Tag Old School British

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Trollenberg Terror, The (1958)

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

A man dissolves…and out of the oozing mist comes the hungry eye, slave to the demon brain!

A series of unexplained deaths in the Swiss Alps leads investigator Alan Brooks to the Trollenberg mountain where the nearby observatory has been tracking a strange radioactive cloud that doesn’t seem to move. Joining him in his travels to Trollenberg, a couple of English psychics claim to be mysteriously drawn to an alien presence on the mountain. It is revealed that aliens from a dying planet have made the icy cold peaks their new home but are now moving down the mountain towards the village.

 

Another of Britain’s entries in the 50s science fiction genre, The Trollenberg Terror isn’t one of it’s greatest but still manages to deliver some eerie goods. Jimmy Sangster, the man who penned some of Hammer’s finest films, was given the task of writing and, fresh off completing a similar sci-fi tale with X the Unknown, comes armed with a wealth of ideas that would make Quatermass happy. Back in these days, the stories had to be top notch because everyone knew that the special effects were never that convincing. A good story and solid build-up would alleviate many of the weaknesses of the special effects – if the film did such a good job of making you believe in the existence of aliens and the science around them, it hardly mattered what they looked like because you were already sold on the idea. Such is the case with The Trollenberg Terror. A good story, some eerie moments and a gradual sense of impending doom keep the film ticking over until the disappointing aliens are revealed.

The plot, adapted from a BBC serial a couple of years earlier, is your routine story about mysterious goings on in a small town. You know the sort of film I’m referring to and the set-up is formulaic. There’s the pre-credits victim. The opening scene is really good and because you don’t actually see what is happening with the person off-screen, it’s a lot more effective. Local people then try and deal with the situation themselves. More disappearances. The townspeople call in some external help since their local experts don’t know what the problem is. Eventually this leads to a pivotal ‘reveal’ moment mid-way through the film in which the threat is uncovered. It’s the same routine with the scientific ground that it tries to cover – aliens coming from another dying planet and choosing Earth to be their new home, etc. The Trollberg Terror adheres to this template to perfection, casually going about its business with the minimum of fuss. It’s never overly boring but there are many occasions where you wish the pace would pick up just a little bit.

One good point is the use of the radioactive cloud. Every time the monsters go to attack, the cloud moves position on the mountain. Earlier in the film, this is a useful tool to create a bit of mystery and suspense. You know something is inside the cloud but you’re not sure what is lurking there. I guess it’s the imagination kicking into overdrive thinking about all of the weird and wonderful (and deadly) things that could be lurking in there. Regrettably, the monsters massively disappoint when they get their big reveal about half-way through and it is at this point the film loses its mystery and suspense. With everyone trapped inside the observatory, you’d think there would be some Night of the Living Dead-style barricade where the survivors fight off the monsters. But that doesn’t happen and the finale is a bit of a damp squib, with the blame solely lying at the feet of the special effects.

The monster designs are very good so it is a pity that they’re unable to do much on-camera and make themselves look like a threat. The fact that the monsters are giant brains with a big eyeball is no secret due to the fact that they’re plastered all over the front cover. They get a great debut late on the film when a character opens up the door of the hotel to see one peering in. Sadly, whenever they’re required to move or attack, they look like the models being pulled across miniature sets that they are. The humans either have unconvincing fights with rubber tentacles that don’t move or the monsters simply attack clay figures on the model sets. There’s a rather infamous attack during the observatory finale where one of the monsters grabs an unlucky chap by the throat and lifts him up off the floor – the following scene of a model man being pathetically hoisted up by the cheap monster makes me chuckle every time. At least they tried.

 

Typical of standard 50s sci-fi, The Trollenberg Terror isn’t anything special when you consider what else was out around the same period (I’m thinking of the Quatermass films here). It would have been better had the finale been more exciting and the special effects been more convincing. Even the Japanese were managing to do decent miniature work at this time with Godzilla and his giant monster friends.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Death Line (1973)

Death Line (1973)

Beneath Modern London Lives a Tribe of Once Humans. Neither Men Nor Women…They Are the Raw Meat Of The Human Race!

