Sunday, October 29, 2017

Monsterpiece Theater: Cushing and Lee- Just Random Stuff

by Rustbelt

So, what’s the Cushing and Lee theme this week? Well, there really isn’t one. I just decided to pick some random films they starred in and review them on their own. Finding these two in films isn’t hard. During the course of his career Lee alone starred in more than 300 films - as either a lead, a supporting role, or just a cameo (or so I’ve read). The hard part is picking which films to review. However, it seems my schedule made the decisions for me.

Due to my lack of time, I’ve had to fall back on some films that I’ve already seen- including one whose every copy should be burned at the stake and wiped from the invisible bits of cyberspace. Mankind would do itself quite well to rid itself of this abomination. But we’ll save that for a few paragraphs on. For now, let’s start with one studio I’ve been teasing for the past three weeks and, amazingly, haven’t talked about in a single review until now.

The Mummy (Hammer, 1959)

They just had to do it, didn’t they? The Count, the Monster, a Werewolf two years later, and, now, a Mummy. As memorable as their work was, those Hammer people really liked following in Universal’s footsteps, didn’t they? Well, we’ll get to that in a second. First, the film.

Plot: In 1895, British Egyptologists Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) and Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) are hard at work searching for the tomb of princess Ananka. With them and stuck in bed due to a broken leg is John Banning (Cushing), Stephen’s son and Joseph’s nephew. Not long after, the archaeologists find the tomb and enter, but not before an Egyptian named Mehmet Bey (George Patell) gives them the requisite warning not to enter the tomb. Of course, they do anyway and one of them- the elder Banning- is attacked after finding a hidden scroll.
Fast forward three years and to the U.K., when John Banning is called to his father who has been living in an asylum. The older man claims he was attacked by a mummy in the tomb. Naturally, John refuses to believe and soon enough, his dad is killed.
It turns out that Mehmet Bey has, in fact, brought a long-dormant mummy to England to kill those who plundered Ananka’s tomb. While going through his father’s papers, John treats the audience to exposition that takes up most of the film’s second act. In relating what his father told him, the younger Banning explains how Princess Ananka’s funeral was carefully overseen by the high priest Kharis (Lee). Kharis was later caught trying to blasphemously bring Ananka back to life and, as punishment, was buried alive and cursed to be her eternal protector.
Later, Whemple is killed by Kharis and Inspector Mulrooney (Eddie Byrne) calls on John at his home where Banning fails to convince the inspector of what is happening. Kharis tries to kill John, but John’s wife Isobel- a dead-ringer for Ananka- comes in and causes Kharis- upon seeing her- to disobey Bey’s orders to kill. (Yvonne Furneaux, BTW, plays both Ananka and Isobel.)
The film climaxes when Bey personally brings Kharis to kill John. The bandaged one almost succeeds when Isobel again arrives, albeit in proper period dress. John then tells her to do the most scandalous, unladylike, anti-Victorian deed of the late 19th-century British Realm- she lets her hair down, causing Kharis to again recognize her. Kharis instead kills Bey and carries off Isobel into a swamp, until she orders him to let her go and the police open fire.
Thought and Background: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Hammer was kowtowing at the altar of Universal when scripting this one. Almost everything is borrowed/stolen from a Universal movie: a high priest trying to bring his dead lover back to life and spotting her modern doppelganger (The Mummy, 1932); a modern Egyptian priest worshipping a dead mummy and characters named Kharis and Banning (The Mummy’s Hand, 1940); characters named Mehmet Bey and Isobel and the former taking Kharis overseas to exact revenge (The Mummy’s Tomb, 1942); and the entire ending featuring a mummy and his lady love in a swamp (the Mummy’s Ghost, 1944). Good grief.

Sure, this film has its flaws. The scene of Lee as Kharis in ancient Egypt is very long and extensively detailed. There’s also a flashback to the beginning of the film that adds little more than Lee’s brief appearance. It almost feels like padding. And unlike other films where I’ve noted that Hammer added material and made it work, his film doesn’t add too much. Still, it’s well-shot, brightly colored, and all characters- including the comic drunks hired by Bey to transport Kharis- come off quite well. It’s a good addition to the Hammer canon, though not quite one of the best.
Cushing (as John Banning): It’s truly odd to see Cushing in a rather happy-go-lucky type of role. Usually, he’s either villainous, melancholy, or a loner. And since he’s playing a younger member of a family, he adds a zeal that makes him feel much younger than his years. It really is an enjoyable part to watch him play. And although he does eventually settle into a more ‘professor’ role near the end, you can tell he really enjoyed making this movie.

Lee (as Kharis): Once again, Lee finds himself playing a mute, heavily-costumed creature. But unlike Frankenstein’s monster, Kharis is not a pitiful, pathetic slouch. In the ancient Egypt scenes, Lee portrays Kharis as first dominant and dignified; then bewildered and terrified as his character is mummified alive for his sins. Later, as a mummy, Lee goes anti-Universal. Kharis is powerful and unyielding- none of Universal’s dragging of the bandages here. Lee also adds a nice touch with his eyes when Kharis looks at Isobel; he visibly softens with a look of longing that causes him to spare Banning. You really need a professional like Lee to pull this off.
Also, Lee hit a real benchmark here: he became only the second actor to play Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy for a major studio. The only other guy to do that is Lon Chaney, Jr. (Son of Dracula, Ghost of Frankenstein, and The Mummy’s Tomb.) Chaney, I should note, still kept an edge: the title role in The Wolf Man. Lee never played a werewolf.

(I couldn’t find a free link for this one. So, here’s a trailer.)

The Beast Must Die (Amicus, 1974)

Question: what happens when Hammer’s top rival throws Agatha Christie, The Most Dangerous Game, and 70’s Blaxploitation into a blender? Let’s find out.

