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 #4 The Witches (1966)

Witches_poster“And Now the Screaming Starts!” UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature

‘Bloody Love It: ‘The Witches’

Give me a gown of golden down,

Cut me a robe from toe to lobe,

Give me a skin for dancing in…”

The school holidays are drawing to a close, and as one of those summer skivers who is now preparing to get back in the saddle to embark upon another academic year, I thought it fitting to look back at a classic 1960’s Hammer, set partly in a school, for which I have a great affection – Cyril Frankel’s ‘The Witches’, released in 1966 and starring the well-known Oscar-winning actress, Joan Fontaine.

Feeling a tad uninspired by the comparative lack of suitable parts on offer since her winning role in Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’, she brought the screen rights to a novel by Peter Curtis (the pen-name of writer Nora Lofts) – ‘The Devil’s Own’. Nigel Kneale adapted the novel into the screenplay for Hammer Productions and filming then took place at Bray Studios, very much the home of Hammer between the early 50’s and mid-60’s.

‘The Witches’ centres around Fontaine’s good-natured yet troubled head mistress, Gwen Mayfield – who, we discover in the dramatic opening scene, worked for a time in a village school in Africa which sadly fell victim to a rebellion seemingly influenced by witchcraft. The trauma of this event led to Gwen suffering a psychological breakdown, which thankfully she recovers from to the extent that she is able to accept a new position back home in rural England, at Heddaby School. Furnished with a comfortable new home and welcomed by the apparently friendly villagers, Gwen feels optimistic about her future, and is delighted to be introduced by local ‘vicar’ Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) to his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh), a renowned journalist and writer.

witches2However, Gwen very quickly begins to notice certain habitual curiousities within the day-to-day goings-on of the village and its inhabitants, and mutterings of hocus-pocus and occult dabbling reach her ears, particularly concerning her pupil Linda (Ingrid Brett), and Linda’s rather sinister grandmother Mrs Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies). Linda and her grandmother are believed by some villagers to practise witchcraft, and when a young school friend of Linda falls seriously ill, many believe the cause to be malicious and occult in nature. After some investigation, Gwen becomes worried that young Linda herself may well be being prepared for some form of human sacrifice – sadly, before Gwen can uncover the truth she suffers a second breakdown and finds herself in a rest home, nearly a year later, with a severe case of amnesia. As she slowly regains her memories of the events in Heddaby, she becomes concerned for the welfare of Linda Rigg and bravely manages to escape back to the village, determined to rescue her pupil from harm – if she is alive yet…

‘The Witches’, for me, is a favourite Hammer on the one hand because of its setting, storyline and the themes it explores – it is essentially the first and only film from the company to explore the notion and continued existence of British witchcraft ‘writ large’ – as in, the rural traditional witchcraft practised and passed down through the ages and generations rather than straight-up Satanism as such (although I concede that many of the traditions, tools, magical words etc. shown and referenced are absolutely not found in either modern or historical Wicca or paganism!), pre-dating the more successful similarly-themed ‘The Wicker Man’ by a few years. The film delves into the notion and indeed fear that witchcraft – the bad type – still exists beneath the surface, hiding in plain sight within our most pleasant-seeming hamlets, which one can’t deny for the time was a juicy premise for a horror title. The title poster simply included the question “Does Witchcraft Exist Today?” to catch the attention of audiences who may have by this point been craving a different type of tale to the usual Gothic monster novel re-workings, ‘swashbucklers’ and invasions from other-worldy beings. ‘The Witches’ offers a more human, close-to-home story of a kind-hearted middle-aged teacher battling mental illness and trying with the odds stacked against her to protect her new pupils and community, which arguably had every reason ‘on paper’ to be well-received by Hammer fans and 1960’s movie-goers in general.

witches1A second reason I love the film is the casting – particularly of the two leads. Fontaine delivers a wonderfully fragile, vulnerable performance as the nevertheless determined and calculating Gwen, who exudes gentle charm towards her new village co-habitants and displays a genuine concern for and warmth-filled rapport with all the pupils on screen. Opposite her is the fantastic Kay Walsh as the witty, domineering Stephanie. Talk about two strong female characters – and this is a 1960’s film that would pass the modern ‘Bechdel Test’ with absolute flying colours! The various villagers and the younger cast members are all high quality too, with Michelle ‘Ooh, Betty’ Dotrice, the superbly unsettling Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies and Alec McCowen all providing a strong support in their roles.

Also, without wanting to give too much away, this particular Hammer production includes one of my favourite ever set-pieces in any film from the company’s ample back catalogue. At the film’s climax, Gwen, now close to the truth of Heddaby’s secret, finds herself witness to a bizarre and unsettling group ritual involving many of the village’s usually wholesome-seeming residents, and what unfolds is a fantastically choreographed, semi-orgiastic act of trance-like power-raising featuring no-holds barred acting from all involved which I just find a treat to watch every time (and the sequence features the best and creepiest use of a feline actor in any horror EVS!). Interestingly, director Frankel and screen writer Kneale were apparently not all that enthused with the film’s climax, feeling it was rather over-the-top and indeed bordering on comical, but this viewer looking at it fifty years later cannot help but find it fascinatingly enjoyable, if not especially frightening, and I can only presume and hope I am not alone in that.

