1960s, British cinema, Horror/Eerie

The Witches (1966)

aka The Devil’s Own

TheWitches01

Director: Cyril Frankel

By Roderick Heath

Hammer Studios first moved into making films in the cinefantastique genres with adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s epochal TV serials in the mid ’50s. But Kneale had surprisingly little to do with the studio, except for adapting his own work with the 1957 film The Abominable Snowman, and penning the script for this ripping mid-’60s work that sports one of the House of Horror’s few imported star turns, in the person of Joan Fontaine. Director Cyril Frankel’s name doesn’t conjure many associations, which perhaps partly explains why this film has fallen under the radar: after initial film work, he worked chiefly as a TV director. But The Witches is a fine slice of classic British genre fare offers much the same deeply neurotic mood of repression and explosive release that also marks out other great, thematically similar British horror films like Night of the Eagle (1961) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). It anticipates, in many ways, The Wicker Man’s ironic contrast of idyllic hamlets and uncanny threats, if without the calculated inversions of story expectations, and looks forward to more modern studies on similar material like Wake Wood (2010) and the satiric landscape of Hot Fuzz (2007).

TheWitches02

The Witches is an adaptation of a novel by Norah Lofts, who also provided the source material for John Ford’s last feature film, shot the same year, 7 Women, an equally interesting revision of genre film with a female-centric viewpoint. Here, a bizarre and jarring prologue immediately hits a note of frantic alarmism, as it offers a fin-de-siecle twist on colonial do-gooder tales like The Nun’s Story (1959). Fontaine’s character, Gwen Mayfield, running a school in a colony beset by a Mau-Mau-like uprising, tries to pack up and flee before the menace comes calling. Her native assistants are so frightened by the curse of the local Juju man they finally abandon Gwen. The door is bashed in, and the Juju men, one wearing a colossal tribal mask, enter, presumably to rape and abuse our heroine.
After the credits, Gwen reappears in London three years later. She’s patched herself back together but is still bearing signs of trauma, fending off an attack of nerves as she’s interviewed by the pleasant, but fusty eccentric Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) for a job teaching at small, rural school of which he’s a patron. Gwen’s new position takes her to the hamlet of Heddaby.

TheWitches03

Alan and his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh) are the wealthiest people in the area, and the town is a backwater without a government school, which is why the Baxes fund their own. Gwen shares duties with another teacher, Sally Benson (Ann Bell), and begins to settle into her job, until the romance of two of her adolescent students, Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens) and Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), is discovered. Linda’s guardian “Granny” Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) objects to this coupling, and Gwen finds herself called upon to find a way of keeping them apart. She encourages Ronnie’s talents, and soon he wins a chance to go to a better school out of town. Rather than send him away, which Gwen thinks will make him unhappy, she begins personally tutoring him, making him vulnerable to secret forces who control the village, and want to protect Linda’s virginity. Ronnie falls into a coma one night and is hospitalised. Gwen makes a disturbing discovery, of a male doll Ronnie had bought for Linda as a suggestive partner for the female figurine she perpetually sports. Gwen finds this hidden in the crook of a tree with its head removed and riddled with pins, and it stirs her suspicions that she’s dealing with something she has encountered before. Ronnie’s mother (Carmel McSharry) flees town with her son when he recovers, and her husband (John Collin) visits Gwen one night in the schoolhouse stinking drunk, distraught at the collapse of his life. When Gwen lets slip that she suspects Granny Rigg might have cursed Ronnie in some way, he goes to visit her, but turns up drowned in a nearby lake. Before she can report her story at the inquest, Gwen, staying overnight at the Bax’s house, is stricken down with a vision of the Juju mask and she awakens in a nursing home, having completely lost her memory of the past three years.

TheWitches04

Like many great horror films, The Witches cunningly uses other, more humdrum genres and everyday familiarities as a starting point. Although the prologue announces things are going to be sensational and garish, most of the first half is deceptively casual and evokes a traditional depiction of an English village that might have stumbled out of soap operas from The Archers through to Heartbeat. It avoids even the signposted oddness of The Wicker Man, with only a slightly tweaked atmosphere of estrangement, apparent in touches like the cheery brutality of the local butcher Bob Curd (Duncan Lamont), beaming with overemphatic friendliness as he rips the skin off a rabbit, the coolly unexaggerated bigotry of the local mothers aimed at Ronnie because of his father’s reputation as a layabout, and the discomfort Gwen experiences in trying to negotiate small-town politics. She plays the beneficent teacher helping give the poor young lad a leg up in a victimising world, almost a prototype for Kes (1969).

TheWitches05

Frankel’s unmannered, clear-eyed direction helps the film walk a tightrope of tone, only skewing from the realistic in such odd moments as Granny Rigg telling her grey cat to follow Gwen, and a slowly manifesting sense of more than usual evil lurking under the surface, as when Ronnie tries to alert Gwen, claiming to have seen Linda being punished by Granny Rigg, who jammed her hand into a clothes wringer. Ronnie’s romancing of Linda isn’t just verboten because she’s important to a witches’ rite, but also because his mother isn’t local: the other children are all so in-bred, as Sally says, it’s hard to distinguish the variations on the “Heddaby face.” Frankel wields Hitchcockian technique as Gwen notices details like the many bare footprints scattered in the mud by the lake where Dowsett drowned, only to be erased as a flock of sheep charges through, panicked by Stephanie’s dogs; it’s a moment clearly reminiscent of the erasing of Miss Froy’s dust-written name in The Lady Vanishes (1938).

TheWitches06

Perhaps another reason The Witches isn’t as well known to Hammer fans as it ought to be is because it mostly eschews the studio’s usual gothic stylistics, preferring crisper, restrained hues in the photography to the usual saturated tones. It also sports an uncommonly good cast of actors not at all associated with the genre, redolent of an attempt to elevate studio fare that was beginning to slide into the blood-and-boobs formula of many later Hammer works. In addition to Walsh and McCowen, Leonard Rossiter turns up late in the piece as a smug, yet hapless doctor who takes Gwen in charge when she suffers a second breakdown after being hexed. The comely Boulting was a daughter of film director John Boulting, and whose most recognisable role is perhaps the mysterious object of affection in Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976).

TheWitches07

Witchcraft has often been one of the more neglected fields for horror films to draw on, in part because it often demands suggestion of unseen forces at odds with the declarative demands of genre cinema, and also because the modern mind is largely inclined to give witches the benefit of the doubt. Frankel doesn’t draw out fulminating sensuality and neurotic energy like Terence Fisher or Don Sharp at their best, but he does master the necessary rhythm of slowly composing strangeness leading into outright nuttiness. Whereas Fisher’s tackling of similar notions in the following year’s The Devil Rides Out is a lushly orchestrated spectacle, Frankel and Kneale’s film builds toward something like black comedy in its depiction of dowdy villagers suddenly hurling themselves with joyous, countercultural energy into satanic rites and orgiastic preludes.

TheWitches08

The Witches partners squarely with the same year’s Plague of the Zombies, though not played in a period setting, by invoking similar motifs: the secret link between colonialist horrors and malevolence infecting the coloniser’s homeland, an evil manipulated by the mansion on the hill, and virtually surreal visions of atavistic rites within the supposedly staid and settled English order of things. True weirdness finally, explictly manifests when Gwen ventures into the cave where the coven meets, discovering a cabalistic dial on the ground upon which a strange doll-like object seems to dance spontaneously—it’s actually got Granny Rigg’s familiar-like cat sewed up inside, and has a photo of Linda’s face pinned to it.

TheWitches09

The Witches is fundamentally a good yarn, but it required a compelling lead performance to give the drama true pep, and Fontaine delivers. Her Gwen is shaky, but intelligent and dogged, fighting against her own brittle nerves and fear of the unknown. She is severely contrasted by the film’s other major female figure, Stephanie, a popular newspaper writer whose bracing, if slightly grating bravado contrasts her brother’s air of tragic failure. He had wanted to be a priest, and as well as dressing as one, spends much of his time locked away in private playing church bell and choir music and drifting away in melancholy distraction when trying to explain his fixations to Gwen. Fontaine offers, in a way, a bookend to her career-making part as the heroine of Rebecca (1940), considerably older and wiser, but equally perplexed by the workings of the world where, be it in Africa or rural England, irrational, cryptic, boding forces work to annihilate or assimilate anything that disrupts their cohesive fabric.

