Even in the year 1972, Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) could not escape Prof. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Of course, the Van Helsing here was a descendant of the Van Helsing who gave Dracula such a hard time in the 19th century but still, Dracula was not thrilled to see him.
This scene is from Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972. It’s not generally considered to be one of the better Dracula films but I enjoy any chance to see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (who were the closest of friends off-screen) acting opposite each other.
Today is the 116th anniversary of the birth of the British director, Terence Fisher.
Though Fisher had a long career as both an editor and a director and he worked in almost every genre, he achieved immortality with the horror films that he directed for Hammer Films. Fisher’s horror films took the monsters that had previously been made famous by Universal Studios and resurrected them with a pop art spin. Regardless of whether the subject matter was Frankenstein, the Mummy, Dracula, or some other fearsome creature, Fisher brought a vibrant splash of color to their stories. (Often that color was blood red.) At a time when American horror films were still hobbled by the production code and tended to hide their themes under several heavy layers of subtext, Terence Fisher brought Hammer’s stories to life with explicit violence and unapologetic sexuality. When Christopher Lee’s Dracula stared at a victim with lustful eyes, there was little doubt about what was actually happening. Once Fisher started working for Hammer, he never left the horror genre. Personally, I would have liked to have seen what he could have done with a Bond film.
Today’s scene that I love comes from one of the first of the Fisher-directed Hammer horror films, 1958’s Horror of Dracula. (In the UK, it was simply know as Dracula.) Christopher Lee may not appear in this scene but it’s still one of the creepiest moments in the film. In this scene, Lucy (Carol Marsh) returns from the dead and, sporting a new set of fangs, attempts to get her former maid’s daughter, Tania, to come for a walk with her. Thanks to both Fisher’s direction and Marsh’s unforgettable performance, this is a scene that sticks with you even after the film ends. Whenever I see Lucy peeking out from behind that tree and calling out to little Tania, my mind flashes back to when I was in the 1st grade and a police officer stopped by the classroom to ask if we all knew what to do if an adult who we didn’t know tried to get us to go off with them. This scene definitely gives off stranger danger vibes and it’s all the more creepy as a result.
British babes Mary and Madeleine Collinson became the first set of twins to not only star as Playboy Twin Centerfolds (and we’ll get to that at the end of this post!!), but to star in a Hammer Horror film, 1971’s TWINS OF EVIL. Not only that, the lasses got to play opposite Hammer icon Peter Cushing as their puritanical, witch burning uncle. It’s the final chapter in Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy (preceded by 1970’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and 1971’s LUST FOR A VAMPIRE), based on characters from Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 novella , and it’s a sexy, blood-spattered scream!
As uncle Gustav Weil goes around the countryside burning young girls at the stake, his recently orphaned twin teenage nieces Maria and Frieda arrive from Venice. Prudish Uncle Gustav disapproves of the girls’ plunging decolletage (“What kind of plumage is this? The birds of paradise?”). While Maria is shy and demure, Frieda’s a…
Hammer Horrors were a staple of Boston’s late, lamented “Creature Double Feature” (WLVI-TV 56), so today let’s take a look at a demonic duo of Frankenstein fright films starring the immortal Peter Cushing in his signature role as the villainous Baron Frankenstein.
FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN was the fourth in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, made three years after EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN. The Baron is back (after having apparently been blown to smithereens last time around), this time tampering with immortal souls rather than mere brain transplants. The movie features some ahead-of-its-time gender-bending as well, with the soul of an unjustly executed man transmogrified into the body of his freshly dead (via suicide) girlfriend, now out for vengeance!
Young Hans (Robert Morris), who watched his father guillotined as a child, grows up to work for muddle-headed alcoholic Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters , in an amusing performance), who revives the cryogenically frozen Baron…
One of the greatest Hammer vampire films didn’t even star Christopher Lee. In fact, it wasn’t even a Dracula film. Instead, it was the story of a circus.
1971’s Vampire Circus tells the dark story of a Serbian village called Stetl. Early in the 19th century, the children of Stetl are dying. The superstitious villagers believe that Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) might be responsible. In fact, they suspect that Count Metterhaus might be a vampire! Why? Well, first off, he only seems to be around during the night. Secondly, he lives in a big spooky castle. Third, he’s a count and don’t all counts eventually become vampires?
Now, it would be nice to say that all this turned out to be a case of the villagers letting their imaginations get the better of them but nope. It turns out that they’re pretty much right. One night, the local teacher, Albert Muller (Laurence Payne), sees his own wife, Anna (Domini Blythe) leading a child towards the dark castle. It turns out that Anna has fallen under the spell of Count Mitterhaus. The villagers promptly drive a stake through the Count’s heart, though he manages to do two things before dying. First off, he curses the town and announces that the blood of their children will give him new life. Secondly, he tells Anna to escape and track down his brother.
