply into such matters is anyone’s guess, but the film I believe is certainly one of the strongest of Hammer’s successful 1960’s period – and through it the Shelley legend gains a fresh twist which whilst not at this point ardently feminist, certainly provides us with a brutal broad who is no creature’s Bride!

franken5‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ (1974)

The final Hammer ‘Franken-film’, which would also sadly prove to be Terence Fisher’s final picture before his death, was released after 1969’s haunting ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’ and 1970’s black comedy of sorts, ‘Horror of Frankenstein’. The picture emerged at the tail-end of Hammer’s decades-long journey in film – actually the fourth from last. I personally feel, and I’m sure I’m not alone, that in these swansong years, Hammer went out with a bang in releasing belters such as ‘Hands of the Ripper’, ‘Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde’, ‘Vampire Circus’ and ‘Twins of Evil’. Amongst these excellent sensations is ‘Hell’ – in which we find Cushing’s Baron hiding out in a Carlsbad asylum for the criminally insane, under the pseudonym Karl Victor.

Here, posing as the asylum’s official physician, the diabolical doctor is still merrily carrying out his experiments on illicitly-acquired cadavers safe in the knowledge that those in the outside world now believe him to be good and dead. Surgeon Simon Helder (played by one of my favourite Hammer alumni, Shane Briant) is sentenced to a spell in the asylum, and the Baron secretly reveals his true identity to him, convincing him to assist him in his scientific undertakings. The two work together to re-animate the remains of a hulking inmate (none other than David Prowse) and initially the subject seems to be successfully brought to full living state in a non-chaotic manner. However, the Baron, unbeknownst to Helder, begins to make attempts to add new parts to their creature from the bodies of further recently-deceased inmates – and their deaths seem to be occurring with more and more alarming frequency…

In ‘Hell’, possibly the most sensationalist of the Franken-films from Hammer, we get the full schlock treatment – we are after all in the pitiful and highly unsavoury surroundings of an eighteenth century insane asylum (a hell in itself of sorts, and an undesirable home for a character whom by now has become utterly undesirable in Hammer’s imagining, although Shelley herself probably would not have intended that). Fisher and Hinds came up with gore aplenty in this one, including a particularly vicious (though not entirely brutish) Creature, rather squirm-inducing torture and implied deaths, fiendish asylum staff and a rather brutal finale (even after re-writes and cuts were enforced).

franken6In terms of the Baron, we are led to believe at first that perhaps his self-imposed incarceration has softened him a little in his later years as he seems genuinely, if curtly, concerned for the inmates’ health, not to mention the protection of the female ones from the lechery of the asylum director – however we soon discover his predilection for putting his work waaaay before ethics of any kind is still completely present and correct. Cushing delivers a witty, brilliant as ever performance in his last outing as the Baron and Hammer delivers a late-to-the-table treat for horror fans, more garish than most of the other incarnations of the tale but certainly just as satisfying.

So there you are – three of Hammer’s takes on the Frankenstein legend in a nutshell, all differing in theme, in style, in doctors, but all undoubtedly taking the legend in new directions for better or worse. The legend will, as they all do, live on and keep re-animating itself, but as far as I can see in comparison to recent films based on the legend – ‘Victor Frankenstein’, ‘I, Frankenstein’ etc. – Hammer has done the best job so far in fleshing out the story in a variety of gripping if not always audience-jolting ways (okay, I’m a little biased). Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Frankenstein’ aside, it may be that the story should be left well alone for a good few years and allowed to rest, safe in the knowledge that these tales were spun from it and should still be enjoyed nostalgically and joyously from time to time. To end with Terence Fisher’s own words, speaking about ‘Hell’, “You’ve had so many monsters that by (this point) at last you say where this monster has come from. He comes from Hell, from Evil, from Frankenstein’s mistaken belief that he is the creator of man, which of course he isn’t, and will never succeed in being.”

‘And Now The Screaming Starts’ #2 Hands of The Ripper

hotr1“And Now The Screaming Starts!” – UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature

by Rosie Gibbs

‘Bloody Love It: ‘Hands of the Ripper”

Warning this article contains MAJOR SPOILERS – if you have not seen Hands of The Ripper then please do not read!!! You have been warned !!

