Friday, December 1, 2017

Short-Lived Revival

A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - A VIEW FROM A HILL (2005)
A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS - NUMBER 13 (2006)

Mark Letheren is haunted by unearthly vistas in A VIEW FROM A HILL.

THE BBC GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS strand from the 1970s returned with these two entries. Both add a layer of weird science to their ghostly goings-on, as the laws of physics are played with fancifully. A VIEW FROM A HILL - adapted from M. R. James by Peter Harness and directed by Luke Watson - sees young Fitzwilliam Museum curator Dr Fanshawe (Mark Letheren) discovering some homemade binoculars while cataloguing the archaeological collection of the late father of debt-laden Squire Richards (Pip Torrens). The field glasses - created by deceased local watchmaker and amateur necromancer Baxter (Simon Linnell) - give Fanshawe visions of Fulnaker Abbey in all its splendour and a gibbet on Gallows Hill, in reality locations now dissolved. It transpires that Baxter's "very peculiar ... 'abits" of boiling the bones of condemned men resulted in a noxious fluid, some of which has remained sealed inside the binoculars. 

Never previously adapted on film or television, A View from a Hill was first published in the May 1925 edition of the London Mercury, and in the same year formed part of the A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories anthology. Harness and Watson successfully evoke the washed-out landscapes and corner-of-the-eye creepiness of the best 70s output and it is also beautifully played; moving James' Edwardian setting to the post-WWII decline of country estates, social status is reflected as weary condemnation. When Fanshawe makes clear to Richards that he is an archaeologist and a doctor, the Squire caustically responds "have to get you to take a look at my feet."

Greg Wise is more Indiana Jones than M.R. James in NUMBER 13.

NUMBER 13 - adapted from James by Justin Hopper and directed by Pier Wilkie - had been brought to the screen on two, presumed lost, occasions: as part of NBC's GREAT GHOST TALES of 1961, and as a second season episode of MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION in 1966. Originally appearing in the 1904 Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, the location of the story is moved from Viborg, Denmark, to Winchester Cathedral, where Oxford academic Professor Anderson (Greg Wise) is sucked into a spatial-distorting hotel room occupied by a sixteenth-century diabolist. It seems somewhat out of place that Anderson is a handsome adventurer, and the Phantom's hand is black-gloved like a Dario Argento serial killer. NUMBER 13's other frissons are similarly abstract: the English hotelier using the centre panel of Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, and a mention for Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

National Parklife

XMOOR (2014)

"The Beast is waiting on the dark side of the moor." 
Melia Kreiling makes for an appealing final girl in XMOOR.

WRITTEN and directed by Luke Hyams, XMOOR was described as "the best British horror in years" by the Sunday Sport. American students Georgia (Melia Kreiling) and boyfriend Matt (Nick Blood) travel to North Devon and West Somerset to capture footage of legendary Panther The Exmoor Beast - and a £25,000 prize. Joined by animal tracker and sub-machine gun owning Fox (Mark Bonnar), it transpires that Fox is actually searching for a serial killer, who has methodically dumped dead prostitutes in a section of the terrain. With surveillance set, the trio are hunted by The Beast (James Lecky), who leaves his daughter (Jemma O'Brien) in his land rover while going about his fiendish business. Although the viewer is spared from handheld footage, the final act is unnecessarily convoluted, cheapening the character arc of Georgia who is the film's only asset. Actually filmed in Northern Ireland, XMOOR is a generic movie with a final reveal that copies THE BIGFOOT TAPES, a film that also leads the audience to human depravity rather than what they tuned in for.

The Beast of Exmoor National Park has been sighted since the 1970's, although it became notorious in 1983 when a South Molton farmer claimed to have lost over 100 sheep in the space of three months. In response to increased reports of livestock death and sightings, the Ministry of Agriculture ordered the Royal Marines to send snipers into the hills; when the Marines were recalled, attacks allegedly increased. The Ministry continued to study the reports into the mid 1990's, before concluding that The Beast was either a hoax or that the reports had been mistaken identifications of creatures native to the Exmoor area. In January 2009 a carcass of an animal that has washed up on a beach in North Devon left many locals speculating that it was the body of the infamous Beast, but was later revealed to be a decomposed grey seal.

Graham J. McEwan's Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland (1986) is a good starting point for big cats, black dogs and freaks of nature.

Sightings of Alien Big Cats (ABC's) in the British landscape often occur in clusters - affectionately referred to as cat flaps - and are certainly nothing new. The 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act - legislation which possibly lead to the release of privately owned wild cats - is a theory which was developed by the West Country's other favourite ABC, The Beast of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. This is a feline than can be traced to animal trainer Mary Chipperfield allegedly releasing three Pumas into the wild following the closure of her Plymouth Zoo in 1978; and in 1994, an official Government conference was organised by then MP for North Cornwall Paul Tyler, who claims to have seen a Puma within 100 yards of his home at Rilla Mill.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Echoes from Beyond

BBC2 PLAYHOUSE - THE BREAKTHROUGH (1975)
BBC2 PLAYHOUSE - MRS ACLAND'S GHOSTS (1975)
BBC2 PLAYHOUSE THE MIND BEYOND (1976)

Irene Shubik's Play for Today: The Evolution of Television Drama is an account of her career that has become the standard reference work on the subject. Shubik had devised ABC's OUT OF THIS WORLD before moving to the BBC, where her influence on the development of the single play encompassed OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, THE WEDNESDAY PLAY/PLAY FOR TODAY, WESSEX TALES and PLAYHOUSE.

DAPHNE Du Maurier's THE BREAKTHROUGH tells of Saunders (Simon Ward), sent to a remote government lab to help prove a theoretical energy. The experiment involves a subject close to death, as well as in a computer-induced hypnotic trance and telepathic communication. The person is a mentally deficient but psychically gifted child - possibly affected by the death of her twin - who can report the dying sensations posthumously. Lacking any clear resolution and suffering from limiting studio sets and stifled performances, there is too much speculation to enable the drama to breath, even in its Suffolk exteriors. THE BREAKTHROUGH reminds of THE ASPHYX, which also documents spirits and near-death experiences before similarly descending into absurdity, but far more melancholic is William Trevor's MRS ACLAND'S GHOSTS, where tailor Mr Mockler (John Bluthal) receives a letter from stranger Mrs Acland (Sara Kestelman). The woman tells him of how the three ghosts of her childhood siblings have continued to make appearances to her; Mockler discovers that Mrs Acland is now in a mental institution - having been placed there by her husband - and was in fact an only child.

