Monday, March 21, 2011

Hampden House of Horror

HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR (1980)

The House That Bled To Death is a double-twist shocker featuring a priceless scene where a pipe spurts blood over children at a party. A family move into the dilapidated abode where a man had carved up his wife with an ornamental machete, though the new owners have an Amityville-like agenda of their own.

TELEVISION always served Hammer films well. After all, if it wasn't for the success of their adaptation THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955), it is likely that their vivid re-imaginings of Frankenstein and Dracula would have never been made. By the 1970s, Hammer's usual output of costumed gothique was in its death throes, slices of entertainment that seemed frozen in time. However, the studio's big screen spin-off of ON THE BUSES (1971) was a box-office phenomenon, leading the studio on a comedic vein which included LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR (1973) and MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE (1974). Hammer's attempts to make TV projects of their own resulted in four separate ventures; the series under consideration here was followed by HAMMER HOUSE OF MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE (1984), but earlier projects were TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) - an abortive pilot starring Anton Diffring - and seventeen episodes of JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN (1968).

British horror had largely become past tense from the mid-70s; Tigon's last official release was the Mary Millington sex film COME PLAY WITH ME (1977), and Amicus ceased production after THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT in 1979, the same year in which Hammer called in the receivers. But two former board members, Brian Lawrence and Roy Skeggs, assumed control and immediately began looking at ways to revitalise the company. Lawrence and Skeggs needed a new base of operations and leased Hampden House in Buckinghamshire - close to Hammer's spiritual home of Bray - to develop a new series for television. A former private house and exclusive Girl's School, the majestic property and surrounding areas are used ad infinitum, and most of the production, including the editing, was overseen there. Assembling their crew, the two men unsurprisingly drafted in a number of former Hammer employees, including directors Peter Sasdy, Alan Gibson and Don Sharp, visual effects man Ian Scoones, and James Bernard scored two stories.

Diana Dors and her brood in Children of the Full Moon, a long way from Oliver Reed and THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.

Funded by ITC and screened between 13th September and 6th December 1980, the 13 episodes of the HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR were refreshingly bleak affairs, mixing contemporary horror and titillation in the manner of Norman J. Warren (with Frankenstein and Dracula nowhere in sight). Hampered by meagre budgets, pedestrian scripts and flat direction, the fifty-minute stories are still surprisingly watchable, thanks to their variety of topics - devil worship, time-travelling witches, cannibalism and Nazi pet shop owners - and stars such as Hammer favourites Peter Cushing, John Carson and Robert Urquhart, together with Brian Cox, Jon Finch and Warren Clarke et al (even a young Pierce Brosnan appears as a randy jogger victim, a character so incidental that he's even denied an onscreen death).

HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR falls into that particular notion lovingly referred to as guilty pleasures. Even the worst entry, Carpathian Eagle, stars Suzanne Danielle as a psychotic seductress/writer who rips out the heart of her victims with a dagger. The best two episodes hold up as memorable slabs of TV horror: The Two Faces of Evil is a dazzling doppelganger yarn with a genuinely jolting prologue, and the delirious The Mask of Satan sees a morgue worker believing he has a disease engineered to bring Satan to Earth. The rest of the output fall somewhere in between; at least Rude Awakening attempts something different in its total abandonment of logic, with adulterous estate agent Denholm Elliott persistently accused of murdering his wife; and VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971) helmer Robert Young brings some much-needed stylish flourishes to the voodoo-themed Charlie Boy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hammer Monster Mash

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955)
THE GORGON (1964)

"All Earth Stands Helpless!" Aware that the Quatermass name held no weight in the United States, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT was retitled SHOCK! then THE CREEPING UNKNOWN, and cut by United Artists. The movie was released with THE BLACK SLEEP, which featured Basil Rathbone as a mad scientist opening the brains of his victims to discover a means to cure his wife's tumour. It was alleged that this double-bill literally scared a nine-year-old boy to death, who died of a ruptured artery during a showing in Illinois.

