Monday 31 October 2011

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Hammer Films had been around for quite a while and had enjoyed considerable success with their excellent 1955 science fiction horror offering The Quatermass Xperiment but it was The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 that really put them on the map, and in the process relaunched gothic horror as a profitable movie genre.

Terence Fisher had already helmed many movies for Hammer including a couple of science fiction films and a superb and somewhat gothic-influenced film noir, Stolen Face. He was an obvious choice to direct Hammer’s most ambitious project to date. Hammer has decided to redo the most famous of the Universal monster movies of the 30s, but in colour and widescreen and with rather more sex and violence. It proved to be an extremely astute decision, and Hammer’s choice of Fisher as director and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the stars was equally inspired.

With Jimmy Sangster writing the screenplay and Bernard Robinson as production designer Hammer had assembled what was to prove a formidable creative team.

The plot of The Curse of Frankenstein does not stick too closely to Mary Shelley’s novel or to Universal’s 1931 version. Which was probably just as well. The enormous success of the film was due to the fact that it felt like a completely fresh approach to the gothic horror genre.

In this new version Baron Frankenstein’s assistant is his former tutor. Paul Krempe had been his willing collaborator until Frankenstein’s experiments started to become more extreme, and his methods more morally dubious. Paul stays only because he is afraid to leave Frankenstein’s beautiful cousin and intended bride Elizabeth alone in the house with the increasingly obsessive Baron. Paul tries to persuade Frankenstein of the danger posed by his latest experiment, the creation of an artificial creature made up of assorted body parts, but to no avail.

Paul’s efforts to stop the Baron result in damage to the brain that has been earmarked for the creature. This not only has disastrous consequences for the creature - it also pushes Frankenstein even closer to the edge of madness as he blames Paul for sabotaging his great experiment.

The most revolutionary thing about this version is Peter Cushing’s performance as Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s book and most film adaptations raise the question as to who is the real monster, Frankenstein or the creature he has created, but in this version there’s absolutely no question at all - it’s Frankenstein who is the monster.

And he’s not an idealistic scientist who gradually succumbs to the temptation to play God, nor is he a well-meaning essentially good man who slowly loses his moral compass as his experiments get out of hand. With Cushing’s Frankenstein it’s clear that the seeds of madness and evil were there right from the start. Right from the beginning of his scientific career he was prepared to pursue ends and to utilise means that were not just morally dubious - they were clearly and unequivocally immoral.

While Boris Karloff had endowed the creature with a certain dignity and made him rather sympathetic in Hammer’s version Christopher Lee’s creature is a pathetic shambling wreck, a hideous reflection of the moral vacuum in its creator’s soul. The focus in this film is entirely on Frankenstein, and on the character flaws that drive him to destruction and disaster. It’s an acting tour-de-force by Cushing. In the later Hammer Frankenstein films the Baron would at times be portrayed in more equivocal terms and Cushing arguably gave more nuanced performances but the sheer power of his performance in the 1957 film is breath-taking.

The first half hour is a little on the slow side but after that the pace picks up and Fisher is in complete control. Some of his earlier films are extremely good but it’s clear that gothic horror was the perfect genre for his talents and his mastery is already evident here.

It’s not my favourite movie of the Hammer Frankenstein cycle but it was certainly an impressive beginning.

Warner’s DVD release can’t really be faulted so far as the transfer is concerned although the lack of worthwhile extras is a little disappointing.

Saturday 29 October 2011

The Creeping Flesh (1973)

The Creeping Flesh looks superficially like a fairly typical Hammer gothic horror flick, and mostly it is, although in fact it was made by Tigon Pictures rather than Hammer. With Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing heading the cast and Freddie Francis directing this is a solid effort with a few interesting features that make it worth seeking out.

Peter Cushing was always at his best playing mad scientists, and Professor Emmanuel Hildern is certainly eccentric if perhaps not actually mad. He’s a much more kindly character than Cushing’s Dr Frankenstein from the Hammer Frankenstein films, and that is in some ways the professor’s downfall. He really wants to do good. He is obsessed with the idea of evil as a disease, a disease than can be cured. It might even be possible to inoculate people against evil. His obsession stems from personal tragedy. His wife, a music hall star, has been confined to an asylum for the criminally insane for many years. he is terrified that the madness might be passed on to his daughter Penelope.