After these try-outs, BBC2 PLAYHOUSE mutated into THE MIND BEYOND. In the first three tales Meriel the Ghost Girl explores the contradictory nature of psychic experiences, opening with George Livingston (Donald Pleasence) witnessing a convincing séance, only for the authenticity to be questioned in a film noir pastiche and re-evaluated by young reporter Robina Oliver (Janet Street-Porter, of all people); Double Echo sees autistic teenager Alison Fisher (Geraldine Cowper) treated by Harley Street Dr Mallam (Jeremy Kemp), only for the pair to develop a telekinetic bond that can see into the future; and in The Love of a Good Woman, after the death of his first wife, Henry Ridout (William Lucas) remarries and builds a new life in a harbour town. But his dead wife' s restless spirit communicates with him through his young daughter.

Penguin released The Mind Beyond to accompany the series, which was edited by Shubik. All the writers provided prose versions of their teleplays, with the exception of Stones, which was adapted by the producer herself.

The second half of the series starts with The Daedalus Equations, where mathematical variables from a dead scientist are channelled into money-grabbing psychic fraud Eileen Gray (Megs Jenkins), yet the equations continue; Stones details the plans of a Stonehenge relocation to Hyde Park to boost tourist revenues, with academic Nicholas Reeve (Richard Pasco) realising that the disappearance of three children is linked to their fathers ownership of the last-known copies of Stonehenge Defended; and The Man with the Power is a second coming of a (black) Christ story, where Boysie (Willie Jonah) embarks on a divine quest, leaving his girlfriend, home and job.

The opening titles of THE MIND BEYOND usher the viewer into a world of haunted faces and electrical impulses, a twilight domain away from rational human senses. The eight PLAYHOUSE's under consideration here typify the giddy pseudoscientific and paranormal so prevalent in 70's BBC drama, but the centre staging of mentally-disturbed characters - and Livington's questionable interest in the naked Meriel the Ghost Girl - clash with the more conventional yarns of mysteries better left alone; and in The Man with the Power, religious allegory seems a leap too far. But the productions are a goldmine for familiar faces: Anna Massey is the brittle wife of Henry Ridout, Linda Hayden's sister Jane admits to being Meriel, and Michael Bryant and Peter Sallis appear in The Daedalus Equations as earnest professor and lurking intelligence man respectively.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Plays for Yesterday

PLAY OF THE MONTH - THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1976)
PLAY FOR TODAY - A PHOTOGRAPH (1977)
PLAY FOR TODAY - RED SHIFT (1978)

Peter Firth and Judi Bowker toil within the Victorian façade of
PLAY OF THE MONTH - THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.

THE only novel written by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray explores the Aesthetic Art movement as drama; that is, art over intellectualism. While observing Basil Hallward (Jeremy Brett) painting a portrait of Dorian Gray (Peter Firth), Lord Henry Wotton (John Gielgud) preaches his world view of beauty being the only aspect of life worth pursuing. This prompts Dorian to wish that his canvas would age instead of himself, and he consequently explores his sensuality, starting with a courtship of actress Sibyl Vane (Judi Bowker). But after a poor performance Dorian rejects Sibyl as the acting profession was her beauty; and on returning home, Gray notices that his painting has started to deteriorate. After receiving news that Sibyl has committed suicide, Dorian begins to exploit his looks for a debauched life. In anger, Dorian blames his fate on Basil, and stabs him to death. Deciding that only full confession will absolve him, Dorian destroys the last vestige of his conscience; stabbing the picture, Gray recoils bloodied on the floor, aging rapidly while the painting regains its original form.

A critical success and labelled the "most Wildean," this feature-length BBC DRAMA OF THE MONTH - written by playwright John Osborne - also includes definitive portrayals of the hedonistic Gray, aristocratic dandy Wotton, and infatuated artist Hallward. Lord Henry seduces Dorian through a poisonous wit that aims to shock; though naïve, Wotton's radical theories send Dorian in a tailspin, Gray's early insecurities making him the perfect clay for the Lord's willing hands. This version also accentuates the gay subtext more than most, especially in the relationship between Dorian and Alan (Nicholas Clay), when the latter is asked to draw on his chemical experience to dispose of Basil's body. Such homoerotica plays a large role structurally: Basil’s painting depends upon his adoration of Dorian; similarly, Lord Henry is overcome with the desire to seduce Gray and mould him in his own image. As a homosexual living in an intolerant society, Wilde asserted this philosophy partially in an attempt to justify his own lifestyle. For although beauty and youth remain of utmost importance at the end, the price one must pay for them is exceedingly high.

John Stride plays a beleaguered husband in the sinisterly subdued
PLAY FOR TODAY - A PHOTOGRAPH.

The BBC's successor to THE WEDNESDAY PLAY, PLAY FOR TODAY would be transmitted between 1970 and 1984 and become the flagship for respected anthology drama, specialising in social realism but also dabbling in everything from biopics to science fiction. John Bowen's A PHOTOGRAPH touches on the dark underbelly of rural intervention, were The Otways - upper crust Radio 3 presenter Michael (John Stride) and working class schoolteacher Gillian (Stephanie Turner) - are a dysfunctional couple living in the city where their festering resentments cover work, Gillian's mental state and an under-performing sex life. When Michael receives a strange photograph in the post depicting two girls in front of a caravan, it is only the beginning of a journey that will see Gillian and her family - including mother Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford) - control Michael's guilt ("That's country wine, that is.") Very much a companion to Bowen's other rural terror for the strand ROBIN REDBREAST - where Bamford appears as the same matriarchal manipulator - A PHOTOGRAPH pitches Gillian's spiralling depression against Michael's increasing determination to solve the puzzle.

Alan Garner's adaptation of his own semi-mystical 1973 novel for RED SHIFT in essence deals with similar themes to A PHOTOGRAPH - that of the indispensable quality of locations and relationships - but is a fragmented and ambitious exploration on a cosmic scale. At the core of RED SHIFT's narrative is the neuropsychological notion of engrams, or how the brain stores memory. This elemental and subconscious notion is theorised to affect behaviour over time and repetition, and here we see the lives of three men living in the same part of Cheshire – one in the present, one in the seventeenth century, and one during the Roman occupation – with their existences linked by common circumstance and the appearance of a talismanic stone axe head.

PLAY FOR TODAY - RED SHIFT's billing in the Radio Times asks "what links the destinies of three couples separated by time, but living in the same place? Is there a force drawing them together - or is it driving them apart?"

