Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965) – Retrospective Review

This is Hammer Films’ first sequel to 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA to feature the return of Christopher Lee as the Count (who was notably absent from 1960’s THE BRIDES OF DRACULA). It is also the last Dracula film helmed by their top in-house director, Terence Fisher, who was the man behind the camera for most of their classic films in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Made at a time when Hammer was searching for new ideas to keep their horror franchise alive, it is part of a second wave that briefly reinvigorated the studio before it gradually descended into rehashing its familiar fiends. The productions values and the performances are as strong as ever, and the script does an imaginative job of resurrecting Dracula, but the film is not quite up to the level of its predecessor, the latter half turning into a bit of a mechanical thriller (albeit still an exciting one).
After a prologue that features the Count’s demise from HORROR OF DRACULA (reflected in the misty surface of a mirror, to help cover the fact that the old footage is in standard format while the new footage is widescreen), the story picks up with a pair of English couples vacationing in Transylvania. Mishaps lead them to Castle Dracula, where the Count’s servant Klove (a deadpan ghoulish Philip Latham) kills one of the men to use his blood to revive the vampire. Dracula then vampirizes the dead man’s wife, while the other couple manages to escape to a monastery presided over by Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), who helps them defeat Dracula, fending him off when he invades the monastery and tracking him back to his castle, where he sinks into the running waters of his moat.
The new film makes excellent use of widescreen photography to show off the beautiful sets. The format seems perfect for director Terence Fisher, who often avoided fancy camera moves and montage in favor of letting his actors move about the frame, performing separate actions in the foreground, background, left, or right. In one of the film’s moody highlights, Fisher even manages to suggest the unseen spirit of the departed Dracula with a few simple tracking shots down empty hallways, brilliantly foreshadowing the Count’s eventual return.
The first half of the story has a built-in hook: how will the film bring back Dracula (who was turned to dust at the end of HORROR OF DRACULA). The answer is fairly ingenious, with Klove killing one innocent victim and stringing up his body over the Count’s coffin with all the solemnity of a religious sacrifice. The scene of blood dripping onto the ashes turned a few stomachs in its day, and the special effects that follow are nicely done in a subtle way (a layer of mist obscures details of the body’s reformation). In a nice touch of — shall we call it realism? — Dracula is not reborn fully clothed; instead, his servant has a new suit waiting for him (this also explains any change in the Count’s attire from the first film to this one).
There are some nice thematic ideas underlining the action. The sacrificial victim and his wife are an uptight, repressed couple, which apparently makes them more vulnerable to Dracula’s allure. In a sense (as David Pirie points out in A Heritage of Horror), they are reborn as Dracula and his vampire bride — their bloodlust a dark inversion of their former prudery.
Unfortunately, once the resurrection of Dracula has been achieved, the film does not know what to do with him, except have him pursue the film’s other female lead back to the monastery. Despite the “Prince of Darkness” phrase used in the film’s title, the Count is never seen engaged in any major metaphysical evil; he acts mostly like a snarling if seductive animal. In fact, Dracula speaks not a word of dialogue, leaving all the talking to his servant and to Barbara Shelley as the victim-turned-vampire. Even without words, Christopher Lee manages to give a powerful performance, commanding and imposing. Andrew Keir as Father Sandor is a strong substitute for Doctor Van Helsing. Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer are appealing as the young couple. But the real standouts are Latham and Shelly.
Despite the weaknesses in the story, the second half of the film includes numerous memorable scenes. In one lifted from the book, Dracula opens a vein in his chest and tries to force Farmer’s young ingénue to drink his bodily fluids. Filmed in close-ups that hide the relative position of her head to Lee’s body, the scene is loaded with suggestions or forced oral sex (which is quite amusing when seen on afternoon television).
Even better is the staking of Shelley’s she-vampire, which takes place in the monastery, presided over by Sandor. The remarkable element of the action is that it takes place at night, with the vampire fully conscious and struggling on a table, while four monks hold her limbs down. Although the dialogue tells us that Sandor and his monks are performing a service to save the woman from the vampire’s curse and set her spirit free, the action plays out like a gang rape, with the helpless woman brutalized by a group of heartless men.
The ending is slightly less spectacular than that of HORROR OF DRACULA, with the Count slipping through broken ice to be swallowed up by the running waters of the moat around his castle, but the idea is at least loosely derived from Stoker’s novel (in which vampires can cross running water only at high and low tide). The imagery is actually fairly powerful, and it is one of the few moments that live up to the satanic implications of the film’s title. As Dracula tries to save himself, his fingers grasp the edge of the ice harder, which dooms him to sink faster as the ice melts beneath his grip. The scene seems intentionally reminiscent of the ending of Dante’s Inferno, which shows Satan trapped in the ice in the lower pit of hell, his wings flapping in a vain effort to pull him free, their icy breeze only freezing the ice that holds him more firmly, ensuring that he will never escape.
Whatever the flaws that prevent it from fully achieving classic status, DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS is probably Hammer’s last great Dracula film — a solid, sometimes imaginative effort that remains exciting and entertaining even after its best ideas have run out. Although it is easy to imagine a better film (one that gives Dracula more opportunity to live up to the sobriquet “Prince of Darkness”), the film as it exists now is one of the best cinematic vampire efforts and probably deserves to rank above BRIDES OF DRACULA (in spite of critical consensus to the contrary).

TRIVIA

In a belated nod to Bram Stoker’s novel, the film introduces us to Ludwig, a lunatic loosely inspired by Renfield. Although well played by Thorley Walters, the character fails to live up to his inspiration. Mostly he serves as a plot device: as in the book, vampires cannot cross a threshold unless invited inside; Ludwig is the one responsible for inviting Dracula into the monastery.
The screenplay is credited to “John Samson,” a pseudonym for Jimmy Sangster (who previously scripted HORROR OF DRACULA). Sangster was reportedly unhappy with changes made to his script and therefore removed his name from the final credits.
Christopher Lee has said that Dracula remains mute because the actor refused to speak the dialogue in the script. Some people have theorized that this may be the reason for Sangster’s objection to the finished film. However, no one has ever found a draft of the screenplay with dialogue for Dracula; today, the consensus is that the Count was always intended to remain mute, as he did throughout the later portions of HORROR OF DRACULA.
Although the interior of Dracula’s castle looks similar in its decor to that seen in HORORR OF DRACULA, the layout is clearly different.
DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS was shot back-to-back with RASPUTIN, THE MAD MONK. Much of the cast reappears (including Christopher Lee in the title role), and many of the sets were re-used. In fact, RASPUTING plays fairly fast and loose with historical authenticity, portraying the monk as someone with hypnotic powers similar to Dracula’s.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by “John Samson” (Jimmy Sangster), from a story by John Elder (Anthony Hinds). Cast:  Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Charles Tingwell, Thorley Walters, Philip Latham

Horror of Dracula (1958) – Retrospective Review

This full-blooded vampire film (you should pardon the expression) reinvented the image of Count Dracula for a generation of filmgoers, eschewing cobwebby castles and black-and-white atmosphere in favor of a bold, colorful approach, filled with lovely cinematography and lavish sets that belie the modest budget. The screenplay by Jimmy Sangster jettisons the creepy clichés and gets down to basics, jumping directly into the action while wasting little time on superfluous exposition; it is a model for how to write a remake of a well-known subject. Director Terence Fisher stages the action with all the gusto you could bleed for: the film feels almost like an action-adventure movie, exciting and lively. Composer James Bernard provides a memorably exciting score, dominated by the famous three-note title theme (just imagine the orchestra saying “DRA-cu-la,” and you get the idea). Peter Cushing turns Professor Van Helsing into a variation on his Frankenstein characterization: a vampire hunter as obsessive in his quest to destroy vampires as the Baron was in his quest to create life. Perhaps most important, Christopher Lee remakes the vampire king into his own image: aloof, condescending, attractive – in a domineering, overpowering kind of way guaranteed to provoke ambivalent responses in viewers, male and female alike, who both fear and admire the Count.
HORROR OF DRACULA (known simply as DRACULA in its native England) was designed by Hammer Films to capitalize on the success of their previous effort, 1957’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which was the first Gothic horror film shot in color. Energized with a fresh approach and a modern sensibility, CURSE became a hit at home and abroad. As filmmakers who have tackled one half of horror’s dynamic duo almost always do, Hammer inevitably followed up Frankenstein with Dracula, taking all the elements that worked the first time and improving upon them the second time out.
The essential elements of the Hammer approach to horror, as established by CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, were color, action, eroticism, and gore, with a sometimes quirky British sensibility lurking around the edges. Although mild by the standards of later horror films, the impact was quite shocking during its day, causing howls of outrage from disgusted critics who accused the films of abandoning atmosphere and subtlety in favor of crude violence and bloodshed. Fortunately, neither CURSE nor HORROR is as crude as the critics would have had us believe, and now that the shock has worn off we can see perhaps more clearly just how good the films are: energetic and involving, with a crisp, fast-paced approach to narrative that somehow makes the incredible events seem like a completely believable component of the world being portrayed.
In a way, Lee’s Dracula is a missing link between the classic cinema vampire and his more contemporary brethren, who are often portrayed almost like human beings suffering from an uncontrollable addiction. Earlier horror films had emphasized Dracula’s allure by portraying the vampire almost like a hypnotic phantom. Bela Lugosi’s performance, in the 1931 DRACULA, emphasized the character’s foreign qualities and an uncanny otherworldliness that made the Count seem separate from humanity even while he moved unobtrusively among it. Lee’s portrayal, on the other hand, erases most of the character’s spooky nature (aided by the script, of course): in HORROR OF DRACULA, the Count does not turn into a bat or a cloud of mist; he seems more real, more physical – a flesh-and-blood being that the audience can more easily believe in. In a sense, he humanizes the vampire, not by making him sympathetic but by making him walk the Earth almost like a mortal – a super-powered, undying mortal, to be sure, but one subject to physical laws that limit his movements, just as they limit ours.
While advancing the Count’s evolution, Lee also captures some hints of Dracula as he appeared in novel Dracula. Author Bram Stoker’s physical description of the Count emphasizes not hypnotic fascination but physical strength. He is tall, his face a strong aquiline with a thin nose and a cruel-looking mouth. The literary character may be a fascinating monster, but he is definitely a horrible one. The air of cultured aristocracy (emphasized by Lugosi) is definitely there, especially in the early scenes at Castle Dracula as the Count plays charming host to his hapless guest, Jonathan Harker; however, this air is merely a deceptive cloud hiding the monstrous lining. Sophisticated he may be, but Stoker’s Dracula is better defined by the pride he exhibits when boasting of leading troops in warlike fury to fend off foreign invaders.
The more overt suggestions of savagery were absent from Lugosi’s Dracula, who never bared his fangs and seldom lost his temper (although he does snarl once or twice). Lee was afforded the luxury of allowing the character’s monstrous side to show more fully. Abetted with dripping fangs and red contact lenses, Lee portrays Dracula’s ferocity to the hilt. Also, in keeping with the novel, Dracula is never naively accepted into the society of his victims; instead, after the characterization is established in the opening scenes at Castle Dracula, he becomes almost a background character, infiltrating his victims’ homes like some sinister spy from beyond the grave.
Lee’s costume retains the familiar black cloak but omits the red lining (favoring Stoker’s description of Dracula’s attire being “without a speck of color anywhere”). Rather than Lugosi’s melodic cadences, Lee opts for a fast-paced, authoritarian tone of voice. Like Stoker’s character, he speaks “excellent English,” though without the “strange intonation” captured by Lugosi. By dropping Lugosi’s Hungarian accent, Lee erases the Count’s Continental aura, instead emphasizing the physical strength that underlies vampire’s aristocratic mien. Unlike Lugosi, one can imagine Lee leading troops in warlike fury against the enemy invader.