Over the years, numerous people have gone missing in the tube between Holborn and Russell Square. When a top civil servant is the latest to disappear, Scotland Yard take the matter seriously and begin to investigate. They find out that at the turn of the century, a group of tunnel-diggers in the London Underground were lost when it caved-in. Presumed dead, they managed to survive in an air pocket but without food, they resorted to cannibalism. Now it seems they have found a way out.

 

After watching the dismal Creep, I read a few reports stating that it was very similar in story to an earlier British horror called Death Line, which has garnered quite a cult reputation over the years. It took me ages to track it down and having finally seen it, I can report that it’s a very acquired taste. In other words, if you like slow, talky flicks with a few cheap gore scenes thrown in, then this is right down your alley. In fact I’m being a little harsh with that comment. For 1972 and for a British-made horror flick, this is pretty gruesome and boundary-pushing material.

It’s a largely American-made film which clearly tries to tap into the Hammer/Amicus horror market of the 60s and early 70s and does a reasonable job of creating a modern horror flick, back at a time when Hammer was still engrossed in setting their films in the past. The London Underground is such an ominous setting in real life and it’s a perfect place to set a horror flick (just ask John Landis when he filmed An American Werewolf in London) but unfortunately we don’t see a great deal of it. Instead we see lots of dark, empty, unfinished tunnels which lead to the cannibal’s lair. The long, unbroken pan around the cannibal’s home is superb though, seeing the rotting corpses of former friends and family and getting a general sense that this place has been untouched for years. There’s dust, slime and the air seems stagnant – you can almost smell how bad it is. Lighting and shadow is used to create a time capsule but unfortunately this is the only time we see the lair.

Most of the film is set away from any sort of railway line, including shops, police stations and pubs. It’s here where the film really, really drags. I’m not expecting the film to just show us continuous montages of the cannibal attacking people and moping around his lair. But contrast that to scenes featuring the hero and heroine in their apartment, and I know which I’d rather be watching.

At least there’s a seasoned veteran beefing things up. Donald Pleasance is a hoot in this film as the police inspector assigned to the case. His efforts to get to the bottom of this mystery take up the bulk of the screen time and whilst Pleasance is a joy to watch here, it’s just way too much exposure for one film. Christopher Lee also gets a large billing but appears in a shocking cameo for about five minutes before vanishing entirely. Also worth mentioning is Hugh Armstrong as ‘The Man’ or the cannibal in the film. He turns the monster into such a sad, lonely figure almost like Frankenstein’s monster. He’s not really scary because the film contrasts him too much. One moment we see him caring for his dying wife before we see him dispatching a few workers in grisly manner a couple of minutes later. Later in the film when he kidnaps Patricia, I guess we’re supposed to hate him for it but in reality, we want to see a happy ending for him. Unfortunately for Alex, the hero of the film, because the ‘villain’ is so sympathetic, it’s hard to root for him. Despite the cannibal committing some brutal acts of murder and being incapable of speech, he’s still way more appealing than this sponge of a man.

 

Death Line is seemingly caught between a rock and a hard place. It wants to be an intelligent horror film dealing with one man’s struggle to retain the way of life he has grown used to and the realisation that he’s the only one left. But the inclusion of some highly gory moments suggests that they opted for a quicker profit margin with shock tactics. It’s highly talky but definitely one film all horror fans should scope at some point simply because it’s so hard to find in the UK (at time of writing).

 

Ghoul, The (1975)

The Ghoul (1975)

A former missionary to India keeps his crazed, cannibalistic son locked away in the attic of his country house in order to keep him from killing to eat. When a group of people in a cross-country race stop off at the house, it is only a matter of time before the son escapes to feed.

 

British horror in the 70s was at its lowest point. Hammer and Amicus had been churning out the same horrors for years with dwindling results and a new breed of horror was emerging from America with the likes of Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Audiences didn’t want to keep watching Dracula, Frankenstein or other monsters stalking victims through Gothic settings. Some people foolishly stuck to the formula that had brought about the greatest success in the hope that people would eventually come full circle again but all it did was expose how poor and one-dimensional the films had become.