Sadly, ‘The Witches’ was met with lukewarm and rather disappointing critical and financial reception on its release, and turned out to not be the hit that both Fontaine and Hammer had envisaged (it poignantly was to be Fontaine’s last ever film role, with the actress retiring to television for the succeeding thirty years of her career). Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes sum up the film’s tone and possibly the reasons for its uninspiring reception, in their excellent work on Hammer’s history ‘The Hammer Story’; “When ‘The Witches’ strikes the right balance, it succeeds as an engrossing thriller, even if it ultimately disappoints as a Hammer.”

witches3True enough, the film is not a classic Bray Studios schlocker in that it presents the viewer with no real jarring scares or the visual hook of an actual ‘creature’ to fixate our fears on – and one could suppose that at the time that that was what the public needed and expected from the home of British horror. But I believe it’s an understated, well-characterised piece whose only really noticeable fault is a slightly too neat and easily-accepted ending. ‘The Witches’ is a gentle, character-driven horror which was undoubtedly overshadowed by succeeding horror films of the same type of theme, but of the many Hammers out there for me its beguiling acting and well-paced sense of mystery make it one of the strongest.

And Now The Screaming Starts #3 – Christopher Lee: Six of The Best

And Now The Screaming Starts! #3  – UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature

cleeoldSix of the Best: Christopher Lee

There are a great many actors who graced the silver and small screen over the latter half of the twentieth century who cut their teeth on, and often made their name known thanks to, fleeting or regular roles in the films of Hammer Productions – the unforgettable Ingrid Pitt, the irreplaceable Peter Cushing and the legendary Oliver Reed to name a few – but there is one actor whose name was and still is utterly synonymous with ‘Hammer’, despite him having starred a massive number of films over his career produced by countless other studios and companies. That actor is, of course, Sir Christopher Lee. A year on from his death last June at the grand old age of 93, I felt it fitting this time around to cast an eye over a selection of his Hammer roles and explore how some of the varied films his work for Hammer propelled him to fame and went on to mould him as an actor – not to mention his contribution to the development of the company itself as his talent thrived over the decades.

I’m not necessarily suggesting in my selection of the six films that follow that they are his six best ever roles, for Hammer or otherwise, or indeed the six best Hammers he starred in, but I pick them more as a showcase of the range of parts he developed over time and variety of horror sub-genres he was able to explore through the company. I believe he starred in a total of 19 Hammer films (could be wrong!) spanning four separate decades so it’s hard at any rate to whittle down which part he played best or which film was the most enjoyable! Personal preferences aside, I invite both the discerning Hammer nut and novice to simply kick back and chew over these six outings, each made by one great British institution and starring another…

CLEE-The-Curse-Of-Frankenstein-christopher-lee-2511526-376-304The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘The Creature’

Though best known for playing the first fanged fiend of literature, Lee’s first ever film under the Hammer banner (and one of the company’s first releases) saw him play a different yet no-less well-known ‘monster’ – Frankenstein’s, no less. The Hammer interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror tale also featured Peter Cushing as the titular Baron, pairing the two actors in a picture together for the very first time and heralding the beginning of probably the most well-known and enduring lifelong friendships in cinema. Christopher Lee was cast because of his towering height (which ironically had seen him strike out with many acting roles before this in favour of shorter actors), and also because he had some experience in the field of mime.

He certainly brings this skill to the fore in his first Hammer flick, all at once convincing the viewer of the Creature’s melancholy, confusion and silent rage, even under the thick layers of make-up artist Phil Leakey’s corpse-like mask. Six further films starring the Baron were to follow from Hammer, yet this would be the only one to star Christopher Lee. What makes ‘Curse’ so special is, aside from simply being Lee’s first Hammer role, it can be argued that it ‘kicked off’ proper the company’s brand success as it was both commercially and critically successful, proving Hammer to be a film production force to be reckoned with and firmly kick-starting the long and highly prestigious career of one of Britain’s best-loved actors.

CLEE-drac58The Horror of Dracula (1958, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘Count Dracula’

Of course, this one has to be included in this particular line-up – Sir Christopher’s first time playing the Count for Hammer! Appearing the year after ‘Curse of Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’ (or ‘Horror of Dracula’) introduced us to Lee’s definitive Lord of the Undead amidst huge box office takings for the time and some derision on grounds of good taste from the then critics. Lee is simply perfect for the role and it is no wonder he was picked for it – the character of Dracula calls for charm, reticence, anguish and pure aggression in equal measure and he displays all these qualities in spades. The film itself, loosely re-telling the Stoker narrative, is still an essential horror watch today – an enjoyable thrill-fest and visually sumptuous, and it features a fabulous ending with decent special effects (fantastic for the 50’s!), understated acting from Lee even during a sequence that could easily be heavy on the ham, and of course the first of many quality Lee/Cushing death grapples!

cleebaskThe Hound of the Baskervilles (1959, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘Sir Henry Baskerville’

