Saturday, January 16, 2010

Disciples of Dracula


"Say you forgive me for letting him love me";
Andree Melly is one of THE BRIDES OF DRACULA.

DIRECTOR Terence Fisher's reputation rests almost entirely on the horror films he directed for Hammer in the 50s and 60s, but he was a more versatile filmmaker than this output suggests. Fisher had previously helmed projects with a variety of themes - such as tragic romance and light comedy - but he was accused of representing a conservative and pedantic force within British horror. Yet within his construction a primal yet supremely visual ethos was created, mixing precise framing and acting with negligee-wearing vampire brides and claustrophobic burial vaults. In fact, Fisher epitomised Andrew Sarris' definition of the auteur in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 "…to evoke a self-contained world with its own laws and landscapes." Above all, Fisher was a storyteller, preserving the coherence of his films by containing few flashbacks and virtually no dream sequences.

Fisher's THE BRIDES OF DRACULA begins with Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) - en route to a teaching engagement - taking shelter at the invitation of Baroness Meinster (Marita Hunt). From her room's balcony, Marianne sees a young man chained by his ankle, Baron Meinster (David Peel), her hostess’ vampire son whom his mother has been acquiring peasant girls for feeding. After freeing the Baron without knowing of his past, the woman escapes into the woods where she is rescued by Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who must face the Seal of Dracula once more.

Despite a relatively late introduction, Peter Cushing effortlessly commands the screen in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA. The scene where Van Helsing proceeds to burn out his bite from Meinster with holy water and a red-hot branding iron is one of Hammer's most heart-rending.

Despite a contradiction from DRACULA that vampires cannot change their form (though curiously unavailable to the Baron when held in leg irons), and the arrival of Hammer's customary unconvincing bat, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is a sumptuous production. With the absence of Christopher Lee, the androgynous Peel makes for an engaging, Byronic, manipulative charmer in his role "to spread the cult and corrupt the world." Subsequent Lee/Dracula Hammers all de-vitalised rather than embodied The Count, and the followers of the vampire in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA are painted with a complex stroke that the series would not feature so successfully again; when the cackling Greta (Freda Jackson) - Meinster’s childhood nurse - lies full length on a freshly dug grave beckoning its occupant "I know it’s dark, but you’ve got to push, push…", no wonder Van Helsing is startled. Van Helsing demonstrated a cool but obsessive intensity in DRACULA, but his character changes substantially here; now a vampire slaying hero, much of his scientifically detached persona and harsher edges have been smoothed over. With Lee not taking centre stage, it is Cushing that must carry the film.

What is often overlooked with Lee's return in Fisher's DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS is that THE BRIDES OF DRACULA was the last film to feature Cushing until his modern day return in DRACULA A.D. 1972, although DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS does have a Van Helsing replacement, Andrew Keir’s warrior-monk Father Sandor. However, Lee's much-anticipated reprisal is reduced to a series of mute, melodramatic and repetitive attacks, and the two stand-out sequences don't feature The Count at all: the sacrifice of Alan (Charles Tingwell) and the controversial ecclesiastical gang rape of his wife Helen (Barbara Shelley). Such sequences, however, do subscribe to the poetry of flesh and blood akin to Bram Stoker's source material. The Count slipping through broken ice to be swallowed by the running waters of the moat around his castle makes for a powerful ending, with the scene seeming reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, which shows Satan trapped in the ice in the lower pit of hell.

Barbara Shelley succumbs to DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS.

Whereas the economic retelling of Stoker’s novel in DRACULA left no room for the characters of Dr Seward and Renfield, a Renfield substitute appears in the guise of Ludwig (Thorley Walters). Here an obsessive but chivalrous bookbinder in the hospitality of a monastery, Ludwig is the one Renfield in cinema who actually encapsulates the character as Stoker describes him. Although partial to eating flies, Walters never radiates total madness, instead performing such transgression as mischief in an existence vague to everyone and thing except the needs of his Master.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Hitchcock Comes Home

FRENZY (1972)

Strangulation as art in Hitchcock’s penultimate picture.

