Sunday, April 15, 2018

"New Thrills! New Faces! New Horror!"


In the same year that David Prowse became The Green Cross Code Man, the Bristol native appeared in the second of his three roles as Mary Shelley's most famous creation.

JIMMY Sangster's HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is detested by Hammer purists for its comedic tone, and plays out as a parody of the previous respected entriesThe film opens with Victor Frankenstein (Ralph Bates) at school, accompanied by friends Elizabeth (Veronica Carlson), Stefan (Stephen Turner) and Henry (Jon Finch). Victor arranges for the death of his father and travels to university in Vienna, where he acquires sidekick Wilhelm (Graham James) and impregnates the daughter of the Dean. Returning to Ingstad, Victor starts a series of experiments, using corpses delivered by a local body snatcher (Dennis Price) - who lets his wife do the digging. After electrocuting Wilhelm for complaining about his work - which includes reanimating a tortoise - Victor poisons Elizabeth's professor father (Bernard Archard) for his brain, but the organ is damaged and the resulting patchwork man is a mute thug (David Prowse).

Initiated as a start-over remake of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the picture dispenses with Peter Cushing's services and tries to introduce a younger generation (a failed attempt, as Cushing returned four years later in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL). Despite the traditional 19th Century setting, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is very much of its time - as illustrated by Bates' hair and puffy shirts - and quite anarchic, mixing additional plot threads (Elizabeth's finances, Stefan's crush on Victor) with comic relief (a severed arm making a V-sign) and grue (Victor's hands smearing his face with blood). Duelling femmes fatale O'Mara and Carlson are always watchable, but only Price can deliver a performance at the correct pitch. Bates, at this point being groomed to become the studio's next big star, is not so much a mad scientist but a psycho scientist, enjoying the thrill of the kill and rejoicing in the fact that he has this powerful monster ready to do his bidding. And when the creature eventually appears - an hour in, and sporting white cycling shorts - Prowse goes through the motions with a checklist of victims and a perfect physique which bestows its fragmented origins.

"You’ve put on weight in a couple of places"; Kate O’Mara is the bed-warming housekeeper of Hammer's relaunch of its Frankenstein franchise.

Reusing the Karnstein Castle set from THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, and even shooting most of its forest scenes on Elstree stages, there is a distinctly cheap and recycled feel. Furthermore, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN was not helped by a misleading marketing campaign, where it went out on a double bill with the sombre and gristly SCARS OF DRACULA (as Sangster states in Wayne Kinsey's Hammer Films: The Elstree Studio Years, "if people had gone to see it knowing it was shot light hearted they would have enjoyed it more [instead of] thinking it was a Gothic horror.") However, this twin feature did hold the distinction of the first Hammer movies to be totally financed by British companies, thanks to a deal between Sir James Carreras and ABPC/EMI. But Hammer's new partner would only distribute to England and the Commonwealth, leaving Carreras able to acquire just a small American distributor - Continental - to impossibly cover the whole of the United States market. 

The notion of deriving humour from such pseudo-scientific source material is an interesting one. Since Frankenstein was published in 1818, and Boris Karloff's seminal interpretation hit screens in 1931, Mary Shelley's serious text - and similar works - generate mythical themes and uncomfortable laughter. As the initial power of the book recedes in a collected consciousness, the tome gathers extraordinarily wide responses, snowballing a range of spoofs and humorous asides now over 200 years on. The level of comedic takes is mind-boggling, even to the point of delicious meta-levels: Mel Brooks' celebrated YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, for example, used many pieces from James Whale's original laboratory set, and even in The Beatles film YELLOW SUBMARINE we had the Monster drinking a potion and becoming John Lennon.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Haunt of Fear

Nostalgia and the Rise of Hauntology

"When Bagpuss wakes up, all his friends wake up too." Bagpuss, Professor Yaffle and the Organ Mice in the fondly remembered BAGPUSS from 1974. The titular cat's description of "saggy ... and a bit loose at the seams" typifies the disjointed melancholy of the Hauntology movement.

POPULAR culture surrounds us in a whirlwind of nostalgia. Nostalgia was first described as a psychosomatic disease, rooted in the desire of soldiers to return home; this longing for the motherland is so strong that it induces a doleful, mental state. Swiss physician Johannes Hofer first used the term in 1688, and the disorder came to be associated particularly with Swiss soldiers, who were so susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular milking song, that its playing was punishable by death. Confusing the past and the present, and the real and the imaginary, our preference for the sights, sounds and smells of yesteryear often has its foundation in the carefree wonders of childhood. It was Immanuel Kant who stated that people who were steeped in nostalgia were triggered not so much for an actual place as for the time of youth. David Lowenthal's The Past is a Foreign Country considers that nostalgia preys on the past to construct a form of escapism; and by savouring these ruins of artificiality, author Susan Stewart condemns the condition as a "social disease," maintaining that the past is something unspoilt, utopian and unreachable.

British television in the 70s exists in what writer and radio presenter Bob Fischer describes as "cosy wrongness," a grainy and blurred netherworld that - because of its pre-digital, incomplete heritage - can be a nostalgic notion that actually extends to the early 80s Video Nasty flap of VHS degradation. BBC shows of the polyester decade - such as DOCTOR WHO, A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS, THE STONE TAPE and COUNT DRACULA - showed the corporation embracing the Gothic, but also fortolded how this portentously gloomy sub-genre would mutate into visual art Hauntology. Hauntology was coined by Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx, and taken up by critics who referenced contemporary culture's persistent recycling and incapacity to escape old forms. If nostalgia is sentimental perspective, Hauntology bleeds into our psyche like a spectre who gestures towards what is inevitably an intellectual abyss. 

Music Has the Right to Children was the debut studio album from Boards of Canada, and hailed as a seminal Hauntology work. The piece was described as a "thing of wonder" and "the aural equivalent of old super 8 movies."

Fischer has also highlighted the children's programme BAGPUSS as a prime example of 70s "vague disquiet." This strange shadow world’s mixture of scrambled memories and weird, bygone images is explored in the Hauntology concept, where the presence of being is replaced by absent or deferred parallels, a yearning for a future that never arrived. Hauntological music has been particularly tied to British culture, an alternate reality constituted from the stagnation of the postwar period. This soundscape is expertly captured by the 1998 album Music Has the Right to Children by Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada. Subsequently, musicians and artists whose formative years were in the 70s have developed their own Hauntology analogue synth brands and universes. In 2005 Jim Jupp and Julian House founded Ghost Box Records and the fictitious world of Belbury, an eerie English village straight out of John Wyndham. Similarly, writer and graphic designer Richard Littler created Scarfolk together with spoof book covers and dystopian government pamphlets that evoke the distinct Penguin Classics and Public Information Films so entrenched from the period.