Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Last Gothic

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)

New Zealander Anouska Hempel bares her fangs. The actress also played "Australian Girl" in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE and the title role in Pete Walker's TIFFANY JONES. Now a hotelier and designer, she married Allied Dunbar chairman Mark Weinberg in 1980, becoming one of the richest woman in Britain. During 1998 Hempel bought the right's to Walker's film and Russ Meyer's slave picture BLACK SNAKE - where she stars as Lady Susan - in order to keep them out of circulation.

HAMMER’s bloodiest film, SCARS OF DRACULA - scripted by Anthony Hinds - is also one of its most beautifully shot, defying its typically meagre budget. Braking the sequence began with their original DRACULA, no attempt is made to link it to the conclusion of the previous entry, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. The Prince of Darkness (Christopher Lee) is afforded more screen time and dialogue, uttering his lines in a dreamy tone (under pasty make-up) that could be the result of Lee’s oft-quoted desire to express “the loneliness of evil” and the curse of immortality. Alternatively, it could be the disenchantment of an actor tiring of a limiting role (John Forbes-Robertson was considered before Lee was persuaded to return, but would later be cast as The Count in THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES). Lee's verbose performance reminds of Bela Lugosi, but what is particularly grating is that the film dispenses with Hammer's renowned sensual lord vampire to create an atmosphere of brutal violence. The young cast are tepid at best (a miscast Dennis Waterman as Simon, the dubbed throughout Jenny Hanley as Sarah, and Christopher Matthews as womaniser Paul), but the real meat comes from the supporting cast, with Patrick Troughton transforming Dracula’s urbane butler Klove into a masochistic errant boy, and Anouska Hempel as concubine Tania.

The last of the studio’s Gothic Draculas - and developed as a double bill with Jimmy Sangster's equally misguided THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN - the film revels in 70s-style exploitation. Dracula is consequently transformed into a sadist, mystifyingly stabbing vampiric Tania to death, and branding Klove with a white-hot sword. He also impales Paul on a metal hook, and sends legions of bats to massacre an entire church of women and children; even the story is set in motion by a bat vomiting blood on the Count’s remains. Away from the general gore, Anthony Hind's screenplay is a plethora of nonsense: for example, the opening of "The Angry Mob" burning down the castle doesn't seem to have disrupted the interior. Director Roy Ward Baker’s preparatory work apparently drew him to actually read Dracula, inspiring the filmmaker to add an "unprecedented" shot from the novel of The Count scaling his castle’s wall which he claimed was his “only contribution … to the Dracula cycle” (obviously he had never seen DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA, filmed seventeen years previously). In fact, the film’s “only contribution” is to have the most laughable bouncing rubber bats in British horror film history.

During the climax, Jenny Hanley's cleavage is ravaged by a vampire bat, eager to tear away her crucifix necklace. This "blood on breasts" sequence would have been unheard of for less liberal times.

During the audio commentary on Optimum's R2 DVD of 2006 - woodenly moderated by Marcus Hearn - Lee and Baker wax lyrical about the classic cinema dictum "less is more," views that particularly contradict the nature of the film they are viewing. Comments on The Count's shift towards frenzied violence are almost an afterthought, with the duo more lost in their silver screen legacies and after-dinner like recollections. Its a particularly meandering and name-dropping vocal from Lee, who quite rightly highlights the standard of actors Hammer cast in bit parts (here, Michael Ripper as the innkeeper, Michael Gwynn as a priest and Bob Todd as the Burgomaster), but he also makes the amazing statement that not only is Dracula's stabbing of Tania nonsensical, that such a scene is troublesome in the annals of influencing true crime.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

How Do

THE WICKER MAN (1973)

During the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, from which Halloween was derived, Druids burned huge sacrificial wooden effigies known as Wicker Men atop sacred hilltop sites. The Wicker Men were sometimes filled with animals, prisoners of war, criminals, and other sacrifices to Druid deities.

WHILE Terence Fisher, Peter Cushing and Madeline Smith were bringing Hammer’s Frankenstein saga to an unrelenting grisly end with FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1972), Christopher Lee was filming in Scotland, working for free in a role specially written for him. Although marketed as a horror film, Robin Hardy’s THE WICKER MAN is a counterpoint to the flamboyant excesses of the Hammer tradition, and a genuine genre misfit, equally resembling a detective story, an erotic thriller, a religious allegory, an art film, and even a musical. Hardly the “CITIZEN KANE of horror” as labelled by Cinefantanstique magazine, it became lost in a tangle of bad marketing, careless editing, and public indifference. The work does however remain a solid cult favourite, its status reinforced by a series of outlandish behind-the-scenes stories: the master negative was apparently lost when it was inadvertently included in a shipment of disposable material buried beneath the then under-construction M3, for example, and rumours circulated of inhumane acts towards animals. Lee even offered to pay for his critic friends to view the film when the bewildered new regime at British Lion refused to distribute it.

Edward Woodward, in a role intended for Cushing, is Sergeant Neil Howie, a humourless policeman whose devout religious views cause him to look dimly upon any kind of heathen activity. When he receives an anonymous letter informing him that a young girl is missing on the beguilingly remote Scottish island of Summerisle, he flies out to investigate, consequently discovering a community of pagans - led by Lord Summerisle (Lee) - who worship the old Celtic gods and have rejected Christianity. In the schools, children are taught to venerate male genitalia, while at night outside the public house, couples copulate openly. Howie’s faith further comes under assault when a naked Willow (Britt Ekland), the sensual daughter of the innkeeper, offers herself to him in an adjacent room while singing the haunting How Do (indeed, Paul Giovanni’s celebrated score often moves the story along rather than the dialogue). Convinced that the missing girl is intended as a human sacrifice for the islander’s May Day celebrations, Howie realises too late that she is part of a scheme to ensnare “the right kind of adult.”

The cover for Optimum’s 3-disc DVD of THE WICKER MAN, containing the original 84m theatrical release, the 99m director’s cut, and the soundtrack CD.

Within this structure of a miniature Holy War, Howie is no Sherlock Holmes, but the viewer is convinced by his dogged persistence, although his dour disposition and puritanical outlook makes it difficult to fully sympathise with the character. This investigative outsider is just one of many horror film clich├ęs playwright Anthony Shaffer spins into his games-laden script: the raucous pub that falls silent on his arrival, a journey by carriage to the castle of an overlord, and the midnight exhumation of a coffin, are all present and correct. But the climax - in which the Sergeant is improbably manoeuvred into, and subsequently burned to death, within a sixty foot Wicker Man, is one of British cinema’s most visually arresting final scenes.