It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.
If I say “post apocalypse film,” then chances are, one of two things will pop into your mind. If you are my age or younger, or slightly older for that matter but not by much, then it’s entirely likely you’ll immediately picture Road Warrior and its many imitators often of an Italian origin. Pink mohawked men running wild in the desert atop supped up dune buggies while a stoic hero in leather mumbles and saves some band of peaceful folk trying to re-establish civilization. If you’re older, or more in tune with the length and breadth of exploitation film, then you might also drum up less-than-fond memories of those old 1950s atomic paranoia films, or the more interesting sci-fi films set after such a war had devastated the world and left it populated by nothing but nubile, sexy young women and virile, two-fisted scientists from the 20th century.
What you won’t think of, I’m willing to bet, is a gritty Japanese yakuza film set in the years immediately after the end of World War II, but that’s exactly what Battles Without Honor and Humanity can be construed as. It is, after all, taking place in the wake of the one atomic war we’ve actually had, and you can’t get more post-apocalyptic than Nagasaki or Hiroshima after the Bomb. And while you may not, thankfully, spy any pink-haired men in assless leather pants or bodybuilders in a Quiet Riot mask imploring a bunch of people in shoulder pads and burlap sacks to, “just walk away,” and while there may be no rolling deserts in sight, there are roving gangs of hooligans in leather jackets wreaking havoc on the innocent. The only real difference is that in the postwar chaos of Hiroshima, no hero emerges to defend the honor of the downtrodden. Everyone is too desperate, too defeated, too decimated to worry about heroism or honor – a state that seems foreign and inconceivable in a nation preoccupied with such notions. Here the hooligans are no better off than the citizens, and everyone is wracked by a panicky confusion that manifests itself either as defeatism or rage. This being a yakuza film, we’ll focus on the group of people who react with rage.
But if this is a post-apocalypse film of a different color, it is also a yakuza film quite unlike most anything that had come before it, and that difference stems entirely from the challenges facing postwar Japan, when survival suddenly seemed a hell of a lot more important than honor. Honor was paramount as a theme in yakuza films. Always there is the righteous gangster with an impeccable sense of honor and loyalty who stands in stark contrast to his foil, who will inevitably be the yakuza or samurai who has turned his back on “the code.” Even among thieves, there is still honor. Maverick director Kenji Fukasaku, however, would put an abrupt and bloody end to the classically romantic notion of the honorable gangster. After all, it is and always has been a load of crap. But no number of backstabbers, internal wars, hits, or squealers ratting out their fellow gangsters to the police seemed able to tarnish this idea of honor bound warriors abiding by a code of fair play, loyalty, and decency.
Fukasaku’s films sought to debunk this myth by portraying the yakuza as what gangsters and criminals often were – petty, vindictive, deceitful, and ready to exploit any vice if it’ll increase their power or the size of their bank account. He never dismissed the notions or any of the other conventions that were expected of the yakuza film as set down by the great icon Takakura Ken, who starred in dozens of post-war yakuza films that all seem to start with him being released from prison. Fukasaku knows the genre inside and out, and he makes sure he includes each of the clichés – the main character fresh out of prison, notions of honor, someone cutting off a pinky, so on and so forth; Once they’re in there, however, he twists them around wildly and turns them inside out in a way that hadn’t been done since yakuza genre deconstruction got its start under Seijun Suzuki in films like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. At the same time, however, he hasn’t set out to simply make a movie full of seedy characters in sunglasses shooting each other and selling drugs to little kids. At the center of it all is the motivation, the reason, these men have abandoned honor, and that is the war.
It all comes from a long lineage and the yakuza film’s peculiar position as one of the true Japanese cult genres. Samurai films were obviously Japanese, but they were also easily adaptable to other genres – as a good many Western has proved. And although they had in them the ideals of honor and loyalty, there were also swashbuckling sword films that could be, at least on the surface, translated into any number of other genres, such as sci-fi or fantasy. Yakuza films, on the other hand, are often so obsessed with the esoterica, Japanese tradition, secret codes, handshakes, and minutiae of their subject matter that it can’t be repeated without losing almost all its meaning. Strip it away, and you just have another gangster films, and while yakuza films were, on the surface, gangster films, they were also something quite different. There aren’t very many action-oriented shoot-em-ups in the yakuza genre. Most of them are fairly slow-moving, and that’s because most of them aren’t about the crime as much as they are about the criminals and the counter-culture they inhabit. A yakuza film without it isn’t a yakuza film; it’s just an action film. At their core and below the violence and gruff men shouting at each other, these are movies about a culture with roots stretching as far back as the Tokugawa Shogunate that first unified Japan and introduced to it a whole class of disenfranchised wandering samurai, or ronin, who basically lost their jobs when the petty warlords and regional masters become obsolete under the one government, one country system.
Suddenly, and in a way that eerily mirrors the post-bubble Japan of the early 21st century, these men who thought they’d been guaranteed jobs for life as noble samurai were out on the streets with nowhere to go and no one in need of their skills. Bands of ronin started forming their own societies, some acting almost like local police defending villages from marauders and greedy officials (like the chaps in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), others acting like local thugs. These bands of ronin eventually became known by the name yakuza – Japanese for the unlucky 8-9-3 combo in dice gambling that means you just lost. The early yakuza films dealt primarily with these historic and usually heroic samurai. 1927′s Chuji’s Travel Diary was the first of the bunch, but others quickly fell in and began writing the rules by which the genre would play. After World War II, however, yakuza films were more or less banned under the thinking that, to keep the Japanese from standing up to fight again, you had to strip them completely of their dignity and take away anything that might showcase that famous fighting spirit. Hey, it was MacAurthur’s idea, not mine.
The result, of course, was the desperation we see in the beginning of Battles Without Honor and Humanity. When we first meet our rowdy bunch of central characters – and there are a lot of them, with plenty more on the way, so you better keep a flow chart handy – they are bitter hustlers trying to stay alive in the turmoil and madness of post-bomb Hiroshima. Ostensibly, our main character is a young hustler named Shozo, played by yakuza film staple Bunta Sugawara. Sugawara became one of the most recognizable and beloved faces in the yakuza films of the 1970s, thanks in large part to his partnership with director Kenji Fukasaku. Shozo and his mates live in a world without a future. They’ve just survived the most horrific single attack man has ever seen (and no, I’m making a pro- or anti-atomic bomb statement there – I think proponents and opponents of dropping the bomb on Japan can agree at least on the fact that it was a pretty big deal), and in the aftermath, they find themselves at the mercy of an occupying force determined (so the story goes) to strip them entirely of what little dignity they may still retain. In such an atmosphere, honor and humanity was a distant consideration to simply staking out a claim, and if the myth of the yakuza code had ever been real, it was certainly killed in the atomic blasts.
When, in 1951, the Japanese regained much of their freedom as a nation, period films were back in action, but most of these were samurai films. They were the best way for the Japanese to recapture their lost glory and start to rebuild a sense of self-worth. Honor, nobility, self-respect – these were the things that made the samurai movie tick. And loyalty – loyalty was essential, both to the samurai and to the mid-century Japanese who were trying to forge a new nation and establish a new government unlike any they’d had before. The era of shoguns and emperors had given way to the Japanese Diet, or parliament, and democracy.
If there weren’t many yakuza on the screen, then it was compensated for by the fact that so many of them were involved behind the scenes. Bored with turf wars among themselves and with the Chinese and Korean minorities who formed their own gangs, the postwar hooligans saw money to be made in the newly revitalized Japanese film industry. Many of them became involved as scouts, producers, and a few even became studio heads. Eventually, of course, yakuza films started creeping back onto screens, this time set primarily during the period of rapid modernization just prior to World War II and involving a heroic gangster usually stubbornly clinging to traditional Japanese clothing facing off against corrupt gangsters who had usually sold out and started wearing Western style suits – very similar to what we’d see again in the 1970s when Hong Kong kungfu films invariably featured a guy in that traditional Chinese shirt and pants and slippers kicking the crap out of a bunch of thugs in bell bottoms and those Little Rascal caps.
When the yakuza films started toying with a more modern, post-war setting, the films were still richly melodramatic and steeped in nostalgia for the old ways. Takakura Ken became the poster boy for the new yakuza film and starred in more than a sane person would want to count. By the end of the 1960s, the social upheaval that was engulfing much of the world was just as strong in Japan as anywhere else, and people weren’t buying these sentimental doomed heroes bound by codes of honor and love. Seijun Suzuki had started messing with the truisms of the yakuza film, but his wild pop-art experiments were more a rebellion against assembly line, characterless filmmaking than they were against the yakuza genre itself. The real hit on honor-heavy yakuza films came in 1967 with the release of Junya Sato’s Organized Violence starring Tetsuro Tanba (best known to Western audiences as Tiger Tanaka from the James Bond film You Only Twice) and Sonny Chiba. In 1973, Kinji Fukasaku upped the ante with Battles Without Honor and Humanity, a cutthroat, unflinching, and decidedly unromantic look at the world of post-war gangs in Japan.
At the center of the maelstrom is Bunta Sugawara, a former matinee idol turned iconic bad boy and sporting a severe flattop and all-around stern, militaristic look. After striking back at some rowdy American GIs, typically portrayed as loud-mouthed, swaggering, and ready to beat up or rape anyone in sight, Bunta’s Shozo goes to prison, where he becomes blood brothers with another inmate, Hiroshi, played by Tatsuo Umemiya. When he gets out, Shozo is taken under the wing of the boss of Yamagumi Gang, but he quickly learns that the yakuza world is not as it was, if it was ever that way in the first place. His boss is a coward, ready to backstab at the drop of a hat, and equally ready to cower and sob if he can’t get a sucker punch in. Shozo is bewildered by the array of gangsters all fighting amongst themselves and jockeying for political alliances and territorial gains. It gets to the point where so many players are introduced and so many loyalties switch back and forth that it soon becomes impossible for the viewer to keep everything straight – which is precisely the effect Fukasaku is going for, as it mirrors perfectly the feelings of the confused and frustrated Shozo, who wanders through this madness in a half-dazed state, harboring still some notion of loyalty and honor that manages, paradoxically, to both make him the center of attention and marginalize him completely, to keep him in the crosshairs but also safer than most. When an old friend makes a dramatic power play, Shozo is caught between him and his old boss, who is hardly worthy of Shozo’s continuing loyalty.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity was based on a book by journalist Koichi Iiboshi chronicling the history of the real life Mino gang. As such, the film rings especially factual in its documentation of dirty yakuza life, playing at times almost like a series of yakuza home movies. The film is brutally violent but not action-packed. The drama between the character, and the stripping away of every lofty romanticized delusion regarding the yakuza and the yakuza film are the film’s primary weapons. When the violence does come, it is fast, ugly, and street-style. You’ll see no white-clad gangsters with two guns leaping through the air in balletic slow motion. Instead, there is only sweating, grunting, screaming, and blood. Fukasaku employs a lot of street-level hand-held cameras – something that was in vogue at Toei Studios, owing mostly to the fact that they were cheap, easy to use, and resulted in faster shooting schedules. The effect was often detrimental to the film, as in many of the Sonny Chiba karate flicks whose action was undermined by blurry, shaky handheld camera work. Here, however, it serves to throw you into the thick of the action and further confuse you and make you relate to Shozo and makes the movie feel even more like a piece of guerrilla documentary filmmaking.
