Friday, 3 February 2012


Peter Cushing (Sir Peter as I often only-incorrectly-in-terms-of-actual-knighthood-but-not-for-lack-of-trying refer to him) represents an age of cinema in which the presence of a single actor could just about make a film worth watching. I say ‘just about’ because before undertaking this, the first of several planned Cushing Marathons on which I’ll endeavour to report, I would have sworn his approval and consent to appear in a film was a seal of quality, but there is no defending The Satanic Rites Of Dracula, my friends, and it is with a heavy heart that the caveat ‘just about’ must lumber that opening sentence.

My ambition has extended to watching, over the course of however long it takes (I’m covering my ass with that weak-willed statement but I reckon I can get it done in a year) as many of Peter Cushing’s films as are commercially available. I’ve already covered just less than a quarter (and have in fact written at some length about more than these covered here, which I aim to share with you fine fellows next week if you’ll have me) and am looking forward to the highs and lows that await, though naturally I’m looking forward to the lows a lot less. Like way less. Like at least half as much, I reckon.

As for this five-in-one frightful film festival, a sour note was scarcely hit. Five films and not a single second of screentime wasted on arguably the greatest British actor (certainly my favourite) and the very definition of a perfect gentleman, so perfect a screen gentleman, in fact, that I worry the well may quickly run dry from which I source alternative ways of describing him as one, even for those films when he’s exercising his considerable handle on total thespian bastardry. He may have appeared in the occasional stinker, but his commitment to even the lousiest picture seems to me no less than that to any of his most celebrated roles. I look forward to at least being able to say that I’ve seen each and every one of those Peter Cushing-starring films that is attainable within the realms of sensibility (though I imagine I’ll find a much snappier way of boasting it).

With so much waffle already dispensed, let’s us lot push forward to the first batch of comments, mini-reviews, disembodied mental meanderings and misappropriated over-reactions. I must take this opportunity to thank Marcus who runs the blog for hosting the feature in the first place and decorating it so lavishly with stills and materials from his sure-to-be-endless supply of rare memorabilia.

It's hard to be overly comical about Hammer's first foray into the hallowed halls of horror, 1957's The Curse Of Frankenstein, as, much like the following year's (Horror of) Dracula and most decidedly unlike a great many later efforts from that iconic studio, it is actually a good film. Not a tongue-in-cheek romp, an exercise in schlock or an erotic adventure masquerading as a vampire flick: a good film. A film that's well written and well acted, artfully shot and sumptuously set, with great music and a great cast, humour and horror. I noticed a few bits and pieces that made me giggle but overall it's quite hard to be critical (evidently a universal quandary- it is one of a select few films with a perfect consensus on Rotten Tomatoes).

The film opens with a card of text, ending in the line "...the legend of...", which leads into the next card which bears the title. It's not much of a stretch to imagine that the film was originally titled, simply, Frankenstein, as the "The legend of The Curse Of Frankenstein" just sounds ridiculous and refers to no apparent curse within the film (though its sequel trades on an implication of cyclical events that's more deserving of the Curse title), and it's been noted that Universal (the studio behind the the famous - and I'd argue inferior - 1931 Karloff-starring film) threatened to sue Hammer if they infringed upon their work, thus: "The Curse Of Frankenstein". Well, now really....

This was Cushing and Lee's first collaboration for the studio (some 9 years after sharing the screen in Olivier's Hamlet), though the gangly latter was reportedly only hired for his height and Cushing emerges, quite clearly, as the star of the show. His inherent charm belies a barbed wit that makes lines such as "I'm harming nobody, just robbing a few graves" all the more amusing, and his first murder that much more chilling. His nigh-on orgasmic reaction when his monster takes care of a slight case of blackmail for him is just about the best moment in the film. He may just be the finest actor of his generation and the best thing about watching all these Frankie films is getting to soak so much of him up.

