Sunday, November 30, 2014

Carry on Screaming! British Horror Week - The Sequel! - Happy Birthday Hammer! 80th Anniversary Moviethon

Despite being a long term horror fanatic, I'd barely seen any Hammer films until late last year. Prior to that, all I can remember seeing were one or two when I was at university and that was in less than favourable conditions (overly bright lecture theatres in the middle of the afternoon, while hungover not being the best way to watch movies). But being aware of their importance to British cinema history and that some of my friends are big fans, I knew I owed it to myself to pull my finger out and start exploring their large and varied back catalogue.

As I think I said in the first post of this sporadic theme month, this British horror kick started by accident. But when I saw that Hammer were celebrating their 80th anniversary this month, I started watching as much as I possibly could. My characteristic laziness and procrastination has meant I've blogged about perhaps barely 10% of what I've watched but I'd be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to let you know about the Hammer 'thon I had three weeks back.

It being their 80th anniversary, I decided to watch 8 films in one day (not a world record by any stretch but perhaps a personal best for me), 3 of which I'd never seen. Rather than going in depth on these right now (we can always return to the films individually at a later date), here's a blow by blow account of how the Hammer action went down...

Saturday 8th November 2014 

10:00 - The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955)

Literally two days before this moviethon, I was lucky to stumble across a DVD of this and its sequel (I hadn't seen either) for the very reasonable sum of £5. And I'm damn glad I bought it. The Quatermass Xperiment (the title apparently stylised to xpolit - sorry couldn't resist -  the recently introduced X rating) is not only an excellent sci-fi horror film but apparently it could be considered Hammer's first horror film. 

Based on the seminal TV serial from a few years earlier, the film follows the eponymous Professor (played here by Brian Donlevy, who writer Nigel Kneale reportedly hated, calling his performance "belligerent" if memory serves. Apparently the actor was mostly drunk during shooting, which might explain this) as he and Inspector Lomax of Scotland Yard (Jack Warner) attempt to track down an AWOL astronaut (the only survivor of an ill-fated mission) who is mutating into an alien organism that has invaded his body and which is now attempting to assimilate anything unwise enough to cross its path.

As I've frequently found with the Hammer films I've seen so far (especially ones from the 50s), I was pleasantly surprised by how effective this still is on the horror front and there are moments which are surprisingly grisly for the time. It also seems to have been massively influential (John Carpenter is a big Nigel Kneale fan for one) and is one of the earliest examples of body horror I can recall seeing in a film. Also, there's one great scene utilising found footage, another way in which this seems to have been way ahead of its time. And the look of the astronaut's mutated arm makes me wonder if Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto ever saw this too. 

Coming to this as someone who had seen Quatermass and the Pit (which we'll get to later) previously, I can see the problems Kneale had with Donlevy's performance and I greatly prefer Andrew Keir myself too... but to be honest I still enjoyed the former's bull headed "take no prisoners, take no shit" approach in this and it seemed to fit with his generally amoral attitude. 

Overall, a must see for classic sci-fi/horror fans and a great way to start the moviethon. 

11:29 -  Took a quick break here to make breakfast and pick up a few things from the previous evening's shenanigans... got seven movies still to go so needed some fuel for the fire!

12:15 - Quatermass 2 (Val Guest, 1957)

Also adapted from a TV serial of the same name, Quatermass 2 is more Invasion of the Body Snatchers than The Thing from Another World. This time the professor is investigating the fall out from some rather curious meteor showers, eventually leading him to discover a conspiracy involving synthetic food and alien infiltration of the government... which makes this movie rather prescient when one considers current concerns regarding genetic modification of crops and, in more Fortean realms, the theories of David Icke et al. 

Brian Donlevy returns to play the title role and is still going at it like a bull in a china shop (which, as I said earlier, I sort of enjoy)... but this time he seems to have developed a bit more of a social conscience. From what I remember, the rest of the cast were very good too but the one face that stood out to me (because of its familiarity) was Sid James of Carry On fame, who plays a reporter here (if memory serves).

Finally, it's worth pointing out this could be considered a zombie movie of sorts, with the z word being uttered at least twice. 

The BBC has been showing some classic sci-fi movies as of late and they showed this a few days back funnily enough... so if you have access to I Player, I imagine it should be on there to view for free until some time later this week. Like its predecessor, this comes highly recommended.