HAMMER were always happy to capitalise on established hits; having previously drawn on radio (Dick Barton (1946 - 51), PC49 (1947 - 53)), the studio looked towards television with a truncated version of Nigel Kneale's celebrated six-part THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (1953). While most British production houses regarded the X certificate as a kiss of death for the box office, Hammer hoped that the subtle title change to Xperiment would be a marketing ploy to help the financially stricken company. Thankfully the film was a hit; without THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, it would be doubtful that Hammer would have survived to create the Gothic horror renaissance that is so entrenched in our cinematic heritage.

The film begins with experimental rocket ship Quatermass 1 crash landing at Oakley Green. This opening - where the phallus-like rocket ship plunges into the ground breaking the monotony of two coy lovers - is a fitting allegory for the arrival of Hammer horror. In this instant, the domesticity of the British feature film makes way for a new order of directness. Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) - the British rocket group scientist responsible for launching the craft without official sanction - discovers that two of the three crew members have disappeared. The sole survivor - Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) - is suffering from alarmingly low blood pressure, pulse and heart rate. As Carroon's condition worsens, the astronaut plunges his fist into a cactus, starting a consumption by an alien organism which mimics the plant form. Quatermass tracks the mutated creature to Westminster Abbey, and before its spores can spread, is electrocuted.

Richard Wordsworth's alien-infected Carroon in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT is an unwilling martyr to Professor Quatermass' abrasive scientific crusade. The actor would later bring similar sympathetic tendencies to the role of the feral beggar in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.

In keeping with a long-established pattern, a Hollywood star was contracted for the benefit of stateside distribution. Fading heavy (and alcoholic) Donlevy was selected much to Kneale's horror (Donlevy's alcoholism reducing the actor to read off cue cards) and in 1995 the writer was still vociferous of the actor's portrayal of the scientist: "I may have picked Quatermass' surname out of a phone book but his first name was carefully chosen: Bernard, after Bernard Lovell, the creator of Jodrell Bank. Pioneer, ultimate questing man. Donlevy played him as a mechanic, a creature with a completely closed mind. He could make nothing of any imaginative lines, and simply barked and bawled his way through the plot. A bully whose emotional range ran from annoyance to fury." Donlevy's Quatermass is indeed pointed and bullish, refusing to waste time even when considering Carroon's increasingly catatonic suffering ("There's no room for personal feelings in science ... some of us have a mission").

As well as the wayward Donlevy, American Margia Dean plays Carroon's wife Judith. Suffering from a case of indifferent post-synching, Dean was imposed upon director Val Guest because she was reportedly the girlfriend of American co-producer Robert Lippert. Thankfully the British cast feature more strongly: David King-Wood as Dr Briscoe, Harold Lang as private eye Christie and Thora Hird as Rose the baglady are uniformly excellent, with Jack Warner's Police Inspector Lomax shadowing his trademark role in DIXON OF DOCK GREEN (1955 - 76). Wordsworth's heart-rending performance, however, is the highlight; communicating an unbearable loneliness through mime, the success of the actor's illustration of a once intelligent man consumed by forces beyond his control was key to Hammer when contemplating their re-imagining in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). Discovering body horror years before David Cronenberg, Wordworth's poignancy matches Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, particularly in the scene with a little girl (Jane Asher), which mirrors Karloff's lakeside encounter with Maria (Marilyn Harris). Interestingly, it is in this sequence that we glimpse Carroon in human form for the last time, as if the innocence of the child evokes the astronaut's last note of sympathy.

The girl who befriends Carroon in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT is played by Jane Asher, who seventeen years later would star in Nigel Kneale's THE STONE TAPE.

