Tuesday, 18 March 2014


16th century England: a pirate ship fighting with the Spanish Armada is damaged and needs to dock for repairs.  The devious Captain Robeles convinces the gullible villagers that the English have been defeated and that they must acquiesce to their new leaders …

The clever script by Jimmy Sangster offers a reversal of a similar plot device found in Hammer’s earlier war film, The Camp of Blood Island.  Whereas the earlier film dealt with a group of POWs trying to prevent their Japanese captors from discovering that the Allies have won the war in order to prevent being wiped out in retaliation, here the pirates trade on the villagers being cut off from society by telling them that they have won the battle and are therefore now in charge.  As usual for Sangster, there isn’t a tremendous amount of depth to the characters, but they serve their function effectively enough as archetypes.  Robles is a properly dastardly villain, while village lad Harry fulfills the role of hero with a rebellious streak.

The film benefits from solid production values and expert direction from Don Sharp.  Sharp was well known for his ability to stage action scenes and this is certainly evident here.  He also makes excellent use of the widescreen frame and the lighting by the gifted Michael Reed helps to sell the illusion of this being a bigger film than it really was.  Bernard Robinson’s sets and the art direction by Don Mingaye is up to their normal standards of excellence, too, though Gary Hughes score feels a bit limp and generic.

Like so many Hammer films, the film succeeds in large part due to the quality of its acting.  Christopher Lee is every bit as impressive here as he was in The Pirates of Blood River.  Robeles is comparatively suave and fiery, befitting both the actor and the character’s Latin disposition.  Lee effortlessly dominates the film, throwing away sinister bon mots of dialogue without resorting to melodramatic overstatement.  He also gets plenty of opportunities to show off his facility with sword fighting.  The supporting cast includes good roles for such reliable character actors as Andrew Keir, Philip Latham, Duncan Lamont and Michael Ripper.

Ripper may not be the most ideal casting for a Spanish pirate imaginable, but he and Lee have great chemistry and he makes for an endearingly impish presence.  Keir’s role isn’t nearly as memorable as his character in Blood River, but he brings considerable presence to it, just the same, while Latham proves to be as effective in aympathetic role as he would be in a more sinister context as Lee’s faithful servant, Klove, in Dracula Prince of Darkness (1965).

The hero is played by John Cairney, but he can’t hope to compete with Lee in terms of presence and charisma.  More interesting is Barry Warren, fresh off of playing a memorably arch vampire in Sharp’s The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), who brings a dash of sympathy to his role as the Spanish nobleman who crosses swords (literally and figuratively) with the despotic Robeles.

The female side is represented by Suzan Farmer, as the village girl that Robeles sets his lecherous sights on, and a young Natasha Pyne, who is memorable as Harry’s spunky sister, Jane.  Farmer, of course, would be reunited with Lee on Dracula Prince of Darkness and Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966), while Pyne would go on to co-star with Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry in the Amicus/AIP hodgepodge Madhouse (1972).

The Devil-Ship Pirates did solid business but Hammer would move away from films of this sort, perhaps because they required a little more production value than their usual stage bound Gothic horrors.  Part of the decision may have stemmed from the fact that Hammer constructed a mock up ship for the film which proved to be problematic, to say the least.  The money spent is all on screen, however, ensuring that the film holds up as a fun slice of Saturday matinee entertainment. 

Written by Troy Howarth
Images and Design: Marcus Brooks

Wednesday, 12 March 2014


William Castle is not regarded as a technically superb filmmaker by any measure. The gentlest thing you might hear from his most ardent critics is that he was a “poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock.” The pinnacle of his creativity, and the thing that has always made his work endearing to fans, is the special emphasis Castle placed on gimmicks to promote his films.

Well before he moved from his native New York City to Hollywood, Castle already had deep roots in the entertainment industry. Castle wrote in his memoir, Step Right Up!, that he was entranced by a production of the touring Dracula stage show that he saw in New York as a child. After the show, he went backstage to meet the star of the production: Bela Lugosi. The young Castle apparently made an impression on the actor, and he subsequently dropped out of high school at the age of 15 when, at the invitation of Lugosi himself, he was asked to join the touring production of the show as a stage hand.

Castle (born William Schloss, Jr.) became familiar with various aspects of production —set-building, writing, and eventually acting and directing— all skills which would enrich his practice as a filmmaker later on. Where Castle excelled the most, however, was in marketing. He had a knack for finding highly sensational gimmicks to promote productions, and this is what ultimately attracted the attention of Hollywood producers.

Castle cut his teeth in the big studios working under the tyranny of the infamous former president of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn. Castle got to work with some of the industry’s biggest stars, including Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, and Orson Welles.

He was used primarily to produce and direct B-list films. He built a reputation as someone who was able to finish projects on time and on budget, which was of the utmost importance in the B-lots of Hollywood. Eventually, he ventured out on his own, and started to self-finance projects.

