Tag Hammer

Creatures the World Forgot (1971)

Creatures the World Forgot (1971)

Survival against all odds!

After a volcanic eruption kills most of his tribe, the fierce Mali asserts leadership over the survivors and takes them on an arduous trek across a desert region to find a new land. A tribe of more advanced blonde-haired people welcomes them. Mali takes a mate from the other tribe and she gives birth to two twin boys – the peaceful and intelligent, fair-headed Toomak and the cruel, dark-haired Rool. As the two boys grow up, they compete for the role of tribal leader and the beautiful Nala.

 

I pinched most of this synopsis from elsewhere because without reading up on it, I wouldn’t have had the faintest clue about what was going on. I’m not sure how someone thought that a film about cavemen without any real dialogue for the entire duration would be a good thing but here we go with Creatures the World Forgot. Following on from their previous successes with One Million Years B.C. and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, Hammer looked to make their trilogy of caveman films complete with a final instalment in the early 70s. However, Hammer was struggling to recapture its earlier successes during this period and were wanting to cut overheads in order to start clawing back money they were losing on lavish productions. So the studio decided early on to remove any notion of dinosaurs in this, leaving it a rather peculiar outing with lots of grunting, people in need of a good barber and a few bare breasts along the way.

On the flip side to this, Creatures the World Forgot is one of the more realistic caveman films out there simply for the fact that it doesn’t have the loincloth-wearing, spear-throwing savages up against a horde of hungry dinosaurs. There are some weird creatures in this but they’re smaller beasts designed to be tackled hand-to-hand rather than pluck up stragglers with their teeth – the least said about the man in the bear suit, the better. Ironically, in being the cheapest of the prehistoric films it made, Hammer turned this one in the most faithful to anthropology as it has been proven that millions of years separated the dinosaurs from man, despite countless fantasy films attempting to show otherwise. So no dinosaurs = realistic. However no dinosaurs = boredom as well.

The lack of dialogue is interesting. On one hand, I’ll give the filmmakers credit for at least trying to stand out from the crowd and make something original and innovative. On the other hand, the film fails miserably to excite or grip its audience because it is hard to get emotionally-involved with a bunch of mutes (or I should say grunters). It’s confusing at times trying to translate what is going on as multiple grunts and groans happen at once. Not helping things is a plot which moves across a number of years and which sees the young boys grow up. Too many similar-looking cavemen and cavewoman grace the screen, making it hard to identify any of them and the already-sparse narrative slowly winds its way along looking for something to showcase its characters. There are some hand-to-hand fights between individuals and between tribes, and there are moments where the cavemen have to face off against aforementioned creatures. But these lack any sense of real excitement or engagement – if we don’t know who is fighting who, why should we care?

It’s hard to really comment on the acting here though most of the cast can grunt and beat their chests like the best of them. I wonder how this was sold to agents when these actors signed up: “Get paid a few hundred quid for a few days shooting in Africa and you won’t have to say a word on camera.” There is no narration to kick the film off or end it either. The only notable star is Julie Ege, an actress that Hammer were pinning their hopes on to be the next big screen sex symbol. Whilst not in the same league as Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., at least Ege’s appearance looks rougher, readier and less dolled up to the eyes with make-up making it more realistic.  To get a flavour of the type of audience this was marketed at in Germany, the sight of Ege in a fur-lined bikini was slapped on the posters under the reworded title of Sex Vor 6 Millionen Jahren. Minor titillation aside, the title has nothing to do with the eventual film.

Speaking of Africa, the film gains major points for looking the part. Shot in the Namibian desert, the cinematography is excellent, enhancing the ‘forgotten world’ vibe and really creating the sense that this is a snapshot from prehistory. The spectacular scenery doesn’t make up for the lack of anything remotely exciting happening on it however.

 

Often considered one of Hammer’s worst films, it’s easy to see why Creatures the World Forgot has been given that moniker. If this was the sort of film they were banking on bringing back the good times, then it is no wonder Hammer limped along for the next few years before they stopped making films at the end of the decade.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

Gory! Ghastly! Ghoulish!

Forty years to the day since the last manifestation of their dreaded vampirism, the Karnstein heirs use the blood of an innocent to resurrect the evil that was the beautiful Carmilla. Taking the name of Mircalla, she heads to an all-girls school to indulge in the blood of nubile victims. As the school tries to cope with the sudden surge in dead bodies, horror writer Richard LeStrange falls in love with Mircalla and tries to persuade her to forsake her vampire ways.

 

Starting with The Vampire Lovers and ending with Twins of Evil, Lust for a Vampire was the second of Hammer’s loose ‘Karnstein’ vampire trilogy featuring a female bombshell in the role of an undead bloodsucking menace which were based on the Gothic novel Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Basically a female Dracula, the first film set male pulses racing and censors into a frenzy over its frank depictions of lesbian vampires, extremely daring for its time. Desperate to tap into this new well of potential, Hammer decided to keep the ideas going and this infusion of softcore eroticism with their traditional Gothic approach was to continue. After all, it wasn’t like Hammer to milk an idea for all it was worth…… (Seven Frankenstein films, eight Dracula films and four Mummy films).

Dracula was old hat by the time The Vampire Lovers rolled out. Hammer began to realise that no one wanted to see some ever-aging old man (no offence to Mr Lee!) lust after and get jiggy with young women, not when the alternative was to witness smoking hot young lesbians lust after and get jiggy with young women. The stark sexuality of The Vampire Lovers was a clear decision to showcase what Hammer believed its audience was now craving: stunning young ladies in various states of undress sinking their bloody fangs into each other. Times were a changing but sadly beneath the sexed-up surface, Hammer had big problems.