In October 1971, Hammer Film Productions released a film which presented a new slant on the legendary and infamous ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1880’s London – a ‘true’ myth which the company had previously explored in the film ‘Room to Let’ in 1949. Some two decades later, Hammer chose the unsolved mysteries of the brutal Whitechapel killings as a theme once more, only this time with an altogether different perpetrator – who was however by no means all that far removed from the dreaded and still today elusive ‘Jack’. Released on a double-bill with the rather more saucy vampire romp ‘Twins of Evil’, ‘Hands of the Ripper’ was received with a respectable level of praise from audiences, though perhaps over the years has not gained a reputation as one of Hammer’s stand-out finest. For me personally, however, it’s a favourite, and what follows is something of an ode to the whole package…

‘Hands of the Ripper’ operates on what was a fresh angle on the Ripper legend – in the tale, we follow the journey of Anna, the daughter of the man who had become ‘Jack’, who as an infant tragically witnesses what we presume is her murderous father’s final killing and his subsequent capture by mob and law. In his final moments of freedom, he brutally stabs Anna’s mother to death in front of Anna’s crib, before giving the traumatised child a final embrace and kiss on the cheek. Some years later, we see that Anna (Angharad Rees) has been taken in by the unscrupulous phoney medium, Mrs Golding (a welcome cameo by the late, great Dora Bryan). Mrs Golding embroils innocent Anna in her fake seances, having her act as a hidden spirit guide, and also proposes to make a live-in prostitute of her. Her first client, Mr Dysart (Derek Godfrey), presents her with a sparkling brooch, and its glint in the light triggers an unusual reaction in Anna which results in her murdering Mrs Golding in a cold rage with a poker. Local physician Dr John Pritchard (Eric Porter), taking pity on the young woman and convinced he can help her with the assistance of psychoanalysis, has her stay with him, and as the story unfolds he pieces together who Anna really is and why she is cursed with the impulse to kill.

hotr2The film was directed by Peter Sasdy, who would later go on to direct many episodes of Hammer’s television series ‘House of Horror’ and ‘House of Mystery and Suspense’, and the Hungarian filmaker presented in ‘Ripper’ a delightfully subdued work which still hits the spot on the shocks and scares. The film’s opening sequencing involves a low-key yet still cleverly menacing circular view of all those gathered at the séance, staring down at the viewer passively yet with scrutiny. Subtle lighting and a soft focus in the camera work make for an attractive piece overall, replete with glitzy chandeliers and shimmering costume pieces – not least those which send Anna into her psychotic trances – and this is a welcome break from the dank dungeons and moody backstreet settings of many of its counterparts. The gore, when it occurs, is then all the more shocking in contrast – the hatpin-related fate of the unfortunate street walker ‘Long’ Liz, based on one of the real-life Ripper victims and here played by the excellent actress Lynda Baron, is particularly memorable and possibly one of Hammer’s greatest dispatchings.

The concept and narrative itself, scripted by Lew Davidson and based on an original story by Edward Spencer Shew, is I believe another aspect of what elevates ‘Ripper’ above the average Hammer. The piece shows at its start a horrific trauma suffered by a small child and the haunting fluted soundtrack which becomes something of a theme for Anna, played out over the opening credits and shots of her infant tear-stained face, is rather moving and shies away advisably from sensationalising a small child’s suffering. Shew’s story competently marries both the emerging (at the time the film is set) theories of psychoanalysis and the concept of mediumship and the ability to ‘hear’ those who are deceased, and questions whether the two can co-exist and even become manifest together in someone who has experienced traumas such as Anna’s. The presence of both a phoney medium (Bryan), out to exploit those who wish to talk with their dear departed, and a true medium (Madame Bullard, played by Margaret Rawlings) with an actual gift, admirably upholds both sides of the argument regarding how ‘real’ clairvoyance may or may not be.

