Tag Archives: Peter cushing

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Striking artwork utilized for the DVD release.

 

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film, and truly an ingenious classic.

Without a doubt, this film is the sole reason for the horror film’s survival past the 1950’s. By this time, horror films had become nothing more than mere exploitation fodder for the lowest of double bills and had no critical or commercial interest whatsoever. Hence no major studio wanted to actively pursue anything in the genre.

And so after producing a string of moderately successful pictures, and the adaptations of the Quatermass serials, a small studio called Hammer decided to tackle Mary Shelley’s  classic novel of one man’s attempt to play at being God. The idea was sound, and it was certainly time for a fresh approach to the story, but there arose one small problem: they could use no element whatsoever from the Universal film cycle.

This along with an extremely limited production and budget provided the necessary spark for extreme creativity, which is something that abounds in this, a horror classic.

The Curse of Frankenstein, despite what the scathing reviews of the time would contest, is an intricate and eloquent horror film for the mind. It so richly detailed in characterization, direction, execution and screenplay that the experience is not one of supreme terror but moreover one of complete entertainment of both mind and spirit.

For 1957 audiences this combined with the Creature in lurid dripping color was almost too much too bear. The Eastman color usage by the early Hammer horrors is justly legendary, as it was the first time these horrors has ever appeared in color.  Terrence Fisher’s direction firmly established the Hammer mission, and with his expert hand the film’s execution is essentially effortless allowing the master shot to encase the ongoing drama and then moving in gradually to accentuate that particular dramatic moment to an almost fever pitch.

Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay is truly remarkable in both construction and execution. Taken on its own, the script is very literate despite deviating wildly from Shelley’s novel. But it is the reality inherent of Baron Frankenstein’s mad dream to create a man, that firmly wins the audience over and moves quickly past the realm of disbelief. You truly believe that the Baron must have a simple laboratory in his attic, that he is workmanlike in his approach to creating a man, right down to rolling up his own sleeves to get the job done no matter how dirty or bloody… The construction is absolutely ingenious, and once considered plays with the mind long after the film has ended. The opening shows the Baron (Peter Cushing) in prison under penalty of execution, where he begins to recount his tale to a priest in the hopes of convincing someone of his sanity despite sounding like a raving madman. This flashback forms the narrative, and begins with the young Victor just after his mother’s death.

Victor is now the Baron, and hires a new tutor to instruct him in advanced sciences. Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) performs this task admirably and they quickly become close friends and probe the unknown for years to come. As adults, their work quickly turns toward advanced medical sciences and eventually with the manipulation of conscious life. The first of these experiments shows a small scale version of the eventual apparatus and in a truly invigorating sequence, the experiment works and a small puppy is restored to life from the dead.

Paul wants to turn their knowledge into the medical convention as he feel it could be used in operating procedures as what we would eventually know as anesthesia. However, the Baron refuses to hear of it and proclaims that they have only opened the door of possibilities with this discovery. The manic gleam in Cushing’s eyes belays it all, now the Baron has seen his true goal of creating a being and nothing will stand in his way. And so it begins, with the abduction of a highwayman’s corpse, a new head, fresh eyes, the hands of a sculptor, the brain of a genius, and ends in unspeakable acts that provoke Paul to refuse further participation. However, Victor’s cousin and fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court) arrives to live in the estate which provokes Paul to remain for her protection.

Frankenstein is absolutely possessed by his mad dream to create life. This is no exaggeration as he ignores everything, even his own fiancée in pursuit of his self-destruction. Painstakingly everything is procured and finally it is time. The process works, and after an agonizingly built-up reveal, The Creature (Christopher Lee) breathes life for the first time. This Creature has nothing to do with Boris Karloff’s characterization, and is in fact extremely lifelike in both presentation and performance. This abomination is a mismatch of body parts and animalistic in that its actions are all confused primitive urges. It is truly a thing to be pitied instead of feared. The makeup is quite original and resembles more of deformity or accident than the classic Universal look.

The Creature slowly wreaks havoc on the Baron’s life unbeknownst to the glory-mad scientist. Paul’s repeated attempts to subdue this madness and destroy the Creature culminate in his shooting of the escaped creation and its burial. Now it is done and the film has nothing to go on with…but of course our Baron cannot give up so easily, and continues his work on his creation.

