Birthday Greetings to Christopher Lee, Vincent Price & (belatedly) Peter Cushing

Christopher Lee (back left), Vincent Price (back right), Peter Cushing (front)
Christopher Lee (back left), Vincent Price (back right), Peter Cushing (front)
Cinefantastique celebrates the horror stars’ birthdays with retrospective interviews regarding their work together on HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, THE OBLONG BOX, and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.

Horror and fantasy acting legend Christopher Lee (the STAR WARS prequel trilogy, LORD OF THE RINGS) shares a May 27 birthday anniversary with the late “Merchant of Menace” Vincent Price (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, HOUSE OF USHER); their frequent co-star, the late Peter Cushing, was born on May 26.  To celebrate their 100th (Vincent), 98th (Peter) and 89th (Sir Christopher) birthdays, here are some of the comments that Lee and Price made in the mid-eighties about their last film together, THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS.  The movie was something of a horror milestone as  it also featured horror star John Carradine (HOUSE OF DRACULA); unfortunately,  despite the teaming of  these four horror greats, the picture was very poorly conceived and executed, so it was no big surprise that it was never released to theatres in America.

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MGM recently made the film available as a bare bones DVD-on-demand through Amazon; apparently the quality of the transfer makes the film completely unwatchable.  George Reis at DVD Drive-In calls it “probably the worst looking product ever to bare the MGM logo, with a far inferior transfer than the one used for the old VHS release!
This is rather a shame, since the joy of seeing Price, Lee, Cushing and Carradine acting together in even a badly written and directed piece of claptrap like The House of Long Shadows would be a real delight for classic horror film fans.  The DVD might also have been made more memorable if MGM had done the right thing and released it as one of their “Midnight Movie” DVD’s and included a few extras, such as the beautifully narrated Vincent Price trailer, the video press conference that Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and John Carradine held to promote the film at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, or even an audio commentary with Sir Christopher Lee!
Interestingly enough, when I talked to Christopher Lee on his birthday in 1984, he felt the film was “most entertaining.”  Apparently he has drastically altered his opinion since then, as he wrote in the 2003 edition of his autiobiography, The Lord of Misrule, that The House of the Long Shadows was billed as the four masters of the macabre and there wasn’t a single marvelous speech to share between us. The direction was a blank and we agreed with the critics who shredded the film.”  Perhaps, as Vincent Price told me, the film was ruined by a woman editor at MGM who apparently “took an axe to the film.”

CHRISTOPHER LEE on THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS

House of Long Shadows (1983)LAWRENCE FRENCH: You haven’t done a Gothic thriller like The House of the Long Shadows for quite some time.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, my involvement is less and less these days. Until somebody comes up with a good story, whether it’s science fiction, fantasy or shocker. Whatever you want to call it. I’m just waiting for somebody to give me a film in that area, which is very worth doing.
LAWRENCE FRENCH:  What was it about The House of Long Shadows that tempted you back to making a terror film? Was it the chance to work with your three co-stars, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, it was primarily the cast. I’ve made pictures with Vincent, I’ve made a great many pictures with Peter, and I had done one picture, called Goliath Awaits, with John Carradine. I had never worked on a picture with all three of them. I don’t think any of us had worked together in the same picture before. This was a first. Hopefully, not a last, but certainly a first. When Vincent, John and I were being interviewed for television, at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, somebody asked Vincent if we would be doing more pictures together, all four of us. He said, “Yes, we’d be delighted to, but they better hurry up!” (Peter was not there, as he lives in England, and hates to travel).  So it was the cast, then it was the story. I thought the story was most entertaining, most amusing, with its adequate share of thrills and chills, and there is a remarkable twist in the story, which nobody quite expects, that I think gives it its major value. The one thing about this picture that is of the utmost importance is that the audience should know before they see the film, what kind of picture they’re going to see. If they think they’re going to see a 100% terror movie, they aren’t and I think that should be made clear. If they think they’re going to see a 100%  comedy, they aren’t, and I think that should also be made clear. I think, for lack of a better phrase, it should be described very clearly beforehand as a black comedy, which is exactly what it is. Audiences from my experience, don’t like to go and see films expecting one thing and then getting another.  The film ran for a very short time at a theatre in London and was taken out because the theatre concerned was already booked with its next film. Apart from that very short run, it’s never been seen, except at film festivals. One in Spain, one in France, and I think one in Germany.  In every case it has been extremely well received. The public enjoyed it immensely, because they knew what kind of picture they were going to see.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Were you aware of the reputation of director Pete Walker? His past films (such as House of Whipcord and Schizo) are not very good and are quite graphic and gory.

House of the Long Shadows: Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price
House of the Long Shadows: Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price

