Tag Archives: Peter Cushing

AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES, PART ONE (1965-1972)

With Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965, directed by Freddie Francis and written by Milton Subotsky) Amicus Productions (spearheaded by Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who previously produced for Hammer and was a cousin to ) established itself as a vital competitor to Hammer Studios. Rather than imitating Hammer’s modernization of Gothic classics, Amicus developed its own niche with omnibus films. They were successful enough to be in full-fledged production for a decade, establishing a reputation as the go-to studio for horror anthologies. This, their introductory portmanteau film, clearly influenced by EC Comics, sets a pattern of to-be-expected unevenness. Still, Amicus installs themselves as a horror studio to be reckoned with, sparing no expense in procuring Hammer’s top actors: (who would  star in all but one of the Amicus anthologies) and . For its wraparound segment, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors opens to the duo (among other passengers) on a train. Dr. Schreck[1] (Cushing, saddled with a terrible German accent and glued on brows) pulls out a deck of tarot cards. “Pick a card, any card, and tape it three times,” Schreck tells his fellow passengers. Each participant will hear of a fate that may await them. Among the passengers is Christopher Lee who will, of course, factor into one of the five narratives.

In “Werewolf,” Neil McCallum is an architect renovating an old dark house, which turns out to be cursed. The title monster is featured in this pedestrian tale of ancestral revenge with a “twist.”

With Alan Freeman  (better known as the U.K D.J. for “Pick of the Pops”) served up as a snack for a venus fly trap, “The Creeping Vine,” thankfully doesn’t take itself so seriously. It is refreshingly lightheaded hokum.

“Voodoo” is the worst of the lot; badly dated in its stereotypes, with Kenny Lynch belting out a stolen voodoo tune.

Still from "Diembodied Hand" from Dr. Terror's House of Horrors“Disembodied Hand,” has elitist art critic Franklin Marsh (Lee) driving artist Eric Landor (Michael Gough) to suicide. Landor’s severed hand returns to exact revenge on the mean critic. It’s in the spirit of The Beast with Five Fingers, among others, and chock-full of two-dimensional caricatures of both artists and critics. It holds no surprises, but with Lee and Gough engaged in a bit of whistling-while-they-work fun, it’s easily the best episode.

“Vampire” feature a young who discovers he is married to… a vampire! It barely raises a pulse.

Seen today, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is more camp than horror, and its appeal is one of genre nostalgia. Still, the phenomenal box office success of Dr. Terror green-lighted a second portmanteau film in 1967, entitled Torture Garden (directed by Freddie Francis and written by Robert Bloch). It contains no torture nor any garden. Burgess Meredith (in a preposterous disguise, reminding us of the Penguin) is Old Nick himself, going by the pseudonym of Dr. Diablo and moonlighting as a carnival barker who promises a tortuous exhibit that can reveal the future. “You’ll shake, you’ll shiver, but it’s all good fun,” Diablo hammily tells his patrons. Unfortunately, only one of the four tales lives Continue reading AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES, PART ONE (1965-1972)

  1. “Shreck” is German for “terror,” and a nod to the famous star of ‘s Nosferatu. []

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

1969 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, IT’S ALIVE, AND SATAN’S SADISTS

After the success of 1968’s The Conqueror Worm (AKA The Witchfinder General, with a deliciously evil ), director was assigned dual films: The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again. Unfortunately, shortly after pre-production work on The Oblong Box , Reeves died at the age of 25 from an accidental, lethal mix of alcohol and barbiturates, putting an end to a promising career. The film must have seemed cursed, because scripter Lawrence Huntington also died. Gordon Hessler replaced Reeves and Christopher Wicking replaced Huntington. Given Reeves’ high critical standing, Hessler was immediately criticized as being unable to fill the late director’s shoes. While there’s little doubt that Reeves’  idiosyncratic style would be impossible to imitate, he was unenthusiastic about the assignment to begin with. Thus, whether he could have made a better film is pure speculation. Despite starring Vincent Price and The Oblong Box can hardly compete with ‘s AIP Poe series, but it does have an ambitious, somber, gothic style of its own and is well photographed by John Coquillon.

Of more interest is a genuine oddity in the AIP canon: Scream and Scream Again, which also starred both Price and Lee along with (in what amounts to a cameo) and the same writing/directing team of Wicking and Hessler. Released in the U.K in 1969 and stateside 1970, Scream and Scream Again is one of the queerest horror science fiction extravaganzas committed to celluloid, which may explain why proclaimed it among his favorite films. Wicking’s screenplay is an ambitiously brazen adaptation of Peter Saxon’s “The Disoriented Man.” Given that Hessler is a minor cult filmmaker, Scream and Scream Again is, likewise, a film with a minor cult reputation, one that deserves a broader audience. Although imperfect, it is creepy and perverse enough to be of interest to weird movie lovers who crave a challenge.

Still fromScream and Scream Again (1969)The fragmented plot (one of several) opens with a jogger in the park, keeling over from what appears to be a heart attack. He wakes up in a hospital bed to a nurse who won’t speak to him. After she leaves, the jogger finds that his leg has been amputated. He screams.

The corpse of a rape victim is discovered with two puncture wounds on her wrist.

In an unnamed European totalitarian state, a humanoid Gestapo soldier (a lurid Marshall Jones) murders his superior by squeezing his shoulder.

The jogger wakes up to find his second leg amputated. He screams again.