Although the sheer number of characters keeps you from ever becoming too emotionally attached to any one person, Shozo included, it’s still an emotionally engaging film. It’s the entirety of the situation that pulls you in, the mere act of watching these people pull themselves – and ultimately, their entire country – out of the ashes only to self-destruct once the hard part was over. It’s a common occurrence that continues to play itself out on a daily basis. It’s easy to find unity when there is a common struggle, but once the struggle has been surmounted, once the battle has been won, people find it’s even harder for them to hold things together. The experiences in the desolation of Hiroshima pulled these men together, and the increasingly secure and prosperous times that followed tore them apart. The peace, as they say, is always harder to keep than to win. Compare these post-war yakuza, then, to something like the criminal gangs and militias of Chechnya. Like the yakuza, they banded together against a common enemy, in this case the Russian army and the utter ruin visited upon the country of Chechnya.
Like Hiroshima after the bomb, Chechnya has been reduced almost to ashes, its infrastructure shattered, its people hopeless and angry, and its future even bleaker than that of Japan at the close of World War II. Gangsters became politicians became resistance fighters and military heroes, and after years of bitter struggle the inhumanity of which may be unparalleled in the 20th Century, even by the standards set by such atrocities exhibitions as Sierra Leone and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Russians finally withdrew, claiming a bogus victory in the war and leaving the Chechens with a wasteland to rebuild. Unfortunately, the men who proved so valiant, fearless, and admittedly bloodthirsty and brutal in (and out of) combat could not rebuild the nation they defended. The war had been their element, but peace and rebuilding proved too much. In the end, at least for Chechnya, it didn’t matter, since as soon as Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia, he made a point of resuming hostilities with a shocking ferocity that should leave the world aghast if the world ever bothered to pay attention to some bunch of mountain rabble with ties to fundamentalist Islam. The bitter cold of the Caucasus Mountains seems an odd place for jihad, accustomed as we are to seeing it played out on the sands of the Middle East. But then that whole area where the Middle East collides with Europe and Asia is a fascinating, confusing, and endlessly tumultuous corner of the world that few people seem to understand or take much interest in.
That nations are often built on the backs and from the sweat and blood of criminals is a frequent theme in history, and indeed most human history is little more that a chronicle of criminal acts committed in the name of god, king, and country. Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York sought to examine that very piece of the history of New York in particular and the United States as a whole, as did Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather before it. Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity does the same for Japan, and later entries into the series would trace the development even further, going so far as to make the claim, perhaps not outrageously, that much of Japan’s emergence as a global economic power is the result of the machinations of driven but corrupt criminal gangs. For the first entry in the series, we see simply their emergence from the war and subsequent failure to work cohesively without the immediate threat of US occupation. Left to their own devices, boredom sets in and brings with it violent internal conflict and turf wars. They were born of chaos and need chaos to survive. If there is no external threat to unite them, after all, then they will create an internal one to rip themselves to shreds.
Fukasaku’s film is not completely devoid of the yakuza genre trappings; it simply presents them so that it can dispel them. Indeed the beginning, in which Shozo is sent to prison and we meet him again as he is released after some brief scenes while incarcerated, could be the opening to any of a number of Takakura Ken films. The only difference is that there is very little in the way of nobility to any of it. Takakura Ken was always a majestic figure who radiated righteousness and honor even as a criminal. He was strong, confident, and trustworthy. Bunta Sugawara, however, plays his part with a sullen shiftiness. He never radiates confidence of nobility as much as he does awkward discomfort and confusion. Both actors and characters steep themselves in the melancholy, however, and Bunta’s Shozo might ultimately be what one of Takakura Ken’s yakuza figures would be like if he came out of prison and was faced with the ream world of organized crime, where men hardened by the experience of the war had little use for outdated romantic notions of the noble yakuza.
Fukasaku plays with other genre conventions as well. The obligatory pinky-chopping scene (chopping off a finger being the traditional way to atone for some offensive transgression of the code in the yakuza world) is played for laughs on an almost slapstick scale. Shozo, like Takakura Ken’s many yakuza characters, leaves prison to find the world is not as he left it, but rather than standing in stark contrast to it like one of Ken’s Walking Tall-esque gangsters, Shozo becomes a participant in it, maybe not as active as others, but a participant none the less. And no, he won’t be making any moving or eloquent speeches. If Takakura Ken was the Elvis of the yakuza film, then watching Bunta Sugawara must have been like The King seeing The Beatles for the first time.
By the time the final shots are fired and the groundwork is laid for future films, the viewer is exhausted, physically and emotionally, partly from the not-so-simple task of trying to keep straight all the betrayals and factions that come into play in this battle between the Doi and Yamagumi gangs. Besides Shozo, who is relegated almost to the role of spectator, there are very few people for whom to root, no honorable yakuza. There are only backstabbers, petulant childlike bosses, and the occasional visionary who wants to run the yakuza like a corporation and reap huge profits as a result – the road that would eventually win out, as it was. Bunta Sugawara remains, through it all, a solid presence with a deadly gaze. In effect, he’s seeing things the same as we see them and is just as confounded by it all. His performance is one of subtlety, which is often how people try to describe a bad performance they don’t want to call bad. Chuck Norris, for instance, is more bad than he subtle. Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, was subtle and deadly good at it. Bunta is more Clint.
If the film has any weakness, it’s in some of the period costumes. The film is set in the 1940s and early 1950s, but some of the cars and fashions on display are without a doubt early 1970s. It’s a good idea not to sweat a detail like that. Kinji isn’t Akira Kurosawa after all, who demanded that whole sets on Tora! Tora! Tora! be destroyed and rebuilt because the shade of paint on the battleship wasn’t historically accurate. That might be why Akira Kurosawa was replaced on that film by.hey, Kinji Fukasaku! So just let the big collars and ’70s shades slide. The film is trying to accurately dissect the yakuza, not the fashion trends that surrounded them.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a demanding film, especially for audiences who don’t speak Japanese or aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the yakuza genre. People looking for knockdown, wall-to-wall action are going to be disappointed. The action here come sin spurts and is ugly, unchoreographed, and very real. First and foremost this is a drama and a societal study, a philosophical film but stripped of lyricism and poetry. It is more like the streetwise wisdom delivered by some old crank. After all, you don’t sit down to watch Goodfellas or Miller’s Crossing for the action scenes. This is crime drama, and as crime drama and modern day film noir, it’s complex and engaging on multiple levels and remains one of the best and most unconventional yakuza films around. It does require a lot of the viewer, but then most good films do. Unlike many films in the crime genre, it can’t be enjoyed on a purely popcorn level. It’s not one of those movies where you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. You have to actively engage it and work at it, and even then it’s the film’s point that sometimes you’re going to be lost, just like Shozo.
If you aren’t interested in the yakuza as a social phenomenon or cultural study and not just as an action movie cliche, then Battles Without Honor and Humanity won’t do much for you. Not that the movie is dull or lacking in action, but it’ll seem that way if you were expecting something more.modern, I suppose. Guys in sharp suits posing and doing Hong Kong style kungfu fights, that sort of thing. Even contemporary Japanese audiences don’t seem that interested or able to grasp what a film like Battles Without Honor and Humanity was attempting to accomplish. This is a completely brilliant film, and like most brilliant films, it just isn’t dumb enough for some people.
It was a major hit at the time and made Kinji Fukasaku’s career. It’s odd that until the release of Battle Royale, the director was best known in the West for the movies that least defined his oeuvre. Sci-fi quickies like The Green Slime were hardly Fukasaku’s calling card, but since the yakuza films, and especially the kind of yakuza films Fukasaku was making, were and to some degree still are fairly inaccessible to most audiences, it’s Green Slime and Message for Space for Kinji. Or at least it was until, as an aged man with failing health and nothing to lose, he set Japan — and this time a good portion of the rest of the world — afire again with Battle Royale, another movie that seeks at its heart to pick away at Japan’s notion of itself as an orderly and honorable country in much the same way a chicken in Battles Without Honor and Humanity picked away at the dismembered pinky of a disgraced yakuza.
Films like this would later become some of the most popular films among real-life yakuza, who would gather in old theaters and watch them and pine for the days when crime was nasty and tough and violent instead of white-collar and dull and corporate. It probably has a lot to do with films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity being so grounded in the reality of the situation and with the fact that many of them involved real gangsters. Heck, Noboru Ando was a real life yakuza who eventually starred as himself in a series of more or less autobiographical film adventures about his seedy life. It’s the ultimate irony that these guys would get nostalgic for a type of film that made a point of dismantling nostalgia, romantic for a film that strove to strip away any notions of romanticism from its subject matter. It’s also a sign that when Kinji Fukasaku made this film, he was doing more than making a film; he was documenting an entire culture and way of life.
And we were doing so well! Most movie studios can’t sustain the quality of a film series beyond two films — and quite a few have problems even getting that far. It was no small feat, then, that Hammer managed to produce not one, but two consistently good series. Their Dracula and Frankenstein films set the benchmark for quality horror during the late fifties and throughout the 1960s. And you know, they almost made it to the finish lines with both of them. The Frankenstein series featuring Peter Cushing as the titular mad doctor lasted six films, with only the third film being a misfire, and not a very bad misfire at that. By the time Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was released, it was clear that the series was at its end, both creatively and financially. Still, it managed to go out with a dash of class, and the final film features the second worst monster in the series (the honor of worst, in my opinion, goes to Kiwi Kingston’s shrieking slapdash Karloff wannabe from Evil of Frankenstein) but one of the best stories and finest performances from Cushing. Even if the final film was not a financial success, everyone involved could hold their heads up high and be proud of all six movies.
And then there was the Dracula series starring Christopher Lee.
