Monday, August 24, 2009

Twilight of the Dead

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974)

David Prowse is The Creature in Hammer’s last gasp for Gothic Horror.

SADDLED with an absurdly low budget, Terence Fisher’s asylum-set FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL - scripted by Anthony Hinds - is a grim epitaph for the Baron and Fisher himself, a Hammer Horror - unlike many of the period - which didn’t rely on sexual overtones to try to elevate its fortunes. Hollywood had once stood in line to finance the studio’s immensely profitable output, yet the vogue for Gothique had passed; when Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is told that he’s mad, he laughs and in a line penned by the actor himself replies “Oh possibly. I must admit I’ve never felt so elated in my life. Not since I first … but that was a long time ago.”

As in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969), a franchise character is partnered with a younger equivalent - here surgeon Simon Helder (Shane Briant) - and the film benefits from remaining focused on the making of the monster, rather than cutting away to various asides (even the Baron's servant (Madeline Smith) is mute and inconsequential). Cushing - looking alarmingly gaunt and frail - is ill-served by a blonde curly wig and top hat, which only accentuates his thin frame and bony structure. Despite this, the actor remains as obsessive and athletic as always; a standout scene features Cushing’s trademark leap, jumping onto - then off - a table, and wrapping a chloroformed coat around the Monster’s head. Underneath the awkward, hulking and hairy creature suit, David Prowse gives perhaps his only performance on film. None too pleased about his new skin, the abomination’s dilemma is best conveyed when he caresses the violin possessed in his previous life, only to moments later smash it when realising the futility of the situation.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD made Hammer
seem outdated by comparison.

The decline of Hammer can primarily be linked to its failure to understand the cultural shift that the end of 1960s cinema represented. British filmmakers such as Michael Reeves and Pete Walker - together with American directors George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven - moved the horror genre into a new phase of intense, graphic violence that made Hammer’s output positively quaint. Even by the mid-60s trouble was looming, with rising production costs and increasing competition, but Hammer seemed uninterested in nurturing new talent as their output became increasingly formulaic and threadbare both intellectually and in physical production (a good example being the unconvincing exterior shots of the miniature asylum in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL).

Romero’s nihilistic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) did for the horror genre what Hammer achieved in 1957 with THE CURSE OF FRANKESTEIN: it made everything before it seem dated and predictable. Romero’s film looked like a newsreel, where economy was turned into an artistic value; Hammer, still largely stick in a Victorian world of vampires and mummies, lacked any connection to contemporary existence. This New Order created a change away from the tidiness of the British horror film and created a tableau where monsters and humans could no longer be easily distinguished. This loss of generic identity pulled British horror towards sexploitation, which was proving to be a formidable and cost-effective box-office attraction during a period of decline. But there was also an acute divergence and mutation in storylines: consider the Hammer and Shaw Brothers marriage for THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1973), and Amicus’ werewolf whodunit THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974).

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Dracula Over London

DRACULA, A.D. 1972 (1972)
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

"Hammer find of 1971" Caroline Munro on the alter
in DRACULA, A.D. 1972.

WHEN Warner Brothers noted the success of AIP's COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) - in which Robert Quarry prowled present-day Los Angeles - they consequently ordered two Hammer Dracula’s to follow suit, bringing the character to modern-day London and away from the Eastern European neverwhere which had died its final death with SCARS OF DRACULA (1970). What should have been a fresh new direction resulted in DRACULA, A.D. 1972, one of the studio’s most glorious mishaps. Beginning in Hyde Park, 1872, Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) dies from the strain of destroying Dracula (Lee). During Van Helsing’s funeral at St Bartolph’s, one of the vampire’s disciples - Alucard (Christopher Neame) - buries his master’s ashes nearby. Jumping to Chelsea, 1972, we see Alucard organising a black mass at St Bartolph’s, supposedly for teen thrills. The culmination of the ritual, however, is the rejuvenation of Dracula, and Alucard lures young victims to the deserted graveyard for his master's pleasure, one of which is buxom Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), descended from the line of vampire hunters and the Count’s favoured target. Her grandfather Lorimar (Peter Cushing) - equipped with all the devices to snare the Count - subsequently confronts his arch enemy.

The major flaw of the film is that once Dracula is resurrected, he never leaves the derelict church where he's been revived, so the movie might as well take place in 1872, where the film's rousing pre-credits sequence takes place. Innovations such as Dracula claiming his first male and black victim are overshadowed by the phoney younger characters, who seem a good decade behind the times with their hilariously misconceived banter. Cushing relishes his Van Helsing role, and at least tries to act as a voice of reason to Jessica and the film in general, although the script insults the audience’s intelligence when Van Helsing - of all people - has to take up pen and paper to work out that Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards.

Vampires in the bargain basement: THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA.

Warner expressed little enthusiasm for the direct sequel - the sombre and apocalyptic THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA - and never released the film in America, where it wouldn’t be in general circulation until independent distributor Dynamite issued the film under the flaccid title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE late in 1978. This time, rather than the Count skulking in crypts and pouncing on Hammer’s latest nubile protégé, Van Helsing (Cushing) discovers that reclusive property developer D.D.Denham is in fact the Count (Lee), who intends to wipe out the human race with a newly perfected strain of bubonic plague. The script creates another own-goal in a plan which will inevitably deprive the vampire of his own food supply (a mournful echo perhaps of Lee’s own overwhelming desire to put Dracula behind him). The Count is morphed into a hybrid of Howard Hughes and Fu Manchu for an almost James Bond-like adventure yarn; this will probably be the only Dracula film to have the Count employing a gang of motorcycle-riding toughs to do his daylight dirty work.

What makes Hammer’s modern-day Dracula’s so disappointing - both directed by Alan Gibson - is that they ignore the maturity and foresight that Bram Stoker bought to the source material. It is a book about the unrestrained movement of the threatening other. Stoker reiterates the sense of London as both heart and image of the Empire, using its familiar locations to heighten fears of invasion, contamination and disease (at least THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA hints at contagion). Association with the East End links The Count with foreigners, especially Jews from eastern Europe and Orientals, as well as with an area connected in the public mind with crime. The author marshals discourses to those we are familiar with now in the war against terrorism: the threat of shape-changing terrorists from the east, among us and invisible. In the invasive other, British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms; Dracula resonates not least because his actions approximates those of the colonising Englishman.