Tyburn Films was a new studio established by Kevin Francis, son of horror director Freddie Francis, that attempted to replicate the Hammer formula at a time when everyone else was trying not to replicate it. What we got was a handful of competently-made but ultimately weak and feeble horror outings that may have scared people back in the early 60s but looked woefully short of imagination and scares in the mid-70s. The Ghoul is one such outing.

The Ghoul might as well have begun with characters saying “been there, done that and got the t-shirt” because it’s so routine, unimaginative and uneventful. The story itself is very thin and it plods along way too slowly to do anything effective. There’s lots of padding early on with the antics of the racers taking up the bulk of the early running time. Even when they do get to the country house, they spend too much time doing very little of note. Freddie Francis’ direction is competent but so devoid of energy and life. He lets the film play out like an elongated sketch that should have been short and snappy but was dragged out to full feature-length levels.

Whilst the film is well shot, with plenty of fog-drenched moors and remote locations, it just doesn’t do anything with it. There’s no atmosphere, no sense of dread or foreboding or worthwhile build-up to the eventual reveal of the cannibal. Typically of old school horror films, the monster isn’t revealed until the very end of the film and its no surprise to find out that it’s a big let down. The ‘ghoul’ of the title is simply a man with a bit of green paint on his face. It’s hardly going to make you wet your pants, especially as he looks to be wearing a huge nappy and waddles across the floor like he has just done something naughty in it.

It’s a shame because it’s got good pedigree with the cast and crew: director Freddie Francis is a British horror legend, helming some of Amicus’ most popular anthology films as well as a few Hammer films; writer Anthony Hinds produced some of Hammer’s best early outings; both Peter Cushing (no introduction needed!) and Veronica Carlson starred in their fair share of Hammer horrors; John Hurt would shoot to fame when an alien burst out of his chest a few years later in Alien; and Ian McCullough starred in his fair share of late 70s/early 80s Italian exploitation horrors. Cushing does what he does best and that is improve the watchability of any rubbish film simply by his performance. This was three years on from the death of his wife, from which he never really recovered, and apparently he broke down a few times during filming. It’s not one of his best performances, if you can call it that, as he seems to be portraying himself – a heartbroken man full of grief and mourning. He chose the right character to play but probably at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons. John Hurt pops up as the crazy gardener.

 

The Ghoul isn’t going to win any horror awards with its pedestrian, lifeless formula being about ten years out of date. It’s harmless enough but just a chore to sit through the same old, same old time and time again.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Blood Beast Terror, The (1968)

The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

Detective Quennell investigates a series of murders in which the victims are found drained of blood with huge claws marks over their bodies. His investigation takes him to good friend and entomologist Karl Mallinger. Here he finds out that Mallinger has been conducting experiments that have caused his daughter to morph into a giant Death’s Head moth and she has been killing the men who are attracted to her.

 

Peter Cushing once remarked that The Blood Beast Terror was the worst film he ever took part in and he’s probably not too far from the truth. The Anglo-horror era in Britain in the 50s and 60s saw plenty of international smash hits churned out from the likes of Hammer. But there were also a few lesser known studios which wanted a piece of the pie and tried to muscle in on the market to little avail. This one is from a studio called Tigon who made the excellent The Witchfinder General but then struggled to keep the hits coming. It’s easy to see why they’re forgotten about when people continually talk about Hammer and Amicus.

The Blood Beast Terror is a complete mess. Even the worst of Hammer films usually had some form of coherent plot which made sense no matter how stupid some of them became. Here, there is nothing done to explain anything that happens. No doubt you’re wondering what the hell the plot is all about and it’s never explained throughout the course of the film. We don’t know how Mallinger managed to create a moth that big, let alone one that can change appearance between human and moth in the blink of an eye. Nor does it explain why the moth becomes a vampire, desperately needing blood to survive as opposed to nectar or whatever moths eat to stay alive. I guess any reasons would have been silly but at least we’d have a reason! It’s better than clutching at straws.

The film itself is terribly flat. Not a great deal happens. There’s a pointless subplot with Mallinger’s servant who continually harasses Mallinger’s eagle pet with a big stick before it pecks him to death and that plot thread ends. There’s a few deaths scattered around with a splash of blood on some of the bodies but nothing to get worked up over. The music adds nothing to the film whatsoever, with lots of misplaced and badly-timed cues of music which detract from some of the film’s most serious moments.