TheWitches10

When Gwen presents the pin-stuck doll to her, Stephanie slashes heartily through the pretences of witchcraft in describing its practitioners as mostly repressed yokels looking for an orgy. Of course, she is really the secret head of the coven, which she found operating in the town and has taken over for her own purposes: convinced of her own brilliance as a force that could heal the world’s ills, she’s looking for a way to renew herself, and has found it, planning to claim Linda’s body to transplant her soul into. Walsh’s Stephanie is posited at first as a less damaged, more outgoing version of Gwen, radiating cosmopolitan intellectual confidence and, more subtly, a hint of lesbian charisma, all but licking her lips in joy at having Fontaine under her thumb as dominated, unwilling confidant. But she’s also a colossal egomaniac with a hale and aggressive energy that operates a little like an energy vampire against those close to her, even before she reveals her true status and her ultimate intent, which is to slice off Linda’s skin and wear it as a cloak of youth.

TheWitches11

The attraction and tension between Fontaine’s and Walsh’s differing editions of middle-aged, woman-of-the-world, strength of purpose then sustains the drama, with Gwen starting off on the back foot thanks to her traumatic experiences and ignorance of the lay of the land in Heddaby, but slowly gathering resolve in trying to penetrate the mystery. When she’s stuck in a nursing home, stricken with amnesia, her memory returns in a cathartic moment, but she’s able to keep anyone from realising it until she can get a chance to escape. She’s soon snatched and forcibly inducted into the coven. Between the women stands the castrated Alan, whose defence mechanism against his monstrous sister is to isolate himself with the apparel of the church: Gwen’s appeal to him to give aid proves ineffectual as he locks himself away again: he is as much damsel in distress as Linda. Only Gwen is capable of standing up to Stephanie.

TheWitches12

The film’s climax is also its major set-piece, as Gwen is forced to watch over a mesmerised Linda as Stephanie whips her coven into a sensual frenzy, orchestrating their gyrations as they perform the ritual dances. The tawdry sexual element Stephanie mocked comes out, the villagers, clad in rags, beat drums and blow horns with comic intensity. Gwen is held prone by two of the village men who can’t wait to induct her properly, and the rest cavort like they’ve been choreographed by an enterprising high school dance teacher. But the latent power and fascinating intensity of the rituals also begin to assert themselves as Stephanie, wearing deer horns on her head when clad in her witch’s garb, evokes the most ancient religions, and Linda, as she enters the coven, catalyses through her body the unnerving force she represents as an adolescent female, completely unfettered, a different kind of crucible that offers manifold promises of ecstatic delights. The coven smear themselves in juice squeezed from fruits, rubbing themselves and each other down, including one moment of homoerotic punch as two of the village males gleefully caress each other. Stephanie serves up a magical glop that look like excrement to be eaten in frenzied joy, and she leaves them twitching on the floor as if in a mass epileptic convulsion.

TheWitches13

Meanwhile Stephanie’s monstrous egotism is configured as she conducts her coven like a puppeteer, sensually grasping Linda from behind and guiding her like a tuned instrument. Fittingly, then, the film’s corkscrewing narrative seems to find in the ritual acts of the coven a metaphor for the genre itself, a carefully orchestrated eruption of elements other worldviews frantically suppress or ignore, and where the dichotomous choice is to grasp or destroy the young female. Fittingly, Stephanie’s arrogance proves her undoing as her reading of the ritual procedure to Gwen earlier in the film gives Gwen the knowledge to wreck the ritual right at its climax, stabbing herself in the arm and soiling Stephanie’s cloak with it, bringing down the offended power of the dark gods on her: Stephanie drops dead and the coven’s power is broken.

TheWitches14

The appended coda is a happy ending but rather disorienting in its disarmingly cheery tone, even as it encompasses some strange implications. A happy Alan sets about aiding Gwen as her liberated potential romantic partner, the town is suddenly dragged into the 20th century as the general store is replaced by a supermarket and the old residents scatter after the coven’s is broken, and Gwen’s students flock in to celebrate her goodness. The shattering of a corrupt order seems to have meant also throwing away that cosy insularity so often fetishized in retrospect in modern British life. In any event, The Witches is a delicious diversion for fans of offbeat horror.

Standard
1970s, British cinema, Foreign, Horror/Eerie

The Vampire Lovers (1970) / Lust for a Vampire (1970) / Twins of Evil (1971)

.

HammerKarnstein01

Directors: Roy Ward Baker ; Jimmy Sangster ; John Hough

By Roderick Heath

Ingrid Pitt’s death this week at age 73, old but still too young, sent all us horror movie buffs into mourning. Pitt was a legendary emblem of the saucy edge of early ’70s cinema: there she was in all the old genre books and fan magazines, usually with fangs and rotund breasts protruding as the very image of the unleashed and voracious feminine libido. The Polish-born Pitt, real name Ignouskha Petrova, was actually an affecting and intelligent actress, one who had made her stage debut playing in Brecht, and who could bring both emotional integrity and a spry good humour to her roles. She made a breakthrough in 1968’s neo-swashbuckler Where Eagles Dare, a film that was, ironically, uncomfortable for her to make because as a child, she had survived incarceration in a concentration camp, and the proliferation of German uniforms on the set brought back hideous memories for her. Her part as Heidi, a German barmaid who’s actually a British agent, was nominally empowering (if not nearly as much as costar Mary Ure’s role as a full-on action chick) as she rendered Nazi opponents and Allied helpmates equally delirious at the sight of her overflowing décolletage. It was a small part, but an eye-catching one, and almost inevitably Pitt, with her nonspecific accent and mature, fleshy beauty, seemed born to be a star for Hammer Studios. She was chosen to play the leading role in their adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s legendary novella Carmilla, which was entitled The Vampire Lovers upon release in 1970.

HammerKarnstein02

Pitt’s time as a horror star was actually very brief: the success of The Vampire Lovers made her a name for a moment, but after the following year’s Countess Dracula and The House That Dripped Blood, all that was over. Countess Dracula would seem her best showcase. Her brave performance in a difficult role as a character who blends the cruellest narcissism with fretful anxiety works excellently as a metaphor for diva stardom itself as she desperately tries to soak up the vitality of those around her to sustain her waning youth and beauty. But Countess Dracula is an extremely uneven film, and the director, Peter Sasdy, had Pitt’s voice dubbed over by another actress, an act which incensed Pitt sufficiently to make her shove Sasdy into a swimming pool at a party. It’s still easy to admire Pitt in that film, but her most unsullied vehicle remains The Vampire Lovers, a work that momentarily reenergised Hammer’s waning clout as makers of horror movies and which immediately spawned two pseudo-sequels, Lust For A Vampire and Twins of Evil. The three films form the loose “Karnstein trilogy.” I finally caught up with Lust For A Vampire, in which Swedish actress Yutte Stensgaard took over Pitt’s role as Carmilla, only a couple of days before hearing of Pitt’s death.

HammerKarnstein03

The Karnstein trilogy is often smirkingly recalled as an epitome of a cheerful, campy brand of horror. These entries awkwardly grafted a resolutely soft-core eroticism, already close to being corny in 1970, onto the standard tropes of Hammer’s gothic brand, treading close to artless pastiche that occasionally resembles the strained naughtiness of the Carry On films, all tits and sharp teeth. This reputation is correct to some extent, for the three films strain and often fall to pieces trying to reconcile the crisp classicism for which Hammer was best known and the pasted-on naughty bits. It’s impossible not to chortle at the gauche moments of supposedly off-hand but contrived nudity, and dumb metaphors like that in Twins of Evil, when, during a sex scene, Carmilla strokes a phallic candle. Compared with the continental works of directors like Jésus Franco, Jean Rollin, and Harry Kuemel, with which Hammer seemed to be trying to compete, they remained happy to clumsily engender hot collars rather than assault sensibilities, and failed to synthesise the erotic and the oneiric into a satisfying whole.

HammerKarnstein04

The Vampire Lovers took on the Euro trashmeisters by stealing their sexy shenanigans and smothering them with solid British production values. Would-be impresarios of a new, cheeky brand of Hammer horror were producers Harry Fine and Michael Style, who hired seasoned professional Roy Ward Baker (who died just a few weeks before Pitt) to give the film class and seriousness. But straightlaced Baker clashed repeatedly with Style, whose affectations of the hipster roué extended to reading porn mags around the set. That conflict is all too obvious in the damnably awkward film they made, which sticks pretty close to LeFanu’s novel, but lacks all trace of LeFanu’s almost mystically light frost of sensuality and tragedy, except for a memorably atmospheric, if barely relevant, opening sequence in which Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer), a self-appointed vampire killer, lies in wait to dispatch a disconcertingly angelic-looking bloodsucker. Pitt’s performance imbues her Carmilla with a tragic edge of corrosive guilt, even as she’s compelled to consume everyone and everything in her path, enjoying the gentle days she spends with her victim-lovers before the inevitable reckoning in plaguelike decimation, and her own flight in the search of new pastures. Carmilla, also variously called Mircalla (her birth name) and Marcilla depending on what guise she’s adopting, moves from family to family in the hazily Germanic province of Styria with the aid of acolyte Countess Herritzen (Dawn Addams). She first victimises Laura (Pippa Steele), daughter of the stern Junker General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), and then, by similar contrivance, moves into the house of British expatriate Morton (George Cole) and commences bewitching his daughter Emma (Madeleine Smith).

