Monday, February 14, 2011

"You Can't Mesmerise Me, I'm British!"

AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976)

Having cowered from superior special effects in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, Caroline Munro is at her most beautiful in AT THE EARTH'S CORE; every male wanted the actress to be a nubile slave girl above anything else.

AMICUS produced a trio of Lost World features: THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975), AT THE EARTH’S CORE and THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT (1977), all of which were based on the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and shared the same producer (John Dark), director (Kevin Conner) and leading man (Doug McClure). Subscribing to the mentality of matinee cinema, these escapist adventures were released to coincide with school holidays; the ‘Saturday morning’ ethic has a heritage that stretches back to the serials of the 1930s and 40s, but also applied to the cinematic spin-offs DR WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965) and DALEKS’ INVASION EARTH 2150 AD (1966), which were co-financed by Amicus under the Aaru banner. Peter Cushing’s portrayal of the eponymous Time Lord in both of these films has much in common with his character Dr Abner Perry in AT THE EARTH’S CORE: a stereotypically British eccentric professor – who stubbornly carries his trusty umbrella at all times - created for a stereotypically juvenile target audience.

Perry – together with David Innes (McClure) – set out to test their earth-boring Iron Mole machine. However, they unexpectedly arrive at the centre of the Earth, where in the cavernous underworld of Pellucidar primitive humans – such as Dia (Caroline Munro, "SEE: The seductive Dia, Princess of the land of Pellucidar") – are enslaved by a prehistoric race of birds with mind-altering powers, the Mahars. With the help of Innes’ two-fisted exploits and Perry’s scientific know-how (plus a skill with bow and arrow), the humanoid tribe overcome their beastly oppressors. Unsurprisingly, AT THE EARTH'S CORE’s ending is very different from the book; in Burroughs’s version, Innes escapes from the underground world to discover that his companion in the Iron Mole is not Dia but the corpse of a Mahar, placed there by Hooja, the Sly One. The film eschews this ghoulish ending in favour of a suitably light-hearted climax, where the Mole emerges through the lawn of the White House.

Peter Cushing plays the dotty professor role similar to his big screen Doctor Who; a mix of British eccentricity and stoic, colonial spirit.

Lost World features are synonymous with rubber monsters, and AT THE EARTH’S CORE ("An Adventure Beyond Any Ever Before Filmed!") is no exception. Here we have a lizard/parrot crossbreed pursuing Perry and Innes upon their arrival in Pellucidar; the lumbering hippopotamus which Innes is forced into combat; and a fire-belching toad-beast ("SEE: The MOSOPS, whose fiery breath withers trees & plants"). Making amends for these misfires are the distinctly more malicious Mahars, the female mutated pterodactyls ("SEE: The vicious MAHARS, bird-women who feed on human flesh"). Using telepathy to communicate with their foot soldiers - the diminutive spear-toting Sagoths ("SEE: The cruel SAGOTHS, animal-faced soldiers of Pellucidar") - the nastiest moments come at meal times, where the juiciest slave girls are lined up in their chamber.

It is easy to forget Cushing’s more light-hearted roles (Perry’s comment to his avian captors “You cannot mesmerize me, I’m British” echoes his quip from HORROR EXPRESS (1971), “Monster? We’re British you know!"). In isolated moments of his filmography, the imperious actor gave a jovial twist which was otherwise consumed by his magisterial horrors. Early in his career he played one of the students in the Laurel and Hardy vehicle A CHUMP AT OXFORD (1940), before developing his comedic craft in BBC productions such TOVARICH (1954) and COMEDY PLAYHOUSE: THE PLAN (1963). Television would also call at the height of his Hammer Horror excesses - Cushing was featured repeatedly as a guest on THE MORCAMBE AND WISE SHOW wondering when he was going to be paid - but the actor was largely wasted in latter box office “comedies” such as TENDRE DRACULA (1974) and SON OF HITLER (1978). As a bookstore owner in TOP SECRET (1984), Cushing sported a grotesquely large eyeball (the punch line to which he is first seen gazing through a magnifying glass), an arresting image for this most unassumingly playful of men.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Love Will Tear Us Apart

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)

Oliver Reed and Yvonne Romain in an impossibly-staged publicity still. Reed and Romain had a closely tied association with Hammer; the actress plays Reed's mother - who dies in childbirth - for THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, then became his fiancee in CAPTAIN CLEGG before sharing their third appearance in THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR.

UNLIKE the literary origins of Dracula and Frankenstein, zombies and werewolves are rooted in superstition and folklore. Consequently, the living dead and shape-shifting sub-genres have treated film as their developing texts; George A. Romero basically re-invented the rules for the zombie with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), while THE WOLF MAN (1941) similarly set the precedence of romantic dread. Subsequent werewolf appearances were negligible until advances in make-up special effects unleashed a slew of transformation pictures in the early 1980s, where THE HOWLING and WOLFEN (both 1981) developed the notion of lycantropic societies coexisting with humans, and THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984) a link with menstruation. This exploration also seemed in tandem with developing body horror concerns, not only with cinema spectacles such as THE THING (1982) and VIDEODROME (1983), but with the onset of AIDS.

Werewolves were limited to a triptych of releases during the British horror period of the 1960s and 70s. Amicus’ lupine whodunit THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974) was joined by two features inspired by Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris: Hammer's THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and Tyburn's LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF (1975). Directed by Terence Fisher and written by producer Anthony Hinds under the pseudonym John Elder, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF is by far the best remembered. It is a flawed, visceral melodrama of lycantrophy from birth to death, ponderous in its pacing, but the film effectively focuses on the inner turmoil of man into wolf, benefiting from make-up artist Roy Aston's most accomplished work and arguably propelling young Oliver Reed onto the road to stardom. Pulverised by the Monthly Film Bulletin which claimed the film was "a singularly repellent job of slaughter-house horror," the production ranks as one of the most brutal of all Hammer Horrors.