Plot: The film starts off commonly enough, with a random black guy running through a forest being trailed by an apparently evil-looking security force of white guys getting their orders through headsets and from an evil-looking man sitting at an evil-looking control panel. Several times, the evil-looking guards close in, only for the evil-looking man to tell them to ease off. Finally, the black guy reaches a clearing where well-dressed people are eating lunch, er, taking tea. (Blast! I knew I’d screw up eventually.) But before he can ask for help, several of the evil-looking guards come out of the woods and open fire. He falls! Movie over!

But of course not. You knew it wouldn’t be that short.
The guy just laughs. You see, it WAS ALL A RUSE! The black guy, Tom, (Bahamian actor Calvin Lockhart), is, in fact, a filthy rich big game hunter. He was simply testing his newly-installed security system. The evil-looking guy in the evil-looking control booth, it turns out, is Pavel, a Polish(?) guy who installed the mass system of sensors, bugs, and cameras. Later, at a lunch party, Tom explains his motives to his guests, who include Jan (Michael Gambon), a pianist; his wife, Davina; Super Eurotrash artist Paul (Tom Chadbon); former diplomat Arthur (Charles Gray, a.k.a Henderson in You Only Live Twice and Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever); and archaeologist Lundgren (Cushing). Because people have died around them, Tom believes one of them is a werewolf and wants to hunt them. I guess big cats are no longer a challenge.

(Robin Leach voiceover) “Welcome to Tom’s palatial estate in Fool-on-Foot-shire where the guests are treated to exotic foods, expansive entertainments and being hunted down by their host on suspicion of being dogs in another life!”
Tom tries to test his guests with a silver candlestick, but Lundgren explains that won’t work because there’s no wolfbane in the air. Tom, of course, then supplies it. That night, a large ‘dog’ is sighted that chases Tom and then plows into the control room, killing Pavel right after he says he doesn’t believe in werewolves. Isn’t that how it always happens? (That massive security system is also destroyed in the process. Money to burn, I suppose.)

The next day, Tom sabotages everyone’s cars and cuts all telephone lines, determined to flush out the killer puppy. His wife Caroline (perennial overactor Marlene Clark), begs him to stop, thinking he’s finally gone overboard. But Tom wants to prove he’s right. He does so by boarding a helicopter that night and chasing a wolf while shooting at it with an automatic rifle loaded with silver bullets. He succeeds in saving Caroline from the animal in a shed, but accidentally blows up the helicopter and kills strafes his pilot in the process. What could be more sane?
The final night, Tom sets his sights on jerkoff Paul, who’s a loner, a weirdo, has hairy hands, and was missing when the wolf attacked. Paul is especially ticked off over the death of his pilot. (Yeah, First World problems.) He then orders everyone to taste a silver bullet- causing Caroline to transform and be killed by Tom. Lundgren then realizes that she must been infected during the werewolf the previous night. With Paul and Arthur now murdered, the beast is revealed to be…Jan! Tom then kills him in the woods, but not before being bitten.

Finally, in a total You Get What You Deserve Moment, Tom goes inside and blows his brains out before the curse can affect him. Only Lundgren and Davina survive.

Thoughts and Background: Okay, maybe that was a little harsh, but I’m just having fun. Truth be said, this movie isn’t that bad. Most of the characters are pretty well done. Some get more attention than others and the screen time is proportional to their roles. We don’t have Star Trek-esque moments of giving characters scenes solely for the sake of giving them something to do. Calvin Lockhart really nails his character; a charismatic guy, driven guy whose ego is teetering on the thin line between reality and insanity before going completely mental as the movie goes on. There are also enough twists and turns to keep viewers guessing who the werewolf is. (The film includes an infamous 30-second “Werewolf Break;” a pause for the audience to guess who the beast is.) The only problem, as I mentioned, is the actress playing Caroline. She’s one of those types who thinks that overdoing her inflections and gestures counts as acting. It doesn’t. And that’s why it’s too bad her character doesn’t disappear earlier.
Cushing (as Dr. Lundgren): Cushing has very little to do here. He puts on a German-ish accent (shades of Dr. Schreck?), and fills the role of Exposition Expert. He explains the (movie) science behind lycanthropy, as his character has been studying the werewolf phenomenon all his life. After that, like Charles Gray, he’s really in the background. Maybe that was to keep his character mysterious. Or maybe the filmmakers just forgot to make use of the talent they had in the cast. Who knows?
And to be fair, Christopher Lee took some odd roles, too.
Maybe he’ll fare with a more visible- and better- role here.

The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, (Hemdale Film Corporation, 1985)

Oh, God in Heaven. I spoke too soon. Pray for me on this one, folks.

Plot?: Set right after the ending events of the first film (wherein anchorwoman-turned-werewolf Karen White exposed her bestial side on the late news before being shot with a silver bullet), Karen is being laid to rest- and then wakes up in her coffin. Meanwhile, her friend Jenny and brother Ben (the pre-Chris Evans Captain America Reb Brown) run into mystery man Stefan (Lee).
(Note: From this point on, Ben will be referred to by one of the many nicknames given to Mr. Brown by Mike and the Bots via his appearance in the sci-fi disaster, Space Mutiny.

And yes, that is Mr. Lee in the C.A. clip with Rip Hardpeck. I don’t know too much about it. What say we keep things at one disaster at time, OK?)

Stefan tells them that Karen was a werewolf and shows videotape evidence. (Wait? Wasn’t that broadcast all over L.A. at the end of the last movie? Oh, well.) He adds that the bullet was removed during Karen’s autopsy and that she will be stolen from the church and brought back to life because werewolves aren’t supposed to be buried in consecrated ground. Naturally, Butch Deadlift refuses to believe any of this and vows to kill Stefan instead(?).
That night, before saving Karen’s soul, Stefan goes to the seedy scene of L.A. for a punk rock concert where some powerful werewolves are hanging out. After some convoluted editing where, I think, the wolves attack while raving 80’s style..? I’m not sure. At least Stefan gets some cool shades for his efforts.