At least the acting is pretty reasonable with Peter Cushing being flawless as always (despite the absurdity of the material on hand) and Robert Flemyng being a bit of a turncoat as Mallinger. It’s the sort of role that Cushing can do in his sleep but one which he approaches with his traditional professionalism and ability to turn even the worst dialogue into intelligent science and fact. Wanda Ventham stars as the ill-fated ‘moth woman’ and it’s a thankless task. The moth costume looks ridiculous – fancy dress hire quality with its black bodysuit, big red eyes and some tacked-on wings.

The finale where Cushing builds a huge fire to attract the moth to it is so badly timed and rushed that it’s over before it begins. There’s one shot of something flying towards the fire but the lens seems to have been out of focus so it’s hard to explain what it is. Then the film ends. I had to read up on it in order to understand just what happened because it was all so quick and sudden. If there is one positive, it’s the great in-joke as some students put on a play of Frankenstein in Mallinger’s house. Cushing’s character peers through the window and smiles at the play, a self-referential wink to one of his greatest performances in The Curse of Frankenstein.

 

Cushing was right. The Blood Beast Terror was the worst film he ever starred in, through no fault of his own – but almost everyone else’s. It’s awful and not the way I want to remember British horror.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

Whilst the rest of Britain freezes in deepest winter, the northern island of Fara bakes in usually hot weather. The crew at the Met station have no idea what is causing this heat but when people start to hear strange noises and are found scorched to death, the locals begin to suspect something. A scientist on the island studying this phenomenon believes that the island is being used a beachhead for an invasion by aliens who need high temperatures to survive.

 

Terence Fisher was one of the core figures at the centre of Hammer Horror’s emergence as the top horror-making company in the late 50s and early 60s but left the studio during the 60s to go off and make a trilogy of sci-fi films for another studio (the others being The Earth Dies Screaming and Island of Terror, ironically both are two of my favourite films). The Night of the Big Heat is the third film he made and is just as strong as the other films, at least until the aliens turn up which ironically again, was the problem of the other two films.

We are given the traditional isolationist community in peril, introduced to a few of the key local characters and an odd moment or two where some minor character is killed by an off-screen menace. There’s nothing different about the approach to the film than anything else of the period – keep the monsters out of sight until the very end is the key here. But a good job is done to keep us interested throughout – the pace is quite brisk and there is a foreboding sense of doom. We’re in no hurry to see the aliens and for most of the time the buzzing noise that they make is enough to keep us just a little bit scared and curious as to what they’ll look like. The constant sight of people being killed off by bright lights does get a bit laughable – they’re humans, not vampires! Some of the science is also bordering on the nonsensical too but when it’s delivered by Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, it sounds like scientific fact.

When you do see the aliens, they look AWFUL and in the DVD commentary there is a lot of amusement and laughing when they do come on screen. It’s a total let down for the finale, especially as it is the point in the film where everything is supposed to come to a head, not descend into a farce. The only major problem is the rather unconvincing love triangle plot that’s forced down our throats. It’s pretty pointless, doesn’t go anywhere and doesn’t add anything to the plot except pad it out.

Filmed during winter, the actors wear damp shirts and had glycerine smothered over their faces to give the illusion that it’s hot – and believe me you’ll sweat during this film just watching them. You can feel the heat coming from the screen at times. Peter Cushing keeps his suit on all of the time though which is a bit worrying especially as it’s supposed to be really hot – you’d think the guy would be sweating a bit. It’s unfortunate that Cushing is given such a limited part in this film but as usual, Cushing is excellent. I’ve never seen him give a bad performance – ever. Even in some of the crap which he starred in, Cushing was always head and shoulders above the material.

Unlike his co-star, Christopher Lee, Cushing actually manages to make us believe everything that’s happening. Christopher Lee as the arrogant and abrasive scientist Godfrey Hanson doesn’t really work – he’s such a complete and utter asshole but we’re supposed to root for him? Lee doesn’t convince as much as he should and needs to here but he admits in the DVD commentary that the script was changed a few times and the actors tended to ignore it most of the time since the changes were even worse. Patrick Allen also has a big role here and I wouldn’t have mentioned him except for the fact he’s got arguably one the most recognisable voices this side of Darth Vader.

