Tag Archives: Hammer horror

1970 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: EQUINOX, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, AND TROG

The 1970s were probably the most prolific decade in production of exploitation and horror films. The decade started off with Gordon Hessler’s mediocre Cry of the Banshee, co-starring and Diana Rigg. Daniel Haller’s adaptation of The Dunwich Horror was also surprisingly uneven, despite its well-received source material. Hammer Studios was still in full throttle, although its output increasingly met with mixed reviews and decreasing box office. Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula was considered by many to be the last decent Hammer take on the infamous Count. Roy Ward Baker’s The Scars of Dracula was universally panned by critics. Scars‘ star then made a stab at the character for a different studio in ‘s[1] Count Dracula, which co-starred and Herbert Lom. Noticeably shot on a lower budget, Franco’s Dracula was deemed a faithful adaptation of the novel, but a noble misfire. Franco and Lee also teamed up for The Bloody Judge, which was a second-rate rehash of ‘ final film, Witchfinder General.

Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil, starring Herbert Lom and , was another offshoot of the late Mr. Reeves’ swan song, with the addition of graphic torture, and it’s reputation as one of the most revolting grindhouse films ever made still holds strong nearly a half century later. Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw was the third Witchfinder General copycat in one year. It disappeared quickly (rightfully so). At the opposite end of the spectrum is the camp-fest fundamentalist Christian exploitation Cross and the Switchblade, which aptly cast the whitest white man who ever lived—Pat Boone—as Hoosier Pentecostal preacher David Wilkerson, going to the ghetto to convert gang member Nicky Cruz (Erik Estrada). It was such a hit with the fundie circuit that they even produced a cross-promotional comic book that was littered throughout church pews to take home and keep “if you got saved.”

The primary influence on Sam Raimi ‘s The Evil Dead (1981), the microbudget horror Equinox has a substantial cult following, enough to receive the Criterion Collection treatment. Equinox is a holy grail for lovers of  backyard filmmaking, and is almost as famous for its making of narrative. The story began with three teenagers, David Allen, Dennis Muren, and Mark McGee, who got together and made a monster movie. Discovering the likes of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen through the pages of Forrest J. Ackerman’s influential “Famous Monsters Of Filmland,” aspiring stop-animation animator Allen placed a personal ad in a 1962 issue of FM, inviting lovers of King Kong to correspond. Muren, whose monster memorabilia collection had been featured in an earlier article of the magazine, was the first to respond, followed by McGee. Shortly after that initial introduction, the three were meeting regularly for screenings and discussions of creature features and experimenting with 16 MM shorts. In 1965 Muren received money from his grandfather to make Equinox.

Still from Equinox (1970)Influenced primarily by ’s Curse of the Demon (1957), the film also pays homage to Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Robert Gordon’s It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The cast includes Muren’s grandfather as a hermit Continue reading 1970 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: EQUINOX, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, AND TROG

  1. Having directed nearly two hundred films before his death in 2013, Franco is one of the most prolific directors in cinema history. He’s also unique in—by his own admission—never having made a good film. []

PETER CUSHING SIX PACK: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE SKULL, TWINS OF EVIL,THE CREEPING FLESH, AND THE GHOUL

Although Peter Cushing passed this mortal coil in 1994, he made a recent, posthumous appearance—albeit a digital one—in what is probably his most famous non-Hammer role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue One. His debut film performance was, aptly enough, for Universal horror icon in Man in the Iron Mask (1939), but it wasn’t until ‘s 1957’s Curse Of Frankenstein for Hammer Studios that Cushing secured his iconic niche. Unlike the Universal Frankenstein series, Fisher focused on the doctor himself, as opposed to the monster. With his frosty blue eyes, silver-tongued elocution, and gaunt frame, bringing a fervent athleticism to his early performances, Cushing was ideally cast.