The asylum is run by his half-brother, James Hildern (Christopher Lee). James is also involved in scientific investigations into the nature of madness. He has always been somewhat in his older brother’s shadow professionally but Emmanuel has become increasingly isolated from the scientific community (apart from his ideas on evil he also holds eccentric opinions on human evolution). Emmanuel’s star is fading while James’s is rising.

Emmanuel has brought back a skeleton from an expedition to New Guinea, a skeleton he believes will restore his standing in the word of science. This skeleton seems to have some very unusual properties - when exposed to water it grows new flesh. Emmanuel thinks New Guinea folklore may hold the key to this mystery, and that the skeleton is a representative of pure evil. As such the blood (for it grows blood vessels as well as flesh) could be used to manufacture a vaccine against evil.

Of course things go horribly wrong. Emmanuel receives word that his wife has finally died. His daughter believed that her mother died many years earlier and when she discovers the truth she does not take it well. Emmanuel has tried, perhaps too hard, to shelter her from the world. Now he will pay the price for his mistake.

Emmanuel Hildern is not an evil mad scientist but his own obsessions have clouded his judgment very badly, and his isolation from the scientific mainstream has made him increasingly prone to idiosyncratic and even deluded ideas. Cushing is very much the star and he gives an impressive and rather subtly nuanced performance.

Christopher Lee as James is almost as interesting. If personal tragedy and scientific neglect have distorted Emmanuel’s character then ambition and jealousy of his more famous elder brother has also distorted James’ mind. He dreams of winning a major scientific prize and he is prepared to adopt very unethical methods in order to do so. He’s a delightfully smarmy and sinister villain and Lee has a great time with the role.

Lorna Heilbron is superb as Penelope, the daughter who becomes an unwitting victim of her father’s unwise experiments. Her descent into madness is quite chilling.

Freddie Francis was always a reliable enough horror director and on rare occasions when a story really engaged his interest he could be quite inspired. He has some very good moments in this production. He was of course more famous as a cinematographer than as a director and this background allows him to pull off a couple of good visual set-pieces, especially the flashback sequence of Emmanuel’s wife’s mental breakdown. Francis’s use of distorted images is both visually impressive and a very economical and effective way of filling in the backstory.

By the standards of 1973 it’s rather tame - no nudity, very little gore.

All in all it’s a pretty decent gothic horror effort, and certainly worth getting hold of if you’re a fan of Cushing and Lee.

Columbia Tristar’s DVD is a satisfactory widescreen release although some extras would have been nice.

Thursday 27 October 2011

The She-Beast (1966)

Michael Reeves has a huge reputation among horror fans, a reputation based entirely on one film, Witchfinder General. It was his third and final film before his death at the age of 25. His second movie, The Sorcerers, is less known but is an underrated gem. Sadly the same cannot be said for his 1966 debut film, The She-Beast (La Sorella di Satana).

The She-Beast was made in Italy. Reeves, whose ambition and determination to break into directing were breath-taking, apparently turned up one day with a suitcase containing £17,000 of his own money and announced that he intended to make a movie. His friend Ian Ogilvy would star (in fact Ogilvy appeared in all three of Reeves’ movies), but Ogilvy was completely unknown and he needed a big name to attract some attention, In Italy the biggest name in horror was Barbara Steele and somehow he persuaded her to do it (she has no idea how he did it since she has only the haziest recollection of making the film). Steele was paid $1,000 for one day’s work but wasn’t told that it was going to be a very very long day’s shooting, 22 hours in fact!

Reeves had a screenplay already but Amos Powell was brought in as a kind of script doctor. In fact the script arguably needed a whole team of script doctors and that’s just one of the problems with this movie.

So, the plot. We open with the execution of a witch in Translyvania, and as is traditional in horror flicks she makes use of her dying breath to curse the villagers and their descendants. Two hundred years later a young English couple, Veronica (Barbara Steele) and Philip (Ian Ogilvy) decide that Translyvania would be a wonderfully romantic place to spend their honeymoon.

Their hotel is a bit of a disappointment. It’s basically a hovel. They decide to make the most of it and pretty soon they’re doing what you’d expect a honeymooning couple to be doing but the mood is somewhat spoilt when Veronica notices that the hotel manager (who rejoices in the name of Ladislav Groper) is watching them through the window. In a fit of righteous husbandly indignation Philip beats up Groper. Groper takes his revenge by sabotaging their car and on the following day they end up driving into the lake Philip escapes but Veronica is drowned.