The present day relationship between Tom (Stephen Petcher) and Jan (Lesley Dunlop) is solidly written and played, taking in the difficulties of a long-distance relationship and the generational, blinkered sexual views of Tom's parents (Bernard Gallagher and Stella Tanner); in contrast the historical sequences suffer badly from stilted dialogue and budgetary restraints. While Tom obsesses over astrology he declares that he is too "blue" and needs a "red shift"; since cosmological red shifts result from galaxies moving away from each other, this can be read as a metaphor for his need to re-evaluate his life. But there are also many occurrences of red in the story; after a massacre, Macey (Andrew Byett)'s skin is painted red by the tribal girl using dye from alder bark, marking him a "redman" and an ancient symbol of rebirth.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Demons of the 1970's (Part II of II)

SYMPTOMS (1974)
FULL CIRCLE (1977)

"Changes in the weather always upset me ... I don't know why;" Angela Pleasence battles with her twisted psyche in SYMPTOMS.

UNLIKE his exploitative VAMPYRES, José Larraz’s SYMPTOMS is a slow-burning triumph, a film that was unexpectedly chosen as an official British entry at Cannes. Neurotic waif Helen Ramsey (a mesmerising Angela Pleasence) has invited girlfriend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to stay at her English woodland estate. Anne is welcoming the retreat to write and evaluate the end of a romance, but Helen's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as questions are asked of the portrait of Cora - Ramsey's disappeared friend and possible lover - and the brooding presence of handyman Brady (Peter Vaughan). Helen's manifestations of Cora mirror Anne's unease in the house, under the shadow of Cora's body festering in the lake after a passionate embrace with the burly handyman.

Larraz has long favoured mansions in his pictures, and the warring of the sexes; here they are quite literally foundations for exploring the horror motif of characters yearning for lost loves. Taking several inspirations from REPULSION, the director uses a mirror and the ticking of a clock to replicate Roman Polanski's idea of lulling the viewer into a false sense of security, before delivering bludgeoning shock tactics. Vanity Celis points out in her essay which accompanies the BFI Blu-ray that Larraz' contribution to the sexual anxieties of the Gothic tradition is "a safety net found in the auxiliary subtext of lesbian love," and the production - similar to Jorge Grau's THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 WEEKS LATER and Alfronso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN - captures the English landscape more effectively than native filmmakers, creating an agitation that resonates more deeply in the outsider's eye.

Mia Farrow brings a tragic vulnerability to her role in FULL CIRCLE, part of a Seventies Anglo-Canadian co-production deal which yielded lesser pictures THE UNCANNY and DEATH SHIP.

An eerie atmosphere of love and loss is also central to Richard Loncraine's FULL CIRCLE, based on Peter Straub's 1975 novel Julia. A decade on from her subjection to Polanski's ROSEMARY'S BABY, Mia Farrow is again entangled with an unearthly child, playing a mother grieving the loss of daughter Katie (Sophie Ward) who chokes to death at breakfast. During her self-imposed isolation at an old house in Kensington, Julia is stalked by another girl ghost, who led a gang in the brutal murder of a German boy in 1938. As a "feeling of hate" infiltrates the dwelling, the murderous infant is identified as Olivia Rudge, and Julia traces Olivia's mother (Cathleen Nesbitt) to a Swansea mental institution, who admits to killing her offspring and accuses her visitor of doing the same.

In a moving final scene Julia welcomes the ghostly Olivia into her arms, the camera then pans around an armchair to reveal that Julia has a fatal neck wound. This not only brings us full circle from Katie's demise, but leaves the viewer wondering if Olivia has claimed another victim from her otherworldly plane, or the tortured mother has committed suicide. The willowy Farrow carries the whole burden of grief superbly, and quite rightly male players are kept to the margins (husband Magnus (Keir Dullea) is purely abandoned, and friend Mark (Tom Conti) suffers an unnecessarily sensationalised death)). The film also benefits from beautiful cinematography and a piano/synthesiser score which manages to underpin and elaborate on the unease.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Demons of the 1970's (Part I of II)

DEMONS OF THE MIND (1972)

One of Britain's last costumed Gothics, DEMONS OF THE MIND was filmed as BLOOD WILL HAVE BLOOD, exploring "dreams of sexual fear supressed through guilt."

AMID the dying embers of the 1970's British film industry, attempts to move into more psychological thrillers resulted in a number of underappreciated efforts. Dumped onto the wrong end of a double bill with TOWER OF EVIL, DEMONS OF THE MIND - directed by Peter Sykes and written by Christopher Wicking - is a Hammer production which focuses on Baron Friedrich Zorn (Robert Hardy), who fears he has passed on the "family madness" to son Emil (Shane Briant) and daughter Elizabeth (Gillian Hills). Held captive to curb their incestuous desires, Emil is at least released at night to murder women, while Elizabeth is "bled" to make her weak (making use of a vintage Scarificator from the British Museum). When discredited psychologist Falkenberg (Patrick Magee) arrives with his associate scholar Carl (Manfred Man singer Paul Jones), an experiment to rid Emil of his lust involving Inge (Virginia Wetherell) ends in another strangulation. The villagers, influenced by a deranged, self-styled Holy Man (Michael Hordern), decide that Zorn is the true demon, and stake him with a burning cross.

A mix of Hammer's Mittel Europe and fledgling psychiatry was one way the company attempted to make its product fresh, another was by infusing proceedings with new young directors and screenwriters. But DEMONS OF THE MIND is more cynical than satisfying, conveying a relentless dourness (quoting Psalm 38 "For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease, and there is no soundness in my flesh") where conventions are either twists or throwbacks: Magnee's unhinged Mesmerist and Van Helsing substitute helps no one ("Better men than I have been booted out of Vienna!"), an alleged Priest is a dangerous zealot, and the villagers revel in their own sadism.

In a role originally intended for Marianne Faithfull, Gillian Hills plays somnambulant Elizabeth Zorn. Faithfull was pulled late on due to insurance issues on her drug use.

A Poe-like story of an incestuous, murderous dynasty crumbling to dust, Zorn is driven by subconscious compulsions of his peasant bride's "virgin blood" and bare flesh (Zorn is a character undermined by Hardy's pantomime performance; to think we might have had Eric Porter, Paul Scofield, Dirk Bogarde or James Mason). Hordern is also overtly loopy, barely able to carry his over-sized wooden cross, and despite the emotional slant, DEMONS OF THE MIND actually serves up a copious amount of exploitative, early 70's gore: although optically fogged, Zorn's wife is seen to slash her wrists and throat in front of her children, but further scenes of Emil killing maiden aunt Helda (Yvonne Mitchell) with a bunch of keys and Zorn's climactic impalement are in no way shrouded.