CHRISTOPHER LEE:  No, I didn’t know this. Having not seen any of his previous films, I can’t comment on them. But I didn’t know that until some months afterwords, somebody told me that he had done some very violent pictures and even did some softcore films, or something in that area.  However, that’s not quite the point. If you have a competent director, a good crew, and the crew was excellent, a cast which certainly knows what they’re doing in this particular area, as well as other actors, like Richard Todd and the very delightful ladies who are in the film, and everyone works together in a story that is amusing, exciting and, at times, very scary, I think you have the recipe for a very good film, which is what we ended up with. I saw it at a private screening in Rome, nearly two years ago and I thought it was most entertaining, and worked as well as I could possibly have hoped it to do. The people who have seen it at the festivals, knowing what they were going to see, a black comedy with an unexpected twist and the veterans at work, have been absolutely delighted with the picture. Why it isn’t being shown I have no idea. All I can tell you is that at the (1984) Cannes Film Festival my wife asked Yoram Globus, one of the heads at Cannon Films, what had happened to the picture and he said it was going to come out on cable TV in October.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When I talked to Cannon’s publicity people in 1983, they told me the film was going through marketing tests.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: I’ve never been able to find out what a marketing test is! I mean do you get people who sit around a table with rows of figures in front of them, or strange mystic symbols, who then make obtuse calculation in a room, saying this film will appeal to this audience, and it won’t appeal to that audience, then come up with an answer and say, “yes, we will show it,”  or  “no, we won’t show it.”  I understand the value of this, but there’s also that imponderable that really nobody knows until the public get a chance to make up its own mind. You cannot calculate the public’s reaction by sitting around a table and talking figures.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Apparently they put the figures they had into a computer which came up with a projected gross that wouldn’t justify the cost of  releasing the film.
CHRISTOPHER LEE:  A computer! That really just proves what I’ve been saying. I’m not going to take issue with these gentlemen, because it’s their job, and I know very little about it. I’m merely a creative person. Yet, when you say a computer makes the decision, you’re into the realms of fantasy. Real fantasy, as opposed to film fantasy!  How can a machine possibly predict what a man and a woman, or a boy and a girl are going to like or not like? We’re talking about the reaction of the public watching a film. To me, the fact that this sort of thing is fed into a computer is a disastrous sign for the future of the film industry. It’s like the famous “Q” rating which exists in television, where they feed the names of actors and actresses into a computer, and the computer tells them whether that actor or actress is significantly popular to warrant putting them in a series. Ask the public, don’t ask a computer!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I would think that the combined value of your four star names alone would justify releasing the film.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I quite agree. It’s a mystery. I firmly believe that if this film is given a proper promotion and representation to the public, it would do extremely well, because it’s a very entertaining movie. Together we have made a considerable number of pictures. We worked it out one day, and I’ve made over 150 now, Vincent’s done about 120, Peter’s done 110 and John said he’s made 430 pictures! That’s quite possible, because when he started out, you made two or three pictures a month. They were very quick in those day, jumping from one studio to another.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: During the filming of your death in the movie, Vincent was apparently watching and was quoted as saying, rather gleefully, “I just love to see Chris bleed.”
CHRISTOPHER LEE:  Yes, that’s typical of Vincent and his humor.  Indeed, all of us would have said the same thing about each other. One must maintain a very relaxed attitude towards this kind of film. If you’re making a film with people whom you respect enormously as actors, and people whom you’re very, very fond of as individuals, then one is bound to have a lot of joshing and fun on the set. That’s the best way to make a picture of this kind. So he may very well have said that,  it wouldn’t surprise me at all.  If he did, I certainly go along with it, because I certainly would have thought of something similar to say at the time of his demise in the film. I think that’s a very funny line and very appropriate.
Vincent Price goes into the acid.
Vincent Price goes into the acid in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Of course, you did get to push Vincent into a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, that’s right and the yellow tinge of the acid made it look like Vincent had suffered some terrible natural mishap on a grand scale, so the first take we did was completely ruined by our both laughing as we fought to the death. The three of us were in that as well, but not in the same scenes. I played the head of British Intelligence, who was an alien.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You were supposed to be an alien? I didn’t realize that when I saw the film.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Oh yes, I am an alien. I have this very responsible job as the head of British Intelligence. Vincent’s character was an alien, as well.  He is one, and I’m another. I’m really there to pay him off for all the mistakes he’s made with his experiments. If that wasn’t clear, it was either in the cutting or the story, because that indeed was meant to be the solution. It is a fault that lies, not with us, but elsewhere–in the way the film was put together.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It was made for Amicus and producer Milton Subotsky who always liked to tamper with his films in the cutting room.  Later on, didn’t Milton Subotsky ask you to appear in The Monster Club?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I got a message from my agent asking me if I would like to do a picture with Milton Subotsky and I said, “Yes, after all these years, what does he have planned?” So he told me he’s going to do a picture called The Monster Club. I said, “That’s enough. We need go no further!”
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That’s funny, because Peter Cushing also turned him down, but Vincent said he thought it was a funny script and decided to do it, as did John Carradine.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Well, people do what they want to do, or what they enjoy doing. If Vincent wanted to do it and it was a story which appealed to him, fine, then do it. It might have been, for all I know, a marvelous script, but a title like that would put me off immediately. I hated the title of a picture I did with Milton, called  I, Monster. I thought it was a dreadful title, and I never stopped telling him that. It was an absolutely absurd title, because it was the story of Jekyll and Hyde. In that respect, it was very good, because what we did was very close to Stevenson’s story.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Except you were not called Dr Jekyll.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, they changed it to Dr. Marlowe and Mr. Blake, while everyone else had the correct names from the Stevenson story. Don’t ask me why. I’ve long since ceased trying to fathom the mysteries of why people do certain things in this business. But I thought it was an appalling title, and Milton, on the other hand, thought it was a very good one.  He said it was a good marquee title, so we agreed to disagree.