Echoing John Huston’s brilliant deduction that Humphrey Bogart’s villainous screen qualities could be transposed to those of a protagonist in The Maltese Falcon, Terence Fisher next cast Cushing as the quintessential Van Helsing in Hammer’s Horror Of Dracula (1958), opposite his long-time onscreen foil . These dual roles, Frankenstein and Van Helsing, cemented Cushing as a horror genre star. It was typecasting that kept his services in demand, and for which he was grateful.

still from The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)He also made an excellent Sherlock Holmes in Fisher’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, again cast opposite Lee. It’s possibly the best screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel, and one of Hammer studio’s finest hours. Cushing brings an irreproachable, authentically physical fire-and-ice quality to the role. The film is relatively faithful to the novel, which will surprise those expecting Fisher to transform it into a horror opus—although it has his trademark red-blooded pacing and brooding atmosphere. Lee, as Sir Henry, may not be as exquisitely cast, but brings flair to the character. Someone must have forgotten to tell Fisher, Cushing, cinematographer Jack Asher, set designer Bernard Robinson, and composer James Bernard that this was an overly familiar story, because they approach it with a refreshing sense of discovery. Lee recalls his genuine affection for his late co-star in an interview included on the DVD. Unlike their Universal Horror predecessors and , Cushing and Lee became best of friends. Co-starring opposite each other in twenty-four films, their chemistry was undeniable, and although they did substantial solo work, their names are practically synonymous.

Cushing was cast as the infamous Dr. Knox for Britain’s Shepparton Studio in Flesh And The Fiends (1960, written and directed by John Gilling). Similar to his Victor Frankenstein, Cushing’s Knox is obsessed by his work. His is an icy, stern, brash, one-eyed doctor, but not without a degree of introspective sympathy, in sharp contrast to the deplorable Burke and Hare (as portrayed here by George Rose and ). As with many “mad doctor” films, Knox is driven to immoral extremes by a medically regressive climate. The cast, which includes an Continue reading PETER CUSHING SIX PACK: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE SKULL, TWINS OF EVIL,THE CREEPING FLESH, AND THE GHOUL

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

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974)

This is the last of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was the last of the Hammer Frankenstein series, as well as Terence Fisher’s final film. It is generally regarded as a weak swansong.  At first glance, it seems a remake of The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), but with a noticeably reduced budget.

Peter Cushing, in his final portrayal of Baron Frankenstein, inexplicably sports a curly blond wig which makes him look a bit like a deranged Shirley Temple, and he looks alarmingly emaciated. Off-screen, the actor’s wife had died, after a long illness, only the previous year, in 1971 (Monster from Hell was filmed in 1972 and remained on the shelf for two years).  Cushing was openly despondent and in intense mourning.  He later admitted to having had suicidal tendencies during this period.   Cushing never remarried, nor did he ever fully recover from the loss.  The toll of that recent personal tragedy is clearly visible on him in this film and, despite all of the atrocities committed by his character, that off-screen blow adds a layer of wearied pathos revealed in the actor’s eyes.

Despite the many elements working against this film, its bad reputation is mostly hyperbole.  Like nearly all of Fisher’s films, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is stamped with the director’s assured composition and electric editing. The opening sequence, with a grave robber (Patrick Troughton, from Doctor Who and Scars of Dracula) being pursued by a constable,  is nearly as kinetically paced  as the tense opening of Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. Later in the film, the Baron, momentarily young again, springs to his old self  in a leap atop the creature’s back.  The creature’s eventual fate is gruesome and frenzied.   These are diversions from a prevailing, fatigued bleakness.  Indeed, a desolate milieu permeates this culmination of Fisher and Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein saga.

Still from Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)David (Darth Vader) Prowse plays the monster, and he is as encased in his rubbery, hairy ape-like latex as he was in black armor.  Prowse attempts to inject sympathy into his monster, much the same way that Freddie Jone’s monster did in the superb Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.   Prowse, however, was at the mercy of an immobile costume which defeats his efforts.