14:00 - Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967)

Being the first Hammer film I ever bought, this will always hold a special place in my heart. I'll admit many of its charms were probably lost on me during my initial viewing but with each subsequent re-watch I love it more and more. 

Released a whole ten years after the previous movie, this is different in a couple of ways that will be immediately apparent... i.e. the introduction of colour and the substitution of Andrew Keir for Brian Donlevy. As much as I perversely enjoyed the latter's performance, I much prefer the avuncular presence exuded by the former. Apparently Keir wasn't too happy making this, believing the director wanted someone else, but honestly, I would never have guessed that from watching this... though in retrospect he does come across as a tad world weary but that seems entirely appropriate to his character's place in the film's universe here.

This time the story involves mysterious artefacts discovered while a London Underground station is being refurbished. Firstly, strange looking skeletons are found (leading eventually to speculations that will excite anyone intrigued by ancient astronaut theories) and later a vessel is uncovered, which is initially assumed to be an unexploded bomb or advanced German V weapon.

Admittedly I've only seen the first two films once so far, compared to the handful of times I've watched this but it's safe to say it's my current favourite of the series. Apparently Val Guest was busy working on Casino Royale at the time so Roy Ward Baker took over as director. He does a fine job here and would go on later to make more films for Hammer and a few for rival studio Amicus too (such as Asylym, which we looked at earlier this month).

As you might guess, I wholeheartedly recommend this one too! In fact, let's just say right now I'd recommend every movie I'm discussing today!

16:00 - Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (Seth Holt and Michael Carreras, 1971)

The first part of a mummy double feature, the was an apt follow on from the previous film for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was the second Hammer film I ever bought and also our pal Andrew Keir returns... though there's a tragic story associated with that... in fact, this whole movie was sadly plagued by tragedy, as we'll soon discuss...

Less a traditional mummy movie and more in the vein of a reincarnation/curse movie like Mario Bava's Black Sunday or Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace (itself based on a H.P. Lovecraft tale), Blood from the Mummy's Tomb is a firm favourite of mine. It's one I always find a lot of fun and unless I read about the background, I'd never have guessed about its own seemingly cursed nature. And therein hangs a tale or two...

Peter Cushing was originally cast in the role later played (and very well I should add) by Andrew Keir. He completed one day's shooting before having to leave the production due to discovering his wife had emphysema. Furthermore, director Seth Holt actually died before filming was completed. As the film's Wikipedia page (by way of a Guardian article) informs us: "Director Seth Holt died of a heart attack five weeks into the six week shoot, collapsing into cast member Aubrey Morris's arms and dying on set. Michael Carreras directed the final week's filming." Like I say, unless I'd read this, I'd never have known and nothing in the finished film makes any of this apparent... a true testament to the talent and professionalism of all involved.

Being from the early 70s, this obviously has a different feel to older Hammer movies and you might say it's somewhat tonally different too, edging perhaps slightly towards camp in places. I should add though this isn't a criticism at all and besides you might well perceive the film differently than I... and as I may have implied here, I'm not entirely sure about all this myself. Every time I re-watch a movie there's always the possibility of my opinion radically transforming.

Aside from Andrew Keir, who does an excellent job of filling Peter Cushing's considerably sized shoes, I really enjoyed what the cast brought to this, with particular praise due to the stunning Valerie Leon, who plays the leading lady, and James Villiers (who was also in Asylum) as the Mephistophelean character Corbeck.

As I said earlier, a lot of fun this one and perhaps a good introductory film for anyone out there unfamiliar with Hammer... especially anyone not particularly acclimatised to older movies.

18:03 - The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959) 

Apologies in advance here folks, my notes on this one will be very brief. 

I think (but am not sure) that I might have seen this during that aforementioned screening at university but honestly I can't remember... I know for certain we watched The Gorgon but at any rate I'd meant to check this out for some time, having thoroughly enjoyed both Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein.

Really I should have taken a break after Blood from the Mummy's Tomb as I was starting to get a bit spaced out after four movies and I plan to revisit this in the none too distant to hopefully do the film justice.

Though less so than the other movies on today's menu, I remember enjoying it... an overlong (and possibly somewhat redundant) flashback scene aside. And you know anything with the names Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Terence Fisher attached is always going to be worth a watch.

Like I say, I'm gonna have to come back to this one once I've had chance to re-watch it.