 

**Spoilers ahead**

this is one of the few films that I can recall where neither Lee or Cushing actually make it to the end alive.

**End Spoilers**

 

Night of the Big Heat doesn’t rank with the best work of Fisher, Lee or Cushing but it’s still a great dose of British sci-fi/horror from the 60s. If, like me, you’re a Cushing and Lee nut, then you’ll watch it regardless but for those who aren’t, there is better work out there.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

The sexual transformation of a man into a woman will actually take place before your very eyes!

Dr Jekyll is a brilliant scientist who has spent his life trying to create an “antivirus” to cure some of the world’s most deadly diseases. But he realises that his quest to preserve life will ultimately be ended by his own death at some point and decides to test out a serum on himself which he hopes will prolong his life. He needs female hormones to be able to create this serum and enlists the aid of grave robbers Burke and Hare to provide him with fresh corpses to harvest. This supply doesn’t last long though as they are caught and he eventually turns to murdering prostitutes himself. The serum also has devastating side effects on him and he temporarily turns into a woman from time to time. Attempting to cover up the secret, he passes his alter ego off as widowed sister, Mrs Hyde. Realising where his work is taking him, Jekyll tries to stop the killing but Hyde is growing stronger inside him and beginning to take over his mind and body.

 

With Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Hammer has created a bizarre but workable mix of the Jekyll and Hyde story, the Jack the Ripper murder case and the true tale of Burke and Hare, the notorious grave robbers, to create arguably the most deadly version of Victorian London you’ll ever see on film. There’s even mention of Sweeney Todd and the infamous meat pies. The mix works well though as the idea of Jack the Ripper being Dr Jekyll killing prostitutes for his own research is explained as well as it could be. It also gives purpose to the inclusion of Burke and Hare although these two stories (which have easily stood on their own in the past) are included to the detriment of the main Jekyll and Hyde story.

Robert Louis Stephenson’s classic story has been made into films versions time and time again but this was the first version to attempt a different spin. What a master stroke it was having Jekyll turn into a woman instead of a man. The gender conflict about whether man or woman will come out on top is interesting and it’s a pity that the film doesn’t really do as much with it as it arguably could. Matters are made worse when Jekyll’s neighbour, Howard, falls in love with Mrs Hyde and Howard’s own sister falls in love with Jekyll. What you get is a bizarre love triangle (or should that be square) and watching how it pans out is one of the highlights of the film. This could easily have been turned into a comedy (how many films about men dressing as women end up as comedies – Mrs Doubtfire, Tootsie, Some Like It Hot, etc.) but the film is no laughing matter despite some attempts at black humour. In fact there is a rather disturbing sexual element underlying the entire film with the film crossing into boundaries of homosexuality, transvestitism and gender confusion. In one memorable scene, Miss Hyde has been caressing the face of Howard but is then unaware she has changed back into the male guise of Dr Jekyll. The film is a straight up horror film though and only touches upon these themes. There is no larger scope at work here, trying to grapple with ideas and take chances with the material – its intention is to scare and shock and that’s it.

The original story saw Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as contrasting opposites, with Hyde being the inner monster unleashed into the world by the repressive Jekyll. However in this adaptation, Jekyll himself is just as bad, if not worse, than Hyde. He kills under the name of science in an attempt to justify his actions. His attitude of sacrificing a few low lives in society so that millions more could be saved is how many man men in history have turned to mass murder and genocide. Unfortunately because he’s such a nasty piece of work before he transforms, there’s no audience sympathy for him when he begins to lose control to Hyde. The supporting characters (Howard and his sister, Susan) are much more sympathetic because we know that their love with both Jekyll and Hyde is tragic and doomed to fail in the end.

