Sunday, July 23, 2017

Vampire Circus

(1971) Directed by Robert Young; Written by Judson Kinberg; Starring: Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, Robert Tayman, Laurence Payne and David Prowse; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“None of you will live. The town of Schtettel will die. Your children will die, to give me back my life.” – Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman)

Starting with Horror of Dracula in 1957, Hammer produced many notable examples of the vampire film, but by the end of the ‘60s, the ability to thrill or shock had diminished. Enter 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, which upped the ante for depictions of sex and nudity into the staid Hammer formula. The cash-strapped production company became more adventurous in the new decade, turning out some of their most distinctive horror titles (with the occasional clunker here and there). Their stand-alone vampire films adhered to many of the conventions of vampire lore, but were not necessarily confined to the constraints of Bram Stoker’s novel. Vampire Circus* is one such example, which simultaneously embraces and eschews the Hammer vampire flicks that preceded it.  

* Fun Fact: George Baxt, who wrote the scripts for such genre classics as The City of the Dead and Circus of Horrors, was responsible for the film’s title.

If a town could wear a “kick me” sign, the Bavarian village of Schtettel would be a prime candidate. Throughout Vampire Circus, the little burg attracts one form of calamity after another. In the lengthy prologue, the dreaded vampire Count Mitterhaus (played by Robert Tayman, who must have single-handedly exceeded the budget for ruffles and sideburns) holds the town in a stranglehold. The schoolmaster’s (Laurence Payne) wife Anna (Domini Blythe) is seduced by Mitterhaus, and falls under his spell. She abducts a child as sacrificial offering to the count, which ends up as a sort of twisted foreplay. None of this unsavory activity goes over well with the village leaders, and Mitterhaus ends up staked, and his castle is set aflame. In some movies that would be the end of the story, but it’s only the beginning of the Schtettel residents’ misery, as the dying Mitterhaus vows revenge against the leaders and their heirs. The story jumps forward several years, but poor Schtettel isn’t any better off now, suffering from a scourge of a different kind – an unnamed plague that’s killing off the residents one by one. At this moment, a gypsy circus rolls into town to distract the villagers from their poor fortune, luring them into another trap.

The circus itself is a unique blend of darkly fanciful and perverse elements – think Something Wicked This Way Comes, by way of Carmilla. We witness a procession of bizarre acts to tempt the unsuspecting villagers, including acrobats who transform into bats,* a black panther that turns into a human, and one of the film’s highlights, a seductive tiger woman (don’t pay too much attention to her ill-fitting bald cap) performs a wriggling dance that wouldn’t have made it into a mainstream film a few years before. One of the side attractions, a hall of mirrors, leads circus patrons to their doom.

* Instead of opting for the usual fake bats on strings, the filmmakers used real bats throughout the film. Aside from a few dodgy optical shots, their inclusion adds a level of veracity to an otherwise surreal film.

If Vampire Circus seems a trifle rough around the edges, it’s largely due to the strict shooting schedule, which left some key scenes and shots unfinished. Director Robert Young’s appeal for time was rejected by Hammer head Michael Carreras, and as a result, the filmmakers were forced to work with what they had. Another quibble is that none of the leads possess the gravitas of a Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing or Ingrid Pitt, but atmosphere’s the thing in Vampire Circus. It’s not about the individual performances, as much as the ensemble work, particularly by Adrienne Corri as the ringmaster, Anthony Higgins* as the enigmatic panther man Emil, Hammer regular Thorley Walters as the absent-minded Burgermeister, Skip Martin as a diabolical clown, and hulking David Prowse as a strongman. And while we’re on the subject of minor beefs, one unresolved plot thread concerns the revival of Mitterhaus. Despite the infusion of blood from several victims, the circus folk hesitate to remove the stake from his chest. Perhaps it’s there like an oil dipstick, waiting until he’s been topped off with an optimal level of blood?

* Look for Higgins in a memorable performance as Professor Moriarty in Young Sherlock Holmes.