Like Frankenstein, Dracula started strong and managed to maintain the course for five films. Had they stopped with Taste the Blood of Dracula, it too would have retired a successful and respectable series. It was clear, in fact, by the fourth film that no one had much of an idea left regarding what to do with the character of Dracula. Another film in which a group of travelers end up at Dracula’s castle and are preyed upon for the remainder of the film just wouldn’t cut it. With Taste the Blood, Hammer tried to go in a different direction and make a movie where Dracula was a presence without being an actual character. American distributors, however, refused to buy a Dracula movie that didn’t have Christopher Lee skulking about in an opera cape, and so the Count was forced into the story in a rather awkward fashion that gave him very little to do beyond stand in the shadows and count. And that’s not what his title is supposed to mean.
Still, Taste the Blood was quite a good film even if Dracula’s physical presence has little to do with the plot. Like I said, had they wrapped it up with this one, everything would have ended on a positive note. But where as the financial failure of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell sealed its fate as the final film in the Frankenstein series, Dracula had the artistic misfortune of scoring yet another box office hit with Taste the Blood. And so it was that a sixth Dracula film was to be made, regardless of whether or not anyone had anything interesting to put forward.
Scars of Dracula isn’t an abominably bad entry into the series. It’s just completely derivative and pointless, falling back onto the tiresome “doomed souls visiting Castle Dracula” and trying to set itself apart by giving Christopher Lee’s vampire count more lines in this one movie than he’d had in all the others combined. They don’t fool anyone, though, and while Scars boasts some memorable moments, the gestalt experience is one best forgotten. We have yet another Paul in this film, as well as another Klove (Patrick Troughton, best known to sci-fi fans as the second Doctor Who, or the Hobo Doctor as I call him). I think that’s two Kloves to four Pauls, and add them to the three or four Hans’s from the Frankenstein movies. Okay, two Kloves is one thing, but what’s the deal with Paul? Didn’t someone look back and realize they’d named the last three stiffs (you can hardly call any of them heroes) Paul, and thus they should go for a different name this time out, like Steven perhaps, or Beauregard? Well, by the time this series is over, a preponderance of Pauls will be the least of our concerns.
The movie wastes no time in letting us know we’re in for a bumpy ride as we go immediately to the lamest Dracula reincarnation yet. Now, if you recall the finale of the last film, Dracula was transported to London then disintegrates in an old church, leaving nothing but his trademark little pile of dust. When this film begins, however, Dracula is lying in his coffin back at Castle Dracula. A floppy giant rubber bat wobbles awkwardly into the room on visible wires and proceeds to drool a little of blood onto Dracula’s dust. Voila! The prince of darkness rises again!
Now you know, even ignoring the horrid continuity between this and the previous films (which went to great lengths to connect itself logically to the end of Dracula has Risen from the Grave), there’s no way to ignore that the ragged-looking bat prop is one of the single worst special effects in the history of Hammer horror. Someone wanted lots of bats in this movie; the least they could have done is check to see if anyone at Hammer could create them in a remotely believable manner. No hyperbole here — this thing would be embarrassing in a teenage goth’s shot-on-video horror short. How it managed to flop and wiggle its way into an actual professional production is a mystery to me. Maybe if they’d stopped at one bat, things wouldn’t be so bad. But we’re going to get lots of them, and each one will somehow manage to be more pathetic looking than the last.
Astoundingly, the scene manages to get even worse as Dracula (Christopher Lee yet again) sits up and the bat begins squeaking at him while Dracula nods his head and listens intently. I expect this sort of thing in a Lassie movie, maybe even in a tender scene shared between Godzilla and Anguilas, but Dracula? “What’s that, lad? You say a busty wench is down in the churchyard? Let’s go!” I mean, yeah, they stop short of having Dracula jump up, yell “Alakazam!” then shrink down to action-figure size so he can ride the bat around, but I’m sure if it had occurred to them, that would have happened too. When Christopher Lee complained about how dumb Dracula films were, it was usually unjustified in my opinion. This time, though — well, it’s pretty easy to see his point with this one.
Well, Dracula gets his busty wench kill in for the day, but this angries up the blood of the local peasants, and for once they don’t just sit around in the tavern staring ominously at each other. In fact, one almost has hope when Michael Ripper, appearing as “Angry Barkeep” for the nine thousandth time, decides they should round up a good old-fashioned torch-wielding mob and kill Dracula off once and for all for the fifth time. Now, this is all right! A torch-wielding mob of peasants within the first ten minutes of a film? That’s something I can live with. Unfortunately, they prove to be the most incompetent torch-wielding mob of peasants in the history of horror films, as they proceed to storm angrily up to Castle Dracula and knock on the door. I mean, they do it firmly and with stern looks on their faces, but if you’re going up the mountain to kill a murderous vampire and burn his castle to the ground, stopping to politely knock on the door sort of undercuts your entire message. It gets even worse when, despite the fact that they must be aware that Dracula and/or his hairy servant Klove noticed the huge mob of torch-wielding peasants coming up the road, Michael Ripper knocks again and says, “Open up! I’m quite alone!”
Since Dracula is asleep, I assume this all takes place in the daytime, so really, brandishing the torches angrily in the air probably lost some of its effect as well. But when you’re the kind of mob that can be stymied in its rage by a butler who refuses to open the door, torches in the daytime are the least of your concern, though you should probably be concerned regarding the efficacy of trying to burn down a stone structure. When they do gain access to the castle (I can’t remember if Ripper pulled the old “Okay, I guess I’ll leave then,” and made fake footsteps like he was walking away so that Klove would let down his guard and open the door), Klove doesn’t seem especially upset. He may be a hairy hunchbacked servant, but even he knows that trying to burn down a stone castle with torches may damage a few tapestries, but that’s about it. Still, the mob seems to consider it a job well done even though both Klove and Dracula survive. And, umm, the castle is still standing, too. Bravo, gents! Now let’s all go down to the tavern for a pint! When they return from their glorious triumph of getting a few walls slightly sooty (Klove will be scrubbing them for days to get them clean again), they discover that Dracula took the opportunity to send more floppy fake bats down to the town to massacre every last woman and child. This sort of puts a damper on their gaiety for the evening, and one has to wonder how a trio of floppy bats managed to massacre so many people and pull out so many eyeballs.
The story then shifts to another town, where the movie solidifies its place in the pantheon of bad films by featuring a wacky comedy sequence in which the philandering Paul (Christopher Matthews) gets chased around by the angry burgomaster after being caught in bed with the burgomaster’s daughter. Thankfully, the film stops short of piping in Benny Hill music, but then maybe this entire painful sequence would have been better if they’d thrown in a little “Yakkity Sax,” sped the whole thing up, and allowed Paul to pause for a second to pat an old man on the head. The Scooby-Doo style chase eventually leads to the birthday party of young Sarah (Jenny Hanley), who loves that rascally Paul even though his far nicer, less whorish brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) loves her. Eventually, Paul ends up at Castle Dracula, and yes, we realize we’re going to get another one of those “Whatever you do, don’t go to the castle” movies where everyone goes to the castle.
And that’s just the first third of the film. It doesn’t get any better from there despite the fact that Christopher Lee gets so much more screen time than usual. He hisses and seethes and screams and snarls his way through a series of unmemorable lines as he engages in all manner of brutality, including branding Klove with a hot poker, stabbing someone with a sword, impaling people on pointy light fixtures, and going nuts with the whip (once again on Klove). In fact, this is the first Dracula film where you expect the Count is more likely to just haul off and punch someone in the face than flash his mesmerizing red eyes at them and bite them on the neck. He seems to forget for most of the movie that he actually has vampire powers, and instead acts like a schoolyard bully, albeit a schoolyard bully with a tendency to wear a big cape for no discernible reason. This means Scars of Dracula has more gory action in it than any of the previous films, but none of it has much of an impact. Where’s the fun of watching Dracula slap Doctor Who around? Okay, maybe that sounds a little fun. Dracula also stabs a female vampire with a dagger. For some reason, this kills her. At this point, though, I don’t even care. I guess if Dracula isn’t going to bite people like a normal vampire should, then other vampires can be killed with daggers and so forth. I guess some vampires fear a wooden stake, and others fear a wiggling rubber dagger.
On the hero front, what can you say? This film gives you a milquetoast lead in Simon, and a standard issue cowardly priest (Michael Gwynn, who played the “monster” in the far superior Revenge of Frankenstein). You keep waiting for the priest to rise to the occasion and stop collapsing in his pew aisles and weeping, but that’s about all he ever does. The Dracula series had been following an interesting trajectory, starting with Van Helsing’s explaining Dracula in purely rational terms as a social disease to an increasingly supernatural demon to be combated not with science and reason, but with faith. Here, however, even that is chucked out the window in favor of having Dracula be nothing more than some asshole who happens to command a fleet of shaky rubber bats. Simon sort of drifts from one scene to the next until he eventually finds himself standing on the roof with Dracula, about to be killed until a bolt of lightning shows up to do his dirty work for him. Boy oh boy, we’re a long way from Van Helsing, aren’t we?
I did say that this film had some memorable moments, didn’t I? I mean, memorable because they’re good, not because they’re so awful. I guess what I meant to say is there’s the one scene worth remembering. One of the most notable sequences from the Bram Stoker novel involves Jonathan Harker observing Count Dracula entering and exiting the tower of Castle Dracula by crawling up and down the wall like a spider. For one reason or another, this scene had never been included in any theatrical version of the story, so scriptwriter Anthony Hinds and director Roy Ward Baker figured now would be as good a time as any. It does show, if nothing else, Dracula has learned the benefits of putting his crypt in an impenetrable tower with no entrance or exit save for the one window way up high that only a guy with spider climbing abilities can get to. It certainly makes more sense than keeping it on the ground floor with an unlocked door, as was his practice in previous films. Of course, once Christopher Lee went crawling up and down walls, there was no stopping Dracula. Frank Langela did it in hazy slow motion with billowing cape and romantic string music playing. Gary Oldman did it all herky jerky while wearing a big red robe. It just goes to show you that a scene of Dracula scurrying around don the wall may be cool, but it can’t save the whole movie.
Even the trademark Hammer look isn’t on display here, as cheap budgets make for cheap sets. Fire damage explains away the spartan appearance of Dracula’s castle, but that doesn’t make it interesting to look at. More than ever, the people who made fun of horror movies with cardboard characters and cardboard sets had plenty of ammo for their attacks. It can be fun, but you never once forget you’re watching a substantially lower quality movie than previous Dracula entries. There’s a reason this emerged as the goriest of all Dracula films, and one of the goriest Hammer films, period: they had to cover up the threadbare production with something.
