Horror Film Review: The Curse of the Werewolf (dir by Terence Fisher)


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.

A Movie A Day #59: Moon Zero Two (1969, directed by Roy Ward Baker)


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Earlier today, I was reading a now-deleted tweet from Congressional candidate Brianna Wu, in which she speculated that private companies would militarize the moon and use it as a place to launch rocks at the Earth.  According to Wu, “Rocks dropped from there (the moon) have power of 100s of nuclear bombs.”

This, of course, immediately brought to mind Moon Zero Two, a “space western” that Hammer Films produced in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The year is 2021 and the moon is being colonized by private companies.  The Americans and the Russians have made peace and now jointly run the Moon Hilton.  Bill Kemp (James Olson) was one of the first men in the moon but, having grown disillusioned with working for heartless corporations, Kemp is now an independent operator, salvaging meteorites with his Russian partner, Korminski (Ori Levy).  With his flight license about to be revoked by his enemies in the Corporation, Kemp has been grounded by his own girlfriend, Sheriff Elizabeth Murphy (Adrienne Corri).

Possible financial salvation comes when Kemp is hired by J. J. Hubbard (Warren Mitchell) to help him illegally salvage a sapphire asteroid that is orbiting the far side of the moon.  At the same time, a young woman named Clementine (Catherine Schell, who later starred in another science fiction epic about the moon, Space: 1999) wants Kemp to help her search for her brother, who went missing while also working on the far side of the moon.

Moon Zero Two starts with some Schoolhouse Rock-style animation that shows how the U.S. and the Russians originally landed on the moon:

Though the animated opening seems more appropriate for an Ealing comedy, the rest of Moon Zero Two is a fairly straight western, with claim jumpers, shootouts, and a few moments of comedy coming from the story being set on the moon instead of Arizona.  For instance, there’s a barroom brawl that takes place in zero gravity.  Even while paying homage to old westerns, Moon Zero Two also tries to predict the future, which looks a lot like 1969.  This means psychedelic costumes and a Vegas style dance revue at the Moon Hilton, one that is reminiscent of the USO show in Apocalypse Now.  The mix of styles is enjoyably absurd and everyone seems to be having fun playing cowboy.

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James Olson is the token American in the cast but, for fans of British comedy, the most interesting thing about Moon Zero Two will be seeing Warren Mitchell, who played Alf Garnett in Til Death Do Us Part and inspired All In The Family‘s Archie Bunker, playing ruthless claim jumper, J. J. Hubbard.  Hubbard’s main henchman is played by Bernard Bresslaw, who some viewers may recognize from the Carry On films.  Also, Monty Python fans will want to keep an eye out for Carol Cleveland, who has a very small role as a stewardess.

Years after it was first released, Moon Zero Two was one of the first movies to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  This was one of the earliest episodes, from before even TV’s Frank joined the show.  I have not seen the MST 3K version but it is available both on YouTube and as a part of Shout Factory’s 25th Anniversary Box Set.

Here’s an artist’s rendering of Crow and Tom Servo having a Moon Zero Two-style shootout.

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Tomorrow’s movie a day will be another space western, Peter Hyams’s Outland.

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Horror Film Review: The Revenge of Frankenstein (dir by Terence Fisher)


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Last year, Gary reviewed the first of the Hammer Frankenstein films, The Curse of Frankenstein.  For today’s horror film review, I’m going to take a look at the second movie in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, 1958’s The Revenge of Frankenstein!

The Revenge of Frankenstein opens where The Curse of Frankenstein ended.  The monster (played by Christopher Lee in the first film) has been destroyed and Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) has been sentenced to be executed for the monster’s crimes.  However, the Baron escapes the guillotine.  Instead, he arranges for a priest to be beheaded in his place.  Working under the name Dr. Stein, the Baron escapes to another village and, after several years, re-establishes himself as a wealthy and respected doctor.  While most of his patients are rich, Dr. Stein also helps the poor and the disabled.  By all accounts, he’s doing wonderful work but he’s also deliberately enigmatic, refusing to join the local doctors council.