Curse... is not at all an adaptation of Shelley's book (again thanks to litigious claims on Universal's part, not that their film could be called faithful. Bolts through the neck, indeed...) though it shares a few similarites, including an encounter with a blind man and a child and the double-narrative framing device. Like all major entries excluding The Ghost Of Frankenstein in the filmic canon of Shelley's Gothic masterpiece 'til Kenneth Branagh got his hands on it, the monster (and here, he is a monster from the get-go, not one bit of doubt about it) is practically a mute, save for the obligatory scream as he meets his end in a handy bath of acid.

Moreso than Karloff's lumbering ghoul, though, Lee is properly disfigured and a real screen menace for the ages, with or without the eye that's shot clean off his face when he's out rambling in the park scaring old men to death. One thing Hammer nailed with these pics was makeup, and set amidst Jack Asher's rich brown ocular palette it offers the film, Hammer's first in colour, a striking visual identity.

So, then, onto some Hammer staples. Given that this was their first entry on so many levels, it's surprising how many of their hallmarks pop up throughout. Fans of Lee's debut as the Count ought to recognize Valerie Gaunt, who worked better there as a fanged seductress than she does here as a lisping maid. Terence Fisher directs, and as such there's plenty of juxtaposition of horror and humour, not to mention the obligatory cutaway just as the monster claims its first victim. Finer details include a character named Paul (there's always a Paul or a Hans), the requisite cleavage (courtesy of Hazel Court, hilariously shot through the chest with zero consequence in the film's final moments) and that distinctive Bray Blood, impossibly bright and impossibly abundant. I also caught that the "I think you'd better start from the beginning" sample that opens White Zombie's second album comes from this film, which makes it the second I've seen from which Rob and co. have pinched dialogue.

The Curse Of Frankenstein gave way to some of the studio's better pictures (Frankenstein Created Woman, for example, is one of my all-time favourites, and Horror Of Frankenstein is a feature ruined only by the eventual appearance of Dave 'Darth Vader' Prowse as its monster, which I'll concede is a fairly big stumbling block for a film about a monster), boosted Cushing and Lee to household-name status (not to mention installing in the movie landscape a welcome air of gentlemanry) and is great fun as well as being solid, thoughtful entertainment. I'd recommend it.

Cushing returns as his quite-likeable-but-ultimately-a-bastard version of Frankenstein in The Revenge thereof (not actual title), Hammer’s second (of seven) pictures based so loosely on Shelley’s classic novel that to call any of them an ‘adaptation’ would qualify in court as telling porkies. Never mind, eh, when there’s so much fun to be had simply taking the name and the concept and putting them in Jimmy Sangster’s ever-capable hands (though only as writer- he must NEVER be praised for direction). Revenge is a veritable Hammer feast both on and off camera, boasting the formidable team of Terence Fisher and Jack Asher behind the lens (I realise that sounds like they’re inside the equipment but I didn’t want to use the word ‘camera’ twice in the one line) and onscreen regulars including Michaels Gwynn and Ripper and Francis Matthews as Hans, not the last of Cushing’s assistants in these movies to bear that name (didn't I tell you?)

At a brisk 86 minutes it’s bereft of some of Hammer’s common pacing problems and boasts a formidable monster in Gwynn’s lanky creation, even if he’s not afforded much screen time and whose only real damage is dealt to Frankenstein’s reputation, costing him yet another cushy ladies’ man doctor’s job and necessitating a further move (from Carlsbruck to London) and another laughably transparent name change (from Dr. Stein to Dr. Franck-come ON!)

Now for the serious stuff- Gwynn, in the final stages of his transformation, is truly frightening and the scene near the movie’s (anti)climax where he crashes a dinner party filled me with the kind of dread that only the in-built unfamiliarity of Universal’s monochrome 1930s efforts or Spanish chillers do. Hammer’s films, which all but ignore Shelley’s Victor’s pesky sense of conscience getting in the way of all that cleverness, are somewhat anecdotal and deal with a series of experiments the likes of which Shelley’s doc might have gotten up to had the book not ended (as books are wont to do).