Fifteen years later and, as one might expect, Stetl is a town under siege. However, the town is not being attacked by vampires. (Not yet anyway.) Instead, the town has been hit by the plague and, as a result, it’s been isolated from the outside world. Men with guns have surrounded the town and are under orders to kill anyone who tries to leave or enter. Some in the village believe that this is the result of the Count’s dying curse while others just see it as more evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. Regardless, it’s not good situation.
Fortunately, escape arrives in the form of the Circus of the Night! That’s right, a gypsy carnival suddenly appears in town. How did it manage to slip by the blockade? Who knows and who cares? What’s important is that the villagers, especially their children, need an escape from their grim existence and the Circus seems to offer something for everyone. There are dancers. There are acrobats. There’s the mysterious tiger woman. There’s a mirror that makes you see strange things. And, of course, the are vampires….
That’s not really a shock, of course. The name of the film is Vampire Circus, after all. What always takes me by surprise is just how ruthless and cruel the vampires are in this film. Even by the standards of a 1970s Hammer film, this is a blood-filled movie but, even beyond that, the vampires almost exclusively seem to target children. Fortunately, all of Stetl’s children tend to be a bit obnoxious but it’s still a shock to see two fresh-faced boys get lured into a mirror where they are both promptly attacked by a vampire. (And don’t even get me started on what happens when one of the vampires comes across a boarding school.) Make no mistake, this circus is not made up of the type of self-tortured, romanticized vampires that have dominated recent films. These vampire are utterly viscous and without conscience. In other words, these vampires are actually frightening.
The members of the circus are, themselves, a memorable bunch. David Prowse is the hulking strongman. Lalla Ward and Robin Sachs are the achingly pretty, innocent-faced twin acrobats who greedily drink the blood of anyone foolish enough to wander off with them. Some members of the circus can transform into animals. What’s interesting is that not all of the members of the circus are vampires. Some of them, I guess, are just groupies.
Featuring the reddest blood that you’re ever likely to see and a cast of memorably eccentric character actors, Vampire Circus often feels more like an extremely dark fairy tale than a typical Hammer vampire film. Clocking in at 87 minutes, Vampire Circus is a briskly paced dream of carnivals and monsters.
The 1961 Hammer film, The Curse of the Werewolf, is a good example of a film that could succeed on casting alone.
As you can probably guess from the title, this film is about a werewolf. And there was never an actor more perfect for the role of a werewolf than Oliver Reed. Set aside Reed’s legendary reputation for wild off-set behavior. Set aside the fact that Reed specialized in playing men who often seemed to have a beast lurking deep within them, a beast that was constantly bursting out. With his handsome but scarred face and his burly physique, Oliver Reed looked like a wolf. If I had to sit down and paint a picture of how I visualized a man who transformed into a beast, the picture would probably end up looking like Oliver Reed.
In fact, Reed is so perfectly cast in this film that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he doesn’t even show up until the last quarter or so of the film. Clocking in at a relatively leisurely-paced 91 minutes, The Curse of the Werewolf plays out more like an extremely grim fairy tale than a traditional horror film.
It begins in 18th century Spain, with a beggar stumbling across the wedding of a cruel nobleman. When the beggar asks for food, he’s mocked. He’s cruelly forced to beg and then, for his trouble, he’s thrown into jail. Isolated from the world, the beggar’s only human contact comes from his kindly jailer and the jailer’s mute daughter. When the nobleman tries to force himself on the daughter, he’s rejected. As a result, he throws the jailer’s daughter into the cell with the now animalistic beggar. When she’s eventually released, she promptly murders the nobleman but she’s now pregnant with the beggar’s child.
That child is named Leon Corledo and eventually, he’ll become Oliver Reed. But first, we watch as he grows up, the adopted son of the kindly Don Alfredo (Clifford Evans). Alfredo’s housekeeper considers Leon to be cursed because he was born on Christmas Day and his mother died in childbirth. Alfredo may dismiss that as a silly superstition but, as Leon grows up, strange things do happen. Goats are murdered and, even though a dog is blamed, we know that it has something to do with Leon.
Yes, Leon is a werewolf but interestingly enough, it’s not the full moon that transforms Leon into a beast. Instead, it’s stress and depression. When Leon grows up and goes to work in vineyard, he’s fine until he realizes that he’ll probably never be a rich man like his boss and he’ll never have enough money to marry Christina (Catherine Feller). That’s when he loses control and transformed.