VINCENT PRICE on THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS

House of the Long Shadows (1983)
Price in HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS

LAWRENCE FRENCH: You got to act with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine for the first time in The House of the Long Shadows, and although I felt it could have been a much better film, Christopher Lee told me he thought the film was quite entertaining.
VINCENT PRICE: I did too, we all thought it was good, until this woman took an ax to it! It has to be recut. I really don’t know what she was doing. She called me up and said, “will you go out and promote the film”, and I said, “If you show the film that we shot,” because it’s just not the same film. She cut out all of the comedy payoffs to everything. As you know, we were all hired actors to scare Desi Arnaz, Jr. out of the house, people who just came in to do a job. After everything that happens in the house, Chris Lee getting killed, and all the other things, suddenly we all come out and take a bow, and it is revealed to Desi that we are all actors. We had these marvelous comments on all the things that happened, and that was all cut out. They tried to turn it into a horror picture and destroyed it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When I saw it the bows you all take at the end are still in the film.  It reminded me of the Fritz Lang film, The Woman in the Window.
VINCENT PRICE: That’s the way it should have been done, so maybe they’ve put it back together. But I think there was way too much of Desi Arnaz in the beginning, and it does take too long to get into the story, so I don’t quite understand it. I don’t know if it was Golan and Globus (the producers) who wanted it to be a horror picture, or what. If they did, then why did they shoot it as a comedy?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Is it true that you were watching Christopher Lee’s death scene, and said, “I just love to see Chris bleed.”
The Oblong Box (1969)
Price and Lee share a single brief scene in THE OBLONG BOX.

VINCENT PRICE: (laughing) Yes! We’re great friends you know.  We both find each other hysterically funny. Before we met I heard he was very pompous, and I was really worried about meeting him.  It was on The Oblong Box, the first film we did together. Well, we took one look at each other and started laughing.  We spend our lives screaming and laughing at each other and having a wonderful time. I’m really devoted to him.  I think he’s really one of my few very good friends in the business.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I imagine that’s one reason why you wanted to do the picture, even if it wasn’t first-rate material, because you got to work with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine.
VINCENT PRICE: Oh yes, absolutely. It was like a marvelous class reunion. John is an adorable character, who I’ve known for about 40 years now. Peter is unfortunately, a little gloomy, because of his wives death, but he’s still a sweet man.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s too bad about Peter Cushing, because Christopher Lee was telling me how’s he’s really just waiting to join his wife, Helen.
VINCENT PRICE: I know, it’s like, “are you kidding?” It’s very sad.  He’s just waiting to die, but he’s going to have to wait a long time. He’s going to live to be 100 years old, but Peter and I have done a lot together.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What else, besides Madhouse?
VINCENT PRICE: We did a marvelous radio show in England called Aliens of the Mind (broadcast in six parts in January, 1977) and we were in a picture called Scream and Scream Again.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, but you never appeared in any scenes with Peter Cushing in Scream and Scream Again. Peter Cushing was only on screen for about two minutes!
VINCENT PRICE: Yes, and Chris Lee was in that one, as well.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: One of things Christopher Lee fervently believes in, is the reality of evil and the dark forces. You’ve played several very evil characters, from the Satan-worshipping Prince Prospero, to Satan himself.
VINCENT PRICE: Satan is the ultimate hero.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: But do you believe in evil or the occult?
VINCENT PRICE: I don’t believe in the occult, but I do believe there is a power of evil.  How do you read the Bible?  It is divided equally between good and evil.  You can’t have good without evil, because there’s no conflict.  One of the lectures I do is basically that; trying to explain that the role of the villain has a definite part in the history of drama.  He is the fellow who creates the suspense and the conflict.  You can’t have drama without suspense.

Hammer Horror Series – Retrospective DVD Review

Yesterday, in a review of THE RAVEN (1935), I mentioned that, although the number of my DVD purchases is rapidly declining, thanks to the availability of movies through services like Netflix Instant Viewing and Amazon.com’s Video on Demand, I still appreciate the opportunity to own a boxful of favorite titles at a discount price, even if there is a diminished bit-rate that results from compressing two films onto one side of the same disc. After recently obtaining a 50-inch widescreen plasma television, I hauled out my Hammer Horror Series box set and tried out a few films, just to see how they looked, and the results were fantastic – not Blu-ray quality to be sure, but nevertheless bold and beautiful, as Hammer Horror should be. BRIDES OF DRACULA, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN – all of them looked great. Perhaps a more perceptive eye than mine could have detected some flaws such as artifacting, but I found the viewing experience to be perfectly satisfying.
For those of you who do not know, Hammer was an English movie production company that began remaking Universal’s horror classics in the 1950s, except that Hammer’s films were in Technicolor instead of black-and-white, and for the filmmakers were not afraid to actually show things like vampire fangs and a stake going through the heart. Many of the best films were produced by Anthony Hinds, directed by Terence Fisher, and written by Jimmy Sangster, with Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS) and/or Christopher Lee (Count Dooku REVENGE OF THE SITH) in the starring roles.
The initial spate of Hammer films (CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA) were not really remakes, strictly speaking; rather, they were new films based on the same literary source material. After the first few, Universal Pictures struck a deal with Hammer, which did result in some literal remakes (such as the Hammer version of THE MUMMY, which draws from several elements in the Universal series of films from the ’30s and ’40s).
The two-disc “Hammer Horror Series” contains eight films from the British studio that reshaped the horror genre in its own bloody image. The titles all came out in the early 1960s, when the company was simultaneously sequelizing their earlier hits and also poking around the in the graveyard for new spirits to evoke. Thus we get not only sequels like BRIDES OF DRACULA and EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN but also new versions of old monsters (PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF), interesting variations on familiar themes (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE), and a couple of black-and-white psychological thrillers (NIGHTMARE, PARAONOIAC).
What is especially nice about this collectionis that, although most of the more famous horror titles were already gathered together in the previous “Hammer Horror Collection” DVD box set, the films on the Hammer Horror Series DVDs are amost equally deserving of attention: all are entertaining; most are quite good, and a couple are classic in their own right; combined together, they make a must-have collector’s item for fans:
BRIDES OF DRACULA is the second in the company’s Dracula series. Although it suffers from the absence of Christopher Lee’s Count, Peter Cushing is back as Van Helsing, fighting off a handsome blond vampire (the obvious inspiration for Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat). The production values are excellent and the story packs a few surprises.

