Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hammer Rides Out


"The Goat of Mendes! The Devil Himself!" Eddie Powell dons the monster suit for Hammer's  THE DEVIL RIDES OUT.

TERENCE Fisher's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT is based on Dennis Wheatley's pot-boiling 1934 novel, and benefits from a Richard Matheson script which surgically cuts the fat from the author's most famous - but sprawling - work. It is also the most sumptuous-looking Hammer film produced by the studio after their move from Bray to Elstree. Set in 1920s London, Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) and Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene, dubbed by Patrick Allen) decide to pay a visit to Simon (Patrick Mower), the son of a late comrade. The duo find him hosting a gathering of The Left Hand Path, and under the influence of satanic priest Mocata (Charles Gray), Simon escapes. Consequently, our heroes must seek out the mysterious Tanith (Nike Arrighi) - the daughter of a French countess - who is destined to join their friend at a satanic ritual. When de Richleau and Van Ryn rescue the seemingly doomed pair, Mocata sends his supernatural forces to obtain those promised to him.

Aleister Crowley served as technical adviser to Wheatley's book, and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT illustrates a series of genuine arcana. Ceremonial details, allegiances to nineteenth century magician Eliphas Levi and dialogue (the Susamma ritual is not Matheson but the actual incantation) are all Crowleyesque in tone. A penny-dreadful villain in the novel, Gray's Mocata is the living incarnation of what Fisher often described as "the charm of evil." His central battle of wills with Lee are perfectly played, and the casting of Arrighi is also noteworthy, as her quirky beauty is suited to a role for a woman seeking spiritual awakening. But even with these strengths, the film was not the box office success Hammer had hoped, and packs less dread today when viewed outside of the cycle of satanic movies that would sweep through cinema until the mid-1970s. Particularly detrimental are the special effects, and the orgy that presages The Goat of Mendes is too tame to seem even remotely diabolical.

Christopher Lee and Nastassja Kinski in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. A tour de force for Lee, even Astaroth's effigy - a crucified bat in the source novel but a spread-legged hermaphrodite mounted on an inverted black cross in the film - befits Dracula.

Crowley's mandate to bring the Devil's offspring to Earth was channelled into his 1929 work Moonchild. This inspired a 1953 Wheatley novel that acts as the springboard for TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, the last Classic Era Hammer Horror. The film tells of excommunicated Father Michael Rainer (Lee), who is head of a cult which rears innocent minors in a closed Catholic convent to serve Astaroth. One of his charges - Catherine Beddows (Nastassja Kinski) - has been chosen as the Devil's representative when she comes of age. Catherine's haunted father Henry (Denholm Elliott) enlists occult author John Verney (Richard Widmark) - an obvious Wheatley alter ego - as the girl's temporary guardian, and with the aid of his agent Anna (Honor Blackman) and her gallery-owner boyfriend David (Anthony Valentine), aim to halt Rainer's plans.

Directed by Peter Sykes, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was afforded the largest budget for any Classic Era Hammer film, but it was a troubled production. Widmark allegedly punched an electrician on set and considered the subject matter distasteful and beneath him; Christopher Wicking's typically anarchic script was constantly being rewritten by THE DUELLISTS scribe Gerald Vaughn-Hughes; and stuntman Eddie Powell suffered burns when set on fire for David's church-bound demise. There was also controversy surrounding Kinski, the scandalous teenage lover of Roman Polanski at the time; her naked cavorting in the final scenes - as the actress was born in 1961 - made them highly illegal. Even the money shot - when Catherine presses the bloodied demon child into her womb - exists only to adhere to EXORCIST-style shock tactics. Equally disappointing is the notoriously flat ending: in the original rough cut, an alternate conclusion saw Catherine return to the Bavarian convent to perpetuate the evil of Father Michael, but all we get is Verney halting the wave of evil by throwing a rock at Rainer's head.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Science Shock and Shadow Lock

SATURN 3 (1980)

Janet Munro sizzles in THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE. Daughter of Scottish stage and variety hall comedian Alex Munro, the actress outgrew her Walt Disney beginnings by moving onto spicier roles. An acute alcoholic, Janet died in 1972 - aged 38 - under mysterious circumstances. Reports circulated that she choked to death at a London hotel while drinking tea.

