Tag Old School British

Konga (1961)

Konga (1961)

Not since “King Kong”…has the screen exploded with such mighty fury and spectacle!

After being presumed dead in a plane crash, Doctor Charles Decker returns to England where he proclaims to have found a way of growing plants and animals to enormous size. Using Konga, his pet chimp, Decker is determined to prove his naysayers wrong. But as Decker grows more determined and Konga gets bigger and stronger, he begins to send the simian out to kill those who oppose him.

 

Hokey sci-fi horror from the 60s, Konga is part-King Kong, part-Frankenstein and full-on cheese. Brought to the screen by American International Pictures, the studio behind infamous B-movies such as It Conquered the World, Invasion of the Saucer Men, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Earth Vs The Spider, Konga was one of a number of British-made B-movies to stem from a partnership that AIP struck with UK-based studios. Now looking very dated, suitably campy and very silly, these films were head-and-shoulders apart from their American counterparts. Circus of Horrors, featuring Anton Diffring, and Horrors of the Black Museum, also starring Michael Gough, were a pale shadow of the Hammer horror output of the 50s and 60s but stood up reasonably well when compared to The Brain Eaters or Attack of the Giant Leeches. Konga joined the list in 1961 and though it’s no King Kong, it’s certainly better than War of the Colossal Beast.

Name-dropping aside, it’s hard to see which niche market they were aiming for with Konga. As I’ve said, it’s no King Kong. Save for the titular characters both being gorillas, there’s little similarity between the two. There are lots of the mad scientist tropes here too and the film does run like a proto-slasher with the gorilla acting as the masked killer. Whatever the aim, the eventual output delivers plenty of cheesy entertainment which lovers of B-movies would find right up their alley. The plot is the standard scientist takes his revenge story which is rather flimsily done from the start as Decker’s motivations for suddenly turning to murder are a step too far for even his character. But the shenanigans that ensues allows for plenty of diversity with what happens. Attempted rape. Man-eating plants. Some groovy 60s cats jiving to rock ‘n’ roll in the back of a van. You name it, it’s here.

Michael Gough was most likely a nice guy in real life and I have nothing personal against him but on screen across a number of his earlier films, he just oozes this hateable arrogance. It’s a testament to Gough’s ability as an actor that he manages to sculpt such obnoxious, devious and smarmy characters as Decker here or Bancroft in Horrors of the Black Museum. I really can’t stand the guy when he’s in this zone and the films are far the better for it. He’s in full-on rage mode, snarling and barking out instructions and commands to everyone around him. Gough plays it straight, which is puzzling given the nonsense going on, and the film works the better for it. Sadly the rest of the cast are nowhere near his level and he stands god-like over them, stealing every scene and dominating with every line of dialogue. This is Gough’s vehicle and he’ll be damned if anyone, even a giant gorilla, will upstage him.

Konga looks awful though, save for the early scenes when he’s actually a real-life chimp. Somehow in this enlarging process, Konga turns from a chimp into a gorilla but science and realism isn’t exactly this film’s strongest suit. The stuntman-inside-a-suit never worked on screen for anyone (think of those daft 50s films like Robot Monster or any time a gorilla showed up in a Three Stooges short) and this one is no exception. There’s something inherently daft about human eyes behind the mask which ruins the impression being attempted. Things go from bad to worse when Konga grows to gigantic proportions. Apart from some nifty miniature work when he breaks out of his house, the rest of the scenes of Konga stomping around London are ruined by a matte line around the gorilla which gives him some sort of radioactive glow. The less about the toy doll (Decker) that the stuntman is carrying around with him the better.

The film sells itself as some sort of King Kong pretender, with the art work depicting a rampage through London that would have Gorgo or Behemoth quivering in fear. When Konga does grow to gigantic size and escapes in the finale, you’d expect this to be so. Apparently standing around growling at bystanders is what classed as a rampage those days! Konga doesn’t do anything and in the climactic shots, stands in front of Big Ben. A ‘Kong climbing up the Empire State Building’ moment threatens but never materialises. The film ends on a whimper with no hint of any damage done to the capital.

