Tag Archives: Barbara Shelley

1966 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, THE REPTILE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

The 1966 horror, science fiction, and exploitation slate may be most infamous for what many claim is the worst film of all time: Manos: The Hands of Fate. It’s also the year that made her last Italian Gothic, An Angel for Satan (which we’ll cover later in a Steele retrospective). William “One-Shot” Beaudine was responsible for back-to-back western horrors: Billy The Kid Meets Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Michael Hoey banked on Marilyn-imitator Mamie Van Doren to lift Navy vs. The Night Monsters (it didn’t work) while and made futile attempts to salvage films started by others: Queen of Blood and The She-Beast, respectively. Hy Averback tooted his horror horn to warn us of hooked killer Patrick O’Neil in Chamber of  Horrors and Freddie Francis had us screaming about Deadly Bees. Considerably better was ‘s Kill, Baby Kill. It was and Hammer-related films, however, that owned the year’s genre product.

officially resurrected the Count in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, with and Barbara Shelley trading saliva in Anthony Hinds’ screenplay (written under his usual pseudonym John Elder). Fisher jumped ship and headed to Universal (momentarily) for Island of Terror, starring Lee and , but directed with little enthusiasm.

Lee, Shelly, and Hinds teamed again that same year for Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk, which is effective trash as only Hammer could deliver. Hinds’ previous writing credits include Brides of Dracula (1960), Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963). 1966 was a busy year for him, having also scripted The Reptile (see below). Hinds continued writing for Hammer up until their cult TV series, “Hammer House Of Horrors” (1980).

Still from Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966)The leftover sets from Prince of Darkness must have affected Lee because he delivers one of his best performance as Rasputin. He is perfectly cast. The film  opens moodily in a pub with a local doctor departing after having dismissed any chances of survival for the innkeeper’s wife. Moments later, Rasputin enters, put his hands on the ill woman and, through the intensity of his look alone, immediately heals her. Now a hero of sorts, Rasputin engages in drunken song and dance with the locals and takes off to have his way with the innkeeper’s daughter in the barn. Interrupted by the girl’s fiancée, Rasputin cuts off the poor man’s hand. When the locals turn into an angry mob, Rasputin escapes via horseback and returns to his monastery. Shocked to discover that Rasputin is a monk, the locals take their grievances to the bishop. As defiant as ever, Continue reading 1966 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, THE REPTILE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

THE GORGON (1964)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

The Gorgon (1964) has a hopelessly silly synopsis: it’s basically a werewolf story transplanted onto a minor Greek myth with an even more ridiculously executed monster (complete with rubber snakes in her hair). Yet, with a stylish script from John Gilling, sublime characterization, and poetic beauty, Terence Fisher enthusiastically managed to transform this irredeemable trash into an artistically rewarding experience. Impossible, but true.

The Gorgon is an oddity in the Hammer cannon. Its pacing is deliberate and forlorn. The “monster” is the mythological Gorgon Megaera, inhabiting amnesiac victim Barbara Shelley, who again gives a performance well above that of the standard Hammer glamour girl. Unfortunately, Shelley does not play Megaera herself, a poor decision which blunts the tragic impact of the production.

For several years a number of unexplained deaths have occurred, during the full moon, in a small German village. The most recent victims are a model and her artist boyfriend. The father of the late artist, professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goddliffe) inquires into his son’s death but is met with resistance from the entire town, including old Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing). Namaroff has a motive for evading the truth, since he is not-so-secretly in love with Carla Hoffman (Shelley), whom he knows to be the Gorgon.

Although the human identity of the Gorgon is blatantly obvious from the start, it is the pathos projected by Cushing’s Phantom of the Opera-like hero (scarred by unrequited love) and Shelley’s genteel torment (inspired by the doctor’s jealousy and evasiveness) that creates the striking emotional milieu throughout the film.

Professor Heitz soon falls prey to the Gorgon. The scene plays out first in the beautifully atmospheric castles ruins, during the autumn moon, where Heitz spies the shadowy figure of the Gorgon.  Running from the horrible visage of Megara, Heitz makes it to his office and lives long enough to write his second son, Paul, a letter as he slowly and memorably turns to stone.

Barbara Shelley in The Gorgon (1954)Paul (Richard Prasco) is a student of Professor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee, in a rare, and quite good, turn as a sympathetic character). Paul is given leave from school upon the news of his father’s death. Like his father, Paul meets the same resistance from Namaroff and the townspeople. Carla is sympathetic to Paul’s frustrations and a love triangle develops, which enhances the inevitable tragedy of all three characters. One scene in particular conveys the expressionistic iciness of the film. Carla, in hopes of escaping the town and the shadowy spirit of Megaera, meets Paul in the same ruins in which his father met his fate. Carla sits regally in a throne-like chair and descends, fur coat draped around her shoulders, shuddering from the coldness of the season and the dread spirit lurking. The scattered, elegiac autumn leaves with their somber hues weave a spell akin to a doomed medieval fairy tale; Carla, inexplicably, cannot resist, much like the Gorgon’s victims cannot resist the act of looking at her deadly face.

Professor Meister, who has arrived to assist Paul, knows that it is Carla who is possessed by Megaera, but Paul passionately rejects his professor’s conclusion and is even more intensely driven to get Carla away from the town and Namaroff. Namaroff, channeling Lon Chaney tragic magic, sacrifices himself for his unrequited love, but he is not the only victim. Indeed, the film ends quite pessimistically.

Fortunately, the title character is, for the bulk of the film, only briefly seen, half emerging from the shadows of the columned ruins, or in one evocative scene, in the reflection of a dark pool. In the climax, when Megaera is finally seen full on, the letdown is severe enough to nearly wreck the film. Still, The Gorgon is a refreshingly unique oddity in the Hammer canon, thanks, in no small part, to a director who took the most unlikely material and crafted it into something poetic.

DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)

Terence Fisher is rarely counted among the great horror auteurs, yet he certainly defines our ideal of contemporary horror far more than the ethereal Tod Browning, the old world Brit James Whale or the sublime Val Lewton stalwart Jacques Tourneur.  For many years, Fishers’ Horror of Dracula (1958) was ranked by many critics and genre fans as the greatest horror film.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) is the finale of Fishers’ vampire trilogy and is generally considered the weakest. While it lacks the imaginative touch of Brides of Dracula (1960), Prince is an underrated, worthy conclusion to the trilogy, vigorously characteristic of Fishers’ penchant for fervent religious drama.

The film belongs primarily to Barbara Shelley, who was easily Hammer’s best actress and, consequently, was repeatedly used by the studio; a rarity for a studio who tended towards a new glamour girl for each film.

Shelley is Helen; an ever constipated, repressed Victorian type on vacation with her husband and in-laws. The foursome meet Fr. Shandor, a charismatic and provocative monk, at a local inn. Andrew Keir invests personality into his role of the priest, who warns the couples to stay clear of the castle. Fisher expertly builds tension in the first quarter of the film. Even though Dracula has been dead for a decade, the local villagers refuse to acknowledge his castle and still attempt to stake dead young maidens, hence Shandor’s natural contempt for his flock.

Still from Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)Predictably, the couples wind up spending the night at castle Dracula, despite the warnings. Philip Latham’s remarkably menacing Klove is Dracula’s disciple, awaiting the opportunity to resurrect his master, which has now been given to him. Helen’s husband, played with apt blandness by Charles Tingwell, will not heed his wife’s impassioned pleas to leave. In typical Fisher fashion, the seemingly prim and proper heroine proves to be one who is right after all, by nature of her virtuous caution.  Helen falls victim to the recklessness of her husband Continue reading DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)