Scars of Dracula isn’t quite a disaster, but it’s everything bad about Hammer films, and everything that critics unjustly accused Hammer films of being — only this time, there was no defending the product. Hammy acting, clumsy comedy, wretched special effects, weak characters — heaving bosoms is about all this one has going for it, and you can get those in any Hammer film, even the good ones. 1970 was simply not a good year for Hammer, with this, the awful Horror of Frankenstein (not part of the actual Frankenstein series, and not starring Peter Cushing), Creatures the World Forgot, and Lust for a Vampire overshadowing the studio’s two good films from that year: the wonderful Vampire Lovers and the acceptable Lady Bathory exploitation film, Countess Dracula. Scars of Dracula ends up being a highlight reel for anyone who ever wanted to showcase the lowest common denominator Hammer film.
Hinds was a good scriptwriter, and Baker was a more than competent director. So what went wrong? It can only be that, in the end, no one but the accountants gave a damn about making another Dracula movie. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. Scars of Dracula once again made money, which meant that, impossible though it may be, yet another Dracula film would inevitably be made. Fans grew hopeful when they heard Peter Cushing was back in the game as Van Helsing. They grew suspicious when they found out Dracula would be visiting the year 1972.
Last time we saw the prince of the undead, he was impaled on a cross and turned into that pink sawdust bus drivers sprinkle on the floor when kids throw up. For just about anyone, even the common vampire, that would signal the end, once and for all. But this is Dracula we’re talking about, and if Dracula Has Risen from the Grave proved to be a financial success for England’s Hammer Studio, then you could bet good money on the fact that they’d find yet another way to bring the Count back from the dead, even if he’d been impaled on a cross and even if series star Christopher Lee was back out on the streets again telling anyone and everyone who would listen that the Dracula movies were awful and he would absolutely, positively, under no circumstances ever play Count Dracula again. Anyone who knows the cycle knows that means that the next film in the cycle, Taste the Blood of Dracula, stars Christopher Lee as the titular count, and that in turns means we’d have to read even more quotes from Lee about how he was practically forced to do this film, but that he’d sure as heck never do another one.
There are two common paths of thought regarding Lee’s frequent and increasingly irritating complaints about Hammer’s Dracula movies. The first is that, well, Christopher Lee is just sort of cranky and overly pompous about the whole thing. The second is that he made these statements with the full blessing of Hammer and with every intention, despite what he was saying, of reprising the role so long as the movies proved profitable. Having the star of a film out there talking about how horrible it all is and how he never wants to do another one is a surefire way to get people curious. Certainly Hammer seemed to have suspiciously peculiar luck with convincing Christopher Lee to go back on his bold proclamations. So either Lee is was a talker who never lived up to his own assertions, or he’s just a cog in a clever Hammer marketing ploy, or Hammer has some bundle of pictures or other bunch of material that they use to regularly blackmail Lee.
In fact, Taste the Blood of Dracula was originally scripted by Anthony Hinds on the assumption that Lee would make good on his boasts and refuse to appear. Much like Brides of Dracula before it, Taste the Blood of Dracula was going to employ the threat of Dracula and his disciples without actually featuring the bloodsucker himself. As originally written Taste the Blood was going to be a showcase for Hammer’s great young hope, Ralph Bates, the man they hoped would serve as the banner star for a new era of revitalized Hammer output. It seemed like a good idea. Christopher Lee was becoming more difficult by the day, and one has to assume that despite the man’s marquee value, Hammer would be happy to just move on without him for a spell. And Ralph Bates was certainly an able man around which to structure the faltering studio. Where as Cushing and Lee and the previous generation of Hammer actors had represented an older, more distinguished presence, Bates was young and handsome and would appeal, Hammer hoped, to the younger kids who were fast becoming the bread and butter of the movie industry.
As the studio entered the 1970s, they were beginning to feel the weight of a faltering British film industry, a dearth of ideas for new movies that would keep Hammer fresh, and most of all, the feeling that Hammer films were simply outdated and old-fashioned. Behind the scenes, Hammer was rudderless and without any real leadership or idea of where the studio was going. As a result, Hammer’s output during the 1970s was notoriously uneven, though several high points managed to rise above the widening pool of substandard Hammer fare. One of the keys to Hammer succeeding in the 1970s involved a serious update of the stodgy and old-fashioned reputation. This meant, among other things, more daring scripts, less naive looks at life, and above all, some new blood in the acting department that would appeal to existing horror fans as well as those shaggy-haired hippies and burn-outs with their bell bottoms and their Sergeant Pepper albums.
Unfortunately Warner Brothers, who distributed the films in the important US market, wasn’t going to buy any of this. They didn’t know who Ralph Bates was, and more importantly, they didn’t care. If Hammer wanted their Dracula film distributed in the United States, then it damn well better have Dracula in it. American audiences wouldn’t put up with a bait and switch (the success of Roger Corman and Al Adamson disproves this assertion), and if Warner couldn’t have Christopher Lee in the film, then the film couldn’t have distribution in the United States. Hammer scrambled to appease Lee in the same way but for much less money than the producers of the James Bond films begged and bought Sean Connery back into the Bond series (at roughly the same time. Diamonds Are Forever came out in 1971, but given the speed with which Hammer films were made versus the more liberal schedule of a Bond film, it’s likely this sort of desperate buying back of established stars was happening at around the same time). With Lee on board again, under protest as he couldn’t stop reminding people, a hasty rewrite of the script was in order so that Dracula could actually appear in the film to see who it was that going around tasting his blood.
Taste the Blood begins with a clever intro that signals the film’s intention to put more work than usual into the process of reviving Dracula. A merchant traveling via coach with a couple of your standard issue gruff, superstitious villagers is bragging about the rare wares he has acquired during his recent antiquing sojourn through the Carpathian hills. While he may be proud of his knick-knacks, the villagers aren’t as impressed, and when the merchant mentions a certain village, they just haul off and kick him out of the coach. Stranded in the woods at night, the merchant begins to hear the standard “stranded in the woods at night” sound effects. Owls, scurrying, and a howl that may or may not be Oliver Reed from Curse of the Werewolf. When a blood-curdling shriek fills the air, the merchant realizes that some seriously foul things are afoot in this cursed forest. By and by he falls off a ledge and comes face to face with the thrilling climax of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Once that movie finishes up, the merchant twists up his courage and sneaks down to collect the remaining artifacts, which include, as the title suggests, the blood of Dracula, or at least the powdered “just add water” variety we’re used to seeing once Dracula finishes dying.
Some time later, we meet three upstanding citizens of Queen Victoria’s England, and as you can guess, all three of them aren’t nearly as pious as they pretend. Ring leader William Hargood (Geoffrey Keene, who appeared in Cromwell every James Bond films beginning with The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 and concluding with The Living Daylights) is the most despicable of the bunch as he beats and berates his daughter for smiling at a boy and engaging in other acts of harlotry while, the very same night, gathering his cronies together for a night of exotic pleasures at the local brothel. Hargood and his fellows form sort of a mini Hellfire Club, though their indulgences in the forbidden pleasures of the world consist almost entirely of going to same brothel every month under the guise of “charity work” and then sitting in a room, drinking liquor, and watching foreign women dance naked. I’m not saying that isn’t a fine night out on the town, but as far as experiencing the taboos from the farthest reaches of the globe go, it’s pretty pedestrian stuff.
Hargood seems to realize this, and their boredom with their panty-waist sin leads them to seek out eccentric dandy Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who is one of those broke counts who gads about town in the finest high society frippery, scamming free meals from expensive restaurants and mooching off exquisite looking women of loose morals and poor judgment as he twirls his walking stick, doffs his top hat, and snaps his hankie about. In other words, a perfectly fine role model. Courtley is rumored to have dabbled in the black arts of Satanism or voodoo or something sinister, and so the three upstanding gentlemen seek out his company, though they never stop insulting him — which seems to me a poor way to treat the madcap young fop you’re asking to initiate you into the next level of debauchery. Courtley sees in the gentlemen the perfect opportunity to get enough money to do something he’s always wanted to do: namely, visit that merchant from the pre-credit sequence, buy Dracula’s stuff, and mount a ritual to return the count to life. Reason? For the hell of it, it seems, which is as good a reason as any, I suppose.
As one would imagine, the ritual goes awry when Hargood’s friends balk at actually guzzling down the thick, foaming blood of Dracula milkshake with which Courtley presents them. The ensuing argument results in Courtley’s murder as he thrashes and writhes about after drinking the blood himself. Hargood and Co. high tail it out of the ruined old building in which the fun was taking place, and Courtley, not surprisingly proves to be just the vessel Dracula needs to return from the dead once again to wreak his unholy vengeance upon those who murdered his assistant, which doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense when you remember that Dracula has no idea who Courtley is, and that Courtley’s death was necessary for Dracula to return to the land of the living. But what do you want when the script gets rewritten at the last minute?
The remainder of the film sees Dracula (Christopher Lee) gaining control over the sons and daughters of the three men against whom he bears this grudge, so that he can have them murder their own parents, which frees Dracula up to stand nearby in the shadows and count down the number of people against whom he has successfully extracted his revenge. Considering there’s only three of them, it’s not much of a countdown.
One of the things that sets this film apart from previous Dracula films is that Dracula is arguably the hero of the film. Though we still have to see him destroyed in the end, there’s little doubt that he’s no more vile than the men he’s hunting. When he manipulates Hargood’s battered daughter Alice (Linda Hayden, Blood on Satan’s Claw) into smashing her wretched father’s head in with a shovel, one almost feels like cheering, especially since this comes after a grotesque scene in which a drunk and leering Hargood viciously beats his daughter and looks on the verge of flat out raping her. Previous Dracula films have had gray characters — the self-righteous blowhard Monsignor from the last film springs immediately to mind — but those characters always had redeeming qualities. Hargood possesses no such qualities. He is despicable from beginning to end, and the audience has no problem feeling that he got what he deserved. The only thing wrong with his death, as I see it, is that it’s the first, leaving the other two far less revolting characters to carry the plot when, if you ask me, Hargood’s death should have been the climax of the story. Instead, we get Dracula hunting down the remainder of Hargood’s cabal while milquetoast Paul (yet another Paul — nearly as many of these in Dracula films as there are Kloves, or Hans’s in the Frankenstein movie) tries to save the soul of his beloved Alice Hargood and, in the process, send Dracula back from whence he came.
Taste the Blood represents a more savage critique of Victorian society than any previous Dracula film. There has always been an undercurrent in the films of the ongoing struggle between enforced morals and repression and the wild animalistic abandon represented by Dracula. But in previous films, the scripts always came down on the side of society, preferring its ordered repression to the lust and passion of Dracula. Here, however, the tables are turned and if Dracula’s lifestyle isn’t exactly championed, it’s at least shown as being no worse than the hypocrisy and deceit of modern society. The point is made in rather a heavy-handed fashion, but so it goes. Although a more counter-culture, youth-friendly message about freedom triumphing over repression was nothing new in 1970, Hammer was still a relative neophyte studio when it came to tapping into the anti-authoritarian trends that had defined and all but escaped Hammer during the 1960s. With Taste the Blood, they’re attempting to play a bit of catch-up, so one can forgive the ham-handed way in which they deliver the message.