Lust for a Vampire had a bit of a troubled pre-production. Original director Terence Fisher had to pull out due to a leg break. Peter Cushing withdrew when his wife became ill. And Ingrid Pitt, who shot to fame in the original as Carmilla, refused to return for whatever reason. So the potential of what may have been had these three talents been present remains to be seen. But In many ways, Lust for a Vampire is the embodiment of what was going wrong with Hammer in the late 60s and early 70s, with or without the presence of that trio of talent. Struggling to find new material which had the same impact of The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, the studio was recycling the same old stories time and time again. Changes were being made both in front of and behind the cameras, with the likes of the old guard of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Terence Fisher becoming side-lined in favour of newer, fresher talent trying to make the same impact as this trio had done when Hammer hit the big time (though Fisher was due to direct this until he broke his leg).

Despite the changes, Lust for a Vampire is little more than your typical Hammer vampire film. There’s a lot of nice eye candy with the lavish sets, colourful garbs and anatomically-pleasing actresses. There’s the usual music, the array of characters populating the background of the film and the Gothic vibe still flows freely. But it had all become very mechanical by this point, even a little cynical. I mean why set a film about lesbian vampires inside an all-girls’ school? Events happen just as you’d expect them to. There’s no unpredictability anymore and everything runs like clockwork, from the opening kill scene right to the angry villagers storming the castle at the end. A few scenes of decent atmosphere, including a fantastic resurrection sequence and eerie midnight romp in a fog-shrouded graveyard, are scattered throughout but on the whole this is been there, done that material.

Jimmy Sangster, was the man who wrote the screenplays for Hammer’s big three hitters from the late 50s, takes the helm for this one but can’t seem to rejuvenate the same tired formula. With pen in hand, Sangster did some amazing work but was unable to replicate this behind the camera. Also joining in the new guard is Ralph Bates who made a couple of appearances in Hammer films during the late 60s and early 70s, clearly being groomed as a younger, more dashing version of Cushing or Lee. Bates’ performance as the feeble-minded teacher is pretty good and the scene in which he begs the vampire to bite him and turn him into a servant (and thus pleasure him) is a highlight.

The real star of the show is the actress who took over the lead role from Ingrid Pitt. Yutte Stensgaard is just as easy on the eyes, if not more so, and is the archetypal image of the buxom Hammer leading lady from this era. The role involves her shedding clothes frequently (no complaints here), bearing some false vampire teeth from time-to-time and erm, did I mention removing her clothes? Stensgaard’s voice has been dubbed over and she’s not the greatest actress but could be pound-for-pound one of Hammer’s most sensual, exotic leading actresses. Her character is torn between her vampiric urges and the man that truly loves her and Stensgaard’s natural vulnerability is well-matched for this dual role. She was very much a one-hit wonder and I doubt too many other actresses made as an indelible impression as her in the vampire genre.

 

Lust for a Vampire is most likely the Hammer film most adults will have in mind if they’re asked to talk about the elements of the typical Hammer film and that’s mainly down to its stunning star. Overall, it’s passable entertainment, nowhere near as rampantly sexy as it’s made out and generally does what it has to do with minimum fuss, providing just enough of the good stuff to keep you ticking over.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

It’s coming for YOU from Space to wipe all living things from the face of the Earth! CAN IT BE STOPPED?

A experimental space rocket, designed and launched by Professor Quatermass and his team, crash lands back to Earth. However two out of the three crew members have mysteriously vanished during the mission and the surviving member, Victor Carroon, is in bad shape and taken to a local hospital. As Quatermass and his team try to fathom out what happened to the rocket, Carroon slowly undergoes a horrible metamorphosis. Quatermass realises that he has been taken over by an alien being which absorbs everything is touches and increases itself in mass.

 

Greatness has to start somewhere and here we are with the true birth of the Hammer Films studio. Hammer, which became synonymous with horror and would reinvent the genre in the late 50s with a series of groundbreaking films, had been making film noir since the early 50s. The Quatermass Xperiment was their first major breakthrough in horror and science fiction and was seen as a gamble by the studio at the time. Originally a serialised TV play shown by the BBC in 1953, the story caught public attention and the rights to a cinematic adaptation were soon snapped up by Hammer. The film received the dreaded X certificate by the BBFC and Hammer slightly re-worked the title to play on that fact (hence the Xperiment bit). The film was a resounding success at the box office and established Hammer as a big player. It proved that there was an appetite for horror from the British cinema goers, an appetite that Hammer would satisfy two years later in The Curse of Frankenstein.

That’s not to say that The Quatermass Xperiment is an outright horror film. The science fiction elements dominate this one and though it may be a landmark British film, time has not been too kind to it from the horror viewpoint. Looking rather quaint and antiquated nowadays, it’s rather difficult to identify just what caused the BBFC to give it the X rating. Carroon’s mutated hand and the eventual appearance of the alien at the end look rather tame today but I guess back in the 50s when fear of the A-bomb and Cold War paranoia was running high, the more psychological elements may have hit a raw nerve. Looking at it now, everything happens in a rather procedural fashion, evidential of Hammer’s earlier film noir output, and it plays out more like a crime thriller for the first half.

