At the beginning of December I splashed out on a card that lets me into films at the Cinematek for two euros, as opposed to four (still a bargain!). So now I have to make sure that outlay was worth my while by going to see a lot of films there. The Christopher Lee season that started last year continues, allowing me to get all Hammer’s Dracula films straightened out in my head – I’d watched them all long ago on TV, after which the memories had merged. The only ones I missed were Dracula: Prince of Darkness and The Brides of Dracula (which wasn’t being screened since it’s Lee-free).
So here are the films I saw on a big screen in January, not counting new movies or DVDs or Blu-Rays. Please note these are not so much reviews as compilations of notes and tweets about the films in question.
SPOILERS! It’s a little odd watching Edward Dmytryk’s film noir, adapted from Richard Brooks’ novel The Brick Foxhole, with the knowledge that the murderer’s anti-Semitic motivation was essentially a euphemism for the book’s homophobia, which was deemed unmentionable back in the day. Some of the plot would probably have made more sense (why would a man invite complete strangers up to his hotel room?), but the basic condemnation of blind bigotry stays the same, and as relevant as ever, especially when the tweedy pipe-puffing detective (Robert Young) socks over his climactic speech condemning racism and hatred of immigrants.
The three Roberts (Young, Mitchum and Ryan) sometimes seem to be acting in different movies: Young is affable and paternal, Mitchum cynical and laid back, Ryan tightly coiled and dangerous. Yet the sense of irreconcilable worlds works in the film’s favour, emphasising the chasm between traumatised soldiers returning from WW2 with their nerves shot and those who, for whatever reason, didn’t see action. There are also intriguing details and such fascinating secondary characters as the one played by Paul Kelly, the lurking “husband” of goodtime girl Gloria Grahame, the unjustly accused man’s last hope for an alibi. Is he her boyfriend? Or a pimp? Or an obsessed “John”? Whatever, he’s so ambiguous you’d like to know more.
THE TERROR OF THE TONGS (1961)
Hammer orientalism, from the days when yellowface didn’t cause as much offence as it does now. Caucasians trying to pass for Chinese include Christopher Lee (practising for Fu Manchu) as Big Tong, Roger Delgado as his sidekick and French actress Yvonne Monlaur (so good in The Brides of Dracula) as the cheongsam-clad Chinese slave who attaches herself to the middle-aged English hero, played by stolid Geoffrey Toone (Hammer certainly liked their stolid, middle-aged English heroes in those days – see also The Face of Fu Manchu) as a sea captain who is seeking vengeance for the gratuitous murder of his daughter during a MacGuffin-seeking burglary. This particular viewer was uncharitably relieved when she got fridged as she was really annoying. Thank goodness she wasn’t kidnapped, anyway. But clearly the women in Toone’s life are unusually unlucky, since SPOILER! Monlaur also dies, sacrificing herself to save her new “master”‘s life.
There’s some nice sneering secondary villainy from Brian Worth as a corrupt District Commissioner. Dapper Burt Kwouk (born in Manchester but raised in Shanghai) is the sole actor of Asian heritage to have any sort of speaking role, but he’s bumped off pretty quickly. This is before the kung-fu craze, but there are some quasi judo moves, a lot of very British fisticuffs, and the tongs attack by trying to sink tiny axes into their targets’ collarbones.
As always, the Hammer design team do wonders with the sets and costumes on what otherwise seems like a low-cost production. Best line: “Have you ever had your bones scraped, Captain?”
LA PISCINE (1969)
Basically, one hour of Romy Schneider and Alain Delon not wearing much clothing by the pool in a nice villa on the Côte d’azur, followed by one hour of shenanigans and Lt Columbo-style sleuthing. I could have watched Schneider and Delon all day, but then Maurice Ronet spoils it all by rolling up in a red 1967 Maserati Ghibli (thank you Internet Movie Cars Database!) with his daughter Jane Birkin, who wears frocks with hems that stop at her crotch.
Birkin (whose character is called Pénélope, disconcertingly pronounced Pen-eh-lope) is cringe-makingly gauche and keeps hiding behind her long hair; it’s irritating, but fits the character. Ronet is one of Schneider’s exes; the couple’s relationship is already troubled, and the newcomers’ arrival, needless to say, sets the wheels of the plot into motion.
