Sunday, July 19, 2015

July Quick Picks and Pans – Hammer Edition

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (aka: Never Take Candy from a Stranger) (1960) It’s unlikely that a film such as this would ever receive a green light today, due to its frank, uncompromising treatment of a subject that many filmmakers would consider taboo. The film reveals one town’s conspiracy of silence, motivated by fear of retaliation, as its favorite son, Clarence Olderberry (Felix Aylmer), is accused of pedophilia. Director Cyril Frankel (working from a screenplay by John Hunter, based on Roger Garis’ play) chronicles one father’s (Patrick Allen) quest for justice as he’s hampered by the town’s cycle of rationalization and denial. Never Take Sweets from a Stranger takes a sobering view of abusers and the culture that protects them. It’s an emotionally draining viewing experience you won’t likely forget. A far cry from the escapist fare normally associated with Hammer productions, this film remains as topical now as it was 55 years ago.

Rating: ****½. Available on DVD

The Devil Rides Out (aka: The Devil’s Bride) (1968) Directed by Terence Fisher, and based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley (with a screenplay by Richard Matheson), The Devil Rides Out is among Hammer’s best from the late ‘60s. Christopher Lee plays a rare protagonist role as the virtuous Duc de Richleau. Along with his rather dim friend Rex (Leon Greene), he endeavors to protect his young charge Simon (Patrick Mower) from the forces of evil. Charles Gray is excellent as the charismatic satanic cult leader Mocata, and proves to be a worthy adversary. Lee, who reportedly contributed his knowledge of occult practices to the production, also provides a terrific performance. Sadly, this film is currently unavailable on Region 1 DVD. It’s currently available on YouTube, but for how long is anyone’s guess.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD (Region 1 is out of print)

Scream of Fear (aka: Taste of Fear) (1961) This Hitchcock-styled suspense film included a Castle-esque gimmick in American theaters, with a “Patron’s Pledge” (cards were handed out, imploring movie patrons not to reveal the ending). Susan Strasberg plays neurotic, wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby, who returns to her father’s French estate after a 10-year absence. No one, including her stepmother Jane (Ann Todd), seems to believe that she’s seen her father’s corpse on the grounds. She finds an ally in her father’s chauffeur Robert (Ronald Lewis), who conspires with her to find out the truth. Director Seth Holt and writer Jimmy Sangster ramp up the tension, as we feel Penny’s increasing isolation. As she jumps at shadows we’re left to speculate about her sanity. Christopher Lee plays the enigmatic Dr. Gerrard, who may or may not be in cahoots with Jane. This taut thriller, packed with well-timed thrills and red herrings, reminds us things are not always as they appear, and will keep you guessing until the end.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

X The Unknown (1956) Following the success of the first Quatermass film, Hammer attempted to make lightning strike twice, and succeeded with this nifty little sci-fi thriller, set in Scotland. Jimmy Sangster’s first screenplay, about unstoppable primordial ooze that emerges from the depths of the earth, is a winner. The indestructible organism devours radioactive material and kills anything in its path. X-The Unknown features some great performances, including Dean Jagger as an American nuclear scientist. This atomic age tale is refreshing for its attitude toward science and the role of researchers. Science doesn’t create the monster, but provides a means of understanding what’s happening, as well as a possible solution to the rampaging force. Suspenseful and thought-provoking, X The Unknown helped raise the bar for Hammer films, where good storytelling and solid acting trumped any budgetary deficiencies.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

The Kiss of the Vampire (1964) This standalone vampire film veers from the story line established by the previous Dracula films, to tell a different tale of people becoming entwined in dark forces beyond their comprehension. Newlyweds Gerald and Marianne Harcourt (Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel) run out of gas in a remote German village, where the residents live in perpetual fear of a wealthy aristocrat, Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman). After spending the night in a deserted inn, they become the guests of the mysterious Ravna, who eyes Marianne for some malevolent hidden purpose. One of the standout scenes is a colorful, disturbing masquerade party that could have easily inspired Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut. Clifford Evans is excellent as the mercurial Dr. Zimmer, who vows to destroy Dr. Ravna. It’s too bad this otherwise solid film is marred by a silly conclusion involving a swarm of dime-store bats and an obtuse protagonist (Gerald manages to imbibe drugged beverages on two separate occasions), but it’s well worth seeking out.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

The Reptile (1966) The leads of this horror flick, which originally played on a double bill with Rasputin the Mad Monk, are fairly dull. The best work from the supporting players, including Hammer regular Michael Ripper in a larger than usual role as a local barkeep and John Laurie as town eccentric Mad Peter. Jacqueline Pearce is captivating, but under-utilized as the reclusive, exotic Anna. She’s kept under the watchful eye of her father Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman), who harbors a terrible secret. The makeup is laughable by today’s standards, but the filmmakers wisely choose to keep the title creature in the shadows for the most part, relying on atmosphere and a sense of mystery concerning a series of strange deaths.  

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Spaceways (1953) Released under the pre-Hammer banner Exclusive, this science fiction tale, with cold war intrigue and melodrama thrown in for good measure, strives for believability with its depiction of scientists working for long hours and low pay. Unfortunately, any efforts to maintain credulity are thrown out the window with the story’s “flying by the seat of our pants” philosophy with regard to science; at the last minute, a rocket is modified to carry human travelers. The cavernous interior looks less convincing than the spaceship cockpit in Fireball XL5. Also, the cost-cutting filmmakers count on the audience’s suspension of disbelief (or ignorance), by attempting to fool us into thinking V-2 rocket footage, a model and a matte painting are the same craft.  Eva Bartok is good, though, as a mathematician in love with married scientist Dr. Mitchell (Howard Duff).  I couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a cold war spy movie, love triangle melodrama, or a space adventure, but it’s an otherwise serviceable effort that paved the way for bigger and better Hammer science fiction movies.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (aka: Jekyll’s Inferno) (1960) Director Terence Fisher and writer Wolf Mankowitz make a decent, but unspectacular attempt to re-tell Robert Louis Stevenson’s enduring tale. Paul Massie, sporting a fake beard and eyebrows, stars as Dr. Henry Jekyll, searching for the key to unlock the buried duality in the human psyche. His transformation from the bland Jekyll to the roguish Edward Hyde is more comical than disturbing. Christopher Lee, unsurprisingly, is the best part of this film, as Jekyll’s duplicitous friend Paul Allen. The film delves into psychosexual territory with some fairly risqué material for the time, including a snake dance that would make Freud blush. The stronger elements in the story didn’t go unnoticed by censors at the time; by the time The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll arrived in the U.S., it was heavily edited. Hammer’s usual high production values and surface gloss allow us to overlook many of the movie’s ample deficits.  

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

No comments:

Post a Comment