Back at the church, Stefan prepares to stab Karen with a titanium stake, er, spike. Whatever. Jenny and Bulk Van Der Huge arrive to stop him, allowing Karen to come to life as a wolf and try to attack Stefan. Nice going, Gristle McThornbody. Anyhoo, a few more werewolves attack and the group capture one of them. As Jenney and Slab SquatThrust watch, Stefan interrogates the wolfman, asking where Stirba (Sybil Danning)- Queen of the Werewolves- is located. Finally, the old wolf guy gives in and says she’s in Transylvania. (But of course! Ceausescu won’t let Dracula be published, so we gotta find a substitute!) Stefan kills the wolfman with his titanium and (presumably) does the same to Karen’s corpse. He says that he must destroy Stirba to save the world. Jenny and Big McLargeHuge vow to help him. He adds that some werewolves are too strong for silver and must be finished off by titanium. I forget. Is that the result of getting a Tanooki Suit or a Fire Flower?
Anyway, they’re preceded to Transylvania by werewolf Erle, who is taken to Stirba in time for a ceremony where a virgin is sacrificed and her youth is transferred to the elderly Stirba. Stirba then strips, as does the whole group, and an orgy breaks out. Then…then…OH, SCREW IT!!!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you don’t plan ahead. I should’ve more wisely adjusted my time and reviewed some worthy film- like the original Wicker Man. No bees, there. But I ran out of time and fell back on this. I confess. I didn’t re-watch it. I can’t do it. This is all from memory.

Suffice to say, they go to a very, very eastern European town in Transylvania. They find some allies, who all get killed one by one. There’s another werewolf orgy scene with the actors covered in thin ‘wolf- hair and growling the whole time. Matrix: Reloaded ain’t got nothing on this. Eventually, Jenny gets captured and Thick McRunFast has to rescue her. They head back to town and abandon Stefan as confronts and kills his sister(?!) Stirba at the cost of his own life. Meanwhile, Jenny and Lump Beefbroth go back to L.A. and seem concerned when a kid comes to their door on Halloween night in a werewolf costume. Then the credits roll to 80’s underground rock.

Please! Somebody, help me!
Thoughts and Background: Am I still alive? Well, I’m typing, therefore I must be. I think I’ve already answered this section, but I’ll add a few things. This film is a mess. Not only is the story a disaster, but I remain convinced it was edited by aliens who thought all humans have ADD. (In other words, a generation ahead of their time.) It keeps flipping back to unrelated POVs, stock images of buildings and Europe-y clocks, recycled footage, and odd dream sequences. (The first werewolf ceremony includes a ‘visionary’ shot of a wax head melting off of a fake skull!) I never thought filmmakers could aspire to be a poor man’s David Lynch, but these guys sure tried. And did I mention the acting? I’m not going to bother with the tree-stump wooden acting of the actress playing Jenny. And Buff DrinkLots? While it may not be his fault that he’s a chunkhead, the fact that he could have anything resembling an acting career is proof that Hollywood is evil and hates America. As for Sybil Danning, well, to the sad chagrin of any adolescents reading this, stripping- no matter how many times you do it- is not a substitute for acting skills. As a mature adult, I approve this message.
Lee (as Stefan): Oh, Chris…who did you owe money to? Even mafia debtors aren’t cruel enough to make you star in something like this to pay them off. (I think.)

Simply put, Lee hated this film. The director later stated that Lee kept to himself, frustrated by the disastrous acting of his co-stars. Yeah, Crunch Bonemeal can have that effect on you.

But it seems Chris got the last word. Years later, he was cast in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. The story goes that, as soon as he arrived, Lee sought out director Joe Dante. Dante was also the director of the original The Howling. Upon finding the guy, Lee apologized profusely for having starred in a sequel that so marred a movie that he (Lee) had incredible respect for.

But if it’s a trailer for this one you need…it’s your funeral. (NSFW)
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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Monsterpiece Theater: Cushing and Lee- Amicus Anthologies

by Rustbelt

Quick question: What do The Twilight Zone, Tales From the Dark Side, and Night Gallery all have in common?

Answer: As the title of this article implies, they were all anthology shows! OK, maybe not the best start. But, oh, it’s true. Guest stars. Different worlds. No running plotline. Two had Rod Serling. One had George Romero (as top producer). Every week was a new scare story. It’s a great format. But, alas, it seems anthologies tend to work best on TV.

For good reasons, movies tend to prefer a single, main storyline. With only an hour-and-a-half of running time, it’s hard to squeeze multiple short stories into the format. Because of that, most studios shy away from the style. However, one British studio dared not only dabble in the format; they nearly made it their own. Enter Amicus Studios.
As noted by both myself and Backthrow last week, (I NEVER forget when someone tries to out-geek me!), Amicus was Hammer’s main rival for the horror market in both the British Realm and beyond. Hammer- if you’ll forgive the pun- hit the audiences with clever stories, bright colors, great acting, and plenty of female cleavage. Amicus had most of this, too. However, they decided to counter Hammer’s re-inventing of classics like Dracula and Frankenstein with anthology-style storytelling. And guess what? Several of them featured this month’s stars: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee!

So, let’s take a look at how Amicus’s Paramount tried to take on Hammer’s Universal.

Note: To keep this article to a decent length, I’m going to have to skim these summaries. Don’t worry, though. I’ll provide links to the films where I can find them

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (Amicus, 1965)

Frame Story: Five men pile into a train car on the London-to-Bradley line. They sit quietly and ignore each other until a sixth man, Dr. Schreck (Cushing) gets on, passes out, and drops his case. After collecting his things, Schreck reveals himself to be a professional on occult practices and an expert Tarot Card reader. At this, all the men except an annoying art critic ask to have their fortunes told.
Part 1- ‘Werewolf’: An architect (Neil McCallum) returns to his ancestral home where the new owner is asking him to make some alterations. Unfortunately, he uncovers the grave of a werewolf allegedly cursed to return and kill the owner of the house. However, he may have overlooked some details- including the details of the legend.