He had a major breakthrough with his film Macabre (1958), which was inspired largely by the French film Diabolique (1955). To promote the film, Castle conceived a gimmick wherein theater goers would be issued a life insurance contract, which stipulated that if anyone were to die of fright, their beneficiaries would be remunerated. What’s more remarkable than the fact that he would employ such a gimmick was the fact that he actually got the Lloyds of London to back the project! Castle wrote in his memoir that after puzzling executives with his peculiar idea, the Lloyds of London executives set a contract wherein William Castle was insured for $5,000, enough to cover five individuals. If anyone in the audience were to indeed die of fright, Castle would receive the money from the Lloyds of London, and Castle himself would then be liable for paying the beneficiary of the deceased party.

Not surprisingly, no one ever died of fright at a screening, and thus, no one ever attempted to collect insurance money.

Castle would gain even greater notoriety with his films that starred Vincent Price. The first was The Tingler (1959), about an insect which burrows in the human spine and thrives on fear. The only way to keep the creature at bay is to scream. The gimmick was called “Percepto” and it was one of Castle’s most elaborate and expensive marketing maneuvers ever. Seats in the theaters would be equipped with low voltage shocking devices that would zap audience members during a scene from the film where the entire theater would go dark, and a voice-over would caution audiences that the Tingler was loose in the theater.

Price also starred in Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill (1959), which employed the “Emergo,” a gimmick which used a pulley system to suspend a plastic skeleton over the viewing audience —in other words, it appeared to emerge from the screen.

Castle’s greatest film was potentially 13 Ghosts (1960), which made use of his “Illusion-O” trick, which used red and blue cellophane lensed “ghost viewers.” In segments of the film where ghosts appear, the screen takes on a blue tint. The film was shot using two separate color filters, one blue and one red. If the viewer were to look through the blue lens, the ghosts would disappear. If the viewer were to look through the red lens, the ghosts would become more vivid. Would anyone in their right mind go to a movie called 13 Ghosts to not look at ghosts? Presumably not, but the marketing genius is in the fact that the viewer had an option.

Even though he achieved success in his own right, Castle always dreamed of crossing over and directing an A-list feature film with A-list stars. A major turning point in Castle’s career came when he was given the manuscript of a yet-to-be published book by Ira Levin entitled Rosemary’s Baby. Castle claimed in his autobiography Step Right Up! that he was the second director to be shown the book, the first having reportedly been Alfred Hitchcock.

Ultimately, Paramount studios insisted that a director with a stronger reputation was merited by the job, and thus, Castle signed on to produce, and Roman Polanski was recruited to direct. The meticulous Polanski crafted one of the finest horror films of the sixties, and it’s one which all horror enthusiasts must see —and thankfully, sites like sites netflix and allow you to stream it in its entirety.

Upon its release in 1968, the film was met with tremendous resistance from religious communities, but also with tremendous excitement and intrigue by the general public. Castle became gravely ill after the film’s release due to kidney failure, and his career never entirely bounced back. He found himself producing B-pictures once again, such as Bug (1975). Castle exploited the film by insuring Bug’s star, a gigantic cockroach named Hercules, for $1,000.

Although he lamented not establishing himself as a first-rate director of major commercial films which were taken seriously by critics, he continues to serve as a source of inspiration for many filmmakers who came later, perhaps most notably John Waters, who had scratch and sniff cards issued at screenings of his film Polyester (1981) as part of his “Odorama” marketing gimmick.

Castle may not be remembered as the most deft filmmaker of his generation, but he will most certainly be remembered.

Feature: Kate Voss
Gallery: Marcus Brooks

Tuesday, 11 March 2014


Of all the films directed by Terence Fisher, Phantom of the Opera, apart from being one of the most controversial, comes closest to fulfilling his desire to helm a love story in the Frank Borzage mold. Wistful, delicate and almost entirely devoid of 'horror', the film was a critical and financial flop in 1962 and it remains hotly debated to this day. Fisher enthusiasts tend to embrace it as one of the director's best films, while others deride it as tedious. Reportedly developed as a vehicle for Cary Grant (though sources vary on what role he was intended to play – it seems unlikely that they would have stuck the biggest star they ever netted behind a mask, so he likely was intended to play the role of the hero), this unusually genteel adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novella works very well as a drama and less persuasively as a horror picture. Compared to other versions of the story, it is neither the most faithful nor is it the most far-afield of the original concept. I would argue that it is, ultimately, the best film as a whole out of the whole slew of filmic adaptations, but I would be in the minority on that point.