HammerKarnstein05

LeFanu’s book is something of a landmark in Western literature for detailing a lesbian romance, if in veiled and disturbing terms. In their way, for all their lack of dexterity in treating the theme, the Hammer Karnstein films also deserve that bit of recognition for bringing a distinctly anguished, but admirably unveiled and declarative alternate sexuality (as well as the more familiar kind) onto mainstream English-language cinema screens. Pitt, indeed, always celebrated this aspect of the films in the face of some condemnation. The notion that Pitt becomes the practical auteur of The Vampire Lovers is hard to resist, as she depicts an exhausting, self-crucifying sexual prerogative over and above the crudities of the film. But whilst Pitt throws herself into it without hesitation, her romancing the wishy-washy Smith falls a distant second to the scene in which Pitt seduces the household governess (Kate O’Mara) with lividly lustful looks, and Pitt handles the moments when Carmilla reveals her monstrous side with equal effect. She incurs the viciously repressive wrath of the Victorian patriarchs when they catch wind of what’s going on, with Spielsdorf hacking off her head when he, Morton, and Hartog finally track her down to her family crypt. Whilst essayed with a relative elegance and formal beauty, The Vampire Lovers is badly hampered by a flat, diffuse screenplay, as well as tonal uncertainty. Ward’s stately direction doesn’t draw out the air of forbidden sexuality and generate necessary hysteria—indeed, his good taste gets in the way.

HammerKarnstein06

All three films were written by one Tudor Gates, which makes their wild swings in unity and quality all the harder to account for, although the clashes of the many cooks behind the cameras does explain a lot. Lust For A Vampire commences with Countess Herritzen (now played by Barbara Jefford) and a heretofore unseen Count Karnstein (Mike Raven, doing his best Christopher Lee impression), who may be the black-clad horseman who followed Carmilla about in the previous film, resurrecting their progeny with the blood of a Styrian milkmaid, justifying why Carmilla is now incarnated by Stensgaard’s younger, blonder, sportier model. Herritzen then plants her in a perfect new feeding ground—a finishing school for British girls run by the uptight Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) and her weedy partner Giles Barton (Ralph Bates). Carmilla quickly seduces and then murders a serving girl from a local tavern and fellow student Susan (Pippa Steele again). Rakish author Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson), on a continental tour, visits the castle, where he’s freaked out by a number of the schoolgirls he mistakes for the revived Karnsteins. Seeing a henhouse, Lestrange appoints himself fox, getting a job at the school and developing a desperate passion for Carmilla, a passion shared by Barton, who, uncovering her true identity, prostrates himself before in begging to be her slave. In an exceptionally good sequence, Carmilla teasingly bites Barton, giving this repressed rodent a tiny moment of sensual delight before abandoning him to bleed pitifully to death.

HammerKarnstein07

Lust For A Vampire’s shoot was as contentious as the first film’s, with Sangster, formerly Hammer’s scripting whiz, pressed into directing after Terence Fisher dropped out, and likewise conflicting with Style. As a director, Sangster brought a cool tone, a good touch with the actors, and a more cunning sense of Carmilla as pansexual predator to the film’s first half. He pitches her as a kind of female, antiheroic James Bond who steadily sleeps with and kills many of the people around her. This aspect builds to a scene in which Lestrange, having become her lover, bangs furiously on the door to her room where she’s cheerfully draining the blood of a fellow student she’s bedded, her female lover’s ecstatic agony all too obvious. Stensgaard lacks Pitt’s pathos, but retains a kind of cold dignity in the part that’s right for this conception. Unfortunately, the attempt to give Carmilla another tragic dimension, in her yearning a normal sex life with Lestrange, but forced to maintain her predatory habits by the remote control of the other Karnsteins, comes to no effect as the second half slides rapidly downhill and becomes a total mess through sloppy story development and clumsier action, and time out for a godawful song, “Strange Love,” over a montage of sexy bits.

HammerKarnstein08

Lust For A Vampire leaves the fate of Count Karnstein and Countess Herritzen ambiguous, an ambiguity not dealt with at all in the third film, Twins of Evil, which seems to be nominally a prequel, but is perhaps better regarded as a fantasia on the traditional Hammer horror themes. The title suggests a double entendre, considering all the low-cut bodices on display. Cobbled together to take advantage of the fame of Mary and Madeleine Collinson, twin sisters who had been Playmates of the Month, the script does everything obvious with such a gimmick—and it’s all the better for it. Twins of Evil appears to be set in a more distant past in which a coterie of Puritan thugs led by Gustav Weil (Cushing again) freely snatch and burn at the stake any women they suspect of being devilish agents, which, of course, are the youngest and prettiest. The Karnsteins are here represented by a living scion (Damien Thomas) who’s dedicated himself to worshipping Satan and evil. His efforts are rewarded when, having killed a peasant girl in a black mass, he revives Mircalla (now on to her third incarnation, Katya Wyeth). She vampirises him before departing back to the nether regions. Meanwhile, Weil finds himself and his wife (Kathleen Byron) saddled with the twin daughters of Weil’s dead brother. Maria (Mary C.) and Frieda (Madeleine C.) are two fashionable young ladies whose Venetian upbringing has rendered them poor fits for their uncle’s severe regime and provincial boredom. Frieda, the flirtier, dirtier twin, ventures out into the night in search of excitement and finds it in the arms and fangs of the newly crepuscular Count.

HammerKarnstein09

Cushing’s capacity to project cast-iron morality is pushed to an extreme, his Weil presented as mere equal and opposite in grossly violent repression to the Count’s insatiable, parasitic sensuality. Each of them grinds soul and flesh apart, perversion the offspring of suppression, with the good and bad twins trapped between, embodying the basic Manichean split in total polarisation. Local teacher and choirmaster Anton Hoffer (David Warbeck) is the voice of rationalism, resisting Weil’s cabal of Puritans. When his sister, fellow teacher Ingrid (Isobel Black), leaves the village to avoid Weil’s threats, she turns up later killed by the Count, and exhibited with punitive relish by Weil. Of course, there’s the climactic moment in which one twin is swapped for the other, and Weil nearly burns Maria at the stake, only to be averted when Anton is attacked by Frieda, pretending to be her sister.

HammerKarnstein10

Anton leads the Puritans in war against the Count: having repeatedly dressed down the Puritans for their conveniently misogynistic marauding, he implores them with the pointed line, “Seek out the evil you fear where it really is, in the castle on the hill!” Director Hough’s grip on the film, unlike Baker and Sangster, only strengthens as it goes on, full of well-orchestrated action and atmosphere, and the climactic scenes are some of the best Hammer ever offered, particularly Weil’s brutal decapitation of Frieda. Twins of Evil is nowhere near a perfect film, filled, like its predecessors, with odd, unexplained story leaps (for example, who exactly was attacking the villagers before Mircalla’s visitation) and stricken with a jerky, opportunistic rhythm. But it’s by far the best of the trilogy, and one of the finest later Hammer films. The sexy stuff here is, as mentioned earlier, often silly: lesbian action is restrained to Frieda biting one of the Count’s imprisoned courtesans on the breast, and there’s a later, risible moment in which Anton pinions Frieda by dropping a crucifix on her conveniently displayed body.

HammerKarnstein11

But Hough’s decrepit castle interiors and foggy forests give the film a lushness that’s more incipiently erotic. Especially good is Mircalla’s resurrection, a ghostly, shrouded figure that seems morbidly malevolent rising from the grave and confronting the terrified Count, but then reaching out with a finely feminine hand to stroke his face. The Collinsons were a bit bovine, and both were dubbed, but otherwise the acting’s largely good, particularly from Cushing and Byron, whose terrified hausfrau works up the guts to give her husband a tongue-lashing when he goes too far. Dennis Price is in here, too, looking distressingly ill in one of his last roles. Oddly enough, the only actor to appear in all three films is Harvey Hall, who played, respectively, a conscientious, but weak-fleshed butler; an inquisitive, but doomed police inspector; and one of Weil’s religious thugs. In any event, even if the Karnstein trilogy as a whole fails to cohere, the films are still dashing good fun.

Standard
1970s, British cinema, Horror/Eerie, Television

The Stone Tape (1972)

.