Great villa, great swimsuits, great sexual chemistry between Schneider and Delon (a former couple in real life).
Awful 1960s dancing alert!
SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970)
More awful dancing in this AIP/Tigon production: British genre cinema at its most barking mad. Vincent Price (mad doctor) + Christopher Lee (shady politician) + Peter Cushing (Fascist major) are all in it, but never appear in the same frame. Almost as though they each filmed their scenes separately!
SF meets horror meets serial killer thriller, with investigating cops, dismemberments, an acid bath, a deadly Vulcan-type shoulder pinch, plus Michael Gothard as “Keith”, a superhuman psycho in a frilly purple shirt. Plus a spectacularly inept way of using a policewoman as bait to catch him (“Let her have her fun” says the cop who is listening in to her being strangled), plus a memorable cut from a woman screaming to Andy Fairweather Low shrieking vocals for The Amen Corner.
It’s bonkers, but great fun.
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959)
Peter Cushing is a splendid Sherlock Holmes, Christopher Lee an understandably nervous Sir Henry Baskerville in Hammer’s version of the tale, elegantly directed by Terence Fisher. André Morell makes a lively Dr Watson, with parts of Surrey standing in for boggy Dartmoor.
There’s a great Riot Club prologue in which Sir Henry’s ancestor chases an innkeeper’s daughter to her doom (“May the hounds of hell take me if I can’t hunt her down”). Even his rollicking companions think this is going too far, and his behaviour calls down the curse upon himself and his descendants.
There’s a flashing-eyed wild girl, an escaped convict, John Le Mesurier as a butler, and some sort of class war subtext which Hammer, never one to disturb the status quo more than momentarily, fails to follow through. There’s also an attack by what looks like a Great Dane wearing a fright mask; it clearly wants to run off and hunt rabbits, so the attackee has to keep pulling it back down on him, pretending that it’s actually savaging him to death.
“The moor’s no place for a girl!”
Miles Malleson (grudgingly): “Oh yes, very well. I did lose a tarantula.”
“Elementary, my dear Watson. There are no tarantulas in South Africa.”
“Elementary, my dear Watson. Muffin?’
Cat watch: approximately one hour into the film, Christopher Lee walks past a black and white cat.
SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)
Dracula is revived when a rubber bat on a string dribbles blood on to Instant Vamp powder. Michael Ripper gets one of his more substantial Hammer roles as an innkeeper who leads a raiding party to burn Castle Dracula, only to find when they get back to the village that a flock of rubber bats has bloodily rearranged the eyeballs of all the women and children who had been left hiding in the church.
Denis Waterman plays the hero. Patrick Troughton (second incarnation of TV’s Doctor Who) plays Dracula’s servant Klove, who takes a shine to a picture of Jenny Hanley. Early on, there’s a false rape claim against the hero’s brother, which is played for laughs. Two spunky brunettes are stabbed or bitten (Anouska Hempel and Wendy Hamilton) but the wan blonde survives!
There’s a lot of scaling the sheer castle walls by way of knotted together sheets and curtains, which leads to at least two characters finding themselves stranded in the doorless crypt where Dracula is sleeping. When someone tries to stake him, his eyes glow red through transparent eyelids.
Dracula is destroyed when he raises an iron rod to attack Waterman but is promptly struck by lightning, goes up in flames and falls off the battlements.
THE MUMMY (1959)
The usual Terence Fisher elegance. Cushing’s profile! Some shots so beautiful I wanted to pause the film and take screengrabs. Fez-wearing Karnak worshipper vows death to infidels, unleashes mummy against the men who violated the tomb. Yvonne Furneaux resembles the mummy’s lost paramour, so he obeys her. If I’d been her, we would have teamed up and solved crimes together.
Lee does some serious eye-acting through his bandages, and can be seen in ancient Egyptian costume in elaborate flashbacks. But seriously, someone should remake this (properly, as opposed to turning it into a CGI action-comedy). Features a dense Middle East versus The West subtext, covert racism, controversial cultural plundering, religious fanaticism and girl power. Michael Ripper plays an alcoholic poacher.