Right from the beginning, we’re reminded of just how different Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein was from Universal’s version of the good doctor.  In the Universal films, Dr. Frankenstein — regardless of whether the doctor in question was Henry, Wolf, or Ludwig — was always portrayed as being misguided but ultimately noble.  If any of the Universal Frankensteins had been sentenced to death, it’s probable that they would have put on a stoic face, walked to the guillotine, and allow their head to roll.  In fact, they would have felt so responsible for the actions of the Monster that they probably would feel it was their moral duty to allow themselves to be executed.

That’s not the case when it comes to Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein.  Baron Frankenstein feels no guilt over what the Monster has done.  Go the guillotine?  No way!  Baron Frankenstein is determined to create life and if creating life means that other, lesser mortals end up dead … well, so be it.  As opposed to the Universal Frankensteins, who all developed god complexes after the success of their experiment, Baron Frankenstein has his god complex from the beginning.  And if Baron Frankenstein is a god, why shouldn’t a priest be sacrificed for the good of the Baron’s work?

Anyway, Dr. FrankenStein and his assistant, Dr. Kleve (Francis Matthews) are determined to once again bring the dead back to life.  This time, the plan involves transplanting the brain of hunchback Karl (Oscar Quitak) into a physically strong body (played by Michael Gwynn).  Dr. Kleve is worried that a brain transplant could lead to unforseen complications.  For instance, one of Dr. Stein’s chimpanzees reacts to being given an orangutan’s brain by turning into a cannibal.  However, Stein tells Dr. Kleve not to worry about it.  After all, what could go wrong?

Well, a lot goes wrong.  It’s a Frankenstein movie, after all.

I have to admit that, while I love Hammer’s Dracula films, I’ve never been a huge fan of their take on Frankenstein.  While Peter Cushing always makes for a wonderfully compelling and often chillingly evil Baron Frankenstein, the majority of the Hammer Frankenstein films always seem to move way too slowly.  Whenever I watch one of them, I always find myself growing rather impatient with the endless scenes of grave robbery and body stitching.  “HURRY UP AND BRING THAT DAMN THING TO LIFE!” I’ll find myself shouting.

However, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how well The Revenge of Frankenstein holds up.  That Cushing would give an excellent performance as Baron Frankenstein is to be expected.  But really, the entire film is well-acted and both Oscar Quitak and Michael Gwynn give poignant performances as Frankenstein’s latest experiment.  It’s a visually vibrant and nicely paced horror film, one that never drags like some of the later Hammer Frankenstein films.

The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein make for a great double feature, especially in October!

Horror Film Review: The Mummy’s Shroud (dir by John Gilling)


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In this underrated horror film from the legendary Hammer Studios, a British archaeological expedition travels to Egypt and makes the mistake of entering a mummy’s tomb.  As often happens, it turns out that the tomb is cursed and everyone who sets foot inside of it is destined to be tracked down and murdered by a mummy!

That’s pretty bad news for some of members of the expedition.  Among those who are now on the Mummy’s list, there’s Sir Basil Waldron (Andre Morrell) who, in the film’s most effective moment, finds himself talking to a toothless fortune teller who cackles as she tells him, “You are going to die!”  (Needless to say, a 7 foot tall Mummy is soon standing behind him).  And then there’s Claire (Maggie Kimberly), the linguist who translated the curse.  And there’s the expedition’s hilariously pompous financial backer, Stanley Preston (John Phillips), along with Stanley’s son, Paul (David Buck).  And finally, there’s poor Mr. Longbarrow (Michael Ripper), Stanley’s press agent.  If you’ve seen any other Hammer films from the late 60s, you’ll recognize the majority of the cast and you will probably be able to guess everyone’s fate from the minute they first appear on screen.

