Film Review: The Gorgon (dir by Terence Fisher)


Medusa, who is probably the best-known of the Gorgons who haunt Greek mythology, is a scary creation.

That may seem like a rather obvious statement to make but seriously, let’s consider just how scary Medusa is.  First off, there’s the fact that her hair is made out of snakes.  Snakes are frightening in general.  The other day, Doc caught a grass snake and tried to give it to me by dropping it at my feet.  I have never been quicker to jump away from a cat.  It’s not just Texas grass snakes that frighten me, though.  There’s the rattlesnakes that I used to see when my family was living in New Mexico.  There’s the water moccasin that I once saw swimming in Boggy Creek when I was up in Arkansas.  I’m pretty sure that I once saw a cobra slithering through downtown Denton but all of my friends insist that it was just a water hose that somebody left out.  Well, no matter!  Snakes are scary on their own but they’re even scarier when they’re growing out of someone’s head!

And then there’s the fact that if you look at Medusa or any of her sisters, you turn to stone!  I mean, it just takes one look and boom!  You’re a statue!  I imagine the process of transforming would feel terrible.  Can you even imagine?  Even worse would be someone trying to move your body and accidentally dropping you.  I mean, you could lose a finger!  I guess it wouldn’t matter since you would be dead but still, that would totally suck to lose a finger that way.

First released in 1964 and having since achieved a certain immortality based on frequent TCM showings, The Gorgon is a production of Hammer Film.  The usual Hammer monsters are replaced by Mageara (played by Prudence Hyman), a Gorgon who has somehow found herself in a typical, isolated Hammer village.  Neither Dracula nor Baron von Frankenstein are present in this film, though the actors who played them do have roles.  Christopher Lee is Prof. Karl Meister.  Peter Cushing is Dr. Namaroff.  Together, they solve crimes and hunt the monsters!

Villagers are getting turned to stone and innocent artists are being condemned to die.  We know that it’s all due to the Gorgon but it takes everyone else in the film a while to figure it out.  For instance, Paul (Richard Pasco) has to dig up his father’s grave in order to be convinced that the old man died from being turned to stone.  At first, the only person who truly seems to believe in the Gorgon is Namaroff’s assistant, Carla (played by Hammer films regular, Barbara Shelley).  By the end of the film, of course, everyone knows that Gorgons are real!  Of course, almost everyone has been turned to stone, as well.  Even by the standards of Hammer, the body county is high and the monster is merciless in The Gorgon.

It’s an effective Hammer film, though it’s never quite as much fun as Hammer’s Dracula or Frankenstein films.  The Gorgon takes itself perhaps a tad too seriously but, at the same time, you have to love any film that features both Lee and Cushing working together for once, as opposed to trying to kill each other.  Christopher Lee especially seems to be enjoying himself as Dr. Namaroff.  Lee reportedly grew quickly tired of playing Dracula and his joy of having a different type of role is palpable and perhaps the most likable thing about The Gorgon.  As for the Gorgon herself, she’s properly frightening.  I mean, she has snakes in her hair, after all.

When this movie last aired on TCM, there were technical difficulties during the last seven minutes of the showing.  The screen went blank and then viewers were treated to several different takes of one of the Gorgon’s victims trying to write a letter as he turned to stone.  It kind of freaked everyone out, to be honest.  Had the Gorgons taken over TCM?  Fortunately, order was restored in time for everyone to watch Plague of the Zombies.  Thankfully, things worked out.

Horror Film Review: The Plague of the Zombies (dir by John Gilling)


One of the best (and scariest) zombie films of all time came to us from Hammer Studios.

The 1966 film, The Plague of the Zombies, takes place in a small, fog-filled English village.  The village has been hit by a plague, one that is wiping out all of the inhabitants.  Unable to combat or even diagnose the mysterious illness, Dr. Peter Tomlinson (Brook Williams) calls in his friend, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morrill) for help.  Sir James arrives with his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare) and suggests that the graves of the recently deceased should be dug up so that he can examine the bodies himself.