TheStoneTape01

Director: Peter Sasdy
Screenweriter: Nigel Kneale

By Roderick Heath

Nigel Kneale virtually invented the traditions of television science fiction and helped define the basics of serial drama itself with his The Quatermass Experiment, broadcast on the BBC over six weeks in 1953. That work suddenly expanded the potential scope of television programming and science fiction in the public eye with its eerie, utterly minimalist telling of the sorry fate of the first astronaut sent into space and returning to Earth infected by an alien virus. The subsequent two Quatermass serials, in 1955 and 1957, and the films made of them by Hammer Studios, became permanent models for future genre creators. Prickly, dismissive, and often badly utilised throughout his career, Kneale nonetheless still stands as one of television’s most inventive and intelligent figures, one who has perhaps had a deeper impact on popular culture than many realise, considering his influence on filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (whose script for Poltergeist was reputedly influenced by Kneale’s work) and especially John Carpenter. Sadly, Carpenter’s admiration led to a painful interlude, when Kneale wrote a script for him that became the disappointingly realised Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983). As if by way of compensation—unappreciated by Kneale—Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) paid overt tribute to The Stone Tape and credited its screenplay to one “Martin Quatermass”.

Nonetheless, where works by other reputable names of early television, such as Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling, now often seem a bit hoary, Kneale’s work remains nuanced and intriguing. Like most professional writers, Kneale tackled a many disparate projects, including many adaptations, but his personal work was usually marked by recurring fascinations with mystery and the intangible, with the distance between the most elevated and most elemental characteristics in human beings, and the blurred ground between science and supernatural, all of which fueled Quatermass and the Pit (1957), still one of the greatest pieces of television created. Another of Kneale’s insistent qualities was a delight in topicality, and his scripts tended to be infused with inevitably dated and yet still interesting, thought-provoking, and often lucidly prognosticative reflections on contemporary concerns. His work was often laced with bitingly cynical takes on corporatism, capitalism, the media, militarism, and politicians somewhat before it was fashionable to do so, and indeed contributed considerably to the intellectual climate of the ’60s. Later, his The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) predicted the rise of reality television with precision, and he was still successfully scaring the hell out of many people with his excellent adaptation of Susan Hill’s beloved spook story The Woman in Black, made in 1989, before his death in 2006.

TheStoneTape02

The Stone Tape, made by the BBC in 1972 by Hungarian-born director Peter Sasdy, who made several fascinating, if uneven, films for Hammer around this time, reflects again Kneale’s curious angle on the science versus superstition schism, and commented with acuity on matters then much on the mind. The result is one of those little miracles of the medium which always seems fueled as much by the necessary constraints on it as anything: The Stone Tapes manages to be both thoroughly logical and concrete and yet also tantalisingly near-abstract in its story suggestions and final meaning. Kneale’s familiar topicality is also immediately manifest, in this instance, the paranoid, competitive reaction of western business to growing Japanese domination of home appliance technology, the globalisation of such technology, and the decline of British influence in it; more subtly but, finally, powerfully, the narrative infusion of an equally fashionable, feminist-hued parable.

TheStoneTape03

The story commences with Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) arriving at a colossal Victorian country house that has just been converted into a research facility by Ryan Electrics, a successful, ambitious company that wants to take on the Japanese domination in recording technology. Jill, brittle and upset for reasons that take a while to emerge, panics when her Mini is nearly squashed between two trucks. The conversion of the house has been overseen by Roy “Collie” Collinson (Iain Cuthbertson), and taking charge of the new facility is Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), the high-powered, high-pressure boss of the company’s research team, and, as it happens, Jill’s lover. Still shaken and upset, she watches the raucous, jarring celebration of her fellow workers—all male—as they move into their new facility. Peter is, however, soon disquieted to learn that a basement room earmarked for computer storage has been left untouched by the renovators, who were dissuaded by strange phenomena.

TheStoneTape04

Jill, who seems especially psychically sensitive, is horrified to glimpse a brief spectral vision of a screaming young serving maid, Louisa, who died in the room, but no one believes her. She and Peter dig into the house’s history and find it’s infamous for similar manifestations: a local publican, Alan (Michael Graham Cox), recalls hearing strange noises in the house as a child when he and his mates used to venture there, and one of his friends, Jackie, was driven insane when locked in there one night. Peter and Collie soon see and hear the apparition, but Peter, quickly regaining his composure, suggests to his team that they investigate the phenomena; rather than calling it a ghost, he considers it “a mass of data waiting to be interpreted.” Installing sound and video recording and computer equipment in the room, the researchers begin probing the mystery, but find their gear can’t register the phenomena in any way, and that it affects people to differing degrees: Jill is the most attuned, while one of the team registers nothing at all. Through her canny computations, Jilll eventually discerns that the material the room is made from is acting like a kind of recording medium, and that rather than manifesting as detectable phenomena, the medium attunes to brainwave patterns that produces the phenomena only inside their heads.

TheStoneTape05

The notion that supernatu
ral events might in fact have explanations rooted in subtle natural reproductions of sophisticated technology is an irresistible MacGuffin. Kneale had often toyed with the idea that ghost hauntings and magical apparitions might be manifestations of preternatural and pseudo-scientific phenomena, and enjoyed the notion that rather than always making the world easier to comprehend and tame, such technology might reveal terrifying truths. Here, the room’s uncanny properties have retained, locked in an apparent loop like a CD on repeat, a record of Laura’s death—she fell from a staircase in the room that appears to ascend to nowhere. The Stone Tape is less explicit, however, than much of Kneale’s other work, for even as the researchers think they’ve gained a grasp on something that can both explain away centuries of superstition and revolutionize the future of technology, that grasp slowly slips away as its implications are explored. Peter and his team immediately realise they might have the holy grail of information technology encoded in the masonry of the room, and yet, as Jill senses, there’s still some unexplained malevolence at hand, as Alan, after freaking out by witnessing the phenomenon again, recalls his crazed friend Jackie mentioning “the others” that had appeared to him.

TheStoneTape06

In its on-screen technology, stylisation, and preoccupations, The Stone Tape is very 1972, but that’s part of its charm, especially since the script’s sharp satire on corporate culture of the era still has some resonance. Kneale jumps keenly on the anxious desire of the researchers to win back some cred for British technology at a time when the Japanese grip on the electronics market was becoming unassailable. It’s especially interesting that Peter’s mission statement for the team is to create a recording medium that anticipates modern MP3 technology. Peter pushes his team like a combination cheerleader and motivational speaker, anxious to make a quick breakthrough. He wants to keep his new kingdom safe from invasion by the far less glamorous nuts-and-bolts work of Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh), a classic eccentric inventor type who’s working on a new type of washing machine—far from the kind of world-conquering inventions he has in mind.

TheStoneTape07

Bryant’s performance as Peter is a great part of the film’s effectiveness. His grating, half-bellowed voice establishes his swinging-dick authority in spite of his rather unimpressive physical presence, confirming he’s someone who’s staked all of his sense of self and his clout in the world on success in business. He’s also married with children and stringing Jill along. As they journey deeper into the enigma of the haunted room, which records show seems to predate the rest of the house, and are at least Saxon-period, the intricate relationship between the way Peter and Jill react to it and to each other is teased apart. Peter sees a problem to be conquered and subjugated according to his credo, whereas Jill is disturbed by the resonances of the phenomenon. She sees, first and foremost, a record of a woman in dire straits and worries that this might not be merely a facsimile of the girl’s death but may indeed be her spirit locked in an eternal reexperiencing of her own death—a grim resonance that accords with Jill fear of inevitable emotional abandonment by Peter.

TheStoneTape08

Jill, priestess of the new cult of computer science, is crucial to the success of his new enterprise, and yet Jill embarrassedly excuses herself from Peter’s office when he takes a call from his wife; it seems that their relationship is based as much in Peter’s salesman gab and natural gravitational pull as the head honcho as anything else. The mordant take on the sexual politics of their relationship sharpens to a cruel point as Jill’s inability to let the mystery go causes Peter to explode in a misogynist rave, and, in a devastating near-throwaway touch, Collie spies Peter’s new secretary hovering in undress in his bedroom. Hysteria cranks up as Peter, driven by his determination to gain control over the phenomenon, drives his team to the point of fraying as they bombard the space with high-frequency sound and light waves to try to trigger a manifestation. His fellows buckle in pain and exhaustion as Peter frantically pursues his object, only to leave the room suddenly void of any trace of Louisa and her repetitious demise—he has, as someone puts it, erased the tape.

Jill continues, conjecturing that only the most recent “recordings” have been erased and that the oldest layers to the building could contain images from perhaps 7,000 years ago. Whilst a defeated and embarrassed Peter deals with the final incursion and triumph of the ridiculous Crawshaw and angrily spurns Jill, she is finally cornered by gleaming apparitions, suggestive of something grotesque and undefined that drive her to death in the same fashion as Louisa, plunging down the steps in the ancient room.