 

Konga is innocent and inoffensive fun. It’s very talky, fails to deliver a satisfactory finale and smacks of cheap special effects. However there is something charming about watching a man in a third-rate gorilla outfit throwing dolls around miniature models of London. Worth a watch to see one of the UK’s most underrated actors, Michael Gough, chew the scenery as if he hasn’t eaten for years.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Asylum (1972)

Asylum (1972)

You have nothing to lose but your mind.

In order to meet a requirement for employment, a young psychiatrist interviews four inmates of a mental asylum. He hears their stories about the revenge of a murdered wife, a tailor who makes a unique suit, a woman who questions her own sanity and a man who builds tiny robots with lifelike human heads. The psychiatrist must then decide which inmate is the former head doctor in order to secure his job.

 

Think British horror and Hammer will most likely be the first name on your lips, and rightfully so. The studio dominated the late 50s and 60s with its succession of period Gothic horrors featuring Dracula, Frankenstein, various mummies, werewolves and more. However, you would find a solid case to argue for Amicus, a rival British studio which, after the success of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors in 1964, churned out a further seven horror anthology films of varying levels of quality. Asylum was made mid-way through this schedule and acts as a critical high point where the creativity and originality had just about peaked and the films hadn’t got too formulaic for their own good.

The best thing about these anthology films is that they would feature a number of smaller stand-alone horror stories which usually ran for about ten to fifteen minutes and were linked together by a framing story. The stories were usually well-paced, snappy affairs which meant that if you didn’t like it then you’d only have to wait a few minutes before the next one began. It’s a something for all approach that worked well across their anthology films. For each weak segment, there was always a strong segment to rebound with. Asylum is no stranger to this way of working. Everyone will find something different to enjoy and the four different stories will each appeal to a certain horror lover.

The framing story for Asylum is probably the most interesting of the Amicus anthologies and does a nice job of linking together the individual stories. Writer Robert Bloch (who had previously penned The House That Dripped Blood, not to mention writing the novel Psycho) creates a mysterious tale in which the audience are being tested as much as the young psychiatrist. It also helps that Amicus’ film stock always looked dull and devoid of colour, certainly compared to their lavish Technicolour Hammer counterparts. The gloomy look adds to the creepiness and bleak nature of the asylum.

The first story isn’t particularly exciting about a husband who kills his wife because she won’t give him a divorce. It’s not great although it does feature a highly memorable image – that of a woman’s severed head, wrapped in brown paper, coming back to life and beginning to breathe through the paper. It’s quite an unnerving effect as the body parts squirm and making the paper rustle. However, no reason is given for the woman’s body parts coming back to life and this somewhat sours the whole episode.

The second story is also pretty low key as an impoverished tailor is paid a visit by a mysterious stranger who gives him an even more mysterious material from which to make a suit for his son. Barry Morse gives a sympathetic performance as the tailor and Peter Cushing adds a touch of class as the stranger with a lot to hide. The material glows quite weirdly and the set up to the finale is quite nice, if somewhat predictable. Cushing isn’t in it enough to make much of an impression so it’s a good job that Morse is able to hold his own.

The third story is arguably my least favourite but potentially the best developed of the four as a young woman is released from a mental home to stay with her brother. However she keeps having visions of her friend ‘Lucy’ who tells her to run away. Charlotte Rampling gives a good performance as someone who is delusional but Britt Ekland is her usual self: looks good but doesn’t cut it in the acting chops. The twist in this film is highly predictable right from the start even for the least seasoned horror veterans.

The final story doesn’t last too long and is basically a set up for the finale as Herbert Lom’s doctor creates little robots with lifelike human heads and says he can bring them to life by the power of thought. The robot looks really freaky with their little human heads but the segment isn’t really meant to be as long as the others. It leads right into the finale when we find out just who is the doctor and it’s quite a twist ending. It’s a chilling ending which comes out of nowhere and rounds the film off nicely. It will make you smile, laugh and shiver at the same time, which is precisely the sort of black humoured-horror that Amicus was aiming for.