Sounds like a reasonable idea, right?  There’s only one problem.  ALL OF THE COFFINS ARE EMPTY!  Now, before anyone asks, they weren’t empty when they went into the ground.  There were dead bodies in them when they were originally buried.  But now the coffins are empty, the bodies are missing, and that can mean only one thing — ZOMBIES!

And since this is a Hammer film, that also means that a squire is to blame!  Seriously, if there’s anything that I’ve learned from watching British horror films, it is to never trust a squire.  Squires always seem to end up practicing some sort of black magic.  In this case, Squire Clive Hamilton (Jack Carson) has just returned from Haiti, where he apparently spent some time researching the art of zombie creation.  Squire Hamilton has a tin mine to manage and undead workers are apparently far less demanding than living workers.

(Of course, today, Squire Hamilton could have just automated the mine and brought in robot workers, who would probably be even less demanding than zombie workers.  In fact, with the march of progress, there may soon be no need for zombie workers at all.)

This is a Hammer film so, needless to say, Sylvia eventually gets kidnapped and it’s up to Dr. Tomlinson and Sir James to put an end to the Squire’s evil plans before Sylvia is transformed into a zombie herself.  That’s not going to be as easy as it seems, because there’s zombies everywhere!

The Plague of the Zombies is one of Hammer’s best films and it’s also one of the few that, even to a modern viewer, remains frightening.  The village is a wonderfully atmospheric location, mixing all of the usual gothic tropes that we’ve come to expect with Hammer films with a very real feeling of decay.  Even before the whole zombie plague started, one gets the feeling that the village was already dying a slow, economic death.  The tin mine may be the only way to keep the village alive but, at the same time, killing the village is also the only way to keep the tin mine open.  The Plague of the Zombies is a moody and rather sad film, one that has a bit more on its mind than just supplying the usual Hammer combination of cleavage and blood.

Speaking of blood, Plague of the Zombies has one of the scariest zombie scenes of all time, in which one of our heroes finds himself wandering through a mist-covered cemetery while the dead rise around him.  At one point, he literally steps over a pool of blood.  Of course, the scene itself turns out to be a dream but it’s still effectively frightening.  Also frightening are the zombies themselves, with their pasty, decaying flesh and their blankly hostile faces.  It has been suggested that Plague of the Zombies was an influence on Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and you can definitely see that in its portrayal of the zombies as being a threat not because they’re fast but because they’re so relentless and pitiless.

The Plague of the Zombies is one of the best Hammer films out there so watch it this Halloween!

Scenes That I Love: Jonathan Harker Meets A Vampire Bride in Horror of Dracula


Today’s horror scene that I love comes from the classic 1958 British film, Horror of Dracula.  Horror of Dracula was not only one of my favorite horror films but iit was also a favorite of Gary’s as well and, as I spend today considering how best to honor his memory and his love of cinema, sharing a scene from this film just feels very appropriate.

Horror of Dracula was not only the film that introduced the world to Christopher Lee as Dracula but it was also the film that, for lack of a better term, “rebooted” the whole Dracula legend.  It was the film that showed that Dracula could still be intriguing and frightening in the modern era.  Even more so than the original Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, the Hammer Dracula films — and Lee’s performance as Dracula — have influenced every vampire film that has come out since.

In this scene, Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) leaves his room at Castle Dracula and runs into one of Dracula’s brides (Valerie Gaunt).  Lee’s Dracula doesn’t make an entrance until towards the end of the scene but what an entrance it is!

This scene epitomizes everything that made the Hammer Dracula films so memorable.  You’ve got sex, horror, and Christopher Lee playing Dracula.  What had before merely been the subtext in previous vampire films was revealed by Hammer in all of its glory.

Enjoy!