I’ve always had a great fondness for the almost Elizabethan stagelike modesty of classic TV production, and The Stone Tape exemplifies why I prefer it to the ever-slicker modern style that bores me senseless: the emphasis is on strong acting and unshowy simplicity in its effects. Delivering a tremendous boost to its low-key kind of eerie are the layered, unsettling sound effects provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose pioneering techniques in sound effects lent Doctor Who a lot of its early distinction, and whose work contributed quietly to the future boom in electronic music. Sasdy didn’t have to do much to sell the tightly constructed story except keep the typically cheap Beeb sets from toppling over, but he maintains a firm grip on a story that burrows deeper and deeper, like its heroine, who can’t give up her theorising about the nature of the room.

TheStoneTape09

Asher, best known to cinephiles from her fawnish, but winning teenage performance in Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964) and her object-of-desire role in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970)—but otherwise most famous for getting dumped by Paul McCartney—is a revelation here in one of her first (and few) truly adult roles. Her layered, convincing performance captures both Jill’s strength of character and frustration in subordinating it to the likes of Peter, and her fraying psyche’s reaction to the proximity of a mystery only she can truly approach, aware that to approach it means the most hideous of fates. With her urgent refusal to give up her efforts to understand the mystery, she becomes both increasingly obsessive, working through the night, hidden in shadow, her unreasonable fixation linked cleverly to her disintegrating, resented attachment to Peter, Jill finally suffers exactly the fate she most dreaded, and yet one that seems almost preordained.

After Peter paints her as unbalanced and suicidal at an inquest, Collie finally punches him and walks out. Left alone, Peter wanders into the ancient room, where he begins to hear Jill’s anguished cries for his help, before something lights up the room and draws a hideous soul-cracking scream from Peter…

…which would serve him just about right. Snappy, gripping, and confidently rendered, The Stone Tape is a gem of the medium.

Standard
1960s, British cinema, Horror/Eerie

The Gorgon (1964)

.

TheGorgon01

Director: Terence Fisher

By Roderick Heath

Perhaps the darkest, surely the most genuinely uncanny and poetically realised of all Hammer horror films, The Gorgon sees most of the classic elements and seasoned artists of the studio’s canonical repertoire—director Terence Fisher, screenwriter John Gilling, composer James Bernard, and stars Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Barbara Shelley—working at fullest pitch. The titular figure out of Greek mythology was a fine counterpoint to the great masculine figure of entrapping, corrosive, sexual threat, Dracula, which Fisher had already memorably handled; in taking on a female icon of irresistibly destructive force, Fisher was able to conjure his most metaphorically acute and sadly circular fable.

TheGorgon02

The Gorgon is structured as mystery revolving around the deserted, ruined Castle Borski somewhere in Germany in the early 20th century. The castle is the perfect heart of darkness that both repels and attracts the protagonists as they act out an oedipal fantasy of fathers and sons fighting to reach the forbidden female at the centre of the myth who will consume them. In realising a story with the force and simplicity of a folktale, it’s appropriate that The Gorgon is Fisher’s most deceptively placid, oneiric film, opening with a shot of the remote castle and a moon-gilded forest landscape that seem to have been slipped out of a Grimm yarn.

TheGorgon03

The initial situation evokes a classic quandary, in which young Bohemian artist Bruno Heitz (Jeremy Longhurst) is told by his model Sascha Cass (Toni Gilpin) that she’s pregnant by him. He angrily stalks out to tell her father that “I won’t evade my responsibilities,” as she pursues him, afraid her father might become violent. But on the forest path, she spies something that causes her to utter a final scream of soul-wrenching fear.

TheGorgon04

The township of Vandorf, where this occurs, is afflicted with unexplained killings, but the authorities, represented by reactionary Police Inspector Kanof (Patrick Troughton), a malleable coroner (Joseph O’Conor), and particularly the formidable, dictatorial hospital chief Dr. Namaroff (Cushing), are eager to pass Sascha’s death off as Bruno’s work—a job made easier when he’s found in the woods where he’s hung himself in grief. Bruno’s father, Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), a professor at Leipzig University, attends the inquest and upsets the apple cart by abusing the officials and promising to solve the mystery himself. What he doesn’t know immediately, but which Namaroff and his favourite nurse Carla Hoffman (Shelley) are well aware of, is that the bodies of the victims are found turned to stone. Heitz begins to suspect the truth, even reaching so far as to suggest that the legend of Castle Borski, that it’s inhabited by the spirit of Megara, the last of the three Gorgons, might be true.

TheGorgon05

One night, when researching this myth, he’s drawn by a siren song to the castle ruins, where he spots the spectral fiend and runs away screaming, doomed to petrify even as he writes an explaining letter to his last remaining son. That son, Paul (Richard Pasco), comes to Vandorf after taking leave of his own gruffly paternal teacher, Karl Meister (Lee), and encounters the ambiguous, amnesiac, terrorised Carla, who is being used by Namaroff to get close to him with a hope of turning up any useful information on Megara. Paul barely survives an encounter with Megara when she appears at the house during a storm, glimpsed in grotesque snatches mirrored in a pond. Paul recovers in the hospital under Carla’s care, deepening their growing affection, and Meister arrives in Vandorf to aid his student. This leads to Namaroff’s increasingly forceful efforts, backed up by Kanof’s proto-totalitarian regime, to fend off these intrusive know-it-alls and maintain his hegemony over Carla, whom Meister concludes might be the human vessel of Megara, a fact Nemeroff already suspects but won’t yet face.

TheGorgon06

Like so much of Grecian legend, the Gorgon myth offers an explicit psychological metaphor for the inevitable corruption of specifically female beauty and the dangers of arrogance. Fisher and Gilling give the myth a tweak that skews it close to familiar Fisher territory of portraying Janus-faced desire and repression, amour and brutality, which he expressed most directly in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). Whilst it anticipates in key metaphors and plot movements Gilling’s later, interesting The Reptile, The Gorgon is far superior not only in Fisher’s deeper sense of mise-en-scène, but because where The Reptile severs the chief protagonists from direct involvement in the twisted sexual dynamic it invokes, The Gorgon sees a father, two sons, and the stern representatives of a paternalist state and culture all trying to contain or penetrate the feminine mystery at its heart. Most modern horror films, of course, are about sex disguised, concealed, and expressed through violent anxiety and shadow-puppet representatives, and more specifically, most are about a desire to control and obliterate sexual emblems, usually women, on screen. The Gorgon is something slightly different, because it portrays a group of men dying one by one, shocked into an eternal frieze, as like Theseus into the labyrinth, they chase Megara into her home.

TheGorgon07

Where most Hammer films set in Europe usually described an ambiguously defined Germanic realm deep in another age, The Gorgon is specific about setting and evokes a paranoid, uptight world just before World War I. Fisher makes an explicit link between political repression and the sexual and psychological variety, with Vandorf described as a police state and Namaroff a Caligari type trying to keep the various demons corralled and controlled. He might be considered an anti-Freud trying to guard the true nature of the heroes from themselves—Carla from realising she’s a destructive goddess incarnate and Paul from seeing into his own oedipal doom to repeat his father’s self-destructive odyssey—whilst maintaining his own firm agenda to protect/own Carla. The threat of explosive, yet repressive dictatorial rage lurks, warned of in Sacha’s father and finally actualised by Nameroff as he tries to keep Paul from uncovering Carla’s secret. Whilst the structure of the state is maintained by Nameroff and Kanof disguising the truth—a fatal attraction to a primal embodiment of sex-as-death—that structure is threatened by the forceful, yet foolish efforts of the Heitz men and by Meister’s pitilessly logical insight.

TheGorgon08

The desire to know the forbidden, always an obsessive theme of folk-myth and the horror genre, involves a piercing of boundaries of social control and civic authority, endangering the balance by which social forms are enforced. This theme takes on thoroughly, if subtly, erotic meaning as Paul and Nameroff’s war to possess Carla becomes an overt generational struggle. Lee’s Meister, cast as Nameroff’s equal and opposite in wielding the power of knowledge, is rendered distinct from the psychosexual merry-go-round of the Heitzes and Nameroff in competing for Carla/Megara; thus, he is the only one who clearly recognises her for what she is and who can wield the sword that decapitates her. The price he pays is being exempted from any sensual association with her. Forms of control of the human, especially female, body are reiterated, from Boris capturing Sascha’s naked flesh on page as overture to making her pregnant to Nameroff coolly hacking a dead female patient’s brain out and placing it in a jar, declaring that the most noble work of God is also the most repulsive to look at, an allusion to the beauty and murderous ugliness of the Gorgon herself.