Given the slew of sci-fi monster movies being churned out in America during the 50s, one would have expected The Quatermass Xperiment to go down the same route and the change of approach comes as a bit of a shock. But legendary screen writer Nigel Kneale, who was one of the finest sci-fi writers ever to pen a script, made his name with the BBC television play. The adaptation by Val Guest pays faithful attention to that, expanding the scope of the play for feature film length and, in turn, crafting a more thoughtful, haunting film instead of the generic gung-ho popcorn filler than the Americans were making in the same era. This is “thinking man’s science fiction” which, in some quarters, can mean that the film is rather slow. It is, there’s no question of that. The slow, methodical build-up to the finale does plod along merrily in old school British fashion. But Guest’s intelligent script keeps the mystery level high (Kneale had no involvement in the cinematic version) and, as he also directs, he’s in full control of the interesting direction that the film takes.

This is down, in no small part, to the great performance by Richard Wordsworth who plays doomed astronaut Victor Carroon. Wordsworth, who I’ve only just found out was the grandson of the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth, makes for a sympathetic and tragic character, almost Frankenstein-like in his silent portrayal (he even encounters a little girl and everything goes wrong from then onwards). We know that something is seriously wrong with Carroon but we don’t know what. The blank expressions and pain-stricken eyes hide something deadly and the film takes its time to drip-feed the audience hints as to what that could be. It’s not pleasant, that’s for sure.

Brian Donlevy seemed like a rather awkward choice to play the lead role. Donlevy was an Irish-American actor who was cast in the role in an attempt to breakthrough into the US market but in his later years he was known for his alcoholism and was troublesome to work with. Ironically it’s these qualities that make his Professor Quatermass click. Donlevy plays the role with a gruff, no-nonsense approach and turns his Quatermass into an arrogant, obnoxious, single-minded character. Given the nature of Quatermass’ almost-obsessive determination to succeed, Donlevy makes the right call to play him this way. His lack of compassion in the face of such tragedy is uncannily realistic.

It’s of no surprise to see that the finale is the part of the film which hasn’t aged well. The appearance of the rubbery alien in Westminster Abbey gets decent build-up and would have looked alright back in the 50s. But nowadays it’s a bit of a dud creation and the finale is a let-down given the build-up it had received. The alien worked so much better in the human guise of Carroon but the story dictated that the it reveal itself at the end. If it had done so earlier on, I wonder how many people would have kept watching. The finale doesn’t really spoil the rest of the film but it feels like a waste. Hammer’s budget wouldn’t stretch too far and the special effects are adequate but unconvincing.

 

The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the most influential genre films ever made and definitely one of the UK’s most important contributions to cinema. Without this film’s success and the identification of a niche market for horror in the UK, Hammer may never have decided to make The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, two landmark films which changed the horror genre as we know it forever. Though some of its elements lack the impact they most undoubtedly did upon its original release, The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the most intelligent and ambitious science fiction films of its era, ambitions that were challenged further in its two sequels Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, both of which (in my opinion) are far superior. I would have loved to have seen what else Hammer could have done in the science fiction genre but they chose to focus their efforts on the horror market. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

MEN AND MONSTERS BATTLE TO RULE THE EARTH!

Tumak is banished from the savage rock tribe and finds temporary refuge amongst the more gentle shore tribe. Here Loana, one of the females, takes a liking to him but his savage ways are too much for the gentle tribe who eventually banish him as well. Faced with a dilemma, Loana decides to go with him and the two must face the prehistoric world of dinosaurs by themselves.

 

Not the sort of film you’d expect to see from legendary horror studio Hammer, One Million Years B.C. was one of their many attempts to diversity their output in the 60s and 70s away from the classic Gothic horrors that they had become synonymous with and into any new niche genre that they could capitalise on. They tried swashbuckling action with The Devil-Ship Pirates, exotic adventure in She and fantasy islands in The Lost Continent to name a few but nothing caught on. However, they struck gold with One Million Years B.C. and proceeded to make a handful of prehistoric ‘cave girl’ films within a five year period from 1966. One Million Years B.C. was the first of these and the best, becoming a huge international hit upon its release.

Billed as the ’100th Hammer Film’ and evidently sold on its two main selling points (or should that be three….) of Ray Harryhausen’s wonderful special effects and the absolutely stunning Raquel Welch in a skimpy fur bikini, One Million Years B.C. is a fun exploitative prehistoric romp. There’s little pretence of story. There’s no real narrative to the film. Dialogue is virtually non-existent. It’s just a series of encounters between dinosaurs and aggressive cave men. And that bikini. The film quickly boils down to its lowest denominators and sticks to it until the end. It knows its strengths and plays to them.

Director Don Chaffey was no stranger to making these big budget fantasy epics, having helmed the classic Jason and the Argonauts a few years earlier, but he bites off a little more than he can chew here, expanding the film to a whopping one hundred minutes – a long time when you haven’t got a story or script to keep everything together. Granted most films featuring Ray Harryhausen’s special effects were little more than set piece-driven spectacles but at least they had a story and dialogue so that you at least knew what was supposed to be happening. This one plods from dinosaur to dinosaur, with not even talky filler scenes to bolster the running time.

I could give the film top marks on Raquel Welch alone. Simply put, Welch looks amazing in this, sizzling in every scene that she is in. If anyone ever wanted to see just how drop dead gorgeous one of cinema’s most famous sex symbols was in her prime, then show them this. She only has three ‘lines’ but the shot of Welch in her fur bikini has become one of the most famous images to come out of the 60s.