THE TWO FACES OF DR JEKYLL (1960)
Dr Jekyll is bearded and anti-social; Mr Hyde is clean-shaven and charming, but amoral, and naturally graduates to rape and murder in Hammer’s unusual and somewhat underrated take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s story. I always thought Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963) was radical in conceiving Hyde as more handsome than Jekyll, but Terence Fisher’s film got there first. Paul Massie (Tony Hancock’s Parisian flatmate in The Rebel) acquits himself admirably in the title role(s), but his performance is hampered by electronic tinkering which warps his Jekyll voice; this might have passed muster for 1960 ears unaccustomed to voice changers and Auto-Tune, but now just makes him sound like an old-timey gramophone which needs winding up.
Dawn Addams plays Mrs Jekyll, who seeks compensation for her husband’s neglect of her by having an affair with his best friend – Christopher Lee as a total bounder who screws his friend’s wife while tapping him for money to play his gambling debts. Also, he has dodgy sideburns. This is Lee at his best, purring out one one-liner after another and making them all sound like zingers.
Everyone keeps heading off to a decadent nightclub full of can-can dancers – more white knicker shots than in a Sion Sono movie. There’s a surprisingly outré snake dance that made me cover my eyes (I have a phobia). Young Oliver Reed! A woman in drag! Opium den! Pubs full of drunken men singing songs! An unimpressed dog! There’s a lot of talk about women being “witches” which I assume was a censor-pleasing substitution for “bitches”. (But I like witches, so that’s OK.) Everyone behaves badly, except poor Jekyll, who has an increasingly hard time keeping his evil id from escaping.
My favourite bit was when Jekyll is writing something, and as Hyde takes over his handwriting changes to a flowing script. Interestingly, Hyde’s writing is a lot more beautiful than that of his alter ego.
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)
Crazy credits – a Dracula shadow looms bigger and bigger over what looks like stock footage of modern London monuments: Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral and so on. Plot kicks in straightaway with an undercover agent escaping from a big country house where five top businessmen are involved in satanic rituals involving naked girls and blood. Dracula doesn’t appear in this till relatively late in the day – Van Helsing tracks him down to an office suite where he’s posing as some sort of property developer, I think, with a Bela Lugosi accent.
Two female characters on the side of the good guys – and they both get kidnapped. In separate incidents. The spunky brunette dies! The redhead lives. This is like a Dracula/1970s British TV cop show mash-up – The Sweeney with vampires. Christopher Lee + Peter Cushing + Joanna Lumley as “Jessica Van Helsing” + William Franklyn. Freddie Jones hams like mad as a mad scientist who concocts a Bubonic Plague virus because Dracula is having an Existential crisis and wants to destroy the world. Cushing concludes he has Weltschmerz.
Hippy motorbike-riding snipers in sheepskin jerkins! A cellar full of female vampires subdued by a sprinkler! The Sabbat of the Undead is the day after my birthday! A step-by-step guide to making a silver bullet! A businessman in plague virus meltdown! Van Helsing finally lures Dracula into a thicket where he becomes entangled in hawthorn (used to dashion Jesus’s crucifixion crown, and thus a vampire bane), enabling Van Helsing to stake him with a fence-post.
DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)
Begins in medias res, with Dracula and Lawrence Van Helsing duking it out atop a runaway coach and horses, in 1872. Ends with Dracula impaled by the spoke of a wooden wheel; Van Helsing lives just long enough to ensure his archenemy is dead. But then a stranger scoops up some Vampire Dust and his signet ring…
Flash forward to 1972, where a bunch of hilarious but jaded Chelsea swingers – one of them “Jessica Van Helsing” (Stephanie Beacham) – are persuaded by “Johnny Alucard” to assist him in a diabolical ritual in a deconsecrated church. Van Helsing eventually gets round to spelling Alucard’s name backwards with the help of Scrabble letters – earning a big laugh from the audience.
Alucard revives Dracula (who promptly helps himself to Caroline Munro) in return for the gift of vampirism, but is destroyed by a combination of reflected sunlight and water running into a bathtub. Most of the swingers get killed or vampirised. Jessica gets kidnapped (of course) and hypnotised; Van Helsing tracks her down to the church, where he lures Dracula to the edge of a pre-dug pit full of stakes, then flings holy water at him to make him fall in.