Dracula is, once again, little more than a supporting player, a sort of shadowy puppet master with very little screen time who does precious little more than lurk in the shadows rattling off the body count like the Count from Sesame Street. But then at the same time, he doesn’t have any less screen time or involvement in things than he did in most of the previous films. What Taste the Blood does is the same thing that Horror of Dracula and Prince of Darkness attempted to do, which is to keep Dracula constantly present as a threat, an ominous atmosphere of dread, even when Christopher Lee himself is nowhere to be seen. Only in the finale, which is admittedly half-baked, does Lee get to do his crazed thrashing about, though one has to wonder if the lord of the undead couldn’t think of a better way to fight off a weak opponent like Paul than standing on a balcony and throwing garbage at him. It’s just one step away from having Dracula swoop down and whack Paul on the head, then flutter up into the rafters to taunt him.
The rest of the cast is spectacular. Paul (Anthony Higgins, Vampire Circus as well as a small part in Raiders of the Lost Ark) is more boring than the previous Paul, but no more boring than any of the other straights we’ve had on parade. Linda Hayden acquits herself well as the other half of the boring romantic couple. The real strength of the cast lies in everyone else, an impressive assembly of solid character actors that perform above and beyond the call of duty, with Geoffrey Keen and Ralph Bates in the lead. For the couple scenes where he’s allowed to spring to life, Christopher Lee is as good as he always is. Michael Ripper, who seems to have appeared in just about every movie Hammer ever made, gets promoted from the role of “suspicious barkeep” to “lackadaisical inspector.” It’s probably one of the best casts ever assembled for a Dracula film, and although it’s common to bemoan the lack of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, there’s really no place for him thematically in this film, where the humans are generally so contemptible. Van Helsing’s compassionate authority figure would have stood out like a sore thumb.
Taste the Blood continues to take Dracula further and further away from Van Helsing’s theory that Dracula is is a perfectly explainable creature well within and soundly defeated by the powers of human reason. In fact, by Taste the Blood, Dracula is hardly even a vampire any more so much as he is some kind of supernatural demonic force. If ever he was the human-made monster, you wouldn’t know it at this point. The more secular means of dispatching a vampire — garlic, running water, so on and so forth — that were previously employed have, by this movie, been dispatched almost entirely in favor of religious iconography. Although Taste the Blood is as steeped in religious imagery as Dracula has Risen from the Grave, it doesn’t have any particular comment to direct toward religion the way that previous film did. Religion is simply a matter of necessity as Dracula has become less the prince of darkness and more the Antichrist himself. Or wait, are those the same? Whatever the case, Taste the Blood again presents us with a monster which, unlike Dracula as we knew him in the first couple of films, exists entirely within a religious — or sacreligious — realm where bravery and reason have less to do with destroying him than do faith and Christ.
Despite the weak ending, Taste the Blood is an exceptional entry into Hammer’s Dracula oeuvre. Director Peter Sasdy eschews the ultra-vivid palette that characterized the Terence Fisher films and goes for a more subdued hue to the film, something more akin to reality and less stylized. Buildings and street are dark rather than brightly lit, and there is a palpable sense of decay in everything. Even Christopher Lee grudgingly admits that it turned out to be a good film, though to this day he won’t stop going on about how corny the title is — and at least on this, one kind of has to agree with him, though I’d pay good money to see something under the same title debut on the Food Network.
This lavishly colorful and thoroughly enjoyable comic book romp features what is without a doubt one of the most wonderful moments in all of cinema, if not the most wonderful. Having just completed a major heist, our cool-as-liquid-nitrogen anti-hero, Diabolik, returns to his sprawling, space-age underground lair full of cool pop art furnishings, where he and his staggeringly beautiful girlfriend, Eva, proceed to make love on a gigantic rotating bed covered in piles upon piles of the money he’s just stolen. When I was young, and even not so very long ago, I always looked at this moment as the goal to which all people should aspire. Our lives should be like this, lived with ferocity and daring, panache and style, sexiness and suaveness. I swore, on that day, that I would work tirelessly toward such a destiny, never resting until I too could collapse into my rotating bed covered in cash and roll about with the woman of my dreams.
As it stands right now, rather than going out drinking with socialites, rubbing elbows with countesses, and dancing the night away in a fancy club before stepping out to steal priceless emeralds and sapphires (I always preferred those stones to diamonds), I spent the evening sitting at home drinking bourbon, watching Secrets of New York, and cutting out little color cover printouts for all the VHS tapes I’m finally converting to DVD-R in the name of conserving precious space in my ever-shrinking Brooklyn apartment. And while I could, if nothing else, cover a bed with money, the denomination would be pennies, and making love on a pile of pennies may be someone’s bag — but not mine. Diabolik would weep for me. Or rather, he would ignore me and laugh heartily before bounding off to live his dreamlike, lusty life of adventure and romance. Make no mistake about it. Though I may try to dress well and stay in slightly acceptable physical condition (though tonight’s dinner of bourbon and cake could put an end to that), I’m still pathetic in my own special, lonely way. Diabolik would look at the whole thing I call a life and shake his head in amused disbelief as he hopped in his Jag and drove off to go punch a criminal kingpin then make sweet love to his woman all night long. Rather than let this get down however, I simply double down on my efforts and try harder.
The 1960s were defined by different things to different people, and while some saw the paramount of the decade as a bunch of scruffy hippies wallowing in the mud for a few days in upstate New York, I always looked at the defining moments of the decade as the films Barbarella and Danger! Diabolik. That or the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Or, um, the start of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Or the Bay of Pigs. Or maybe the assassination of the Kennedy Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Or the arrival of The Beatles. No, it was Barbarella and Diabolik, if for no other reason than they were the exclamation points at the end of an era of which I am particularly fond, that being the carefree Swingin’ Sixties that brought the world pop art, slim cut mod suits, mini-skirts, go-go boots, lots of spy films, and that cute pixie haircut sported by Twiggy. Not since the 1920s and the era of the flapper and the dandy has an era appealed to me so deeply.
Although born a shade too late to enjoy the proceedings, it’s the time with which I most closely identify and still attempt to recreate in my own impoverished and pathetically un-daring way. With the escalation of the war in Vietnam and ensuing civil unrest and violence, not to mention the whole hippie movement destroying any vestige of standards in the realm of courtesy, manners, social grace, and dress (I say that assuming it will be taken by hippies as a compliment; if not, I apologize — I have nothing but affection in my later years for the flower people), there was really no way the swingin’ era could survive. Being care-free was taboo, even though hippies tended to spend a large amount of time smoking pot, dropping acid, and staring at their hands. Likewise, adhering to a uniform anti-code of dress became the standard. I won’t argue that increased social awareness is a boon to an individual, though I would argue against anyone who claims those who defined the latter portion of the 1960s were any more politically aware than those who came before them who were seen as shallow because they enjoyed go-go dancing more than that weird wavy-hand dance.
I know many of you enjoy the ultra-casual, anything-goes world in which we live thanks in part to our hippie forefathers, but I can’t count myself among you. I don’t wear a shirt and tie because I have to; I wear one because I want to. I like it. It’s comfortable to me. Granted, I didn’t always hold this sentiment, and there was a time when I could deliver a wild-eyed sermon against the chains of suit and tie oppression as well as any other young punk rocker. But as you get older and start having more important things about which to worry, such as how you’re going to get that rotating bed covered in money and a delicious European partner in crime to accessorize it, you realize that punk, casual, mod, hippie — everything is as much a fashion uniform as anything else, and there really is no sin in putting a little effort into things. The only sin, really, is in wearing pleated, relaxed-fit Dockers. In this, there can be no leniency.
By the release of Danger: Diabolik!, the mod era was well on its way out, and what better way to send it off than with a duo of eye-popping, self-indulgent cinematic flings? In 1968, director Roger Vadim gave the world a zero-G striptease by his then-wife Jane Fonda, who was without a doubt in her prime as far as bombshell status is concerned (and she looked damn good defiantly power saluting the police mug shot photographer, too). Dino De Laurentiis, famous for throwing big budgets at low-budget genre ideas, produced this phantasmagoric Technicolor acid trip adapted from a French comic strip about a sexy space agent plying the galaxy in search of missing scientists and lustful encounters. It was such a hoot that De Laurentiis decided more of the same would be in order. Again he turned to European comic strips for his source material, this time setting his sights on Diabolik, the ongoing saga of a master criminal who confounds both the police and the established criminal underworld.
On paper it was supposed to be a spiritual if not narrative follow-up to Barbarella. De Laurentiis snagged Mario Bava to direct, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. Since his first film in color, Bava had been a master at playing with light and creating surreal atmospheres even on the tiniest of budgets. Films like Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966) continue to influence films to this day thanks to their bold, convention-bucking use of color and lighting (not to mention violence). With Diabolik, Bava would be allowed to indulge his sweet tooth for candy-colored psychedelia equipped with a budget that dwarfed anything with which he’d previously been supplied. Not that the bigger budget mattered to him. In fact, though De Laurentiis granted Bava some $3 million for the film, Bava brought it in right around $400,000. You’d never know it. The film looks like he spent the full budget, and one can only imagine how out-of-this-world it would have been had Bava not been so conditioned to make the most of every single cent — or lira, or whatever currency applied.
French star Jean Sorel (Short Night of Glass Dolls, Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other) was slated to portray the suave super-villain/anti-hero Diabolik, while the beautiful Catherine Deneuve (Roman Polanski’s Repulsion) was to star as his partner and lover, Eva. Mere days into the production however, Bava determined that Sorel simply wasn’t right for the part. He was replaced by John Phillip Law, who had starred as the blind angel Pygar in Barbarella and would go on to appear as Sinbad in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Law was a jaw-dropping hunk with near inhuman good looks, but he was never the greatest actor on the block. Still, since the idea behind Diabolik was not style over substance but rather, as with Barbarella, style as substance, he fit the bill perfectly and certainly looks the part. His reserved – some would say wooden – acting style clicks nicely with the character, a man so far removed from traditional human morality that he seems at times almost unable to act human, sort of like how the Sidhe are described in fantasy literature.