As such, there’s nothing as bothersome as a character arc getting in the way of Cushing’s almost overpowering charm, and indeed the film ends in such a way that just happily sets up another while implying that Dr. Frankenstein/Stein/Franck could happily go through the new-town-new-monster-banishment-repeat cycle for the rest of his life. His greatest achievement here is not in creating new life from cadavers but in creating a perfect (BUT MOUSTACHIOED) replica of himself into which his consciousness can be deposited in the unfortunate and likely event that his body is just wrecked by hostile locals. Call it an occupational hazard.

I laughed, I shrunk in terror, I marvelled at the similarities to the vastly superior Frankenstein Created Woman (think of it as the Dawn Of The Dead to this film’s The Crazies, if you care for a needlessly specific and nerdy horror analogy), but most memorably I enjoyed myself, so that's two for two.

Mind you, it couldn't last, and three days into this cinematic expedition I’ve hit my first stinker: 1964’s The Evil Of Frankenstein is, in two words for the busy, PRETTY NAFF. As ever I had my trusty and imaginary notebook on hand and shall hereafter give spake on the matter.

The most obvious problem presents itself about 20 minutes into the picture (which is just a great term, by the way), though it’s hinted at from its very opening moments: Hammer had entered into a partnership with Universal for American distribution and as such that studio afforded them some leeway when it came to pinching a few ideas from their 1931 film and its many sequels (oddly ignoring the best of the bunch and indeed the era, The Bride Of Frankenstein), first presented in a flashback scene that charts the monster’s birth and completely ignores the previous two enjoyable movies. The reason this is so upsetting is that the film ends up caught between the styles of the two, with Hammer’s stylistic elements jostling for prominence amidst a heavy-handed variation on the classic Karloff/Pierce makeup and a most unsuitable set for Cushing’s laboratory.

Hammer’s films often showcase small, warm and comfortable sorts of venues wherein the lowly sorts that populate their films can scheme and worry about whichever recurrent menace is bothering them that week: this reliance on big, bold, 20-years-dated Hollywood tack just turned me right off. No two films in Hammer’s extended series (this, and that of the count) share a strict continuity (visual or otherwise) but just how different Evil... feels, owing to the frankly inferior team of Freddie “Dracula Has Risen From The Grave” Francis directing and John Wilcox’s photography, well, it’s not in its favour. Don Banks has a stab at giving the Baron quite a heroic theme in his largely bland score, but misses his opportunity to hammer (aha) it home and it’s soon forgotten.

Having said that, aping Universal is hardly the only thing wrong with the film. For a start the title’s all wrong. Amusingly, a few minutes before the opening credits a character asks “who has done this evil?”, and you’d think that good old Victor’d be the safe bet, right? Well, far be it for Hammer (and producer Anthony Hinds, who also wrote the film as John Elder) to be quite so judgmental – if anything this film presents Frankenstein at his most reasonably ambitious, even if it renders him a bit of a bore. I most often felt like I was being invited to sympathise with him, given his seemingly endless laments that the world is always keeping him down, not understanding his constant graverobbing and the like. “Working against God”, as he was charged with. He is at no point evil, however, and that is crucial. A hypnotist he later teams up with abuses the monster’s strength in order to threaten and pilfer a little gold, and is closer to evil than Frankenstein in any of these early films (the less said about the later efforts in that regard the better...for now).

As I’ve established it now, I may as well address the usual Hammer tropes as they present themselves to me. Cushing is always surprisingly physical in these films and here is no exception, what with him giving every instant of action as much energy as is believable (though nothing’ll ever top that curtain dive at the end of Dracula). After worrying for a while whether I’d be vindicated or not, there at last appeared a Hans, so that’s another box ticked! There’s an early version of the Hammer Jerks that bother the heroine for a while, but they’re neither toffs or treated to dialogue and the promise of their introduction isn’t capitalised on.