The Count (Christopher Lee) seduces a reluctant but willing victim (Melissa Stribling).
The Count (Christopher Lee) seduces a reluctant but willing victim (Melissa Stribling).

Without being overtly Freudian, the film is certainly more obviously aware of the sexual undertones in Dracula’s attacks on helpless women, who seem to enjoy being ravished by the rapacious vampire. His approach to his female victims, who now consciously await his caresses (rather than sinking into a hypnotic stupor), emphasizes the erotic as never before. The fact that Dracula is less subtly seductive and more physically overpowering in these non-verbal attacks (we never see him talk to the women whose bedrooms he invades) lends an almost sado-masochistic air to his nighttime predations.
Like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the script for HORROR OF DRACULA offers a severely condensed version of the source material that erases the globe-trotting elements of the original story. While omitting the details, this telescoped version at least captures more of the essence of the novel’s structure (retaining more of Stoker than CURSE retained of Mary Shelly’s novel).
Stoker’s story was loaded with characters and took place over the course of several months. Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to help the Count purchase property in London, only to discover that his client is a vampire. Back home, Harker’s fiancée Mina has a friend named Lucy who becomes Dracula’s first English victim. Dr. Seward, one of Lucy’s three suitors, calls in Professor Van Helsing for consultation; unable to recognize the disease, the professor eventually realizes the cause is vampirism, which eventually claims Lucy’s life. Van Helsing teaches Seward and Lucy’s two other suitors, including her fiancé Arthur Holmwood, how to destroy her after she returns from the grave as a vampire. When Jonathan Harker returns to England (having escaped the clutches of Dracula’s three vampire brides), the details of the journal he kept lead Van Helsing to realize that Dracula is the vampire that attacked Lucy. Meanwhile, Dr. Seward has been noticing that one of his psychiatric patients, Renfield, has been acting in a way that seems to be an index to the comings and goings of the Count. Renfield, who wants to extend his life by devouring the lives of living things, worships Dracula as a sort of Antichrist, but the Count kills him when Renfield rebels and tries to prevent the vampire from claiming Mina as his next victim. Eventually, Van Helsing leads Mina and the young men on a trek back to Transylvania, where Harker and the Texan Quincy Morris manage to stab Dracula in the heart and behead him.
Sangster’s script jettisons Renfield and Morris, and reduces Seward to a walk-on as a family physician. Harker still comes to Castle Dracula, but he arrives on false pretenses, intending to destroy Dracula; instead, he falls prey to the Count after staking his vampire bride in her tomb. Van Helsing is no longer a kindly old bumbler who comes to believe in vampires only after studying Lucy’s condition; he is a full-fledge vampire hunter, dedicated to wiping the plague off the face of the Earth, with the same zeal as a doctor eradicating smallpox.
This twist on the Van Helsing character, embodied by Peter Cushing (who brings the same zest and precision that he displayed as the Baron in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) lends HORROR OF DRACULA its peculiar thematic underpinnings. Despite occasional flashes of warmth, Cushing’s Van Helsing embodies a cold ruthlessness in his quest that is very similar to Frankenstein’s monomaniacal obsession to create life, no matter what the cost. If Lee’s Dracula represents the eruption of carnal desire, of physical lust overwhelming the mind and sense, then Cushing’s Van Helsing is the intellect divorced from feeling, who will stop at nothing to subjugate the flesh to the mind.
In effect, HORROR OF DRACULA espouses a very conservative morality, in which unbridled sexuality is equated with spiritual Evil, and sexual repression is allied with Good. What prevents this old-fashioned concept from descending into camp is the very secular way it plays out. We are clearly seeing a film in which the characters can be interpreted as embodying the abstract metaphysical concepts of Good and Evil, yet the religious iconography is expressed in purely practical terms. In other words, the film’s Van Helsing (unlike the novel’s) seems hardly devout or spiritual; he uses crosses like weapons because they are effective, in the same way that an exterminator uses poison or traps.
The benefit of this approach is that it dissipates the cornball melodrama associated with too many bad horror movies, creating a film that seems fresh and modern even after the passing of decades. The potential pitfall is that it could downscale the story, mitigating the mythic undertones that make great horror films resonate in the mind like half-forgotten dreams suddenly recollected.
Somehow, HORROR OF DRACULA walks this razor’s edge with the skill of a tight-rope acrobat. Thanks to the robut staging of director Terence Fisher, the final battle between the forces of Darkness and Light, embodied by Dracula and Van Helsing, is as exciting as an World Wrestling Federation bout, culminating in Van Helsing’s Errol Flynn-style leap through the air to yank down a massive set of curtains, leading to the Count’s disintegration in the rays of the sun, his ashes blowing away in the wind — a remarkably poetic image to cap a remarkably well-made movie. At a clipped eight-two minutes, this is one of the most effective and tightly structured horror films ever made; in fact, some have gone so far as to call it the greatest horror film of all time.
In truth, the short running time robs the film of the scope that would have made it a full-blown, multi-level masterpiece. It works on its own terms, rather like the cinematic equivalent of a novella rather than a full-length novel, but there are other horror classics that have displayed more depth and sophistication.
HORROR OF DRACULA also falls prey to occasional melodramtic excess. In the role of Arthur Holmwood, Michael Gough’s horrorified reactions to the horrible events sometimes go a tad overboard (as when he desperately asks Van Helsing “Is there no other way?” – besides a stake in the heart – to release his sister from the curse of vampirism). And the flow of the story sometimes seems interrupted by old-fashioned fadeouts, not to mention the questionable cinematic device of showing Jonathan Harker sitting down to write in his diary. (Thankfully, the filmmakers eventually figure out that it is enough just to hear his words in voice-over on the soundtrack, while showing him perform some other action.)
But these quibbles do nothing to undermine the many strengths of HORROR OF DRACULA, which manifest themselves in numerable, memorable scenes. The first glimpse of Dracula at the top of the stairs is a wonderful fake-out – an ominous introduction followed by the Count’s perfectly civil greeting to Harker. The Count’s vampire bride (Valerie Gaunt) is wonderfully seductive, and her fight with her master, who stops her from making a victim of Harker, is wonderfully done, including Dracula’s athletic leap over a table. The staking of the vampirized Lucy (including a close-up of the stake sinking her white grave clothes, red blood welling up around it) is still sharp enough to make an audience squirm.
Apart from the mis-steps mentioned above, Gough does an excellent job in a relatively thankless role; embodying audience incredulity, he serves as the skeptic who must be convinced by Van Helsing, hopefully helping the audience to believe what they are seeing on screen. Also, Melissa Stribling deserves mention: the character of Mina has never come across on screen as well as Stoker imagined her; although Stribling’s version lacks most of the attributes of the literary version, the actress deserves credit for imbuing some life into her underwritten screen version. Her sly smile after her first encounter with Dracula, followed by her ambivalent reactions while anticipating a return visit, perfectly capture the mixture of attraction and repulsion inherent in the vampire mythology.
In short, HORROR OF DRACULA may not be the greatest horror film ever made, but it easily ranks in the pantheon of genre classics, and despite it’s considerably liberties with the source material (Sangster’s adaptation is in some ways almost an original screenplay), the film remains the best big-screen version ever made of Stoker’s novel. The decades may have given us far bloodier vampires, realized with bigger budgets and better effects; however, HORROR OF DRACULA (thanks in part to luminous Technicolor cinematography that defies the passing of years) is every bit as vibrant as the day it was released, living on from one generation to the next, rather like the undying Vampire Count himself.

TRIVIA

The film was influenced by NOSFERATU, the silent German adaptation of DRACULA, in at least two ways:(1) Dracula can be destroyed by sunlight, whereas in the book he simply loses his powers and requires rest in his coffin. (2) Taking up residence in Castle Dracula, Jonathan Harker displays a photograph of his fiance, which attracts the attention of the Count, who later seeks her out.
One element retained from the novel is a rather pronounced class consciousness. The servants in the film are never taken into the confidence of Van Helsing and the upper-class Holmwood, even in the case of the maid Gerta, whose daughter nearly becomes a victim of the vampirized Lucy. And the various working class characters that Van Helsing and Holmwood interrogate in their search for Dracula’s resting place are inevitably played for comic relief. Fortunately, the humor goes a long way toward balancing out the film’s more horrific scenes.

Publicity still of Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) decomposing after being staked - a scene that apparently never made it into any cut of the film.
Publicity still of Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) decomposing after being staked - a scene that apparently never made it into any cut of the film.

For decades, rumors abounded that Hammer Films created multiple versions of their movies for different markets, supposedly even shooting different versions of some scenes: a tame one for England, a slightly rougher version for the U.S., and an outright bloody one for the Far East. Although Hammer executives propagated these stories to generate publicity, they appear to have been more mythical than real. There is no doubt that censorship in different territories resulted in different versions of the films being released, due to the trimming of violence, gore, or sexual innuendo, but there is little evidence that alternate versions of scenes were ever shot.
In the case of HORROR OF DRACULA, there does seem to have been more explicit footage that has never seen the light of day, not even on DVD.
In the course of the film, three vampires are staked, but only one, late in the film, is shown explicitly; the other two are suggested with shadows or fade-outs. Supposedly, these earlier scenes were shot to be more explicit; however, this seems unlikely, because of the obvious problem: two graphic stakings early in the film would undermine the impact of the later one, which would seem repetitious. However, there is a publicity still of Jonathan Harker, lying in a coffin after Dracula has turned him into a vampire, that suggests more footage may have been shot of Van Helsing staking his colleague and seeing his body decay after the vampire’s curse has been lifted.
Publicity still - perhaps an early makeup test - of a scene censored from all prints except those in the far east.
Publicity still - perhaps an early makeup test - of a scene censored from all prints except those in the far east.