TheGorgon09

And, of course, the Gorgon ripostes with an irreducible capacity to turn anyone who approaches her to a stony mockery of a human form. In spite of all warnings and rational measures, Paul refuses to believe Carla could be the monster and winds up battling Nameroff in Castle Borski essentially for the right to solve the mystery, a mystery, however, that can only be solved by staring death in the face, bringing the sex/death correlation of so much religious and folk imagery to a final nexus. This, at least, gives Meister the chance to slice Megara’s head off and end the poisonous roundelay, but not before a calcifying Paul watches with his dying breaths as Megara’s snake-crowned head transmogrifies back into Carla’s.

TheGorgon10

The Gorgon is quieter and more intimate than the general run of Hammer product—and Fisher’s usually lightning-paced work, in particular—but like much of Fisher’s best films, the visual detail works around limited effects and budgets to present a spare, yet iridescent sense of a mythic realm blooming amidst the cold grey stone of a regulated world. Moreover, its careful, pregnant pace responds to the necessity of its specific story and mood. Few other films of the era maintain the sheer eeriness The Gorgon offers in its iconography of the ruined castle as a lonely shrine in the forest and the siren song of the monster that infests the night, drawing men out to their doom.

TheGorgon11

On the more immediate level, it’s fun to see Lee playing the iron hand of rational conquest Cushing usually played in taking on Lee’s Dracula, made up to look the older savant whilst still promising a mob of yokels with utter conviction that they’d better not try any rough stuff with him like they did with Heitz. His appearance at Paul’s door late in the film, standing in the shadows, plays as a sly in-joke reversal of Lee’s entrance in Dracula (1958) and also anticipates the ironically menacing appearance of Father Merrin in The Exorcist (1973), another late-arriving saviour in a narrative with more than one point of similarity. Pasco is an untraditional sort of young hero, reflecting Hammer’s taste for real-looking actors, a fondness that often stretched even to its glamour-pusses. Cushing could play cold fixation as second nature, but his acting here, with slashing sideburns and dagger-sharp eyes firmly evoking rigid will and imperative possessiveness, summarises all such performances with bleak, unforgiving perfection.

TheGorgon12

Shelley, who became an almost emblematic star for Hammer in the early 60s, possessed a rare talent for suggesting bubbling passions under a staid English Rose façade, very much the opposite in look and persona from the era’s other British Barbara, Barbara Steele. Her poised job here as the profoundly troubled Carla, snatching at hope, bending to Nemeroff’s will, and finally surrendering to a force within but beyond herself, is quietly heartbreaking. It’s a pity that she doesn’t get to play the Gorgon as well (Prudence Hyman does that) and fully embody the beauty/beast. Indeed, the only real faults of The Gorgon are purely technical, like the unfortunately lame effects of the severed head and its transmogrification at the end, and a rain storm that turns on and off like a garden hose. Otherwise, it’s a highpoint of intelligence and artistry in the genre.

Standard
1960s, Horror/Eerie

Plague of the Zombies (1966) / The Reptile (1966)

.

GillingZombiesReptile01

Director: John Gilling

By Roderick Heath

Shot back-to-back on location in Cornwall by John Gilling, a stalwart British writer and director, The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies are two of the most sober, solid, and intelligent of Hammer Studios’ 1960s output. The two films were shot back-to-back and intended to run as a double bill. They were never screened that way, but it feels right to look at them together, for they share common locations, themes, and a crucial cast member—the vivid young actress Jacqueline Pearce. Pearce would later gain a cult following playing a villianous dominatrix in Terry Nation’s late ‘70s scifi show Blake’s 7, but her brief window of mid ’60s prominence suggested someone headed for bigger things, a potential rival for Glenda Jackson and Diana Rigg as an intense brunette with acting clout.

GillingZombiesReptile02

Set in the last third of the 19th century and striking a common note of colonial evils returning to bite the British backside, The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies display the radical bent of Hammer close to the end of the studio’s golden age when it could do little wrong at the box office. Exploring in The Reptile problems of nascent feminism and waning patriarchal authority and presenting in Plague of the Zombies an explicit allegory for social exploitation, and, of course, all wrapped in the cosiest folds of Hammer’s traditional, uniquely solid approach to the fantastic and the gothic, Hammer had its fingers directly on the pop culture pulse. The shift in location to Cornwall also offered a different milieu and mood to the overused precincts of forest so many Hammer films used to suggest the stygian wilds of th studio’s usual Mittel Europa.

GillingZombiesReptile03

Plague, written by Peter Bryan, sees an eminent professor of medicine, Sir James Forbes (André Morell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) travel to the Cornish countryside on receiving a letter from one of Sir John’s brightest former pupils, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams), begging for aid and advice. A mysterious malady has been claiming lives in the small village where he’s set up practice with his wife, Sylvia’s school friend Alice (Pearce). Upon arrival, Sylvia is harassed by a group of fox-hunting aristocratic barbarians led by Denver (Alex Davion) when she directs them away from their prey. As they ride into the village pursuing her, they casually knock over a coffin containing the body of the latest victim of the undefined disease, infuriating his brother, Tom Martinus (Marcus Hammond), who takes out his feelings on the visitors and on Tompson, who’s utterly at a loss. Worse still, the fraying, desperate Alice is being assaulted by nightmares and physical manifestations of supernatural influence, perpetrated by masked voodoo practitioners in a subterranean vault.

GillingZombiesReptile04

During the night, Alice wanders off, causing Sylvia to pursue her, whilst Sir James and Tompson dig up Martinus’ brother, only find the body missing from the coffin. Sylvia is ridden down and assaulted by Denver and the hunters, dragged to a remote manor house, and threatened with gang rape before their host, the autocratic local squire, Clive Hamilton (Tom Carson), intervenes. Hamilton begs Sylvia’s forgiveness of his friends, but she walks out in a fury, only to glimpse, in the ruins of an old tin mine, a dead Alice being dumped by a man with the pallor of a walking corpse. Sir John soon begins to discern the dread truth: that the villagers are one by one being turned into zombies to work in Hamilton’s tin mine, and Hamilton now has his sights set on Sylvia as a prospective sacrifice to his dark, imported religion.

GillingZombiesReptile05

Whilst the references to voodoo practice as being especially revolting and disgusting and Hamilton’s exotic squad of drum-beating black servants suggest the usual hoary racist take, Bryan’s script takes thorough care to pin the villainy squarely on Hamilton as a profiteer who has gone abroad and returned with a supernatural means of exploiting workers and ensuring their servility, thus offering commentary on abuse of immigrants and strikebreaking at the same time. Hamilton’s mob of uptown goons is a particularly gross caricature of a peculiarly English variety of well-bred bastardry, especially Davion’s Denver, who suggests the James Bond type of sadistic playboy stripped of any remnant nobility, drawing cards to see who’ll mount Sylvia first and encouraging his prey to “go to ground, little rabbit!”

GillingZombiesReptile06

Hamilton, whilst initially seeming outraged by such behaviour, has even grosser motives when it comes to ensnaring the pretty women he encounters, carefully arranging the little tricks—getting them to cut themselves and taking samples of their blood to use in his rites—to put them under his spell, whilst stating of himself that, “I would like be to popular…but that would require me to conform, which I cannot do.” In opposition stands the always wonderful Morell, who had formerly played Watson in Terence Fisher’s giddy 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, as Sir James, a gruff, grumpy hero, and Clare as his intelligent, willful daughter. In their first scene together, Sir James grumbles that he regrets not drowning her at birth, lending an edge of eccentric conflict to their mutual reliance.

GillingZombiesReptile07

Gilling realises the scenes of the voodoo rites within the depths of the mine with spilt blood, voodoo dolls, and furiously tattooing congregants, and Satanic-masked men stalking the dreary streets of rural Britain, with a near-surreal intensity. There’s a memorable graveyard scene in which Sir James and Tompson are forced to decapitate a newly undead Alice, and a fainted Tompson hallucinates the entire cemetery disgorging its denizens in a putrefying army. Plague of the Zombies was the first halfway serious zombie movie since the 1940s, and its mixture of social commentary and ghoulish threat might have given young George Romero an idea or two, and surely lent some juice to some European zombie movies with distinct visual echoes, like of Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) and Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979).

GillingZombiesReptile08

The Reptile, written by Hammer bigwig Anthony Hinds under his usual pseudonym of John Elder, employs similar elements, especially the figure of a haughty, dictatorial master of a manor house, around whom mysterious deaths proliferate, except this time the man in question is Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman). He’s a stern, mysterious taskmaster who keeps his nervous, attractive daughter Anna (Pearce again) confined in their house as much as possible, whilst the attacks of a mysterious beast leave locals riddled with bite marks and flush with fatal poison. Former Grenadier Guardsman Harry Spalding (beloved Aussie character actor Ray Barrett in an early, uncharacteristically heroic, part) and his newlywed wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel) move into the house left to Harry by his brother, one of those mysterious victims killed in bizarre circumstances in Franklyn’s house at the very beginning. Franklyn is desperate to get them out of the house again, but the Spaldings find a local friend in Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper) and are warned of the mystery by resident eccentric Mad Peter (John Laurie). When they encounter Anne, the Franklyns are fascinated by her brittle, intoxicating persona and alarmed by the doctor’s fierce repression of her.