Oliver Reeds Leon takes a turn for the worse
Oliver Reed's Leon takes a turn for the worse

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF remains probably the best werewolf movie ever made. You don’t see the wolf much; the story is more like a tragic history of a hapless human, cursed from birth with the taint of lycanthropy, which emerges briefly in his younger years, then sprouts full-blown as as adult. The late Oliver Reed plays the werewolf; the film is very good but very depressing (it ends tragically, as most werewolf movies do).
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was an attempt to do a different kind of “horror film,” with an emphasis on bigger production values and the tragic romance at the core of the story. (Supposedly, Cary Grant was slated to play the title character, so the script was written to de-emphasize the horror.) It’s an admirable effort but not quite the masterpiece it was intended to be; still, it’s much better than the interminable Claude Rains version from the 1940s.
PARANOIAC and NIGHTMARE are two psycho-thrillers, of which Hammer made several in the 1960s, following Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. The Hammer efforts are not match for Hitchcock, but they are good-looking productions, and director Freddie Francis (an Oscar-winning cinematographer) knew how to use the camera to good effect, even if the scritpts are a bit mechanical in their attempts to yield unguessable surprise endings.
KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, for some reason, is the Hammer film for people who don’t like Hammer films. Although I’m not quite sure why, I think it has something to do with the plot, which is structured a bit like a Hitchcock thriller: a honeymooning couple comes to town; the bride disappears; and when the husband searches for her, the locals claim never to have seen her. Of course, everyone is silent because they are in a thrall to the vampires in the castle. The film has a fairly remarkable ending: instead of stakes and crosses, a magic incantation sends a swarm of vampire bats that bleed the living dead dry. Unfortunately, the special effects are not as good as the concept, so the execution falls flat.
Also noteworthy: If you saw KISS OF THE VAMPIRE on late night television in the U.S.A., you saw a bastardized version. Not only were things cut out, but also new scenes were added to pad out the running time. And we do mean pad: absolutely interminable dialogue with periphieral characters who never interact with the main cast, but just stand off in the sidelines talking about stuff we already know.
NIGHT CREATURES is a bit of a fake-out. It’s actually a thriller about smugglers who disguise themselves as ghosts and/or monsters to scare everyone away and thus insure the secrecy of their operation.
EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is actually one of Hammer’s lesser Frankenstein films, but Peter Cushing is, as always, interesting to watch in the role. The problem seems to have been that the film was designed to be more like the old Universal horror films, so the fresh and bold Hammer approach of the previous Frankenstein installments was abandoned in favor of embracing old-fashioned cliches like torch-wielding villagers. Like KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, this film had pointless new scenes added for American television.
The set is disappointing in only a couple of ways. First, there are no bonus features, not even a trailer. Second, the films included date from the period when Christopher Lee (who had co-starred with Peter Cushing in the first round of Hammer horror classics), was away in Italy, working on films like HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD; it seems a shame to have a Hammer box set in which one half of the greatest horror double team of all time is not represented by even a single title.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski. This version has been slightly updated.

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

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

click to purchase

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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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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Madhouse (1974) – A Retrospective

Vincent Price as horror actor Paul Toombes in MADHOUSE.This 1974 effort is Vincent Price’s last starring role in a horror film and the last film he made for American International Pictures, the company responsible for the vast majority of his later big screen appearances. Appropriately enough, MADHOUSE feels a bit like a requiem, with Price playing aging horror star Paul Toombs, who attempts to revive his famous Dr. Death character on television, decades after an unsolved murder destroyed his film career and his sanity. Unfortunately, people begin dying hideous deaths inspired by scenes from the Dr. Death movies, and the police naturally suspect Toombs. The actor himself is unable to speak in his own defense, afraid that he may be committing the murders in a black-out and not remembering them. Eventually consumed with guilt over the deaths his character is committing, he locks himself into the studio, turns on the cameras, and sets fire to the set, dying a spectacular death in a fire. Or does he?
A weak genre effort, MADHOUSE makes little if any effort to transcend the horror label, instead offering up familiar elements for the benefit of undemanding viewers. Nevertheless, it is amusing for Price fans, who get to see him playing, in a sense, a fictionalized version of himself, a point underlined by using numerous clips from Price’s old AIP horror films to represent Toombs’s career. One is almost tempted to label MADHOUSE Price’s version of SUNSET BOULEVARD, though the film scarcely merits comparison to Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece.
Director Jim Clark (a former editor) stages the action competently, but he does not have the sophisticated sensibility to create a post-modern meta-movie – that is, not just a standard horror film but a self-reflexive film about horror films. Instead, we get a by-the-numbers approach, enlivened mostly by the presence of Price and his two co-stars, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry, whose verbal sparring provides an opportunity to add a little panache to an otherwise prosaic effort. Though the dialogue is seldom more than adequate, the acting trio makes the most out of it, particularly in two show business party scenes, wherein they exchange amusingly snide witticisms.
The result falls far short of being a masterpiece, but it is more than enough to enough to please cult enthusiasts eager to see the horror stars on screen together.