Casting woes continued however, as Deneuve refused to do the nudity required for the aforementioned “making love on a pile of money” scene. Bava had always thought more of concealing than revealing. While there is certainly plenty of flesh both male and female on display in the scene, there is no actual nudity per se, as in no one sees the earth-shatteringly taboo bare bottom or nipple. All the areas proscribed by or moral watchdogs as naughty were suitably and strategically covered by piles of money. But the scene had to be shot with both actors in the buff and Deneuve balked. She was quickly and, for us viewers, blessedly replaced by European starlet Marisa Mell. Nothing against Ms. Deneuve — we do love her — but like John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell was practically born to play the part.
Mell is every bit Law’s physical match. A beauty so great as to cause folk to drop to their knees and weep. As the sophisticated and liberated sidekick to the devil-may-care Diabolik, I can imagine no one else better than Marisa Mell. A serious auto accident in 1963 had left her partially disfigured, and after years of rehabilitation and reconstructive surgery, she emerged looking like some incredible kind of goddess, with the only lingering side effect of her accident being a quirky upturn at the side of her mouth which, just about everyone agrees, amplifies her beauty tenfold. Nothing is more boring and predictable than perfection, after all. It is most unfortunate that her life would take a drastic downturn not too long after this film. She was relegated to B and C-movie status then more or less forgotten, making ends meet by posing in a nudie mags and reading poetry to try and supplement what was, by most accounts, rather a wild lifestyle. In the end, she died from cancer in 1992, relatively penniless. A melancholy note, but still she exists on screen in this movie as one of the great and timeless images of grace and beauty. It is that way that I think she is best remembered, as a stunning woman with an impish and playful curl to her lip.
For the roll of Diabolik’s foils on both sides of the law, Bava had experienced French actor Michel Piccoli as the dogged Inspector Ginco, and the robust Adolfo Celi, still relatively fresh off his memorable turn as the vastly enjoyable villain Emilio Largo in the James Bond film, Thunderball (1965), as the flamboyant Mafia boss Valmont. It was as solid a cast of character actors as Bava had ever had. He plucks them down into a world that isn’t quite real. One of Bava’s great strengths, and the element that perhaps made his horror films so successfully eerie, is his ability to warp the familiar, to twist the mundane into something foreign and menacing. Here, he’s pulling the same stunt, but purely for laughs. The world of Diabolik is not the world in which we live, though it bears a striking resemblance. It is instead a campy pop-art extraction. Money is transported in bags marked with huge dollar signs on the front, for example. Stylistically it has the most in common with Bava’s previous Blood and Black Lace and forthcoming Five Dolls for an August Moon and Four Times that Night, both of which revel in trippy modernist fashion and psychedelic over-indulgence. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the characters from any one of those movies show up in the other, though Diabolik is in my opinion the most realized artistically and conceptually. It is also Bava at his most impish and playful, with only a slight hint of the blackness that would inform the humor of his later Bay of Blood.
The story, as stated earlier, was adapted from a long-running European comic strip, or fumetti. Although I’ll admit to being a comic book reader in my youth, with intellectual fare like G.I. Joe and the ten thousand or so Spider Man titles that littered the 1980s being at the top of the list, I don’t really count myself among the legion of comic book fans. I have little interest in them now other than academically, and even the ones that people insist I’ll like because they’re intelligent and mature, leave me cold and a bit disappointed. Even the ones where people tell me, “no, this one is different,” still fall flat. It’s not that I deny their power or their artistic merit, even if I find some of the obtuse attempts to appear more “adult” by adding more violence, sex, and cussing, to be monumentally tedious.This is not an absolute statement, mind you. every now and then I do run across one I love– Brian Wood’s DMZ, for example — but I am by no means someone to whom one should turn for authoritative opinions on the medium.
That said, these European comic strips from the 1960s seem like they would have been a lot of fun. Considering they birthed such chain-smoking, sexy anti-heroes as Diabolik, Barbarella, and Modesty Blaise, all clad in skintight fetish gear, I guess I would have been a fan. Having never read any of the original Diabolik comic strips, but having at least glanced over some English-language plot summaries, I don’t think the storyline for the movie is lifted from any single episode, though bits and pieces may have come from all over the comics. The main characters certainly come from the comic strip, and here we get to watch them as Diabolik goes through a series of heists that get him on the bad side of both the police and the old crime syndicates – the establishment, basically. Chief of police Ginco sets a number of traps for Diabolik, but each time Diabolik outsmarts the inspector and makes his getaway with the loot. When one of his heists angers crime lord Valmont, Ginco hatches an unholy alliance with the mob to finally catch this thorn in both their sides.
Each heist is more or less a little self-contained episode building toward Ginco’s plan to melt down the whole of France’s gold reserve in order to lure Diabolik into a trap. The heists are exciting and outlandish, this again being a fantasy world in which the standard laws of common sense and logic do not apply. In his quest to steal a priceless jeweled necklace, Diabolik defeats the inspector’s trap by pulling the ol’ “stick a photo in front of the security camera” gag. He later smuggles the jewels to safety by fashioning them into bullets, using them to kill an opponent, then posing as said opponent’s relative to collect the jewels after cremation. Obviously, there are some logistical problems with this plan, not the least of which would be fitting jewels into a revolver, but this is a comic book world.
We’re not meant to take anything seriously or worry about realism. This is part of the reason it’s also easy to accept Diabolik as the hero of the story even though he is, without a doubt, a villain. He kills cops. Not corrupt cops, but regular guys just doing their job. He has no concern for anyone but himself and his one true love, Eva. When he dynamites the nation’s tax records, he doesn’t do it out of any sense of Robin Hood-esque duty to the poor and oppressed masses. He simply wants to screw with The Man — which leads to one of the film’s funnier moments, in which the Minister of Finances (a cameo by British film staple Terry-Thomas) makes a public plea to all the outstanding citizens to come forward and voluntarily pay the taxes they owe. Comedic touches like this, along with the purposeful disregard for realism, keep the movie light-hearted and chipper even when our main character is committing acts of a most heinous nature.
It’s not that Diabolik is immoral, however. If anything, he is adamantly amoral, completely rejecting the standards by which society judges the concepts of good and evil. He’s not an evil person. In fact, he’s quite likeable, almost childlike, even when he’s clad in a skintight white leather outfit and scaling a castle wall to rip someone off. At his heart, he is 1968. He is the social upheaval, the youthful rebellion that was engulfing countries across the globe. It’s no coincidence that the two forces most opposed to him are established law and established crime – two sides of a coin in which Diabolik sees no difference. They are the old guards; the outdated, out-of-touch generation whose lack of modern sophistication and intelligence is best exemplified by the fact that Valmont’s gangsters dress anachronistically, looking like something out of a 1930s mob movie.
They don’t understand Diabolik’s approach to crime, his use of modern technology and embracing of modern ideals. Likewise, on the other side of the coin is Inspector Ginco, a man who seems to respect Diabolik in a way, just as Diabolik respects him. In fact, it’s possible that Ginco could catch Diabolik, best him, if only the inspector could break away from the established way of thinking. Unfortunately, he is a man too mired in the old ways, and thus destined to be one step behind Diabolik. If only he could escape the constant supervision and micro managing of the bureaucrats, Ginco could make real progress. In a way, Ginco must envy Diabolik his freedom of thought.
It is in this way, more than through the story itself, that Diabolik achieves the depth so many people seem to claim it lacks. It is a tale of a super criminal versus the cops on one level, but on a deeper level it is a tale of the generation gap, of the culture conflict between young and old that characterized the late 1960s. Diabolik and Eva are the new way, feared and misunderstood by their elders. They are the iconoclasts, perhaps more symbols than actual people, as is Valmont. Ginco is the man in the middle, who knows things and times must change but not by the methods employed by the amoral and self-serving Diabolik. He is, despite being the supporting character and foil to Diabolik, the most sympathetic and human of all the characters. He is, in effect, most of us, dissatisfied with the establishment but still committed to some sense of orderly progression and society.
The relationship between Eva and Diabolik is further example of the film’s hidden but most definitely present depth. They are in love, deeply and passionately. Ginco seems to forego romance in favor of duty, and Valmont can see women as nothing more than playthings to be insulted. But Eva and Diabolik are liberated and modern. They are sexually attractive and have an insatiable appetite for one another, but they are also in love. Diabolik steals for Eva, but Eva does not stay with him because he steals; she stays because she loves him. Stealing is simply what they do, a game, and an amusement. Another way for them to thumb their noses at the generation that does not understand them. Their relationship is strong, and they are willing to sacrifice for one another. In the face of a world that wants to rub them out, they always have each other. Sometimes, they have each other on a rotating bed covered in money. So Diabolik is not an example of style over substance as much as it is, as I mentioned earlier, an example of style as substance. The liberated pop-art lifestyle of Eva and Diabolik is a stark contrast to the buttoned-up, confining world inhabited by Ginco and Valmont.
Not that the style lets itself be overshadowed by the substance. They walk arm in arm, and even if you disregard anything Diabolik might have to say, there’s no denying its look. That Mario Bava pulled this off on a self-imposed minuscule budget is staggering. With the possible exception of Barbarella and some of the wilder Bond adventures from the 1960s, few films look as sleek and sophisticated as Diabolik. The fashion is impeccable, and for a man like me who has endless admiration for the mod styles of the 1950s and 1960s, it’s like some crazy kind of dream come true. Every outfit donned by Marisa Mell is gorgeous enough to make you cry, especially when it’s draped upon someone as beautiful as she was. Likewise, Diabolik’s fetishistic head-to-toe leather outfits are beautiful, leaving as they do only John Phillip Law’s intense and deep eyes visible.
Their underground lair is a sight to behold, as are the old Jags they both drive. I love me a good Aston-Martin, but if I had to chose, I’d go for a ’67 Jag. They’re just about the coolest cars ever manufactured. Ahh, I hope they come in automatic. Diabolik is, indeed, a mod-futurist fan’s dream, even more so than the more outlandish Barbarella. After all, someone out on the town dressed as Barbarella would turn heads but ultimately look just kind of silly; someone out dressed in the mod fashions displayed by Marisa Mell would simply look breathtaking. Someone dressed in Diabolik’s leather catsuit is probably on his way somewhere special.