The original pitch to Hammer by Frank Godwin - the composer-cum-independent producer who penned Strange Love for LUST FOR A VAMPIRE - was actually a werewolf picture. The studio was intrigued by Godwin's knowledge of the legend of Blutlust, and together with Wicking, formulated a treatment based on the Bavarian story of a man-wolf which was actually a psychopathic condition not understood by the medicine of the time. However, the tale was a complete fabrication, and Hammer did not warm to the werewolf elements anyway, leaving only a vague lycanthropic reference in the finished film where Zorn imagines himself stalking as an animal (to further the pseudo-werewolf angle, the muted cinematography is lensed by Arthur Grant, making his last Hammer picture in an association which started with THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF).

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Demise of The Doctor

The Trails of DOCTOR WHO (1977 - 79)

Out with Gallifrey Gothic, in with the robot dog. DOCTOR WHO - THE INVISIBLE ENEMY mixes an alien prawn with weird science and K9.

DESPITE some post-Hinchcliffe horror flourishes, the Fifteenth Season of DOCTOR WHO is diluted by disposable stories and cut-price visual effects, broadcast under the shadow of STAR WARS then bombarding British cinemas. THE INVISIBLE ENEMY attempted to deal with the psychological by infecting The Doctor (Tom Baker) with a space-borne intelligence, but by the end of the serial the Time Lord is given K9 as a "parting gift". Others included in this season were Robert Holmes' THE SUN MAKERS, which bypassed science fantasy altogether for contemporary political parody, and UNDERWORLD features another insane computer ("Simply ... another machine with megalomania!").

For the previous two seasons, the programme had finished on strong, fan-favourite six-parters: the Krynoid menace of THE SEEDS OF DOOM, and the exploits of Magnus Greel in THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG. Unfortunately THE INVASION OF TIME failed to carry on this trend. Claiming presidency of the Time Lords, The Doctor's access to the Matrix enables him to banish the Vardans; yet it is revealed that the Sontarans have used these telepathic aliens for their own means to invade Gallifrey. Written as a late replacement by producer Graham Williams and new script editor Anthony Read - and made under a cloud of potential industrial action - THE INVASION OF TIME is overtly humourous (The Doctor even plays hopscotch in the Citadel), and the arrival of the Sontarans seems like a tacked-on act of desperation. At one point the Vardans resemble tinfoil, and the Sontarans are reduced to getting lost in the TARDIS.

The arrival of the Sontarans in DOCTOR WHO - THE INVASION OF TIME seems like an afterthought. It is also surprising that their demise is at the hands of The Doctor shooting them dead with his de-mat gun.

This tonal shift with DOCTOR WHO was in contrast to the complexities of late-70’s Britain. The Silver Jubilee of 1977 had offered a week of celebratory respite from the country’s inflation, strikes and increasingly violent picket lines. But this embodiment of Olde England seemed particularly out of context against the then bitter disputes at the Grunwick processing plant; and two months later, Lewisham saw the biggest street battle between fascists and anti-fascists since Cable Street in 1936. Even the Christmas 1977 episode of THE GOODIES resulted in their ‘Earthanasia’ skit, where world leaders came to the conclusion that the planet should just be blown up. Ending with a white flash and the sound of an explosion, the show then cuts to the revolving BBC1 globe logo, which follows suit.

1978, however, saw two examples of social politics seep into BBC programming. Terry Nation launched BLAKE'S 7, an anti-STAR TREK where the galaxy is governed by The Federation. This quasi-fascist state uses drugs in the water supply to control its population, and the presence of the beautiful but coldly calculating Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) cast a long shadow over a land heading towards its first female prime minister. The year also saw the Corporation cancel THE BLACK AND WHITE MINSTREL SHOW - on air since 1958 - as Camden Council became one of the first authorities to address discrimination in employment.

Suzanne Danielle as Movellan Agella in DOCTOR WHO - DESTINY OF THE DALEKS. Danielle also played the title role in CARRY ON EMMANNUELLE, and provided a belly dance for Christopher Lee in ARABIAN ADVENTURE.

The Sixteenth Season adapted an unprecedented format in DOCTOR WHO history. Six individual stories are linked by the over-arching 'Search for the Key to Time' plot, which explored the existence of the White and Black Guardians, a perpetual good versus evil battle that holds the cosmos in balance. In THE RIBOS OPERATION, The Doctor is aided by female Time Lord Romana (Mary Tamm), which reintroduced the troublesome dynamics experienced by Caroline John's partnership with Jon Pertwee; THE PIRATE PLANET saw Douglas Adams' trademark galactic outlandishness not only covering scientific concepts (planet propulsion, flying cars et al), but inevitably showed the beginning of the end for Baker, here talking directly to camera; and THE STONES OF BLOOD jettisons an initial witchcraft premise literally into hyperspace.

Adams became Script Editor for the Seventeenth Season, as the show returned to its familiar guise. With a newly-regenerated Romana (Lalla Ward), even the Daleks look in poor condition for DESTINY OF THE DALEKS, which actually used Skaro sound effects from their initial 1963 appearance. Terry Nation is at his most formulaic for a serial where the titular foes are searching for Davros to aid them in a stalemate with the android Movellans (this seems like a metaphor for the programme reaching out for ideas itself). The most controversial aspect however is that the Daleks, on several occasions, are referred to as robots, perhaps referencing Nation - or Adams' - idea of Dalek evolution from organic mutant to pure automaton. At least it seems more logical that the Daleks and Movellans have entered into a strategic draw because they are both robots, but Nation clouds the mystery further by suggesting that the races' battle computers have led to the situation.

Lalla Ward and Tom Baker enjoy Paris in the series' first overseas shoot for DOCTOR WHO - CITY OF DEATH. With ITV off-air, the serial attracted the highest viewing figures for the show at 16.1m.

However, before the season again descends into pantomime, CITY OF DEATH stands out at an almost cinematic level. Set mainly in 1979 Paris, Scaroth (Julian Glover) attempts to finance experiments in time travel in the hope of averting the accident that marooned him on Earth four hundred million years previously, an act which consequently began the existence of life on the planet. Aided by elegant miniature effects and excellent performances, Glover unsurprisingly brings dignity and gravitas as the last of the Jagaroths, despite his infamous oversized spaghetti/cyclops headpiece. Even the comedic turn of John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as art gallery visitors adds rather than detracts from the fun.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Brains and Brawn

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958)
THE FROZEN DEAD (1966)
IT! (1967)

"We're facing a new form of life that nobody understands;" Austrian Herta Padawer - billed as Kim Parker - grapples with a FIEND WITHOUT A FACE.

