Monday, 30 December 2013

Festive Frights On BBC2 - Part One

BBC2 have rather treated us this Christmas by broadcasting plenty of seasonal chills, both new and old. Here are some reviews for the older offerings, a season of Hammer horror movies which commenced in the wee small hours of Boxing Day/27th Dec with...

Between the lurid gore and the bare bosoms indicative of their last decade as a film studio, it's sometimes easy to forget just how revolutionary Hammer were in approaching traditional and familiar stories when they commenced their horrors in the 1950s. This adaptation of Bram Stoker's Gothic classic made in 1958 and issued simply as Dracula (ignore the American heathens alternative and pointless title 'Horror Of Dracula' which some rigidly stick too) was, like the previous year's Curse of Frankenstein - which we'll come back too - a bold mission statement for a new era in horror film making. 

Abridged, expedient but nevertheless still faithful to previously unexplored themes in the source material and deeply atmospheric, Dracula benefits not only from the great production team behind the camera (Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster etc) but in having as its leads two men who approached their roles with extreme reverent dedication and utter gusto; Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Both legends are at the very top of their game here, giving us pitch perfect performances of a tense and swashbuckling action hero and villain velocity.  Lee's Dracula is a sexual predator; urbane, charming and utterly ruthless yet on the turn of a sixpence he becomes a wild animal, truly undead and alien. Meanwhile Cushing's performance as the determined Van Helsing is both gentlemanly, heroic and yet fallible enough to immediately gain audience support. When he flinches with disgust at the monsters he is compelled to hunt, we feel it equally so. 

Beautiful to look at and barely dated, Hammer's first foray into the world of vampire was also one of their very best adult fairytales. Utterly recommended.

This offering from BBC2 was a rare treat, a Hammer movie I don't think I've ever actually seen before. It's a good film in the traditional early Hammer mould, following Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein in bringing horror into the cinematic mainstream once more after the 1930s/40s Universal era. Indeed, this one is derived from two previous Universal film plots; The Mummy's Hand  and The Mummy's Tomb as opposed to the 1932 Boris Karloff film of the same name. However unlike the previous classic gothic horror adaptations, The Mummy perhaps owes more to the Saturday matinee adventure genre and there's  an air of melancholia and doomed romance in the production too. 

Shot with the trademark bold colour palate of early Hammer; the vivid reds, greens, blues and yellows, The Mummy's cinematography of the exotic settings of days gone by put me in mind of the illustrations in the Ladybird books on historical figures I devoured as a child. It has a somewhat languid pace even for an 85 minute feature but that's not to say the film is missing spirit or the necessary thrills which largely stem from the classy, reliably keen, totally committed and often physical performances of the leads Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee; with Lee drawing on his past experience with mime to convey great presence to a role which all to often requires him to simply loom menacingly and unrelentingly towards his victims or attackers. In other hands it would be little more than a blank, but Lee manages to deliver not only threat but a tragedy to his impassive brutish figure, helped of course by some terrific set pieces from Terence Fisher - chief amongst them is perhaps the first vengeance killing of former 'tomb raider' Felix Aylmer whose cries for help and struggles go on unheard in the padded cell of the local asylum he has been confined too. It's a chilling fate palpably felt I find.

Look out for Hammer's comic relief being provided by Harold Goodwin and Dennis Shaw (admirers of Keith Waterhouse's Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell will know him as 'Den-Den' a figure whose drunken exploits are relayed by Bernard in the play's monologue) as two iffily accented Irish tinkers conveying the Mummy once in England.

The Curse of Frankenstein, Britain's first colour horror film, is one that ranks as one of Hammer's finest. However The Observer, at the time of release, had this to say "(it is) among the half dozen most repulsive films I have encountered in 10,000 miles of film reviewing", whilst The Daily Telegraph advised it "For sadists only"

Oh dear. I wonder what those reviewers would think of horror films now?