Another of the film’s main strengths is its strong cast, in particular Angharad Rees, who portrays the china doll-faced Anna with grace and depth, convincing as the meek, genteel young ward of Dr Pritchard and suitably cold-blooded and snarling during her moments of murder. This film was Rees’ only Hammer part and one can’t help wishing she had taken others as she was such an engaging screen presence – standing ball-gowned with bloodied hands in a post-homicidal daze or cowering in dirt in a crowded jail cell, she is very believable as a sweet-hearted yet understandably mentally troubled protagonist. Jane Merrow is also completely charming as Laura, the fiancée of Dr Pritchard’s son Michael (Keith Bell) – in fact this spirited, energetic young woman is I think one of Hammer’s most positive representations of a young female, and credit is due to the writers for introducing a character with a disability (in this case loss of sight) who radiates positivity and capability, and whose absence of sight is rightly presented as merely one of the many facets of their overall being. The rest of the cast, including stalwart Eric Porter, are all capable in their roles, resulting in another of many boxes ticked for this outing.

hotr3My absolute favourite part of ‘Ripper’ however is the final sequence, which sees Michael and Laura escort Anna on a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral. The unique and inspired setting of the cathedral’s Whispering Gallery sees Anna, already in one of her trances and by now hearing actual instructions – imagined or extra-sensory – from her father, attempt to strangle the terrified Laura (the only point at which the bare titular Hands are used to kill). The wounded Dr Pritchard, from the ground far below the Gallery, calls to her and pleads with her to ‘come back’ to them, ending in tragedy played out in a beautifully bittersweet, poetic and satisfyingly redemptive final shot. This last sequence and ending frame round off this absolute gem of a horror film brilliantly and I say, long may it be appreciated and cherished as an excellent addition to the Hammer canon.

‘And Now The Screaming Starts!’ #1 Twice The Terror: Hammer Face-Off!

“And Now The Screaming Starts!” – Regular Hammer/Amicus Feature

by Rosie Gibbs

rasputin1‘Twice the Terror: Hammer Face-Off!’

Throughout the decades of its film-making, and of course as was common practice for movie distributors in general in the early to mid-twentieth century, Hammer productions regularly released films on a ‘double-bill’ showing in theatres, providing audiences with twice the movie-going thrills. Regularly in this feature I’ll be selecting two Hammer films of days gone by which were released together on one of these such bills and pitting them against each other on the basis of production, scares, acting, storyline and so on, and giving my verdict on which of the two was the better film overall. So, on with the first of these – Russian history takes on Malaysian hysteria… in Rasputin The Mad Monk Vs The Reptile!

(Both films released together 6th March 1966)

First up, let’s take a look at Rasputin. In this Hammer production, directed by Don Sharp, we see Christopher Lee take on the role of Grigori Rasputin, the self-styled holy man of Tzar Nicholas II’s Russia, and portray both his rise to fame and fortune and ultimate demise by assassination in 1916. Of course, this is a Hammer horror film, and the producers were it seems quick to agree that the film was only very loosely based on the general widely-known ‘story’ of Rasputin, aiming only to entertain, as with any of their pictures – after all, at initial screenings the camp factor was still well and truly present, evidenced by the novelty tie-on Rasputin ‘beards’ which were given out to picture attendees!

Still, it was a change of direction of sorts, in that Hammer rarely strayed into ‘true story’ or factual outings, and therefore Rasputin does have the ‘break from the norm’ vote going for it. In terms of acting, Christopher Lee was an obvious choice for the title role as their main leading man in general and being a physically imposing figure, and his glowering and gung-ho maniacal laughter fit the part to the expected ‘t’. Much of the ‘horror’ of the film is based around the myth of Rasputin having actually possessed hypnotic powers of some sort, and Lee delivers for the audience on this with his booming monotone and unwavering stare into the camera at regular intervals.

rasputin2Another Hammer legend, Barbara Shelley, elegantly plays the Tzarina’s tragic lady-in-waiting Sonia, and Richard Pasco makes an understated, at times sympathetic performance as Rasputin’s fictional henchman-of-sorts, Boris Zargo. The pacing of the piece is well-judged with a good amount of action set pieces, particularly the bar scene in which Rasputin meets Sonia and her brother Peter (who can be against the vision of Sir Christopher engaging in both a drinking contest and improvised whirly-gig Russian dancing in one scene?), and also during the climactic assassination sequence.