“Dig the music, kids!” What at the time of its release seemed hopelessly infra-dig now seems quite charming, even quaint, though younger generations should be aware that real Chelsea swingers never talked or behaved anything like the characters here. They get excited over tickets for a “jazz spectacular at the Albert Hall”, for heaven’s sake. This is probably how the middle-aged, middle-class, cricket-loving chaps at Hammer imagined swingers behaved, and the results are a bit desperate, but also rather touching.
Awful dancing alert. Also, self-consciously hip slang alert.
IL PISTOLERO DELL’AVE MARIA aka FORGOTTEN PISTOLERO (1969)
Ferdinano Baldi’s spaghetti western borrows its plot from The Oresteia and tacks on a Fall of the Hacienda of Usher-type ending, which as you can imagine makes for heightened melodrama a-go-go. Once again the perennial spaghetti stomping-ground of Alméria, in Andalucía, plays Mexico, or some other country populated by people who like to throw hats in the air. Luciana Paluzzi (whom you may remember as the lethal redhead from Thunderball) plays the Clytaemnestra figure, who colludes in her husband’s murder when he returns victorious from some combat or other; her children team up with a mysterious yet curiously good-looking stranger to seek revenge.
“Put this on. It’s snake grease. My mother made it.”
“Señor, my blankets come from the mountains of Peru. Handwoven by virgins.”
MILANO CALIBRO 9 aka CALIBER 9 (1972)
Starting in the square outside Milan Cathedral, a parcel of laundered money is passed from hand to hand in a riveting piece of scene-setting which ends with three of the parcel-passers dynamited to death by gangsters. Gastone Moschin – like a chunkier, uglier, older Jason Statham – plays “Ugo Piazza” (essentially the Lino Ventura simpatico gangster role) who gets out of jail to find himself bugged by thugs (employees of Lionel Stander, whose HQ is in what has to be the world’s ugliest concrete building) and cops, all of them convinced Moschinas stole 300 grand. He’s in big trouble.
This ultra-violent poliziottesco might have been Melvillesque (Jean-Pierre, not Herman) had it not been for some rabid overacting; chief offenders are Mario Adorf as an OTT henchman with greasy teddy-boy hair and a moustache (he reminded me of an older, uglier, hammier Pte Walker from Dad’s Army) and Frank Wolff as the Commissioner, who presides over some hilarious discussions about dialectical materialism with a left-wing colleague while all the other cops stand around and listen politely.
Moschinas hooks up again with his old girlfriend, nightclub dancer Barbara Bouchet, who confounded my expectations (happily) by not getting kidnapped. She does perform an incredibly sexy frug, though, during which the frame occasionally flips sideways so the vertical image is displayed horizontally (see screengrab below). Is there a technical name for this? As you’d expect from a 1970s poliziottesco, there’s a very groovy score, from Luis Bacalov and Osanna. The whole caboodle is as fun as anything this nasty and brutish can be, which is to say quite a lot, and the plot is actually pretty good. (The version I saw was dubbed into American.)
LA FRUSTA E IL CORPO aka THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963)
The bad news: A ropey print, resulting in so many jump-cuts that at moments it almost resembled the Nouvelle Vague. And dubbed into American. Even Christopher Lee was dubbed, which is crazy considering he has one of the most distinctive voices in films, and could almost certainly have dubbed himself in just about any romantic European language; I already heard him speaking French in Dracula Père et Fils, and I bet he could speak Italian too. But alas, he never got to dub his own voice in any version of this film.
The good news: Mario Bava directs the hell out of this Byronic, sexually outré, visually exquisite bodice-ripper. It’s like The Man in Grey reworked as an Italian ghost story, complete with the director’s beloved green and purple filters which help turn what were probably run-of-the-mill sets into an enchanted palace, full of shadowy corners. Lee plays a ne’er-do-well brother who, much to everyone’s horror, returns to the family castle by the sea and almost immediately starts whipping his sister-in-law, played by Daliah Lavi, more than acceptable in the Barbara Steele role. And it’s pretty clear she gets off on it.
Just as you’re starting to realise Lee has never been badder or sexier, he is murdered! But fear not, he’ll be back… Meanwhile, there are secret passages, more murder, more whippings and some red herrings. There’s a shot of Lee at the window that looks inspired by one of Peter Wyngarde in The Innocents (1960), a big green hand, a family crypt and several genuine chills. And Bava certainly knows how to make his female characters look beautiful.