Another Hammer spin on a classic novel (and like so many early Hammer classics, directed by Terence Fisher), this interpretation of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous case of all brought us Christopher Lee as the distinguished heir to the Baskerville fortune. ‘Baskervilles’ is not only one of the stronger early Hammer films, establishing Peter Cushing as one of the more memorable Sherlocks and with Andre Morell’s Watson providing stalwart support alongside one of literature’s best-loved mysteries – it also gave Lee the chance to spread his wings a little and show audiences that he could play the good guy just as well as the villain or monster, even almost your average Joe (landowning and Beagle fancying aside). Lee takes command of every frame he’s in as he did in any role, but as Sir Henry he was able to try his hand at a somewhat more vulnerable character, falling in ill-advised love with a Spanish servant’s daughter and although no wimp, still under threat of murder from an unknown and possibly supernatural force.

cleedracDracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968, Dir. Freddie Francis) – ‘Count Dracula’

Leaping ahead to the late sixties, Sir Christopher reprised his role as the vampire (and went on to do so another six times, five of which were for Hammer), now thawed out from his frozen demise a year previous and bent on a rampage of mayhem and revenge. With Ewan Hooper’s tormented priest under his hypnotised thrall, the Count plans to take revenge on the Monseigneur who exorcised his castle whilst he lay frozen by preying on his sweet daughter Marie (Veronica Carlson). Lee’s vampire has more interaction here with the living and seems more willing to get his hands dirty with a spot of coffin-robbing and public house basement squatting (even the undead have to move with the times). While the film did not impress on the same scale as its predecessor, ‘Grave’ is still a strong Dracula film, featuring a fantastically ghoulish opening, and Sir Christopher is once more effortlessly imposing, continuing to terrify and enthral audiences with his chilling performance as the Count.

cleedevilTo the Devil a Daughter (1976, Dir. Peter Sykes) – ‘Father Michael Rayner’

“Excommunicate – it is not heresy, and I will not recant!”

The vitriolic opening words, spoken by Lee as disgraced priest Father Michael Rayner, of what was to be Hammer’s final horror film before the company ceased producing films in 1979. The innocent young nun Catherine Beddows (Natasha Kinski) has been raised within Fr Rayner’s religious order in Bavaria, all seemingly above board, but the unsuspecting girl does not realise that Rayner is in fact leader of a highly dangerous religious sect which worships the ancient God Astaroth, and they plan to use her as the Devil’s representative on Earth once she turns eighteen. I choose this one plain and simple for Lee’s performance – the film itself was not a particular commercial or critical success, and thoroughly displeased Dennis Wheatley, the author of the book the film was (ultimately loosely) based on 1968’s ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (Hammer’s previous film based on a novel by Wheatley) was much more successful, and Christopher Lee turns in an equally respectable performance as the Duc de Richleau in it, however the sheer unsettling, total creepiness Lee brings forth as Fr Rayner still makes this Satanic horror film worth a look.

Lee is simply fantastic, oozing malice as he performs Satanic magic on his lackeys and doing a fine job of making the evil priest seem just pleasant enough on the surface – proving that even after working with Hammer by this point for nearly twenty years, he could still bring a character to life with utter conviction and curdle the blood of a whole new generation of filmgoers.

cleeThe Resident (2011, Dir. Antti Jokinen) – ‘August’

“I will always be grateful to Hammer for launching my international career as an actor. Like millions of others, I would welcome the day when the company resumes production.” *

And resume it fittingly did, in what would be the last few years of the actor’s long life, and what a pleasure it was for fans of this movie legend to see him collaborate with the resurrected company once more. In this first film from its new incarnation, we see Hammer take on a form of ‘stalker/home invasion’ horror, with Hilary Swank’s Juliet Devereaux falling foul of the affections of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s obsessed landlord Max. In what would be his final Hammer performance, Sir Christopher plays a small part (he was 89 by this point to be fair, and only a few years prior was heavy involved with various factions of both the Orc and Sith type!) as Max’s frail yet clearly emotionally abusive grandfather, August. Despite the short screen time, Lee keeps us guessing about August’s character, turning up in jump scares to unsettle, unintentionally or not, both Juliet and the audience, and leads us to suspect he may pose more of a threat to her safety than his grandson ever could…

So there you have it – a look back at a few of Lee’s Hammer roles and a reminder of one of the great cinematic partnerships of blossoming film production company and favoured ‘go-to’ actor, symbiotically launching and at times upholding each other’s success. And what an unbelievable talent the man was, both as a Hammer actor and in his near uncountable other acting credits – he is quoted as once saying “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Mr Lee, I’ve seen all your films!’ and I think, ‘No you haven’t.’”

He kicked ass for real in his 20’s in the RAF and Special Forces and kicked cinematic butt of various kinds as an nonogenarian. I’ve often thought that if (when?) a film-maker ever wanted to film a biography of his life, who would play the man himself – not to deride today’s current actors, but which actor today has the equal stature, presence and level of film and life experience?

There’ll never be another quite like him.

* = from the Foreword to ‘The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer’ by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes

‘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!