This isn’t the type of film where you fret over the details, and if you do you’re just going to miss the point. Like I said, it exists in a fictitious comic book world. It’s not meant to be any more realistic than any other superhero/villain movie or comic book. What does count is the pace of the story, and Bava keeps things moving along at a fair clip. It’s not an action-packed movie, not by today’s standards where something big must explode every five minutes in between a sequence involving bikini girls freak dancing. But it is expertly and briskly paced, with a light-hearted tone that keeps you from worrying too much about the fact that the man we’re supposed to love is a murderer and a thief. Ultimately, of course, Diabolik is a criminal and must pay for his crimes. The film’s ending is vague in its resolution but absolutely fitting. Ginco must prevail, after all. The exuberance and reckless abandon of youth must be tamed. And so we are left with Diabolik encased in a coffin forged out of his own indulgence, a gold plating from which he cannot escape…
…or can he? We’ll never really know. De Laurentiis was so pleased with the fact that Bava brought the movie in $2.6 million under its $3 million budget that he practically begged for a sequel. Unfortunately, the reportedly mild-mannered Bava could not bear the oppressive and often dictatorial producer so no sequel ever came about. We are left then with the final shot of Diabolik imprisoned by his own greed, laughing either slyly or maniacally, protected by his special suit from the molten gold but unable, as far as we can tell, to escape. His rebellion, after all, was not perfect. And while the establishment is able, at least for the time being, to contain Diabolik and his socially challenging threat, while they may suppress it, it’s unclear as to how long that will be the case. It could always resurface. It is a beautiful tongue-in-cheek ending, one that even works quite cleverly in conjunction with the fate of Valmont, who finds himself on the more fatal and literal end of greed.
Although it would seem, at first, to be a major departure from Bava’s greater body of work, most of which up to the point had been gothic horror and giallo, Diabolik still manages to cover most of the director’s pet themes and thus fits quite perfectly into his oeuvre. Diabolik is an outsider who rejects what those around him see as established common sense. Appearances are, as always, deceiving at their very best. Diabolik’s use of disguises and his foiling of Ginco’s trap by using a photograph of an empty, peaceful room are the most obvious examples. And like most of Bava’s anti-heroes, Diabolik eventually gets his comeuppance.
For my money, Diabolik is an unabashed success on all levels. The art design is without parallel. The script is crisp, witty, and fast-paced. The universe Bava creates is wild and enjoyable. And the performances – yes, even John Phillip Law’s – are wonderful. It is the ultimate super-villain movie, with a villain so charismatic that you forget he isn’t the hero. Campy, clever, and never taking itself as seriously as some dim-witted critics seem to think it does, Diabolik is one of the best, if not the best, European comic book/fantasy/sci-fi films, not to mention of the most breathlessly beautiful and fun films of the 1960s.
Release Year: 1968 | Country: Italy | Starring: John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi, Claudio Gora, Mario Donen, Renzo Palmer, Caterina Boratto, Lucia Modugno, Annie Gorassini, Carlo Croccolo, Lidia Biondi, Andrea Bosic, Federico Boido, Tiberio Mitri | Screenplay: Arduino Maiuri, Mario Bava | Director: Mario Bava | Cinematographer: Antonio Rinaldi | Music: Ennio Morricone | Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
It didn’t take long for the genres of horror and science fiction to start mingling. It’s a natural marriage, after all, and the two often blend seamlessly, the best and among the earliest example likely being the first two Universal “Frankenstein” movies. Throughout the 1950s, horror and science fiction were frequent bedfellows as atomic terrors ran amok across assorted landscapes. Increasingly, however, it was the science fiction element of the films that was in the forefront, with the horror placed in the background unless one was genuinely terrified of superimposed grasshoppers. By the middle of the 1950s, science fiction was still enjoying the occasional big budget celebration a la This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956) while horror films were becoming increasingly cheap, b-movie quickie affairs. Not that that means there weren’t plenty of gems in the mix, but compared to science fiction, horror was lagging.
It was in this setting, however, that England’s Hammer Studio decided to mix the two together once again in what they hoped to be a high-class concoction, first as a television series and then as the film The Quatermass Experiment. Although horror was often regarded as a dying genre, Hammer proved that handled properly and with respect, fans were still ready to turn out for a good horror-scifi half-breed. Two more Quatermass films were made, the latest being 1967′s superb Quatermass and the Pit, which sees the good doctor and investigator of all things extraterrestrial and paranormal grappling with an alien carcass discovered beneath London and possessed, seemingly, of a Satanic nature as well.
Which brings us nicely, if rather half-assedly, to Horror Express, a film that seems to draw from both the feel of a Hammer film as well as that of a ripping HG Wells story without actually being from either source. The idea of gods, angels, and devils as space aliens is no longer especially new and novel, though few serious (or even comical) studies of the notion exist in film. It’s a favorite of conspiracy theorists and UFOlogists, however, with the best-known proponents of the idea being those who believe that “ancient astronauts” visited Earth thousands of years ago and helped with everything from the erection of the Egyptian pyramids to the construction of Incan, Mayan, and Aztec pyramids to the carving and raising of the ominous heads on Easter Island. Apart from the notion that aliens were jetting through the cosmos showing off their masonry and stone-carving skills is the theory that so-called holy beings, your Jesus and your various angels and maybe even a Greek god or two, were beings from another planet whose miraculous powers were rather run-of-the-mill back home but really something here on Earth where we didn’t have the ability to turn water into wine. Thus these creatures would be perceived as gods and angels, and the naughty ones as demons and devils, by us backward shepherds here on planet Earth.
It’s not a completely daft idea, as far as such theories go, at least no more so than Jesus being the son of a supreme being who created everything out of nothing and, with the entire universe at his disposal, whiled away the centuries picking on Job and pulling stunts like, “Abraham, sacrifice your son! No just joking! Dude, I can’t believe you were really going to sacrifice your son.” The idea that these angels, that perhaps even Jesus himself were aliens isn’t entirely insane, especially when you take into consideration the power of Jesus to appear as a blond-haired, glowing white guy despite his Jewish-Arabic origins.
Horror Express is not a Hammer film, it could easily pass for one thanks to its quick pace, period setting, and the presence of Hammer’s two biggest stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and while it doesn’t present us with the scenario of our deities being space travelers, it does rely heavily on the notion that beings from other worlds have visited this planet long before the presence of mankind in our current form, and that if said beings were perhaps trapped in the body of a monkey for two million years only to find themselves awakened on a train going through Siberia, they’d be annoyed. Lee stars as Professor Saxton, an intrepid scientist-adventurer the likes of which we simply do not see enough of these days. On an expedition to the far north of china, his team uncovers the remarkably well-preserved mummy of an humanlike ape Saxton assumes to be the missing link, not to mention being one of the greatest anthropological or archaeological discoveries of all time. Hey, consider that some people think of a particularly nice chunk of pot shard to be one of the greatest discoveries of all time, and you can understand why Saxton is so excited about his Peking Man.
Sexton immediately returns to the city with his find and books passage to Europe on board the Trans-Siberian Express, only to discover that much to his chagrin his number one scientific and one-liner rival, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing), is also along for the trip and keeps bugging Saxton about seeing what’s in that padlocked box. A Chinese thief at the station doesn’t see fit to badger Saxton and, assuming the crate is full of jewels or fine women’s lingerie, goes about taking a peek. When the police find him, he’s dropped dead with blood pouring from his sockets and his eyes turned completely white. Saxton, being a fine, condescending British scientist, doesn’t think much of the incident. The guy was a thief, after all. A mad Russian monk with wild unkempt hair and beard (is there any other kind of Russian monk), however, sees the entire affair as a sign that whatever is contained within the crate must surely be the work of Satan. To prove his point, he attempts to draw a cross on the box, only to discover that being the wooden container of all things Luicferian, the cross will not show up. Whether or not something less holy, like perhaps, “Springsteen 4 Ever!” would have showed up is one of the mysteries that shall remain forever unanswered.
Although the cross incident impresses the locals, Saxton dismisses it as a simple parlor trick, and points out that the guy is bugging his eyes out and ranting and raving about Satan. So all aboard the horror express, including Saxton, Wells, the crazy monk Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, who acted in Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and One on Top of the Other, among many European cult films), a suspicious Russian police inspector named Mirov (Euro-cult veteran Julio Pena, who also starred in films like Horror Rises from the Tomb, Werewolf Versus the Vampire Women, A Pistol for a Hundred Coffins and Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary), a mysterious female spy, two Russian nobles, and a whole host of other people whose only job is to fill up the dining cart. In other words, it’s a regular Agatha Christie gathering, the kind you always get on these old trains but rarely, if ever, on modern trains. See, therein lies the problem with modern rail travel: not nearly enough intrigue. Used to be that for the price of a ticket, you’d get spies menacing one another with stilettos, upper-class society types embroiled in murder mysteries, and alien-possessed monkey-men throwing things at Peter Cushing. No more. Maybe instead of offering the usual “first class, second class, et cetera” nonsense they should offer something like, “first class, second class, and turn-of-the-century intrigue class.”
Needless to say, it isn’t long before the ape-man claims another victim, this time a porter whom Wells had bribed to take a peek into the box and report back to him. Then the ape-man picks the lock and disappears, much to Saxton’s annoyance. Faced with no other reasonable possibility, Inspector Mirov and the two British scientists are forced to assume that a two-million year old ape man has somehow been revived, learned to pick modern locks, and is currently at large and turning people’s eyes white. An autopsy on the baggage handler also reveals that the brain is as smooth as a baby’s bottom, disregarding then the obvious statistically rare and dismissible occurrence of an ugly, pockmarked baby bottom. It’s clear that this is no ordinary two-million year-old missing link. As the list of victims grows, Wells, Saxton, and Mirov join forces to uncover the mystery at the heart of the creature’s rampage. Things only get harder when they realize that the creature itself is not the ape-man, but an entity inside the ape-man which is able to leap from one body to another when the need arises. This revelation prompts the best line in the entire movie, in which Mirov turns accusingly to Saxton and Wells and proclaims, “Even one of you could be the monster!” to which Cushing’s Wells replies indignantly, “Impossible! We’re British, you know!”
Eventually, it is discovered that the entity is a space alien, marooned on the planet millions of years ago and really keen on getting the hell out of here. The creature’s trump card in attempting to get Wells and Saxton not to kill it is that it’s seen millions of years of earthly history prior to being frozen and can provide them with knowledge immeasurable. It’s a tempting Faustian deal, but one the stolid British researchers resist, though the crazed monk, fearing that this beast is Satan himself, decides to cast his lot with the side whose physical manifestation is running amok on the train. AN impromptu stop at a remote Siberian outpost allows Cossack soldier Telly Savalas to board the train with his troops and either get to the bottom of things in a quick and efficient manner or provide more corpse fodder for the creature, who also reveals an ability to revive the bodies of its victims and send them, zombie-like, shambling through the claustrophobic train cars in a final horrific onslaught against the living. You guess which eventuality comes to pass.