The Curse of the Werewolf is a dark and moody film, directed in an appropriately atmospheric fashion by Terence Fisher. Leon is one of the more tragic Hammer monsters, having been born with an affliction that he can’t control and which no one else is capable of understanding. Oliver Reed gives a wonderful performance, revealing the tortured soul that lurks underneath the fearful exterior. This Hammer film may not be as well-known as the Dracula or Frankenstein films but it’s definitely one that deserves to be seen.
Today’s horror scene that I love comes from the 1957 classic, The Curse of Frankenstein!
In this scene, the Monster (Christopher Lee) reveals himself and then promptly attack his maker (Peter Cushing). My favorite thing about this scene is that zoom shot of the Monster’s face after the bandages have been removed. The look he’s giving Frankenstein leaves no doubt about how the Monster feels about being reanimated.
Knowing that Lee and Cushing were close friend in real life makes this scene all that more enjoyable.
In turn of the century Russia, there lived a man named Grigori Rasputin.
He was a monk, though some considered him to be more a servant of the devil than of God. Legend has it that he was a man who rarely bathed and who made it a point to live in the wild, a part of nature. His hair was long and unkempt and he was known for his wild eyes. Depending on who is telling the story, Rasputin’s stare is described as either being seductive or frightening. Rasputin had a reputation for being a great healer, as well as a great seducer. (It is said that Rasputin offered up as his defense that it was necessary to sin so that he could be forgiven by God.)
Despite being a controversial figure (and, in the eyes of same, an instrument of the devil), the charismatic Rasputin became well-known in Russian social circles. In fact, the stories of his powers as a healer eventually reached the household the Tsar. The Tsar’s son suffered from hemophilia and was frequently ill. Rasputin was brought into the royal palace to cure him and, according to contemporary accounts, he was somehow able to do just that. It was said that only Rasputin could stop the boy’s bleeding.
It was also said that Rasputin grow to have a good deal of influence over the Tsarina. In fact, he was seen as having so much influence that certain members of the royal court started to view him as being a threat to their own power. On December 30th, 1916, Rasputin was murdered. There are many stories about how Rasputin was murdered but it’s generally agreed that the conspirators first tried to poison him, just to discover that Rasputin was apparently immune to cyanide! Eventually, Rasputin was shot twice and then dumped in the Malaya Nevka River. Stories about how difficult it had been to kill Rasputin only added to his legend.
After his death (and the subsequent communist revolution that led to the murders of the Tsar and his family), Rasputin became a legendary figure. Because of his connection to the occult, it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s also been the subject of a number of biopics. Everyone from Klaus Kinski to Lionel Barrymore to Alan Rickman has played the mad monk. (Apparently, Leonardo DiCaprio has been attached to an up coming film about Rasputin.)
And then there’s Christopher Lee. Christopher Lee played Rasputin in the 1966 Hammer Film, Rasputin, The Mad Monk. It’s probably one of Lee’s best performances, as well as one of his most lively. Lee plays Rasputin as being a cunning charlatan, one who may act like a madman but who always know exactly what he’s doing. The film makes perfect use of Lee’s imposing physical presence and, when Rasputin uses his powers of hypnotism, Lee stares with such intensity that you never doubt that he’s a man who knows how to get exactly what he wants. Lee makes you believe that, through sheer willpower, Grigori Rasputin very well could have become one of the most important men in Russia.
As for the film itself, it’s a briskly paced retelling of Rasputin’s final years, hitting all of the expected points without ever digging too far beneath the surface. Rasputin cures the sick and seduces their mothers, wives, and sisters and uses his powers of hypnotism to hold most of St. Petersburg under his control. Many of the usual Hammer performers (including Barbara Shelley, as the Tsarina’s servant and Joss Ackland as a bishop) make an appearance and the fact that no one makes the least bit of effort to sound Russian just adds to the film’s charm. It’s an entertaining look at a fascinating historical story and, most importantly, it features Christopher Lee at his chilling best.
Iconic Ingrid Pitt became a horror fan favorite for her vampire roles in the early 1970’s. The Polish-born actress, who survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as a child during WWII, played bloodsucking lesbian Carmilla in Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, based on the classic story by J. Sheridan LeFanu, and was a participant in the Amicus anthology THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD opposite Jon Pertwee in that film’s best segment. Finally, Ingrid sunk her teeth into the title role of COUNTESS DRACULA, a juicy part where she’s not really a vampire, but a noblewoman who gets off on bathing in blood, loosely based on the real life events of Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory.
Portrait of the real Elizabeth Bathory
Bathory (1560-1614) was the most infamous female serial killer in history, officially found guilty of 80 murders, yet a diary allegedly found puts the count as high as 650!…