 

As far as anthologies go, Asylum is a great way to spend eighty-eight minutes. The production is professional enough, the atmosphere suitably creepy for the setting, there are some big names to hold the cast together and there’s a little bit of gore too. It’s a great example of the anthology format being used in the right way.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Day of the Triffids, The (1962)

The Day of the Triffids (1962)

Man eating plants! Spine chilling terror!

A once in a lifetime meteor shower illuminates the skies across the world which is unfortunate for Bill Masen, a sailor who is in hospital with his eyes bandaged after an operation. When he wakes up the next morning, Bill removes his bandages to find out that everyone who witnessed the meteor shower is now blind and London is in total chaos. What’s worse is that the meteorites brought with them triffids – giant, carnivorous plants which now prey upon the helpless population. Gathering together a group of survivors who can still see, Bill heads off across Europe to rebuild civilisation and fight off the triffid menace.

 

Although apparently a demolition job of the book by John Wyndham upon which this is based, I can only judge a film on its merits and I’ve got to say that The Day of the Triffids comes up a little short of being an outright sci-fi classic. It’s sinister in parts, dull in others and there’s a general sense that too many people had input into the final version of the film. But it’s still a celebrated dose of early 60s British sci-fi from an era fuelled by paranoia about the Cold War and does a fair job of spelling out the end of the world, even if it all feels very low scale.

Forget the idea of the killer plants for the time being. Day of the Triffids works best when it’s not churning out monster movie clichés. The strongest part of the film is its first half when you’re not entirely sure what is going on, in particular the scenes of total chaos in London: trains de-rail in stations, planes fall out of the sky and ships crash into docks with their pilots, crews and passengers all blind and unable to do anything to prevent their deaths. The shots of Masen walking throughout the deserted streets of London will be familiar to anyone who has seen 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle clearly borrowing from this startling introduction with his similar post-apocalyptic opening salvo.

At first Masen’s selfishness and reluctance to help any blind person he comes across seems brutally cold-hearted but the realisation that he’s one of only 1% of the world’s population who can still see puts this into context – he literally can’t save everyone. The blindness itself is chillingly introduced into the story, with Masen testing his doctor’s vision for him before the poor chap makes a suicidal leap out of a window, unable to cope with his new situation. It’s a bleak scenario and the film does a great job of conveying this post-apocalyptic feel with its minor budget.

But then the novelty value of this scenario soon wears thin when the film runs out of ideas and simply begins to repeat itself. Once Masen and his new-found schoolgirl friend, Susan, head across the channel to France, the film begins to struggle as they go from situation to situation involving blind survivors and triffids. Speaking of which, the killer plants are arguably the weakest part of the film. I guess the notion of killer plants isn’t a particularly easy sell but the special effects do them no favours at all. They’re a classic case of Papier-mâché monsters being pulled along by wires. Their design is pretty unique and their appearance is sinister as long as they aren’t moving.

The triffids are introduced in London during a pair of well-handled sequences involving a dog that gets too close for its own good in the first instance and that age old chestnut sequence of a “car stuck in the mud whilst monster is closing in” comprising the second. But once in mainland Europe, the triffids don’t do an awful lot, save for a decent mansion assault scene, and are generally relegated to background duty for the rest of the film. It’s a real shame because, as ridiculous as the triffids look, they at least manage to convey an element of danger and the scenes involving them stalking and attacking their prey are at least tense and effective. Without hungry vegetation clogging up the screen, there’s little else to hold your interest levels. Characters are poorly-written and there’s not that many of them either – only Masen and Susan connect with the audience in any way.