Even more interesting, there is an oft-published still of Christopher Lee wearing a hideous, pock-marked makeup that was clearly intended to show the vampire’s face decaying in the sunlight. In the cut of the film shown theatrically and on home video, Dracula’s destruction takes place mostly off-camera: we see Van Helsing fashion two candlesticks into a cross and force the Count back into the sunlight; there are brief shots of his hand and his foot disintegrating, followed by a reaction shot of the professor reacting to the vampire’s demise. Then we see a prop skull covered with dust and, after another reaction shot, a pile of dust on the floor. We never see the makeup meant to show Dracula’s face beginning to decay, but the editing of the sequence clearly leaves room for another transitional moment to bridge the gap between Lee’s normal features and the prop skeleton that replaces him.
Film editor and horror fan Ted Newsom has seen a version of this image that reveals it to be a strip of 35mm movie film, which would indicate that the shot was filmed for the movie, not just as a publicity still:

“I’ve never seen the destruction scene in the climax, but it did clearly exist. Over on Latarnia, on the Hammer thread, I posted a frame blow-up of the scene, showing the same make-up from the standard 8×10 still, but from a camera angle which matches the rest of the shots. It was published in some Japanese magazine in the ’90s, reprinted in a Hammer book in 1995 or 96. Seeing the proof of the existence of the scene in the Asian version sent me off on a 2 year back and forth thing with the Tokyo Archive. On the verge of getting the material telecine’d for posterity, they hired a new archivist, who went back to the party line and said ‘We don;t have it.’ It was bullshit, but I’d had enough.”

We can only hope that some archivist finds the footage, either in a vault at Hammer or in a print in the Far East, so that a restored version of HORROR OF DRACULA can be made available to fans.

Copyright 2006 Steve Biodrowski

The Devil Rides Out (1968)


THE DEVIL’S BRIDE (1968, known as The Devil Rides Out in its native England) is one of the last fine examples of the classic Hammer Horror style. Before closing up shop in the mid-1979s, the studio’s subsequent output would include some good, and even a few great, films, but the familiar motifs had been mostly played out, and later experiments with gore and nudity resulted in an uneven, hit-or-miss approach that lacked the finesse and sure-handed control of the earlier efforts. For despite Hammer’s reputation for a reliance on shock effects over story, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (like most of their classic output) reveals a careful, even reserved, handling of the material, coupled with superb craftsmanship and a close attention to detail.
Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, the screenplay by Richard Matheson (The Legend of Hell House) concerns the Duc du Richleau (Christopher Lee) as he tries to rescue a young friend from a coven of Satan-worshippers, led by Mocata (Charles Gray). Wheatley’s novels have earned a reputation for well-researched authenticity, and Matheson’s strength was for placing horror in realistic, believable settings, so the film is imbued with an aura of conviction, setting it apart from the spooky-creepy clichés typical of the horror genre. This lends a fresh, contemporary feel, no doubt enhanced by the early 20th century setting, complete with automobiles and airplanes (this is one of the few Hammer horrors set not in the Victorian era).
This solid narrative is handled like an adult fairy tale by director Terence Fisher (who helped launch Hammer Horror with 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein). Fisher’s work featured a clear demarcation between Good and Evil, light and darkness, yet somehow this simple approach never seemed simplistic. Despite the religious overtones, his films felt secular, as if the battle between righteousness and blasphemy were a well-matched chess game in which the winner was not the most devout but the most skilled. The results were, at their best, clear-headed, with characters that shone through like well-defined archetypes.
This is certainly true of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, thanks to fine performances from Lee (who proves here, as in The Gorgon, that he could plays heroes as well as villains) and Gray (the latter making a suggestively sinister impression despite relatively brief screen time).
Unfortunately, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT suffers somewhat in the horror department. The storytelling does a fine job of setting the stakes and preparing us for frightening consequences, but the manifestations of evil are seldom as eerie as intended. One senses fear of censorship in some cases: the satanic orgies are notably mild. In other cases, the special effects, though adequate in their day, suffer under modern scrutiny. Beyond this, there is perhaps a problem of sensibility. Hammer Horror, particularly when directed by Fisher, was usually at its best when portraying a tangible menace (for example, Horror of Dracula turned the Count into a full-blooded physical being lacking the spooky supernatural power to turn himself into a bat). In THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, on the other hand, Fisher is dealing with the uncanny, with visitations that might be hypnotically induced hallucinations or actual demons from the pit, and he lacks the vision that would bring these manifestations to convincing life. (Fisher’s Italian contemporary, Mario Bava, would have excelled at these scenes, but then, Bava probably would have bungled the rest of the film surrounding them.)
It may seem odd to praise a horror film when the visual horror is disappointing, but THE DEVIL RIDES OUT offers compensation in other areas. One example is a scene when Mocata pays what appears to be a social call while the Duc is out. This long sequence, wherein he gradually lulls his victim into a hypnotic trance, is a great piece of writing, acting, and directing, with an economical use of tighter and tighter camera angles that convey his gradually increasing mental domination, culminating in a perfectly calibrated high-angle shot looking down on him as he raises his head and sends his power into the upper rooms of the house, urging one sleeping victim to commit murder. After a fortuitous interruption breaks the spell, he also gets one of the film’s best lines as he departs, only temporarily defeated: ‘I won’t be back for Simon—but something will…’ (The film’s other most memorable line occurs when the Duc is asked to lend a car: ‘Of course,’ he says casually. ‘Take any of them.’ We never see how many he has, but the way Lee tosses off the line conjures up visions of an entire fleet.)
Although decades later, we can look at the plot with a different, more ambiguous perspective, the film itself still rings true. The Duc’s rescue of his friend reads almost like a cult deprogramming, and one could argue that he is intervening where he has no right to do so, but the strength of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT is in convincing us that he is waging a righteous battle that will save the very souls of all involved. This fairy-tale simplicity yields strong, satisfying dramatic conflict, stirring up a rich brew of mythic undertones of the sort that enhance the best horror films. The film may flirt with cornball melodrama, and rely on excess dialogue to explain the convoluted twists that lead to the happy ending, but one emerges from the experience feeling as if one has relived a vivid dream in which ancient archetypes have crossed swords in a sort of ritual re-enactment of some eternal conflict. This is not a film that one wants to oversell to viewers seeking intense shock effects, but it remains, along with The Exorcist, one of the great portrayals of the battle between Good and Evil. 

Charles Gray as the evil Mocata in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT
Charles Gray as the evil Mocata in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT

DVD DETAILS

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT has received better treatment than many Hammer films have on DVD in the U.S. The supplemental materials are meager, but at least there is an audio commentary – an element missing from many of the classic films released on disc in the states.
Warner’s DVD preserves the color photography in sharp detail – showing off the ornate production design that was always a significant aspect of Hammer Horror. The image is matted to a theatrical widescreen (non-scope) ratio, enhanced for 16×9 TV screens. There are English and French dialogue tracks and two trailers: one British release and one American (virtually identical except for the title change).
There is a nice documentary called The World of Hammer, narrated by Oliver Reed (who starred in Curse of the Werewolf). Unfortunately, it does not focus on DEVIL RIDES OUT, and the selection of clips from Hammer’s output is hit-and-miss. Mixed in with the Gothic chillers are glimpses of war films and appallingly bad footage from some forgotten comedies. With so much great material available, it is incomprehensible that the documentary includes so much sub-part footage.
Also disappointing is the audio commentary. Lee and co-star Sarah Lawson provide some interesting tidbits, and they evince a well-deserved sense of pride in their work, but too often they lapse into explaining the plot. Which is bad enough on its own but made considerably worse by the fact that, decades later, they are fuzzy on the details and so, with the movie’s soundtrack turned off so that they may record their commentary, they end up merely speculating on why characters are performing certain actions.
Those willing to suffer through this chitchat will be rewarded with some interesting details. For example, Lee was instrumental in convincing Hammer to adapt one of Wheatley’s novels (presumably the reason the actor was given the lead, somewhat against type), and Lawson’s husband dubbed the voice for the film’s other male lead, Leon Green, who was supposed to sound American. Lee also praises the overall authenticity of the film (thanks to Wheatley’s research), identifying only one fictional invention, a ritual invocation that dissipates the power of evil twice in the film. (Lee failed to find a real-life counterpart for this in his own research, so he had to invent the words for it, which were not given in the book.) It’s nice to see that Lee takes the subject matter seriously, and one wishes that more of the commentary featured more information of this kind.
Although not perfect, Devil Rides Out is one of Hammer’s essential films. Its strengths mostly outweigh the weaknesses, which lay mostly in the area of outdated special effects. In fact, Lee’s audio commentary mentions that this is one Hammer film that could truly benefit from a remake, thanks to the advances in digital technology. Director Joe Dante (The Howling) has expressed an interest in doing just that, with Lee reprising his role as the Duc. Unfortunately, the project seems to be lost in limbo. According to Dante, Lee remains philosophical about the delay, pointing out that the advancing years will only make him look more like the character as originally described in the book.

The Devil puts in an appearance.
The Devil puts in an appearance.