19:40 - Took an extended break here to eat and rest my brain/eyes for a bit. Also I had to pop out for some additional provisions... and in retrospect I wish I'd done that earlier, it being bonfire weekend and hence the village I live in being a bit of an obstacle course of kids. Hindsight's 20/20 as they say. Anyway, back to the films and to finish, a vampire triple feature!

21:15 - Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Prior to getting into Hammer, I'd sort of half assumed that British horror movies of this vintage would be quaint and tame by today's standards (which could well be the main thing that took me so long to give them a go). My first viewing of this extremely seminal film last Christmas would show me how bloody wrong I was on that front!

This must have scared audiences witless back in '58 as I'd say it still packs a punch even now. Like with The Quatermass Xperiment, there are parts which blew me away in how graphic they were for when this was released. It is also, I should add, still very entertaining.

I'm sure we're all familiar with the Dracula story in at least one of its many incarnations and another way in which this surprised me are the novel ways in which it diverts from Stoker's original novel. 

Admittedly I'm skimming over most of the details of these movies now for the sake of expediency but also I really don't want to give too much away to anyone who hasn't seen them. And going back on what I said earlier r.e. Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (which is still a fine enough film to begin one's Hammer initiation with), I think if you've never seen a Hammer film, this is really the ideal place to start. Grand gothic visuals, rip roaring action and adventure and some scintillating performances from leads Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as the Count and Van Helsing respectively, this is arguably still as potent a piece of horror cinema as the day it was released. 

22:55 -  Captain Kronos -Vampire Hunter (Brian Clemens, made 1972, released 1974)

From the archetypical Hammer vampire film to one of the more atypical now, this is another firm favourite of mine and after watching it again for this moviethon I think it's my current number one Hammer film. 

I was a bit confused at first r.e. the dates, as indicated above. It seems that it was shelved at first and later released, perhaps owing to the financial troubles Hammer was apparently suffering at the time. If anyone has any insight on any of this, feel free to drop me a line below. 

I also gather one reason this was rather radical as far as Hammer vampire movies go was that it was an attempt by the studio to try something different in the hopes of getting more bums on cinema seats. It's a damn shame the film wasn't a success as I'd have loved to have seen more adventures involving the Captain (Horst Janson) and his assistant Hieronymus Grost (John Carson).

Edging more towards action than horror, this was also a departure from the norm in the sense that it expanded the vampire mythos and suggested there are many species of bloodsuckers out there, which is certainly an ingenious idea. 

There's also a lot of humour here and some cracking dialogue to be savoured (e.g. regarding Grost: "What he doesn't know about vampires wouldn't fill a flea's codpiece"). I absolutely loved the rousing score by Laurie Johnson and there's some fine performances from all involved, including some from people familiar to me from other movies, such as Ian Hendry (from Theatre of Blood and Tales from the Crypt) and Caroline Munro (from The Abominable Dr. Phibes - which I actually had no idea she was in - Slaughter High, Don't Open Till Christmas and many more).

And kudos to Clemens for not only doing an excellent job writing but also for bringing some style and directorial flair to the table.   

Overall, an apparently overlooked gem of a film and one I hope more people seek out. Hammer has talked about remaking the film and I hear they even asked Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field in England) if he'd give it a go. Now that I'd love to see!

00:35 - One last quick break and then time for the 8th and final film!

00: 56 - Lust for a Vampire (Jimmy Sangster, 1971)

Now I'm sure there are some of you out there thinking, "Why oh why did you end with this one Simon?". And I'll concede you have a bit of point there... I mean, I was sort of thinking that myself at one or two points but basically the reason is simple... the last (and 1st time) I watched this, I enjoyed it that much that I said to myself "This is now my current favourite Hammer movie". Since then I've seen quite a few more and re-watched others, meaning this would rank much lower now but despite my changing opinion and the fact this seems to be maligned by many, I still very much enjoy it and found it a fine film to end the moviethon with.

Part of the Karnstein trilogy (and generally seen as the weakest apparently), this is easily the campiest film from Hammer I've seen... and as I said when I invoked that word for another film earlier, I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. In fact, it's probably why I enjoy it as much as I do!

As with Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (from the same year), the plot centres round a reincarnated lady (brought back in a very cool reanimation scene) and the havoc she wreaks. 

I think one reason I'm preprogrammed to love this, the slight silliness aside, is the girl's school setting. And I don't care what anyone says, I loved the music (by Harry Robinson)... and yes, that includes the song "Strange Love" (music by Robertson, lyrics by Frank Godwin and performed by someone simply known as Tracy).