Film historians and their ilk are often fond of pointing out that vampire films reflect the times in which they’re made, and I can’t argue with this observation. Vampire Circus reflected a shifting social paradigm in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, depicting vampirism as an invitation to explore hedonistic pleasures. It also mirrored society’s increasing disenchantment with authority figures and government leaders. The town leaders in the film engage in endless squabbles about how best to deal with the vampires, the disease spreading through Schtettel, and the circus, but no one seems to reach a consensus. Of course, a more cynical interpretation is that Hammer saw an opportunity to ride the coattails of the Euro horror movement, aping its more lurid aspects and stylistic flourishes, yet retaining the Hammer feel. Thematically, Vampire Circus appeared to be a good fit for the era, but it wasn’t marketed well in the States, dying a quick death at the box office. Additionally, the American distributors made cuts to gain a PG rating, which diluted the impact of the film. Thankfully, the restored version is available for your enjoyment. Hurry, hurry, step right up. Come one, come all, for a vampire flick that’s not the same old thing.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Captain Clegg

(1962) Directed by Peter Graham Scott; Written by John Elder (aka: Anthony Hinds); Additional dialogue by: Barbara S. Carpenter; Based on the novel Doctor Syn – A Tale of Romney Marsh by Arthur Russell Thorndike; Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Romain, Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“I was amazed by what Peter Cushing brought to his character. He enjoyed working with me and I enjoyed working with him. He would come along with an idea in the morning, but wouldn’t tell me until we were about to shoot the scene. We always used to try his ideas, because usually they were very good…” – Peter Graham Scott (from Hammer Films – The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)

Thanks to Fritzi Kramer from Movies Silently for hosting and organizing the Swashathon, featuring more posts about swashbuckling than you can wag a sword at. It’s an honor to be included among such an esteemed bunch of bloggers.

Hammer Films are forever associated with horror, but this perception overlooks the company’s many contributions in numerous genres (Comedy, drama, suspense, you name it). It’s this skewed mindset that likely prompted the folks at Universal International to release Captain Clegg under the American title, Night Creatures, but whoa there! Hold your ghostly horses, because this isn’t that type of movie. While the titular “night creatures” make a brief appearance, the film displays its true colors, or should I say, “colours” (This is a Hammer movie, after all.) as a rollicking good adventure. I suspect American audiences expecting a tale of the supernatural felt Hammer and Universal did a bait and switch, but once you realize what the movie isn’t, it’s easier to accept what it is. Let’s move on, shall we?

Captain Clegg was based on Arthur Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel Doctor Syn – A Tale of Romney Marsh, and was filmed once before, in 1937, as Doctor Syn, with George Arliss in the title role. Due to a legal tug-o-war with Disney over the source material, it was decided that Hammer could produce their version, but couldn’t use the name Dr. Syn (Disney’s version would eventually be filmed in 1963 as Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, starring Patrick McGoohan). Thus, Dr. Syn became Dr. Blyss for the Hammer’s movie.  

Set in the remote British island community of Dymchurch (actually shot in Denham, England), circa 1792, the peaceful burg weathers the invasion of the King’s revenue men, led by Captain Collier (Patrick Allen). As a means of subsisting amidst the high taxation, the villagers have devised a liquor smuggling ring, which has managed to slip, to date, under the noses of the Royal Navy. Collier arrives on Dymchurch’s shores, to investigate the suspected illegal activity, as well as rumors about phantoms lurking around nearby Romney Marsh. Collier meets his match in Dr. Blyss (played with gusto by Peter Cushing), the town’s affable leader and spokesperson, who may be more than he seems. Blyss, in fact, is inextricably linked to the dreaded pirate Captain Clegg, whom Captain Collier pursued (albeit unsuccessfully) for years, and is dead and buried in the village square – or is he?

If a role could have been custom-made for Peter Cushing, this would have been it. Mr. Cushing reportedly relished the part of Dr. Blyss, and it shows. In every scene he commands our attention, not by chewing the scenery, but through his charismatic performance. We’re introduced to Blyss as he conducts a sermon in the village chapel, providing due reverence to the ceremony, but with gentle barbs at the congregation. In another scene, we see his sly sense of humor as he sends Captain Collier off on a wild goose chase, using the fabled marsh phantoms as a ruse. Cushing imbues his nuanced performance with equal measures of seriousness and playfulness. Blyss is a man who’s reformed from his checkered past, and lives in the selfless service of his community, which also happens to include a booze smuggling operation.