BEHIND THE SCENES

A co-production between AIP and the English company Amicus (responsible for numerous horror films such as 1967’s TORTURE GARDEN), MADHOUSE was based on a bad novel by Angus Hall called Devilday.  The book wallowed in sleazy sex and scandal: we first meet Toombs shacked up with a sixteen-year-old, acne-scarred groupie (do aging horror stars really have groupies?), and his big scene consists of appearing naked at a Black Mass, so that the congregation can (literally) kiss his ass. Little happens, making the short novel feel longer than it is, and what does happen is deliberately left unexplained. The reader assumes that Toombs is up to something, but his guilt is never clearly established. At the climax, he is impaled by a falling rock, and a swarm of fans rifles his body for souveniers, but years later the novel’s narrator catches a glimpse of Toombs in a car, leading him to suspect that murder and mayhem will resume. Overall, despite the (then) modern English setting, the story seems inspired less by the Gothic Horror tradition than by scandalous legends from the early days of Hollywood. (Toombs’ career meltdown – after being suspected of shoving an icicle up a woman’s vagina – vaguely parallels that of silent film comic Fatty Arbuckle, who fell out of favor after being tried for literally raping a woman to death – even though the jury emphatically aquitted him of any and all wrong-doing.)


Fortunately, little of the novel remains in the screenplay, except the basic premise of a former film actor making a comeback on television, years after a bloody scandal. The script turns Toombs into a more sympathetic character, with whom the audience identifies even while uncertain of his guilt. Also added were the murders inspired by the Dr. Death movies – which lead us to suspect Toombes, even though we guess that someone may be setting him up. Unfortunately, the film feels a bit like a last gasp attempt to capitalize on the “Creative Deaths” formula used in Price’s previous efforts THE ABOMIMABLE DR. PHIBES, DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN, and THEATRE OF BLOOD, lacking the wit and imagination of those films.
Price had been working for American International Pictures since THE HOUSE OF USHER in 1960, but he had grown unhappy churning out low-budget, unimaginative horror films. “My contract had finished and I hoped it would be my last,” he told Cinefantastique for the career retrospective that ran in the January 1989 issues (Volume 19, No 2).
Actor Robert Quarry, who had co-starred with Price on the far superior DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, was being groomed to replace the horror star after this film – a strategy that never came to fruition. He recalled that MADHOUSE was ill-fated from the start, thanks to Price’s shaky status at American International Pictures after year’s of contract disputes.
“What could we do?” Quarry asks rhetorically. “It ws Vincent’s last movie with AIP. His contract was up. We never got a script until Sunday morning, and we were to start shooting the next day. That gave us no time to bitch and scream. They knew if they’d sent it to us two weeks before, we’d have called them up and said, ‘Hey, work this over – it’s terrible!’ So they were very smart there.
“Jim Clark may have been a good film editor, but he was ill-prepared to direct a movie – he was just gonna shoot what was there,” Quarry continues. “So I would change the dialogue around so it was speakable and then leave the last line, the cue line, in. They never knew what hit them: when I finished talking and gave the cue line, the other actor spoke. About the second day, I told Vincent I had made some changes, so I wouldn’t have to speak this shit. He said, ‘God, help me with my stuff – could you rewrite some of this?’ I was flattered that Vincent trusted me enought to let me rewrite some of the scenes. I couldn’t change the scenes, but at least we put a little edge on some of them. That was probably the only serious work we did together, trying to find ways to do this dreadful movie.”
At the time of filming, Prices was in the process of breaking up with his second wife, who remained in the States with their daughter, while he was on the set in England (where all of Price’s later horror films were shot, for budgetary reasons). Quarry recalls that Price played fast and loose with his expense account.
“Vincent told me, in case anybody asked if Victoria and Mary were there, I was to say yes, because he wrote it in on his expenses. All that expense money for two weeks: first class air fare, food. I said, ‘Oh, I love it, I love it. Can’t you get anybody else on there?’ After all, he made a great deal of money for AIP. He was their only superstar. And they should have been damn grateful to him, and they should have paid him more money. Frankly, anything he could steal out of that studio – I said, ‘Baby, steal!‘”
When completed, MADHOUSE was barely released and never found much of an audience. Tentative plans for another Price vehicle at AIP, THE NAKED EYE, were dropped. It was the end of an era. Although Price would continue to remain busy as an actor, never again would he dominate the screen as the King of Horror. Partly this was due to the blockbuster success of THE EXORCIST: the lavish, major-studio production ushered in a new brand of horror, which helped contribute to the downfall of genre-friendly companies like Hammer Films, Amicus, and AIP, whose modestly budgeted efforts seemed low-key and quaint by comparison.
Viewed today, MADHOUSE is fun for fans, despite its flaws, and it does hold a place of some historical importance as Price’s last starring role in a horror film designed specifically as a vehicle for his talents. The film is available on DVD as part of MGM’s Midnight Movies Double Features, packaged with the far more enjoyable THEATRE OF BLOOD. The bare-bones presentation offers good transfers of both films but no bonus features except for trailers.