Horror Book Review: House of Horror, edited by Jack Hunter


If you love horror films, you have to love Hammer Films, the British studio that was responsible for some of the best horror films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  It was Hammer who brought Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy back to life and who introduced a splash of color to the formerly black and white world of horror.  It was Hammer that first brought horror together with pop art.  And, of course, it was Hammer that made stars out of actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

House of Horror was originally published in 1973, as a tribute to Hammer in its waning days.  The copy that I own is a revised edition, one that was published in 2000.  I found it at Recycled Books in Denton, Texas.  (That was quite a shopping trip, by the way.  Not only did I buy House of Horror but I also bought A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis.)

Anyway, if you’re a fan of Hammer Films, then this is one of those books that you simply have to own.  Not only does it contain interviews with the big four of Hammer (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Terence Fisher, and Michael Carreras) but it also provides a in-depth analysis of Hammer’s Dracula series, its Frankenstein series, and its lesser known science fiction productions.

At the end of the book, there are biographies of some of the members of Hammer’s stock company.  There’s also not only a full list of every film that Hammer ever produced but even a list of Hammer project that never reached the filming stage.  If, as I am, you’re obsessed with film trivia, this book is a must have.

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Hands of the Ripper (dir by Peter Sasdy)


MPW-27513

The 1971 Hammer film Hands of the Ripper tells the story of Anna (Angharad Rees), a woman living in Victorian England who has a few issues.

What type of issues, you may wonder?  Well, first off, she’s the daughter of the infamous serial killer known as Jack The Ripper.  When she was just a baby, her father killed her mother while Anna watched from her crib.  Now, years later, the teenage Anna is working for a fake medium named Mrs. Golding (Dora Bryan).  It’s Anna’s job to stand behind the curtain and provide the ghostly voices whenever Mrs. Golding is holding one of her fake seances.

One such séance is attended by both a sleazy member of Parliament named Dysart (Derek Godfrey) and a progressive psychiatrist named Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter).  When Mrs. Golding’s ruse is discovered, she decides to “give” Anna to Dysart.  However, this plan falls apart when Anna suddenly goes crazy, grabs a fireplace poker, and murders Mrs. Golding.  Dysart flees the scene, leaving Anna, who claims to have no memory of attacking anyone, with John.  Assuming that he can cure her, John takes Anna in and set her up at his house.

Well, it turns out that curing Anna will not be quite as easy as John assumed.  For one thing, Anna is extremely repressed and often refuses to open up to him.  Also, there’s the fact that Anna keeps killing people.  Whenever anyone stands to close to Anna or kisses her on the cheek, Anna goes into a trance and hears her father’s voice demanding that she kill.  John, convinced that he can save Anna, continues to cover up every murder.

I really wasn’t expecting much from Hands of the Ripper.  In fact, I have to admit that the main reason I dvred it off of TCM was because I thought this might be the film in which Klaus Kinski played Jack the Ripper.  I was wrong, of course.  The Kinski Jack the Ripper film was called Jack the Ripper and it was directed by Jess Franco.  Hands of the Ripper, on the other hand, is a Hammer film that was released in 1971, at a time when Hammer was struggling to stay relevant in an ever-changing cinematic landscape.  Perhaps that’s why the murders in Hands of the Ripper were gory, even be the bloody standards of Hammer Films.

Interestingly enough, though the film was made over 40 years ago, the murders themselves remain quite shocking.  I can only imagine how audiences in 1971 reacted to them.  The scene where Anna suddenly attacks a housekeeper made me flinch, as did a later scene in which one of Anna’s victims stumbled out onto a crowded street, minus an eye.  Angharad Rees gave a good performance as Anna, one that keeps you guessing as to whether or not she’s just crazy or if maybe she really is possessed by the spirit of her father.

Hands of the Ripper is a good Hammer film, one that combines the usual Hammer tropes with a bit more psychological depth than one might expect.  This is one to keep an eye out for.