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (a.k.a. “The Devil’s Bride,” 1968). Directed by Terence fisher. Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley. Cast: Christopher Lee, Charles Grey, Nike Arrighi, Leon Greene, Patrick Mower, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, Sarah Lawson

Curse of the Werewolf (1961) – Hammer Horror Review

Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man may be cinema’s most famous lycanthrope, but there can be little doubt that this 1960 film from Hammer Productions is the best werewolf movie ever made. It features all of the studio’s classic virtues: beautiful sets, effective music, colorful photography, solid scripting, memorable performances, and a muscular directorial approach that relishes depicting horror for the maximum emotional impact. The film plays out like a deliberate piece of Theatre of Cruelty, in which most of the sympathetic characters come to a tragic end. The result is actually not terribly frightening, but it is undeniably effective, in a depressing sort of way.
Loosely based on Guy Endore’s grim but effective novel The Werewolf of Paris, the screenplay by John Elder (a pseudonym for producer Anthony Hinds) strives to live up to the filmic title CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF by depicting a tragic saga that shows how Leon (Oliver Reed) came to be cursed with lycanthropy. Two hundred years ago, a beggar (Richard Wordsworth) runs afoul of an evil Marques (Anthony Dawson), who has him thrown into a dungeon, where he spends the ensuing years degenerating to a bestial condition. He is attended by the jailer’s daughter, who gets thrown into the cell with him after rejecting sexual advances by the Marques. The mute woman is raped by the beggar, who dies from the exertion; after killing the Marques in revenge, the woman later dies giving birth on Christmas Day to Leon, who is adopted by Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans). When Leon is a young boy, his village is terrorized by a wolf that kills several goats. The local priest explains to Don Alfredo that the unfortunate circumstances of Leon’s birth have allowed an elemental wolf spirit to take possession of his body; only love and affection can keep the evil inside him at bay. Leon grows to adulthood unaware of his true nature, but, lured to a brothel by a well-meaning friend, Leon finds his bestial side awakened, resulting in several deaths. The pure love of his fiancé is enough to stop his transformation, but when he is arrested for murder, he is separated from her and inevitably changes into a wolf again and breaks free from his cell. As angry villagers pursue him with torches, Don Alfredo reluctantly takes the only action possible, putting Leon out of his misery with a silver bullet.
It was always tempting to read Freudian interpretations into the werewolf mythology (the sudden bodily changes certainly suggest a bizarre form of puberty and sexual awakening), but little in Universal Pictures’ old black-and-white werewolf films such as THE WERE-WOLF OF LONDON (1935) and THE WOLFMAN (1941) dealt with sex on any kind of overt level. Hammer’s take on the lycanthropy legend corrects this oversight. The John Elder screenplay for CURSE OF THE WEREOLF retains the basic structure of Werewolf of Paris, which was almost lurid in its sadistic sexual detail. Fusing the established filmic conventions with Endore’s tale, CURSE manages to be the best ever cinematic treatment of lycanthropy by placing the simple transformation scenario within a larger Christian cosmology. Oliver Reed’s Leon is fated to become a monster not because of a bite but because of a defect of birth, which has allowed a predatory, demonic spirit to enter his body. This canine elemental is strongest during the full moon, but more important, it is strengthened by whatever weakens the human soul (such as lust and depravity) while held at bay by such ennobling emotions as love.
This schism between Good and Evil, between sex and love, lends a weird sexual kink to the proceedings, rendering the film as a bizarre adult fairy tale. Especially disturbing are the scene of Leon as boy describing his awakening blood-lust (he naively recounts trying to kiss a dead squirrel back to life, only to be aroused by the sweet taste of its blood) and, later, the scene of a more adult version of that lust being reawakened in a brothel (Leon returns a prostitute’s kiss with a bite to the shoulder, drawing blood, like a more bestial version of a vampire). The film is also noteworthy for making “lycanthopy=puberty” metaphor explicit: Leon first transforms into a werewolf as a boy, seen howling at the moon with new hair growing on his body.
The narrative is impressive in its attempts to show Leon’s saga from pre-conception to death, but it is not quite as perfected in terms of dramatic structure as earlier Hammer efforts like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. The film is cleverly built around scenes that compare and contrast with each other, offering visual depictions of the thematic oppositions underlying the story (the brothel sequence, which triggers Leon’s transformation, is followed by a scene in which he awakes with his head chastely in the lap of his innocent fiancé, having spent the night without changing). This structure helps illustrate the ideas at work in the film, but it also slows down the pace: Leon doesn’t reach adulthood until halfway through the film; his first attack on a human doesn’t occur until 60 minutes in; and the werewolf makeup is only full revealed in the very last sequence. Clearly, audiences seeking non-stop werewolf action should seek elsewhere.
Fortunately, the film maintains interest because director Terence Fisher serves it up with his usual gusto, marshaling all of the resources at his disposal (sets, script, performances) to create a self-contained, imaginary world wherein the story makes perfect sense. In its simple Good-Evil dichotomy, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF plays out like an adult fairy tale, and Fisher seizes on the opportunities to portray both virtue and vice. He imbues the horror with almost a touch of surrealism, underlined by the unbelievably bright orange color of the blood, while emphasizing the suffering of the innocent victims. The result is rich in symbolic implications that fire the imagination (some critics have even noted a Christ parallel in Leon who is not only born on Christmas Day but also immediately held up in front of a painting of the Madonna and Child). And in typical Fisher fashion, the gaudy trappings delight the eye with their beauty, providing an effective visual contrast with the sin and degradation that takes place on screen.
Oliver Reed is perfect as Leon. His dark good looks evoke sympathy, yet at the same time easily convey the lurking danger within. He really makes only one misstep in the film: when forced to show his teeth to a skeptical mayor (Leon wants to convince him he’s a werewolf, but the full moon has not risen yet), he makes an awkward grimace that invites titters. Most of the rest of the cast performs splendidly as well, particularly Evans as Leon’s sympathetic stepfather. Anthony Dawson is excellent in his brief appearance as the vile Marques (at one point seen picking a carbuncle from his face). Only Catherine Feller, as Leon’s true love, fails to register as strongly as one would wish; she is sincere enough, but she cannot quite satisfy the film’s impossibly high demands of believably embodying an unbelievably perfect vessel of purity and love, untainted by sexual desire. (But then, who could?)
In the final analysis, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF is a statement on the bestial nature of man. The true villain of the piece is the evil Marques, who delights in abusing his underlings; by imprisoning the beggar, and later the mute servant girl, it is the Marques who sets in motion the string of events that will ultimately destroy Leon, along with so many others along the way. In varying degrees, many other characters succumb to some form of bestiality: the beggar whose imprisonment turns him into an animal who rapes the woman who has looked after him for years; the woman herself, whose sexual assault prompts her to impale the cruel Marques; the various drunks and prostitutes who degrade themselves by carousing and promiscuity; and of course, Leon himself, whose better nature fights a losing battle against the beast within.
Against all of this is balanced the potential for human goodness, which in this context is explicitly equated with celibacy (the handful of sympathetic survivors are a priest, Leon’s virginal fiancé, and the bachelor Don Alfredo, whose only relationship with a woman seems to be the platonic one with his faithful servant Teresa, played by Hira Talfrey). It’s not a very believable worldview; in fact, it’s quite reactionary, yet it’s perfectly suited to creating a rich and rewarding film about the eternal struggle in the human soul between kindness and cruelty, between purity and perversity. It’s the brilliant depiction of this duality that makes CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF a classic in spite of his slightly languid pace. It may not galvanize you with horror, but it will touch you with its tragedy.
The final sequence with Leon in wolf form pursued by the villagers (an excellent makeup by Roy Ashton that includes not just face and hands but also torso) seems designed to cast the monster as a persecuted victim, who literally dies like a dog, shot down by his own adoptive father, who wants to spare him the pain of potentially being burned to death by the torch-wielding mob. The scene is brutal and almost cruel in its abrupt finality; the audience is denied even the “rest in piece” ending of old werewolf movies, which showed their monsters revert to human form in death, implying that their souls were at peace. CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF offers no such salve; the only message seems to be that the innocent will suffer for the wickedness inflicted by others. As the final images fades, at last we glean a glimmer of understanding about why the opening credits played out over a close-up of the werewolf’s eyes…crying.

TRIVIA

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF was born when a co-production deal for a film about the Spanish Civil War fell, after Hammer films had already built the sets. Wanting some return on their investment, they decided to take the novel The Werewolf of Paris and set it in Spain. Producer Anthony Hinds (writing as John Elder) adapted the screenplay himself, because there was no money left to hire a screenwriter. Hinds went on to write numerous other scripts, but this is easily his best work, due at least in part to the strength of the source material. Still, Hinds departed so radically for Endore’s novel, that one must give him a great deal of credit for the originality he brought to the movie.
One should also note that this film introduced Hinds penchant for writing mute characters (saving himself the trouble of writing dialogue for them). In this case it was the jailer’s daughter who gives birth to Leon; other non-speaking characters would appear in Hinds’ scripts for THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL.
Anthony Dawson, who plays the Marques, would go on to play the assassin in DR. NO, the first James Bond film. The uncredited Desmond Llewellyn (who appears early on as one of the Marques’s servants) would go on to play Q, the man who supplied Bond with all his gadgets, starting with the second 007 film, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.
Peter Sallis, who appears as the skeptical village mayor, would appear in numerous other Hammer films, before going on to provide the voice for Wallace in the Wallace and Gromit stop-motion movies.

DVD DETAILS

Although CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF was issued on VHS and laserdisc as a stand-alone title, its only Region 1 DVD release is as part of the Hammer Horror Series, a box set of eight titles, including BRIDES OF DRACULA, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, and EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN. Some purists object to the pracitce of compressing so many films onto two double-sided discs, but the picture quality is actually quite good. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features, but the reasonable price makes the set worth obtaining; the $29.99 list price averages out to less than $3.75 per title – quite a bargain.

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF  (1961). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by John Elder (Anthony Hinds), based on The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore. Cast: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans,Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller, Anthony Dawson, Richard Wordsworth, Hira Talfrey, Justin Walters, John Gabriel, Michael Ripper, Peter Sallis, Desmond Llewellyn (uncredited)

Brides of Dracula (1960) – Horror Film Review

The Brides of Dracula (1960) horizontal posterThis is Hammer Films’ first sequel to their 1958 classic, HORROR OF DRACULA. Made at the height of the studio’s success, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA features the familiar elements (beautiful color cinematography, lavish sets, solid writing, strong performances), making this a worthy heir to its predecessor. However, it is perhaps most notable for the obvious absence of the king of vampires, Count Dracula, who never appears.
Instead, taking a cue from RETURN OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958), which ditched Christopher Lee’s creature from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and made Peter Cushing’s Baron the returning figure, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA ditches Lee’s Count and makes Cushing’s Doctor Van Helsing the returning figure. In the new story, Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), a beautiful young woman on her way to a girls school, accepts the hospitality of Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) and finds that the old woman is keeping her son locked up in the family castle. Marianne frees the blond, handsome Baron Meinster (David Peel), but he turns out to be a vampire — and attacks his mother. Van Helsing shows up and gets Marianne to her school safely. Having destroyed Dracula in the previous film, the good doctor now seems to be mopping up the “little fish” of the vampire world. He dispatches the Baroness (who has been vampirized by her son), but the Baron shows up at Marianne’s school and proposes to her. Van Helsing puts a stop to the undead wedding but not before Baron Meinster puts the bite on him — the doctor purges the vampire bite on his neck with a red hot poker and some holy water, then finishes the vampire off by leaping onto the arm of a windmill, so that it spins until the shadow lines up to form a giant cross that pins Meinster down.