EVEN though Arthur Crabtree's FIEND WITHOUT A FACE was shot in England by Amalgamated Productions, its Canadian setting, use of US Air Force stock footage, and casting of expatriate American and Canadian actors - even the British players are dubbed - make it seem like your typical Stateside fifties monster movie. At an American experimental station in Winthrop, Manitoba, Operation Dewdrop is being developed to increase awareness of nuclear attacks from Siberia. Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson) is brought in to investigate a number of unexplained civilian deaths, where victims have punctures at the base of the head and that the brain and spinal cord have been "sucked out like an egg through those two holes." Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves) has been draining the base's reactor to create living mental beings, but when the power is boosted, they change from their invisible form to disembodied brains with spinal cord tails and "feelers."

To add to the non-British flavour, the celebrated stop-motion monsters were created (and filmed) by K. L. Ruppel and Florenz von Nordhoff in Munich. The "battle with the brains" climax has since been replicated in everything from ISLAND OF TERROR to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; the celebrated finale is also an early example of movie gore where - in black-and-white photography - Ruppel's liberal spreading of raspberry jam from a saucepan made an excellent substitute for blood. This siege is repulsively reinforced by Peter Davies and Terence Poulton's sound effects, as the bullet-ridden organs splutter puddles of the red stuff ("at least they're mortal"). Because of this sequence, FIEND WITHOUT A FACE was heavily censored in England, banned completely in the Republic of Ireland, but only slightly cut by the MPAA when MGM released the picture in America.

"To revive a body ... I've done that. But to revive a brain ..." Bathed in eerie blue, the head of Kathleen Breck is the star of THE FROZEN DEAD.

Based on Amelia Reynolds Long's The Thought Monster - a short story published in Weird Tales brokered to the producers by her agent, Forrest J. Ackerman - FIEND WITHOUT A FACE is typical in its Cold War paranoia of science going haywire in an isolated region, but was one of the first science fiction films to address the issue of nuclear energy rather than nuclear weapons. Dubbed "tepidly macabre" by Monthly Film Bulletin and "primitive" by Daily Variety, it is indeed conventionally structured, but despite its naïve final solution, modest budget and obligatory tight-fitting female sweater, when the creatures eventually materialise they seem to enjoy invading in numbers, providing more zest than the human cast.

THE FROZEN DEAD and IT! are two horrors from Gold Star, high on insanity but low on flair. Shot back-to-back at Merton Park Studios, both pictures were written, produced and directed by Herbert J. Leder, a film professor at Jersey City State College whose major claim to fame was providing the screenplay for FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. THE FROZEN DEAD sees renegade Nazi scientist Dr Norberg (Dana Andrews) struggle to resurrect cryogenically suspended SS officers, much to the chagrin of his superiors. When his niece Jean (Anna Palk) and friend Elsa (Kathleen Breck) arrive and Elsa is decapitated, her sentient severed head pleads to be put out of its misery ("bury me, bury me"). Taking its cue from cult classic THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE, Elsa develops telepathy to warn of the sinister plans - as well as control a row of severed arms - and the ramshackle zombies are led by Norberg's brother (a role which provides an early credit for Edward Fox). Playing more like a sixties slab of American exploitation, its one-note sombre atmosphere is only occasionally lightened by outrageous German accents.

Roddy McDowall contemplates the "Mid-European primitive" Golem of IT!, played by Alan Seller. In his 2009 book Trashfiend, Scott Stine describes the monster as "a sculpture of Zippy the Pinhead moulded from half melted candle wax."

Much more playful but also suffering from an unnecessary bloated running time, IT! is the only British horror film to portray the legend of the Golem of Prague. Arthur Pimm (Roddy McDowall), a deranged young museum assistant revives the stone monster and looks after the mummified corpse of his mother by bringing her prized jewels. Annoyed at being passed upon becoming the museum curator, and his one-sided infatuation with Ellen Grove (Jill Haworth) - daughter of the first deceased custodian - Pimm orders the statue to wreak vengeance on his enemies, and makes the Golem "destroy" Hammersmith Bridge in an attempt to impress his love. This destruction, and the nuclear warhead finale, strips IT! back to its meagre budget; McDowall also hams up his supposed tortured role as the monster ultimately shirks into the ocean. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Hiding Behind the Sofa

DOCTOR WHO: THE FRIGHTEN FACTOR (2009)

The 1975 DOCTOR WHO adventure TERROR OF THE ZYGONS not only featured a most effective titular scary monster, but also illustrated themes of body snatching and manipulation of authority figures.

SINCE its return in 2005, DOCTOR WHO has continued to unsettle children with tales of gas-mask zombies and Weeping Angels. These injections of the uncanny into familiar, home-grown surroundings mirror the classic era of Autons on Ealing High Street and Daleks emerging from the Thames. But by possessing an "edited highlights" style and a computer-heavy sheen that distances and detracts, the reboot has lost the gravitas of horrors steeped in the Gothic tradition, which made the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era so memorable. Consequently, the new show struggles for emotional depth, as characters and companions drown under the weight of one thing after another, thus diminishing the "frighten factor" considerably.

Fear is the most effective way to grab our attention. Some of the most successful Public Information Films draw on arresting images to hammer home their points (1973's "I Am the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water," for example, aims to scare children away from ponds and rivers by masking a set of scenarios with a bank-hugging Grim Reaper). The limbic Amygdala - within the temporal lobe of the brain - hard-wires this fear-conditioning for self-preservation; the Amygdala has a close association to memory, so scare tactics from youth are subsequently used to mould behavioural trends in years to come. Cultivation Theory states that television could influence the mind to march in step with everyday perception, enlarging the assimilation of disturbing images by pure repetition.

A parasitic seaweed is sucked up by an offshore drilling rig in the 1968 DOCTOR WHO tale FURY FROM THE DEEP. Possessed by the entity, Mr Quill (Bill Burridge) launches his gas attack in the show's first genuinely unnerving sequence.