Oliver Reed's werewolf was the cover star of Warren publishing's low-brow Famous Monsters of Filmland #12 (June 1961).

The film opens with a beggar (Richard Wordsworth) visiting Castillo Siniestro, where the Marquis (Anthony Dawson) is celebrating his wedding. The beggar irritates the nobleman, who has him thrown into the dungeons where he remains forgotten by all but the jailer and his mute daughter (Yvonne Romain). After many years - with the Marquis decrepit and his wife long dead from his brutish behaviour - the Marquis sexually assaults the servant girl. When she rejects his advances, he has her thrown into the dungeon where the beggar - now reduced to a slavering animal - rapes her then dies in the act of violation. When the girl is freed, she stabs the Marques to death and flees into the woods, where kindly scholar Don Alfredo (Clifford Evans) rescues her. The girl dies in labour after giving birth to a son from her ordeal, and as the young Leon (Justin Walters) grows, he is increasingly troubled by dreams of drinking blood. Diagnosed with lycantrophy, the only cure is for Leon to be within a loving environment. Reaching manhood, Leon (Oliver Reed) - denied access to his love Cristina (Catherine Feller) - goes on a murderous rampage.

Endore’s source material emphasises a number of aspects that cinema - at the time - could not dare to adhere to. Endore's rapist was a priest, not a beggar, for example, and the afflicted Bertrand and his love Sophie in the book avoid the violent effects of his transformation by cutting into parts of her body and allowing him to suck her blood ("Her body was a fountain of blood to him, and it was if her body responded to his needs, like a nursing mother with milk.") In contrast, the film superficially represents the bond between Leon and Cristina in typical Hollywood fashion - the closest to a love story Fisher achieved  - that never touches on such sado-masochistic tendencies. Furthermore, the movement of the novel's locales to Santa Vera, Spain centre around the abandoned Spanish Inquisition drama THE INQUISITOR/THE RAPE OF SABENA. After distributors Columbia feared condemnation by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency, the project was pulled from Hammer's schedule, leaving a number of sets taking shape on the Bray lot which were then integrated into Fisher's film.

The House of Hammer #10 (January 1978) included a comic adaptation of THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. Drawn by John Bolton, the strip acted as the flagship for this special werewolf issue.

With Reed not appearing until roughly the halfway mark, the extended prologue detailing Leon’s lurid conception is suitably heady but prolonged. It is detrimental to the mechanics of the film that Reed and Evans’ central performances could not be afforded more screen time, but the film suffers from a number of time anomalies, surprising considering Fisher's trademark linear style: Leon’s feelings for his eternal love develop too quickly and off-screen, and Alfredo somehow narrates the preceding events which he could not have been akin to. Hammer also adheres to several cliches of the werewolf picture but also establishes new ones of its own. Lycanthropy is presented not as a disease but as an accursed birthright, and Leon’s bestial instincts can be suppressed by the feelings of inner peace and comfort bought about by love, while the emotions of rage and frustration have precisely the opposite effect. Therefore Leon is subconsciously in control of his own fate, his werewolf dependent not just on the occurrence of a full moon but also upon Leon’s state of mind. But like most cinematic werewolves, the character is not painted as a villain but as a personable young man ultimately condemned to a second existence of blood lust by circumstance.

Ashton’s make-up effects for the wolf man, the Marquis and the beggar are uniformly excellent. Aston himself had suggested to Hinds that Reed's bone structure would be ideal for the role, and the success of the monster is that it is part-man and part-wolf, encapsulating Reed's ferocious contortions and snarls, especially starling when blood drips from his mouth. With this avenue for human expression, the tragedy of the werewolf is not lost, unlike later films which are reliant on mechanical effects and CGI, which overshadow any levels of performance. The Marquis' design explored how make-up could define a character's prolonged debauchery - especially memorable in the scene where Dawson picks his skin in an attempt to improve his appearance for the servant girl - and the beggar's own mutation into beast would not feel out of place on H.G.Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896).

Universal - who owned the source material - contracted Hammer to make THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. A film very much playing like THE WOLF MAN's bastardised relative, its horde of "Angry Mob" villagers who hound Leon at the climax - seen here underpinning this one-sheet - was Universalesque in its own right.

Dawson is suitably lecherous as the Marquis, and Wordsworth - having been similarly effective as the man/monster of THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955) - is both touching and frightening in a role ranging from abused beggar to feral man. Evans brings a subtle facade to the role of adoptive father, emotionally distraught yet resolved to end his sons misery. Without question, however, it is Reed's film. While the "Hammer Heavy" was evidently not quite the finished article at this point in his career, his portrayal conveys pathos and menace and amusingly, when he does appear, he's soon working in a winery, surrounded by bottles. Romain is enchanting as the exotic, raven-haired servant, but the rest of the cast are a mixed bag. Michael Ripper is wide-eyed as Old Soak and Desmond Llewellyn makes an appearance as a footman, but John Gabriel - as a sanctimonious priest - and Martin Matthews - as Leon's best friend - bring nothing to their roles. And in a refreshing quirk of fate, Peter Sallis appears as mayor Don Enrique, 45 years away from tackling similar circumstances voicing Wallace in the clay-mation favourite THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005).