The film lacks the memorable Phantom makeup of Lon Chaney in the 1925 silent version, but the point of Fisher's take on the story is that the Phantom isn't a villain to be despised — he's a sympathetic, misunderstood and abused figure. In order to remove all the horrific deeds from the character, screenwriter Hinds devised a dwarf sidekick (Ian Wilson) to do all the dirty work, whether it be accidentally breaking the chandelier that plays a role in the finale or stabbing a rat-catcher (The Omen’s Patrick Troughton) in the eye.

The few flashes of horror do feel a trifle grafted on, notably the sequence with the rat-catcher. There is no real motivation for this action, making the dwarf character seem more psychotic than the bulk of the narrative seems to suggest that he is. An earlier moment, with the Phantom disrupting a performance of his opera by thrusting a hanged man onto the stage, is more satisfactory but still jars with the overall tone of the film.

The most problematic aspect of the film is the Salieri-like character of Lord Ambrose, played to reptilian perfection by Michael Gough (Dracula). The problem isn't with Gough, who is superb, but with the resolution of his character — but the problem goes beyond just his character to the very end of the film itself. Having been established as a complete and utter swine who steals the Phantom's music and attempts to force his advances on Christine, he is set up as a villain of epic proportions. Yet, when the Phantom confronts him, all we get is Gough ripping the mask from his face and running off in fright. What happens then? Does he get away scot-free, and if so, why? And if he does indeed get some kind of comeuppance, what exactly is it?

Fisher and Hinds lose sight of this as the film moves rapidly to a close — the villain's fate left unresolved, the film then sets about disposing of its tragic protagonist in a somewhat hasty manner. As Christine performs the Phantom's masterpiece to an appreciative audience, Fisher includes one of his trademark sensitive touches — a close-up of the Phantom's eye as tears stream down his cheek. However, the dwarf accidentally breaks the chandelier and the Phantom leaps to save Christine from being crushed, only to be crushed himself. All this happens so quickly and suddenly, with the Phantom taking time to rather pointlessly remove his mask so that we can get a perfunctory look at his scars (a decent makeup job from Roy Ashton).

So much of the film is so good and so sensitively handled, and yet Fisher and Hinds really drop the ball in these last 10-15 minutes. Were they running behind schedule? Was there more material intended to go in to this section of film that they simply couldn't film? It's hard to say, but the fact remains that what could have been Fisher's masterpiece suffers as a result of such thoughtless hastiness.

Clearly designed to reach a wider audience than their earlier horror films, Phantom has impressive production values. The decision to switch the setting to the London Opera House was a practical one, and the settings and set dressings are nicely rendered throughout. Reportedly shot on a higher than usual budget, it doesn't necessarily put the earlier run of Hammer films to shame for the simple reason that Arthur Grant's cinematography isn't as impressive as Jack Asher's. Grant creates some impressive images here and there, but overall his approach is more realistic than lyrical, thus clashing somewhat with the mood Fisher is trying so hard to maintain.

While not unattractive, his lighting has a pedestrian quality to it that detracts from the mood somewhat. Edwin Astley's score is more on the money, though the Opera snippets aren't exactly high art. (In fairness, the actual music is very nice... the lyrics, however, could have benefited from some polishing.)

The cast is, once again, first rate. Herbert Lom is absolutely brilliant as the Phantom. He makes for a credibly eerie presence — there are some marvelous shots of him lurking in the shadows — but he goes beyond being a stereotypical bogeyman to become a tragic hero. Lom handles the neurotic aspects of the character without overacting and is even granted a nice flashback sequence to show the audience, approximately, what he really looks like. Certainly, Christopher Lee let it be known that he thought that he should have been cast in the part, especially as he was chomping at the bit to do some singing on screen; never mind that the Phantom doesn’t actually sing!  For whatever reason, Hammer elected to go against the grain and cast somebody without a reputation for doing horror films in the role – but did it do the film any favors commercially?  Hard to say.  It would seem that after Grant dropped out of the project they simply sought to find somebody "fresh" and free of horror connotations, perhaps in the hope of selling the film to a wider audience. Supporting Lom is a fine gallery of character actors.

Heather Sears (The Black Torment), another odd choice for a Hammer leading woman, being neither conventionally sexy or particularly curvacrous, gives a sensitive performance as Christine. She credibly conveys her character's iron will while also displaying her more vulnerable qualities. Edward DeSouza, who would go on to overact rather shamelessly in The Kiss of the Vampire, makes for a likable romantic lead, while Gough steals his scenes with ripely overplayed villainy and lechery. Fisher favorite Thorley Walters (Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) is also on hand as Gough's meek business associate, while Michael Ripper (Plague of the Zombies), Miles Malleson (The Hound of the Baskervilles), Harold Goodwin (The Mummy) and others pop up in smaller supporting roles.

Don’t let the snarky reviews put you off, but don’t go in expecting a conventional Hammer Horror, either.  Phantom of the Opera is a key Terence Fisher film and it deserves to find a wider audience.

Review Troy Howarth
Gallery: Marcus Brooks
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...