At least that’s what is assumed to have happened, but the corpse seems to have disappeared. On the previous day they had encountered an eccentric local nobleman named Count von Helsing. His family were hereditary vampire and witch hunters. He now informs Philip that Veronica can still be saved.

The biggest problem here is that it’s not really clear what Reeves is trying to achieve. It’s obviously not meant to be taken as a straightforward horror movie. It’s obviously meant mostly as a comedy. I suspect he was trying for the Theatre of the Absurd feel that Polanski captured so well in his early films like Knife in the Water and more particularly Cul-de-Sac (which came out in the same year as The She-Beast). Reeves was an obsessive cinephile so he was probably familiar with Knife in the Water. That absurdist feel is all very well but to maintain it in a comedy you need to keep the humour fairly dark, but then we’re treated to a pure Keystone Kops chase sequence which doesn’t fit.

There’s also a fair amount of satire here although I’m not sure exactly who his main targets were, the communist regimes of eastern Europe or British tourists.

Horror comedy is not easy to pull off successfully and Reeves just wasn’t experienced enough to do it. It has its moments but really it’s only worth watching for curiosity value.

Dark Sky’s DVD release is truly superb when compared to the earlier DVD appearances of this movie which were atrocious. The commentary track features both Ian Ogilvy and Barbara Steele and is more entertaining than the movie.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Stoney (1969)

I bought Code Red’s double-feature DVD Stoney/The Killer Likes Candy on the assumption that these were eurospy flicks, a genre of which I’m very fond. In fact Stoney (AKA Surabaya Conspiracy) hails from the Philippines and isn’t really a spy movie. It’s still worth a look.

Made in 1969, it’s more of a heist movie but with a background of international intrigue that makes it at the very least a first cousin of the spy thriller.

The details of the plot are somewhat murky and convoluted and there are so many players all trying to double-cross one another that it’s easy to lose track of exactly where everyone fits in.

Harvey Ward (Michael Rennie) is a businessman with various interests in the East, almost all of them illegal. Gunrunning is one of his businesses. Now he’s got wind of a possible fortune in buried treasure. During the war the Japanese had looted the vaults of various Dutch banks in Indonesia (or the Dutch East Indies as it then was). A Japanese general serving a long prison sentence for war crimes has revealed the hiding place of the loot. It’s an enormous fortune, and Harvey Ward wants it.

Ward doesn’t like getting to personally involved so he sends his mistress Irene Stone (known to her friends as Stoney) to make arrangements to have this loot smuggled out of the Indonesian city of Surabaya. Her qualifications for the mission seem to be that she’s extremely beautiful and thus finds it fairly easy to persuade men to do what she wants them to do, and her ethics are exceptionally flexible.

Steven Blessing, who appears to be a kind of freelance adventurer and who happens to be an old acquaintance of Stoney’s, is also on the trail of the treasure. Other players include Indonesian government officials and a guerilla army. Things have the potential to get messy, and that’s exactly what happens. Much mayhem ensues.

Before we get to the mayhem we get the sex and the glamour. Stoney has been negotiating with a very senior Indonesian official who introduces her to the glamorous side of life in Surabaya. He also hopes to make her his mistress. Stoney is more interested in bedding the hunky Steven Blessing. These are characters who find it easy to combine the pleasures of flirtation with the fine art of the double-cross.

Once the heist is under way the action starts and it’s fairly relentless. The body count is prodigious. The movie was morally pretty dark to begin with and it gets steadily more cynical as it goes.

Mike Preston plays Steven Blessing and while he’s not the world’s greatest actor he’s competent enough. He doesn’t have the charm you expect of a protagonist in a movie of this sort but that makes him slightly more interesting. Whether he’s the good guy or the bad guy is a moot point. It depends on who’s paying him. But he’s the closest the movie has to a hero. He does have some redeeming features.

The movie’s biggest asset is Barbara Bouchet as Stoney. Apart from adding considerable glamour she gives a nicely cynical performance with some amusing tongue-in-cheek moments. Some viewers might also be interested in the fact that she doesn’t keep her clothes on for the whole film.