Although Cushing practically steals the show from everyone else, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar supporting cast. Michael Ripper, who’s normally relegated to smaller parts, gets a beefier role this time around as Blyss’ right hand man, coffin maker and co-conspirator Jeremiah Mipps. Even when his character is short on dialogue, his eyes and expressions speak volumes. Martin Benson is also good as the capricious innkeeper Mr. Rash, instrumental in Blyss’ smuggling operation, but not above selling out to Collier in order to save his own skin. Oliver Reed* does a nice job as Harry Cobtree, another Blyss co-conspirator. Yvonne Romain (who co-starred with Reed in 1961’s Curse of the Werewolf) proves she’s more than just Hammer glamour as the plucky barmaid Imogene, holding her own against Mr. Rash’s lecherous advances.

* Fun fact: According to director Peter Graham Scott, Reed injured his arm in a car crash during production, which necessitated him to wear a cast, and shoot a fight scene with his bad arm hidden. Surprisingly, he insisted on shooting another scene, in which his character was required to fall off a horse, sans stunt double (ibid).

Captain Clegg was thrust upon an unsuspecting American public as another horror movie (it’s even included in the 4-DVD set, The Hammer Horror Series), with a misleading alternate title that promised, but only partially delivered on showing us “night creatures.” But even if the marsh phantoms are a cheat, they’re pretty cool to look at. The main attraction, however, is Cushing, in top form, playing one of his finest roles. It was so hard for Cushing to let go of Blyss (or Syn, if you prefer), that he wrote two screenplays, chronicling the further adventures of Captain Clegg, but the scripts remained unproduced (source: The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes). Alas, Cushing never reprised the role, but at least we can enjoy one of Hammer’s finest swashbucklers. Who knew a movie about tax evasion could be so much fun?

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Classics Revisited: Quatermass and the Pit

(1967) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by Nigel Kneale; Original story by Nigel Kneale; Starring: Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, James Donald and Julian Glover; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Region 2).

Rating: *****

“I wanted a scientist who was on the edge of terrible investigations, and having to face the mindset of the military, yet again, who would use space exploration for their own purposes.” – Nigel Kneale (on his character Bernard Quatermass, from DVD commentary)

Quatermass: “Roney, if we found that our earth was doomed, say by climactic changes, what would we do about it?”

Dr. Roney: “Nothing. Just go on squabbling as usual.”

For many folks on both sides of the pond, the Hammer Films brand is synonymous with horror, having created some of the most distinctive films in the genre. Hammer was no slouch in other genres, however, particularly in the science fiction department. Long before Hammer entered my conscious memory, the film company had already left an indelible impression in my developing mind with one of their best examples of speculative fiction.

Hammer produced two very good films, chronicling the adventures of Professor Bernard Quatermass, in the 1950s: The Quatermass Xperiment (aka: The Creeping Unknown) (1955) and Quatermass 2 (aka: Enemy from Space) (1957). A third installment was planned, but didn’t make it into theaters (all three stories were produced as BBC television dramas in the ‘50s) until a decade later. Writer Nigel Kneale was never satisfied with the casting of American actor Brian Donlevy in the first two films as the title character, due to his brash temperament, but was much more enthused about Scottish actor Andrew Keir as Quatermass.* Due to the lack of available space at Elstree Studios, shooting took place at nearby MGM studios instead. This proved to be fortuitous for all concerned, on account of MGM’s much larger backlot and superior resources. The change in location improved on Hammer’s already solid reputation for excellent production values. As the American film distributors had done with its two cinematic predecessors, Quatermass and the Pit was changed to Five Million Years to Earth.

* Fun fact: Many actors were considered for the third movie, including Peter Finch, Van Heflin, Trevor Howard and Andre Morell (Source: The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes).

In the opening scene, workers discover proto-human skeletons during their excavation of an abandoned London Underground station* at Hobbs End. Just as Dr. Roney (James Donald) is coming to terms with the significance of this archaeological find, something cold and metallic is uncovered. Fearing that it’s an unexploded German bomb from World War II, the British Military takes over the dig site. Enter Professor Bernard Quatermass, who suspects the metallic object is much more than it seems. Quatermass probes the object’s secrets, discovering its true, extraterrestrial origins, and awakening long dormant mechanisms.   

* Fun Fact: According to Kneale, the original setting was a building site, but producer Anthony Hinds suggested London’s tube station.