Many characters and sub-plots are inevitably missing when compressing the television serial to feature length - for example, the intriguing notion that the alien ether had made Carroon absorb the other two astronaut's minds - but such trimming makes THE QUATERMAS XPERIMENT a fast-paced thriller which is made even more immediate by Guest's gritty, semi-documentary style. Perhaps one constriction too many was the change made to the Westminster Abbey conclusion; instead of the explosive climax in the film, on television Quatermass appeals to the human consciousness within the alien, which wills itself to death. Totally lost upon the feature is the teleplay's framing of this climax within a fictionalised live BBC broadcast - which must have raised a few eyebrows of those tuning in late - but although THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT loses this particular faux realite, Guest's feature does incorporate one of the earliest examples of found footage in cinema history: a silent video feed shows the bombardment of Q1 by the cosmic rays which cause Carroon's transformation.

While the changes to the teleplay are in the interests of producing a box office success, the cuts made by United Artists for the Americanised THE CREEPING UNKNOWN release are, in fact, insulting. Nearly three minutes of footage is removed - mostly cheapening the London Zoo sequence - but the devil is in the detail: Donlevy and Dean receive above the title billing opposed to Donlevy and Warner in the British version, and the titles also downplay the importance of Kneale's play. Furthermore, American prints eliminate acknowledgments to the BBC, The Air Ministry, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co, The British Interplanetary Society, The Post London Authority and General Radiological Ltd, as well as replacing the closing "A Hammer Production, produced at Bray Studios" with a simple "The End."

Having exhausted the gallery of classic movie monsters, Hammer turned to mythology for inspiration, resulting in THE GORGON being one of the studio's most poetic and haunted achievements.

When THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was unleashed, it set in motion an initial burst of robust Hammer Horrors that focused on dominating male characters and situations. THE GORGON, however, made seven years later, started a trend towards predatory yet well-spoken female parts that fundamentally weakened narrative. Hammer's later move from Bray to Elstree was detrimental enough, but this gender shift resulted in a hit-and-miss series of films which portrayed murderous but sexualised lead woman: for every measured entry like FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1966) and HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971), there was a debacle such as THE WITCHES (1966) and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1970).

The last Hammer film to combine the talents of stars Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and director Terence Fisher, THE GORGON is overwhelmingly fatalistic.  Set in 1910, the film focuses on the village of Vandoft, which has been suffering a series of mysterious deaths for five years. However, the local doctor Namaroff (Cushing) has been concealing that the victims were all turned to stone, and suspects that the derelict Castle Borski is housing Megaera, the last of the legendary Gorgons. When an artist's model and her unborn child are turned to stone, her boyfriend Bruno (Jeremy Longhurst) hangs himself, which results in the boy's grieving father Professor Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), his second son Paul (Richard Pasco) and Paul's mentor Professor Meister (Lee) investigating.

Barbara Shelley in THE GORGON. Ballet dancer Prudence Hyman played Shelley's monstrous alter ego with the infamous stiff snake-hair.

Ambiguities add to this dream-like storyline. Hammer may have looked to mythology for new monsters, but the Greek Megaera was not even a Gorgon, rather a deity who causes jealousy. It is unclear why The Gorgon only appears during the full moon, as is the question of why - after thousands of years - the spirit has possessed a human, Namaroff's assistant Carla (Barbara Shelley). Although her back story is never elaborated on, Carla was an amnesia victim who came to Vandorf for treatment, the doctor exhibiting both concern and deeper feelings for his patient. Shelley brings her usual grace and strength to the role, but the inversion of Cushing and Lee's usual screen persona's creates mixed results. Cushing plays the stern, humourless authority role that Lee would normally be presented with, Namaroff a tormented variation of Cushing's Frankenstein as he struggles with guilt and unrequited love. Lee, however, seems uneasily cast - in an unflattering greying facade - as this particular Van Helsing substitute.

The doctor's observation "the most noble work of God, the human brain, is the most revolting to the human eye," underlines Fisher's unrelentingly grim approach. With only some humorous asides from Meister to relieve the gloom ("Don't use long words, Inspector; they don't suit you"), the director's emphasis on the pain of romance has great depth, with the central love triangle being the most poignant to be found in Fisher's oeuvre. Despite THE GORGON being considered a second-tier release by Hammer historians, It is an intimate picture which uses its careful pace as a necessity of its mood. Indeed, there are scenes here that rank with the best of Fisher: Heitz's call to the Castle Borski, for example, and the sequence where the doomed father attempts to pen a letter to Paul during his gradual petrification.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gimme Moore

Unearthing (2010)

Alan Moore has long maintained that art and magic are one and the same, and since the mid 1990s his works have included complex occult and baroque yearnings. Moore has said of Steve Moore (no relation) that "It was his model I was following when I became a comics writer, and it was his model I was following when I decided to get into magic, so in many ways, he is singularly responsible for having ruined my life."