Technically it’s surprisingly good given that it was presumably made on a shoestring budget. This was Wray Davis’s only directing credit but he does a reasonable job.

If you’re prepared to make allowances for this being a very cheap movie trying desperately to jump on any bandwagon that happened to be passing then it’s actually fairly entertaining.

There’s some print damage but on the whole (considering the obscurity of the movie) the picture quality is quite acceptable, and it is in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Monday 24 October 2011

Hannie Caulder (1971)

During their very brief existence Tigon British Films were responsible for some of the very best gothic horror films ever made, including Witchfinder-General and Blood on Satan's Claw. In 1971 they decided to try their hands at what was in effect a British spaghetti western. I guess you could call it a bangers-and-mash western. The movie was Hannie Caulder and it’s definitely worth a look.

Spaghetti westerns tended to focus rather heavily on the revenge theme. The twist in Hannie Caulder is that it’s not about a man seeking revenge when his wife and children get murdered, it’s about a woman doing the same thing. Three rather incompetent but very violent bandits, the Clemens brothers, on the run after a bungled bank robbery, kill Hannie Caulder’s husband and rape her. Now Hannie (Raquel Welch) intends to hunt them down and kill them.

The plan starts to take shape in her mind after a chance encounter with bounty hunter Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp). As bounty hunters go he’s a fairly nice guy. He’s the kind of bounty hunter you could take home to meet Mother. Well, sort of. Hannie tries to persuade him to teach her to be a killer. At first he refuses, mainly because he really doesn’t want to see her get hurt. When he discovers what actually happened to her he changes his mind. He realises it’s something she has to do, and he intends to make sure she’s equipped to do it successfully.

The bulk of the film is taken up by Hannie’s training. Price gets his gunsmith friend Bailey (Christopher Lee) to make custom-made guns for her. Then she’s ready for the showdown.

The plot is one that became more or less standard for 1970s rape revenge movies, such as Bo Arne Vibenius’s stylish 1974 Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Hannie Caulder does have some claims to being the first representative of this genre.

Director Burt Kennedy handles the action sequences very satisfactorily. The fight scenes are not especially gory but they’re undeniably effective.

Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin play the Clemens brothers, and they play them partly for laughs but they’re still vicious hoodlums and Borgnine in particular is genuinely menacing. Look out for Diana Dors in a minor supporting role.

More problematic is the casting of Robert Culp as Thomas Luther Price. He’s mostly quite good but he has some trouble convincing me he’s really the kind of guy who kills men in cold blood for money. On the other hand he does make a change from excessively macho western heroes and it is interesting to see a bounty hunter portrayed so sympathetically. He’s really a guy with strong moral principles, and killing bad guys is after all performing a community service. He comes across as being more like a freelance cop than a mere killer.

Of course a movie like this ultimately will stand or fall on the performance of the lead actress. She has to be able to convince us she really could take on hardened bad guys in a gunfight and win and at the same time she has to retain our sympathies. Raquel Welch is more than equal to the challenge. Apart from the superb Kansas City Bomber this is perhaps her finest straight dramatic role.

What makes it interesting is that she has difficulty in becoming a perfect killing machine. She becomes an expert gunfighter certainly but she really doesn’t like killing. She kills because she feels compelled to do so but she has to force herself to overcome her squeamishness. She retains a certain vulnerability but she has the strength of character to carry out her task anyway.This makes her a more convincing heroine than the protagonists in most similar movies. At the risk of sounding incredibly old-fashioned she remains a woman, and when she kills she has to convince herself that it’s absolutely necessary.

This movie’s sexual politics are more complex than you find in the average rape-revenge movie. There’s no simplistic assumption that all men are violent thugs. This type of movie can all too easily descend into a depressing and hopeless nihilism, leaving the viewer feeling that the world is a cesspool and there is little than can be done to change it. Hannie Caulder avoids this pitfall. We’re left not only with some hope for the world, but with some hope for Hannie as well. She has not lost all faith in human beings and she has not lost her own humanity.

While rape revenge movies are often justified as being empowering for women they rarely feel that way. This one actually does.

Umbrella’s Region 4 release is in the correct Cinemascope aspect ratio and looks extremely good.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was the first of the sequels to the 1968 science fiction hit The Planet of the Apes. And it’s the kind of movie that reminds me why I usually avoid sequels.