That, of course, is part of the fun!


First released in 1967 and often dismissed as being one of the lesser horror films to come out of Hammer Studios, The Mummy’s Shroud is actually a pretty effective film.  I watched it late last night, with lights out and the sound of rain pounding on the windows outside and I have to admit that, even if nothing about the film surprised me, it still had enough eerie moments that I found myself watching for sudden shadows and the sound of heavily wrapped feet.

And why not?  Mummy’s are scary!  Even if you don’t know all of the grotesque details that go into the mummification process, Mummy’s just look frightening.  It’s the bandages, to be honest.  The bandages keep you from knowing exactly who is doing the stalking but, at the same time, you know that if those bandages were unwrapped, you wouldn’t want to see what’s hiding underneath them.  By their very existence, Mummies are proof of the finality of death.

And The Mummy in The Mummy’s Shroud is frightening!  He towers over all of the “human” actors in the film and when he attacks, he does it with a sudden and savage cruelty.  Perhaps the death that disturbed me the most was the death of poor Mr. Longbarrow, who is literally lifted up off of his feet and tossed out of a window.  He crashes to the street below and, briefly, the screen is awash with Hammer’s trademark red blood.  It’s a disturbing scene, both because Longbarrow is one of the few likable characters in the film and also because the Mummy could have just as easily and much more efficiently strangled him.  Instead, the Mummy had to be mean about it.

Seriously, there’s nothing more frightening than a sadistic mummy.

The Mummy’s Shroud may not be one of Hammer’s best films but still, it’s an efficient little horror film and one that, I think, many other horror critics have been a bit too quick to dismiss.


Horror Film Review: Scars of Dracula (dir by Roy Ward Baker)


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As I watched the opening of 1970’s Scars of Dracula, I found myself wondering several things.

First off, why do people even bother with trying to kill Dracula?  At the end of every Hammer film, Dracula would end up dying but then, just as surely, he would be revived in the sequel.  Now, I do think that Hammer deserves some credit for, at the very least, trying to maintain some sort of continuity over the course of its 9 Dracula films.  At least they didn’t have Dracula just mysteriously show up alive at the beginning of each sequel.  Instead, there was always someone or something who would show up at the beginning of the film for the exact purpose of bringing Dracula back to life.  Scars of Dracula, for instance, opens with a rubber bat hovering over the red dust that was once Dracula.  The bat spits up some blood and, before you know it, Dracula’s back and, once again, he’s being played by Christopher Lee.

Secondly, what happens to old vampire hunters?  Dracula shows up in film after film but, for the most part, his antagonists only show up once and then disappear, with the notable exception, of course, of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing.  Then again, seeing as how they probably know that Dracula never stays dead for more than two years, it’s totally understandable that his enemies would probably leave town while they had the chance.

I mentioned Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing.  Interestingly enough, Cushing doesn’t appear in as many Dracula films as you probably think.  However, whenever we think of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, we also think of Cushing’s Van Helsing.  Peter Cushing was one of the few Hammer actors who had a screen presence as memorable as Christopher Lee’s.  As a result, Cushing’s Van Helsing was always seen as a worthy and credible opponent.

The downside of that is that is, when you watch a Dracula film that doesn’t feature Cushing, you find yourself very much aware of just how boring and bland most of Dracula’s other opponents truly were.  For the most part, Lee’s Dracula had to deal with an increasingly generic band of “nice” young men and women, none of whom could come close to matching Lee’s dominance of the screen.

Sometimes, of course, that didn’t matter.  But often times, as with Scars of Dracula, it’s really hard not to wish that Dracula was spending his time dealing with another Van Helsing instead of the film’s forgettable heroes.