Part 2- ‘Creeping Vine’: A family has just returned from vacation, er, um…I mean, they’ve just returned from holiday, and have found a strange vine growing around their house that can’t be cut down. A science team led by Dr. Hopkins (Bernard Lee, who played James Bond’s boss ‘M’ from Dr. No in 1962 through Moonraker in 1979), discovers that the plant is evolved and has a brain- and has figured out how to defend itself.

Part 3- ‘Voodoo’: While on tour in the West Indies, a trumpet player for a jazz band (Roy Castle) sneaks into a voodoo ceremony, copies the music, and tries to make it his next big hit. Complications ensue.
Part 4- ‘Disembodied Hand’: After years of abuse, an artist (Michael Gough) gets even with a scumbag art critic (Christopher Lee). The critic is a sore loser- and runs over the artist with his car, severing the man’s hand. The artist promptly commits suicide, and his hand decides to regularly ‘visit’ the critic.
Part 5- ‘Vampire’: The first year of marriage proves to be rough when an American doctor (Donald Sutherland) learns his French wife is a bloodsucker. Hold on…isn’t this supposed to be fantasy? Whatever. Anyway, a fellow doctor recognizes what’s going on and tells the younger doc what to do. Only…how will he explain it to the police?

Epilogue: Forgot to mention something, at the end of each reading, Dr. Schreck pulls a fifth ‘get-out-of-jail’ Tarot card, explaining how the readee can avoid his fate. However, each time, he pulls the Tarot equivalent of the Ace of Spades. It seems there’s only one way out and they’re all in the same car on a train…
Thoughts and Background: This was actually the first anthology film to be made by Amicus. The segments are decent enough. Honestly, I thought ‘Werewolf’ was a little confusing. Had to watch that a few times before I got it. Writers got ahead of themselves, I suppose. This film is also lambasted by online snowflakes for the ‘Voodoo’ segment. Apparently, portraying Haitian voodoo worshippers as black and putting the stupid white guy in danger for violating their beliefs is somehow racist. You know, I’ll stop there. This kind of crap is for the political site. And speaking of snowflakes, Donald Sutherland only got £1,000 for appearing in this. Between that and taking a flat amount instead of a percentage for Animal House, his agent sucks. Or maybe he does. You decide.

Technically, the hardest part of this film for director Freddie Francis (yep, him again), was the train car scenes. Francis does a decent enough job of getting as many men in the shots as possible and using close-ups where appropriate. However, cinematography can only do so much. That’s where acting comes in…

WARNING: SPOILERS (warning will remain in effect for the rest of this article)

Cushing (as Dr. Schreck): He really shows how to put on the creepy and foreboding in this one. He also goes against type by growing a full beard and adopting a German accent. (A homage to his character’s actor namesake- Max Schreck?) Throughout the episode he’s equally entertaining and threatening to his fellow passengers in his segments. His bizarre, otherworldly voice also perfectly compliments the lighting Francis brings in at the climax and we learn that Schreck is actually Death himself, apparently amusing himself by scaring the five men before they die and leading them to the Underworld. Alongside his role as Baron Frankenstein, this is widely considered the role that made Cushing a bona fide horror star. And as for stars…
Lee (Franklin Marsh): Lee’s character goes through an emotional roller coaster in this one. He starts off as a super-snob, first berating Schreck’s ‘profession’ and then- in his segment- making Michael Gough’s life miserable. That, of course, turns to rage when he attacks Gough, (who turns in his own wonderfully emotional performance, falling to pieces after the attack and making us eager for Marsh to get his comeuppance). But, finally, Lee shows why he is who he is by pulling off one scene after another full of apprehension and fright. This is hard to pull off, especially when the thing he’s afraid of is a small, animatronic hand likely paid for with rolls of pennies (shillings?). Still, Lee’s reactions make the hand appear threatening enough and register several jump scares. Interestingly, Lee is the one character implied to live at the end of his segment. A reward for a good performance? Well, his character is an art critic and, at the end, he’s in a car crash and blinded for life. So…no.


The House That Dripped Blood (Amicus, 1971)

Frame Story: An incredibly annoyed inspector from Scotland Yard arrives in the countryside to find out what happened to a missing film star. He’s then told that the wayward thespian isn’t the only person to go missing in the house in question.

Part 1- ‘Method for Murder’: A pre-Stephen King-esque horror/mystery writer (Denholm Elliott, a.k.a. Marcus Brody himself) rents the house so he can get over his writer’s block and meet his publisher’s deadline. But getting his book done on time- or finding his way out of his own museum, for that matter- quickly becomes less of an issue when the killer he’s created comes to life and begins stalking him, though no one else can see the maniac.
Part 2- ‘Waxworks’: A retired banker (Cushing) rents the house, and is soon joined by an old friend (Joss Ackland, the bad guy from Lethal Weapon 2) who visits the house- I mean, calls on him. The two jointly and separately visit a wax museum that features a mannequin which resembles a woman they both knew in their youth. Feeling something is very wrong, the former banker tries to keep his friend from going back; but the lure is too strong.
Part 3- ‘Sweets to the Sweet’: John Reid (Christopher Lee) now rents the house and has brought his young daughter, Jane (Chloe Franks), with him. To keep her out of the local schools, he hires a private tutor, Ann (Nyree Dawn Porter), to teach her. Ann is appalled at Lee’s brutal discipline of his daughter and refusal to allow her to have toys. However, after Jane shows some odd behavior, Lee reveals the madness to his methods- his late wife was a witch and he’s afraid that Jane may follow in her footsteps. (Note: The Realtor is now relating this to the inspector.)