At the end of the 60s 20th Century-Fox was in major trouble. They’d lost a bundle on a series of box-office turkeys. The surprise success of The Planet of the Apes was one of the few pieces of good news for the studio in that period. In fact things were so grim they decided on what was at that time a fairly unusual step - a sequel to The Planet of the Apes.

Right from the start the signs were not good. The director of the original film, Franklin J. Schaffner, was unavailable to do the sequel. Roddy McDowell was unavailable. Various script ideas were floated that nobody was very happy with. Finally a screenplay was cobbled together. Charlton Heston had been very enthusiastic about the first film and was very pleased with the results but he was uninterested in the idea of appearing in a second film. When he read the script his disinterest changed to an absolute determination to have nothing to do with the picture. Finally he was prevailed upon to play a supporting role as a personal favour to Fox’s studio chief.

Heston’s misgivings proved to be well-founded. The film is a mess. Worse than that, it’s a clumsy and annoying mess. It has all the faults of the first movie, only more so. And it has none of the first movie’s virtues.

With Heston unwilling to take the starring role Fox recruited James Franciscus. He’s an astronaut named Brent, part of a rescue mission despatched to find Taylor (Heston) and his crew. Brent’s spaceship goes through the same time slippage as the first mission and crash-lands, with Brent being the only survivor.

He soon manages to get himself captured by the apes, escapes, and discovers a strange colony of mutant telepathic humans living beneath the planet. They worship an atom bomb. This is the cue for some predictably heavy-handed observations on religion and on the wickedness of nuclear weapons. The first movie was just as heavy-handed in this area but it at least had the virtue of the shock ending and the genuinely original premise. This second movie delivers the same message but at greater length and without any of the impact the first one had.

The plot becomes ever sillier. There’s an attempt at another shock ending but by the time it arrived I was struggling to keep awake and I was just grateful the movie was over. In fact there were several attempts to reproduce the famous shock effect of the original but they don’t really work.

As the hero James Franciscus is a very poor substitute for Chuck Heston. His mistake is to make Brent too much like a Taylor clone which is to invite comparisons which are bound to be unfavourable. No-one does Charlton Heston as well as Heston does. Franciscus would have done better to have tried to give Brent more of a personality of his own.

The makeup effects and sets are pretty much the same as in the first movie, apart from the underground set which is reasonably impressive.

Given that three more sequels followed one assumes that Beneath the Planet of the Apes must have done pretty well at the box office but it’s a major disappointment nonetheless.

The UK Blu-Ray release looks nice enough and has plenty of extras.

Note: the screencaps are from the DVD release, not the Blu-Ray.

Thursday 20 October 2011

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

The Andromeda Strain is a movie I’ve seen several times before. This was one of the more important early 1970s Hollywood science fiction films but has it stood the test of time? The answer to that is that in some ways it has, in others it hasn’t.

This adaptation of a Michael Crichton thriller was an ambitious undertaking for director Robert Wise. It was a project he was keen to take on. Wise attempted just about every possible film genre during his long career and his science fiction movies are always interesting at the very least. I’m personally not a fan of The Day the Earth Stood Still but it was undeniably a very influential movie in the genre, and in a rather different way The Andromeda Strain was as well.

The movie starts with an attempt to retrieve a US satellite that has landed near the small town of Piedmont in New Mexico. The retrieval team makes a surprising and grim discovery. Every single human being in the town is dead, and within a few minutes the members of the retrieval team are dead as well. That’s when the alarm bells start to ring, and Project Wildfire is activated. This is a very secret project for dealing with the possibility of contamination crisis caused by organisms brought back to Earth from space. And it’s fairly clear that the satellite, launched as part of the very secret Project Scoop, has brought back just such an organism.

But how can any organism kill so quickly? Most of the townspeople appear to have been struck with extraordinary suddenness. On the other hand it’s clear that a tiny handful survived for quite a while, and two of the town’s 68 inhabitants are in fact still alive.

Dr Jeremy Stone and his team of hand-picked scientists now have to isolate the organism involved, find out how it works, and most importantly of all they have to find a way to stop it or (preferably) destroy it. They are authorised to take rather drastic measures. Dr Stone can request the President to order a nuclear strike on the site of any suspected contamination site and that seem likely to now be the imminent fate of Piedmont, New Mexico. Or perhaps not, as events take some unexpected turns.