Freda Jackson resurrects a new-born vampire.
Freda Jackson resurrects a new-born vampire.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is lavish and beautiful, and it is filled with interesting ideas and memorable scenes. One of the best occurs when the Meinster’s maid Greta (Freda Jackson, doing a good Mrs. Danvers impersonation) scrabbles on the soil over a recently buried victim, offering soothing encouragement for the newborn vampire to climb out of her coffin and rise. Van Helsing’s self-cure after being bitten by Meinster packs a wallop, and the climactic use of the windmill’s shadow to dispatch the vampire is a great image.
Unfortunately, the script for THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is a bit of a patchwork, credited to three different writers, and it sometimes seems as if the different sequences do not quite fit together. The long first act, before Van Helsing appears, is almost a self-contained mini-movie, featuring a typical misogynistic twist by Jimmy Sangster (the ignorant girl wants to help, but she only unleashes the monster). The all-girls school setting seems to be a personal fantasy of the screenwriter (it recurs in his later writing-directing effort LUST FOR A VAMPIRE), but thankfully director Terence Fisher keeps the sniggering to a minimum.
Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) fends off Baron Meinster (David Peel) with holy water.
Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) fends off Baron Meinster (David Peel) with holy water.

David Peel — blond, handsome, and innocent-looking — makes a nice visual contrast to Lee’s Dracula, and the actor gives a good erotically charged performance, hinting at incest during his attack on his mother and at homosexuality when he bites Van Helsing. Cushing is, as always, excellent as the single-minded vampire hunter, and he seems more than capable of carrying the film on his own shoulders.
In the end, however, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA cannot surmount the absence of Count Dracula, which seriously undermines the suspense. Having dispatched the Vampire King in the previous film, Van Helsing is the Gothic equivalent of the fastest gun in town, and it is impossible to think that any other vampire could outdraw him in any graveyard showdown. As a result, Baron Meinster’s defeat feels like a foregone conclusion from the very beginning.
This is not enough to ruin a fine horror film, but it does drag it down a notch from the exalted status of HORROR OF DRACULA. Hammer Films apparently realized this, as their next major vampire film, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, was a stand-alone effort from which both Van Helsing and Dracula were absent.
L to r: Marie Devereux, Andree Melly, Freda Jackson

TRIVIA

This project began life as “Disciple of Dracula.” The original concept was that Christopher Lee would play a cameo as Count Dracula, arising at the end to destroy his rogue disciple, Baron Meinster.
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA breaks with HORROR OF DRACULA in more ways than by simply omitting the Count. HORROR OF DRACULA removed most of the supernatural elements of vampirism; for example, Dracula could not turn into a bat. In BRIDES, however, Baron Meinster does turn into a bat (the prop, though not terrible, does prove the wisdom of avoiding such effects in HORROR). There is also a weird little spooky scene in which the locks on a coffin (meant to keep a vampire trapped inside) mysteriously drop off, without opening or breaking.
Although Katherine Ramsland’s otherwise authoritative The Vampire Companion (a companion book to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles) cites other sources of inspiration for Rice’s blond vampire anti-hero Lestat de Lioncourt, and in fact Ramsland does not even mention THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, it is abundantly clear that David Peel’s appearance as the boyishly handsome Baron Meinster was a major influence, not only for Lestat’s appearance but also for his homo-erotic undertones.

DVD DETAILS

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As of 2006, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA had never had a discrete Region 1 DVD release in the United States; however, it was available on the Hammer Horror Series Box set, which includes seven other early 1960s films from the British Studio (such as CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN). These titles were distributed in the U.S. by Univeral Pictures, which in some cases tampered with the films heavily, not only re-editing them but sometimes adding additional footage as well. The box set features the original versions of all the films. Like all the film in the set, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is transferred at the correct aspect ratio of 1.66 (unlike some Region 2 releases) with an anamorphic squeeze to take advantage of widescreen television sets. Picture and sound quality are fine, but there are no extras, not even trailers.
Brides of Dracula (1960). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, Edward Percy, Peter Bryan. Cast: Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur, Freda Jackson, David Peel, Miles Malleson.
The Brides of Dracula: Yvonne Monlaur The Brides of Dracula: Andree Melly The Brides of Dracula: David Peel The Brides of Dracula: Peter Cushing
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Supernal Dreams: Christopher Lee on "Horror of Dracula" & "Curse of Frankenstein" – showing at the "Shock it to Me!" festival