Hammer’s inclusion of blood and nudity may not have been as welcome and relevant in some of their other horror films but it works well here because of the ‘sexual’ nature of the story and the violent manner in which Jekyll acquires his hormones. Watching Jekyll come to terms with being a woman for the first time and exploring his newly-female body is rather fascinating. You couldn’t do that with a few boobs! Hammer’s trademark period settings are also at their glorious best with the Gothic and seedy back streets of London being drenched in fog, darkness and eternal despair.

Ralph Bates was seemingly groomed as Hammer’s eventual successor to the leading man roles of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. However, Bates never really convinced anyone despite getting a few top billed outings. This is arguably his best work and although he’s still somewhat restrained in the role, he tries to conjure up his best mannerisms, tone of voices and attitude to bring this admittedly challenging role to life. Martine Beswick is Mrs Hyde and apparently only got the job because Caroline Munro wouldn’t go nude (damn it, I’d have paid to see that!). She oozes sexual aggression though, gets naked a few times and looks pretty unpleasant when she’s in murder mode. She does look a bit like Bates too so taking them as the same person is easy enough to believe. It’s a bit hard on her though to find her attractive in this film knowing who she is really portraying in the film.

 

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is one of the better Hammer films to come out of the 70s when their output was dwindling in quality. Everyone involved seems to have pulled together to craft a suspenseful, atmospheric and at times graphic re-imagining of the classic novel. It’s highly underrated in the Hammer cannon but a definite must watch for fans of old school horror.

 

Reptile, The (1966)

The Reptile (1966)

Half woman – half snake!

Harry and his wife Valerie travel to Cornwall to investigate the mysterious death of his brother Charles. With the help of a few locals, they believe the death to have been the result of a snake bite and their search to find the cause leads them to Dr Franklyn. Harry discovers that Franklyn’s daughter was abducted by a snake cult when he was researching in Borneo and now possess the ability to transform herself into a snake.

 

After Hammer had begun to run out of ideas for their major franchises (Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy were growing stale quickly) and with their remakes of secondary Universal horror films not being as successful (namely The Curse of the Werewolf and The Phantom of the Opera), they turned their attention to stand alone films in the hope that they’d strike gold and hit another winning formula by their own making. Unfortunately, with the trio of films they made in the mid-60s (The Gorgon, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile), all Hammer did was virtually replace the traditional Universal monsters with a similar substitute.

So what we have in The Reptile is basically a vampire film in all but an appearance of Van Helsing and Count Dracula. Heck, the creature even leaves two small bite marks in the neck. Although at least when Dracula featured, you’d be guaranteed a gruesome staking somewhere along the line. But Hammer has always been a seal of quality and despite the rather unoriginal premise they hit another winner in The Reptile.

Shot back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile shares many of the same sets and cast, not to mention director John Gilling. From a business perspective it makes perfect sense. From someone who watched them back-to-back, it’s not ideal as it’s easy to mix the two films up. Not so much an outright horror film but more of a murder mystery at times, The Reptile is a rather timid effort from Hammer that isn’t going to smash any awards for excellence. It’s got a reputation for being a bit of minor Hammer classic but I just don’t see that here. Maybe if there was something slightly original on display here – I mean the film is basically Dracula with a snake-woman. In fact the script is so muddled at time that I’m wondering whether Hammer didn’t just alter one of the planned scripts for the Dracula sequels.

The creature is not well thought out at all. It kills for no apparent reason and does so randomly – it’s not for revenge and it’s not because it needs food. It’s just pot luck (and highly unfortunate) for any of the minor characters who stumble upon it during the duration of the film. The creature itself doesn’t look particularly menacing or scary but given Hammer’s relative lack of experience in conjuring up new monsters and the practical limitations of what they could create with make-up effects, it’s not that bad and the less you see of it, the more intimidating it becomes. In fact the damage that the creature does is more unsettling, with the bodies that it leaves behind looking like ghostly visions of death, drained of their blood. Being a female monster also makes it somewhat unique for the time.