Dr Stone’s scientific team will be subjected to extreme stresses and it has to be said that they don’t handle them especially well. They will also make some unsettling discoveries about the real nature of both Project Scoop and Project Wildfire.

As far as visual achievements and special effects are concerned the movie is a triumph. The special effects were about as cutting edge as you could get in 1971. There were no computer graphics effects as such in 1971, but there were scenes that were achieved by the use of computer-controlled photography so you could argue that this movie really did point the way forward in that area. These advanced techniques were combined seamlessly with more traditional techniques such as the use of matte paintings. The movie pulls off some stunning visual tour-de-forces that still look as impressive as they did in the early 70s.

Wise, always a skillful craftsman, handles the suspense elements with consummate skill. This is a very tense and exciting film.

Wise deliberately chose actors who were not major stars, and he gets generally excellent performances from them. Arthur Hill is particularly good as Dr Stone.

The real star is arguably the ultra high tech Wildfire laboratory, supposedly in a remote part of Nevada, and looking more like the interior of a starship than a scientific laboratory.

The movie requires an immense amount of exposition. The audience needs to be told (or at least that was the assumption on which Wise and his production team were working) on the inner workings of the facility and on Project Wildfire. The movie is generally pretty successful in getting all this exposition across without the results seeming inordinately clumsy. And the technobabble and the gadgets are great fun.

Where the movie works less well is where it tries to include a political message. The conspiracy theory paranoia and the preachiness work strongly against it (and preachiness had been an equally serious flaw in Wise’s much earlier The Day the Earth Stood Still). It’s all very predictable and rather tiresome. One can imagine Fox Mulder loving this movie as a kid.

If you can put up with these moments of very heavy handed propaganda The Andromeda Strain is a gripping science thriller and in any case it’s worth seeing just for the impressive and very cool visuals (which haven’t dated at all). So it’s still pretty much essential viewing for any self-respecting fan of cinematic science fiction.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

Ah, Lust for a Vampire. With the possible exception of Dracula AD 1972 this must surely be the most reviled of all Hammer’s movies. Is it as bad as its reputation would suggest? Is it as bad as my memories of it from several years ago? The answer on both counts is, yes and no.

It’s certainly not one of Hammer’s shining moments. It’s one of their most overtly trashy offerings but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my book. I like cinematic trash.

This movie forms part of their Karnstein trilogy, along with The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil, based very loosely (very very loosely indeed) on Sheridan le Fanu’s classic 1860 vampire novel Carmilla. The Vampire Lovers stuck closest to the source material and it’s by far the best of the three. It’s also the only one of the three in which the lesbian vampire angle (which is very much part of le Fanu’s novel) actually serves some purpose other than titillation.

Titillation though was very high on the agenda in all three Karnstein films. They went as far as Hammer was ever prepared to go in terms of sex and nudity.

The plot of Lust for a Vampire is pure exploitation cinema. It is 1830, somewhere in Hammer’s semi-mythical central Europe, and gothic novelist Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson) talks himself into a job as English teacher as Miss Simpson’s finishing school for girls. He had never considered teaching as a desirable profession until he came across a party of scantily-clad young ladies from the school practising their dance routines in the open air. Whereupon he was suddenly seized by the desire to impart learning to the young.

He shares accommodation at the school with history teacher Giles Barton (Ralph Bates). Barton has an obsessive interest in the history of the Karnstein family, the local grandees. We will later discover that his interest in the family is motivated by the legends that they were vampires. Giles believes the legends, and Giles has always wanted to be a vampire. Giles has other obsessions, notably one of the students at the school, the extraordinarily beautiful Mircalla (Yutte Stensgaard).

All is not well at Miss Simpson’s school however. Several girls from the village have gone missing and now one of the students, Susan Pelley, has disappeared. Miss Simpson dreads scandal so she is reluctant to report the matter to the police. She finds an unexpected ally in the person of the Countess Herritzen (Barbara Jefford), Mircalla’s mother (or possibly her guardian, I confess I wasn’t entirely clear on that point). As luck would have it the countess always travels with her personal physician which comes in very handy when Giles Barton is found dead. He is able to issue death certificates for both Giles Barton and Susan and is prepared to overlook small details such as the bite marks on Barton’s neck and in Susan’s case the lack of a body. The important thing is that this will allow Miss Simpson to avoid any unpleasantness with the authorities.

