Friday, July 31, 2015

Classics Revisited: The Curse of the Werewolf

(1961) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by John Elder (aka: Anthony Hinds); Based on the novel The Werewolf of Paris, by Guy Endore; Starring: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller and Anthony Dawson; Available on DVD

Rating ****½

“A werewolf is a body with a soul and a spirit that are constantly at war.”
– The Priest (John Gabriel)

Of all the classic movie monsters, the werewolf is perhaps the most tragic because of its inherent fatalistic nature. The best films in this subgenre have typically emphasized the destructive path someone stricken with this curse is destined to follow. The werewolf is doomed to repeat a cycle of transformation and an unquenchable compulsion to kill. The change from human to lycanthrope strips away the veneer of civilization, revealing the savage beast underneath. Hammer films’ inimitable take infused life into the venerable werewolf myth. The Curse of the Werewolf was directed by the versatile Terence Fisher, while screenplay chores (working from Guy Endore’s novel) were handled by producer Anthony Hinds, working under the pseudonym John Elder. As with many previous Hammer efforts, the film endured a push-pull battle between various censorship boards, and the finished product suffered numerous cuts.

Set in 18th-century Spain,* The Curse of the Werewolf begins with a rather lengthy prologue, providing a sketchy explanation of how the title creature came into being. In an early scene, the cruel Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson) humiliates a beggar (Richard Wordsworth), and imprisons him for life. For reasons never explained, the beggar gradually takes on wolf-like properties. He rapes a mute servant girl (Yvonne Romain), but she manages to escape. The pregnant young woman eventually finds refuge with a kindly couple, Alfredo and Teresa (Clifford Evans and Hira Talfrey), but dies after childbirth.

* The story’s location was changed from France to Spain in order to re-purpose a Spanish village set, originally intended for the un-filmed Hammer production The Inquisitor (The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn & Alan Barnes).

Unlike many werewolf films where the main character’s origins can be traced to some sort of attack, Hammer’s version features a child cursed at birth. His only sin is to be born on December 25th, which Teresa observes as “an insult to heaven.” As Leon (Justin Walters, who resembles a younger version of the lead actor) matures, he begins to have recurring dreams about transforming into a werewolf and killing animals, but can’t seem to remember his restless nocturnal activity, prompted by the full moon. Alfredo and Teresa try to shelter him from the ensuing commotion about a rogue wolf roaming the village, and consult a priest for help. Only the love of a woman, they learn, can quell Leon’s impulses. Years pass, seemingly without incident, until Leon is a young man (Oliver Reed), and leaves home to find his way in the world.

Reed demonstrates tremendous range as the adult Leon, grappling with his inner torment. His dilemma serves as a metaphor for the post-adolescent struggle to control one’s baser impulses and integrate into society. At every turn the odds of having a normal life seem stacked against him. He falls in love with Cristina (Catherine Feller), who in turn loves him back. Their love is doomed from the start, however, because she’s his employer’s daughter, and engaged to marry a snooty aristocrat. To make matters worse, his old behavior resurfaces after a night on the town with his friend, resulting in an unbridled killing spree. As Leon, Reed compares favorably to Lon Chaney Jr.’s tortured Lawrence Talbot in The Wolf Man and David Naughton’s melancholy, tragicomic performance as David Kessler in An American Werewolf in London. We feel for his terrible predicament, which can only end in pain and sorrow. He’s powerless to fend off his urges, and avoid the inevitable consequences that await him. He rejects the priest’s admonition to be locked away in a monastery, where he can no longer harm anyone. While we can hardly blame Leon for refusing to avoid the rest of society or abstain from worldly pleasures, we know his fate is sealed. The fact that his fate has been preordained does little to stop our wishing that it wasn’t so. Roy Ashton’s excellent werewolf makeup enhances Reed’s performance as a creature caught in limbo, achieving an ideal balance between understated and overdone.

The Curse of the Werewolf’s title creature gets comparatively little screen time, but his appearance is no less memorable. Although we don’t get a good look at the creature until the climax, his influence is felt throughout. The entire film is dominated by an all-encompassing atmosphere of sadness, and a pervasive fatalistic streak that establishes Leon’s destiny. Due to its downbeat tone, and possibly because it didn’t spawn a host of sequels, The Curse of the Werewolf often gets overlooked in comparison to other Hammer monster movies, but it boasts one of  the best cinematic depictions of a werewolf, and deserves to be held in similar regard.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Sword of Sherwood Forest

(1960) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Alan Hackney; Starring: Richard Greene, Peter Cushing, Niall MacGinnis, Richard Pasco, Sarah Branch and Oliver Reed; Available on DVD.