TRIVIA

The credits for MADHOUSE somewhat misleadingly include the names of horror stars Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, both of whom died long before MADHOUSE was filmed. They appear only in clips from films in which one or both of them co-starred with Price, THE RAVEN (1963) and TALES OF TERROR (1962).
MADHOUSE (American International Pictures and Amicus Films, 1974). Directed by Jim Clark. Screenplay by Ken Levison, Greg Morrison, based on the novel Devilday by Angus Hall. Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri, Linda Hayden, Natasha Pyne.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) – A Retrospective

By Steve Biodrowski 

This is a delightful sequel that many (though not all) fans and critics rate higher than THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971). Vincent Price returns as the titular mad doctor, this time on a quest to find the River of Eternal life in Egypt, so that he can revive his dead wife (Caroline Munro). Structured as a long race to see whether he will achieve his goal, the story is less episodic, and the character is placed at center stage and speaks more often (rather than being the mysterious, mostly silent figure seen in ABOMINABLE). This time, Phibes is opposed by Professor Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), who in some ways is a better adversary than was Joseph Cotten’s surgeon in the original film. A more ambiguous character, Biederbeck has extended his own life with a magical elixir, and now that it is running out, he is as ruthless and amoral as Phibes in his pursuit of the River of Life. Thus, the two characters come across as more evenly matched, competing super villains; consequently, the outcome of the story is less of a forgone conclusion, actually allowing Phibes to triumph, sailing down the river while singing (in Price’s real voice) “Over the Rainbow”!
Like any good sequel, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN builds on the first film, recycling what worked while adding some new elements. Again, Phibes disposes of a series of hapless victims in gruesomely inventive ways (one is sandblasted to death, another crushed into the shape of a cube, etc). Again, he is aided and abetted by a silent, beautiful female assistant named Vulnavia, who lures men into Phibes’ devious traps. Again, Scotland Yard detectives relentlessly pursue Phibes, who inevitably eludes them (“Every time we built a better mouse trap, Phibes build a better mouse.) And once again, scenes are filled with beautiful sets, costumes, and music that make the film seem quite elaborate, despite its relatively modest budget.
Several elements from the first film were brought back in different guises. Actors Hugh Griffith and Terry-Thomas returned in supporting roles, but playing different characters. Valli Kemp (Miss Australia 1970) replaced Virginia North as Phibes mysterious and unexplained assistant Vulnavia. This created a bit of an unacknowledged continuity problem, because Vulnavia was clearly killed in a rain of acid in the first film; Fuest wrote the role as a new character in the second film, but AIP wanted name continuity, apparently. Also ignored was the promise at the end of the first film that Phibes would return to menace his opponents with a Biblical “Plague of Darkness.”

Phibes (Vincent Price) with the new Vulnavia (Valli Kemp)

Other new faces include the lovely Fiona Lewis (Roman Polanski’s DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, Brian DePalma’s THE FURY), as Biederbeck’s love interest, and veteran horror star Peter Cushing, who lent his presence to one scene, as a ship’s captain suitably appalled when Biederbeck doesn’t want to bother trying to rescue a colleague who has been thrown overboard by Phibes. Though brief, Cushing’s appearance (along with those of Thomas and Griffith) lends a touch of class and professionalism to the production, making even relatively small roles stand out with some distinction.
If there is a weakness, it is that the sequel tends to emphasize the campy humor at the expense of the horror. With Phibes now nominally the hero, the audience is not really expected to be frightened by him; instead, we are invited to identify and laugh along with him as he polishes off everyone in his way. Still, this is a small price to pay for the faster-paced plot and many imaginative and amusing touches that make this an extremely entertaining fantasy adventure, if not a very scary horror film.

BEHIND THE SCENES

After THE ABMONINABLE DR. PHIBES became a commercial success, American International Pictures rushed to repeat the formula. This time, director Robert Fuest collaborated on the screenplay with Robert Blees, an old friend of executive producer Louis M. Heyward, who brought him in to balance Fuest’s off-the-wall approach. “Bob Fuest has a wild sense of humor,” Heyward explains. “Bob [Blees] I knew from [20th Century] Fox. Bob had done MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, for which he got an Oscar nomination. He’s a singular craftsman with a sly sense of humor.”
Shot in England, the film was modestly budgeted but relatively lavish, thanks to economics of the British film industry, which could achieve much more with less money than was possible in America. The film is filled with clever and eccentric visual touches that make it seem more expensive than it is, such as the Rolls Royce grill that adorns Mrs. Phibes’ coffin.
“That was genius,” says Heyward. “We had a rolls Royce grill which we couldn’t afford to buy—it was something like a thousand pounds, front and rear. So we had the temerity to say to the Rolls Royce company, ‘You’re getting a free plug—we’ll leave the Rolls plate on, if you’ll loan the grills to us for free.”