Part 4- ‘The Cloak’: Perennial pain-in-the-@$$ horror film star- and subject of the inspector’s visit- Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee, taking a break from being the Third Doctor), is irate at the production values on his latest film. Controlling what he can, he buys a very authentic vampire-ish cloak from a very demonic-ish costume shop. The cloak turns out to be too authentic, as Henderson begins acting and behaving like a vampire for real- even biting his co-star Carla (Ingrid Pitt) during filming!
Epilogue: Moaning and groaning, the inspector ignores the realtor’s advice to wait until morning to inspect the house after the electricity can be turned on. He lights a candle and heads to the basement. There, he’s confronted by Henderson- as a full vampire! (It turns out Henderson was set up; some real vampires liked his horror films so much they made him ‘one of the club.’) The inspector kills Henderson with a broken chair leg, and then meets his own end when Carla wakes up.

Thoughts and Background: There’s not too much available on this film, except that Pertwee was a last-second addition. (Vincent Price was originally asked to play Henderson, but couldn’t because of contractual reasons.) Psycho’s Robert Bloch returns as the screenwriter. This time, all four segments also hold up rather well. It was also nice to see Elliot and Pertwee outside of their more famous roles. To be honest, I only saw some of Pertwee’s Doctor Who work for the first time when I recently saw Rifftrax’s parody of The Five Doctors back in August.
The only truly weak part, IMHO, is the framing story. Each segment is the same: the officer (or realtor) tries to make the inspector believe their story, only to be rebuffed as he acts annoyed. While his fate does redeem the story somewhat, the ending narration is rather lame. Right before the credits, the realtor (appropriately named ‘Stoker,’ a fact Henderson takes note of), says that the house reflects the personality of the whoever lives in it and that, hopefully, it will find a good owner. Uh, if it reflects he deepest demons of whoever lives in it, I don’t think anyone would end up being a decently prospective owner. The whole wraparound story really feels tacked on.

Cushing (Philip Grayson, the ex-banker): Freddie Francis (who did NOT direct this film), once said that Cushing got him out of one problem after another. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cushing did the same for this film. Long portions of his segment are silent. Cushing had to do a lot of non-verbal acting, displaying world-weariness and boredom after renting the house; yearning and longing during a dream sequence in the wax museum; and finally fear and concern as the museum consumes his friend.

Also of note is the subject matter. The theme of this segment is regret. Both Cushing and Ackland’s characters wonder what life would have been like if either had pursued their dream girl when they were young men. It’s a feeling only lonely men of advancing age can feel. (Or so I’m told.) That leaves them vulnerable to the museum’s (the house’s?) power. In the film’s only segment where the actual villain plays only a tiny role, the men’s vulnerability drives the story in a particularly unique way.
Lee (as John Reid): Lee turns in another of his trademark domineering performances. What makes this different, I think, is that so much of his rage is aimed at his little girl. Before we learn the reasons behind his actions, Lee comes off as the father from Hell. I mean, seeing actors unleash rage on their peers is one thing, but a child? It’s very unsettling. Of course, when the truth is revealed about Jane, we get a very good- and quick- reason why she needed to be left in the dark.

Fun fact: In the final segment, Henderson moans over how modern horror movies aren’t as good as the old ones like Dracula, “the one with Bela Lugosi, not this new fellow.” The ‘new fellow,’ is, of course, Lee! Also, the wax museum- which shows off mannequins of famous evil figures- has one of Lee as Dracula that Cushing walks past.

Tales From the Crypt (Amicus, 1972)

Frame Story: Five people wonder through Highgate Cemetery in London. Gradually, they’re drawn to the old underground tombs. Eventually, they end up in a large room with a man dressed in a dark robe- no, not Palatine; the Crypt Keeper. He then begins to discuss their fates.

Part 1- ‘…And All Through the House’: A woman (Joan Collins) kills her husband on Christmas Eve. (Joyous start.) While trying to hide the body, a radio report reveals that a killer dressed as Santa Claus is one the loose- and, it turns out, outside the house.

Part 2- ‘Reflection of Death’: A man (Ian Hendry) drives off with another woman and their car crashes. He eventually makes it back, only to learn that he’s a corpse and has been dead many years. Of course, he then wakes up and finds himself behind the wheel…
Part 3- ‘Poetic Justice’: A father and son pair (David Markham and Robin Phillips) decide they’ve had enough of an old man, Arthur Grimsdyke (Cushing), who keeps too many animals at his home. They think he’s a stain on the community’s reputation and decide to drive him out by having his animals removed, getting him fired from his job, and spreading rumors that he’s a child molester. (Grimsdyke has deeply enjoyed making toys for children and entertaining them.) The coup de grace comes when they send him hateful Valentine cards on Valentine’s Day and he hangs himself. One year later, he pays them a visit, albeit from beyond the grave.
Part 4- ‘Wish You Were Here’: In the umpteenth variation on W.W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw”, a financially-stressed couple find a Chinese statue that grants three wishes and they ask for a fortune. However, as in the short story, it comes in the form of compensation/insurance when a family member dies. (In this case, the husband behind the wheel.) The wife wishes him back the way he was before the crash, but he’s still dead- he had a heart attack and died just before the collision. Finally, she wishes him alive again, not realizing his body was embalmed. (Lots of painful screaming follows.)

Part 5- ‘Blind Alleys’: A man arrives as the new director of a home for blind men. He promptly makes a jerk out of himself, withholding food, warmth, and medical care so he can live a life of luxury. Finally, the men have had enough and use their resources to trap the director and his dog while building a booby-trapped maze for them. The director is then sent into the maze with his madly-starving dog.
Epilogue: The Crypt Keeper finishes and delivers some devastating news: all of them are already dead. Apparently, they suffered memory loss as spectres and he decided to toy with them by recounting their deaths to their faces. He then leads them into Hell for eternal torment.