Naturally, the gore is now tame by comparison - though that said, there's still something utterly shocking about the crack of the shotgun and Lee's Creature's hand going up to his head, deep red blood gushing through the fingers - but where the real horror lies in The Curse of Frankenstein is in the characterisation and performance of Baron Victor Frankenstein played by Peter Cushing, a role with which alongside the more angelic Van Helsing he would forever be associated with Hammer thanks to several sequels. His Baron is a cold calculating and determined bastard. A homicidal sociopath devoid of moral scruples so blinkered is he by scientific, medical progress. Cushing embodies the role perfectly with enough arrogance and swagger to convince whilst never ever going over the top. A master at underplaying, his conviction to the role amd complete understanding of what is required of him ensures he walks the delicate line between the ruthless cad the audience can be shocked by and one which they can smirk at too whenever the script explores a certain style of dark drawing room comedy. Indeed the 'pass the marmalade' line between he and Hazel Court that immediately follows the scene in which he has unforgiveably sacrificed his strumpet servant girl Valerie Gaunt to the Creature is a prime example of a film that is totally aware of the fact the audience need to breathe and have some playful light relief. It's a rare thing that, despite the character's inherent evil (he is after all the true monster here) one cannot help but feel sorry for Victor as he is locked in his cell frantically relating a story no one believes, the guillotine being primed in readiness for him.

Praise too to Christoper Lee as the Creature. Like The Mummy two years later (and broadcast the night before this) Lee is required to do little more than be a silent unrelenting menace but, thanks to Jimmy Sangster's script, Terence Fisher's assured direction and Lee's own skills, innate physicality and background in mime, he delivers a performance that has many layers and depth and above all is utterly tragic. Little wonder then that one year later he would be afforded a much juicer and bigger role alongside Cushing, that of the titular Dracula in Hammer's next step at becoming the home of horror.

Minor irritations aside - Robert Urquhart, saddled with the do goody mentor role is at times irritatingly theatrical and mannered which is totally at odds with Cushing's playing and, likewise, the otherwise reliable Valerie Gaunt seems to be sporting a 'Vot iz dis?' Germanic accent that no other player is doing - The Curse of Frankenstein is close to perfection.

The Abominable Snowman, the 1957 feature based on Nigel Kneale's BBC play The Creature from two years previously, remains one of my favourite Hammer films. 

The story focuses on Kneale's usual obsessions; the intriguing mix of science and folklore, the noble scientist at odds with the narrow minded capitalist hunter, and an ancient intelligence waiting in the wings for a self centred mankind to destroy itself. Like the BBC's 1984 before it, The Creature reunited Kneale with Rudolph Cartier as producer and Peter Cushing in the lead role as the morally right, sensitive and gently inquiring hero, John Rollason. The subsequent success of Cartier and Kneale's Quatermass serials would gain Hammer's interest in producing a big screen versions, before the company would adapt The Creature into The Abominable Snowman, a thoughtful, beautiful and unjustly neglected film.

Cushing returned to the role of Rollason, accompanied by Forrest Tucker (replacing Stanley Baker from the TV production) and Robert Brown as two loud mouthed uncouth American trappers seeking the Yeti for commercial gain. The film, directed well by Val Guest, revels in stunningly crisp black and white photography from Arthur Grant, lending a real majesty to the Pinewood studio built snowy peaks (with scenes on the French Pyrenees used as establishing shots) The set design deserves special praise; Bernard Robinson creating a convincing Himalayas as well as a lavish Tibetan monastery which would later be resurrected for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films the following decade. There's also something wonderfully British and Boy's Own about the production, as witnessed in the costume design; explorers in duffle coats, cricket jumpers and fingerless mittens, and the inclusion of some light comic relief in Richard Wattis' character Foxy, waiting patiently at the monastery base with Rollason's wife, Helen (also created for the film, and with Cushing's real life wife's christian name) played by the beautiful Maureen Connell alongside the Arnold Marle's quirky Lama, who can be both amusing, reassuring and unsettling in equal measure.

Kneale has always had a direct line to my spine and what makes it tingle and he does so again here, despite several rewatches. It's primarily because he delivers in intelligent scares and this was superbly displayed by the central plot here and Cushing's famous line, "Suppose they're not some pitiable remnant, suppose we're the savages. Homo Vastens. Man the destroyer!" Kneale also knew that less was always more when it came to frights and the encounter with the Yeti was no exception; in a dark, dank cave Cushing becomes aware of large, distinctly humanoid shapes. With little more than an almost imperceptible turn of the head and widening eyes Cushing expresses total awe at what he has seen, and that's enough for the audience too.

The legacy of Kneale's work continues to be felt even today in a revived Hammer studios. The head of production has expressed interest in remaking this film in November this year, if it does go into production, it has some big Yeti sized footprints to fill.

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