IN England for his first feature since STAGE FRIGHT in 1950, Alfred Hitchcock's FRENZY seized the opportunity for what most critics term a return to form. Adapted by playwright Anthony Shaffer from Arthur La Bern's novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, FRENZY is the story of a series of rape-murders committed by suave Covent Garden fruit-merchant Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who throttles women with a necktie. Being Hitchcock - himself the son of a greengrocer - suspicion falls on the wrong person, ill-tempered former-RAF officer turned bartender Richard Blaney (Jon Finch). The screenplay is crafted a little too deliberately, as the detective plot seems mechanical underneath its oh-so-English tone. But the film has long been greatly undervalued, and resurrects many conventions of the director's first hit, THE LODGER.

Hitchcock had laboured under censorship restrictions throughout his career, yet FRENZY was made when controls had eased. Consequently, the rape and murder of Blaney's ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) is as explicitly nasty as the director ever got, and after this scene the film doesn't need to portray subsequent killings. This enables Hitchcock to execute one of his finest shots, as Blaney's girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey) is killed off-screen ("you're my type of woman") while the camera retreats backwards down the stairs, through the front door, and then across the street to join the people outside. And the sequence where Rusk has a tussle in a potato truck with Bab' uncooperative corpse - clutching the discriminating evidence of a tie pin - is the most black comedic scene Hitchcock ever filmed. It's rewarding to see Hitch
 - after fifty years in the business - still executing with such aplomb.

"Lovely, lovely”; Barry Foster is The Necktie Killer.

Claims that Hitchcock was a misogynist - or at least had a neurotic compulsion to mistreat women in his films - had increasingly haunted the auteur; true, Tippi Hedren's ordeal in the attic with THE BIRDS is gratuitous, but arises inevitably from dramatic situation. Even Hedren, despite her quarrels over the director's possessiveness, had no complaints about the support he normally gave her. In his private and professional live Hitchcock was always surrounded by women; he and his wife had one child, a daughter, and she produced three grandchildren, all females. There was a succession of women personal assistants, as well as the usual complement of secretaries, but his wife Alma was the most professional aid of all, and always the ultimate authority in the cutting room.

Similarly, Hitchcock's hatred of actors has been exaggerated. The director believed that performers should only concentrate on their artistic presentation and leave work on the script to the director and screenwriter. Before filming began, tensions grew between Hitchcock and Finch, with the actor earnestly telling reporters that the director seemed past his prime, and that the cast might have to improvise to improve the quaint script. Hitchcock never forgot this violation, and gave Finch no warmth on set, so the actor remained as off balance as Blaney throughout the story. Over the years, there was a persistent rumour that the director had said that actors were cattle; Hitchcock denied this - typically tongue-in-cheek - clarifying that he had only said that actors should be treated like cattle. For him, like the props, the performers were part of the film's setting.

"The Governor" shooting in Covent Garden.

In contrast, Foster relishes his role as the psychotic market trader, a character who is deliberately made more agreeable than the unappetising man he is framing for his crimes. Massey is genuinely touching as the naive girlfriend, and there are plenty of recognisable faces in the supporting cast, such as Clive Swift, Billie Whitelaw and Bernard Cribbins as a sleazy pub landlord. Best of all, however, is Alec McCowan as Inspector Oxford, an old-fashioned copper right down to the ironic final line (“Mr Rusk, you‘re not wearing your necktie”). The scenes between him and his gourmet wife (Vivien Merchant) extend the films obsession with food, as well as portraying a cinematic equivalent of Mr and Mrs Hitchcock.

There is little hope in FRENZY, reflecting a world which is irrevocably fallen; women are harridans or naive lambs for the slaughter, while the men are either brutes (the hero Blaney is an implied wife-beater) or simpletons telling rape jokes over the bar, and the nicest people end up dead. Somehow the world seems to be at the end of its tether, where human beings are reduced to the same level as food and waste, and abandoned - as the rape scene suggests - by any rationale. In fact, FRENZY can be viewed as the culmination of a hostility against the world that Hitchcock begun back in the 1920s.