Rating: ***½

“I know the sheriff. A free pardon from him is not worth the breath he uses to make his promises.” – Robin Hood (Richard Greene)

“Who is the authority in this country? I am. It is my duty to deal with lawbreakers, and I shall do that duty.” – Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing)

The present incarnation of Hammer seems to rely solely on the company’s reputation as a producer of horror movies, ignoring its rich history with films from multiple genres. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, a number of Hammer films, falling under the rather nebulous category of “swashbuckler,” were released. While they may not have provided the sort of revenue of titles from the Dracula or Frankenstein series, the Hammer swashbucklers were an important staple of matinees around the world. One such movie, Sword of Sherwood Forest, is one the most notable, albeit forgotten examples. It was the second of three Hammer Robin Hood films (the first, being The Men of Sherwood Forest in 1954, and A Challenge for Robin Hood in 1967), and was the only one to star Richard Greene, who also appeared as the title character in the long-running British television series, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Although I’m not familiar with his work in the TV series, Greene appears confident reprising his role, and deserves kudos for his affable portrayal of the famous populist hero. He takes an almost casual approach, belying the desperate stakes he faces, openly defying the leadership placed in the King’s stead. As far as big-screen Robin Hoods go, Greene falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, not as charismatic as Errol Flynn, but he’s no Kevin Costner, either (thankfully). As Maid Marian Fitzwalter, Sarah Branch provides a plucky counterpoint to Greene’s laid-back performance. While she doesn’t quite steal the thunder from Robin and his men’s heroics, she scores a few points in one scene, where she briefly wields a sword against a band of assassins. Her petulance soon gives way to affection as she witnesses his better traits. Marian professes she wants him to be an honest man, not an outlaw, but her standards fly out the window, as the script demands. Their romantic scenes seem more perfunctory than natural, since the characters are never allowed suitable screen time to develop a believable relationship.

Proving he was equally adept at playing protagonists and villains, Peter Cushing rises above the rest of the cast as the icy, scheming Sheriff of Nottingham. His only allegiance is to his version of the law of the land, much to the detriment of anyone who would question his authority. He’s the portrait of treachery, untrustworthy, unless you’re allied with the right side. In one scene, he promises one of Robin’s captured men a pardon if he reveals the whereabouts of his compatriots, only to promptly dispatch with the outlaw when he’s completed his inquiry. Later, when the Archbishop of Canterbury (Jack Gwillim) intervenes on behalf of villagers who are about to lose their land, the Sheriff hatches a plot to assassinate him. One of the biggest disappointments is that we get a taste, but never experience the payoff of a final showdown between Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, which was promised in an earlier scene.

Sword of Sherwood Forest features some other fine supporting performances, including Richard Pasco as Edward, Earl of Newark. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he and Robin engage in a challenge of marksmanship, which includes shooting an arrow through a spinning wheel, or hitting a moving bell. Oliver Reed is also notable, in an early uncredited role, as Edward’s brutal, loose-cannon associate, Lord Melton. Nigel Greene is engaging as the ironically named Little John, as well as Niall MacGinnis as the perpetually hungry Friar Tuck (although he isn’t given much to do, other than eat large quantities of food and argue with an obstinate donkey). On the other end of the spectrum, the most annoying character award would go to Alan A’Dale (Dennis Lotis), who introduces and concludes the film in song. After he brought the first third of the movie to a screeching halt with another unwelcome ballad, I half expected someone to do the audience a favor, and smash his lute against a tree.

As with many Hammer films, Sword of Sherwood Forest looks like a more expensive production with its high-caliber performances, colorful costumes, detailed sets and gorgeous scenery (filmed on location in the Irish countryside). It’s a thoroughly competent, if not overly surprising, interpretation of the Robin Hood legend, but maybe a bit too familiar. That shouldn’t deter anyone from checking it out, however. Sword of Sherwood Forest is a well-oiled entertainment machine that does everything it should. I could easily picture myself with an early ‘60s matinee audience, enjoying my popcorn and Milk Duds, and buying every scene without reservation.

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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Mummy

(1959) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Jimmy Sangster; Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, Felix Aylmer, Eddie Byrne and George Pastell; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“Film acting is basically done with your mind and with your eyes. If it doesn’t show in your eyes, it doesn’t convince anybody. But it did enable me, with movement and with eyes, to create a character once the priest had become the Mummy.” – Christopher Lee (from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema, by Mark A. Miller)

After the success of TheCurse of Frankenstein and Horror ofDracula, the writing-directing team of Jimmy Sangster and Terence Fisher, along with stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, returned for Hammer’s third re-interpretation of Universal’s monster movies. In this case, Fisher and company proved the third time remained a charm. The Mummy is a classic revenge tale with a refreshingly sympathetic take on one of horror’s most enduring monsters.