After initial filming had finished, the running time ended up being woefully short of hitting that of a full length feature film so horror director Freddie Francis was drafted in to film extra scenes for a simultaneous story about two survivors being menaced by triffids whilst stranded in a lighthouse. This gives the illusion that there two different films battling for supremacy and neither one wins. The two stories never gel together well and are virtually unrelated save for a token scene at the end when they merge. The eventual resolution to the triffid menace seems contrite and ridiculously tacked on to give audiences some feeling of hope – despite the blatantly obvious fact that the majority of the people in the world are still blind.

 

Day of the Triffids might be considered a classic but it falls well off the mark in trying to accomplish that feat. It’s too talky, too muddled and too low scale to do justice to the post-apocalyptic scenario that is desperately trying to break free. You do get subtle hints of what may have been and there is still enough action and suspense to appeal to fans of old school sci-fi.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

And Now the Screaming Starts (1973)

And Now the Screaming Starts (1973)

The dead hand that crawls KILLS and LIVES!!!

Newly weds Charles and Catherine Fengriffin move into the family estate to start their new life together. But shortly after arriving, Catherine is disturbed by ghastly visions of man whose eyes have been gouged out and is also tormented by a disembodied hand. However no one else in the house has seen these things and Charles begins to suspect that Catherine is going insane. When she becomes pregnant, Charles enlists the help of psychiatrist Dr Pope to get to the bottom of these apparent hallucinations. What becomes evident is Catherine is now the victim of a horrible curse which had been bestowed upon the Fengriffins thanks to the actions of Charles’ grandfather.

 

Known more for their anthologies back in the 60s and 70s, British company Amicus finally tried their hand at period horror in an attempt to muscle in on their rivals, Hammer, with And Now the Screaming Starts. Ironically enough, Hammer had begun to move away from that tried-and-tested formula by bringing the likes of Dracula into the present day with Dracula A.D. 1972. So Amicus’ decision to do something that had been done to death over the years was a bit bewildering. So much so when you see how average And Now the Screaming Starts actually is. Far from being a classic period Gothic horror, it just went to prove Hammer’s decision to move on to different material was a good one.

Director Roy Ward Baker directed a few British horrors around this time and he approaches And Now the Screaming Starts as if he’s making some sort of low budget ghost train ride for a theme park. Portraits rattle against the walls. Windows blow open. Candles extinguish. There’s thunder and lightning. And that’s just the start of it – its hardly subtle horror, rather in your face scares. Baker relies on repeating the same scares over and over again for the first half of the film, with the eerie eye-less man leering through windows, a fake severed hand appearing and disappearing whenever someone mentions the curse and constant zoom-ins on one of the oil paintings which results in loud, sinister music being played. The effects aren’t convincing the first time around but they’re overworked like mad here as if Baker didn’t know how else to scare people. Despite his efforts, the film rarely conveys any sense of dread and as a result, the pace of the film slows to a crawl. You’re waiting for something to jump-start the film into life.

Thankfully the arrival of Peter Cushing half-way through the film is this required jump-start – not because he’s on the screen (though it makes a big difference to have him around) but because the story finally starts to advance and the characters begin to unravel the curse that is hanging over the Fengriffins. This leads to a nasty flashback and then the film moves swiftly on to its finale, peppered with a few twists and turns along the way. There are still a couple of the tacky scare sequences like there were in the opening half but at least the film is moving with purpose by this point and they don’t feel like they’re simply there to pad out the running time. Now they appear with meaning and relevance to the story. In fact the last forty minutes or so is pretty good. Though the direction of the story is predictable and the twists themselves are hardly nerve-shattering, And Now the Screaming Starts provides decent entertainment.

Stephanie Beacham stars as Catherine and she’s got a massive set of lungs on her (in both the euphemism sense and the proper sense!). Obviously with a title like And Now the Screaming Starts, there were going to be moments in the film where she was required to scream and boy, does she ever scream. Possibly one of the most ear-piecing and genuinely frightening screams I’ve heard, her character’s shock and fright is easily transmitted to the viewer. It helps matters greatly that she’s beautiful – like seriously stunning, one of English’s finest roses. The role requires her to scream a lot and wear low-cut dresses and she does both with equal aplomb.