This also shares further similarities to Blood from the Mummy's Tomb in that Peter Cushing was replaced at short notice (by Ralph Bates) and Jimmy Sangster (who generally performed scriptwriting duties for Hammer) picked up the directing reins that were originally to have be held by Terence Fisher. Taking all this on board it's totally understandable the film would turn out far from ideal... but as I've implied, I love it just the way it is anyway.

03:15 - THE END! 

Now the observant among you will note that Lust for a Vampire is not over two hours long... frankly due to the late hour I started watching it and the inebriated state I was in, I paused the film at one point to pop out for some fresh air (okay, I mean a smoke!). 

At any rate I had a total blast during this moviethon and it's got me eager to see many more Hammer films. Yup, despite being late to the party, as it were, you can now consider me completely sold on the studio and its films. 

While it's great to see they're still putting out movies (I really enjoyed The Woman in Black and apparently its sequel is coming out very soon) and acknowledging their rich heritage, I'd also love to see them do some more films like the ones we looked at today. Like what would a Captain Kronos directed by Ben Wheatley look like? Or a Quatermass movie made by the Dr. Who crew? Or a Dracula or Frankenstein movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch (I heard great things about his theatre appearances in the latter)? What would your fantasy Hammer movie to be made now be folks and who would direct/appear in it?

And finally, before I forget, HAPPY BIRTHDAY HAMMER!!!!!!!! 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bloody Hell! It's British Horror Week! - Curse of the Crimson Altar (Vernon Sewell, 1968)

For the second part of my impromptu Boris Karloff's birthday celebrations last night, I decided to check out today's movie, which I'd never seen. It seemed appropriate as it was supposedly Boris's last British movie (yesterday's film, The Ghoul, being his first). And very strangely (i.e. I only discovered this a few hours ago) it also features someone he shares his birthday with, who is a horror movie fan favourite in his own right, Michael Gough! And that's Alfred from Burton's Batman for you young whippersnappers wondering who I'm talking about!

Also starring horror icons Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele (seen above, looking even scarier than usual), the film follows antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden), who is looking for his missing brother. His search leads him to the seemingly remote Craxted Lodge, where he wanders into a party full of swinging hippies and is soon escorted to meet the house's owner, Morley (Christopher Lee, plus moustache) by his lovely niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell). During a discussion regarding Manning's missing brother, he and Morley are soon joined by a Professor Marshe (Karloff!), who, when not rolling his eyes at Manning's lack of appreciation for his brandy, is generally helping twist the creepiness dial (located next to the lever opening the secret passage) up higher and higher.

Staying at the house overnight, Manning starts to experience seriously freaky dreams (featuring some great late 60s kaleidoscopic trippiness), involving a green skinned Barbara Steele (who we later learn, without giving anything away, is the witch Lavinia) and numerous folk, some clad in occult attire and others in S & M gear... for some reason.

I'll halt the synopsis right there, which should hopefully pique the interest of anyone unfamiliar with the film (S & M gear and Barbara Steele? Come on people! Even if she's not wearing it they're still in damn close proximity!). Personally, I found it a lot of fun. All the cast were on fine form and Boris, despite being very close to the end of his life by then, proves he still knew how to steal a scene or two here. I also really liked the leading dude for some reason, played by Mark Eden (that's him above this block of text). He had a long career, encompassing film, TV and theatre it seems and appeared in things as various as the Quatermass and the Pit serial (we'll be looking at the film later this month), The Prisoner (he played Number 100 in the episode titled "It's Your Funeral") and he was famously killed off in the UK soap (and national institution) Coronation Street by a Blackpool tram of all things. I never saw that when it aired but I remember seeing a clip when visiting Granada Studios as a kid and for some reason it freaked me out a bit.

Also fairly engaging was the female lead, played by Virginia Wetherell (the blonde seen above). Barbara Steele doesn't get loads to do, her role her being mainly to look striking and scary but still beautiful, which she does perhaps better than anyone I can think of, so her presence in the film is certainly perfectly placed. Christopher Lee gives a fine performance as always of course. And last but not least, good old Michael Gough goes all out, managing to invoke both suspicion and pathos at different times as Morley's servant, Elder.

I couldn't find a photo of him from the movie but stumbled across this gif and had to share it... just don't stare at it too long folks! 