Horror Film Review: Dracula A.D. 1972 (dir by Alan Gibson)


(I originally wrote and posted this on February 5th, 2011.  Seeing as how we’ve been taking a look at the other Hammer Dracula films, I figured I might as well repost it for Halloween!)

Dracula A.D. 1972 opens in 1872 with a genuinely exciting fight on a runaway carriage that ends with the death of both Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) and his nemesis, Prof. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).  However, as Van Helsing is buried, we see one of Dracula’s disciples (played by Christopher Neame, who had an appealingly off-kilter smile) burying Dracula’s ashes nearby.  The camera pans up to the clear Victorian sky and, in a sudden and genuinely effective jumpcut, we suddenly see an airplane screeching across the sky.

Well, it’s all pretty much downhill from there.  Suddenly, we discover that a hundred years have passed and we are now in “swinging” London.  The city is full of red tourist buses, hippies wearing love beads, and upright policemen who always appear to be on the verge of saying, “What’s all this, then?”  We are introduced to a group of hippies that are led by a creepy guy named Johnny Alculard (also played — quite well, actually — by Christopher Neame). One of those hippies (Stephanie Beacham) just happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of Prof. Van Helsing.  Apparently, she’s not really big on the family history because she doesn’t notice that Alculard spells Dracula backwards.  Then again, her father (played by Peter Cushing, of course) doesn’t either until he actually writes the name down a few times on a piece of a paper.

Anyway, the film meanders about a bit until finally, Alculard convinces all of his hippie friends to come take part in a black mass.  “Sure, why not?” everyone replies.  Well, I don’t have to tell you how things can sometimes get out-of-hand at black mass.  In this case, Dracula comes back to life, kills a young Caroline Munro, and eventually turns Johnny into a vampire before then setting his sights on the modern-day Van Helsings.

Poor Caroline Munro

Dracula A.D. 1972 was Hammer’s attempt to breathe some new life into one of its oldest franchises and, as usually happens with a reboot, its critical and (especially) commercial failure ended up helping to end the series.  Among even the most devoted and forgiving of Hammer fans, Dracula A.D. 1972 has a terrible reputation.  Christopher Lee is on record as regarding it as his least favorite Dracula film.  And the film definitely has some serious flaws.  Once you get past the relatively exciting pre-credits sequence, the movie seriously drags.  There’s a hippie party sequence that, honest to God, seems to last for about 5 hours.  As for the hippies themselves, they are some of the least convincing middle-aged hippies in the history of fake hippies.  You find yourself eagerly awaiting their demise, especially the awkward-looking one who — for some reason — is always dressed like a monk.  (Those crazy hippies!)  But yet…nothing happens.  All the fake hippies simply vanish from the film.  Yet, they’re so annoying in just a limited amount of screen time that the viewer is left demanding blood.  Add to that, just how difficult is it to notice that Alculard is Dracula spelled backwards?  I mean, seriously…

To a large extent, the charm of the old school Hammer films comes from the fact that they’re essentially very naughty but never truly decadent.  At their heart, they were always very old-fashioned and actually quite conservative.  The Hammer films — erudite yet campy, risqué yet repressed — mirrors the view that many of my fellow Americans have of the English.  For some reason, however, that Hammer naughtiness only works when there’s the sound of hooves on cobblestone streets and when the screen is populated by actors in three-piece suits and actresses spilling out of corsets.  Dracula A.D. 1972 did away with the support of the corset and as a result, the film is revealed as a formless mess with all the flab revealed to the world.

The Party Scene

Still, the film isn’t quite as bad as you may have heard.  First off, the film — with its middle-aged hippies — has a lot of camp appeal.  It’s the type of film that, once its over, you’re convinced that the term “groovy” was uttered in every other scene even though it wasn’t.  As with even the worst Hammer films, the film features a handful of striking images and Christopher Neame is surprisingly charismatic as Alculard.