Ian Ogilvy doesn’t do have much to do as Charles Fengriffin so it’s left to the old timers Peter Cushing and Herbert Lom to deliver. Cushing only enters the film past the half way point and even though he’s his usual brilliant self, the role is virtually useless to the story and the actions that his character makes could easily have been written for Charles himself. Lom’s part is meatier, starring in a flashback scene as Charle’s debaucherous grandfather and showing us the reason that the curse was put onto the Fengriffins. Lom hams it up in his brief role and is arguably the best bit of the film. This sequence alone features rape and a nasty hand chopping to boot!

 

And Now the Screaming Starts is totally worthless. It could easily match up against some of Hammer’s lesser efforts with ease. It’s just that the terrible first half of the film torpedoes any sort of momentum the film needed to give the rousing second half any hope of winning the viewer over. I got the impression that it would have worked better as a shorter film in one of their specialist anthologies.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

SEE! The Fantastic Binocular Murder! SEE! The Vat of Death!

Crime writer Edward Bancroft secretly owns a private ‘black museum’ full of deadly implements and torture devices. When London is gripped by a series of sensationalist murders, Scotland Yard have no clues as to the identity of the killer. Bancroft has hypnotised his assistant into committing these acts of murder so that he has something lurid to write about for his fanatic audience.

 

From the opening scene in which a woman uses a pair of binoculars with brutal and bloody consequences, you know that Horrors of the Black Museum is going to hold little back in the way of garish shocks. Much like the story featuring a spate of sensationalist which grips London with fear, Horrors of the Black Museum serves up a macabre meal of as much visual horror as the late 50s would allow.

Horrors of the Black Museum would no doubt work well in today’s horror environment, albeit with more gore and nudity. It’s virtually a collection of horrific set pieces strung together by the flimsiest of the plots – on the DVD cover and in its TV listing write-ups, the fact that Bancroft is the one behind the murders is blatantly stated. And if you hadn’t read any of that, the film promptly reveals this to you before the twenty minute mark is up. This isn’t meant to be a murder mystery or ‘whodunnit.’ This is quite literally a slasher for the 1950s or a Saw-esque film in which story matters little, how bloody and outrageous the film can be matters a lot. As well as the gruesome opening with the booby-trapped binoculars, there is a bedroom beheading which was definitely well ahead of its time in the gore stakes. In my favourite moment of the film, a recently-murdered body is lowered into a vat of acid and reduced to a skeleton. Tame today, yes. For 1959, I bet people were throwing up in sick bags. Throughout the film, the blood is a vivid scarlet colour and it certainly looks the part. You can imagine audiences never seeing sights so ghastly back in the day!

As the film progresses, its early grounding in reality gives way and it gets ever more preposterous – the idea that Bancroft is controlling his young assistant through hypnosis; the physical transformations that he suffers as a result; the super computer that Bancroft keeps in his basement; and much more. At this point, we, like Bancroft, are one step ahead of the police and it’s only a matter of time for them to play catch-up. Though the film provides a number of solid set pieces, you get the sense that there’s no real overlying story to keep it all hooked together. We never find out Bancroft’s real motives and there are too many unanswered questions. The finale at an amusement park provides a limp pay-off given the brutality that the previous hour had shown.

I’ve always thought that the late Michael Gough looked decidedly dodgy. I’m sure he was a nice enough fellow in real life but in his films, most particular his early work when he still had a full head of jet black hair, he’s got this snivelling, odious look to him. Perfectly cast as the villain, Gough chews the scenery up like mad, going from calm and collected gentlemen to a ranting and raving murderous lunatic. Gough lets rip with some excellent monologues and cutting barbs about journalism and human nature and his portrayal is of a man who believes that he is a cut above everyone else. The notion of his character having a massive Bond villain-style super computer in his basement is just taking everything too far though. Apparently the role was meant for Vincent Price but he wanted too much to do it. I could see Price hamming it up perfectly as Bancroft but Gough makes an excellent alternate. The rest of the cast are insignificant – this is a show for Gough and the gore only.