Cushing gives the performance of a lifetime and would go on to portray the increasingly mad Baron another five times. It is his intensity, his energy, his body language that make the Baron come to life before our eyes, and he absolutely makes the film what it is. He infuses the Baron with the necessary flaws of someone of power in that time period, right down to an elitist coldness to others not of his class as best seen in the deliciously evil treatment of his servant girl mistress.  It is this coldness that truly frightens when it surfaces and perfectly foreshadows the later atrocities he will perpetrate. And in the Hammer series, it is not the Monster that is to be feared, but the Baron himself. It is rightly so the scientist who is the monster and not the deformed creation, for despite the Baron’s cultured outer appearance he is actually a demonic monster far worse than anything even he could create.

The cinematography is exquisite in both detail and providing a glimpse into the more realistic version of Frankenstein and his experiments. The use of color is exploitative and subliminal, with vibrant red blood being very prominent yet always used in ways to complete the overall scene. The film is mostly comprised of deep browns, blacks, and ambers which perfectly compliment the story’s autumn setting. The skin tones are brilliantly rendered in that hauntingly plaid redness that goes with true Eastman color.

James Bernard’s score is strikingly effective, and helps to perfectly underline the conclusion of the film which returns to the Baron’s recount in prison. Because of the way the story is setup, this ending can be taken a number of ways. It may indeed be as the Baron recounts and that he did create a monster that ravaged, killed and caused incalculable harm. Or he may be truly insane and likely committed the murders himself. In either case Paul refuses to help and may have a set of motivations all his own. It is a strikingly multifaceted ending that can be taken however the audience wants to, and it fits with the studio’s later psychologically minded film thrillers, all spearheaded by Sangster.

The film was a runaway success, to the complete surprise of all involved. In the UK and distributed by Warner Brothers in the US, The Curse of Frankenstein singlehandedly revitalized the horror film and thrilled shocked audiences in countless packed theaters. Today it remains the clarion call that announced to the world that Hammer had arrived.

 

EDITIONS: primarily there are now two versions of note. The 2004 Warner DVD and the new Hammer Blu-ray. The DVD is grain reduced; edge enhanced a bit, lacks in color and is framed at 1.78:1 with no extras.  The new BD comes from a supposed “restoration” but was actually taken from a fresh 4K scan of the interpositive held by Warner. The results are mixed when they should have been exemplary. The image is richly colored, with most of the deep Eastman color look restored. The contrast has been unfortunately tweaked, which effects shadows and gives an overall impression of too many whites blown out. But the big problem is grain and detail. The transfer is horribly soft, and the grain reduction is so prevalent that is absolutely reprehensible. The included PAL DVD version actually has better contrast levels. And to compound these issues, the aspect ratio has become an issue. The film was obviously shot open matte with a widescreen image the intended result. There were still a large amount of theaters that were not widescreen equipped, and so the academy full frame could have been presented as such. Hammer has taken the position of the full frame being the intended ratio and the 1.66:1 matting as inferior. They have presented both as separate encodes (thus limiting the transfer’s space and space for further extras), but poorly framed the 1.66:1 version so there are numerous instances of heads being lopped off and important elements being cropped out of the frame by incompetent matting.

So one has a choice of a featureless DVD with tight cropping and over-sharpening, versus a BD which is riddled with noise reduction but has some better color, along with a lossless rendering of the original mono soundtrack, but with an incompetent rendering of the widescreen version. The BD is Region 2 locked, so one would need a Region free player to view it. Oh, and it does restore the censored eyeball shot, so that’s at least one point in its favor.

At some point I hope to review to letterbox laserdisc version.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Hammer Films, Immortal Films

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)

2 stars out of 4. Kung-fu vampires. Need I say more?

The final installment in Hammer’s Dracula cycle was a co-production with the famed Shaw brothers in Hong Kong. Thus, the first and only kung-fu vampire film was born.

It isn’t pretty to look at. It isn’t a very literate story. It isn’t even the year’s best kung-fu film crossover. (The honor is reserved for the oft-maligned but brilliant The Man With The Golden Gun.) 7 Golden Vampires is just a young boy’s imagination run rampant. This film is almost Hammer’s attempt at a 1930’s action serial, and is the reason why it tops many of their other output from the same era.

Check your brain at the door and remember a time when you used to like doing odd crossover stories with different action figures. (And then setting them on fire…oh wait, whoops-wrong story. Another time perhaps.)

The film opens with a random Chinese monk wandering around Transylvania. He reaches Count Dracula’s castle where he begs the Count to help him restore the full power of the 7 Golden Vampires. Dracula, in one of the most unconvincing Dracula performances, (Christopher Lee isn’t in this film) agrees and takes the form of the monk in order to travel back to China. Later, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, thank god!) is giving a university lecture in 1904 China. He recounts the Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires which we are treated to in flashback. One of those in the audience is a young man skilled in kung-fu. He tells Van Helsing that he knows the location of the village and begs him to join him on a quest to rid the world of the golden vampires once and for all.

After some coercion, Van Helsing sets off with his son, a wealthy European woman to fund the expedition and the young man who leads their way. They are joined and protected by the man’s seven kung-fu siblings, each with their own specialized form of combat.

That’s all there really is to it. The simplicity of the plot allows the story to keep flowing from one setpiece to another. There’s a fight nearly every fifteen minutes so the long dialogue scenes aren’t allowed to let things get stagnant.The climax takes about 90 seconds to occur and the credits roll just as abruptly as the previous Hammer Draculas.

Peter Cushing throws himself into the proceedings with absolute glee. Van Helsing once again does all kinds of physical feats in addition to his wonderfully staged monologues. And yes, we are finally shown that addition to being vampire-proof  and bullet-proof, Professor Bad-ass Van Helsing is fireproof.

Call it trash, call it whatever you want to. The vampires are terrible, most of the acting is terrible, the fight scenes aren’t that well done, it’s terribly unconvincing, and features possibly the worst Dracula performance on celluloid but it is damn fun. And that is more that can be said for any of the other Hammer Dracula sequels leading up to it. The series ends with a higher note than expected after the awful trilogy of travesty (Scars, AD 1972, Satanic Rites) in this gleefully ridiculous mishmash of kung-fu vampires.

NOTE: This film was re-cut (loses about 20 minutes.) and released in the USA as The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula. Not recommended.

Anchor Bay’s DVD is anamorphically enhanced with standard Dolby 2.0 mono. The 2.35:1 image looks nice and clean but relatively unremarkable. But this film isn’t meant to jump off the screen, and the DVD gives a nice theatrical representation. The flipside of the disc gives the shortened American cut The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula. This exact disc was also later re-packaged with Frankenstin Created Woman. Both are now out of print, but the original disc is available as a manufactured on demand DVD-R from Amazon.com.

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Filed under 2 stars, Film, Film Review, Hammer Films

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

1 star out of 4. Beyond godawful.

Somehow this garbage is simultaneously better and worse than AD 1972. If that makes any sense at all.

After the runaway success of the previous film, (I’m kidding, even then people knew it was awful.) Hammer decided to make a direct sequel to cash in on its in-no-way-under-any-circumstances-could-ever-be-possibly-considered-a-sucess hit idea of resurrecting the Count in the present day.

The film opens with an unexplained Satanic ritual being performed in some English country house. A man escapes from being held captive and makes a dash for freedom. He manages to elude his captors and jump into a waiting car outside. These turn out to be his superiors, and the injured man is an undercover secret service officer. He attempts to tell the others of the house being a front for a Satanic cult including several notable members of the British government. After recounting this he dies and the officials are left scratching their heads. They call in the Scotland Yard Inspector from the previous film and he in turn recommends they talk to Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).

The secretary who has been taking notes all this time is suddenly attacked by the two sheepskin vest wearing cult henchmen on motorcycles. She is later shown tied up at the manor house and Dracula randomly appears to give her a bite to eat…

The officers travel to tell Van Helsing of these strange events and he recognizes one of the men as an old acquaintance (Well, he actually doesn’t say anything at first, but his granddaughter says that he knows one of them, so he then admits he was holding back for some unknown reason…maybe time padding perhaps?) and agrees that he should go and visit his old friend Doctor Keeley and pump him for information.

The officers and Jessica Van Helsing travel out to the manor house where they are greeted by the supposed leader of the cult, Chin Yang (yes, this movie even has a random Chinese lady.) They find themselves in the cellar, which is filled with vampire girls chained to the floor and the coffins in some sort of vampiric dungeon. The head officer stakes the secretary from earlier and the three then flee from the grounds.

Vna Helsing confronts Doctor Keeley, who is nearly insane at this time. Keeley has been commissioned to create a new strain of the bubonic plague by some mysterious benefactor. Another of the sheepskin wearing henchmen shoots Van Helsing, who crumples to the floor. He awakens later (Yes, Van Helsing was shot at point blank range in the head and was merely knocked unconscious.) to see the Doctor’s body hung from the ceiling. The bacteria that was on a table earlier has vanished.

Kelley spoke of the 23rd of October, which Van Helsing knows to be the “Sabbath of the Undead”. The Doctor’s writings reveal a certain mysterious businessman named D.D. Denham to be behind the funding of this new project. Van Helsing deduces that this is none other than Dracula himself, who wants to wipe out all humanity with the plague in order to die taking everyone with him in the ultimate revenge. Van Helsing then travels to the headquarters of Denham, armed with a gun loaded with silver bullets. He arrives at the building which was built on top of the church ruins from the previous film. He meets with Denham in one of the oddest scenes in the entire series.

Of course this is actually Dracula. It’s really rather obvious. So why the filmmakers decided to make Cushing and Christopher Lee carry on this charade any longer than necessary is inexcusable. Lee speaks in a almost imitation of a Middle European accent (possibly Hungarian…?) and is seated behind a desk with the light turned towards Van Helsing to keep his face in darkness. (yeah, right.) Van Helsing cleverly slips a Bible into some papers on the desk and thus reveals Denham to be Dracula. (Yes, we knew that already thank you very much.) He then repels Dracula with a crucifix and takes a good several minutes too long to shoot the silver bullet. He is captured by Dracula’s minions and taken to the manor house to be killed slowly.

The two inspectors and Jessica lie in wait outside the house keeping watch. They are attacked by a sniper and the elder agent is killed. The Yard detective and Jessica are captured, with the detective awaking in the cellar. He is approached by the Chinese lady from earlier who is also a vampire. He manages to stake her and escape all the others, making it to the door of the cellar. In just about the only clever moment of this entire film, he notices his arm is next to the old sprinkler lever. He snatches at it and activates the water flow. The cellar full of vampiresses are destroyed.

Dracula then begins his own ceremony to inaugurate his plans of apocalypse. Lee is on top form here as he speaks of the men being his four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The three remaining government officials begin to react in dismay as they believed the plague to be a biological deterrent and never expected the Prince of Darkness to actually use it. This causes one of the men to tremble and accidentally break the vial of plague. He staggers about in agony as a fight between the detective and a guard results in a fire breaking out. Everyone flees leaving the flailing plague man, Dracula and Van Helsing as the only ones left in the burning house.

Van Helsing escapes into the woods and lures Dracula into a hawthorn tree. (Earlier, Van Helsing mentioned that this tree could harm vampires because it was used to make Christ’s crown of thorns.) His method is brilliant; simply shouting at Dracula. The idiot Count does not realize what tree this is, so he blunders through the branches and finally makes it through the other side mortally wounded. Van Helsing makes an improvised wooden stake from a nearby fence and kills Dracula again. The end titles immediately appear.

Let me reiterate: Dracula is essentially killed by a tree. That should tell you everything in a nutshell. The film looks incredibly cheap and badly shot. The script is incomprehensible at times and with all of the espionage and sci-fi elements it becomes quite obvious that it was written by a former Doctor Who scribe.

This one is so bad that American distributors initially refused to distribute it in the US. It was only in 1976 that the film was released, greatly cut down and under the inane title of Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride.

But the idea of the plot is genius. For once there is actually a good idea behind Dracula’s actions.  The idea that Dracula actually wants to die is a thought that gives intense personal drama to the character and actually gives him a motivation. But Dracula cannot simply commit suicide. No, no no. He decides the best way to die is to kill the entire population of all living things on the Earth and perish due to lack of food supply. Thus he would achieve his revenge for all eternity and finally be free from his eternal damnation. To achieve this he lures politically powerful men into a Satanic cult and hides everything behind a rich corporate front, pretending to be a reclusive millionaire à la Howard Hughes. Ironic? Chilling? Cold? Metaphoric? Societal criticism? In a 70’s Hammer film?

Cushing once again proves that he is life force of these films. The dialogue could be nonsense (which occurs often) and his energy is so focused that we believe anything the man says. One could only wish that a better film could surround these few good qualities because they are so promising that you have to wonder what the film could have been like if everything was excised and someone had done a second draft.

The film has lapsed into the public domain. I wonder why…

 

Due to the film being in the public domain, there are indefinite versions floating about all in terrible quality. Anchor Bay released the only watchable transfer years back under their Hammer Collection banner. It is a terribly outdated non-anamorphhic 1.85:1 transfer with muddy Dolby 2.0 mono audio. The same disc was repackaged with Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Both editions are now out of print. Several public domain DVDs are said to use the Anchor Bay transfer.

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Filed under 1 star, Film, Hammer Films

Dracula AD 1972 (1972)

1 star out of 4. Rubbish.

This is the one I dreaded returning to. It’s just awful. The title is the entire film. Dracula is destroyed in 1872 and returns a century later.

But instead of doing anything remotely interesting or worthwhile with this radical departure from the vampire legend, Hammer does their typical stupid revenge plot. And this time all of it is lifted from various parts of their own Dracula films, and done so monotonously that one simply has no care in in finishing this mess.

The film opens with the only really exciting sequence, a final battle between Dracula and Van Helsing (Peter Cushing back in one his best roles after 12 years.) atop a runaway carriage. Both are thrown when the coach crashes and Van Helsing staggers awake to find Dracula conveniently run through by a broken carriage wheel. He uses all of his strength to break off the wheel and form a wooden stake which destroys Dracula. Van Helsing then crumples to the ground not noticing the shadowy figure that appears to gather Dracula’s ashes…

This same person buries the ashes outside the churchyard where Van Helsing is being buried. We dolly into the tombstone and then pan over to a pile of rubble. We then pan up to the blue sky and the titles begin: DRACULA (and then a jet appears and the first cue of the absolutely awful 70’s funky score) AD 1972. And you then know for sure this will be absolutely horrid.

I wasn’t kidding.

The only saving grace of this trash is Peter Cushing. You wonder why it took Hammer twelve years to put him in a Dracula film again. His presence is so sorely needed to keep the proceedings actually interesting, because Dracula will only be in the film for  a combined total of ten to fifteen minutes. Here he plays the descendant of Van Helsing, who just happens to also be an expert on the occult. His granddaughter runs around with a group of hippies who have an odd pastime: they like to gatecrash houses until the police arrive.

This is the opening sequence of the modern-day London setting. Random twenty somethings are dancing about (badly) in a traditional English drawing room. There’s this truly awful band in the background as the kids do all sorts of uninteresting random things. The adults all stand back in their formal wear, completely exasperated by the doings of this traveling band of youths. And this single scene goes on for nearly ten minutes. It’s enough to make you want to leave then and there, but this reviewer has braved the atrocities a second time to bring you a detailed look at the horrors of bad Hammer.

The ringleader of this little group is on Johnny Alucard (that doesn’t suggest anything does it?) who voices the consensus that things are getting a bit stale. So he proposes to perform a Black Mass inside an old abandoned church because that’s the groovy thing to do these days. No one really raises any more than an eyebrow at this suggestion.

So they all meet up at this church that night for a night of fun! They begin the ceremonies looking like a bunch of stoned hippies when Alucard begins actually performing a ritual. The fact that this is the same actor who played the mysterious man in the opening already tells you where this is going. Alucard then attempts to resurrect Dracula by slitting open his hand in a moment that exactly recalls the far superior Taste the Blood of Dracula.

The kids flee, Dracula rises again, he kills a girl and that’s it. Haven’t seen that before have we? They wonder why she has disappeared, and then the police find her body. one of the detectives seeks Van Helsing’s advice as this murder resembles something of the occult. Alucard is granted vampiric life and some of the other kids are killed and vampified as well. All of this leads to a final showdown between Lee’s Dracula and Cushing’s Van Helsing for the first time since 1958.

Of course this isn’t done very well either so the entire climax of the film is wasted. Dracula spends his little screen time standing in this old church for no apparent reason and lusting after Van Helsing’s granddaughter. Why it takes people so long to realize just where Dracula is located is beyond me. It isn’t as if they don’t know where the abandoned church is! The girl’s body was found there and they know the Black Mass was held there, so why does Van Helsing only discover this location at the end of the film? Then again, it took him a whole night to realize Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards.

It is reestablished here that running water can kill a vampire. This leads to an interesting end for the battle between Alucard and Van Helsing in the former’s apartment. Yes, Alucard drowns in his shower. That’s how bad this gets. You didn’t believe me did you?

Dracula never even has anything to do with 70’s London, so why the change in locale? Simply because this was an attempt by Hammer to reconnect with young audiences to drum up ticket sales. And it fails horribly. Still, it is hard to fault when Cushing is involved. He throws himself so wholeheartedly into the story that you can honestly still believe in it somehow. This combined with the usual Hammer quality of production is the only reason why anyone should even dream of watching this.

Unfortunately there are actually fans of this film, which I still cannot believe that there are any:

Go figure.

Like many film series, the awful later entries are usually the ones best represented on home video. Warner’s bare bones DVD is nearly flawless. The single layer 1.85:1 anamorphic image is fantastic, and the Dolby 2.0 sound clearly gives you that completely unnecessary funky score. Also available packaged with Horror of Dracula, Has Risen from the Grave and Taste the Blood for considerably less.

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Filed under 1 star, Film, Hammer Films

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

It so evil because there's no Dracula and you'll want your money back afterwards!! Haha!

3 stars out of 4.

 

Don’t be looking for the Count. Even though the second film in the Hammer cycle bears his name, Dracula is nowhere to be found. Instead we are left with an odd substitute that works somewhat, but no sign of the man himself. So why bother? Several reasons:

1. This is Hammer still at its prime.

2. Terence Fisher directed.

3. Peter Cushing. (This is the main reason.) The only other Dracula film of this series that features Van Helsing, unless you count the awful A.D. 1972 (1972 of course) which I do not.

4. A really terrible fake bat flying around. Well they’re not as bad as the one in Scars of Dracula (1970).

Brides is an entertaining 86 minutes that will pass your time. This despite a mess of a plot. The Dracula substitute is the Baron Meinster, a man who is kept inside his castle. You may ask, how can a vampire be stuck inside his own home? Why he’s chained up by his mother of course. (That got your attention didn’t it?) And of course he’d have to be fed and cared for. So he’d need a creepy old woman to take care of him and his mother to bring him some nice occasional female snacks…

It is this latest “conquest” that foolishly gives him the key to unlock the chain binding him to his prison. Of course, I’m not quite sure what kind of a chain one would need to keep a vampire locked up but I digress. The new girl runs away after seeing the Baron “kill” his mother and flees off into the night, eventually cracking her head on a rock in the roadway. The next morning her unconscious form is found by an arriving coach carrying none other than Professor Van Helsing.

This may seem like a magical coincidence, but Van Helsing has been called to the area by the local priest who is knowledgeable enough in the  occult to know when outside help is needed. (Wonder what a vampire removal fee might run?) Van Helsing than begins to connect the dots between the oddness of the Baron’s actions with the increasing amounts of vampirism. This occurs after seeing a new vampire have to be coaxed out of her grave by the Baron’s old woman “You’ve just go to reach a bit farther.” (a brilliantly conceived scene) and encountering the Baroness who was not killed, but made like her son.

The old aristocratic bearing that Lee brought to the role of Dracula is still readily apparent in David Peel’s Baron Meinster, but we do get the sense that the Baron actually enjoys what he does. Especially when the girl he was denied gets to her original destination of an all-girl finishing school…which must seem like a vampire’s idea of a all you can eat buffet.

Cushing is a welcome presence for those fans of Horror of Dracula. Van Helsing is just a as much of a charming super hero here as in the first film. This combined again with Fisher’s smart and simplistic direction have led some fans to claim this superior to the original film…but it isn’t sadly. It suffers a trifle from the same disease that so rampantly affected all of the other sequels: disinterest and later boredom. And the notion of a vampire having supernatural powers and being able to change forms that was so refreshingly debunked in the first film as rubbish by Van Helsing now takes the form of a rubber bat on wires. I really wish they had reconsidered that last detail because the bat does not appear once, but multiple times.

The problems arise from the fact that the original script was completely denied by the Censor board and was very hastily rewritten by multiple people who seemed to possess a greater concern for appeasing those said censors and keeping budget concerns to a minimum.

The ending is another well done and highly inventive climax that ends extremely too quickly. It takes about 84 minutes to build up the story, (what bit there is) 1 minute to end and 1 minute for credits. But one thing that can always be said for these films is that they certainly know how to off a vampire and not to mention how to bring him back…

One question remains though: where do vampires get all those perfectly sized nightgowns for the women they convert?

The DVD release is contained in the Universal boxset entitled The Hammer Horror Series Franchise collection. The set is comprised of 2 DVDs housing 8 Hammer films. (Note: these are DVD-18s that are not playable without error in most players.) All feature anamorphic transfers with mono audio and theatrical aspect ratios. Brides has easily the best transfer of any Hammer title I’ve ever seen. They should really all look this good. Strong color, anamorphic image, strong audio and the only title to be in its original 1.66:1 ratio.

http://www.amazon.com/Werewolf-Paranoiac-Nightmare-Creatures-Frankenstein/dp/B0009X770O

 

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Filed under 1960 Film, 3 stars, Film, Hammer Films

Horror of Dracula (UK title: Dracula) (1958)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.

For Hammer, this is the big one. After their huge success in reviving a classic film monster with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, the studio decided to bring in the other big name classic monster…and so our favorite Count was reborn yet again…

The remarkable thing about all the Hammer productions is their commitment to quality and intelligence despite low budgets and limited productions. This Horror  does particularly well. What becomes immediately noticeable to even the Dracula novice is the degree to which Jimmy Sangster’s script deviates from both Stoker’s novel and the 1931 Universal film. The problem with the Lugosi film has always been it’s extreme ties to the stage version of the story. In fact, it becomes so tedious at times that one asks, “Why even bother?” If it were not for Lugosi’s performance and several other famous bits, only the simultaneously filmed Spanish version would receive any acclaim.

Horror of Dracula runs at an alarmingly brisk 81 minutes. The film opens with the arrival of Johnathan Harker at Dracula’s castle in daylight. Gone is the long introduction of the original and this only gives the first glimpse at how wonderfully streamlined this version is. Dracula’s introduction into the film is marvelously simple. This Count is a mortal presence, a powerful man who just happens to be the leader of the Undead. Harker has not arrived to work for Dracula, but is there to destroy him. Already we have the primary conflict open and laid bare and it hasn’t even been fifteen minutes.

What this brisk pace does is add a sense of adventure to the proceedings that is so badly needed in the vast majority of vampire films. Horror is not only one of the films that redefined the  horror genre, but is also one of the few Gothic adventure films.

This can be seen most in the Hammer version of Professor Van Helsing. Forget the atrocious 2004 film that made the Doctor into little more than another monosyllabic action hero. Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is one of the great cinematic heroes. Instead of the stodgy Edward Van Sloan of the Universal original, this Doctor is brilliant and not afraid to get his hands a bit…bloody.

A working holiday...

Van Helsing carries such a sense of purpose that you can’t help but admire the man’s conviction and thus further cheer him on in attempting to destroy the cult of vampirism. Not to mention the fact that Cushing is flung around like a rag doll in fights due to the reckless abandon in which he throws himself into the role.

Let's not keep The Count waiting...

The Count is also very, shall we say, hands-on in this film. What Christopher Lee did as Dracula is simply bring him back down to Earth. He swoons, swaggers, snarls and makes small talk like the best of noblemen. When he goes to give the “kiss of the vampire” to one of the obligatory ladies (there’s not much fun in seeing Dracula stalking our male leads is there?) it truly seems as if it is a kiss instead of a bite. This Dracula fully embraces the sexual tension and desire of Stoker’s novel instead of subverting it to be read only by the most observant critic. (Whistles…)

Besides the lurid promise of sex, the early Hammers are famous for their dripping technicolor usage. Never before could a vampire drip red blood from its fangs. This deep color further sets apart the Hammer standard from the imitators as instead of being able to hide behind the obvious construction of B&W the color brings the fantasy right smack into our faces.

Terrence Fisher is really the grand Hammer director. The studio had a revolving list of good and competent directors who could simply be assigned to a new production, but it is Fisher who really nailed down the structure and form for all of the films to follow. His first three horrors form a sort of Initial trilogy, The Curse of Frankenstein-Horror of Dracula-The Mummy (1959), that combined make a fully fledged balance between the action filled and thinking  man’s horror. This implied intelligence is what really first attracted me to the Hammer films as opposed to others, because they seemed to honestly believe in the material as opposed to simply making it as C-grade schlock. (Sadly, this is what the later Hammers and inevitable sequels fell into.)

And of course…Horror has that ending. Legendary to horror fans, Dracula is rushing to hide away in his castle before the sun rises and Van Helsing is tearing after him through the deserted maze of castle rooms. Dracula attempts to get through a trapdoor but Van Helsing surprises him and they begin an almost ritualistic dance of death. Fought to a standstill, Van Helsing seems desperate. Then he takes one glance to the side and runs down the long ancient dining table to leap at the window curtains…in one of those simple unrefined moments that reminds one why we watch films. In 53 years, Dracula’s demise has not lost any of its power. I’ve seen people cheer it to this day.

When attempting to name the definitive vampire film, it is regularly a contest between the Universal film and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). While both are true classics, Horror is a film more for a mass audience. Like it’s strikingly different Count and brilliant color, the Hammer film has a real physical presence that neither of the other films can lay claim to.

Warner’s DVD is a disappointment on all fronts. It’s an old single layer transfer (from 2002) that manages to drain the famed Technicolor and hideously crop the composed 1.66:1 image improperly. This was a snapper case released with five other Hammer titles simultaneously, all receiving similar fates on disc. (Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy have the exact same issues.) The film has been cropped to heavily on top (leading to some lopped of heads and faces.) and all one needs to do is look at the included trailer to see better framing.

The color is all but nonexistent. For a film to be so famously dripping with color, the fact that this is even an issue is an absolute shame.

Here is the DVD image:

And here is the same image with an extremely slight saturation and contrast increase:

Not much better, but an improvement nonetheless.Here are some shots I found of an original Technicolor IB print. These are obviously taken with a camera facing the screen, but do give some idea of the color depth that should be present and proper framing. (Note: the last shot is faded Eastmancolor.)