In Scars of Dracula, Simon Carlson (Dennis Waterman) drops by Dracula’s castle while searching for his missing brother Paul (Christopher Matthews).  Accompanying Simon is Paul’s fiancee, Sarah (Jenny Hanley).  Naturally, Dracula wants to make Sarah into his bride.  Complicating matters is the fact that Dracula’s servant, Klove (Patrick Troughton), has also fallen in love with Sarah.  There’s plentiful gore, a little nudity, a lot of rubber bats, and Hammer mainstay Michael Ripper shows up playing yet another inn keeper.  Christopher Lee is, as always, an intimidating and cruel presence of Dracula and Patrick Troughton has a lot of fun as Klove.  But whenever the film focuses on its bland young leads, it comes to a halt.

Scars of Dracula is okay without being particularly memorable.  It’s not one of the best of the Christopher Lee’s Dracula films but it has enough of the Hammer style to, if you’re in the right mood, enjoyable.

Horror Film Review: Taste the Blood of Dracula (dir by Peter Sasdy)


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Two years after being temporarily destroyed at the end of Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, Dracula returned in 1970’s Taste The Blood of Dracula!  Returning in the role and uttering only a handful of lines, Christopher Lee gave one of his most intimidating performances in the role of everyone’s favorite vampire.

Picking up where Dracula Has Risen From The Grave ended, Taste the Blood of Dracula opens with a sleazy merchant named Weller (Roy Kinnear) upsetting his fellow passengers during a carriage ride through Eastern Europe.  After they forcefully toss him out of the carriage, Weller comes across a crucifix-impaled Dracula.  Weller watches as Dracula dissolves into red dust.  Weller gathers up the dust and Dracula’s ring and brooch.

A few months later, the plot picks up with three wealthy men in England.  Hargood (Geoffrey Keen), Paxton (Peter Sallis), and Secker (John Carson) pretend to be charitable church goers but, in reality, they spend most of their spare time down at a wonderfully ornate brothel.  One night, at the brothel, they meet a disgraced nobleman named Courtley (Ralph Bates), who was disinherited for attempting to hold a black mass.  Intrigued by Courtley’s promise to give them an experience that they’ll never forget, the three men agree to purchase Dracula’s blood from Weller.

When they go to meet Courtley in a desecrated church, things suddenly go wrong.  Courtley attempts to force the three men to drink from a goblet containing a mix of his and Dracula’s blood.  After all three of the men refuse, Courtley himself drinks the blood.  The men respond by beating Courtley to death and then fleeing from the church.  After the men are gone, Courtley’s dead body transforms into a now living Dracula.  Dracula announces that those who have destroyed his servant will now be destroyed themselves.

And he proceeds to do just that, turning the men’s children into vampires and then commanding them to kill their parents.  Among those possessed are Alice (Linda Hayden), Hargood’s daughter for whom the film suggests Hargood may have incestuous feelings.  Alice is in love with Paul (Anthony Corlan), the son of Paxton.  When both Alice and his sister Lucy (Isla Blair) disappear, Paul sets out to find them and instead, comes across Dracula…

Taste the Blood of Dracula features Dracula at his cruelest (which, of course, makes it all the more ironic that his main motivation here is to avenge the death of his servant).  Whereas Dracula could probably very easily kill all three of the men himself, his decision to use their children to get his revenge adds a whole new level of horrific ickiness to the film.  Fortunately, none of the three men are particularly likable but still, it’s hard not to be disturbed when you’re confronted by the image of a vampirized daughter driving a stake into her own father’s heart.

But then again, that’s a part of the appeal of the old Hammer films, isn’t it?  Hammer films actually “go there” in a way that the period’s American horror films would probably never quite dare.

As for Taste the Blood of Dracula, there’s a lot to recommend it.  Director Peter Sadsy keeps the action moving, both the sets and the supporting cast are properly baroque, and how can you go wrong with Christopher Lee playing Dracula?  Christopher Lee is one of those actors who could do so much with just a glare and the fact that his Dracula says very little only serves to make him all the more intimidating and frightening.