Supposedly this was based somewhat on Lovecraft's "The Dream's in the Witch House" and while I've only read the start of that story, I did see all of Stuart Gordon's excellent adaptation for the Masters of Horror TV series, so can certainly see where it inspired this. Also of note is the excellent cinematography, by John Coquillon, whose other credits include Witchfinder General, The Changeling and a few films for Sam Peckinpah. Even for a late 60s movie this is delightfully colourful and worth watching for its visuals alone. Despite only one viewing, the recent UK Blu Ray release (by Odeon - I think - who seem to be putting out a lot of British horror movies these days, bless their souls) is looking mighty tempting already! Definitely worth a look for fans of the icons involved and/or those who like movies of this vintage. And a fitting British swansong for Karloff I'd say!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bloody Hell! It's British Horror Week! - Happy Birthday Boris Karloff! The Ghoul (T. Hayes Hunter, 1933)

I'll confess that due to post work fatigue I was tempted to be lazy and skip another day but when my good friend Brad of Yellow Razor informed me it's Boris Karloff's birthday today, I had to take the opportunity to talk about a movie of his I just re-watched last night (funnily enough!)... and while I'm not quite gonna be able to do this one justice right now, I'll try and briefly tell y'all why you should check it out if you haven't...

While somewhat reductive, a description offered by one critic of the film being like The Mummy meets The Old Dark House still gives you a reasonably clear and concise idea of what you can expect here. Karloff plays Professor Morlant, who just before dying, spends most of his fortune on an Egyptian jewel that he believes will allow him to come back from the dead and achieve immortality. His faithful servant Laing (played by Ernest Thesiger... reversing roles with Boris here from what they played in The Old Dark House), is on hand to help carry out his esoteric instructions relating to what to do when he passes. And around all this are assorted scallywags all trying to get their hands on said jewel.

The film is not only an excellent example of the old dark house mystery thriller but also an important British horror film in general. This is for a couple of reasons... firstly, and if my research is correct, it was the first sound horror film made in the country (or apparently the earliest that survives I should say) and secondly, it was lost for many years. It's also important from a British actor point of view in that it was the cinematic debut of Ralph Richardson, who plays the parson, Nigel Hartley.

All the cast are excellent (including the hilarious Kathleen Harrison, seen above, who is also a hoot in The Ghost Train from '41)  but the real star here (apart from Boris of course!) is the atmosphere. Shot by Austrian émigré Günther Krampf, this is an absolute feast for the eyes and makes for an ideal watch on a dark and stormy night (it's all set after dark if memory serves). I was fortunate to find the print I have (from a budget triple pack) is the recent(ish) MGM restoration and I'm glad I got to see it that way. A must see for British horror, Boris Karloff and old dark house fans. Oh and Happy Birthday Boris!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bloody Hell! It's British Horror Week! - Happy Birthday Hammer! Nightmare (Freddie Francis, 1964)

Sorry for the slight hiatus there folks, life intrudes! As I said in a previous post, the British horror blogging is probably gonna run till the end of the month anyway. So then, as I also mentioned earlier, Hammer Films is celebrating its 80th anniversary this month. We'll be looking at quite a few of their movies before November is through but first up I figured I'd share some of my initial impressions of one I saw for the first time recently and it's a film that's 50 years young this year... the Hitchcock inspired Nightmare.

Apparently Hammer produced a few suspense thrillers in the wake of Psycho and this is the first I've seen... but if it's any indication of what the others are like, I'm very excited to see them. I don't want to give anything away so here's a brief synopsis: Janet (Jennie Linden) is a boarding school student plagued by recurring nightmares regarding her mother, who went bonkers and killed her father on her birthday when she was a child. Her frequent cries in the night get to the other girls and it's eventually agreed it would be to the benefit of all for her to return home... and when she does, the nightmares inevitably continue. She starts to see a mysterious woman around the house and begins to wonder if she too is cursed to go the way of her mother.

I'll say no more as if you haven't seen this you really want to go in knowing as little as possible plot wise. Admittedly in terms of narrative it's nothing earth shatteringly original, and if we really want to be critical, it was probably slightly old hat even back then but this bothers me not in the slightest. For one thing, the derivative nature of most genre films has often been part of the pleasure in watching for me, but more importantly, Nightmare is arguably well above par for this sort of thing. 