As a special feature on the BBC's DOCTOR WHO - THE DEADLY ASSASSIN DVD release of 2009, the sixteen-minute documentary THE FRIGHTEN FACTOR aimed to answer what exactly the show's fear element is, by interviewing a diverse panel of "experts" from educational psychologist to church minister. The bombastic theme tune can be a frighten factor itself, so apparently can The Doctor, as well as being a parent/uncle surrogate for the viewer. Although the programme's visual use of everyday objects (dolls, dummies et al) and detrimental authority figures play with a child's conforming worldview, the child attempts to play out these images within the comfort of their own homes, so it becomes an enjoyable experience. As the resident educational psychologist explains, it is this consumption of live action visuals that makes it resonate so effectively, as opposed to cartoons which are too abstract to have the same effect.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Downe and Out

SON OF DRACULA (1974)
CRAZE (1974)

"I can't live, if living is without you"; chums Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr in SON OF DRACULA, cinema's greatest musical travesty. Attempting to cash in on the success of Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the film is also known as YOUNG DRACULA.

WRITTEN by TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS scribe Jennifer Jayne in the failed hope of casting David Bowie, Freddie Francis' rarely seen SON OF DRACULA - made by Apple Films and produced by Ringo Starr - begins in 1800's Transylvania, where Baron Frankenstein's dwarf assistant (Skip Martin) stakes The Prince of Darkness (Dan Meaden). Merlin the Magician (Starr) discovers that one of The Count's brides is pregnant and will give birth to a son in a hundred years. The offspring Count Downe (Harry Nilsson) is due to be crowned King of the Underworld in 70's London, but in the seventy-two hours beforehand he is vulnerable in deciding his future. Eventually he wants to become human in the name of love - especially that of Amber (Suzanna Leigh) - thanks to the help of the wheelchair-bound Van Helsing (Dennis Price), and despite the plotting of the immortal Baron (a barnstorming Freddie Jones).

Actually completed in 1972, Starr's excruciatingly dull vanity project failed to pick up any distribution. Realising that this comedy actually had no jokes - and hid behind Nilsson's musical numbers and message of love - the ex-Beatle turned to Graham Chapman to re-write and re-dub. However this version allegedly made even less sense, and has never been made public (SON OF DRACULA eventually was shown on a limited run in the States). The film is a pedestrian pantomime at best, with generous amounts of padding (Count Downe foils a completely random attack by a werewolf, for instance). Francis further laces the production with classic interpretations of monsters (Meaden's Dracula actually takes Nosferatu as a blueprint, and there are also appearances by Frankenstein's creature, the Mummy and even a Medusa and a Fu Manchu). In fact the only point of interest are the musicians on show, which includes John Bonham and Keith Moon exchanging drumming duties in Downe's band.

Jack Palance offers Julie Ege to Chuku in the delirious CRAZE.

Coming off this catastrophe, Francis' increasing distain of horror films and its fans made the director/cinematographer admit that his reliance on the zoom lens for CRAZE was due to a "lack of interest." But this Herman Cohen production is far from uninteresting, an exploitation fever-dream ripe with idol-driven mayhem and possibly the greatest array of starlets and seasoned character actors ever to grace a single British horror. Neal Mottram (a potent Jack Palance) is a psychotic antiques dealer who owns Chuku, a googly-eyed African fetish object he keeps in his basement. Mottram believes that by sacrifice to Chuku, the "love God" will reward him with wealth, and his victims include Helena (Julie Ege) who ends up in a furnace, and sex toy-loving Sally (Suzy Kendall in a horrendous curly black wig). As part of his unhinged quest Mottram even hatches an alibi plot, using ex-girlfriend Dolly (Diana Dors) to enable him to murder rich Aunt Nash (Dame Edith Evans); but with the police honing in (and a nod to PEEPING TOM), Neal is impaled on Chuku's trident.

CRAZE has a pathological hatred of women, a stance it shares with source novel Infernal Idol, a brisk 1967 Helmut Henry Hartmann pulp written as Henry Seymour ("she was that slightly seedy suburban housewife type who carried too much weight around the hips and spent too much of the housekeeping money on unsuccessful attempts to look glamorous.") But Francis' movie really goes for the throat, illustrated by Detective Sergeant Wall (Michael Jayston)'s comment on ditzy Dolly ("one would have to be pretty desperate to sail into that port.") Despite Mottram's literal lady-killing, there is a distinct homosexual yearning between the dealer and his younger live-in colleague Ronnie (Martin Potter). Mottram has apparently saved him from "sleeping in Hyde Park hustling old queens," but their domestic arrangement seems characteristically bitchy.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

"They're Only Worthless Whores!"

JACK THE RIPPER (1973)
JACK THE RIPPER (1988)

The Ripper File, published in 1975, was a companion to the 1973 BBC JACK THE RIPPER docu-series.

DR Thomas Stowell's article in the November 1970 Criminologist instigated a resurgence of interest in the Whitechapel Murders. Implicating the grandson of Queen Victoria, it set in motion a snowballing of misconceptions welcomed by Stephen Knight's 1976 bestseller Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution. Stowell drew comparisons between the evisceration of the women and the disembowelment of deer shot by the aristocracy on their estates, and surmises that - although not named directly - Prince Albert Victor went mad after contracting syphilis in the West Indies. Three years later, JACK THE RIPPER was a six-part BBC "documentary investigation" into the killings, which mixed period re-enactments with contemporary sleuthing from fictional Detective Chief Superintendents Barlow (Stratford Johns) and Watt (Frank Windsor), characters popular on Z-CARS and its sequels SOFTLY, SOFTLEY and BARLOW AT LARGE.

This cross-pollination discusses suspects, forensic examinations and conspiracies in stuffy ad infinitum, and after five hours concludes there is insufficient evidence to determine who Jack was. Written by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd, the programme builds a foundation for masonic influence - after all, Watt has read prominent mason Commissioner Warren's autobiography - with analysis of the wall message "The Juwes are The men That Will not be Blamed for nothing." With no substantiation to the Ripper crimes, let alone Freemasonry, this fixation with the scrawl on Goulston Street is one of many blind alleys the broadcast creates for itself. And just when you think no more information could be squeezed in, the show's surprise witness is held back to the final moments: Joseph 'Hobo' Sickert, illegitimate son of suspect/painter Walter Sickert. Self-scripted and shot on Super-8, Joseph recalls his strange genealogy and conveys Royal Physician Sir William Gull (as did Stowell) and driver John Netley, and also surmises threat of revolution.

"You told me to bring you Jack the Ripper. You sign that piece of paper and I will ... tonight!" Michael Caine - as Inspector Frederick Abberline - is the casting coup of ITV's out-of-control JACK THE RIPPER.