Robert Quarry was chose to play Phibes antagonist on the basis of his success in the title role of COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, a campy, low-budget, modern-day vampire film. Shot independently, YORGA had been picked up for distribution by AIP, which signed Quarry to a contract and turned out a slightly bigger-budget sequel, THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA. With their tongue-in-cheek attitude (Yorga is a notably sarcastic vampire count), the films were good warm-up for participating in Robert Fuest’s campy approach to horror, although Quarry is one of those who think the director over-emphasized the comedy in DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN.
“I thought the first picture was terrific because it was a combination of horror and satire,” says Quarry, whereas in the sequel, “I didn’t think anything was ever that scary, because Fuest was looking for the big joke all the time.”
Like Joseph Cotton before him, Quarry found it difficult to act opposite Price in his Phibes role. Because doctor is supposed to be horribly disfigured beneath the makeup he wears to look normal, he is unable to speak with his lips, relying on a voice that emerges from a gramophone attached by a wire to his neck. On set, Price would mime the facial expressions while a script girl read his lines off screen; then he would dub the voice in post-production. This left Quarry playing his scenes who was merely staring back at him.
“I can’t describe what it’s like to work with Vincent as an actor from PHBIES. I mean, Phibes is a silly role. How do you know how good an actor you worked with? God knows you couldn’t tell anything from [the silent facial expressions]. The hardest acting I ever did in my life were those scenes—keeping a straight face and playing it with anger while Vincent’s mugging. I’d say, ‘Vincent, I’m never going to get it; it’s like working with a goldfish.’ I’d look at him and think, ‘You look just like that goldfish in the Disney movie!’”
Quarry adds that Price enjoyed exaggerating his expressions in order to make his co-star blow takes. “He’s a funny man; he’s also a hard worker. He had to learn the scenes so his [expression] matched the dialogue. That isn’t easy to do, either; it looks easy, but trust me, it is not. He knew that I was gonna go crazy. He said, ‘Just wait till you do the scene. Joe Cotton couldn’t stand it.’ After the first take, which I blew—and Vincent’s loving every minute of it, because he knows what he’s doing to me—I thought I’d just relate it to somebody I really hate, in real life, and just look at his ear. Vincent said, ‘You did better than Joe Cotton did!’”
Although an American International Picture, with two Americans in the lead roles, PHIBES RISES AGAIN, like its predecessor was shot in England in order to keep costs down. This also allowed for the casting of strong British actors in the supporting roles, at a time when many American actors felt that horror films were disreputable.
Heyward takes credit for much of the casting. “Terry-Thomas was one of my favorites—he and Hugh Griffith I used in every picture I could.” However, Heyward’s boss, American International Pictures executive Samuel Z. Arkoff, had some concerns regarding Griffith’s reliability. “Arkoff said, ‘He’s a drunk.’ Everybody knew he was an alcoholic. I said, ‘Leave him to me, and it will be all right. I promise we won’t lose a day’s work; we won’t lose a half-day’s work.’ I had a long talk with Hugh: ‘Whatever you do at night’s your problem; in the day, you belong to me.’ People were afraid of him, and I wanted to prove they didn’t have to be.”
Heyward also takes credit for the casting of Quarry in the lead role opposite Price. “The casting of Robert Quarry was placed on me; we had a contract that had to be used up. In my opinion he was the weakest thing in the film. He didn’t integrate, and he didn’t have the fun that such a picture demands.”
However, this version of events seems unlikely, as Quarry was not only under contract with American International Pictures; the company also was clearly grooming him as a new horror star to step in as a replacement for Price, whose contract with the company was running out.
“I was told I was going to be set up to take Vincent’s place, but that was between us,” Quarry recalled. “Vincent didn’t care to work anymore at AIP. And they wanted to get rid of him because his salary was going up and up and his last two pictures had not done that well. He had an exclusive contract with AIP to do horror films; he had the same contract I had, except mine started down here in salary and his was already up there, with a much bigger per diem. His contract was up, and they were not going to re-option it. In me, they thought they had somebody new they could build into the horror thing.”
According to Quarry, a gaffe by a British publicity flack made Price aware that AIP was getting ready to dump him in favor of new blood. “We had an unfortunate incident that did create a schism between us,” Quarry recalled. “We’d been shooting about a week. They had a big cocktail reception. An English publicist came up to him and asked, ‘How do you feel about Mr. Quarry coming in as your replacement at AIP?’
“Vincent told me about what happened. He wasn’t happy about it; he was hurt. It was as if I was a ‘threat’ to Vincent’s career—to this man with this long, distinguished career that nobody could replace. This publicist made it sound as if I were out to de-throne the king. It was the wrong thing for that man to say—that man should have been fired. So I went to the producer and told him what had happened. Well, it was too late; the damage was done.
“After that, Vincent was never the same. That made a rift between us. Not our working together. As far as our working together, it was extremely pleasant. Our sense of humor was the one bond that made working with him a pleasure. We had an awful lot of laughs on the movie. When we worked in those scenes, it was hard, because Vincent never had any dialogue. Here I had to play these serious lines like ‘Phibes, you demon from hell!’ and Vincent sat there going”—Quarry finishes his sentence by shifting into an imitation of the silent throat-bulging Price used to convey Phibes liplessly speaking through his gramophone. “God, it was hysterical,” Quarry adds. “We enjoyed that; it was fun. But I never saw him socially after that incident, not ever.”
Apparently, the personal rift did not prevent a little conspiratorial skullduggery between the two actors, regarding Price’s expense account for his wife and daughter. “He told me, in case anybody asked if Victoria and Mary were there, I was to say yes. They hadn’t shown up, but Vincent wrote all it into his expenses—all that money for two weeks: first class air fair, food, per diem. Frankly, anything he could steal out of that studio—I said, ‘Baby, steal!’ When he said not to say anything about Mary and Victoria not coming, I said, ‘Oh, I love it! Can you get anybody else on there?”
Recalling the experience leads Quarry to wax philosophical about what it takes to perform well in the genre. “People think it isn’t tough to act in horror films,” he says. “It’s the toughest acting in the world. That’s why I have nothing but admiration for all those years Vincent played those horror films. They’re all peak emotions; they’re all phony. And you have to create a characterization out of something that doesn’t exist. There’s a great difference between that and being able to play scenes with real situations where emotions come honestly.”

Phibes finds the key that will lead him to eternal life.