Of course Miss Simpson’s attempts to avoid scandal backfire when one of the teaches insists on being difficult. Meanwhile Richard Lestrange is also becoming obsessed with Mircalla. It all leads up to that most clichéd of horror movie endings as a mob of enraged villagers with flaming torches descends upon Karnstein Castle.

Ralph Bates is irritating as Barton. Michael Johnson as Lestrange is not an overly exciting hero. Mike Raven is dull in the totally unnecessary role of the master vampire of the Karnstein clan.

Mircalla was to have been played by Ingrid Pitt but she (perhaps wisely) backed out. Yutte Stensgaard is quite adequate as an actress but the movie but the movie really needed the more charismatic Ingrid Pitt to give it some badly needed focus.

The movie was in fact plagued by drop outs. Peter Cushing backed out (and again his presence would have added some focus) while Terence Fisher was probably quite relieved to be saved from the director’s job by a timely broken leg. Jimmy Sangster stepped in and while his achievements as a genre movie screenwriter were considerable he was the first to admit that he was not a great success as a director.

It could be argued that this fairly aimless movie might have been improved by the inclusion of a good deal more sex and nudity. It’s sleazy but not sleazy enough to compensate for a threadbare plot and an overall lack of any real sense of what the movie was attempting to achieve.

And of course there’s the song, Strange Love, surely one of the most forgettable ditties ever to find its way into a movie.

On the other hand, with all its faults, Lust for a Vampire still manages to be campy fun. If you can accept it on that level it’s quite enjoyable.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Maroc 7 (1967)

I just love 1960s spy movie but despite the claims on the original movie poster Maroc 7 isn’t a spy movie. It is however a 1960s crime caper movie, and I love them almost as much.

The movie opens with Simon Grant (Gene Barry) stealing some very valuable jewels from the safe belonging to Louise Henderson (Cyd Charisse). It turns out that she had stolen them from somebody else, and Grant’s object isn’t the theft. He wants to become her partner. Louise is a model who runs a photographic studio that acts as a front for her real business, the theft of jewels and art treasures.

She doesn’t have much alternative, and Grant seems like he could be pretty useful anyway, so he joins Louise and her little band on a jaunt to Morocco. They’ll be doing a fashion shoot, and of course some thieving. Louise’s employees include a creepy photographer with a scandalous past (played by Leslie Phillips) and a bevy of beautiful models.

Simon Grant has a bit of an eye for the ladies and he’s especially attracted to one of the models, Claudia (Elsa Martinelli). The gang has not managed to avoid the notice of the authorities and the indefatigable Inspector Barrada is hot on their trail.

There are plenty of double-crosses in store, as you would expect.

The plot is a bit creaky, but this kind of movie doesn’t really require dazzlingly original plotting. The qualities that are required are a sense of style, some tongue-in-cheek humour, a lively pace and glamour. And Maroc 7 has all of those qualities.

It also boasts some eccentric but interesting casting. Leslie Phillips (who co-produced the film) is best-known for countess appearance in British comedies but this time around he’s a heavy, albeit a sleazy and slightly cowardly heavy. With his fruity voice and pompous manner he makes an unusual but effective villain. Cyd Charisse as a diabolical criminal mastermind is a even more surprising casting choice. She doesn’t seem entirely comfortable but she gives it her best shot and she’s a lot better than you might expect.

Elsa Martinelli just has to look glamorous, which she does quite successfully. The other female cast members who play Louise’s models are also suitably glamorous and there’s some amusing bitchiness. Gene Barry was better known for his television work in series like Burke’s Law. He always brought and effortless charm to his performances ad this is no exception, and the role is perfectly suited to his talents.

Gerry O’Hara does a more than competent job as director and keeps things moving along at a good pace.

These kinds of movies are pure lightweight entertainment and should never take themselves seriously, or be taken seriously by the viewer. This isn’t Citizen Kane. It offers some nice location shooting. There’s a good mix of romance, humour and action. There’s glamour in abundance. It’s stylish escapist fun.

I caught this one on TV, in a sadly sub-standard print. It’s been released on DVD and copies are around although you may have to do some searching. If you’re a fan of the 60s caper movie genre it’s worth adding to your collection.