GillingZombiesReptile09

The punchline this time is that Franklyn, a scholar of all varieties of religious practise who had spent decades in the Orient, has incensed a Malayan snake cult whose practises he spied upon. They kidnapped Anna and had her possessed by a snake-demon. Under the insidious control of a cult priest posing as Franklyn’s servant (Marne Maitland), the demon occasionally takes Anna over and sooner or later destroys anyone who comes close to her. This makes for an interesting variation on the familiar paranoid theme of much Victorian gothic literature, in which icons stolen from other lands bring imperialist devils home to roost manifesting displays of corrosive supernatural influence. In this film, the theme is made more explicable and pointed, as the sibilant Malayan reiterates to Franklyn the arrogant crime for which he will be punished continually through his own daughter, who has taken on a sensual intensity forbidden to Victorian femininity.

GillingZombiesReptile10

This abuts a second more acutely troubling metaphor, one of incestuous patriarchal panic and attraction to emerging female sexuality. In a brilliant scene, Franklyn has Anna, who, having lived with him in the East for many years maintains Indian customs and dress, play the sitar for the Spaldings. She travels into a deep, predatory trance while playing, she and her father staring at each other in fixation until the doctor erupts in disgust and smashes her instrument. Later he’s nauseated to discover she’s shed her skin, leaving it in her bed, a perfectly distilled image to represent the forbidden sexuality at the tale’s heart. A common thread in the two movies is the portrait of a prodigious widowed father with a precocious, takes-after-her-old-man daughter, except the mild abrasiveness of the Forbes duo conceals deep affection and trust, with the medical man’s daughter a pithy and worthy offspring, whilst the stern religious expert’s daughter has become a manifestation of all that must be repressed and disdained.

GillingZombiesReptile11

Both films were shot by Arthur Grant, whose steady work offers some fluid tracking shots and cunning deep-focus frames. Apart from Pearce, the two movies also carried over in the cast the familiar supporting actor Michael Ripper, who, particularly in The Reptile, has the most sympathetic and substantial parts of his career. It’s a pity that Pearce has relatively little screen time in either film, though she works wonders in both, technically playing second fiddle to far blander female leads, of which the preferable is Clare, an inexperienced actress (and Buffalo Bill’s great-granddaughter) who is decent enough as a tomboy out of her depth. Both Carson and Willman, in their distinct roles, are memorable embodiments of unctuous villainy. Of the two movies, Plague is the most entertaining and propulsive, with its corny but lividly impressive imagery of the eerie mine and its underground workforce of rotting slave labour, rampaging and bursting into flames in the breathless finale when their dolls upstairs fall into a fire. But The Reptile is the most intriguing and effective in building a mood.

GillingZombiesReptile12

Gilling’s direction isn’t as sinuous and atmospheric as the work of Hammer’s first and finest horror auteur, Terence Fisher, with slight narrative stumbles in nearing the conclusion of both films. But his work is nonetheless solid and as free from cheese as a Hammer film could possibly get. Plague, with the nightmare graveyard scene, is notable for sporting perhaps the first-ever example of a dream sequence offered purely for shock value, a touch that would be reproduced to less and less effect many times in the genre’s coming decades. Also particularly admirable is the force with which Gilling uses jagged cuts, for instance, at the start of Plague, where the exotic ferocity of the voodoo rite suddenly segues to the becalmed grounds of the Forbes’ house, illustrating a dramatic disparity in conflicting realities, or in The Reptile when a brief but powerful insert finds the Malayan mastermind singing and charming his reptilian slave as she writhes in perverse ecstasy in her bed. In such moments Gilling wields intelligent, disorientating power.

Standard
1950s, 1960s, British cinema, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Eyes Without a Face (1959) / The Devil Rides Out (1967)

.

Directors: Georges Franju / Terence Fisher

By Roderick Heath

What’s the greatest horror film ever made?

Everyone will have a different answer to that, of course. Some will even say it’s an oxymoron. Lately, I caught up with two films that present themselves effectively for the nomination.

In many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Eyes Without a Face was a slow, unnerving, arty one-off for Georges Franju, a French filmmaker with a single previous credit—a documentary about slaughterhouses called L’Sang des Bêtes (1946). The Devil Rides Out is rocket-paced, entertaining, and artful. One is made by a French poet slumming and rising up with a pearl, the other by an English professional presenting his sleekest piece of craftsmanship. And yet they also share some qualities. Both films make the fantastic plausible and enthralling with solid settings, realistic detail, and minimalism in their special effects and mise en scène. Both films tell tales that involve a slow dive from a world of the everyday into bottomless pits of depravity. Both were unpopular at the time of their releases.

It’s virtually impossible to see Eyes Without a Face without prior knowledge as to what it’s about, and yet the way it introduces its audience to its grisly tale as a starkly unfolding mystery is cinematic narrative intelligence defined. The introductory scene instantly grabs attention, raising dozens of questions as it presents them. We see a woman (Alida Valli, in fact) driving a car—her face a map of anxiety—keeping an eye on the suited, hatted figure resting on the backseat and becoming electric with fear when a pair of headlights speed up behind her vehicle. It proves to be just an overtaking van. What is she afraid of? The answer comes in the subtlest, deftest of shots—the figure in the back of the car slumps over slightly, unmistakably a corpse. Soon, Valli is dragging this body, which proves to be that of a young woman, to dump in a lake.

The police cannot identify the corpse, so they call in two men who both have missing daughters, one of whom, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a reputed surgeon, immediately identifies it as his girl. But it isn’t. His daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), was horrendously injured in a car accident and disappeared from the hospital. She lives in his villa up the road from the small hospital he runs, and is so disfigured she wears an eerie mask that mimics her proper face and yet travesties it. The discovered corpse was actually the result of a botched attempt by her father to perform a complete facial graft. The murdered girl is laid to rest in the cemetery under the stern eye of the doctor, his assistant Louise (Valli), whom he rescued from disfigurement, and Jacques (François Guérin), Christiane’s fiancé. Christiane places the blame for both the accident and his sickening quest on her father’s relentless desire for control. Indeed, for all Génessier and Valli’s “caring” motives, their icy savagery is revealed as all the more appalling as Valli tricks a young Swiss student (Juliette Mayniel) into their lair, where Génessier, with surgical skill and precision, slices off her face.

The long operation sequence, which Franju’s camera observes in fixated shots, were highly daring in 1959. Some have suggested Fanju’s film, along with Psycho and La Maschera del Demonio (both 1960), initiated the drift toward splatter-gore movies. But the scene is utterly functional and quite sensitizing, providing an ideal counterpoint to the shallow showiness of modern equivalents. It does prefigure and well outclass elements of Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) in exploiting the terror in the notion of awakening in a basement to find someone slicing bits off you. Franju’s approach to gore is interesting. He presents the surgery scene with uncompromising directness, but avoids properly showing Christiane’s disfigurement, for which we have been well prepped by the police discussions (“…and the rats,” mentions one cop disquietingly in discussing her injuries) and the reaction of Mayniel when she sees her.

The taut realism of most of Eyes Without a Face, carefully etched by Eugen Schufftan’s barren cinematography, stands in effective contrast to the potential silliness of its story, not so far from The Raven (1936) or Circus of Horrors (1959), as well as to the carefully placed flourishes of fairytale poeticism that punctuate the tale in which it anticipates Argento’s Suspiria (1976). Christiane is associated with white doves (a pre-accident portrait of her shows her with one seated on her hand) and is confirmed as an innocent for whom life without her face is impossible but for whom the process of getting a new one is even worse.

With her doll-like mask, childish clothes, essential fragility, and friendship with birds and the dogs caged in the basement (which her father uses for his torturous grafting experiments), she evokes a Snow White, Gretel, or Rapunzel at the mercy of an evil sorcerer and stepmother. It’s also not so fantastic as we’d like to think: in her control-freak father seen by the world as a gravely responsible authority figure, keeping his daughter in a state of perpetual juvenility in a home/prison, her beauty spoilt by his actions and henceforth in his hands, it’s not hard to see parallels with the recent Josef Fritzl case in Austria.