WRITTEN and narrated by Alan Moore, Unearthing is an audiobiographical tale of longtime friend and mentor, Steve Moore, an influential figure in the emerging British comics scene of the 1970s. Despite Steve guiding his more illustrious namesake through the joys of comic book scriptwriting, he has been consumed by the Northampton Magus' ever-increasing shadow. Yet Steve Moore has had a fascinating rise to obscuredom: he was a co-editor of the Fortean Times in its days as The News, and latterly was responsible for that magazine's more academic sister publication Fortean Studies (as well as acting as FT's indexer). He was also a key instigator of SF fandom in this country before writing for 2000 A.D., Warrior and Marvel UK, which included co-creating cult anti-hero 'Abslom Daak, Dalek Killer' for Doctor Who Weekly. Transforming an interest in Chinese mysticism that led to a fellowship of the Royal Asiatic Society, Steve Moore has also enjoyed many - shall we say - metaphysical adventures.

Layered by musicians Crook and Flail and assorted members of Faith No More, Mogwai and Godflesh, this hypnotic two hour reading - originally an essay from the Iain Sinclair-edited anthology London: City of Disappearances (2006) - is crammed with phantasmagorical diversions. The most arresting is when Steve summons an incarnation of Selene, the Greek Moon Goddess, for Alan to witness ("...he asks if I'm ready to begin and like a twat I say yes.") Steve has been secretly living with this entity as his invisible companion for some time, and after suitable chanting the Moore's see her, straddling Steve's lap. "I suppose technically, we were both hallucinating," Alan told The Guardian's Steve Rose, "but the fact that we were both seeing the same hallucination behaving in the same way makes it perhaps a different category of hallucination. This is not making any outrageous claims. This is how it seemed to us. We may be deluded but we are honest."

Selene by Mitch Jenkins, which illustrates a portion of Unearthing's box set. The Greek Goddess of the Full Moon, Selene is the daughter of Hyperion and Theia, and one of the deities of light during the dynasty of the Titans. By Zeus, she is the mother of Pandia and Ersa; by Endymion, she is the mother of fifty daughters, who represent the fifty lunar months that elapse between each Olympiad.

As Mark Pilkington states in Fortean Times #272 (March 2011), "This is not Steve Moore the rock opera," but rather in Alan's words "...after all those years of working within the comics industry and quietly going mad, this is what erupts." Packaged in a box set of sumptuous 1970s-tinged photography by Mitch Jenkins from Lex Records, Unearthing oscillates between Steve's story and the history of his lifelong home of Shooter's Hill (“where Kent begins and London... disappears.”) Millions of years ago, a chalk fault on the north side of the hill collapsed, and formed the Thames Valley; without which there would be no river Thames and no London. Alan Moore has always been keen to link people and landscapes because, he argues, we all need a sense of mythology. Having a bedrock of story gives our lives coherency; the most important factors about any place or person is what they have been

The work also acts as a rich document of an almost life-long friendship. Alan praises Steve's radical and progressive mindset - as well as telling of unrequited and lost love - with his infectious, flowing drone, describing his subject with delightful detail ("fine wrinkles spreading from the corners of his eyes, curved up around the brow, curved down around the cheekbones, face like a magnetic field.”) When the reader is engaged with any text, they are creating a rhythm in their minds, something Alan Moore has always tried to achieve in his comic books and magic. When Unearthing was performed live in railway tunnels beneath Waterloo Station, you can understand the writer describing this catacombic event as "coming home," literally, the sound of the underground as he journeys toward the “final panel.”