Thoughts and Background: As you might guess from this summary, I really didn’t think too much of this one. In the previous two movies, the situations were often creative and where there were villains, they remained in the background long enough for the stories to develop. Here, the villains are all straightforward and one-dimensional. I spent four out of the five segments just waiting for the bad guys to get what the deserved. The only interesting story is the fourth one, and that, as mentioned, is based on an existing (and somewhat overused) short story.
And I’d certainly be remiss if I didn’t mention that this film was based on the macabre 1950’s comic book of the same name. (It was published from 1950 through 1955 and has had a few 21st- century revivals.) Most of what’s here is based on stories from the comic. And, yes, HBO’s 1990s TV series ‘Tales From the Crypt’) was also based on the comic. (It was much better than this film.) It’s just too bad the filmmakers couldn’t do more with the material at hand. This one is worth a passing glance, but not much else.
Cushing (as Arthur Grimsdyke): Cushing is really one of the only reasons to watch this movie. As I mentioned last week, following his wife’s death, Cushing began to play some roles where he lived out his grief on screen. In this film, his character is a widower and tries to communicate with his dead wife via a Ouija board. The grief he feels as everything he has left is taken away from him is quite powerful. (He even dedicated this performance to his late wife.) However, I just don’t think it’s enough to save this story as the villains are as bland as can be. Even the ending, with Cushing coming back from the dead and totally kano-ing the evil son by ripping his heart out one year later on Valentine’s Day doesn’t seem fulfilling enough.

Maybe Christopher Lee did the right thing by not starring in this one.


OK, to make up for the lack of enthusiasm for that last film, for all my fellow dudes, he’s a pic of vampire Ingrid Pitt. Enjoy!
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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Monsterpiece Theater: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee- Beyond Hammer

by Rustbelt

When someone mentions Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, two words often come to mind: “Tarkin” and “Dooku.” Ah, Millennials…I’d weep for them, but I choose not to. The other two words commonly associated with this famous duo are “Hammer Studios.”

Indeed, they were the original stars that put Hammer on the map. Or did Hammer offer them the breaks they needed by playing, respectively, Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula? Here are my reviews from previous years covering Frankenstein and Dracula. I’ll let you decide. But in addition to sequels of those particular films, the two also starred in Hammer’s versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy, among many others. But neither actor limited themselves to just Hammer. They branched out into movies for other studios as well.

The Skull (Amicus, 1965)

Plot: In 1814, on the grounds of the Charenton Lunatic Asylum in France, a group of men dig up a grave and decapitate the corpse within. The leader (Maurice Good) takes the head home and encounters his girlfriend (April Olrich), who is conveniently taking a bath and showing as much skin as the British Board of Censors will allow. (Oh, Amicus! You REALLY want to be Hammer, didn’t you?) The man rebuffs her, takes the head into another room, and gives it a chemical bath that leaves only the skull. Noticing strange vapors, the girlfriend breaks in and finds the man dead.
We then jump ahead to present-day 1960’s at an auction house in London presided over by Michael Gough. Rival, though friendly, occult item collectors Dr. Christopher Maitland (Cushing) and Sir Matthew Phillips (Lee) vie for a collection of demonic statues, with Phillips winning by heavily overpaying.

That night, Maitland is visited by shady occult items dealer Marco (Patrick Wymark), who sells him a book about the Marquis de Sade which has binding made of human flesh. The next night Marco returns with a skull to sell. When the asking price is deemed too high, he explains that it is the skull of de Sade. He then tells us that de Sade’s skull was stolen by a phrenologist for examination, but he and his girlfriend died soon after. Maitland still refuses because of the price.
Later, while playing pool with Phillips, Phillips tells Maitland that the skull is real and that it was stolen from him. He’s also glad that it’s gone. He says it’s possessed by an evil spirit that made him buy the statues. (It specifically needed the figure of Balberith- the demon who tempts men to commit murder.) He warns Maitland to avoid the skull at all costs, especially during the new moon- the night of Devil worship when the skulls spirits gather around it.
Maitland, however, soon finds his mind invaded. He has a nightmare where policemen arrest him, a judge forces him to play Russion roulette, and he encounters the skull. Ignoring Phillips’ advice, he goes to Marco’s apartment…er, um. Sorry. British film. His flat, with plans to steal the skull, but also finds Marco mysteriously dead. After avoiding the police, Maitland steals the skull, but kills the landlord (Peter Woodthorpe) in the process. Later, the skull ‘commands’ Maitland to steal the Balberith statue, and Phillips is killed as well. Finally, the skull compels Maitland to kill his wife (Jill Bennett), but he resists and stabs the skull instead. As punishment, the skull floats through Mailand’s house, cornering and killing him as well. The film ends as the skull ‘watches’ the befuddled policemen who investigate the latest murder.
Thoughts and Background: I’m a little biased because this is the one earliest non-Star Wars films I ever saw starring Cushing and Lee. Therefore, it’s full of ghoulish nostalgia for me. Interestingly, this is based on the short story, The Skull of the Marquis de Sade, by Robert Bloch, author of Psycho. And in a strange twist, there ARE some facts at work here. The skull of the Marquis de Sade was, according to several accounts, exhumed at the loony bin where he’d been locked up for the last decades of his life for phrenological study. (For those not in the know, he was an 18th-century French aristocrat known known for torturing friends and servants for pleasure and then writing about the joys of sexual perversions. His name is where we get the word ‘sadism.’) The skull was later lost.

The film is quite enjoyable. The only drawback is how long some of the sequences are. Director Freddie Francis claimed that the screenwriter only gave him an outline and much of the dialogue had to be made up on the spot. Francis was a former cinematographer and it seems he tried to make up lack of a script with long, carefully-filmed sequences. Still, the film is well-paced and provides enough material for the actors to work with. A good watch for late on Friday or Saturday night.

Cushing (as Dr. Christopher Maitland): This is definitely Cushing’s film. His character studies the occult while believing in none of it. This skepticism makes him vulnerable to ignoring advice. Later, when the skull takes over, Cushing shows his acting chops by alternately displaying blank possession, rage, conflict (when he refuses to kill his wife), and, finally, abject terror when the skull attacks. It really makes you feel for a man who, though a foolish academic, is clearly trying to fight the demonic forces taking him over.