After this bombshell, the East London Advertiser sent Knight to interview Joseph. Fleshed out into his "Final Solution," Knight details an elaborate conspiracy theory involving the British royal family, freemasonry and Walter Sickert. He concluded that the victims were murdered to cover up a secret marriage between the second-in-line to the throne, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, and working class Catholic Annie Elizabeth Crook. Crook and the couple's daughter are consequently spirited away, and a quintet of Whitechapel tarts - privy to the circumstances through the employment of one of their number (Mary Kelly) as the child's Nanny - were disposed of by a team of high profile assassins. However, when Knight's frenzy of misinformation builds to implicating his father more than to Joseph's liking, 'Hobo' withdrew his co-operation and put on record that he had made everything up.

Made to coincide with the Ripper centennial, ITV's bombastic drama JACK THE RIPPER was a ratings winner, casting Michael Caine as Inspector Abberline and Lewis Collins as Sergeant George Godley. Director and co-writer David Wickes - who had helmed two episodes of the BBC series - stated that he had been allowed unprecedented access to Scotland Yard files, and that his production would be revealing the true identity of Jack for the first time. However, after pressure from numerous Ripperologists Wickes withdraw this claim, but the series still begins with a disclaimer on behalf of the production staff: "our story is based on extensive research, including a review of the official files by special permission of the Home Office and interviews with leading criminologists and Scotland Yard officials." Wickes' announcement that he had filmed several alternative endings lends no credence to the unfolding structure, and was more likely another publicity stunt.

Abberline adopts his usual measured methods with coachman John Netley (George Sweeney) in ITV's JACK THE RIPPER.

Comprising of two ninety-minute episodes broadcast on consecutive evenings in October 1988, the series' revelation that Sir William Gull (Ray McAnally) was the killer is laughably old hat, after threads lead the viewer to the likes of American stage actor Richard Mansfield (Armand Assante), socialist George Lusk (Michael Gothard) and Queen Victoria's clairvoyant Robert Lees (Ken Bones). The melodramatic story also takes great liberties in characterisation: Abberline's alcoholism is present solely for dramatic licence, and George Lusk's depiction as an anarchic troublemaker hides the fact that Lusk was actually a nondescript businessman and church warden. Although the crime scenes are the most authentic part - particularly Mary Kelly's Miller's Court slaying - the rest exists in its own self-important, distorted world, which advances nothing on Knight's book or the BBC serial. When Gull eventually breaks ("they're only worthless whores!,") the surgeon's jolting transformation from kind family man to barking mad is as abrupt as Abberline's bawling.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Back in Black

VAMPIRA (1974)

The cover to the MGM Limited Edition R1 DVD of VAMPIRA from 2011. Upon its theatrical release in the States, the production was re-christened OLD DRACULA by AIP, to cash in on Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

THIS Jeremy Lloyd-scripted travesty from World Film Services is not so much unfunny but downright insulting. Starting at Castle Dracula - now open to public tours - an aging Count (David Niven, fighting to keep his dignity) and his manservant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss) welcome a spooky photoshoot ("Most Biteable Playmate") from Playboy's London entourage, headed by Pottinger (Bernard Bresslaw). The Bunnies unwittingly give blood so the vampire can restore life to his beloved consort Vampira, who has been in a coma for fifty years after losing her immortality to an anaemic peasant. Finding the triple-O blood group to resurrect the Countess, the transfusion backfires as one of the models is black, a façade which Vampira adopts (as Teresa Graves). Hoping to reverse this mishap, The Count and Maltravers track down the girls in London, using Playboy feature writer Marc Williams (Nicky Henson) as their hypnotised pawn.

VAMPIRA mixes the British sex comedy with Hammer horror and Blaxploitation, but there is no flesh or blood on display. Now awakened, the titular character develops a bi-sexual lust, enjoying her environment and skin colour; not only does this new-found vigour mean her using phrases like "out of sight" and "jive turkey," she also goes to watch BLACK GUNN, dances lasciviously, and is now too energetic for the Count to handle. Unfortunately, this is undermined by a number of dismal dialogue choices, particularly when Maltravers tries to explain Vampira's change of appearance ("you don't think, Sir, the deep freeze wasn't working properly and she's - well - gorn orf?")

In the prolonged party sequence, Count Dracula and Maltravers attempt to swing well past the height of the Swinging London era.

More positively, the cast includes female luminaries Veronica Carlson and Penny Irving as Playboy Bunnies, Luan Peters as Pottinger's secretary, and MONTY PYTHON regular Carol Cleveland as a damsel in distress who is inexplicably helped by The Count. The standout however is Linda Hayden as Castle Dracula's disgruntled German student Helga. Although her Teutonic accent is as questionable as her Gallic attempts in CONFESSIONS FROM A HOLIDAY CAMP, Hayden excels in an almost cameo role, bitten and transformed into a white gowned, frizzy-haired succubus. Initially aiding the dinner guests, Helga is then ceremonially dispatched in an upright coffin in a macabre parody of THE GOLDEN SHOT. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mad Science

THE MUTATIONS (1974)

"He'll soon be neither human being nor plant, but with the characteristics and advantages of both: a plant that can move and think, a man who can set down roots." Donald Pleasence and Tom Baker plot and fester.

DIRECTED by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff, THE MUTATIONS uses the template of Tod Browning's FREAKS and poverty row mad scientist pictures to mix with unsubtle 70's British sleaze and an avant-garde score. University Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence, in a role originally intended for Vincent Price) is experimenting to merge human and plant life. Any unsuccessful subjects are offloaded to Nolter's kidnapping accomplice Lynch (Tom Baker) for a nearby circus "Royal Family of Strange People," which Lynch runs with dwarf Burns (Michael Dunn). The human protagonists - all students from Nolter's class (Tony (Scott Anthony), Lauren (Jill Haworth) and Hedi (Julie Ege)) - and the circus freaks are exploited by the tyrannical Lynch, who hopes that Nolter will cure his own Elephant Man-type deformity. The plan starts to unravel when Tony, after being turned into a human Venus Fly Trap, escapes and ingests a homeless man. With Hedi strapped naked to the operating table, she is saved from Nolter's burning mansion by Dr Brian Redford (Brad Harris), and the freaks take their revenge on Lynch.