As with the majority of the Hammer Dracula films, the film is enjoyable if just to watch the chemistry between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  Both of these actors — so very different in image but also so very stereotypically English — obviously loved acting opposite of each other and whenever you see them on-screen together, it’s difficult not to enjoy watching as each one tried to top the other with a smoldering glare or a melodramatic line reading.  As actors, they brought out the best in each other, even when they were doing it in a film like Dracula A.D. 1972.  In this film, Cushing is like the father you always you wished you had — the stern but loving one who protected you from all the world’s monsters (both real and cinematic).

Christopher Lee as Dracula

As for Lee, he’s only in six or seven scenes and he has even fewer lines but, since you spend the entire film wondering where he is, he actually dominates the entire movie.  Lee apparently was quite contemptuous of the later Hammer Dracula films and, oddly enough, that obvious contempt is probably why, of all the Draculas there have been over the years, Lee’s version is the only one who was and is actually scary.  F0rget all of that tortured soul and reluctant bloodsucker crap.  Christopher Lee’s Dracula is obviously pissed off from the minute he first appears on-screen, the embodiment of pure destructive evil.  And, for whatever odd reason, the purity of his evil brings a sexual jolt to his interpretation of Dracula that those littleTwilight vampires can only dream about.  Even in a lesser films like Dracula A.D. 1972, Christopher Lee kicks some serious ass.

So, in conclusion, I really can’t call Dracula A.D. 1972 a good film nor can I really suggest that you should go out of your way to see it..  I mean, I love this stuff and I still frequently found my mind wandering whenever Cushing or Lee wasn’t on-screen.  However, it’s not a terrible movie to watch if you happen to find yourself trapped in the house with 90 minutes to kill.

Dracula A.D. 1972

 

Film Review: Dracula A.D. 1972 (dir. by Alan Gibson)


If you’re following the news then you probably heard that Dallas got hit with like a 100 inches of snow yesterday.  Seriously, more snow fell yesterday than has even fallen in recorded history (or, at the very least, in my recorded history).  You want to talk about Snowmageddon?  Well, we had a Snowpocalypse.

The neighborhood on Friday morning (picture taken by Erin Nicole Bowman)

So, I spent most of yesterday cooped up inside with my sister and our cat and once we got over the whole fun of being able to go outside and scream, “SNOW DAY!” at the top of our lungs, there really wasn’t much to do.  So, in an attempt to fight off cabin fever, I raided my DVD collection and we ended up watching one of the old Christopher Lee-as-Dracula-films from Hammer Studios.  Specifically, we ended up watching Dracula A.D. 1972.

The film opens in 1872 with a genuinely exciting fight on a runaway carriage that ends with the death of both Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) and his nemesis, Prof. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).  However, as Van Helsing is buried, we see one of Dracula’s disciples (played by Christopher Neame, who had an appealingly off-kilter smile) burying Dracula’s ashes nearby.  The camera pans up to the clear Victorian sky and, in a sudden and genuinely effective jumpcut, we suddenly see an airplane screeching across the sky.

Well, it’s all pretty much downhill from there.  Suddenly, we discover that a hundred years have passed and we are now in “swinging” London.  The city is full of red tourist buses, hippies wearing love beads, and upright policemen who always appear to be on the verge of saying, “What’s all this, then?”  We are introduced to a group of hippies that are led by a creepy guy named Johnny Alculard (also played — quite well, actually — by Christopher Neame). One of those hippies (Stephanie Beacham) just happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of Prof. Van Helsing.  Apparently, she’s not really big on the family history because she doesn’t notice that Alculard spells Dracula backwards.  Then again, her father (played by Peter Cushing, of course) doesn’t either until he actually writes the name down a few times on a piece of a paper.

Anyway, the film meanders about a bit until finally, Alculard convinces all of his hippie friends to come take part in a black mass.  “Sure, why not?” everyone replies.  Well, I don’t have to tell you how things can sometimes get out-of-hand at black mass.  In this case, Dracula comes back to life, kills a young Caroline Munro, and eventually turns Johnny into a vampire before then setting his sights on the modern-day Van Helsings.

