Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Hammer Miscellany

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959)
THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1964)
THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

In THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, Marla Landi plays the tempestuous Cecile, descendant of Sir Hugo Baskerville. A Hammer vampire without the fangs, Cecile is the Fatal Woman of Gothic literature. Her introduction - waiting bare-legged to lead men to their marshy doom - is one of the great images of the Hammer oeuvre.

THESE releases from Hammer typify their output by decade: the vibrant late 1950s, the premature rigor mortis that set in during the 60s, and the experimental death throes of the 70s. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is steeped in sexual unease and the oaken veneer of English nobility, making the film the clearest demonstration of the studio's class-conscious approach to horror. The transportation of Arthur Conan Doyle to the bloody red Hammer universe is dubious as an adaptation but undeniably successful as a blend of murder mystery and terror. To move the 1902 source novel closer to the Hammer template, liberties are made with the dialogue; Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) is given several lines which seem to have strayed from the Van Helsing phrasebook, and Doctor Watson (Andre Morrell) provides a brief nod to Jack the Ripper when he reflects that the escaped convict Selden (Michael Mulcaster) "murdered a number of street woman."

Though meeting with a mixed reception at the time, Cushing's master detective looks - at distance - very much the ideal incarnation of the character. Cushing's suitably gaunt Holmes - the actor fortuitously losing weight after a mild bout of dysentery while making JOHN PAUL JONES (1959) in Spain - mirrors many traits of Van Helsing and Baron Frankenstein: the furious concentration, the fervor of his convictions, an impatience for fools, and a physical dynamism. A life-long Conan Doyle fan, poor box office halted the possibility of Cushing starring in a series of Hammer Holmes pictures, thus limiting the imperious actor's popularity with retreads of Dracula and Frankenstein.

Peter Cushing seemed a natural for the part of Sherlock Holmes. Cushing also played the detective in the BBC series Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Channel 4's The Masks of Death, portraying Holmes in old age.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES bristles with life whenever Cushing is on screen, and it is to the film's detriment that the actor isn't visible enough. Absent from the harrowing 17th century prologue - which has Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) roasting a manservant in the fireplace as a prelude to gang rape of the victim's daughter - Holmes also vanishes for most of the narrative's second act. Cushing's commanding and flamboyant lead is the only portrayal whose essential goodness is more assertive than his eccentricities, and the only one who seems genuinely bright rather than odd or remote. Also, Morrell's Watson is closer to Conan Doyle's perception than any other: conservative but observant, aging but not yet incapable. Of the other cast members, Milles Malleson is a hoot as the sherry-guzzling Bishop, and Christopher Lee gives one of his most sympathetic and subtle performances as the beleaguered Sir Henry Baskerville.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES remains one of the most entertaining of all Sherlock Holmes films, as well as being the first ever in colour. Jack Asher's Technicolor camerawork gives the work a rousing and surprisingly sensual feel; in the interiors, vivid reds (Sir Hugo's hunting jacket) and blues (the gloom of Baskerville Hall) are striking, and exterior scenes of Dartmoor have an autumnal, shrivelled state odd for the Summer setting. With battle lines so clearly drawn between Holmes's rational milieu and the dark cruelty behind the Baskerville legend, director Terence Fisher is in his element. The detective is the perfect Fisher hero, the Renaissance scholar with mystical undertones who, like Van Helsing, marks a liaison between orthodox religion and the science of detection.

For THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB, stuntman Dickie Owens makes the automaton pathetic rather than tragic, and without Christopher Lee under the bandages, Owen's eyes remain dead and expressionless.

A follow-up to Hammer's THE MUMMY (1959) was long overdue, but THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB is a poor relation to Terence Fisher's magisterial original. Produced, directed and written (as Henry Younger) by Michael Carreras, the film ties together the usual those-who-defile-the-tomb-shall-die scenario with the tale of Adam Beauchamp (Terence Morgan) - the cursed-to-immortality brother of Mummy Ra-Antef (Dickie Owens) - who needs to bring Ra back to life as he can only die at his bandaged hand. Beauchamp may produce a speech about how tired he is by witnessing three thousand years of man's inhumanity to man, but in 1900 he still takes time in seducing Annette (Jeanne Roland) away from her fiance John Bray (Ronald Howard).

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB is a B-movie programmer which highlighted the extent to which Hammer were struggling to inject any form of inspiration into their early 60s horror films. This was not helped by Carreras' typically deadpan helming and the prodigal son's frustrated ambitions to move Hammer away from its roots to more fantasy-related material. The original screenplay was suitably fantastic, which told of a group of archaeologists discovering an ancient tomb in the Sahara Desert and unleashing a giant Mummy which rampages through Cairo. Unsurprisingly, this draft was swiftly sidelined, though the pre-production image of a gargantuan Mummy clutching a helpless girl was retained for the finished film's poster.

Julie Ege plays Vanessa Beren - a wealthy widowed suffragette who funds an expedition to exorcise evil - in the delirious THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES.

The comic relief is tedious, and the characters are cardboard throughout. Carreras has called Roland's performance "ornamental," but the twenty-one-year-old Anglo/Burmese model/non-actress doesn't even reach that level. When the film opens with her father's brutal slaying, Annette is hardly upset at all, preferring to spend the rest of the picture swooning after Beauchamp. Howard – who was close to fifty at the time – is far too old for the role of "intrepid young Egyptologist," and Fred Clark's crass, P.T.Barnum-like promoter Alexander King is irritating, but even so is the liveliest thing in the film. THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB leaves a bad taste in the mouth because, for all its mediocrity, the murder scenes are eerily memorable. The attacks are not staged with the vigor of Fisher, but instead are bludgeoning sadistic: archaeologist Sir Giles Dalrymple (Jack Gwillim) is hammered to death with a small statue of an Egyptian cat goddess, and George Pastell - playing a sympathetic Egyptian official after his high priest role in THE MUMMY - willingly sacrifices himself to Ra-Antef in a skull-crushing scene that ranks amongst Hammer's most vicious.

Billed as "The First Kung-Fu Horror Spectacular," THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES - directed by Roy Ward Baker - was Hammer's uneasy co-production with Run Run Shaw, a leading light in the Kowloon-based Shaw Brothers company. Not originally written as a Dracula film, the hasty prologue sees The Count (James Forbes-Robertson, thanklessly replacing Christopher Lee and looking like a drag queen) revived by Kah (Chan Sen). Dracula possesses Kah's body and returns to the village of Ping Kuei, where he commands the Seven Golden Vampires, who raid the town and harvest the blood of naked woman in a blood trough - eight gullied slabs arranged like petals around a central, bubbling cauldron. Lecturing at China's Chung King university, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is approached by student Hai Ching (David Chiang), a native of Ping Kuei, for his help. The film benefits from a powerful James Bernard score and John Wilcox's Panavision framing, and is structured more like a Western than a Horror or Kung-Fu film. THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES possesses an entertaining air of derring-do, but ultimately acts as a substantial fall from grace for the Hammer vampire film.