Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Hammer's Cornwall Classics

THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966)
THE REPTILE (1966)

The stunning Jacqueline Pearce, fresh from RADA, gives standout performances in both of these Hammer favourites.

FILMED back-to-back, and utilising much of the same production crew and sets, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and THE REPTILE were both directed by John Gilling. Each picture portrays an anti-colonial stance, and Hammer’s renowned class dynamic (that is, treading a noble path between the ignorance of the working class, bound by fear and superstition, and the unfettered power craving of the upper class). But the notion of the aristocracy as carriers of infection is crystallised in these two releases. Using the same basic story conceit as the Bela Lugosi favourite WHITE ZOMBIE, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES belongs to the list of genuine classics in the studio’s back catalogue. Here, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell), Professor of Medicine at London University, receives a letter from former pupil Dr Peter Tompson (Brook Williams). Now practising in Cornwall, Tompson tells of a mysterious malady which has overrun his village. The rash of deaths in the district, of which Tompson’s wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) is one of the latest victims, is ultimately traced to local Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson). After returning from Haiti, Hamilton has become a black magician, using voodoo to reactivate the dead to staff his inherited, reopened tin mine.

Maximising its desolate setting, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES is a model of economy and invention. The rural English setting, far from the usual Central European milieu, allows Gilling to use the pre-existing class structure to frightening effect; a film in which an aristocrat murders his lowly subjects in order to put them to work in daddy’s tin mine, unpaid as well as undead, would appear to operate on levels deeper than that of schlock horror. Indeed, the zombies' appearance, dressed in ragged brown robes, even suggests a link with medieval peasantry. The director shows sensitivity to Christian themes that characterised Terence Fisher’s work for Hammer; the Squire's enterprise is an immoral subversion of the Christ-story, and Tompson's recollection of his dream - "I dreamed I saw the dead rise; all the graves in the churchyard opened, and the dead came out" - is almost certainly an allusion to Matthew 27:52-53. The great strength of the film, however, are the three performances from Morell, Pearce and Carson. Morell projects a moral bedrock that is necessary to carry the picture, expertly combining unflappable suavity with a deeply felt moral outrage. Pearce’s account of the living but ailing Alice is one of the most delicate performances in any horror film, and her all-too-brief reincarnation is one of the most terrifying. And Carson’s persona, a cool magnetism mixed with chilling repugnance, inevitably invites comparison to Christopher Lee.

THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES’ lumbering ghouls preceded NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD by two years. Squire Hamilton’s dilapidated characters opened the way for the armies of increasingly malevolent living dead that flowed in their wake; the first zombie appearance on the nocturnal hillside, together with the celebrated nightmare sequence - in which the undead dig their way out of the ground and advance with outstretched hands - are both highly influential.

THE REPTILE - scripted by Anthony Hinds - opens with a lengthy pre-credits sequence, in which a young Cornish landowner is lured across a moor by exotic music, only to be bitten to death by a lethally poisonous assailant. His property is inherited by his brother, Harry Spaulding (Ray Barrett), who learns that he died of causes described by locals as "The Black Death", symptoms of which are identical to those bitten by a King Cobra. In fact, neighbouring theologist Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman)’s daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) has been cursed by the Snake People of Borneo, to transform into a half-human snake creature as punishment for her father’s professional exposure of their religious cult.

Slower and more stately than THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE REPTILE nonetheless is rich in atmosphere, and its carefully orchestrated tension belie its support feature status. Pearce, in another splendidly intense performance, makes for a fascinatingly sympathetic character, despite her clumsy – but oddly endearing – transformation make-up. The actress transcends the papier mache face mask by investing the Reptile with a sinuous grace, encased in a black gown of watered silk and a pony tail slithering incongruously down her back. Appearing as if to have strayed into the lurid landscape of Hammer Horror, Franklyn is more suited to M. R. James’ stories in which antiquarian scholars pay a terrible price for their academic zeal. The theologist’s Malay manservant (Marne Maitland) seems like the conventionally negative ‘Yellow Peril’ figure, but it is worth pointing out that though the evil in the film originates in the East, it only chooses to infiltrate England thanks to the blundering presumptions of a Westerner. Unlike Squire Hamilton, Franklyn hardly seems a villain at all, but both characters are tainted by their exposure to other cultures; as these two releases appear to illustrate, time spent in a foreign country invariably corrupts an Englishman's soul.