PRODUCED, directed and co-written by Val Guest, THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is successful both as a thought-provoking science fiction film and a prescient piece of entertainment. Daily Express reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) is assigned by science editor Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) to investigate inexplicable weather conditions occurring around the globe. Stenning learns that the United States and Russia have simultaneously detonated atomic bombs at opposite poles, altering the tilt of the Earth's axis. However, authorities have withheld the fact that the explosions have caused the Earth to be knocked out of its orbit and on a collision course with the Sun. As world nations descend into chaos and hysteria, only one desperate course of action can save mankind: further nuclear explosions to restore the planet's equilibrium.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is a compelling example of the morbid brand of science fiction typified by British studios. Our insular, island mentality, together with loss of empire and decreasing national identity, ultimately creates strands that are inherently sceptical of progress. Released less than a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film still resonates not only because the dystopian scenes of a fog-bound then sweltering London are so haunting (with water rationing and public showers), it also plays out within an authentic environment: dialogue is polished and snappy, the love between Stenning and Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) is sincere, and most of the scenes are set within the actual Daily Express offices in Fleet Street. Adding to this authenticity is that the newspaper's general editor Arthur Christiansen plays the same role on screen as well as being technical advisor on the production.

"No human being could survive a time transition of that kind. Not without fearful consequences!" Science predictably goes astray in THE PROJECTED MAN.

Ian Curteis' THE PROJECTED MAN is a lesser slice of British sci-fi because it follows American-style sensationalism and chauvinism. Professor Steiner (Bryant Haliday) and his research team of Chris Mitchell (Ronald Allen) and Dr Patricia Hill (Mary Peach) are working to invent a teleporting "Projecting Machine." Against a backdrop of corporate obstinacy and sabotage, Steiner experiments on himself to save his research, but is repaid for his actions by disfigurement and a touch that can kill with 500,000 volts. THE PROJECTED MAN originated from a Hollywood script by Frank Quattrocchi in the late 1950s, before finally surfacing as this joint Protelco/Compton production. Consequently it has the heart of an old-fashioned mad scientist movie, but Haliday makes Steiner an appealing driven character. The supporting cast fare less well, especially nominal hero Allen, who sleepwalks through his role in preparation for his similarity comatose seventeen year stint as David Hunter in CROSSROADS.

Made by ITC and Transcontinental, Stanley Donen's SATURN 3 is an uneasy fusion of Frankenstein and DEMON SEED, and again questions the validity of a world that can become increasingly manipulated by science. A triumph of production design over content, the movie begins with psychotic Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel, dubbed by Roy Dotrice) travelling to an experimental food research station during a twenty-two day eclipse and communications black-out called 'Shadow Lock'. Benson provides "assistance" to two scientists working to alleviate a famine on our overpopulated and polluted Earth; Major Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his younger romantic partner Alex (Farrah Fawcett) are wary of their visitor, especially when he reveals the form of help he has bought to speed up their research: a colossal, Demi-God class humanoid robot named Hector, who can pattern his personality on the direct input he receives from human beings. Repeatedly denied sexual contact by Alex, the Captain becomes more demanding, with this tendency cascading into Hector.

Farrah Fawcett in a promotional pose for the much-maligned sci-fi thriller SATURN 3. This black leather ensemble appeared in the 'blue dreamers' fantasy sequence deleted from most versions of the film.

SATURN 3 can never elevate itself above its randy robot plot - "Trapped between unnatural love and inhuman desire" - even though it re-purposes the story of Adam and Eve. The Captain is the serpent in this technological upgrade, as he attempts to infiltrate Adam and Alex's blissful relationship ("you have a great body, may I use it?"), and tells the pair that when Hector is finished one of them will be "obsolete". Douglas delivers a gutsy portrayal of a man past his prime, particularly evident when his naked arse is on display in a tussle with the Captain; Keitel looks surprised that he has somehow found himself in a B-grade science fiction opus; and message boards have queried if Fawcett's vacant facade means that she is actually a robot sex slave. Alex's "plaything" scenes with Adam make for an uncomfortable watch, and even though her character has an admittedly sketchy background, such BLADE RUNNEResque gravitas is unlikely.