While the film is diverting to an extent though, the actual chills and terror Hammer films had by now become so famous for are lacking here. The main scares derive from the aforementioned hypnotism sequences which even for the arguably more sensitive theatre-goers of the 1960’s must have appeared tame next to the various mythical monsters and other more supernatural concepts the company created and brought to life in its other films. The film apparently received moderately complimentary reviews at the time and is generally not regarded as one of the strongest Hammer offerings – despite the capable acting, commendable set design and an original antagonist angle, ‘Rasputin’ does fall short of possessing the classic ‘winner’ formula for Hammer.

Worth Seeing For: Sir Christopher’s apparent resistance to any of the known effects of drinking several bottles of vodka.

thereptile1On to ‘The Reptile’ – ‘Rasputin”s bill twin, which saw Hammer bringing to the table a new creature concept – inventing a new human-animal hybrid monster intended to bring about fresh terror amongst faithful horror fans. Brought to life by director John Gilling and writer Anthony Hinds, ‘The Reptile’ is set in the quaint village of Clagmoor Heath in Cornwall. Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) inherits a cottage here from his suspiciously newly-dead brother, and plans to live in it with resourceful wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel).

However, unfriendly locals and rumours of an isolated lethal illness known locally as the ‘black death’ soon make them wonder if starting a new life in Clagmoor Heath is such a good idea. The Spaldings soon encounter the rather brusque theologian, Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman) and his soft-voiced, polite daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce). In the course of his investigations, Spalding is assisted by friendly tavern-keeper Tom Bailey (played by Michael Ripper, the actor believed to have made appearances in more Hammer productions than any other) in his investigations into the ‘black death’, and they soon discover by makeshift post-mortem that Spalding’s brother succumbed to the mysterious affliction. But what of the cause..?

‘The Reptile’, while it may not necessarily have awakened in audiences a thirst for more monster features of the fork-tongued persuasion (at least not human ones), is nonetheless in my opinion one of the stronger Hammer pieces – the muted lighting and colours chosen, set against the quiet Cornish country scenery, provide an attractive contrast to the Malaysian cultural undertones of the musical score and the décor of the Franklyns’ home. The acting overall is strong and features a little light relief from ‘Dad’s Army’s’ John Laurie as the doomed ‘Mad Peter’, and Marne Maitland takes a sinister turn as the Franklyns’ Malaysian manservant-cum-tormentor. In terms of shock value the reptilian make-up worn by Pearce in her monster form (created by regular Hammer make-up artist Roy Ashton) I imagine would have jolted audiences at the time, particularly during the nicely-timed scares in which we see it.

thereptile2Pearce herself is just excellent, both whilst rocking sitar and sari as the lovely Anna and in her tongue-waggling, blood-thirsty alter-ego (she also sheds her skin as a normal reptile would – extra credit thrown in there for the body horror!). I also personally find interesting any feature past or present involving a female monster, and here particularly the Jekyll-and-Hyde form in which the creature manifests, switching between a sweet young woman and murderous she-snake and back again. The lure of this unusual, stand-alone monster and the sad plight of innocent, animal-loving Anna has had me return to this one for a re-watch more than once and I believe it deserves a firm place in the hearts of all Hammer hounds.

Worth Seeing For: Jacqueline Pearce is in it – ’nuff said!

WINNER: ‘The Reptile’!

Not much contest really – the original storyline from Hammer productions, the creepiness of the writhing title creature (see the skin-shedding scene) and the overall understated sixties schlock of John Gilling’s scaly spill-ride make this one victorious in my mind over the more action-based ‘Rasputin’, which while not devoid of charm is just overall the less remarkable of the two. If you’re only going to ever watch one of these, make it ‘The Reptile’ and prepare to enjoy some satisfying, tick-all-the-boxes vintage scares!