Apart from strutting around in very little (and doing a super job of it too!), she has nothing to do in the film. None of the actors do. The only real words are spoken by the narrator – the rest of the script consists of grunts and groans as the cavemen communicate with each other in primitive fashion. I suppose it’s authentic but hell, if you’re going to slap a hot red head with perfect hair and make-up and pretend she’s a legit cave girl, why not have them talk to each other? There are loads of famous faces hanging around such as John Richardson, Percy Herbert, Martine Beswick and Robert Brown so why not have them talk to each other. It seems like a real waste of talent to me.

Legendary stop motion effects wizard Ray Harryhausen provides the special effects here and it is this reason alone why One Million Years B.C. stands head and shoulders above virtually every other dinosaur film made up to this point. The dinosaurs he brings to life have more character and personality about them than the cast does. The scene with the pterodactyl swooping down and attacking Ms. Welch by the lake is one of his most complex and riveting action sequences and the fight between the T-Rex and the triceratops is classic Harryhausen.

But maybe it’s because we’re only dealing with dinosaurs here that the effects don’t stand out as some of his best. There’s no skeleton fight here, no Talos or cyclops to get the pulse racing or a Medusa to scare the pants off us. The dinosaurs look good but they fail to generate that extra excitement factor that his more well-known fantasy monsters do. We’ve all seen dinosaurs before and they’re common coin in cinema. Not all of the dinosaurs are animated too and, in some scenes, a normal lizard and a tarantula have been blown up to gigantic proportion and super-imposed on the screen. It mixes up the special effects somewhat but just goes to remind everyone how good Harryhausen was at his day job. This was one of his last films and he would only make four more after this.

 

One Million Years B.C. is a tad hokey but it’s hard not to get worked up over Ray Harryhausen’s special effects and the stunning Ms Welch. For these reasons alone, the film has garnered much more praise than it deserves and they do paper over a lot of the obvious cracks.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Vampire Lovers, The (1970)

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Beautiful temptress …… or Bloodthirsty monster?

A countess and her daughter attend a ball held by General Spielsdorf. The countess is called away after the death of a friend and her daughter, Marcilla, is allowed to stay with the General and his daughter until she returns. Soon afterwards, the General’s daughter starts to suffer from nightmares, growing weaker by the day and eventually dying from vampire bites. Marcilla disappears and lodges in with Roger Morton and his daughter. Soon the same mysterious illness begins to strike Morton’s daughter, Emma. It turns out that Marcilla is actually Carmilla, a descendant of the Karnstein vampire clan, who have returned to quench their thirst for blood.

 

The Vampire Lovers was made at a time of change for Hammer. New faces were being brought in behind-the-scenes to replace the established old guard and with them came a new wave of horror films, more commercially-aware and which slowly ditched the restrained Gothic pieces of old, replacing them with heaving and more often than not exposed bosoms and greater quantities of bright red blood. The exploitative change in direction was a response to the more shocking European horrors that were beginning to emerge and many consider this the beginning of the end for the studio, which wouldn’t live to see out the rest of the decade. It was ironic that the studio which originally pushed the boundaries of the genre further than they had ever gone in the late 50s and early 60s was now being left behind and made to look out-dated just as they had done to their rivals. That being said, it’s during this period that Hammer produced some of their most interesting work. Proving that there was life in the vampire sub-genre away from Dracula, Hammer loosely adapted the 1872 novel Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (a novel which pre-dates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by some time) and managed to milk it into a trilogy. The Vampire Lovers is the first of this bold new wave of Hammer films, sleazier and more gratuitous than ever before.

All I can say is…..phew! I needed a cold shower after this one. The Vampire Lovers is arguably the steamiest film Hammer ever produced. Compare the sexually-deviant vampires in this one with Christopher Lee’s now-stuffy (at the time) Dracula and the difference in tone is amazing within the space of a few years. Though the exploitative elements look tame by today’s standards, I can only imagine the outcry at such explicit sights of lesbian vampires back in the 70s. Nubile, innocent young women wear flimsy nightgowns, take them off for the camera and cavort and fondle each other in vampiric desire. At times the lesbian elements seem to overwhelm the film and with all of the cheap titillation, the viewer can forget that there is meant to be a serious horror film in here somewhere.

The subject matter lends itself to these exploitative elements but make no mistake about it, this is a Hammer film and their visual prowess was still here in force: mysterious mountain-top castles, fog-shrouded cemeteries, creaky mansions and superstitious villages. Costumes are bang on the money for the time period being portrayed and the film still has that Gothic gloss in everything it portrays. It’s just that this time there’s a whole load of saucy lesbianism running rampant throughout! The Technicolour horror elements are still as charming as ever, with fake fangs, neck bites and a rather weak nightmare sequence clearly stamping the date on the proceedings. But there are also a couple of great beheadings and a nasty staking too for good measure, which upped the ante for what the studio usually got away with.

The Vampire Lovers also introduces the horror world to Ingrid Pitt, who would go on to become one of the genre’s most noted actresses with the brief number of appearances she made in the genre. Ms Pitt’s thick Polish accent gives her character a nice exotic European charm to add to the Gothic vibe of the film and she manages to convey predatory evil and being sympathetically sexy at the same time. It’s her other, ahem, attributes that the film makes best use of it. There’s no denying that the late Ms Pitt had an amazing body and the film is happy to show it off at every opportunity. But the character is a tragic one, wanting to be with her young girl lover forever, only to give in to her primal urges and destroy that things she craves the most – love. Pitt’s sad dialogue after she has witnessed the funeral cortege pass by is as good as anything Hammer ever put to the screen.