Inspector Bellever (Alfred Marks) of Scotland Yard sets up a sting to Continue reading 1969 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, IT’S ALIVE, AND SATAN’S SADISTS

1967 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: CORRUPTION, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, AND THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

We start our 1967 genre survey with a considerable amount of barrel-bottom scraping with two of ‘ most execrable efforts: The Gruesome Twosome and Something Weird. He also made the somewhat better A Taste of Blood the same year. With a bigger budget and longer running time (118 minutes), Lewis referred to Blood as his “Gone With The Wind” masterpiece.  Actually, it’s modeled more after than . Lacking the excess of Lewis’ previous films and featuring a “classic” monster in Dracula, it’s mostly seen as a noble misfire by Lewis’ cult.

Elsewhere in 1967, , a director on par with the likes of Lewis, , , or , produced a pair of jaw-dropping bombs in Mars Needs Women and Creature of Destruction. Jean Yarbrough, who had previously helmed such masterpieces as The Devil Bat (1940), directed Basil Rathbone, Joi Lansing, John Carradine and . in Hillbillies in a Haunted House. Rathbone died shortly after filming and was spared embarrassment from a film so wretched that it’s virtually unwatchable. His surviving co-stars and director weren’t as fortunate. Nazis-on-ice figure prominently in Herbert Leader’s The Frozen Dead, which at least has some unintentional humor going for it. went Beserk for director Jim O’Connell. The film’s a paltry effort, but Joan is a humdinger channeling her inner Mommie Dearest.

A blind got whupped by Viveca Lindfors in Cauldron of Blood, but the on-his-last-leg genre icon fared considerably better in ‘ excellent cult classic, The Sorcerers. Harald Reini did few favors when directing the actor for The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism.  likewise missed the mark in Hammer’s The Mummy’s Shroud. Away from Hammer Studios, was out of his element in his final sci-fi opus[1] , Island of the Burning Damned, starring Lee and . By his own admission, Fisher had no enthusiasm for science fiction and went back to his Hammer Horror niche later in 1967 with Frankenstein Created Woman.

Poster for Corruption (1967) Fisher favorite Peter Cushing made a sharp departure from his typical acerbic-but-classy screen persona by dipping into pure sleaze for Corruption (directed by Robert Hartford-Davis). Although most sources give the release date as 1968, it’s also listed as a 1967 production. Most likely it’s the later date, but since we have that year already filled up, we’ll cheat a tad in placing it here. A sordid hybrid of The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Eyes Without a Face (1960), Corruption can be summed up by the Blu-ray cover art image of a middle-aged Cushing taking a knife to the throat of a scantily clad buxom blonde. He plays Continue reading 1967 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: CORRUPTION, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, AND THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

  1. Fisher’s first two entries in the genre were 1965’s The Earth Dies Screaming and 1966’s Island Of Terror. []

READER RECOMMENDATION: HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

Reader review by “Count” Otto Black.

AKA Pánico en el Transiberiano/Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express

DIRECTED BY: Eugenio Martin

FEATURING: , , Alberto de Mendoza,

PLOT: In 1906, an archaeologist discovers a frozen two-million-year-old ape-man in China. While being transported on the Orient Express, it turns out to be not only still alive, but possessed by a body-swapping extraterrestrial with incredible powers that might just possibly be Satan. Much hilarity ensues!

Still from Horror Express (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the face of it, the basic plot—a frozen prehistoric creature comes back to life and causes mayhem—has been used so often that it’s not even unusual, let alone weird. But when the mix also includes an extraterrestrial energy being who may or not be the Devil, a mad monk who is Rasputin in all but name, explicit brain autopsies, Cossack zombies with boiled eyeballs, “scientific” explanations that make the ones in Plan Nine From Outer Space sound like Carl Sagan, and the overall logic of a fever-dream, weirdness definitely starts to creep in. Also, there can’t be too many films shot in Spain that are set in Siberia.

COMMENTS: After the opening credits end, the very first thing we see is stock footage of some desolate place which a caption tells us is the Szechuan Province of China. Then seconds later, Christopher Lee’s voice-over narration informs us that it’s Manchuria. If they can’t get through the first minute of the film without losing track of continuity, a special kind of talent is clearly at work!

This indeed proves to be the case. Horror Express is a blatant rip-off of Quatermass and the Pit (1967). Both films involve archaeologists digging up pre-human hominid fossils and accidentally getting an unwanted bonus in the form of a dormant extraterrestrial life-force which exhibits amazing mental powers. In both cases the evil is linked with folklore and religion across the ages, specifically with Satanic lore, and generally causes mayhem. But whereas most copies of a much more widely-known and vastly more expensive film are feeble, cheesy imitations, this one redeems itself by going all-out to make no sense whatsoever. This movie is to Quatermass and the Pit what Star Crash (1978) is to Star Wars (1977), except that it doesn’t have David Hasselhof in it.

The movie’s genesis was very muddled, in a way that  undoubtedly would have sympathized with—indeed, this is the kind of film he’d probably have made if he’d still been making anything he cared about in 1972, and had had a lot more money than ever before, though still not all that much. Benmar Productions, the Spanish studio mainly responsible for Horror Express, were in deep trouble by 1972. Their first and second features were spaghetti westerns (technically, since no Italians were involved, they were “paella westerns”); the forgettable Captain Apache, and the ultra-violent, incoherent, and magnificently titled A Town Called Bastard (both 1971). Unfortunately they jumped on that short-lived bandwagon when it was already slowing down, and when they realized that the box-office returns on second-rate examples of a dying genre weren’t too good, they Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

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.