Dracula A.D. 1972 was Hammer’s attempt to breathe some new life into one of its oldest franchises and, as usually happens with a reboot, its critical and (especially) commercial failure ended up helping to end the series.  Among even the most devoted and forgiving of Hammer fans, Dracula A.D. 1972 has a terrible reputation.  Christopher Lee is on record as regarding it as his least favorite Dracula film.  And the film definitely has some serious flaws.  Once you get past the relatively exciting pre-credits sequence, the movie seriously drags.  There’s a hippie party sequence that, honest to God, seems to last for about 5 hours.  As for the hippies themselves, they are some of the least convincing middle-aged hippies in the history of fake hippies.  You find yourself eagerly awaiting their demise, especially the awkward-looking one who — for some reason — is always dressed like a monk.  (Those crazy hippies!)  But yet…nothing happens.  All the fake hippies simply vanish from the film.  Yet, they’re so annoying in just a limited amount of screen time that the viewer is left demanding blood.  Add to that, just how difficult is it to notice that Alculard is Dracula spelled backwards?  I mean, seriously…

To a large extent, the charm of the old school Hammer films comes from the fact that they’re essentially very naughty but never truly decadent.  At their heart, they were always very old-fashioned and actually quite conservative.  The Hammer films — erudite yet campy, risqué yet repressed — mirrors the view that many of my fellow Americans have of the English.  For some reason, however, that Hammer naughtiness only works when there’s the sound of hooves on cobblestone streets and when the screen is populated by actors in three-piece suits and actresses spilling out of corsets.  Dracula A.D. 1972 did away with the support of the corset and as a result, the film is revealed as a formless mess with all the flab revealed to the world.

Still, the film isn’t quite as bad as you may have heard.  First off, the film — with its middle-aged hippies — has a lot of camp appeal.  It’s the type of film that, once its over, you’re convinced that the term “groovy” was uttered in every other scene even though it wasn’t.  As with even the worst Hammer films, the film features a handful of striking images and Christopher Neame is surprisingly charismatic as Alculard. 

As with the majority of the Hammer Dracula films, the film is enjoyable if just to watch the chemistry between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  Both of these actors — so very different in image but also so very stereotypically English — obviously loved acting opposite of each other and whenever you see them on-screen together, it’s difficult not to enjoy watching as each one tried to top the other with a smoldering glare or a melodramatic line reading.  As actors, they brought out the best in each other, even when they were doing it in a film like Dracula A.D. 1972.  In this film, Cushing is like the father you always you wished you had — the stern but loving one who protected you from all the world’s monsters (both real and cinematic). 

As for Lee, he’s only in six or seven scenes and he has even fewer lines but, since you spend the entire film wondering where he is, he actually dominates the entire movie.  Lee apparently was quite contemptuous of the later Hammer Dracula films and, oddly enough, that obvious contempt is probably why, of all the Draculas there have been over the years, Lee’s version is the only one who was and is actually scary.  F0rget all of that tortured soul and reluctant bloodsucker crap.  Christopher Lee’s Dracula is obviously pissed off from the minute he first appears on-screen, the embodiment of pure destructive evil.  And, for whatever odd reason, the purity of his evil brings a sexual jolt to his interpretation of Dracula that those little Twilight vampires can only dream about.  Even in a lesser films like Dracula A.D. 1972, Christopher Lee kicks some serious ass.

So, in conclusion, I really can’t call Dracula A.D. 1972 a good film nor can I really suggest that you should track down a copy of the DVD.  I mean, I love this stuff and I still frequently found my mind wandering whenever Cushing or Lee wasn’t on-screen.  However, it’s not a terrible movie to watch if you happen to find yourself trapped in the house by a mountain of snow.