The film is set in the same town as Dracula, Prince Of Darkness (Karlstaad), which to his credit Cushing pronounces correctly as he does Frankenstein, making the rest of the plebs look like right amateurs when they ignore that crucial Germanic hidden ‘h’. The opening scene, in which a filthy crim nicks a dead man from out of a shed, is also promising and right down to the last detail a very Hammer opening, but sadly the rest of the film doesn’t know which way it wants to go and ends up landing on the pile marked ‘don’t watch again’.

Less than two minutes into this 1969 classic and there’s an unexpecting victim, a nasty looking scythe of a sort and a splash of dashing red across the screen and we’re back, back into a strong effort from the Hammer a-team including Terrence Fisher, James Bernard and Arthur Grant alongside a slightly confusing cast in which actors from the previous and next Frankenstein films appear in different roles alongside the ever-charming Sir Peter, even if he is here at his most absolute bastardish.

From the moment he attacks a would-be burglar in a mask that makes him look a bit like a finger to his final hurrah in a flaming home Baron Vic is a right royal pain in this one, doling out rapes and murders from the get-go. I’ll admit, it makes him harder to root for (I’m not that big a fan of rape as it happens) but at least he’s back to his old slagging-off-smart-men-because-he’s-smarter-than-them schtick and no longer sighing all the time like in The Evil Of Frankenstein. This one appears to be set in England and occupies a weird sort of twilight zone of continuity, half-referencing films that were produced before it but seem to be set after it.

The main plot sees He Who Must Be Destroyed blackmailing a young couple (Veronica Carlson, also of Horror Of Frankenstein, and Simon Ward, the poster boy for androgyny) into letting him use their house to fix the mind of an insane colleague in a story that’s a step down from the metaphysical wonderment of Frankenstein Created Woman but at least better than the rest of the films in the canon excluding the first. Along the way, he’s accused of being “damn rude, sah”, confesses to having “SERIOUSLY broken the law” with a wry smile, and insists on keeping Carlson’s Anna around because he “needs her to make coffee”, in addition to facilitating his never-again-referenced and clearly barely-considered penchant for sexual violence.

Also appearing is his former lackey Thorley Walters, this time threatening to steal the show as the head of police and acting very much like he’s drunk or in a pantomime. It’s this exact refusal to take itself seriously that lets this film sit amidst the better Hammer films. There’s no Paul OR Hans, though Ward’s character is named Karl which is another popular go-to for the scripters.

A word on the monster, who in this case is entirely sentient and actually quite sensible and in the film’s final moments emerges as the hero, making sure the Baron gets what’s coming to him all the while rocking a tasty head scar and a mank coat. He’s one of the better, er, creations, probably because Freddie Jones (that's right, just like in Scooby Doo) brings a little sadness to the part and doesn’t run off into the park slavering and killing the first young thing in a corset that’s silly enough to cross his path.

Sure, there’s an entirely pointless scene where he’s forced to prove his identity to his wife (his brain’s in a new body, you see) by answering questions with his left hand but there’s no distinction made with what the signals mean and it’s all rather stupid looking. Another fine film and a hearty recommendation.

Frankenstein and The Monster From Hell. Frankenstein (got it) and The Monster (with ya) From Hell (say WHAT?). Herr Baron moves into the last decade of Hammer output for nearly thirty years and makes pains to keep up in the direction the studio had been going as good ideas gave way to gore, gazongas and gloriously awful titles like Frankenstein (yeah, hey, I know that dude) and The Monster (that’s right!, yeah, he created that monster guy, all “urrrghhhh”) From Hell (say WHAT?).

After the relative flop of the previous film The Horror Of Frankenstein in which Ralph Bates created David Prowse and commented on his maid putting on weight “in a few areas” (I think you can guess which two areas) in a semi-remake of the first film in the series, Hammer went back to the well, drew up some liquid Cushing and splashed it all over another of Anthony ‘John Elder’ Hinds’ fine screenplays. How’s THAT for a strained metaphor?