The Baron himself is a complicated mix of ruthlessness and an occasional “weak”, but not Continue reading FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974)

THE MUMMY (1959)

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

The mummy, as a character, quickly became bland. In 1932, director Karl Freund, writer John L. Balderstein, and stars Boris Karloff and Zita Johnann made a poetic film for the Universal horror cannon, re-working the story of Dracula in Egyptian guise.  The Mummy’s Hand (1940) starring cowboy actor (and later Captain Marvel) Tom Tyron, was the first and only real decent of the Universal mummy sequels.  Increasingly feeble films followed Hand, all starring a rotund mummy in the form of a disinterested Lon Chaney, Jr.  Dating back to the original, the plot rarely varied throughout the series.  An Egyptian princess reincarnates in the form of a twentieth century woman, only to have her ancient lover come back, a tad lethargic, gauze and all, to reclaim her.

Oddly, Francis Ford Coppola lazily utilized the mummy’s  reincarnated dead lover plot for his version of Dracula (1992), which, otherwise, was a (mostly) well done, imaginative version of that story.  In 1999 the mummy was revived again in a dumbed down, lame, testosterone-laden joke of a movie starring Brendan Frazier.  That film also spawned numerous sequels.  True to form,the succeeding mummy entries were even worse, which, in this case, isn’t saying anything.

Still from The Mummy (1959)In between the 1932 and 1999 films, Hammer Studios predictably took a stab at the character.  They spared no expense in soliciting the talents of Terence Fisher, along with top stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Where they did spare expense was in an original story. The Mummy (1959) liberally borrowed elements from the formulaic Universal series, and reincarnated the reincarnated princess plot.  Briskly paced direction from Fisher, along with sumptuous color from Hammer cinematographer Jack Asher, almost overcomes the paint-by-number plot, which screenwriter Jimmy Sangster tried valiantly to inject with his own sensibilities.  Of course, the medium of film is more than mere storytelling and The Mummy is a film that tries to go a long way to prove that; because, basic rehashed story aside, the film itself is no lumbering undead.  It may be Fisher’s most energetic work.

Peter Cushing, as Dr. Banning, is in enthusiastic form.  No one can get strangled like Cushing, and his near-death experience and confrontation with co-star Lee in Banning’s study  is pure red-blooded Fisher, ranking with the acting duo’s battle in Horror of Dracula.   Equally interesting is  when Cushing’s Banning antagonizes the antagonist in the most proven way imaginable; he insults the other guy’s religion.  Ironically, it is Banning, rather than the mummy, who limps here, the result of an untended accident in Egypt.  Christopher Lee is the darling among genre fans.  He is far more discussed than  his co-star.  As iconic an actor as Lee is, his favored status is something of a slight to Cushing, since the latter is, normally, the  superior actor.  However, in this film, the acting honors are a draw, with Lee giving an admirably nuanced, minimalist performance as the title character.  Lee’s Kharis cannot compete with Karloff’s masterful Imhotep, but Lee invests genuine pathos, dread, and menace into the role. Yvonne Furneaux is striking as the Kharis/Banning love interest, but not much is required of her other than letting her hair down and shouting “No!”

Kharis’  resurrection from the swamp is beautifully photographed and effectively conveys robust dread.  Another well-shot sequence is the mummy’s entrance into an asylum to exact revenge on Banning’s father.  Franz Reizenstein’s score expertly accentuates the film, matching Fisher’s bloodied full moon milieu.  The Mummy reminds me a bit of The  Guns of Navarone (1961).  You know what’s around the corner, but that hardly stops the enjoyment of getting there.

THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) AND DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

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

Christopher Lee, as Dracula, greets John Van Eyssan’s Jonathan Harker and basically says, “Welcome, glad to have you as my librarian. That picture of your fiancee is lovely.  I have to leave now, good bye.” After that, Dracula never speaks another word in the Horror of Dracula (1958). End to end, his footage probably runs less than fifteen minutes.

Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster present Bram Stoker’s vampire as a feeding predator. To his victims, he is attractive and desirable. Throughout his Hammer films, Terence Fisher clearly presents evil as erotic temptation. Seen in this light, Dracula’s silent, predatory portrayal in the first “true” sequel—Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—makes perfect sense. This is what sets Fisher apart from his predecessors who told the same story, and the successors who imitated (and exaggerated) his style in increasingly inferior sequels.

In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the vampire is loathsome and repulsive. In Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) the vampire has far more static dialogue, and more charisma, albeit in a silent film stylized theatricality.  With Fisher’s take on the subject, the erotic quality of the antagonist is pronounced, fleshy, and unmistakable.  Yet, Fisher and Sangster also expertly balanced that sensuality with the narrative, never allowing the eroticism to become a caricature the way successors did (thus robbing the series of its freshness).

Compare Fisher’s direction of Dracula’s seduction scene to Freddie Francis’ in Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968).   In the former, Dracula seduces Mina (Melissa Stribling).  The scene is shot in a series of extreme close-ups.  Mina expresses dread (with a quivering lip) and breathy anticipation.   Dracula enters her room and descends upon her bed-ridden form.  As he draws towards her, his lips part.  The next sight of Mina is unconsciously collapsed on her bed, violated, blood lightly splattered on her throat and gown.  It is the blood of her husband (in a transfusion) that saves her life.

Still from Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)In Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, the vampire approaches Zena (Barbara Ewing) in the forest.  Zena nearly spills out of her top and the vampire removes one extra snap for increased spillage.  The attention is so drawn to the stripping that the narrative is second thought.  Later, when Veronica Carlson is seduced by Dracula, her Victorian doll falls from her bed, awkwardly symbolizing the loss of innocence.

As superb as Christopher Lee is in his role as the Count, Peter Cushing is the quintessential Continue reading THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) AND DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)

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

There is a scene in each of Terence Fisher’s trilogy of vampire films—Horror of Dracula (1958),  Brides of Dracula (1960), and Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—in which a wise and devout man releases a vampire from the pains of immortal existence. In the Horror of Dracula, Van Helsing releases Lucy, much to the relief of her brother Arthur.  Arthur smiles as he sees the beauty of innocence restored to his sister.   In Prince, Fr. Sandor releases Helen from the curse, as her brother-in-law, Charles, smiles upon witnessing the peace that finally envelops the troubled Helen.   In Brides of Dracula, Van Helsing, introduced as a doctor of philosophy and theology, releases vampire Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), at her own request.  After being staked, the Baroness shows a touch of a smile.

Still from Brides of Dracula (1960)For the first (and best) sequel to Horror of Dracula, Fisher and the writing team (which included an uncredited Anthony Hinds, Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan, and Edward Pearcy) chose a disciple of Dracula, in the person of Baron Meinster (David Peel), as the antagonist rather than the Count himself.  The Baron is blond, pretty, manipulative, charming, and genuinely menacing.  Luckily, Peel fits the bill, although by general consensus he is no Christopher Lee.  Still, he is refreshingly different.  Such a choice allowed the production imaginative freedom and innovation.  The resulting film is inordinately elegant,  poetic and seething with atmosphere.

Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) is on her way to start a job at a girl’s school when she is stranded at a local inn.  The Baroness Meinster arrives and offers to put Marianne up for the night at her castle.  The locals , well aware of the Baroness’ motives, attempt to to keep Marianne from accepting the invitation, to no avail.   Marianne is introduced to the Baroness’ imperious maid, Greta (Freda Jackson), and discovers that the Baroness’ son, the Baron Meinster, is a shackled prisoner in the castle.  The Baroness’ plan to feed Marianne to her son is upset when her guest releases the Baron from his chains of bondage.

Marianne flees the castle, confused and frightened, unaware that she has set a vampire free.  Peter Cushing‘s  Van Helsing, ever the father figure, discovers  her in the woods, takes her to the school, and, after hearing Mariann’s story, knows that his crusade to rid the world of vampires is far from finished.