As Professor Quatermass,* Keir displays much greater range and depth than his predecessor. In his unending quest to discover the truth, and his thinly veiled contempt for authority figures, he’s the spiritual predecessor for such characters as Carl Kolchak and Fox Mulder. Quatermass butts heads with Colonel Breen (Julian Glover), who oversees the excavation site. Breen is officious to a fault. He has no sense of imagination or time for idle speculation, refusing to entertain Quatermass’ theories about the unidentified object in the tube station. The always reliable Barbara Shelley is also good as Quatermass’ assistant Barbara Judd, who possesses an uncanny sensitivity for the psychic emanations from the spacecraft. Roney (James Donald) is the unsung hero of the film, as the one human who seems unaffected, as everyone takes leave of their senses.

* Another Fun Fact: The title character’s first name “Bernard” was derived from Bernard Lovell director of a British space telescope program, while “Quatermass” came out of a telephone book.

 One quibble that’s often lobbed at the film is that the effects are uneven. Considering the meager budgets that Hammer had to work with, many of the effects shots are more than adequate, including a shattering wall inside the spacecraft, as well as the alien apparition that appears at the film’s climax. One sequence that’s not so effective is a mass Martian exodus, channeled through Barbara’s brain, depicting a bunch of stick puppets hopping about. Given the proper time and money, perhaps with stop motion animation, the scene would have provided a sense of perspective and scope. But in the grander sense, the scene’s failings don’t amount to much, given the concepts behind it. Ultimately, it’s the performances and story that sell the film.

(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD) Kneale wove mythology and superstition into his tale, to give Quatermass and the Pit a link to humanity’s troubled history. It’s heady stuff, suggesting the origin of the human species and a source for our demons. Five million years ago, the dying race of Martians implanted their impulses, prejudices and memories in an early form of human, influencing our development. In effect, we are the new Martians. In his 1996 DVD commentary, Kneale opined there were three kinds of people: the Martian intellect (Col. Breen), a more evolved human, who’s outgrown its Martian origins (Dr. Roney), and something in-between (Quatermass). Most of humanity seems to fall into the first and third categories, judging by the mob scene during the climax.

 Director Roy Ward Baker’s first and best film with Hammer is serious science fiction, with story taking precedence over spectacle. The enduring themes and concepts have influenced many films and filmmakers over the years, especially John Carpenter, who included references in such films as Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness (with Carpenter adopting the screenwriting credit Martin Quatermass). Hammer’s small budget film with big ideas is a cerebral treat that’s stuck with me for decades. From a production company distinguished by many fine genre films, it’s among their very best.

Note: Try to get your hands on the Region B Blu-ray. As someone used to seeing the film on broadcast TV for ages, the remastered image was nothing short of a revelation.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Neglected Sci-Fi Month Quick Picks and Pans

A Boy and His Dog (1974) For those who like their post apocalypse science fiction with a sardonic edge, this movie hits the spot. It’s easy to see how the film influenced Mad Max, and many other post-apocalyptic flicks that followed in its wake. Apparently, Harlan Ellison didn’t like this adaptation of his story (big surprise), adapted and directed by L.Q. Jones, but that shouldn’t stop you from checking it out. Don Johnson plays the “boy,” Vic, who roams the wasteland with his telepathic dog Blood (played by Tiger).  It doesn’t take very long to realize which one from the duo possesses the most brains, as they scavenge for food and the occasional woman. Vic’s life takes an interesting twist when he’s lured to an underground community by Quilla (Susanne Benton). Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) presides over the subterranean enclave, which appears stuck in a Norman Rockwell-esque past. A Boy and His Dog paints a bleak portrait of humanity, reduced to our baser instincts, where the pendulum swings between anarchy and totalitarianism. It’s a film that’s horrifying and funny in equal measures, with an ending that somehow manages to be a punch to the gut with a wink.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Encounter at Raven’s Gate (aka: Incident at Raven’s Gate) (1988) If David Lynch directed an ozploitation movie, it might look something like this. This curiosity, directed by Rolf de Heer and filmed in South Australia, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s ideal for those who enjoy more questions than answers. Eddie (Steven Vidler), a recent parolee, lives with his brother and his wife on a farm in a dusty town tucked away in the outback. Strange things are afoot when the town’s residents succumb to a host of erratic behavior and unexplained occurrences, which could be the product of (unseen) alien intervention. A shady government researcher (Terry Camilleri), seems to be part of a conspiracy (perhaps in cahoots with the aliens) to incite fear and paranoia. Incident at Raven’s Gate belies its small budget with an assortment of inventive camera tricks, editing and lighting, creating an experience unlike anything else.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Out of print) and Amazon Prime Video