Lee (as Sir Matthew Phillips): More of a cameo role in this one. Lee’s scenes are few, but effective. He also gets to display something rarely seen from him on film: concern and empathy. It’s a rare non-villainous role for him. Following his own experiences with the skull, he begs Cushing’s character to get rid of the skull and save himself. Of course, Cushing’s character ignores him. (Personally, if Christopher Lee told me not to do something, I’d obey pretty quickly.)

Did You Notice…? The last 25 minutes of this film are mostly silent. It’s easy to overlook. I only really took this to heart after reading an interview with the screenwriter of Carnival of Souls. That film is also mostly silent, but, like The Skull, it can be hard to tell because of the effective soundtrack. Whereas Carnival relied mostly on atmosphere, Skull relied on Cushing’s expressions to convey the action without dialogue. Thank goodness British actors are taught to ‘act with the face.’

Horror Express (Granada Films, 1972)

Plot: Our story begins in China in 1906. Professor Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee) has just completed an expedition in the mountains where he found a fossil that could be the famed ‘missing link.’ When he arrives at the train station to board the Trans-Siberian Express, a thief is killed trying to break into the crate containing the statue. His eyes are left white and bleeding. A Rasputin-esque monk named Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza) declares the crate evil, as he can’t draw a cross on it with chalk. Saxton still orders the crate be taken on board.
Not long after departure, Saxton’s rival, Dr. Wells (Cushing), after hearing what he thought to be something alive in the crate, bribes a baggage man to look inside. The baggage man disappears, and is later found inside the crate with the same bleeding, white eyes.

Soon, the creature kills a spy and is gunned down, but not before possessing Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña). In the meantime, Saxton and Wells examine the dead bodies and the eyes of the creature. They conclude that it drained its victims’ brains of knowledge through its eyes, and that it could even transport its consciousness through this method, which they later learn can only be done in the dark. (The ape creature was just a host.) Soon after, several more people die and the train telegrapher alerts the Russian authorities.
The train is eventually stopped and boarded by a company of Cossack soldiers led by Captain Kazan (Telly Salvalas). Before you can say “who loves you, baby?” (Oh, come on! How could I resist?), he turns his attention to the suspicious Mirov, who is confirmed to be the creature when his eyes glow red in the dark. The creature transfers himself into the weak-willed and cowardly Pujarnov, who has switched his alliance from God to the Devil.

The Pujarnov-creature is then confronted by Saxton in the front of the train and begs to be let go, declaring itself to be a being of pure energy from beyond the world. He also forces Saxton’s hand by raising all of the people he killed. Saxton and Wells move everyone into a rear car while avoiding the zombies and then release the car’s latch. The engine steams onto a dead-end track (re-touted by Tsarist authorities afraid the train was taken over by revolutionaries) and crashes, killing the creature.

Thoughts and Background: That was a tough plot to summarize. At its heart, this film is based on the 1938 short story Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell; the same source material for John Carpenter’s The Thing, so any similarities of an alien assuming other peoples’ identities for survival is not coincidental.

This is a very enjoyable film with a unique setting. It makes me wonder how people with far more limited scientific knowledge and technology (compared to today), would fare against a creature like this. Speaking of the setting, there’s a long-standing rumor that this film was made with sets left over from either Doctor Zhivago or Nicholas and Alexandra. Producer Bernard Gordon denied this, saying that while items from Pancho Villa were used, only stage was available, so each car set had to be built and all scenes shot before they could move onto the next part of the train, rather than the script.
The film is also quite unsettling and philosophical. It features several grisly autopsy scenes and the scenes of the white, bleeding eyes are disturbingly effective. The film also has characters debating science and faith while trying to determine the creature’s origin. (See below.)

I should also mention the performance by Savalas. He doesn’t try to sound Russian at all, but comes off sounding and acting like Kojak. (Odd, since Kojak was still a year away.) Yet, he dominates the screen when he’s on it and actually has the two lead actors vying for our attention with him. That’s not easy to do.

Cushing (as Dr. Wells): Cushing has a somewhat happy-go-lucky role, at least at first. He merrily greets Saxton at the train station and even comforts a beautiful lady who needs a room on the train. (She later turns out to be a spy). All in all, it looks like Cushing got to have a lot of fun here. Except he probably didn’t. Cushing almost didn’t make this movie. His wife, Helen, died a few months before filming and left him devastated. When he arrived in Madrid, he almost quit, feeling it was too soon to resume acting. Only the encouragement of his BFF Christopher Lee got him to stay and do the film.
Lee (as Professor Sir Alexander Saxton): Lee is more back to form in this film as a dominating character who demands that he be obeyed no matter what. However, he actually makes the transition from slightly villainous to determined protagonist after the creature escapes and he and Wells need to team up to stop the creature. You kind of get the feeling that his character got humbled after creature’s breakout and that he was, in fact, capable of putting his ego aside when the situation required.
What was the creature, anyway? On the surface, I suppose it is meant to be an alien. This is mostly a sci-fi film, after all. There are several things to support this. For one thing, the creature is confirmed to be an energy being, a different form of life. It also claims to have come with others millions of years ago and- a la E.T.- was accidentally left behind. It even seeks out to drain scientists and engineers on the train whose knowledge could be used to allow it to travel back to space.
However, it could also be supernatural, even demonic. As mentioned, the monk fails to draw a cross on the crate containing the creature. Later, a crucifix falls from a wall when the possessed Mirov walks near it. Finally, the creature tells Saxton that if he lets it go, it’ll give him all the knowledge it has collected over the years- a true Faustian pact. Also, the scene where the dead are raised as zombies could be either an unknown scientific process, or the creature’s command over the souls it has killed. Tough question to answer, IMO.