The sensational title, with its zero bearing on the actual events of the film (set in a madhouse and not in Hell, or even Hull) joins a notable increase in splatter (eyeballs on the floor, brains being stood on and the poor monster’s fate of being ripped apart by mentals) and a thin veneer of high camp. John Stratton, as the asylum’s perverse director, is a quivering, brandy-quaffing mess, and Shane Briant plays Frankenstein’s new devotee –neither a Karl, Paul or Hans but there IS a Hans in the asylum- like he fancies him, his assistant and everything else in the frame regardless of gender or level of animation. Perhaps this has something to do with Hammer’s then-increased comedy output and a sort of cross-pollination of genres, and who’s to say that horror, for all its insanity and outrageous, isn’t the back of the same comedy coin?

The asylum setting is in the film’s favour as a good deal of Hammer’s previous six Frankenstein pictures shared familiar castle or mansion settings (in one or two cases sharing literal sets), and though it has a distinctly grim 1970s British feel to it, it is as ever set in Europe and the relentless toffery of the cast still feels a little out of place every time a German surname pops up on a door. Thankfully, the warmth of previous films that I mentioned on here before makes a return as Frankenstein’s lab is hidden behind a smaller room and seems quite inviting despite having what appears to be monster barf all over the floor.

Ah, the monster. With Frankenstein back to his loveable nasty self after the self-parody of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the monster is once again allowed to be, well, the actual monster of the film. David Prowse (back again, three years before cementing his iconic status alongside Cushing in Star Wars) lumbers about under a stupidly large amount of prosthetic makeup in a sort of all-over hairy body suit, and combines elements of sadness with generally looking foolish. In a plot borrowing from previous films he’s both the subject of a personality transplant and a hand transplant, but it doesn’t stop him going crazy, escaping and threatening everyone with some glass before digging up some graves in a shot that’s basically alluded to in the film’s otherwise baffling American one-sheet. He doesn’t inspire much sympathy though, and this is a solid effort from Cushing from which there’s no distraction.

Cushing’s wife Helen had died a few years previously and both he and his good friend Christopher Lee have noted that his love of life or work never returned to him after that. Sad as these accounts are, it seems he didn’t let it affect his work. Though he may look considerably older, he’s still jumping about the place (onto tables, onto monsters) and that hateful smile is still in the Baron’s eyes. From the very moment he makes his delayed entrance (18 minutes or so in) the film becomes his. Any seeds sewn about it revolving around young Dr. Helder are promptly, er, eaten by birds. His weathered Victor here combines the best of earlier performances, with the weariness of The Evil Of... but none of its whinery, and the excited ambition of The Revenge Of... A fitting swansong for the series as far as I’m concerned.

So what else have we got? Well, saying perhaps a little about the studio’s attitude to women, Madeline Smith’s mute character ‘The Angel’ has little to do apart from stand there and look, well, like Madeline Smith. From the very second I saw the filthy crim robbing a grave in the opening scene I KNEW it had to be Patrick Troughton, and sure enough there he was with his face at its most basely frightening. Note that this film boasts TWO Doctor Whos, which is worth mentioning as I just have in the current sentence.

Beyond that there’s not much onscreen to connect it with classic Hammer: by the 1970s they were grooming a new generation of young talents and a lot of the trusty old faces (Michael Ripper, for one) are sadly absent. Still, with Fisher directing (for the last time) and Bernard scoring, this has the appeal of a true top-tier film from the studio, and closes the series with style.

That's me done with Frankenstein films ( You can find my Blaggers Guide to Frankenstein Created Woman here).

Next time: Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Abominable Snowman, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, The Gorgon, The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires and The Satanic Rites Of Dracula. Hope to see you there.


Feature: Paul McNamee
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