Ikarie IX-B (aka: Voyage to the End of the Universe) (1963) This Czech science fiction film, based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, is better known in these parts by its English language title, Voyage to the End of the Universe. The spaceship Icarus and its crew travel on a voyage to Alpha Centauri, on a quest for intelligent life. Along the way, they encounter a derelict spacecraft, and contract a strange form of illness. Director Jindrich Polák and the cast do a fine job depicting the day to day monotony of a long space voyage, as well as the psychological consequences of time dilation (dealing with the prospect of returning to find everyone significantly older). Unlike many American films from the era, it’s far from a cautionary tale, but a hopeful film about space travel.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (region 2)

The Blood of Heroes (aka: Salute of the Jugger) (1989) Writer/director David Webb Peoples (the screenwriter for Blade Runner) takes a unique spin on the post-apocalypse sub-genre. The film doesn’t propose some hopeful future, but accepts the dismal reality of the world Peoples created. The film focuses on a brutal sport, which uses a dog skull as a ball. Rutger Hauer stars as Sallow, an aging team captain seeking one last bit of glory, and Joan Chen is his eager apprentice Kidda. The team ventures to an underground city, where players compete and die for the amusement of a decadent ruling class. It’s an uncompromising, albeit dark change of pace from the usual “change the system” sort of movie.

Note: The transfer quality of the Region 1 Anchor Bay DVD was abysmal. I’m not sure if the Region 2 DVD looks or sounds any better, but it’s the longer cut of the film.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Brainstorm (1983) It’s unfortunate that Brainstorm is best remembered for the wrong reason - as Natalie Wood’s final film, released after her untimely death. Even if director Douglas Trumbull’s (working from a Bruce Joel Rubin script) reach exceeds his grasp, it’s an ambitious attempt at doing something more than a standard escapist popcorn flick. Michael Brace and Lillian Reynolds (Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher) develop a device which enables users to re-experience someone else’s experience. Wood plays Karen Brace, Michael’s estranged wife. Trumbull tries to push the cinematic envelope to make the experiences come to life, including dual aspect ratios (expanding to a Super Panavision widescreen format).

The story turns into intrigue when some government baddies, enabled by unscrupulous CEO Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson) try to usurp the invention for dubious purposes. What starts out as an intriguing premise becomes muddled by the movie’s end, no thanks to some misguided and incongruous slapstick thrown in (an automated factory goes haywire), and a few half-baked scenes (due to efforts to edit around existing footage of Wood). As a result, the final product seems less than it could have been. I don’t usually advocate remakes, but given the material’s potential, some enterprising filmmaker might be able to improve the original.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Land Unknown (1957) Navy researchers and a plucky reporter (Shirley Patterson) embark on a dangerous Antarctic expedition. After an unfortunate run-in with a mysterious flying creature, their helicopter, damaged and low on fuel lands in a jungle oasis, tucked away inside a crater. They discover a harsh landscape, unchanged for millions of years. Their challenge is to stay alive, long enough to repair their craft, and before their potential rescuers retreat for the frigid winter months. The Land Unknown won’t win many points for originality or a balanced portrayal of the sexes. The heroine is almost raped by a survivor from a previous expedition twice, but proceeds to defend him. Faults aside, it’s decent mindless entertainment, with some fun creature effects.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Another Earth (2011) On the eve of a mirror Earth appearing in the sky, Rhoda (Brit Marling) collides with a car carrying a family, killing a mother and son and injuring John Burroughs (William Mapother) the father. Director Mike Cahill’s (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Marling) film works better as a drama than science fiction, with its emphasis on the characters and their damaged lives, while the second Earth serves as an extended metaphor for, loss, regret and redemption. Rhoda tries to make amends, striking up an unlikely relationship with John. Meanwhile, she enters a contest to travel to the doppelganger Earth, hoping to have a second chance at life. It’s a noble attempt at trying something different, but I wish it had as much courage to play with the ramifications of a mirror earth as it did with the dramatic elements.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD