Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lust of Evil


Hammer starlet Madeline Smith in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS.

WITH an absence of fresh avenues for their monsters to explore, and a relaxation of censorship, Hammer turned to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. A curious mix of traditional vampirism and Irish folklore, the novella overtly uses lesbianism to heighten tension and to symbolise abnormality, and was a major influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. By adding this explicit frisson to their already luridly realised baronial halls, village taverns and moonlit woods, the studio’s Karnstein Trilogy - all scripted by Tudor Gates - suggests a more obvious deviance and desire, and a recognised stage in which the drama could be played out.

Roy Ward Baker's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is historically remarkable for being the first (and only) co-production of Hammer Films and American International Pictures. While this combination looks promising on paper, the result is an uneven attempt to bring the studio into the late 1960s marketplace by revelling in lesbian couplings and graphic decapitations. In early 19th Century Styria, Carmilla Karnstein (Ingrid Pitt) is insinuated into the household of General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), and the death of his niece soon follows. When Emma Morton (Madeline Smith) begins to suffer from fatigue and anaemia, her fate rests in the hands of her young suitor (Jon Finch) and the vengeful fathers of Carmilla’s previous victims. While too mature and earthy to make an ideal Carmilla – Le Fanu wrote her as a young creature unaware of her destructive effects – Pitt nevertheless displays some memorable vampiric anger, including the panting seduction of a governess played by Kate O'Mara. The central theme of the film is the battle between Carmilla’s brood and the repressed, brutal vampire hunters – Cushing’s General and Douglas Wilmer’s Baron Hartog make suitably grim-faced avengers - reinforcing the question of who represents the greater threat; the uninhibited vampires, or the sadistic authority figures.

LUST FOR A VAMPIRE’s lesbian focus is blurred by its heterosexual romance between Mircalla and the writer turned schoolmaster LeStrange (Michael Johnson, the part a fictional representation of Le Fanu himself). This piece of narrative is appropriately centrepiece in this attractive promotional poster.

The hastily conceived LUST FOR A VAMPIRE never raises above a schoolboy level of eroticism, but this mongrel entry has earned a reputation as a Hammer fan’s guilty pleasure. Here, Carmilla Karnstein is reincarnated as Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard), a luscious seductress who is enrolled at an exclusive girl’s school. The Danish actress is everything a traditional vampire is not: blonde, blue-eyed and with a cleft chin, but she is also enigmatic, mannequin-like and ethereal, with a forbiddingly cold core. The shot of Mircalla sitting upright in her coffin, her bare breasts drenched in the blood of a sacrificial victim, was the company’s most shocking image since Christopher Lee’s entrance in DRACULA. Stensgaard does not possess Pitt’s burning intensity, but her serene, blank-faced detachment is strangely effective.

The final film of the trilogy – TWINS OF EVIL – is, in fact, set 150 years before its predecessors, and is one of the most brutal and brilliant of Hammer’s latter-day oeuvre. Heavily influenced by WITCHFINDER GENERAL, the film substitutes the exploitation of flesh for an intensity and chilling sense of purpose rare in British horror. Madeleine and Mary Collinson, duly cast as titular Frieda and Maria Gelhorn, stay with their puritanical uncle Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing) in conservative middle Europe, where Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) is pitted against Weil’s witch-hunting sect. Cushing gives one of his finest screen characterisations – unwilling guardian to his wayward nieces by day, and ritually seeking out and burning young girls by night. Weil is blind in his devotion to duty, with his interpretation of good nothing more than an alternate evil to that being woven by Karnstein. His death scene – plunging from the Count’s balcony to the stone staircase below, surrounded by his black-clad brethren - provides one of the most memorable of all climactic tableaux.

Peter Cushing in TWINS OF EVIL. The film went into production nine weeks after the death of the actor’s wife, and his performance bears the unmistakable signs of this bereavement. Consequently, a character that easily could have been no more than a religious zealot is transformed into something much more resonant.

Horror is not an obvious genre for locating positive representatives of women, based as they are in the misogynist mythology of the female as either virgin or whore; in spite of the presence of numerous female vampires, the cinematic representation of predatory women is invariably a negative one. Victorian vampire literature reveals a belief in the vulnerability of young girls to the temptation of the flesh, and vampire cinema merely gives this notion a contemporary spin. A young woman, one bitten, will become shamelessly promiscuous and a threat to decent society. Patriarchal control in the form of fathers, husbands, vampire hunters or witchfinders, can reign in transgressional impulses but when all else fails, death is the only solution. Within the society of the undead, the usual rules apply.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Murder Across Millennia

THE MUMMY (1959)

Towards the end of the Universal Mummy cycle, the monster devolved into a harmless joke, shambling and closing on his prey with all the menace of a turtle. Hammer makes Christopher Lee’s Kharis a constant threat, an automaton that crushes the throats of his victims.

ALTHOUGH most modern readers have been conditioned by decades of horror stories and movies to expect a Mummy to be intrinsically evil, initial literature portrayed them as intelligent, reasonable and even philosophical beings, such as in Leopardi’s 1827 The Dialogue of Frederick Ruysch and his Mummies. It wasn’t until later in the century, however, that the Bad Mummy became a stock device, particularly in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No. 249, which illustrates the shift in tone in the wake of important archaeological discoveries, and the increase in Britain’s involvement and later occupation of Egypt. Hammer’s spin on such mysticism is one of the studio’s most glamorous productions, enriching the expected violence and spectacle with a memorable, melancholy undertow. Continuing director Terence Fisher’s fascination with Gothic Romanticism, THE MUMMY sees John Banning (Peter Cushing) excavating the tomb of Princess Ananka, only to have the mummified corpse of her former lover Kharis (Christopher Lee) instructed to murder the desecrators.

THE MUMMY was one of the last of the first wave of British horror films that enjoyed enormous world-wide success, and may arguably stand as the finest of all Mummy movies. The basic plot is little more than a series of predictable monster attacks, but Jimmy Sangster’s script uses politically-based complexities, as the priggish English battle the vindictive ideologies of the third-world. Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), the devout worshipper acting only out of love for his God, is mercilessly baited and dismissed by colonial contempt. In the most memorable scene, Banning’s midnight visit to Bey - a verbal confrontation between East and West – contains more malice than the violent sequences. Lee’s Kharis is a powerful and fast-moving adversary, a Golem-like juggernaut with a swift and deadly grasp. His human signs of adoration and weakness upon recognition of Isobel Banning (Yvonne Furneaux) as a dead ringer for Ananka, are all communicated through evocative eyes and precise mime; equally striking is the actor’s initial clumsiness after emerging from the swamp, as though unused to manoeuvring his limbs. In stark contrast is Cushing’s subtle performance as the cold fish archaeologist with a pronounced limp and death wish, his emotions as atrophied as the muscles in his leg.

A typically hyperbolic ad mat for THE MUMMY.

The film’s prevailing sense of atmosphere is generated in deeply saturated tones that include eerie greens and rich crimsons (Fisher's wide masters are equally sumptuous and full of detail). Franz Reizenstein's sweeping score is the best in any Hammer film; the main theme carries the weight of a Hollywood Biblical epic, and its cues augment Kharis' murder missions with regal flourishes, and evoke his tenderness when confronted by the vision of his undying love. A sexual reading of THE MUMMY can see the men as weaklings, either cripples or sex slaves; even in afterlife, the female is in charge. This interpretation hits hard in the final confrontation, with Kharis reduced to a mere puppet in the hands of a woman who simply resembles the princess to whom he's so devoted. Seemingly, the power of the feminine sex trumps all - English society, ancient religions, and even magical prowess.