The Reptile is Hammer horror to the bone though. The quaint setting, the varying village characters, the lucid colours, the mood and the music is all as it should be in a Hammer flick. It’s all steady stuff but nothing groundbreaking. Up until the finale, the film moves along rather slowly and although director John Gilling does manage to create some atmosphere with the remote village setting, it’s all wasted because a) we know that the killer is in fact a reptile of some kind (hence the title) and b) the film is too uninteresting for us to even care about anything else. The finale is rather weakly staged and it ends with a bit of a whimper but given the nature of reptiles, it makes perfect sense – it’s just not great material for a rip-roaring film finale. I’m sure if this was made today there’d be all manner of explosions and daft things going on but here the film ends on a rather bum note, a very flat and uninspired conclusion to what has been a rather flat and uninspiring film.

 

If Hammer had tried to do something different instead of obviously re-designing a vampire film, then maybe The Reptile would have worked out. But the similarities are too much and you’d be best off sticking with Count Dracula and his cronies as opposed to this slimy snake. Better yet, the counterpart production, The Plague of the Zombies, is a definite classic not to be missed. I guess all of the effort went into making that one.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General (1968)

The Year’s Most Violent Film!

In 17th century England, the country is engulfed in civil war with the King and his Cavaliers battling Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads for control. During this time, law and order in society has become farcical in some areas. Matthew Hopkins and his henchman, Stearne, are witch hunters, travelling across the countryside from village to village, being paid handsomely by the townsfolk for extracting confessions from ‘witches’ and then executing them. They come across a priest of a small town who is accused of being a witch. In order to save her uncle from execution, Sara offers herself to Hopkins. He gladly agrees to this but when he is forced to leave the village on other business, Stearne finds out and proceeds to rape her. When Hopkins returns and finds out, he no longer has any use for Sara and kills her uncle. When her fiancé finds out, he abandons his post in Cromwell’s army to hunt down and kill Hopkins and Stearne.

 

Boy was I not expecting this! Witchfinder General was never a film to pull me with a thrilling-sounding plot because I thought it was just going to be another period piece similar to the output that Hammer had been producing for years. Not that there is anything wrong with the Hammer films (totally the opposite), it seemed pointless to me to sit and watch a period film done by someone else who wouldn’t be able to live up to Hammer’s usual standards. However this is anything but your average period horror. Torture, rape, violence and a nasty underlying tone are the foundations for this film and for 1968, that’s a big shocker.

Witchfinder General‘s strongest moments are the nasty ones and that is just for the sheer imagery of it all. The film opens with a group of villages dragging an accused witch up a hill followed by a priest reading from the Bible and then ending with the woman hanging from the end of a noose. It sets the tone early for what promises to be a nasty, uncompromising ride. The scenes of people being dropped into castle moats to see if they float are shockingly realistic. The torture scenes are done tastefully too (if there is such a thing) – later films would add a touch of eroticism and perversion to proceedings with half-naked hotties hanging from chains. Here there is no nudity, just brutal violence and nothing too flash either. The most horrific moment comes later in the film when Hopkins and his associate preside over a poor screaming woman being lowered into a fire at the end of a ladder. The sad thing is that this all took place back in the country in the 17th century so it really hits home just how barbaric things were back then. This is all brought to life on film in realistic detail. Reeves doesn’t glorify the proceedings nor makes them the focal point of the film. It is a character-driven piece but because the story sucks you in, the shock and horror of what happens hits home more than it should.

Vincent Price has always been associated with hammy, cheesy performances in dubious horror outings and that tag is never going to change. But here Price is anything but the cartoony bad guy you’ll have seen him portray in other films. As Matthew Hopkins, Price is just amazing. You’re never quite sure what the character’s intentions are. Does he really believe he’s doing the work of God by eliminating witches? Or is he just a perverted man, out to get laid and a sack full of cash by abusing his power and authority at a time when no one knew any better (or could do anything about it for that matter)? Price seems to have been born to play this role.

The rest of the cast is great too, with particular mention going to the scowling Robert Russell playing the henchman, Stearne. It’s a pity that more isn’t made of the final confrontation and the film ends a bit suddenly but it’s being picky on a pretty superb film.

 

About as bleak and sinister as any British horror film I’ve ever seen, Witchfinder General is must-see viewing for anyone with a shred of interest in classic British horror. Something like this would never have been made today so enjoy it whilst you can. In my opinion it’s second only to The Wicker Man in the ‘you’ll never forget it’ stakes.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