Christopher Lee is featured in two of his Hammer Horror classics at SHOCK IT TO ME! San Francisco’s annual horror film festival, this Saturday afternoon, October 19, when a double-bill of Terence Fisher’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) will be presented at the historic (and haunted) Castro Theatre.
Get full details on the two day event here: http://shock-it-to-me.com/
To celebrate this classic revival, here are some excerpts from an interview with Christopher Lee talking about the two films, conducted in 1984, when Mr. Lee was still living in Los Angeles.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: When you first played Dracula had you seen Bela Lugosi’s performance in the 1931 version?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, I was determined not to see the Lugosi film, and I didn’t for years. I didn’t want to do any of the things he’d done, and I thought the idea of someone in the wilds of Transylvania, in full evening dress, a little bit incongruous. That’s not a reflection on Lugosi, who I never knew. He was a man of immense demonic power as an actor. As a young man he was a great romantic lead in his native Hungary. Among other parts he played Christ. All sorts of things like that – Hamlet, Romeo. The man had an enormous wealth of experience long before he came to the United States. He never learned to speak English properly; he only learned to speak it more or less phonetically. He was a gently, kind and understanding person. He had great tragedy in his life, there’s no secret about it, he became a drug addict, and was in and out of various institutions. He made many films, and played many parts that were not worthy of him. He was buried in Dracula’s cloak, that is true, it is something he asked to be done. I know this because his widow told me. His widow was at one time married to Brian Donlevy, with whom I did a picture in Hong Kong, called Five Golden Dragons. I knew Boris Karloff, he was a very close friend and he always used to tell me about Lugosi and the pictures they made together. He always used to say, “Poor Bela, poor Bela,” and he meant it very sincerely. He was a haunted man, but I think haunted and tormented by the fact that the pictures he did in the latter part of his life were simply not worthy of him. He was as tall as I am, I understand. His voice, of course, is one of the most imitated in the history of movies. We all know it, we’ve all done it, just for fun, at one time or another. (Imitating Lugosi), “Good eve-ening.” So I never copied him in any way. I played the part by reading the book, by reading the script and putting into it what I thought needed to be done. First of all, he is a nobleman, so he must be noble in his physical presence, and impressive. I believe that Dracula was not only mortal, but very much to be pitied. The sadness of a man who would very much like to be free. In Stoker’s book, there is a great look of peace on his face when he is killed. So many aspects to a character like that; very dangerous, very fierce, superhumanly strong, irresistible to women, much respected by men, who wish they could be like that, and so on. All these things were in the book. Of course, nobody has ever made a movie about Dracula, from the book, exactly as Stoker wrote it. They’ve come close at times, but it’s never been done. The nearest we ever got to the book was when I did Count Dracula in Spain, with Klaus Kinski. I even managed to say some of Stoker’s lines, but it was a mess, for production reasons. So the first time I played it, I enjoyed it, and we had a lot of fun. Peter Cushing and I used to giggle a lot, and behave disgracefully. You have to keep your sense of humour in situations of that kind. All the time we’d keep saying to each other, wouldn’t it be marvellous if I could do this, if I could do that, because it would get a big laugh, and the director says, “That’s not quite the intention of the picture!” Then there was one instance where I had to pick up this girl, and charge across the graveyard, where I’ve conveniently dug a grave, and throw her into it. The lady was a stunt lady, because I had to really throw her into the grave, although there was a mattress in there. So I rushed over and picked her up, and then rushed across with her and flung her into the grave, and went straight in on top of her! (Laughter.) The director said, “It’s not that kind pf picture either.” So that happened, and there were times with those wretched contact lenses in my eyes I couldn’t see a thing. I’d start to cry, and charge past the camera, knocking everybody over, tears falling down my cheeks. That wasn’t intended. We made the second one, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, about eight years later. I didn’t speak in that picture. The reason was very simple. I read the script and saw the dialogue! I said to Hammer, if you think I’m going to say any of these lines, you’ve very much mistaken. They were quite appalling. So gradually it began to lose its impact. The qualities of the scripts deteriorated, and the demands made on me were virtually nil. All I was asked to do was sort of stand around, and do things occasionally. I lost interest, and I’m sure the public did. I did the last one in 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and said, “That’s it!” When they started putting a character like that in a modern day period, it was pretty ludicrous. Sitting in a high-rise, calling himself D. D. Denham, and playing it as a cross between Dr. No and Howard Hughes. It was absurd. So that was the reason I stopped. I suppose it became too easy for people, and I as an actor didn’t want to go on doing the same thing. So I said, “Enough is enough. You’ve spoiled a great character.” Do you know how many actors have played that since I’ve stopped? Between 10 and 20! Jack Palance, Louis Jordan, Klaus Kinski, David Niven, Frank Langella.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you see the Frank Langella Dracula film?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No. I’ve only seen Langella once, and that was in Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs. John Badham directed Langella’s Dracula – a very good director – and I understand Laurence Olivier played Van Helsing. But it’s still not the Stoker story. The only thing that would ever tempt me into playing that part again, would be if it was totally and completely faithful, word for word, line for line to the book. It may never be done. I imagine it would cost a fortune.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Were you ever approached about doing the Broadway version of Dracula in 1977?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, a man came to see me at my hotel in Washington, and asked me to read it. He told me it was based on the original play, presumably that would have been the Hamilton Deane script. I read it, and made up my mind that it was extremely dangerous, because in today’s day and age, if the original was done exactly as written, it would get a lot of unintentional laughter. The language is very Victorian, and outdated, and is very, very dramatic. So I didn’t think it was possible to do it, and I said so. What I didn’t realize was, that the way they were going to present it was, for lack of a better word, high camp. So it worked extremely well, and was an enormous success. But I was under the impression that they intended to do it seriously, as a faithful representation of the original play, which is why I said no. I thought it would get a lot of laughs in the wrong places.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You have also done a documentary on the real-life Dracula, Vlad Tepes.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, called In Search of Dracula, directed by an American living in Sweden, Calvin Floyd. We went to Transylvania, which is both Romanian and Hungarian, and very beautiful, too. It’s exactly like the book – mountains and mists, castles and bats – quite extraordinary. We ended up in a very old town, Pojana, with a great ruined castle, and it was cold and dark, and the moon came out as we were approaching the doorway of our lodge, and a bat flew straight across over my head. The director said, “They know!” (Laughs.) He was known as Vlad the Impaler, and was a real-life monster. He impaled thousands of Turks after one battle, and then ate amongst the corpses! Vlad’s father was the Transylvanian ruler of the province of Wallachia, Vlad the II, and was a Knight of the Order of the Dragon. So he was called Vlad Dracul, which meant dragon. Vlad the Impaler simply signed his name, Vlad Dracula, with an “a” on the end, which meant son of the dragon. Stoker knew this, and he also knew the Romanian word for devil was also Dracul. So he based the book on the historical Dracula.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I understand you’re not particularly fond of The Curse of Frankenstein.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: The only reason I didn’t enjoy that was because of the great discomfort of the make-up. As somebody said, I looked like a road accident, which was not far from the truth. The problem we had with that particular make-up, is that the original, unforgettable make-up that Boris wore, was the copyright of Universal. So we couldn’t even attempt to imitate it. So Phil Leakey, the make-up man, and I got together and tried out some of the most unbelievable looking things you’ve ever seen! We ended up with something that did look vaguely like a human being. That was in 1957, and of course, now look what we’ve got: heart transplants, kidney transplants, arms being sewn on. The mind really boggles at what lies ahead. Who knows? The secret of life itself may be just around the corner. So that was primarily why I didn’t like the picture, purely in terms of discomfort. Also, on the first day of shooting, I rushed into Peter Cushing’s dressing room with a rather alarming effect, with all that make-up on, and said to him: “Look at this, I’ve got absolutely nothing to say in this film, nothing at all!” He said, “You’re lucky. I’ve read the script!”
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s strange how genre films were treated back then with great condescension by the critics. It was certainly the case with many of the Hammer films.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: I think that’s true. I think there’s a regrettable inclination on the part of the press, to treat this kind of picture as if it’s less than top-class. It doesn’t rank up there with the great comedies, the great Westerns, the great dramas. That’s nonsense, of course. Absolute nonsense! As I mentioned before, something like Rosemary’s Baby, or Karloff’s performance in Frankenstein, is work of sheer genius. So it’s absurd to downgrade this kind of film. I believe that this kind of film is most certainly amongst the most popular kinds of pictures anybody ever goes to see. So the people who work in it, the writers, the directors, the actors, and so on, have, to be honest, never received the recognition that, I think, they deserve. I really mean that.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Certainly director Terence Fisher was vastly underrated by the critics.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, Terence, who is, alas, dead, was a tremendous director. I’ll tell you, the direction he gave in those pictures, and the performances in some of those pictures, are a hell of a lot better than they are today! It was more difficult then. You didn’t have all these ancillary devices that they have today. He was a dear, dear man. He used to keep me awake all night long, when we were shooting on location, because he smoked non-stop, and coughed non-stop, all through the night. He was a delightful person, who never did get the recognition that he deserved.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I get the impression that the early Hammer films were made special, by everyone working together as one big, happy family.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, we were a very happy group of people. The technicians, the actors, and everybody. It was a tiny studio on the river Thames, near the town of Windsor, where the castle is. I used to drive down there at four in the morning, usually in the fog, during the winter. Originally, it was a private house converted into some very small sound stages. That was for The Curse of Frankenstein. Then they built the stage for Dracula, which was gigantic by their standards. They really did regenerate the whole genre of fantasy film, as I prefer to call it, and they should take credit for that. The real stars of the Hammer films were the technicians. I know it’s a cliché to say it, but it really is true. Bernard Robinson, the art director, worked miracles on a budget which was alarming! Jack Asher, the first cameraman, his work was brilliant. Together all these people really created the results that you see in these films.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: There was also an ongoing use of the same character actors.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, we had our repertory company. They were all so good, and so versatile. Two who come immediately to mind are Michael Ripper and Miles Malleson. I remember Michael as the drunken poacher in The Mummy. He sees me and can’t believe his eyes. Somebody says to him, “Maybe you’ve been seeing the little people.” He says, “It’s the biggest little people I’ve ever seen!” (Laughter.) Then Miles Malleson was also very, very funny. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, when he came in as the Bishop, it was very difficult not to laugh.
CHRISTOPHER LEE on DRACULA – PART TWO
While looking at the second issue of of Cinefantastique, from January, 1971, I was astonished to find it also featured a beautiful two-page photo spread on Christopher Lee’s (at the time) upcoming version of COUNT DRACULA. Here’s the brief text for the five photos featured. The text is obviously incorrect, as it was probably confusing Hammer’s upcoming DRACULA A.D. 1972 with Lee’s Spanish production of COUNT DRACULA, but it was clearly based on the conflicting information available at the time:
Scenes From DRACULA ’71, currently in release through AIP and formerly titled COUNT DRACULA. Christopher Lee appears a mustachioed Dracula, more faithful to Bram Stoker’s original conception than any other. Through the course of the film, Dracula becomes progressively younger and mouths dialogue much the same as Stoker wrote it.
Looking at the COUNT DRACULA stills featured in that second issue of CFQ, one can only wonder why the production turned out so badly. Well, in retrospect, it’s quite obvious. Mr. Lee had a bad script and a really bad director, Jess Franco. Let’s face it, Franco isn’t exactly a Terence Fisher or a Francis Coppola, is he? What’s even more astonishing is that Franco would attempt to even dare edit fragments of the greatest American director of all time – Orson Welles – into a supposedly completed movie.  I’m speaking of course of DON QUIXOTE, and what Franco did to this footage of Orson Welles should ban him forevermore from the world of movies, for committing “crimes against the arts and humanities.”
In any case, as Christopher Lee states above, through no fault of his own, Jess Franco’s COUNT DRACULA turned into a real “mess” of a movie. But, even today, looking at the marvelous stills on display in CFQ, I would think COUNT DRACULA could have been quite a good film, if only a competent director had been at the helm.
But as Christopher Lee notes, “there is no point in going over the past.” However, the concept Francis Ford Coppola used in his version of the Stoker novel, did feature some of the same elements Lee wanted to use in his definitive version of the Stoker novel. So here are some of Mr. Lee’s more recent comment’s about the Coppola version of DRACULA, recorded in 2002 when I spoke to Mr. Lee about his role in Peter Jackson’s THE TWO TOWERS.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Ian McKellan said you startled him in one scene, where you sneaked up on him and then snarled at him, as if you were playing Dracula.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, no, not at all. That’s quite a good story, but I didn’t sneak up behind him. What he said was to be within three feet of a Lee snarl is rather unsettling.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So you didn’t try to scare him by playing Dracula?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, not at any time. That part was last played by me over 30 years ago! I have no connection with it whatsoever. Nor do I wish to have.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Actually, I thought it would have been marvelous if Francis Ford Coppola had used you to play Dracula at the beginning of his version of the movie. You could have played the Count in Transylvania, exactly the way Stoker described him, as an old man with a mustache. Then, when Dracula arrives in London and starts drinking blood, he would grow younger and be transformed into Gary Oldman!
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Well, there’s no point in going over the past. These things either happen or they don’t and it’s too late now. I did see Coppola’s version, and while he’s done some wonderful films, his DRACULA was not the Stoker novel. Nobody has ever made a movie about Dracula, from the book, exactly as Stoker wrote it. They’ve come close at times, but it’s never been done. The nearest I ever got, was when I did COUNT DRACULA in Spain, with Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski. I had a mustache and I even managed to say some of Stoker’s lines, but it turned out to be a real mess. In Coppola’s movie, Gary Oldman did not have a mustache, and he was wearing what looked like a red dress! He also had a hairstyle that I thought was absurd. It certainly wasn’t how Stoker described the character. In the book, Stoker describes Dracula as wearing black from head to toe, without a single speck of color about him. But as far as I’m concerned, that character is very much in the past for me, and I’m really not all that interested in talking about the past. Only the present and the future.

Laserblast: The Man Who Could Cheat Death, Phase IV, The Sender

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH - Legend DVD artIt’s been a great month for Hammer fans.  Columbia just released the Icons of Adventure box set of four Hammer adventure films – Stranglers of Bombay, Pirates of Blood River, Terror of the Tongs and Devil Ship Pirates.  Despite the terrible cover art, this is an amazing package of never-before-on-DVD films. Now, our friends over at Legend Films are releasing Hammer’s The Man Who Cheat Death in July as an exclusive at Best Buy.  Up to now this is one of the few “golden age” Hammers that has not been available on video. Already working their way through the classic monster canon – Frankenstein, Dracula – the studio embarked on a remake of the ’40s Paramount horror classic The Man on Half Moon Street.  The result is an odd combination of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Jack the Ripper. That said, the film is extremely static, perhaps betraying its origins as a play. Read More

Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) – Hammer Horror Review

This imaginative and original take on the old Robert Louise Stevenson tale is one of the best and most underrated efforts from Hammer Films, the English company that had previously produced updated versions of Mary Shelly CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957) and Bram Stoker (HORROR OF DRACULA in 1958). Bold and colorful, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (like Hammer’s version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, one year later) comes from an era when the company, having scored major box office success with horror, was pushing the boundaries of the genre, emphasizing the drama, characterization, and even philosophic undertones, wrapped up in lavish, widescreen production values that suggest an opulent costume drama rather than a tawdry terror show. Unfortunately, the film (like PHANTOM) was not a success, and subsequent Hammer horrors would retreat to more conventional territory.
The screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz more or less turns Stevenson’s story “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” inside out. Dr. Jekyll (Paul Massie) here becomes a bearded, somewhat anti-social recluse, more at home in his lab than in his home, who (per Nietzsche) dreams of going beyond Good and Evil, not of separating the two. When he transforms it is not into a misshapen monster or a Darwinian throwback (as in the 1932 version with Frederick March) but into a dapper, handsome devil, eager to enjoy all the delights the seedier side of London has to offer. This is a decidedly amoral (as opposed to immoral) Hyde, only interested (at least initially) in the pursuit of pleasure; there is almost a touch of Oscar Wilde about him – which should not be a big surprise, since screenwriters have been using Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to pad out the details of Stevenson’s slim story at least since the 1920 silent DR. JEKYL AND MR HYDE with John Barrymore.
After seducing a lady snake charmer, Hyde soon grows bored with conventional debauchery.After seducing a lady snake charmer, Hyde soon grows bored with conventional debauchery, but in the meantime he has learned that Jekyll’s best friend Paul (Christopher Lee) is having an affair with Jekyll’s flirtatious wife Kitty (Dawn Addams), so he sets his sights on her. When neither seduction nor bribery works, he resorts to rape and murder, then frames Jekyll for the crimes. However, after an inquest clears Hyde, Jekyll reasserts himself, transforming in front of the police, who arrest (and presumably go on to try and convict) him for the murders, insuring that Hyde will never be unleashed again.
Hammer horror owed much of its success to brilliant color photography (often by Jack Asher), lavish production design (usually by Bernard Robinson), and clever casting (often with Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee), but their best efforts featured solid scripting as well (often by Jimmy Sangster). This is nowhere more true than in TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, which features probably the best screenplay of any Hammer film, written by Wolf Mankowitz (a successful playwright who also co-scripted Val Guests DAY THE WORLD CAUGHT FIRE). The film is filled with witty dialogue and clever characterization that breaks down the usual Good-Evil dichotomy seen in most Hammer movies, which often resembled fairy tales scripted for adults.