The story opens in Egypt in 1895, where our protagonist, John Banning (Cushing) is on an archaeological dig with his father Stephen (Felix Aylmer) and Uncle Joe (Raymond Huntley). Unfortunately for John, he’s incapacitated by a broken leg, leaving the elder Banning family members to uncover the tomb of the princess Ananka. Stephen ignores the dire warnings from Karnak worshipper, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), and suffers the consequences. Fortunately for John, he wasn’t present to witness the incident that drives his father mad, although he’s not off the hook. The story jumps to 1898 England, where Mehemet has traveled to enact revenge against those who have disturbed the tomb of Ananka. After his uncle and father (now living in a sanitarium for the mentally ill) are murdered, it dawns on John that he’ll likely be the next victim.

Cushing provides his character the suitable flourishes of sophistication and dry wit we’ve come to expect from his prior performances.* He walks with a permanent limp, a byproduct of the leg injury that never properly healed. But his malady hasn’t slowed down his fascination with ancient mythology or a desire to determine the intentions of the mysterious Egyptian who has taken up residence in his town. Cushing took an active interest in the filmmaking process, and The Mummy was no exception. Seeing a golden opportunity to exploit the potential of pre-production artwork for his film, he shrewdly suggested to Fisher that a spear should pierce the rampaging monster.

* The younger Banning sure knows how to turn on the charm. Noting his wife Isobel’s (Yvonne Furneaux) uncanny resemblance to Ananka he states, “She was considered the most beautiful person in the world,” then proceeds to kill the moment by following up with, “Mind you, the world wasn’t so big then.”

Lee arguably has the more difficult role as the 4,000-year-old title creature, due to his necessarily mute performance. In a flashback sequence, we witness the High Priest Kharis (Lee) violate the tomb of his beloved princess, resulting in the ultimate penalty. Kharis is subjected to a ritualized punishment, whereby his tongue is cut out,* and he’s buried alive with Ananka’s remains, condemned for all eternity to guard the princess from harm. Swathed in cloth strips from head to toe (or “another bandaged juggernaut,” as Lee described his character – from his autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome), he conveyed more through his eyes than most actors could with their entire bodies and voices. This mummy is far from a mindless killing machine, thanks to Lee, who endows him with a soul. When Kharis looks upon Isobel, he evokes our sympathies, recalling an unfulfilled, forbidden love. Lee manages to pull at our heart strings, despite enduring physical pain** for the role.

* As was customary during this transitional era, Hammer catered to International markets with different versions of the same film, including more explicit scenes such as topless handmaidens and a bloodier depiction of Kharis’ punishment. Sadly, these cuts do not appear to exist on home video.

** Lee sustained back and shoulder injuries carrying Furneaux through a swamp in the movie’s climax.

Let’s face it, no one watches a Hammer film for a balanced treatise on cross-cultural injustice, but there was room in The Mummy for some post-modern social commentary. While it’s tough to excuse Mehemet Bey’s methodology as he exacts revenge against John and his kin, he has a valid point about the Englishmen’s insensitive treatment of his homeland’s culture. When John pays Mehemet an unexpected visit, it provides the Egyptian an opportunity to articulate the conflict between invasive outsiders versus preservation of culture: “It has often puzzled me about archeologists. Has it never occurred to them that by opening the tombs of beings who are sacred, they commit an act of desecration?” John sees no wrong in his profession, failing to see how his attempt to enrich his society’s understanding, comes only at the other culture’s expense. He adds fuel to the fire by calling the deity Karnak a “third-rate god.” From Mehemet’s perspective, it’s easy to see why he would consider John ignorant and intolerant, meddling in things he doesn’t understand for scholarly pursuit. The film’s relatively balanced approach is undermined, however, by some good old fashioned xenophobia, as when Mehemet states “In my country, violence is commonplace.” In an early scene, another character comments, “I don’t like the look of him. He’s a foreigner.”

If you’re digging too deep, you’re probably missing the point of The Mummy. Hammer’s spirited re-telling is intended to be nothing more or less than Saturday matinee material, featuring a re-animated revenge monster that kills people in gruesome ways. Fisher’s efficient direction, accompanied by a rousing, epic score by Franz Reizenstein, make sure that everything moves along at a good clip. Not everyone, including the writer of the 1932 Universal version, Nina Wilcox Putnam, was entertained,* but if it raised eyebrows in its day, it’s worth taking note. It’s another winner from Hammer that holds up admirably to its classic Universal counterparts, and really delivers the goods.

* Putnam referred to Hammer’s version as “this disgusting English remake.” (from The Hammer Vault, by Marcus Hearn)