UNMADE SEQUELS AND ILLEGITIMATE PROGENY

Unfortunately, with Price on his way out of American International Pictures, the company was not interested in continuing series of films featuring the actor in a recurring role. Price finished up his AIP contract by doing one more film with Quarry, 1973’s MADHOUSE, but Dr. Phibes’ career was over, even though RISES AGAIN, according to Louis Heyward, “did better than the first.”
Contrary to Heyward’s assessment, American International Pictures declared the film a box office failure at the time of its release, and a proposed third film never materialized. A big contributing factor in sinking a potential sequel was the departure of James H. Nicholson from AIP. (He went on to produce the excellent LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, scripted by renowned fantasy author Richard Matheson.) With Nicholson gone, Samuel Z. Arkoff was left solely in charge. Generally regarded as the more business-minded of the AIP duo, Arkoff was less enthusiastic about continuing AIP’s traditional horror formula than in moving into black exploitation genre, with titles like BLACULA and SUGAR HILL
“If Sam went out and had his cleaning lady write a movie, it couldn’t have been any worse than this piece of junk they dumped on me,” said Quarry, who was given the part of the lead villain, originally written for a black actor, because he owed Arkoff one more picture on his pay-or-play contract (that is, an exclusive contract that stipulates an actor will be paid even if the producer doesn’t put him in a movie, because the “exclusivity” clause prevents him from accepting other work). “Sam would have you do anything rather than pay you and not play you,” Quarry explained. “That was the end of the horror cycle; after that, came the blaxploitation pictures. It was the beginning of the end of AIP, although it lingered on, doing one ghastly film after another.”
Louis Heyward also blames the company’s circumstances for ending the Phibes series. “I left AIP; Jim [Nicholson] was gone,” recalled Louis Heyward. “You couldn’t do the pictures here [in the U.S.]. Plus, they lost the production team they had. Bob [Fuest] knew design, and I’d say [production designer Brian] Eatwell was very important. You need someone like Bob and Brian, who have lovely pictures in their head and understand the beauty of what they want to construct, and you need someone like myself—who controls the dollars with compassion, not a bread knife but a scalpel—to say, ‘Hey, it’s great, but for the dollars we have to do this; without emasculating, let’s take it here, and save.’”
These assessments from Quarry and Heyward probably include a good deal of hindsight. Whatever the contractual concerns and company upheavals, scripts were written for a third PHIBES film, so clearly someone at the time thought the idea might be viable.
Vincent Price always insisted that it was Fuest’s reluctance to direct further installments that ended the series. “One [script] was called DR. PHIBES IN THE HOLY LAND,” Price recalled for Cinefantastique magazine. “Remember at the end of the last one, we were in Egypt and I sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ It’s a marvelous script, a very funny script. I wanted Bob Fuest to direct it. He’s the only person in the world who is made enough to direct the Dr. Phibes films. He’s a genuine, registered nut! He even looks like a madman. He’s all over the place, like unmade bed. What an imagination he has! They were all his ideas.”
Long after AIP had closed shop, interest in a third PHIBES film remained. At one time or another, other talents were linked to a third installment to be called PHIBES RESURRECTUS, including ROBOCOP producer Jon Davison and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD director George Romero. However, Price was uncertain about pursuing the project without Fuest. “I don’t think so,” he replied when asked about playing the character for Romero. “I might do it. I’d have to see the script and talk to him.”
Sadly, the film never came to be. However, the Phibes formula did yield further progeny. Price’s next film (made for United Artists instead of American International Pictures) was 1973’s THEATRE OF BLOOD, a wonderful black comedy clearly derived from the premise of the first Phibes film. This time, the script had Price as a Shakespearian actor literally skewering critics who had figuratively skewered him, but the parallels were obvious, with Price once again playing a vengeful madman killing off victims in imaginatively horrible ways that made the audience both scream and laugh.
Appropriately enough, the script was also offered to director Robert Fuest, who turned it down. “They all get frightened that they’re going to get stuck in” the horror genre, Price explained of Fuest’s interesting in pursuing other projects (including AIP’s brief flirtation with “serious” filmmaking, an adaptation of WUTHERING HEIGHTS starring future 007 Timothy Dalton). “Bob has never done anything that was nearly as good as DR. PHIBES, though.”
With its contemporary theatrical setting and R-rated bloodletting, THEATRE OF BLOOD is considerably different in look and tone from the PHIBES films, but it equals (and some would say, surpasses) them. The role also gave Price a wider range to play as an actor, allowing him not only to speak again but also giving him the deliver dialogue from more than half a dozen Shakespearian scenes with unrestrained gusto.

SEEN TODAY

As a camp classic, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN holds up, thanks to the inventive humor. Some elements ring false, but not enough to undermine the film. (For example, when Phibes discovers the Pharaoh’s tomb, the soundtrack supplies a Gregorian chant—an anachronism off by one continent and several thousand years.) Perhaps the campy tone undermines the horror, making the sequel seem like a more frivolous trifle than its predecessor, but more often than not PHIBES RISES AGAIN plays like a sumptuous confection that avoids many of the clichés of the genre. After all, most horror films, whether intentionally or not, end up asking the audience to identify with the villain or monster; finally, here’s one that embraces the concept fully and plays it out to its logical conclusion, allowing him to win in the end.
One unfortunate side note to seeing the film today is that the release on home videotape was marred, apparently because of rights problems relating to the use of the song “Over the Rainbow.” The ending of the theatrical version of the film derived much of its effectiveness from the song (an echo of the first film’s conclusion) because the visual was relatively unimpressive: a simple, dimly lit shot of Phibes raft floating away down a tunnel. It was the swelling soundtrack, with Price’s own voice singing, that gave the punch line some punch. On videotape, however, the song was removed and replaced with a simple piece of dramatic music lifted from elsewhere in the film. The result was a flat ending with no kick, which left viewers feeling as if something was missing (as indeed it was).
This glitch aside, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN remains one of the best camp horror films ever made—a stylish, fun-filled movie and a worthy sequel to the fine original.
DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (American International Pictures, 1972). Directed by Robert Fuest. Written by Fuest and Robert Blees. Cast: Vincent Price, Robert Quarry, Peter Jeffrey, Fiona Lewis, Hugh Griffith, john Cater, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander, Peter Cushing, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas.
Copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski
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