All-round acting legend Peter Cushing gets top billing but his time was passing for Hammer and his role is more secondary than anything. Cushing is still on top vampire slaying form when he does show up, showing that he’s lost none of his touch when it comes to staking or beheading the creatures of the night. He’s just grossly underused and bookended into the prologue and finale, with little to do in between. Also of mention is the pretty and chaste Madeline Smith, who plays one of the objects of Marcilla’s affections. Smith has this ridiculous English rose natural beauty and quickly became one of my favourite Hammer girls in her few appearances with the studio.

 

The Vampire Lovers is one of Hammer’s most daring films and definitely their most sensual and erotic work, infecting the narrative with an almost dream-like quality. Though the frequently-naked ladies detract from the more serious moments, there is no question that the well-developed characters and progressive themes for the time (a lesbian vampire, there’s one for the feminists!) make this Gothic horror at its finest.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Phantom of the Opera, The (1962)

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Out of the hell-fire of horror unimaginable rises the figure of terror incarnate!

A poor composer, Professor Petrie, is angered when he finds out that the slimy Lord D’Arcy is stealing his work by printing his own name on the top of an opera he had composed. Petrie sets out to try and put an end to the printing but an accident in the press horribly burns his face with acid and he escapes into the sewers, forced into hiding. Years later, D’Arcy is about to start production on one of Petrie’s plays. But Petrie has not died and decides to terrorise the opera house to make sure that the play doesn’t go ahead.

 

Hammer struck gold with their reinventions of classic horror icons Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy so it was inevitable that the studio would turn to other famous literary characters to keep the bandwagon rolling. In their second wave of remakes, Hammer gave the Gothic treatment to the Wolf Man in The Curse of the Werewolf, Dr Jekyll in The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll and here with The Phantom of the Opera. Unfortunately this second wave was not as commercially successful as the first and these films tend to be overlooked within the Hammer canon. Most people will associate the Phantom with Lon Chaney in the 1925 silent film but the story and character has since gone on to become one of the most adapted works of all time. Would Hammer’s trademark Gothic spin make any difference?

Well Hammer didn’t exactly produce a dud with The Phantom of the Opera but the film falls way below the high expectations that it set itself with previous successes. I think it’s just because, as a character, the Phantom himself is never mentioned in the same top-billed breath as Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy (and even the Wolf Man too) and that instantly makes him become something of a second class movie monster. Perhaps this is made more so with the fact that neither Christopher Lee nor Peter Cushing star, the two names most synonymous with the glorious Hammer Technicolour horror revolution of the late 50s, were signed up to star and lend the film some much needed star power. Hammer rustled up some decent names for the film but none with the same marquis value as the two legends. Hammer’s most famous director, Terence Fisher, was once again tasked to breath new life into a Universal classic but even he can do little with the film. It looks good and flows perfectly fine but never really kicks into life like the earlier horrors did.

The film itself is one of Hammer’s more sedate films – its low on violence and gore (we don’t get a clear shot of the Phantom’s disfigured face which I had been hoping for) and it drags quite a bit in places as the plot unravels slowly. The focus is on melodramatic elements, not the horror aspects, and getting the audience to sympathise with the character of the Phantom, even though he isn’t given too much time on the screen. And as the film is based around opera, you’re going to have to sit through quite a bit of singing as well (though obviously not as much as any of the musical stage adaptations!). I just get the impression that Fisher and the production team were playing it safe here. Far from ground-breaking gore and Gothic flavour in The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, where Hammer took some risks which paid off, The Phantom of the Opera is too plodding to ever really set the world alight.

Herbert Lom is great as the Phantom and the script focuses a lot more on his psychological state. It doesn’t quite know whether to treat him as mad or misunderstood as he’s built up to be a villain throughout the film, only to show his true colours towards the end. As the actual ‘Phantom’ he doesn’t have an awful lot to do but in person there’s a lengthy flashback scene which shows us how he came to be in the state he is. His lair looks superb for a low budget set and is one of the best that Hammer ever designed. There is a sewer running through it as well as a massive organ as its centre piece and everything is sculpted around the rocks. Bond villains didn’t even get real estate as beautiful as this!

Michael Gough steals the show as the slimy Lord D’Arcy. I don’t know whether it’s just me but I’ve always thought that Gough looked a little sinister and creepy and this film really plays on it. He chews his scenes with glee, firing employees, lusting after female opera singers and, of course, stealing music. There are a whole host of other character actors on show including Thorley Walters, Patrick Troughton and Hammer cameo regular Michael Ripper makes an appearance too. It’s a solid cast and I wouldn’t expect anything else from Hammer. It’s just a pity that what they have to work with is so, well, lacklustre.

 

Hammer’s version of The Phantom of the Opera does contain a lot which is worth viewing. If you like your films a little more sedate (and with plenty of opera singing no less!), then check this out. It’s not a Hammer classic in the same vein as The Curse of Frankenstein but it’s still worth at least one viewing.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Devil Rides Out, The (1968)

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

The beauty of woman . . . the demon of darkness . . . the unholy union of “The Devil’s Bride”

The Duc Du Richleau and Rex Van Ryn arrive at the house of their friend Simon Aron for a long-awaited reunion. However Simon has forgotten about them and is instead holding a mysterious party for an astronomical society. Richleau then discovers that the society is a really a coven of Satanists led by the charismatic Mocata and the two men bundle Simon away to safety. That is the least of their troubles though as Mocata won’t let Simon go that easily and uses all of his black magic powers to claim Simon’s soul. Mocata had summoned the Angel of Death and it will not return to Hell empty-handed.