 

Horrors at the Black Museum is a solid, if overly dated, British chiller worth watching for a malicious tour-de-force performance from the great Michael Gough.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Theatre of Blood (1973)

It’s curtains for his critics!

A hammy Shakesperian actor takes horrific revenge on the critics who savaged his plays and denied him the chance to win Best Actor of the Year award by killing them in parodies of deaths from Shakespeare’s plays.

 

Essentially an elaborate sequence of death scenes linked by a loose plot, Theatre of Blood is an attempt by AIP to recapture the success that was The Abominable Dr Phibes. With Vincent Price playing a classically educated madman keen on getting revenge on some wrong-doers through a variety of convoluted set pieces, the film was a remarkably camp but graceful affair which is a bit of an oddity. Dr Phibes Rises Again soon followed which followed the same template. Then a couple of years later, this one appeared and for all intents and purposes, Theatre of Blood could almost be Dr Phibes 3.

Theatre of Blood works for one reason and for one reason only – Vincent Price. This is his film right from the start. He knows it. The director knows it. The script writer has known it. The rest of the cast know it. And after we’ve finished, we know it too. Price is at his scenery-chewing best in this one. The role of the hammy but egotistical Shakesperian actor needed a certain character to play the part and Price is perfect for it, mixing his energetic delivery with his velvet vocals and his trademark sinister, dark persona to create the perfectly grandiose villain. Edward Lionheart is weird and sometimes camp, totally mad, devoted to the works of the Bard and always posing an element of utmost danger. Shakespeare himself would have been proud to create such a multi-levelled character! Had Price not become so typecast within the horror genre, he would have made for a fantastic Shakespearian actor as he rattles off a recital of a passage of Shakespeare right before or after each death with immense passion.

Diana Rigg plays his on-screen daughter and seems to be having as much fun as Price himself, though she spends most of the film hiding beneath layers of fancy dress and make-up as she re-enacts the scenes with the ‘help’ of the intended victims. The supporting cast of critics include Jack Hawkins and Arthur Lowe of all people, most famous for his brilliant portrayal of Captain Mainwaring in the hit BBC show Dad’s Army.

Though Lionheart himself flits between the camp and the tongue-in-cheek, the film itself is played straight which makes for a disjointed combination at times. Theatre of Blood sadly lacks a decent narrative to keep it going. As I’ve already mentioned, the film is virtually a collection of Shakespearian death scenes. The flimsy story moves from death A to death B to death C without any hint of deviating. Ultimately, this just means the film gets too predictable because we know that nothing else is going to happen. Basically Price hams it up for a bit, kills someone and then moves on to the next victim. You could argue that the film follows the classic slasher formula to the latter, stripping away as much of the story as possible and keeping things simple.

The death scenes are highly elaborate and gruesome: each one ‘influenced’ by a famous death scene from a Shakespeare play and there are some crackers. One pompous character is fed his own dogs baked in a pie (from Titus Andronicus) and there’s a recreation of the famous swordfight from Romero and Juliet. Knowing your Shakespeare would definitely help! For 1973, the film can quite graphic and gallons of blood are spilled, more done with amusing fashion than truly nasty intent.

 

Theatre of Blood works on one level and one level alone: Vincent Price. If you like him, you’ll love this. If not, you still might like this. Gory fun with an interesting idea and you might even learn a bit of classic Shakespeare in the process. Price considered this his best film and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Earth Dies Screaming, The (1964)

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

Who… Or What Were They… Who Tried To Wipe All Living Creatures Off The Face Of This Earth?

An astronaut returns to Earth to find that it has been ravaged by some unknown force, killing virtually everyone. No one knows what has happened and a small group of survivors in an English village band together to find out more. When they see a couple of men in space suits walking through their village, they assume that it is the Air Force and they are here to help. What they find is more terrifying than they could have ever imagine – these ‘men’ are actually killer robots.