The first thing to recommend about it (as far as I'm concerned at least) is the stunning black and white scope photography. One of the things that seems to be mostly closely associated with Hammer (or that I hear people mention most) are the bold bright colours that fill many of their films, so this is obviously something of a departure. But don't be put off by that... I think it was as nice to look at as any of its all singing, all dancing, full colour brothers. I'd say it compares favourably with the likes of Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (which would make for a killer double feature with this now that I think about it) as one of the most striking black and white films I've seen. So kudos to both director Freddie Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox.

Another way this is atypical for a Hammer movie is (aside from the contemporary setting) the lack of icons like Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. The cast, who are all unfamiliar to me were all pretty good though I thought. Some have criticised the performances of Jennie Linden and Moira Redmond especially as being over the top but personally I didn't see it that way, a fevered, borderline hysterical approach seeming to be what their roles called for at times.

And finally, the film sort of anticipates some later genre movies and especially slashers... Happy Birthday to Me and Madhouse (the Italian one, not the Vincent Price one I looked at in my previous post) being the two that come to mind (and funnily enough, they'd also make for a great double bill).  

All in all a thoroughly entertaining thriller (props are also due to Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster who wrote it) that I'd highly recommend to anyone with a predilection for ye olde suspense movies.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bloody Hell! It's British Horror Week! - Madhouse (Jim Clark, 1974)

More Amicus on the menu today folks, and like Asylum, this is something I discovered recently for the first time, though unlike that movie, I'd never even heard of this one! I know another Madhouse, but that one's Italian and from '81, where as for this film, we're heading back forty years to 1974...

Don't let the title fool you, this has nothing to do with institutes for the insane (though now I think about it, perhaps it does have more relevance than is first apparent), apart from a passing mention to one. The story (adapted - and very loosely apparently - by Ken Levinson and Greg Morrison from Angus Hall's novel Devilday) concerns famed horror actor Paul Toombes (played by the ever self-aware Vincent Price, who has a ball with the role), best known for his series of Dr. Death films. During the film's opening scenes, his fiance is murdered and he ends up being sent to the madhouse, suspected but not convicted. Years later his friend Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing, who is fabulous as ever), the screenwriter behind the Dr. Death series, persuades him to return to the role. And perhaps unsurprisingly (but thankfully for we the audience), the murderer (if it is the same person, and whoever they are) picks up where they left off.

I'll leave it there as far as the plot goes as I really don't want to give anything away. But I don't think I'm letting any cats out of their bags to say all isn't as it seems. That's right folks, this is very much a mystery thriller... and even better, it's a frickin' giallo(!)... with the killer (wearing Dr. Death's getup) sporting cloak, hat and most importantly, those black gloves! Oh and he's also rockin' a mean looking skull mask. 

Seriously, when I finished watching this I said to myself "Where has this movie been all my life?"... I mean, a British (slash American) giallo with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing? It really felt like all my Christmases had come at once! 

I don't want to say too much more right now, especially in an effort to avoid spoilers but just a few things I wanted to highlight...

This was a co-production between Amicus and American International Pictures (and Price's last for that company) and the scenes from the Dr. Death films (featuring both Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone) are taken from the latter's back catalogue, which was a nice touch.

There's a British horror connection in the form of talk show host (and now national institution) Michael Parkinson (playing himself), who would later appear in the infamous TV special Ghostwatch from Halloween 1992. And a climactic scene arguably calls forward to another 90's horror milestone, Ringu.

This was superbly written I thought, with Price being given at least one amazing soliloquy, making his performance in this rival Theatre of Blood for me (though that's still the one to beat), and the supporting cast are all well above par too, especially Robert Quarry and Adrienne Corri (who at one point at least may well even have upstaged Price!). And if you've never heard Vincent's lovely singing voice, here's your chance folks, as he sings over the end credits... though looking at IMDb just now it says "song written and performed" by Gordon Clyde, so I'm not sure anymore, unless it's referring to another song in the film I've forgotten. If anyone can clarify this at all, please give me a shout!

If I haven't made it obvious already, I give Madhouse my highest recommendation, especially for fans of Price, Cushing, British horror and/or slashers and gialli.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bloody Hell! It's British Horror Week! - Asylum (Roy Ward Baker, 1972)

So my plans to have a belated Halloween blogathon went right out of the window but no matter, there's always next year! On the watching films front I've been busy as ever though and for the next week/possibly till the end of the month, I'm gonna be talking about an area which has been shamefully neglected by me up until recently... homegrown horror!