 

Having firmly established themselves as Gothic horror specialists in the 50s and 60s with their array of Frankenstein and Dracula films, Hammer‘s fortunes began to wane a little in the late 60s. There were only so many times that audiences could watch Frankenstein fail again or see Dracula staked before it got repetitive. So the studio decided to dabble in the black arts and looked for other literature that they could bring to the screen. Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel, The Devil Rides Out, seemed like a perfect fit with its tales of black magic, ritual sacrifices and shady good versus evil dynamics which Hammer loved. In fact an adaptation of the novel had first been proposed by Hammer in 1963 but with the subject matter proving controversial (even on its eventual release) it was put on the back burner until 1967 when censorship had become a little more relaxed and this finally went into production. The studio pulled out all of the big guns – their top director Terence Fisher, composer James Bernard and the legendary Christopher Lee – to make sure that this was a hit. It has since become one of Hammer’s most celebrated films and whilst its slow pace is a product of its time, it is a film which lingers long in the mind after viewing.

The Devil Rides Out pulls out the dark, sinister undertones almost right from the beginning as both the scholarly Du Richleau and sceptical Rex go to visit Simon at his party and realise something is not right. There is a constant sense that something terrifying is lurking around waiting to be unleashed. Nowadays this would be replicated with a bombardment of special effects but this is old school horror and the power of the film lies in suggestion rather than visuals. Wheatley knew his occult down to very fine detail and every shred of knowledge is crammed into the screen in some form either by visuals in the form of the lavish ceremonial sets or through dialogue (much of which is spoken by Christopher Lee which instantly makes it sound credible – more on him later though) in which we get to know things like the exact amount of people that need to be present at one of these ceremonies and so forth. If you don’t know anything about the occult, chances are you’ll have picked a few things up afterwards.

The piece-de-resistance of the film is the scene in which Du Richleau, Marie, Reggie and Simon stay inside a protective circle chalk-drawn out on the floor and must survive the night as Mocata sends all manner of black magic forces against them including the Angel of Death and a giant tarantula. It sounds a lot more epic than it turns out and the quality of the special effects varies between enemies (they do age the film considerably) but the scene is more about atmosphere and tension and that it manages to nail.

Rather more alarmingly is the scene in the woods for the first attempt to baptise Simon into the cult. As the cultists chant and sacrifice, a goat-headed figure appears representing the Devil himself. Even though it is blatantly a guy in a mask, the entire scene is rather unsettling for its intent than any outright shock. The less said about an early scene in which Du Richleau and Rex are greeted by the sight of a demon arising from a hidden pentagram (simply a cross-eyed black guy – someone call the politically correct brigade!) the better. I guess what I like about the film is that it believes in itself. Rex is asked to buy into the existence of black magic at the start of the film by Du Richleau and in effect he’s asking the audience to buy into it as well. The scene with the Devil in the woods is presented almost as matter-of-fact with hardly any focus on the goat-headed apparition perched on a rock watching the ritual. This makes it all the more terrifying.

Whilst the film plods along when it isn’t conducting black magic rituals and the less-than-subtle Christian messages get a little too sickening towards the end, it is the performances which make this a true Hammer classic. Christopher Lee has often stated that out of all of the films that he’s starred in, this was his favourite and it’s easy to see why from his viewpoint: he gets to star as the good guy for a change! If see you ‘starring Christopher Lee’ in a title, you assume that he’s the bad guy such as his typecasting over the years has dictated. But whilst his sinister moustache and beard lends itself to images of Satanic priests, Lee’s usual pomp, grandeur, intensity and directness make for an interesting choice of hero. It’s one of Lee’s best performances, certainly more energetic and committed to the script than I can recall from other films (and I’ve seen a lot of Lee’s films).

Charles Gray, more famous for his appearance as Blofeld in James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever, stars opposite him as Mocata and though Gray’s more feminine persona and foppish voice does detract slightly from the character, his smarm and arrogance slices through the screen and more than adequately gives him a creepy edge. His quote “I will not be back. But something will, tonight” is delivered with devilish relish as he warns Marie of the night they’re about to face and smirks at the thought of their suffering. Mocata and Du Richleau are set up as binary opposites to each other, much like Dracula and Van Helsing were in the Dracula films or even Professor X and Magneto in the X-Men films (to use a more recent example). With equal powers and equal knowledge of the other, the tense stand-offs between the two smacks of intellectuals playing chess with human pawns. Its sterling work and credit must also go to writer Richard Matheson for crafting such enthralling characters. The rest of the cast don’t make nearly as much of an impression but when you’re in the shadows of Lee and Gray on this form, there’s no shame in that.

 

The Devil Rides Out is a stand-out film in Hammer’s massive film library. Without Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster in the film, the studio showed that they could deliver classic horror films and this is certainly one of their best efforts despite it not doing all that well when it was released. It has since found much respect and with a towering, near career-best performance from Christopher Lee at its core, The Devil Rides Out is classic horror at its most daring.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

To the Devil a Daughter (1976)

Warning! This Motion Picture Contains The Most Shocking Scenes This Side Of Hell!

An excommunicated priest leads his own cult and convinces a man to sign his newly-born daughter’s soul over to them to so that she can become the devil’s representative upon her eighteenth birthday. As the day approaches, the man seeks the help of an American occult novelist to try and save his daughter from the evil that is about to manifest itself.