The turns of the story’s screws are careful and relentless. The graft of the Swiss girl’s face is apparently successful, Christiane restored to radiant beauty for a time, hoping to live a life for the girls who have been sacrificed as well as for herself. But cell necrosis sets in, and her father has to cut her new face off again, a tale baldly told in a series of photographs he’s taken of her new, then slowly rotting visage. A police investigation proves incredibly half-hearted and only succeeds in placing in danger a pretty, young shoplifter (Beatrice Altariba), who volunteers as bait. Therefore, the film can only end in a kind of familial apocalypse. To save this potential victim, Christiane stabs her evil pseudo-stepmother in the throat and releases her animal friends, the baying dogs to tear her father to pieces before she wanders out into a dark world, her face still a waxen mystery, a dove perched on her hand once more.

Franju’s poised camera is aided by a world-class set of collaborators—within a few years, DP Schufftan and composer Maurice Jarre, whose creepy-carnival score ties the film together with sickly romanticism, would have Oscars. The team of writers adapting Jean Redon’s novel include future director Claude Sautet and the famed writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also provided the source material for Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques and Hitchcock’s Vertigo; like those films Eyes Without a Face retains a mysterious poise between the familiar, even seedy, and the fantastic, the threatening. Brasseur, best known for his delightfully charismatic performance in Les Enfants du Paradis, is the total antithesis here, as a dour, obsessive patriarch who keeps his emotions so deeply buried they only find proper expression in obscene activity. Scob effectively embodies a brittle innocence.

The Devil Rides Out apparently was the idea of Christopher Lee, who was something of a fantasy literature freak and who prodded Hammer Films to tackle Dennis Wheatley’s large canon. Wheatley, a skilled adventure writer with a gift for plot and pace, beloved of crackpots and counterculture acolytes as well as blood-and-thunder fans, contrived a fantastically broad conflation in his Black Magic novels, many of which featured the heroic Duc de Richlieu, in a kind of new-age wonderland that placed all religions and superstitions on a roughly equal footing. This mystical egalitarianism was undercut by Wheatley’s tendencies to racial stereotyping and cultural cliché. His terrific, if convoluted, 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out was the first of these and a huge success. For the screenplay, Richard Matheson offered a stripped-down version of the novel’s narrative that cleaned off all the fat and the spiritualist mumbo-jumbo, leaving a tale that suited director Terence Fisher’s no-nonsense aesthetics perfectly.

Fisher had been on the outs with Hammer since the flop of his version of The Phantom of the Opera (1962), and fought his way through with the impressive The Gorgon (1963) and the delightfully tacky Island of Terror and Island of the Burning Doomed (both 1966). Along with the deliciously weird The Lost Continent (1966), Devil began a short-lived Wheatley cycle. As happened several times to Hammer when it became ambitious, the film flopped. The studio template would limp along in the future with soft-core teases like The Vampire Lovers (1970) and more lame Dracula films. The Devil Rides Out then might be considered the high water mark of Hammer Films: its production values are high, the cast generally excellent, and the sets and effects markedly improved from the pasteboard delights of the early films, making for a general lack of cheesy moments. Not that they’re entirely lacking. What fun would a Hammer film be without a little cheese?

Technically, Wheatley’s novel was a sequel, utilising characters set up in his earlier adventure novels. Matheson disposes of these background elements entirely, reducing the relationship between de Richlieu (Lee), Rex van Rijn (Leon Greene), and Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) to a simple basis—the Duc and Rex served with Simon’s father in the Lafayette Escadrille. Rex flies in from America to visit his old chums, meeting the Duc at the airport, but when they proceed to Simon’s house, they find he has been co-opted into a mysterious group of strangers, including the dark-haired beauty Tanith (Nike Arrighi) and the silver-haired, charismatic Mocata (Charles Gray). His suspicions stirred, the Duc discovers telltale signs that Simon has become involved with black magic. Rex knocks their friend out, and they carry him to the Duc’s London house, but a baleful influence causes Simon to almost strangle himself with the totemic crucifix the Duc places around his neck. Then it is removed to save his life, Simon immediately runs off. Returning to Simon’s house, the Duc and Rex narrowly avoid falling under the influence of an evil spirit Mocata has invoked—a short, tubby, black guy with glowing eyes.

To dig up a lead (and other things), Rex tracks down Tanith and takes her for a drive in the country. He encourages her to leave the coven and Mocata’s influence, but his plea falls on deaf ears, literally, as Tanith is mesmerised by Mocata in the rearview mirror. Tanith steals his car and drives into the yard of a white mansion with a creepy, multiheaded bird-serpent-thing guarding the front gate. It’s the base for the coven, which then proceeds to an invocation/orgy in the woods where Mocata plans to initiate Simon and Tanith into Satanism. They summon The Goat of Mendes, or, as only Christopher Lee can pronounce it properly, “The Devil himself!” But Rex and the Duc aren’t cowered by the prince of darkness. They drive Rex’s car into the midst of the coven, deliver a few good socks on the jaw, steal away their friends, and hole up in the country manor of de Richlieu’s niece Marie (Sarah Lawson) her husband Richard (Paul “Yes Minister” Eddington), and their child Peggy (Rosalyn Landor).

Fisher’s core contribution to the horror genre was an insistence on cliché-free villainy, the superior attractiveness of on-screen evil today considered axiomatic best defined in Fisher’s Dracula (1958) when the beast that descends the stairs proves not to be a fanged weirdo, but the rakishly handsome Lee. Fisher deftly provides more attractive evil in the form of Gray’s Mocata, described in the book as a pale, bloated creep, but here a lean, charismatic opposite to Lee’s rigorous de Richlieu. Gray’s Mocata, with jolly arrogance, visits the house when the Duc is absent, at first presenting himself as criminally misunderstood and helpful, and then slowly, in a rather brilliantly shot and edited sequence, asserting mesmeric influence over Marie, and driving Simon and Tanith to attack their guardians. Only the interruption by Peggy breaks Mocata’s grip on the household, and he is forced to leave, but with the grim promise that “something will come” in the night.

The Duc knows too well what this entails. Whilst Tanith insists that Rex keep her tied up well away from the others and remain with her in a barn, the Duc clears out Richard and Marie’s living room and sketches a mammoth magic circle on the floor within which they spend the night. They are assailed by psychological assaults, poisoned water, illusions of Peggy in danger, giant tarantulas in one of the genre’s greatest sequences, building in pace with a sleekly mobile camera by DP Arthur Grant, working in widescreen and tight editing. After they have resisted all these torments, eerie silence reigns, to be broken by the distant clatter of a horse’s hooves approaching. This is the Angel of Death himself called by Mocata to cart them all off to hell. The Duc warns them all not to look on his face, but when the armoured Angel lifts the beaver on his helmet, it reveals a grinning skull. Only the Duc’s shouting an obscure spell, the powerful but dangerous Susumar Ritual, seems to drive away the beast—but at a cost. Rex stumbles in with Tanith’s corpse, her soul having been stolen away by the Angel, and Peggy has been seized by Mocata for sacrifice.

From here on the novel rambles a bit, so Matheson and Fisher pare it back. The Duc summons Tanith’s spirit from the underworld, using Marie as the medium, to find where Mocata has take Peggy. Tanith’s fear of a guarding “winged serpent” tips Rex that they are at the white mansion. Simon, having already realised this, has rushed there, but finds he is powerless against Mocata. When the Duc and others arrive, Rex’s two-fisted approach doesn’t exactly cut it, and the Duc is too afraid to use the Susumar Ritual again. But Tanith takes possession of Marie again, and the possessed woman proceeds harmlessly through the coven. She gets the innocent Peggy to repeat the Ritual, and all hell literally breaks lose—the coven bursts into flames, and Mocata collapses when a huge crucifix is revealed behind a curtain. Suddenly, our heroes awaken, still resting within the magic chalk circle. When Rex brings in a very alive and clingy Tanith, the Duc realises that time has been reversed. Tthey have won their battle against Evil, and the reward is that the Angel stole back to Hades with Mocata rather than Tanith. Now that’s a deus ex machina ending.

If The Devil Rides Out largely lacks the bleakly ironic subtexts of Fisher’s initial Frankenstein and Dracula films, it does extend both his love of attractive evil and stern good, which become mutually destructive forces, using and consuming people between them. As in Eyes Without a Face, only the inarguable innocence of young women—here Tanith and Peggy— properly strike down Evil. By stripping away both the background details of the Duc and Mocata, they both become menacing combatants in an eternal, cosmic war. With its serial-like linearity and zippy Jazz-era stylisation, the film seems to have made enough of a mark on pop culture despite underperforming at the box office. I’ve seen it echoed through The Avengers TV series and episodes of Doctor Who, satirised in The Goodies, and possibly even impacted upon those fated fans of both Hammer and the old serials, Spielberg and Lucas, whose Indiana Jones films may just owe something to this film.

Standard