Like Browning, real deformed humans are cast for the roles (including Alligator Girl Esther Blackmon and the show-stopping Willie "Popeye" Ingram). Another Browning cue sees THE MUTATIONS lift its party scene directly from FREAKS, and Cardiff must also have been influenced by Universal's 1973 SSSSSSS, which sees herpetologist Dr Carl Stoner (Strother Martin) change young men into King Cobras, whereby botched attempts are exhibited at a circus. Both Nolter and Stoner theorise that humans now need to be in some transformative state, for Nolter to create a "world without hunger," and for Stoner to survive ecological disaster. A deadpan Pleasence mostly recites dialogue from his textbooks and provides an amusing lecture aside referencing genetically recreated dinosaurs, while at home he feeds rabbits to his creations. But Baker is the star: shortly before his Time Lord appointment - and sporting a coat hat and scarf ensemble - Lynch is the Igor to Pleasance's Frankenstein/Dr Moreau. Lynch himself is a freak, but his overpowering self loathing cannot make himself accept his plight; in the film's only touching scene, he visits a prostitute and begs her to say "I love you" for an extra pound.

Scott Anthony - mutated into a Venus Fly Trap - devours his  
monster maker Pleasence in the fiery climax.

The exhibition of real biological oddities can be traced back to the 1630's, when Lazarus Colloredo and his conjoined twin Joannes Baptista toured Europe. "Freaks of nature" as a source of entertainment on film adds another voyeuristic quality, freezing their façade awkwardly in time to watch over and over. FREAKS' original cut of January 1932 was met with disgust - one woman at a test screening threatened to sue stating it caused her miscarriage - and remains the only MGM release to have been pulled from circulation before completing its engagements. The picture was also banned in Britain for thirty years, and effectively brought Browning's career to a premature end. However, FREAKS has enjoyed a positive re-evaluation over the years, unlike Michael Winner's 1977 Universal opus THE SENTINEL, which controversially featured deformed humans as denizens from hell. Amid THE MUTATIONS relentless dour atmosphere, when Lynch is killed by flying switchblades then devoured by Nolter's hounds, the "Strange People" at least have a form of closure.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Love of Darkness

CAT GIRL (1957)
RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1966)

"The love of darkness, the craving for warm flesh and blood … it is my legacy to you ... passed on from generation to generation of our family …  for 700 years!" Ernest Milton and Barbara Shelley provide the only sparks to this pedestrian programmer.

PRODUCED by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, RKO's 1942 CAT PEOPLE divided critics at the time, but is now considered a sophisticated classic. Telling the story of young Serbian Irena (Simone Simon), who believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused, the style of the film concentrates on the theory that unseen terrors are more effective than visual ones (what Lewton referred to as "patches of prepared darkness"). This use of suggestive shadow, and the genre-defining shock Lewton Bus moment, was in contrast to the Universal trend of the time, who would make FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN a year later.

CAT GIRL - a British CAT PEOPLE from Insignia directed by Alfred Shaughnessy - barely registers as horror, its stagy and stilted execution making it hard to believe it was released in the wake of Hammer's game-changer, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Leonora (Barbara Shelley) is summoned to her ancestral estate by uncle Edmund Brandt (Shakespearean actor Ernest Milton, doing his best Ernest Thesiger impression). Recently married to Richard (Jack May), Leonora also brings friends Cathy and Allan (Patricia Webster and John Lee) to the house. Brandt's niece discovers that she is to be united with the soul of Edmund's pet leopard, continuing a family curse which enables mental control of the big cat to "kill ... kill." Under Leonora's control, the leopard savages her husband for having an affair with Cathy, then turns its attentions to Dorothy (Kay Callard), the wife of Leonora's true love Dr Marlowe (Robert Ayres).

Barbara Shelley - the "first leading lady of British horror" - is haunted Leonora. Shelley's looks and stature command the screen, with Barbara playing it commandingly straight.

Aside from Shelley and Milton, the performances are self-conscious (even leopard Chiefy, a performing cat from Southport Zoo, surprisingly lacks menace), and Ayres makes for a particularly characterless 'hero'. Shaughnessy - directing his only fantastic film before creating UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS and planting the seed that would become Pete Walker's HOUSE OF WHIPCORD - couldn't remain positive about the release's own main legacy, lamenting in his autobiography "by using [Barbara Shelley] I fear we condemned a very beautiful and talented actress to a long career in horror films."

Similar to Shelley's Helen in DRACULA PRINCE OF DARNESS, when a hex kicks in, Leonora's sexual repression is unshackled. Now infused with feline aggression, things get weird when she briefly imagines herself turning into a leopard, and eats a budgie (off screen); Leonora's eyebrows also suggest a sudden predatory look (critic David Pirie argues that it is with CAT GIRL that British film heroines started to distort from their emotional norm, even if they are portrayed as mental patients and die violently). In her first starring role Shelley atypically shows off areas of flesh; yet any real charge is smothered by the picture's mundaneness, as a lingering shot of Leonora's naked back sees the camera pan away, leaving the maid to comment on her beauty.

"Everything else is darkness"; the hypnotic stare of Christopher Lee as RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK.

Directed by Don Sharp and scripted by Anthony Hinds, Hammer's RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK casts Shelley again under the spell of Christopher Lee in redressed sets from DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS. After healing an innkeeper's wife and cutting off the hand of the keeper's daughter's suitor, Grigori Rasputin (Lee) is hauled before an Orthodox bishop on grounds of sexual immorality and violence. Preferring to give God "sins worth forgiving", Rasputin is unperturbed by the bishop's claims of Satanism. Heading for St Petersburg, the exiled Monk befriends struck-off Dr Zargo (Richard Pasco) and begins his campaign to infiltrate highest Russian society. This includes gaining influence over the Tsarina's ladies-in-waiting Sonia (Shelley) and Vanessa (Suzan Farmer), but his relentless sexual appetite and pursuit of wealth eventually leads to his death at the hands of Zargo and Ivan (Francis Matthews).

Initially announced in 1961 as THE SINS OF RASPUTIN, Hammer's brisk pseudo-exploration of "History's Man of Mystery" is dominated by Lee's extraordinary performance. Unlike his appearances as Dracula - often off-screen and reduced to set pieces - Rasputin is overpowering from his appearance at the Inn door. Passionately researching the role, the actor even sought advice on how to play a medically accurate death by cyanide poisoning. But the film was hampered by overspends on DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS, foreshortening the script and scope; the production was also under the threat of legal action from Prince Felix and Princess Irina Yousoupoff, Felix being one of Rasputin's real-life assassins. Having successfully sued MGM over their 1932 release RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, pressure from the Yousoupoff's is the reason that Hammer's surrogate assassin Ivan is Vanessa's brother rather than husband, and why Vanessa and Rasputin do not meet in the film's climax.