Christopher Lee, of course, has never made a secret of the fact that he didn’t particularly care much for the Hammer Draculas, often complaining that the films failed to stay true to the spirit of Bram Stoker’s conception of the character.  Undoubtedly, Lee does have a point and the Hammer Draculas did decline in quality over the years.  (Just wait until we get to Dracula A.D. 1972.)  But Taste the Blood of Dracula is still a pretty effective vampire film.  Hammer’s Dracula may not have been Stoker’s Dracula but, as played by Lee, he still dominates our dreams and nightmares.

Horror Film Review: Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (dir by Freddie Francis)


DraculahasrisenThere’s a scene in 1968’s Dracula Has Risen From The Grave in which Maria (Veronica Carlson), the innocent niece of Monsignor Muller (Rupert Davies), sneaks out of her bedroom window and walks across the rooftops of a small village in Eastern Europe.  She’s making her way to the bedroom of her boyfriend Paul (Barry Andrews), who the Monsignor has ordered her to stop seeing on account of the fact that Paul is an atheist.  The camera views Maria from above with her pink dress and blonde hair contrasting against the gray city streets below her.  It’s a beautiful scene and it is so visually stunning that you can forgive the fact that it doesn’t really move the story forward.

In its way, this scene is the epitome of everything that works about Dracula Has Risen From The Grave.  Director Freddie Francis was an award-winning cinematographer who stepped in, at the last moment, to direct after original director Terrence Fisher broke his leg.  Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is full of stunning imagery — shadow-filled forests, beautifully ornate bedrooms, and decaying castles and churches.  When Christopher Lee’s Dracula shows up on screen, he literally seems to emerge from the shadows and when he attacks one barmaid who has made the mistake of disobeying him, the entire image is briefly tinted a blood red.  When Dracula approaches his victims, his bloodshot eyes fill the entire screen.  The film is full of so many memorable images that it’s easy to forgive the fact that, dramatically, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is somewhat inert.

Picking up from where Dracula, Prince of Darkness left off, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave shows what happens when Monsignor Muller and a cowardly priest (Ewan Hooper) perform an exorcism at Dracula’s castle.  The priest, frightened by thunder, attempts to flee but instead just ends up slipping and banging his head on a rock.  The priest’s blood awakens Dracula (Christopher Lee) who, after putting the priest under his mental control, then seeks revenge on Muller by making Maria his bride.  It’s up to Paul to try to save Maria’s life but, unfortunately, Paul is such an atheist that he refuses to recite a prayer even after he drives a stake through Dracula’s heart.  This leads to perhaps the most dramatic staking fail in the history of vampire cinema.

Seriously, don’t trust atheists to kill your vampires…

How you respond to Dracula Has Risen From The Grave will probably depend on how much originality you demand from your 1960s British vampire films.  Storywise, the film is nothing that you haven’t seen before and Barry Andrews doesn’t exactly make for an exciting hero.  But, for me, the film’s visuals make up for the occasional weakness of the plot.

Add to that, Christopher Lee is in top form as Dracula.  I’ve been trying to figure out the appeal of Lee’s Dracula because, unlike a lot of other actors who have played the role, Lee never attempts to turn the vampire into a sympathetic character.  There is no romance to Lee’s Dracula.  Unlike other cinematic vampires, Lee’s Dracula doesn’t spend his time mourning for a lost love or yearning for a release from having to be a prisoner to his undead state.  Lee’s Dracula doesn’t even have the sense of humor that modern audiences have come to expect from their iconic villains.  Instead, Lee’s Dracula is pure evil and yet, at the same time, Lee is such an imposing and charismatic actor that he makes evil compelling.

As I watched Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, I realized why Lee’s Dracula has such appeal.  Lee’s Dracula sees what he wants and he takes it.  He doesn’t allow anything to stand in his way and whenever boring mortals like Paul or the Monsignor attempt to stop him, he simply tosses them out of the way.

He’s evil.

He’s frightening.

And that’s exactly the way he should be.