For such an important and famed title, Warner really needs to step up its game and release the Special Edition it’s talked about for years. In 2007, the British Film Institute restored Dracula and reissued it to theaters. This version has not been seen since. I hope that Warner licenses this restoration for the basis of a new Blu-ray edition, but something has occurred to stop all that dead in its tracks.

The legendary lost Japanese uncut version of the film has been found. At least part of it.

http://www.hammerfilms.com/news/article/newsid/314/dracula-resurrected

Now we may finally see the uncut ending and other little goodies that were snipped to gain the censor’s approval. This includes the famed shot during Dracula’s demise of Christopher raking his face off with his hand. This is truly a lost treasure.

For some reason, I’ve finally decided to go through every Hammer Dracula film in order of their release. I’m not really sure why, but I’m actually going to watch AD 1972 again. Oh dear. What am I doing to myself?

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Filed under 4 stars, Film, Film Review, Hammer Films, Immortal Films

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

3 out of 4 stars. Highly recommended for Holmesians and Hammer aficionados.

For some reason this is the film I always start my October with. It isn’t very true to the original story, it isn’t the greatest Holmes adaptation or a true horror film, it has dated somewhat and it was a box office failure.

However this is one of the only films that actually gets some of the adventurous spirit of Conan Doyle on celluloid. It simply blends in elements of horror and reason in order to create a Hammer-ized version of the tale.

For this Hammer production you have the three names that were behind the initial classics that began their horror cycle,(Horror of Dracula (1958), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) ) the stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and the taut direction of Terrence Fisher. Hound has often been maligned as an inferior product more designed for the B-slot of a double bill than an “A” feature. What these critics fail to realize is that this was not originally a scheduled production.  The sets are culled from the previous Horror of Dracula. They were simply lying around unused and someone finally hit upon a possible story to use for a new film. This Hound does not dwell on the typical Holmesian touchstones primarily because there is not the time (the film only runs 86 minutes) nor the budget to do so. This develops a rapid pace that actually allows the film to get past many of the downfalls that befall the other Hounds. Chiefly among them the fact that the majority of the story only features the always less interesting Watson investigating the affairs at Baskerville Hall and almost no mention of Holmes at all.

At this point I must add my own personal observation. To me, Peter Cushing is the cinematic Sherlock Holmes. His physical stature may not be the literary character’s but only Cushing has the right balance of devious calculation, analytical coldness, societal prejudices, irritability and the energy of a live wire. Unlike both Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett (who are both superb Holmes in their own right) Cushing injects a passionate energy into the character that overcomes the Hammer film’s shortcomings and makes the viewer take notice when ordering Sir Henry not to under any circumstances go “alone on the moor at night.”

The ever-charming and strong presence of Lee is for once actually the romantic leading man. He even gets a small love scene! Sadly, his only real purpose is simply to act as the simple Henry Baskerville and thus really has little to do.

Fisher’s stable camerawork at some points is reminiscent of Sidney Paget’s original illustrations for the Holmes stories in the Strand magazine. Other than this, you would be hard pressed to find anything truly notable…save for the painfully lackluster looking Hound…

This is a little gem of a film. It is still most notable for the fantastic performance of Cushing as Holmes and regrettable only in that there could not be better circumstances surrounding the performance. Still, as with most Hammer productions the quality of the production team more than makes up for the low budget. This is one of those films perfect for starting your Halloween viewing early…

MGM’s DVD is acceptable, presented in the correct 1.66:1 theatrical ratio with clear mono. An original trailer is included. There is a nice extra with Christopher Lee recalling some anecdotes about the film and his good friend Cushing in addition to reading some excerpts from the original novel. The only problem I have with this disc, is that the color is not fully represented. The early Hammer horror films are famed for their use of vivid Technicolor and none of this really comes across on the DVD versions. (especially the bare bones Warner Dracula and Frankenstein Hammer releases.) This is a film that could really benefit from a new transfer so that it might finally get away from a video look and more closely resemble the theatrical presentation.

This exact disc was later reissued in a collection with two other Holmes films. Oddly enough, these three films together are my own personal favorite Holmes films: Without a Clue, Hound and the butchered masterpiece that is Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Clue has unfortunately been presented in full frame on DVD (this may be open matte, but I’m not absolutely sure.) but the other titles are in their proper widescreen ratios. Currently this set retails for $1.20 less than the standalone film and is a bargain for a nice comedy pared with the two finest Sherlock Holmes films.

http://www.amazon.com/Sherlock-Holmes-Collection-Robert-Stephens/dp/B002OMIKV8/ref=sr_1_2?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1318802738&sr=1-2

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Filed under 3 stars, Hammer Films