To some extent, Jekyll is an unsympathetic personality who (we can infer) drove his wife into an affair because of his inattention to her. Kitty may not be a faithful wife, but she genuinely loves Paul and wants to end the hypocrisy of her marriage; she also has the good sense to find Edward Hyde completely repulsive. Paul is somewhat of a rogue and a scoundrel, but he is also guilt-ridden and remorseful over his betrayal of his friend; he’s just too weak to terminate the love triangle by taking Kitty away from Jekyll. As for Hyde, as the film’s title implies, he really is Jekyll’s alter ego; much of what he does (such as the revenge against Paul and Kitty) makes sense only if we understand that he is simply acting out Jekyll’s repressed impulses – impulses that Jekyll knowingly and deliberately unleashed with his experiments. The result is a highly charged drama, punctuated with mere moments of horror, that plays out like a tragedy, leading to the inevitable moment when Jekyll publicly reveals himself as the man behind the monster.
Director Terence Fisher seizes upon the opportunities in the script, to brilliant effect. Fisher always seemed more interested in the emotional underpinnings of his Gothic films than in the mechanics of suspense: his horror scenes were seldom of the Hitchcockian variety, using multiple camera angles and editing to build tension; instead, he preferred long takes in which the movements of the actors, complimented by subtle movements of the camera, created the dynamic. Shot in widescreen, TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL offers a perfect showcase for this directorial approach, providing a large canvas on which Fisher can project all the gaudy elements at his disposal, which fill the frame like a colorful pageant.
Fisher mostly eschews traditional horror elements in favor of emphasizing the moral horror of a conscienceless hedonist completely indifferent to the suffering he inflicts on others. The formerly de rigueur transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is never explicitly shown, taking place mostly off-camera; the only horror comes from Jekyll’s increasing helplessness at stopping the process. Fisher also plays clever little games to underline Mankowitz’s point about hypocritical Victorian distinctions between respectable and non-respectable society. He conveys a certain lusty glory while indulging in depictions of the less respectable entertainments available in London. The film is filled with colorfully costumed extras, including numerous dancing girls in flowery skirts, all captured in an enticing fashion that makes them seem vibrant and exciting. Again, this seems to be a deliberate attempt to undermine Stevenson’s story, wherein Hyde’s Soho shenanigans (implied but not detailed) were clearly meant to symbolize nothing but sin and degradation.
Perhaps the highlight of this approach is the snake charmer’s dance. In an era when explicit depictions of sexuality were not allowed, Fisher managed to give this sequence, laden with innuendo, a galvanic charge as powerful as anything seen in later, more permissive eras. The erotic gyrations, accompanied by exotic music (composed by David Heneker and Monty Norman, the later the creator of the famous James Bond theme) are at once tawdry and refined, sophisticated and suggestive, culminating in a climax wherein the dancer actually takes the constrictor’s phallic head into her mouth (a trick Alice Cooper would adopt in his demented stage show over a decade later)!
David Kossoff is sincere and touching as Dr. Ernst Littauer, an old colleague who warns Jekyll against his experiments and later laments his downfallThe performances are first-rate. David Kossoff is sincere and touching as Dr. Ernst Littauer, an old colleague who warns Jekyll against his experiments and later laments his downfall. Dawn Addams is sharp and seductive as Kitty. Paul Massie does an excellent job in the dual role, capturing the stolid Jekyll with a low voice (aided by a beard and contact lenses to hide his good looks), then bursting forth with vibrancy and gusto as the unleashed Hyde. As the film goes on, his acting strategy becomes perhaps a bit transparent (Jekyll’s strained voice starts to sound artificial), but in the end Massie nonetheless emerges triumphant as the actor who has done perhaps the best job of blurring the lines between Jekyll and Hyde.
But the true scene-stealer here is Lee as Jekyll’s faithless friend, Paul, whose function in the film is to act as a sort of yardstick for Hyde’s debauchery. Paul initially seems like a hopeless reprobate, but his moral failings pale to insignificance when placed against Hyde’s – Lee perfectly captures the sudden sense of moral indignation when Hyde offers to pay off his gambling debts in exchange for an opportunity to sleep with Kitty. Lee was most often give roles (like Dracula) that emphasized his height and his screen presence, often using him more like a prop than an actor, but here he gets to convey a wide range of emotions (love, laughter, lust, and more), ultimately making Paul a sympathetic if fatally flawed human being. This is the one role, perhaps more than any other, that shows Lee capable of giving a genuine character performance, as opposed to being a horror star or a heavy.
When the movie flopped during its initial release, Hammer tried retitling it as “Jekyll’s Inferno” and “House of Fright,” but for some reason the movie never caught on. Perhaps it was too clever, and audiences could not accept the portrayal of a dashing young handsome Hyde (even though this approach was perfectly in line with Hammer’s other success stories, such as turning Lee’s Count Dracula into a seductive sexual predator). In any case, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL faded from screens and memories, never attaining the cult-classic status of Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein films. This is unfortunate, as the film at least equals those previous efforts in production value – and exceeds them in its screenplay. This is a masterpiece in its own right – and not merely a genre masterpiece. As a horror film, TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL barely ranks on the scare-meter; those looking for shocks and suspense had best seek them elsewhere. But as an exploration of two-faced hypocrisy and the mystery of identity, this ranks as one of the genre’s finest achievements.

TRIVIA

A few lines of dialogue have been looped in post-production, apparently in an attempt to please the censors. For example, when Hyde is confronted by a night club bouncer, he says, “Go to the Devil.” The audio recording quality is clearly different from the rest of the dialogue, and the words do not match the lip movements. (Presumably, he originally said, “Go to hell.”)
The film features a very young Oliver Reed as the night club bouncer who tries to shake down Edward Hyde for a little cash.

Paul Massie as the film's handsome Hyde

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL(1960). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, based on “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Cast: Paul Massie, Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee, David Kossoff, Francis De Wolff, Norma Marla, Magda Miller, Oliver Reed.
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The Gorgon (1964) – Horror Film Review

This is the last Hammer horror film to feature the studio’s essential triumvirate of director Terence Fisher and stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Made when the studio was looking for new ideas, but before it had begun its later decline, THE GORGON is an interesting addition to the company’s pantheon of classic monster movies – a sort of tragic love story told as a Gothic fairy tale. It features the company’s glossy production values, including colorful sets and beautiful photography, spiced with usual horrific chills (most memorably the petrified bodies of the Gorgon’s victims). Although never likely to rank alongside the seminal CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), the film is a fine example of the form that deserves a place with Hammer’s other classics, such as CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962).
The story follows Paul (Richard Pasco), a young man who comes to an isolated village where the residents have been dying under mysterious circumstances, their bodies literally petrified. After a close encounter and a fleeting glimpse of a horrifying figure in the shadows, Paul is stricken, though not fatally. His university professor, Karl Meister (Christopher Lee) shows up to lend assistance and soon deduces that Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing) is concealing the identity of the Gorgon. Unfortunately for Paul, the monster turns out to be Namaroff’s assistant, Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley, previously seen in 1957’s  CAT GIRL), with whom Paul has fallen in love. Although normal during daylight hours, Carla is possessed by an ancient spirit that, werewolf-like, turns her into a monster during the full moon. The next time the moon rises, Paul, Professor Meister, and Dr. Namaroff converge on the abandoned castle, where the Gorgon is known to lurk, for a final, fatal confrontation…


Scripted by John Gilling (who would go on to write and/or direct THE REPTILE and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES), THE GORGON is an imaginative attempt to take the famous creature from Greek mythology and turn it into a viable movie monster by lifting bits and pieces of lore from other creatures of the night, most notably the werewolf. Consequently, the film has an almost achingly fatalistic tone, with an innocent individual cursed to do evil against her will, whose only hope for salvation lies in her own death.
This sets THE GORGON apart from Hammer’s earlier Frankenstein and Dracula titles, which often evinced the aesthetic of robust action film: colorful, dynamic, exciting. THE GORGON is more stately and sad. The narrative is in no hurry to string shock scenes together, and the suspense is minimal, restricted to a few key points. Instead, the film’s goal is, clearly, to work on an emotional level by emphasizing the doomed romance. The result may not jerk quite as many tears as the ending of TITANIC, but it works on its own level quite well.
As one would expect from a Hammer production, the sets, costumes, and photography all combine to create a wonderfully atmospheric version of a haunted European landscape, which belongs more properly to the realm of imagination that reality. The period detail may or may not be correct, but it does not matter: the film takes place in that same self-contained universe that is home to all Hammer horrors.
Horror stars Lee and Cushing also do expert work. As was usually the case, their combined efforts create a wonderful sort of chemistry that is more than the sum of its parts, making them the greatest duo in the history of the horror genre. The script even contrives to play a little game with audience expectations, delaying the inevitable confrontation between the two stars until viewers have just about given up hope — and then springing it on them after it seemed that it would not be happening after all.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, seen in a composite image