While there are certainly many British horror films I love, some of which have been firm favourites for years, for some reason I still haven't checked out as many of the classics of the British horror canon as I no doubt should have. This recent kick I've been on started somewhat accidentally with the film I'll be looking at today, but when I discovered that Hammer are celebrating their 80th anniversary this month, I decided to start immersing myself in as much Anglo-horror as possible.

I'll be getting to Hammer in due course over the next week (including a write up of a moviethon I had to celebrate said birthday) but the first few films are courtesy of Amicus...

The first thing that struck me (and stuck with me afterwards) while watching the opening titles is the use of music. While credited to Amicus regular Douglas Gamley, the majority (as will be obvious to classical music fans and anyone who's seen Fantasia) is actually by Modest Mussorgsky. The piece that bookends the film is Night on Bald Mountain, which was most famously put to moving pictures back in 1940 by Walt Disney, and there are a couple of bits from Pictures at an Exhibition ("Gnomus" and "The Hut on Hen's Legs"), which Gamley apparently created a full orchestral version of, so clearly he was a big fan. Music trivia aside, what of the actual movie?

Asylum is, like many of the titles Amicus is famed for, an anthology film. The framing story, which is one of the best I've seen from the form, concerns Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), a psychiatrist who arrives at the eponymous institution for an interview for the position of top shrink. Things seem a bit dodgy right off the bat frankly, with him being met by a Dr. Rutherford (played by Patrick Magee, which should always set alarm bells ringing) rather than the Dr. Starr he was expecting to see. It turns out that the latter went mad (by proxy perhaps?) and is now an inmate... and furthermore he was apparently responsible for the fact that the former now needs a wheelchair. Eschewing the usual conventions of job interviews, Dr. Rutherford tells Dr. Martin that if he can guess which of the four incurable patients they have is Dr. Starr, the job is his.

After a extremely ominous trip up some stairs, past plenty of damn creepy prints of asylums of old (all to the tune of the aforementioned "Gnomus", which I also recognise from The Big Lebowski, of all movies), Martin is met by an attendant called Max (Geoffrey Bayldon, who, if my research is correct, replaced Spike Milligan at the 11th hour), who takes him to see the four patients. Martin tries picking Max's brain for clues but it's clear he's been given the heads up by Rutherford and is keeping his cards close to his chest as a result. And as is no doubt obvious, the four patients relate the stories that comprise the majority of the movie.

One issue often observed regarding anthology films is that the quality of the stories is, most of the time, somewhat inconsistent. Personally, I didn't find that to be the case in Asylum. While some may arguably be stronger than others, none seemed like a weak link to me. And there's a good mix on display, from the overtly supernatural to the more subtle and psychological. The first story, "Frozen Fear" falls into the former category, being an E.C. comics-esque tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Occult forces are also at work in the second story, "The Weird Tailor", which is perhaps my favourite, no doubt largely due to the presence of Peter Cushing, who gives a characteristically scene stealing performance... and like in Tales from the Crypt from the same year, it has an undercurrent of heartbreaking reality about it, no doubt due to the passing of his beloved wife Helen the year before. 

The third tale, "Lucy Comes to Stay", is more of a psychological thriller, but as I said earlier, this variety is most welcome and one of Asylum's strongest suits. And the final story, "Mannikins of Horror", is the probably the weirdest of the lot (though "The Weird Tailor", unsurprisingly, gives it a runs for its money), which is no bad thing in my book... and without giving anything away, this tale works its way into the overall wraparound, which is something I don't think I've seen in many other anthology movies (if any). 

Speaking of the wraparound, I wasn't completely taken with it the first viewing, no doubt due to some confusion regarding the order of events caused by seeing the movie so early in the morning and in such an intoxicated state (to be fair I had been at a wedding all day!). But re-watching it recently it all made much more sense and I can see why some call this their favourite Amicus anthology. I've a few to see yet before I can make that call, but currently I think I'd say the same. For one thing, I love how the film is bookended, as underscored by Night on Bald Mountain... and like at least two other Amicus anthologies I've seen, the very end has a cheeky bit of direct address to the audience. 

Add to this excellent performances across the board from a thoroughly committed (so to speak) cast (including the likes of Powell, Magee, Cushing, Sylvia Syms, Barry Morse, Charlotte Rampling and Herbert Lom, to name just a few), an ingeniously constructed script by Robert Bloch (adapted from four of his own stories) and some directorial flair from Roy Ward Baker. All in all a superlative example of the anthology format and already, after only two viewings, a firm favourite of mine.