Jackson, as Greta, is one of several acting delights here.  She cackles and theatrically waxes poetic.  She hams it up in several scenes, most notably one in which she assists a vampire’s attempt to resurrect himself directly through the soil.  Equally good is Martita Hunt (best known for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations-1946) who becomes her son’s Oedipal victim.  Miles Malleson also does a charming turn in the role of the alcoholic Dr. Tobler.  Cushing, as usual, conveys self-assured, icy precision in a part that  he seems  born to play.  Peel’s Baron puts the bite on Helsing and, in a blood-red, thrilling scene, the Doctor plants a burning iron to his own throat to cauterize the wound.  Cushing masters the scene in his inimitable way.

However, Monlaur, as Marianne, is merely decorative and, consequently, bland, which is a serious defect in the film.  Another glaring flaw is in the some slipshod writing (the result of too many hands in the pot, no doubt).  A compelling, eerie henchman character appears and is ingloriously dropped.  Van Helsing’s appearance is far too convenient and contrived.  A cheesy flying bat is a major distraction.  Despite  the flaws, however, Fisher’s enthusiastic direction is contagious; aided , in no small part, by lavish art direction and camera work.  The finale, at a windmill, is sumptuous and visually exciting.

Unfortunately, there would only be one more good film in the series; Fisher’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  After that, the series was pretty much turned over to the hacks and it did not take long at all for the rot to set in.

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)

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

Terence Fisher never considered himself a “horror” filmmaker, and he clearly disliked the term.  While a number of Fisher’s film could be apt examples to drive home his point that he was more than a mere scare merchant, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) will suffice quite nicely. This is a quite literary film, far better than either of Universal Studio’s versions of The Wolfman (1941 & 2010).

Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds (loosely adapting Guy Endor’s novel) weave a narrative tragedy through folklore, mythology, religious metaphor, and character revelation.  The symbols of class struggle ebb throughout the film, beginning in 18th century Catholic Spain.  A beggar is imprisoned in the dungeon by the powerful and callous Marques (Anthony Dawson).  Naturally, the beggar is forgotten about, cared for only by the jailer and his mute daughter.  Years later, after her father’s death,  the now grown servant girl (Yvonne Romain)  tends the beggar.  While cleaning the aged Marques’ room, Romain rejects her master’s sexual advances and is imprisoned in the very same dungeon occupied by the beggar.  After resisting the brutal, savage passions of the Marques, the  girl is raped by the crazed and dying beggar for whom she has cared these many years.  In retaliation, once released, she stabs and kills the cruel Marques, fleeing into the woods where she is found, face up in the river, by  Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans), an empathetic patriarchal figure.

Still from Curse of the Werewolf (1961)Corledo’s servant Teresa (Hira Talfrey, who seems more like a wife than a servant) notices that their new guest is with child and dreads the thought of the baby being born on Christmas, which, according to her tradition, is an affront to God.  Dec 25th arrives and the child, Leon,  is tragically born to a dead mother, who is  finally released from the misery of a peasant life.

In a reversal of the Christ child’s dedication at the temple,  the local priest baptizes Leon, soliciting a storm from the heavens.   Even the baptismal water reacts to the sanctifying of this curse of birth. The water bubbles intensely and reflects the face of a gargoyle from above.  The motherly Teresa, the superstitious one, alone recognizes the sign, while the priest and Don Alfredo dismiss it.

Years later, the child Leon ventures out, tasting the sweet blood of a squirrel, killing lambs and goats.  By now Don Alfredo and the priest know that Leon suffers the curse of the werewolf and the priest warns that only love can relieve Leon from his affliction.  Surrogate parents Don Alfredo and Teresa supply that love to the boy, but as a man, Leon will need the true love of a woman, ala Beauty and the Beast, to harness the wolf.