Cushing delivers another variation on his Frankenstein persona, a doctor who runs an asylum and serves as a cornoer, but his villainy is more ambiguous. Clearly, he is covering up the truth, but he appears to be doing out of concern, even love, for Carla. For all his cold-heared precision, he ultimately succumbs to his emotions, risking his life to confront Carla in her Gorgon form – and failing because he cannot resist the urge to gaze upon her face.
Lee gets a rare opportunity to shine in a heroic role as the gruff, sarcastic Meister, taking the attributes he usually used to invoke fear (e.g., his imposing stature) and turning them to the side of the angels. The actor has a wonderful moment when Meister warns the local constable (Patrick Troughton) that the townsfolk had better not try to run him out of town (as they did his predecessor). Coming from anyone else, the line would sound like an empty threat (is Meister saying he will take on an entire mob, single-handed?), but Lee’s delivery imbues the words with conviction. (You’re almost sorry he never gets to make good on his threat.)
Barbara Shelly is excellent in the title role. Although not as glamorous as some of Hammer’s other leading ladies, she was perhaps the finest actress, and it is sad that she never became a bigger star in the genre despite her many good performances in a variety of roles ranging from RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK to QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (a.k.a. FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH). Here, as in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS and CAT GIRL, she deftly handles a schizoid role, half love interest and half monster.
Prudence Hyman as the title characterThe briefly glimpsed Gorgon makeup is quite good in terms of its frightening look, especially when Fisher keeps it in shadows. Unfortunately, the special effects component, which brings the serpents to life, is slightly disappointing: the movements of the snakes writhing in the Gorgon’s hair have a mechanical quality that undermines the effect. Although Barbara Shelley wanted to play the character beneath the makeup, the producers were afraid that audiences would recognize her early on, giving away the surprise that Carla is the Gorgon; consequently, actress Prudence Hyman played the title character.
As a pure horror film, THE GORGON may be a disappointment. The fear-factor is not up to the levels of Hammer’s highest efforts, and the scares tend to be low-key, lacking the action-packed punch of, for example, HORROR OF DRACULA. Instead of a bloodthirsty Count leaping over a table and hurling his vampire mistress to the floor, you get a snake-headed woman lurking the shadows and staring at her victims — a sort of static tableau that does not necessarily set adrenalin coursing through the veins.
But then, Terence Fisher was never a pure horror director. In the definitive career interview he gave to Cinefantastique magazine in the early 1970s, he expressed less interest in the mechanics of suspense, as exemplified by Alfred Hitchcock, than in the melodramatics of Frank Borzage. Fisher always wanted to make a love story, and here he gets his chance — albeit a doomed love story. The emotional underpinnings raise THE GORGON to the level of a genre gem, even if you are more likely to cry than scream.
THE GORGON (1964). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by John Gilling, story by J. Llewellyn Devine. Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Richard Pasco, Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe, Patrick Troughton, Jack Watson.
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Curse of Frankenstein (1957) – Horror Film Review

Foreign language poster for the British horror filmThis is the mad scientist’s experiment that resurrected the Gothic tradition in cinema and created the second great wave of monsters movies. (In the 1930s and ’40s, Universal had given us black-and-white horrors like DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN.) The first of many reinventions of classic movie monsters by Britain`s Hammer Films, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN established new style for horror – bold, bloody, beautiful – that completely broke tradition with the cobwebby classics of the 1930s and 1940s. The film also gave us two new horror stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who – along with director Terence Fisher – would go on to redefine the genre for the next decade and a half. Some of their subsequent collaborations (notably 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA) equaled or surpassed their achievement here, but this remains their original classic, the grimoire establishing the magic formula they would use again and again.
In the mid-1950s, aspiring producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg approached one of Hammer’s executives with a script Subotsky had adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the archetypal tale of a man-made monster. Hammer purchased the script (which, according to Subotsky, remained faithful to the source material), discarded it, and had Jimmy Sangster write something totally new.
Apparently, the original idea had been to create a fairly traditional horror film, possibly casting the aging Boris Karloff as Baron Frankenstein. Fortunately, Hammer realized that, although Shelley’s novel was in public domain, the 1931 film version of FRANEKNSTEIN, starring Karloff as the monster, was still under copyright to Universal Studios; therefore, any similarity to that horror classic, particularly the famous flat-head makeup devised by Jack Pierce, could result in a lawsuit.
Consequently, Sangster’s screenplay discarded most of the familiar elements. About all the remained from the novel was the concept of creation, some character names, and a few bits and pieces, stitched together into something almost entirely new. Only two points were carried over from the Universal films: Frankenstein is still a Baron (he had no title in the novel), and his creation is mute (unlike Shelly’s articulate creature).
Frankenstein (embodied perfectly by Peter Cushing) is no longer the nervous inventor who creates a man in a fit of enthusiasm and immediately regrets his rash action. Cushing’s Baron is precise and cold as a scalpel, a handsome blue-eyed dandy who has a way with women (at least with the maid) and never blinks or hesitates in pursuit of his goal. In truth, he is the real source of the horror in the story; his completely amoral detachment from the consequences of his work is more disturbing than the actual gore (which, though shocking for its time, is actually mild). And this moral horror is accentuated by the fact that Cushing’s performance (his dapper air and smiling confidence) actively invites the audience to identify with him even as the film tells in no uncertain terms that what he is doing is evil.
In this context, Christopher Lee’s creature has no chance of attaining Karloff’s stature. He’s a bit more of a simple monster, with less emphasis on his suffering and misunderstanding. His real function is as a sort of silent rebuke to his creator: all of Frankenstein’s grand dreams of perfection have resulted in a pathetic patchwork that barely seems stitched together. As in most Frankenstein stories and films, the creation is, ultimately, a kind of dark doppelganger to his creator, even acting out Frankenstein’s murderous intentions. (The Baron locks the maid in a cell with the creature when she gets to nosey. The scene is all the more effective for its suggestiveness, dissolving away as the woman screams when the creature reaches out for her, leaving it unclear whether his intention is murder or rape. The juxtaposition with subsequent scene, with the Baron enjoy a convivial breakfast, is so incongruous that the result is an excellent piece of black humor: when the Baron asks his fiancé to “pass the marmalade,” as if nothing untoward had recently happened, the viewer is forced to laugh in wicked admiration of Frankenstein’s cheek.)
The film is also notable for the way it re-imagines one of the genre’s most overused clichés: the mad scientist’s assistant. In the 1930s films, such characters were named Fritz or Igor; they usually had hunched back, and their purpose was usually to wander around looking creepy—an added bit of visual unpleasantness during an era when physical deformity was much on the public mind (thanks to soldiers returning home after being maimed on the battlefields of World War One). In CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the “assistant” is actually Frankenstein’s former teacher (the pupil becomes the master). Played by Robert Urquhart, Paul Krempe is the voice of decency, moderation, and restraint—the conscience that Frankenstein refuses to heed. He is also a sort of emotional barometer for the audience, his reactions to Frankenstein’s work expressing the moral outrage we are meant to feel.
If the film has any weaknesses, they lay in the somewhat slow pacing of the early scenes, which also feature a less than assured performance by Melvyn Hayes as the young Victor Frankenstein. Perhaps his fresh-faced innocence is supposed to supply a contrast with the steely-eyed determination of his adult self, but the effect backfires, providing too little foreshadowing of what is too come and leaving the early scenes feeling empty, without the galvanizing impact of Cushing’s presence. Fortunately, once Cushing arrives on screen, the film sparks with energy, and you have to watch in awe as he ruthlessly establishes a new standard for mad science on screen, one that is all the more horrible for looking so attractive, so assured, and so unperturbably cool.
The film was shot in Technicolor by Jack Asher, under the direction of Terence Fisher, working on a budget of 65,000 pounds (approximately $150,000). The script eliminated all of the novel’s globe-trotting, so Bernard Robinson’s production design could concentrate—quite brilliantly—on the Baron’s luxurious castle, creating an almost decadent sense of a polite aristocratic facade presiding over the “workshop of filthy creation” in the basement. James Bernard supplied the first of many effective musical accompaniments.
The result is a timeless classic that stands up as well as the best of Universal’s 1930s horror films. The film’s novel approach changed the face of horror, replacing black-and-white shadows with colorful grue. The huge (and unexpected) success launched Hammer into the horror genre for most of the next two decades, creating numerous new versions of classic movies monsters (THE MUMMY, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, etc), not to mention numerous Frankenstein sequels (REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, etc), some of which were as good as (and possibly even better than) the original.
If anything, time has been kind to CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which was chastised in its time for being tastelessly explicit and for failing to establish an effective atmosphere. (Critic R. D. Smith proclaimed, “For all lovers of the cinema, only two words describe this film – Depressing, Degrading!”) Decades later, the shock of Technicolor gore has long worn off – which is ultimately a good thing, because it proves that Smith and other contemporary critics, who derided the film for its graphic violence, were completely wrong. The true horror of in Sangster’s screenplay is moral in nature, and it continues to make the skin crawl today, thanks to the incisive performance of Cushing as the Baron – never flinching from his purpose, despite the accumulating atrocities he must commit. The appalling lack of conscience is underlined director Fisher’s careful use of reaction shots emphasizing the disgusted reactions of the mad scientist’s former mentor.
Subsequent viewings also benefit Lee’s performance as the creature. Often viewed as little more than a killing machine, lacking the soul of Karloff’s monster, Lee’s interpretation reveals a surprising sense of sympathy for the shambling being. And the color makeup by Phil Leaky may not match the iconic stature of Pierce’s work on Karloff, but it does suggest a more believable result of surgery—a creature that really does seem to have been stitched together piecemeal by Frankenstein.
Ultimately, the enduring appeal of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN rests in Cushing interpretation of the Baron. The late actor, who professed to having “a tremendous amount of affection for Baron Frankenstein,” said that, besides Mary Shelley’s novel, he based his interpretation of Frankenstein upon Dr. Robert Knox, the anatomy teacher who suffered a scandal when it was learned that the cadavers he used to teach his students had been illegally obtained –and in some cases murdered – by Burke and Hare. Many believed that Knox must have known what was happening, and simply turned a blind eye in the name of science. “I try to base Frankenstein on a man who is, fundamentally, trying to do something for the good of mankind, as indeed Knox was, but against all odds….”
Indeed, the odds always thwart Frankenstein, not only in this film but also in the sequels, eternally depriving him of the success he so ardently desires. There is some dark fascination in this eternally fruitless quest, enough to keep the Frankenstein franchise fresh until its conclusion in 1972’s FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL. But CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN remains the classic film that started it all, like a burst of electricity that still gleams to this day, forever illuminating the mad scientist’s lab equipment—and the awful results—in our minds.

TRIVIA

Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, the duo who had sold their unfilmed Frankenstein script to Hammer, later formed Amicus Films. The company became Hammer’s chief English competitor in the horror genre during the 1960s. Subotsky and Rosenberg produced numerous terror titles like HORROR HOTEL, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, and TORTURE GARDEN, usually starring Christopher Lee and/or Peter Cushing.
CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Robert Uquhart, Hazel Court, Valerie Gaunt.
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