 

The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula sent the name of Hammer sky-rocketing to the top of the horror genre and the man sitting in the director’s chair for both, Terence Fisher, was hot property. But after making a few more Hammer horrors, Fisher and the studio fell out over creative differences and he briefly left for a rival studio that persuaded him to helm a trio of science fiction films for them. At Planet Film, Fisher clearly found himself a little out of his comfort zone. Horror he was able to handle with ease – science fiction seemed a bit of a task. And without the other creative geniuses behind the original Hammer films (the talented writers, composers, producers and actors), it wasn’t a case of Fisher being found out (since he was a good director) but more a case of him being isolated without help. The Earth Dies Screaming was the first of the three films he made – the others being the fantastic Island of Terror and the underrated Night of the Big Heat – and whilst I have extremely fond memories of it as a kid (and scary memories too), upon further viewing as a mature adult, it’s nowhere near as good as you’d like it to be.

It’s was always going to take something special to live up to a title such as The Earth Dies Screaming so it’s no surprise that this doesn’t even come close. I’m not quite sure whether the idea to shoot in black and white was for budgetary reasons or whether it was designed to be more of a throwback to early 50s sci-fi films but whatever the reason, it is for the best as it looks and feels a lot older than its 1964 release. The biggest issue facing The Earth Dies Screaming is that it doesn’t go anywhere. From the apocalyptic opening scenes of trains crashing and planes falling out of the sky, everything gets rather low-key and very quickly. The group of survivors do what the English do best and hole up inside a pub to figure out what is going on and pretty much stay there for the next forty minutes. The robots turn up. Some of the dead humans begin to rise as zombies. And that’s about it.

With only a short running time of just over an hour, the story ends no further forward than it was when it started. We have no idea what caused nearly everyone to die, no idea what the robots were, what they wanted, why they reanimate the dead and so on. There’s no resolution to proceedings. There’s no closure. I’m not sure whether there is any film missing, whether they ran out of money and had to end when they did or whether they planned to do a sequel. It’s a highly unsatisfying ending which renders the rest of the film almost worthless.

Terence Fisher tries to keep the suspense up to compensate but after the promising opening and first appearance of the robots, the film loses steam quickly. There are too many inconsistencies with the way the robots and the zombies work for them to come off as serious threats – for convenience sake it seems the robots only occasionally attack people. The robots knew where the survivors were all holed up from the start so for them to just ignore the pub completely is a bit silly.

The robots remind me of the Cybermen from Doctor Who – back when the Cybermen were in their prime and bad ass, not those mindless drones in the new version. These robots apparently pre-date the Cybermen but I’m not one to argue that case. They’re too slow to be menacing and seem to have a lot of trouble walking (I’m not surprised with those gigantic moon boots they wear) and the script must take liberties in some scenes in order for them to appear more deadly than they are by having the characters react extremely slowly or just have them stand there in fear. The zombies are just as bad. Their purpose in the film is not explained and flimsy at best – for all intents and purposes, I think they were just put in as replacements for the robots in some scenes because it would have been too expensive or too fiddly to film those cumbersome robots walking up the stairs in the pub. Take them out of the film and the script would have run almost the same.

Willard Parker is the token American hero, no doubt cast to appeal to the US market. But he’s devoid of any charisma or charm and is a pretty unlikable lead it has to be said. Thankfully there are a few decent character actors propping up the supporting cast with Dennis Price as the shifty Taggart and Thorley Walters in his trademark role of a bumbling fool.

 

The famous line “they don’t make them like this anymore” completely sums up The Earth Dies Screaming. It had everything you wanted from a 60s B-movie: robot alien invaders, zombies, a remote village, group of survivors banding together, etc. This rating is probably an extra mark higher than it should be given that it scared me to death when I was a kid. Its effect has worn off considerably over the ages and now looks like the tepid 50s/60s sci-fi horror effort that it really is.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