The Creeping Flesh (World Film Service, 1973)

Plot: The film starts with shots of a demonic abstract painting. The camera then pans out to show a scientist is painting it in his lab. He then informs a visiting scientist that he needs help in stopping an evil he accidentally unleashed on the world and begins his story.
The year is 1894, and professor Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing) has just returned from New Guinea with a skeleton that he believes will help him solve the riddles of evolution. Even better, the results from this discovery should help him win the Richter Prize, whose £10,000 will also solve his financial problems.

But bad news intervenes: Emmanuel learns his wife, long imprisoned for mental illness, died while he was away. Also, his angrily frustrated half-brother James Hildern (Lee)- who runs the asylum where Emmanuel’s wife was locked up- plans to try for the Richter Prize himself and will no longer fund his half-brother’s expeditions.
Emmanuel returns home and accidentally discovers that pouring water on the skeleton’s finger causes it regrow flesh. He cuts off the finger and, after examining its blood, determines the creature to contain evil in viral form, thus proving a theory he’d been working on. He and his assistant then try to create a vaccine to protect people from evil. However, personal life intervenes when Emmanuel’s daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) breaks into her mother’s room and learns that her mother was a beer hall dancer. (Emmanuel had lied to her that her mother died years ago and told her nothing of her mother.) Remembering his wife’s mental downfall and fearing that Penelope may come down her mother’s hereditary insanity, Emmanuel injects her with the unperfected vaccine.

At this point, all Hell breaks loose. The monkey Emmanuel tested the vaccine on in the lab goes crazy and kills itself. Penelope steals her mother’s clothes and heads for London’s East End. Mistaken for a prostitute, she attacks several men and kills a lunatic (Kenneth Warren) who escaped from James’ asylum.

Penelope is taken to James’ asylum and James blackmails Emmanuel. In return for all of Emmanuel’s research, he promises not to reveal Penelope’s guilt to the authorities. But it’s not enough. James hires a thief to steal the skeleton. In the process, rain falls and the creature gains flesh and lives. It eventually tracks down Emmanuel and breaks off his finger- the same one he removed from it.
The scene returns to the lab from the start. Only, the younger scientist leaves and locks Emmanuel inside. James tells the young man that Emmanuel is crazy and claims they’re related. The final shot shows Emmanuel in a typical cell, begging for help and missing a finger.

Thoughts and Background: Whew! That summary was a doozy. Of all the films in this article, this was easily the creepiest. Freddie Francis is back in the director’s chair and he’s greatly improved since The Skull. Though some scenes- like Penelope running through Whitechapel, the ending carriage scene, etc.- seem a little long, he puts his cinematography skills to good use here. It’s a forgone conclusion that the film didn’t have the budget to fully show the monster here. Francis solves that by cloaking the creature in a shroud and shooting it from a distance that makes it look like the Grim Reaper- a fitting allusion. He also uses shots of the creature’s shadow outside Emmanuel’s mansion, growing larger as it approaches. This mirrors the gradual loss of light noticeable throughout the course of the film.
Moreover, the film goes from idyllic home settings to the filth of Whitechapel and the draconian experiments being carried out by James (probably based on real-life experiments of the time). It gives the movie the feeling of a world collapsing in on itself. It’s all very unsettling and an excellent example of a low-budget crew coming up with creative ways to create an atmosphere where talented actors can complete the creepy tale.

Cushing (as Emmanuel Hildern): Here, Cushing’s job is to play a control freak whose life is falling apart just as he may have found the solution to his problems. Though he has lied to his daughter about her mother and milked his half-brother for funds, you can’t help but feel for him. You feel that he had good (though misguided) reasons for his actions, and it truly hurts as the film goes on. He loses his daughter to insanity, loses his discovery to his immoral half-brother, his assistant is killed, and he’s attacked by the creature at the end. Cushing is so good at evoking sympathy that I couldn’t help but groan, “Come on! Give this poor guy a break!” It all adds a tragic element that can keep viewers much longer than most films of this time would be able to.
Note: The subplot involving Cushing’s character mourning his dead wife became a common theme for Cushing. A widower after 1971, he said he simply understood the grief and had no problem showing it as part of the plots in his films. In fact, he often dedicated such performances to his late wife.
Lee (as James Hildern): Lee now takes on a fully villainous role. At first, when he informs Emmanuel that he intends to take the Richter prize for himself, he seems like just another typical Ebenezer Scrooge-type character. But when he blackmails Emmanuel over Penelope’s sudden insanity, he reaches a new level. Reputation was everything in Victorian society, so James is punching Emmanuel right in the stomach. Seriously, I hated this character and wanted him to get what he deserved. But this is one of those cruel horror movies that gives you a logical, though gut-wrenching conclusion. Speaking of which…

About that Ending… Is that really how it ended? OK, truth be told, I actually read a synopsis of this film before getting around to it and thought to myself, “the ending is straight out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari!” In that film, (see above ‘Dracula’ link), the main character is revealed to be an asylum inmate and his nemesis, Dr. Caligari, to be the man running the asylum. Here, we have almost the same ending. But was it real? Or was it all Emmanuel’s madness?

Well, it could be real. Emmanuel and Penelope were clearly nuts at the end and would’ve been locked up. He’s also missing his finger. Furthermore, James says that Emmanuel has been there for three years, and was locked up when he (James) won the Richter Prize. Perhaps James did steal Emmanuel’s research and win. As for his denial of his family (he claims that Emmanuel foolishly believes that he is his half-brother and Penelope is his daughter), that could just be him cruelly covering up a potential scandal- an already-established theme of the film.
But could it be madness. The whole story, we’re told, is recounted by Emmanuel. He could easily have added everyone he sees daily- including James and Penelope- along with his mutilated hand into his tale. In his hostility to his jailor, he may also have invented the idea of James stealing the research needed to win the Richter Prize. Plus, remember the Dr. Caligari thing I noticed? Well, the painting in the cell is in an abstract style that seems similar to the German Expressionism used in Caligari. Subliminal hint? Maybe.
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