Some reviewers have predictably commented that the first half of Curse is slow, yet it is in the first half that the narrative is uniquely compelling.  The film unfolds like a literary fairy tale.  Once the narrative takes the obligatory horror route, in the last quarter, with a gray-furred, Henry Hull-looking lycanthrope, it feels a bit recycled, complete with the beast, atop a cathedral,  being chased by the torch carrying mob.

Still, Oliver Reed is superb as the adult Leon, registering torment far more convincingly than either  Lon Chaney, Jr. or Benicio Del Toro.  Hira Talfrey  and, especially, Clifford Evans are equally accomplished as Leon’s concerned guardians.  There are genuinely effective moments of tingling suspense, such as Leon’s cornering an unfortunate prisoner in a cell.  Leon’s virtuous fiancee is his potential salvation, but the animal side of Leon emerges once he ventures out from his sanctuary into a hedonistic society; after which there is, literally, hell to pay.

Curse of the Werewolf is a fine example of a director who utilized a genre for his own aesthetic expression, much the same way that Rod Serling utilized science fiction for his own expressionist gain.

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.

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher. The previous entries in the series were Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) marked the return of Terence Fisher to the Hammer Frankenstein series.  Fisher had been temporarily ousted after the studio’s displeasure over the director’s character driven Phantom of the Opera (1961).  Freddie Francis had been assigned to the Evil of Frankenstein (1964) and the predictable, pedestrian result was a case of the studio quite obviously having shot itself in the foot.

Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds showed that, even with a lurid, studio-assigned title, a visionary team can do imaginative, innovative  wonders, much in the same way that Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur had delivered a sublime film from I Walked with a Zombie (1943), studio be damned.

Frankenstein Created Woman is hardly flawless, but it is full of inimitable ideas and bold style.  In lesser hands, Woman would have been an abject failure.  A prisoner (Duncan Lamont) is being escorted to the guillotine.  He is boastful and defiant, until he discovers, to his intense horror, that his son Hans is witnessing his execution from afar.  Parental concern overwhelms the sinful father but, alas, too late.  Young Hans witnesses his father’s decapitation.

Still from Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)Years later, the adult Hans (Robert Morris) visits the site of his father’s execution.  That guillotine becomes a recurring image, as it was in the Revenge of Frankenstein (1958).  Hans works for Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters) and Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing). Frankenstein’s obsession here is the soul itself, and the unfolding events will plunge the Baron into unfamiliar territory, even for him.

The film narrative sympathizes with Frankenstein’s contempt for bourgeoisie society.  Hans is wrongly accused of murder, framed by three upper class hooligans.  Society assumes guilt of Hans by association with his late father and Hans is condemned.  Although Frankenstein has a genuine, albeit cool-toned, affection for Hans, as usual he sees beyond conventional circumstances and realizes that Hans’ tragedy can serve a greater purpose.  When Hans’ girlfriend, the deformed Christina (Susan Denberg) commits suicide after her Romeo’s death, Frankenstein transfers Hans’ soul into the drowned girl.

Christina is reborn into a beautiful, new woman whom the fatherly Hertz grooms and educates.  Hertz assures Christina that her seemingly cold father, Frankenstein, is a great, visionary man whom she should respect and be grateful to.  However, Hans’ soul takes over Christina and calls for revenge against the three who had wronged them both.  The film plunges into an almost standard revenge plot, but it is underlined with Fisher’s genre driven, unique pop theology.  The trio of Frankenstein, Christina and Hans becomes a metaphoric trinity in Fisher’s hands and he infuses this development with typically elegant, icy grandeur.

Lamont, in his small role, gives a memorable, stand-out performance and Walter, as usual, is a delight.  Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein is not the focus of Woman, yet he is able to evoke cautious empathy, and divinely inspired obsession.  Denberg and Morris are adequately decorative.  Denberg had been a Playboy model and she looks the part, convincingly conveying innocence, in sharp contrast to the real-life candle burning of the actress.

The two opening sequences, at the guillotine and the resurrection of the Baron on ice (by the presiding Hans and Hertz) are excitingly staged with Fisher’s typical athletic prowess.