 

The last horror film to be made by legendary studio Hammer before it closed doors (and its penultimate theatrical release), To the Devil a Daughter attempts to replicate the success of The Devil Rides Out, widely considered one of Hammer’s best films. Adapted from another Dennis Wheately novel, To the Devil a Daughter seemed like it would be a sure-fire hit. After all, Hammer had a hard time in changing with the times with the rise of the supernatural and occult horror films of the 70s in the likes of The Exorcist and The Omen and their period horrors seemed hopelessly out of fashion. The Devil Rides Out, back in 1968, had been released slightly before the fad came along so tapping back into the same well in the hope of striking it lucky twice seemed like a no-brainer. Whereas The Devil Rides Out seemed genuinely supernatural and sinister, To the Devil a Daughter seems overly forced, contrived and desperate to latch onto the occult bandwagon.

To the Devil a Daughter is slow, plodding and dull and Hammer sprinkles in plenty of it’s usual ingredients in a doomed bid to save the flick – namely some gore, some nudity and a towering performance by Christopher Lee – Hammer certainly doesn’t hold anything back as it goes down with a fight. There’s plenty of nasty imagery on display here with a pregnant woman’s legs being tied together during childbirth and Natassja Kinksi pushing a demonic puppet into a place where only certain things should be pushed. Hammer’s gamble on out-goring and out-sleazing its competitors used to work but in this instance, it fails badly. The film worked a lot better as a straightforward occult thriller, grounded in reality and managing to create something of an atmosphere and mood. But in their desperate attempts to find a winning formula, Hammer badly mis-judge just how much to show and how much to hold back and the gore and nudity comes off as gratuitous, not essential.

Just like the studio itself, the script seems to have run out of ideas. To find out that they began filming without a finished script gives the film another notch of desperation and apparently the writer handed over the script of what was to be shot the very next day, leading to all manner of mistakes and goofs. It also makes a lot of what happens perfectly understandable, as the film veers in different directions in any attempt to find success. There’s an underlying sense of incoherence throughout the film, right from its muddled opening, through poor build-up and then towards a flat finale. Separate plot threads are started but never manage to converge later on. The final confrontation between good and evil is a huge let down, considering something of similar note like the pentagram scene from The Devil Rides Out.

There’s a very good cast with Denholm Elliot, Honor Blackman and Kinksi providing great support to the two leads. Richard Widmark’s low key performance contrasts perfectly with the towering theatricality of Christopher Lee as the sinister, snarling Father Michael. It’s another great show from one of Hammer’s greatest servants and fitting that one of the instruments of success was there in its final moments. Though the film was a success at the box office, all of the profits went to investors and creditors and Hammer didn’t feel the financial benefits. The film was also considered such a failure by Dennis Wheatley that he told Hammer they could never film another of his novels ever again – a point made mute by the studio going out of business shortly afterwards.

 

 

To the Devil a Daughter is a historically important film as it signalled the end of an amazing era in not only horror but British filmmaking. With the death of Hammer, the British filmmaking industry lost one of its biggest exports and horror in this country would die a slow death until recent revivals thanks to the National Lottery. But that has nothing to do with the film itself which, quite frankly, is a load of poo.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Abominable Snowman, The (1957)

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

See It With Someone Brave! — A Timeless Terror to Freeze You to Your Seats!

An English botanist and an American scientist lead an expedition to the Himalayas to search for and prove the existence of the Yeti.

 

One of Hammer’s early sci-fi/horror films is yet another prime example of just how good their output was during their early years before they hit it big with Gothic horror. The Abominable Snowman had a badly timed release shortly after Hammer’s breakthrough film, The Curse of Frankenstein. With that pushing the boundaries of on-screen blood like never before and bringing horror to life in vivid colour, this intelligent, low-key black and white film seemed rather outdated. The Abominable Snowman tends to get overlooked and it’s a shame too because it’s a quite brilliant film.

Like The Quatermass Experiment before it, this owes it’s excellence to yet another amazing script from Nigel Kneale. Not a line of dialogue is wasted as Kneale uses every moment he has to add something to the story or the characters. Kneale loved writing about the unexplained mysteries of this planet and conceives all manner of weird and wonderful explanations for their existence. Here he has given the myth of the Abominable Snowman a whole unique spin – what if they were an undiscovered species waiting patiently in the Himalayas waiting for man to destroy itself?

I loved the characters of Dr Rollason and Tom Friend – the two sides of man that come out in the face of scientific discovery. Rollason is the scholar who wants to learn things for the good of man and to further man’s progression in evolution. Friend is the entrepreneur, taken over by greed and the desire to make a name for himself at the cost of these advances. There’s no middle ground between them. It’s no coincidence that the rest of the cast are expendable enough to leave these two men bickering and squabbling until the very end. Even the whole characterisation of the Yetis are done in way so that we don’t know what to expect from them when they appear – they could be a Rollason and use their hunger for knowledge to further their existence or they could be like Friend, out to destroy all that is alien to them. Not knowing whether the Yetis will be the rampaging monsters they are usually depicted in film or peaceful and enlightened is one of the highlights of the film.

Peter Cushing is excellent once again. I get sick of writing this statement in my reviews but it’s true – the man is arguably the finest actor I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a horror film, in fact any film period. He just brings so much depth to his roles, even the ones which are badly underwritten. Cushing was able to bring to life any dialogue and make it sound like the most brilliant speech you’ve ever heard. Forrest Tucker is also excellent in his role as the American, Friend. He has all of the qualities you would expect from a brash American and plays this to advantage. The two men excel in their roles, providing humanities duelling nature amidst the harsh environment of the Himalayas.

