Sunday, 13 December 2009

Discount Bin Film Club: The Hammer Strikes Twice!

Welcome to the show folks...

It's been way too long since I took you all along with me on a dip into the wealth of entertainment opportunities that can be found in your local big box store discount bin. Today I'm going to tell you about the Hammer Horror Double Feature DVD (Warner Home Video) I got for $5, and it's two features:
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Taste The Blood of Dracula (1970).

But first, a little history.

Hammer Productions was founded in the 1930s by music hall comedian William Hinds (aka Willy Hammer) and later evolved to include Exclusive Films, a distribution company formed in partnership with theatre owner Enrique Carreras. The mission of the company was to make "quota quickies" low budget productions, mostly comedies and thrillers, made to fulfill trade regulations imposed on Hollywood productions.

Hammer didn't survive a slump in the British film industry and went bankrupt in 1937, but Exclusive kept on chugging through the vicissitudes of the Great Depression and World War 2 until a new generation took over, revived Hammer, and gave it the identity we associate with it to this day.

James Carreras and Anthony Hinds stepped in after WW2, and took Hammer Films into new and fantastical directions. Most horror films of the 1950s were contemporary settings, shot in black and white and dealt with science fiction themes, and while Hammer had creative and critical success following that trend with
The Quatermass Xperiment, they wanted to start their own trend with...


You see, I was going to eventually get to the movies.

This was Hammer's new plan.

1. Make "period" horror films inspired by the classic monsters Universal made history with in the 1930s and 1940s.

2. Make those films in glorious technicolor instead of black and white.

3. Use classically trained actors to play the characters, human and inhuman alike.

4. Add subtle soupcons of gore and sex to liven things up.

The first one of these films was
The Curse of Frankenstein starring Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, Robert Urquhart as his frenemy Paul Krempe, and Christopher Lee as The Creature, with a script by Jimmy Sangster, and directed by Hammer auteur Terence Fisher.

First thing you must know about Hammer Frankenstein films is that they really are films about Frankenstein the scientist, and not the monster. In fact, the monster doesn't really appear until at least halfway through the movie, and even then is only on screen a few minutes. The horror comes from the doctor himself, he at first comes across as an idealist, someone who believes that all problems can be solved through science. The problem comes from how he uses science to solve these problems. What starts as grave robbing escalates to murder to get the "material" he needs for his plans, something that horrifies his former tutor, turned partner, turned enemy Paul Krempe. Krempe acts as the voice of morality and reason, trying to get Frankenstein to back away from his experiments, because they can only lead to horror and death, but Frankenstein, confident in his own abilities, keeps plugging on.

Which brings us to the Creature itself as played by Christopher Lee. Although it's a killer, you almost pity it because it's had its brain bashed about, shot, and then poked and prodded by Dr. Frankenstein. It just lashes out, unable to control itself, or even understand why it does what it does. Something that Dr. Frankenstein uses for his own benefit when it involves a pesky chambermaid who actually believed the Baron's promise to marry her.

Which brings me to the surprisingly ambiguous ending the film has. The story was structured as a tale told by Baron Frankenstein to a priest as he awaits execution for all the people killed because of him. He begs to be believed, and gets his former friend Paul to come in and tell them that the monster was real, but Paul, the only other person to see the monster in action and survive, denies that it ever existed outside of the deranged scientist's mind. Paul might be telling the truth, and the the monster never did exist, or he's deliberately lying, knowing full well that his former friend would not stop his experiments, no matter how many had to die to prove himself right and that the guillotine is the only way to stop the "Curse of Frankenstein."

The film itself is surprisingly bloody for a 1950s movie, with subtle hints of gore. All you see is a glimpse of the top of a severed head before it's disposed of in an acid bath, blood runs down the Creature's hand and face after it's been shot in the eye, and the Creature itself gets increasingly disfigured as the film goes on.

Terence Fisher eschewed the usual gothic trappings of dark shadows and creepy cobwebs, shooting it instead like a fairy tale with lush colors, including the blood, making those subtle touches of gore stand out even more. It brought back my childhood memories of watching the film on
The Great Money Movie on snowy afternoons and I still have a fond place for it.


This 1969/70 film starring Christopher Lee, Linda Hayden, Geoffrey Keen Anthony Corlan, and was written by John Elder (pen-name of Anthony Hind) and directed by Peter Sasdy. It also marked the beginning of the end of Hammer's dominance of the horror market. Audiences were drifting away from Hammer, looking towards more aggressive fare like
Rosemary's Baby, and Hammer tried to fight back by upping the sex and violence with some glimpses of boobage in the brothel scenes, and more blood than its predecessors.

The plot was fairly straightforward. The previous movie
Dracula Has Risen From The Grave ended with Dracula being impaled with a metal cross and crumbling to dust, and this film picks up right at that moment. A British salesman of fluid ethics is lost in the woods when he stumbles across the dying Dracula. Seeing an opportunity he takes Dracula's cape, personalized cape-clasp, and most importantly, the old Vamp's dried blood.

Later on in England three wealthy older men, Hargood, Paxton, and Secker, project the image of upper-class Anglican respectability, but in reality, like to spend their free time doing "charity work" at a brothel where they indulge themselves in sex, booze, and, by implication, drugs. Always looking for excitement they hook up with Lord Courtly (Ralph Bates) a disowned aristocrat that even their favorite pimp considers a "bad sort." He promises immortality and an eternity of decadent wickedness, all he needs is some of their money to buy Dracula's blood.

Courtly then takes them to his family's old chapel, long abandoned, and personally desecrated by Courtly himself, for a black mass where they will all taste the blood of Dracula. The three not-so-wise men balk at drinking the bodily fluids of the undead, but Courtly goes ahead, and immediately freaks the hell out. The three men also freak out, promptly beat Courtly to death with their canes, and get the hell out of there.

They think they've gotten away with it, but they haven't. Courtly may be dead, but he is soon transformed into a reborn Dracula, who is pissed off, out for revenge, and perfectly willing to get their own children to do it for him. What follows is the sort of murder, madness, and mayhem you would expect, with ample heaving bosoms courtesy of female lead Lynda Hayden. In fact, while watching the scene where Dracula gives her that intense stare that puts her under his power I was expecting her to stop in mid-hypnosis, and say: "Hey, Drac, my eyes are up here!"

It's not a perfect film. Hammer was suffering from a combination of dwindling budgets and rising expectations, and it shows in this film. Lee as Dracula isn't burning many calories in the role, though his natural charisma burns through, and his appearances are kept to a minimum. Also there are some narrative problems, the original concept was to have Courtly himself be reborn as Hammer's new vampire franchise, but Warner Bros. the US distributor wanted Lee back, or wouldn't finance the movie.

But there are some rather interesting ideas in this film. While a lot of late 60s movies were about youth in revolt against the mores of their parents, the young people in this film are positively puritan in their chaste attitudes. They all want to get jobs, get married, have families, and live the sort of respectable lives that their parents pretend to lead. It's only when the old neck nibbler gets involved in their lives do they start acting up and acting out.

Also the notion of the hero trapping Dracula by reconsecrating the abandoned chapel, is a clever idea. Another interesting addition featured Dracula trying to escape the reconsecration by driving his fist through a stained glass window decorated with a cross, which actually makes him hallucinate that the chapel itself is alive again and that an unseen clergyman is performing mass in Latin. It's a psychedelic scene that sort of sums up the film, a collection of interesting notions that were held back from achieving their full potential by the limitations of budget, movie-making politics, and the film-making techniques of the time.

1 comment:

  1. I love these story times, Furious. Thanks. And nice work.