Val Guest’s direction also helps the film. There are some wonderful shots of the Pyrenees (doubling quite nicely for the Himalayas) which create the sense of isolation that is needed and the sets that are used aren’t too bad – black and white certainly helps them look better than they probably should do. Guest manages to build tension up gradually and once the expedition starts, it’s just constant suspense as you know that the group are being watched all of the time. The Yetis’ wails of misery are just some of the most haunting sounds I’ve heard and thankfully the Yetis themselves aren’t shown until the finale. Once more, ‘less is more’ and the less we see of the Yeti, the greater the mystery is. Looking at some of the recent depictions of the Abominable Snowman on film (including Snowbeast and Yeti), it’s clear that the old ways were the best for keeping things hidden for as long as possible to increase the audience’s anticipation of their eventual unveiling. Men-in-suits they may be, but by the time they grace the camera with their presence, you won’t care because the script has done such a good job in building them up as intelligent, living and breathing creatures.

 

Another intelligent, thought-provoking and superbly-made gem from Hammer, The Abominable Snowman is highly recommended to anyone looking for classics from the past.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Lost Continent, The (1968)

The Lost Continent (1968)

A living hell that time forgot!

A creaky tramp steamer carrying an assortment of shady passengers and a cargo hold full of illegal explosives heads straight into a dangerous storm. The crew mutinies and abandons ship when they find out what the cargo is and sea conditions begin to get treacherous. The storm eventually strands the ship and its remaining crew and passengers near a mysterious island, surrounded by weird-looking seaweed and populated by descendants of Spanish Conquistadores.

 

No review would be enough to really describe just how bonkers this film is. It’s just such a weird juxtaposition of films, genres and ideas that it really sinks itself by trying to accomplish too much. For a studio so associated with the horror genre, Hammer’s 1960s forays into fantasy worlds were curious but never good enough or endearing enough to catch on with the public in main like their earlier horror outings. But that’s not to say there weren’t some hidden gems in there. One Million Years B.C. is better known for Raquel Welch’s awesome two-piece fur bikini but featured some cracking stop motion effects from Ray Harryhausen. She was a bit of a tepid adventure but at least gave Peter Cushing something to do other than stake vampires and create monsters. And here we have The Lost Continent, a very obscure film which is very ambitious in its intentions but ultimately falls short because of numerous problems.

The scope of Hammer’s intention with this film must be applauded. It’s arguably their most ambitious work ever and they clearly put a lot of effort into making it look big budget. You’ve got the eerie island which is surrounded by deadly seaweed, drenched in fog and harbours plenty of shipwrecks from various periods in time – it’s a superb set which really conveys the idea of this being a ‘lost continent’ and not just some random island. Even some of the costume design ideas are so bizarre that it’s hard not to give their designer credit. The mushroom-like inflatable shoes that the Spanish conquistadores use to traverse the seaweed are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The first time you see them in the distance, it looks like some weird monster heading the way of the passengers.

Not only is the seaweed hungry and there are scores of religious fanatics who want to sacrifice the passengers but the island is also populated by a variety of bizarre and even more deadly monsters. The special effects are terrible and the monster models are ridiculous but the best thing is that the cast treat everything seriously. So as utterly pathetic as the crab and the octopus look, the cast battle bravely against them and make them look like a deadly threat. It helps that the creature designs are a bit different with their colourisation too, once again giving the viewer the illusion that this really is a lost world.

The film is entertaining when it finally gets going and they reach the island (and all of the above stuff happens) but it seems to take an eternity to get there. Too much time is spent (badly) developing characters we don’t care about because we know most of them won’t get out off the island alive. The characters all have shady pasts too so it’s hard to really find anyone to root for. A lot less of the backstabbing and bitching aboard the ship and more explanations about what the hell was going on would have been fine. By the time they reach the island, they don’t seem to be trapped for long before they manage to sort everything out into a neat little package and then escape as if nothing happened. The finale is all rushed and you won’t be able to catch your breath before the film is over. It’s as if there’s a lot of random stuff happening and a really flimsy story is patched together to try and work it all out. Did the film really need the long sub-plot about the crew’s mutiny early on in the film? The crew leave the ship as they find out there’s explosives on board. Shortly afterwards the passengers then decide to abandon ship to save themselves. Then a bit later on the passengers come across the ship again and go back on board. Wouldn’t it have been easier for them to have stayed on board? It would have saved some crucial running time for more island action.

The cast isn’t particularly well known but do their jobs well as the group of shady passengers. Eric Porter is brash, arrogant and highly unscrupulous as the captain. There’s eye candy on display in the forms of Suzanna Leigh (who plays a slutty daughter) and Dana Gillespie (who plays one of the enslaved islanders and sports arguably the most gravity-defying pair you’ll ever see). Hammer veteran Michael Ripper is on hand again for another small cameo. There are a few other faces that you may recognise if you’re into your older British films and it helps that there’s no really big names in here like Cushing or Lee. It gives the rest of the cast a chance to shine and they all do a decent enough job. But this really is a film based around its weird and wacky ideas and characters are secondary throughout.

 

The Lost Continent does have its fair share of problems but the ambition and scope of the film are way beyond what one would expect from Hammer. It’s bizarre, it’s obscure and it’s frustratingly brilliant – there’s almost too many ideas floating around here to make it work but somehow it does. It’s strangely compelling viewing and definitely a hidden Hammer gem that’s infinitely better than a lot of their more famous work.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