Horror Express is a ripping good yarn with a fast pace and a snappy wit. Cushing and Lee are superb in one of their countless pairings, and each horror veteran crackles with energy as they dig deep into their characters and revel in the story around them. Though there are a couple tongue-in-cheek touches to the film, the film itself is never completely tongue-in-cheek. Rather, it simply relies on clever twists and a wicked sense of humor to carry the admittedly zany plot. There is plenty of ammunition on hand for those who wish to pick apart the logic of a film about an ancient alien consciousness riding the rails with Telly Savalas, but the spirit of the film is so high and the performances so winning that one scarcely has time or cause to pause and think about the absurdity of the blood from the eye of the creature acting as sort a microscopic slideshow. That the creature’s memory is contained in the fluid of the eye is in itself not a bad idea, but the fact that Lee and Cushing can extract a drop of blood and look at it under a microscope to enjoy various pictures of dinosaurs and the earth from outer space is, well, you know, as outlandish as the fact that people are only mildly surprised when a two-million year-old monkey mummy springs back to life and starts killing.
There are also a series of coincidences that the alien must have been eternally thankful for – such as the fact that it needs to figure out how to get out of the locked box, only to be able to absorb the skills of a Chinese thief. And it needs to learn some way of building a rocket capable of escaping earth’s atmosphere only to be put on a train alongside a female spy stealing a sample of an indestructible metal to be used in the construction of, perhaps, rockets. And that the creator of the metal, the formula of which is so secret that only he himself knows it, is also on board.
But honestly, none of this matters, because what Horror Express wants to be is a faced-paced, fun horror-scifi thriller, and that’s exactly what it is. Cushing’s Wells is hilariously pompous yet thoroughly likable, and Christopher Lee gets to play yet another stern but heroic man of reason, something he proved considerably adroit at in The Devil Rides Out. The supporting cast is comprised of Eurocult veterans, largely from Spain, all of whom have extensive experience in horror, historical adventures, and spaghetti westerns, among others. And then there’s Telly. Although a big enough name thanks to turns as Kojak on television and as Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service so that he’s never been identified as a horror film icon, there’s no denying that when Savalas made a rare appearance in such a film, it was usually going to be pretty good, not to mention pretty weird. In the same year as Horror Express, Savalas appeared in Mario Bava’s superb mindwarp of a horror film, Lisa and the Devil. He goes pretty far over the top here as a sadistic Cossack soldier, but his performance, while bordering on camp, works within the context of such a playful film. I only wish he’d shown up earlier, but I guess too big a dose of his character would have ruined the performance.
Part of the reason Horror Express got made was that the producer purchased the model train that was used in the bigger budget historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra and figured, heck, if he owned this really keen train set, he might as well make a crazed scifi-horror film around it. Exteriors are appropriately bleak and hopeless looking, bringing to mind when combined with the mind-stealing alien life form the sci-fi classic Thing from Another Planet, remade in the 1980s by John Carpenter simply as The Thing. Horror Express shares quite a bit with Thing from Another Planet, in fact. From the icy setting to the alien to the claustrophobic interiors and growing sense of paranoia that infects the passengers. Much of the film is beautifully shot, with exquisite sets and decoration, and some of the scenes are genuinely eerie, the most prominent being the horde of white-eyed ghouls shambling through the darkened train cars as the remaining passengers scramble for safety. Cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa has a ton of horror, science fiction, and spaghetti westerns to his credits, and he works wonders within the confined spaces of the train. Coupled with a superb score, the film has a nearly overwhelming sense of dread that is tempered only by the spriteful performances of Lee and Cushing.
The monkey man make-up is neither dazzling nor awful, and though we probably get too clear a look at it too often for its own good, it’s hardly of a quality that would destroy a film, especially one so heavy with wit and stand-out performances. There are some fairly gory special effects, but nothing out of the ordinary for what other studios, including Hammer, were doing at the time. Some bleeding eye violence, some gratuitous brain surgery, that sort of thing. If you miss the days when horror and science fiction, while not exactly being intelligent, were at least willing to play with lofty ideas and theories and mix them together with charm and drollness, then by all means hop on board the Horror Express and please forgive me for statements like that. I hadn’t sent he film until I sat down to watch it for this review, and the only reason I don’t regret having missed out for so long is that it gave me the chance to have such a wonderful, rollicking good time at the horror films to discover.
What the hell? It’s rare these days that I have that reaction to a film. By this point, I really have seen just about everything, and the one thing that keeps that from being a depressing revelation is that sometimes something will pop up to remind that I haven’t seen anything. This movie was apparently based on a book called The Disoriented Man, and while watching it, that was definitely an apt description of me. Scream and Scream Again seems for much of its running time to be three completely different movies. By the end, of course, things will be tied together, but not in a way that necessarily makes much sense. The end result is not unlike watching one of those Thomas Tang/Godfrey Ho ninja movies where they’d buy bits and pieced of a couple old Hong Kong films, splice them together with some scenes from some unfinished Italian action film, then stick in a series of newly shot scenes featuring white guys in red and yellow ninja outfits with headbands that say “Ninja!” on them and call the whole hideous Frankenstein’s monster a movie.
After the runaway success of Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, Corman was growing dissatisfied with his AIP contract. He had proven to be a profitable director, and now he was a critically acclaimed director as well. His two films had more or less single-handedly lifted the reputation of AIP out of the realm of the drive-in circuit and established them as a genuine studio that made genuine movies with genuine class. Corman’s two Poe films also lifted the flagging reputation of horror, which since its heyday at Universal during the 1930s had sunk lower and lower until it was basically considered schlock, then almost replaced entirely by science-fiction and Communist paranoia films. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had gone a long way to revitalizing the horror genre, but Corman’s Poe films undoubtedly contributed a great deal to solidifying the resuscitation, at broad but especially in the United States where theater owners were proud to see that yep, we could make ‘em just as good here as they could over there.
So while Corman was basically getting along with AIP head honchos Sam Arkoff and John Nicholson, he thought that maybe in light of his more or less revolutionizing the way he, the studio, and horror films were regarded in America, he might be entitled to a better contract. AIP politely disagreed with him, and so Corman took himself and his idea for the third Poe film elsewhere. Because Vincent Price was under contract to AIP, he couldn’t cast Price in the lead role, and so he set about looking for a new actor to fulfill the spotlight in his production of The Premature Burial. Corman eventually came up with Ray Milland. Milland was blissfully ignorant of the fact that one day in the future AIP was going to graft his head to Rosie Grier, and so he agreed to take on the Poe-perfect role of a man obsessed with the belief that he will be buried alive, as was his cataleptic father. Because Richard Matheson was also under contract to AIP, Corman turned to screenwriters Charles Beaumont (7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Ray Russell (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes). The essence of the films, however, came with Corman. Like the previous two films, The Premature Burial would come steeped in the signature atmosphere of the Poe films: billowing fog tumbling across eerie landscapes, tormented souls, a psychedelically-tinted nightmare sequence, creepy old houses, brooding characters, and as is obvious from the title, a thing or two about being buried alive.
The day Corman was to begin principal photography, he was pleased to see Arkoff (or maybe Nicholson, or maybe both of them) show up on the set to wish him good luck despite the differences they’d had over Corman’s new contract. Differences, hell! It turned out that AIP had just purchased the studio for which Roger Corman was making the picture, so it was going to be an AIP film after all. Granted it was too late to recast the lead, but Milland was still thought of as an Academy Award winning actor, and not as “the white guy from The Thing with Two Heads,” so his casting in the lead was something to crow about, even if the part, like all other leads in the Poe films, was tailor-made for Vincent Price.
Milland plays Guy Carrell, an upstanding and intelligent member of the gentry who has a small quirk in the form of a near crippling fear of being buried alive. Now no one wants to be buried alive, except maybe show-off escape artists and people competing for fifty bucks and a burger on the latest reality show, but Guy’s fear of being entombed while still among the living goes way beyond the usual healthy fear of having dirt piled on top of you. So obsessed is he with the concept that it threatens to ruin his newly minted marriage to Emily Gault, who is played by Hammer Studios veteran Hazel Court (The Curse of Frankenstein, and she would appear later in two more Corman AIP Poe films, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death) — and if you know Hazel Court, then you don’t want to derail anything involving her in your bedchamber. Guy shuns his wife and friends in favor of building the most elaborate tomb ever devised.
I’m not exactly certain what Guy’s occupation is, but it must have something to do with being an architectural, engineering, and mechanical genius, because the failsafe tomb he constructs for himself is a marvel. If I set out to build my own premature-burial-proof tomb, it would probably end up looking like a couple of pieces of plywood nailed together with a hole cut in the back so I can crawl out if I should happen to find myself mistaken for a corpse. Buy Guy’s tomb is utterly lavish. In fact, it’s seems even nicer than his home. It comes stocked complete with a break-away coffin so that should one wake up and find oneself in such a pine box, one need only tap the side to have the whole thing spring open or fall to pieces. A variety of levers sound various alarms to let everyone know he’s been mistakenly buried, just in case the half dozen or so escape hatches don’t open. And should that happen and he has to wait for someone to her the bells, he can while away the hours reclining in plush overstuffed chairs, drinking brandy, and flipping through the tomb’s selection of reading material. And should these ten thousand redundant escape plans all fail, he’s also stocked the tomb with poison, so that when he’s finished all his sausages and books, he can just kill himself rather than be bored. I’ve seen fewer failsafe devices on the nation’s nuclear arsenal! Not that I’ve seen the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but I can’t imagine it’s as well thought-out as Guy’s crypt.
You’d think that would be the end of it, but various things keep happening to keep Guy preoccupied with being buried alive. Additionally, his wife and the local quack think that if he’s ever going to make any progress in combating his phobia, he needs to, among other things, ditch the tomb. You’d think that since the tomb has brought him an unparalleled peace of mind, they’d just let it be. I mean, it is a nice crypt, after all, so why not keep it around? Even if he isn’t buried alive, it’ll be a swell place to just be buried regular and dead. This being a Corman Poe picture, it’s no great leap to figure out that someone is plotting to use Guy’s fear of premature burial to drive him mad and thus achieve some small sort of financial or property gain that hardly merits such a lavishly complex and psychologically difficult scheme. Some people would just whack him on the head with a candelabra and blame it on Colonel Mustard, but these people always have to construct intricate “drive them mad” intrigues that are as complicated as Guy’s crypt.
Like the previous two Poe films, The Premature Burial has a tendency to get bogged down beneath the weight of its own exposition-heavy plot. Unlike the previous two films, however, it doesn’t have Vincent Price on hand to liven up the material. Milland gives it the ol’ college try, but he seems lost with this type of material despite his commitment to delivering a solid performance. Where as Price would have had no problem taking the script and making it work for him, Milland’s portrayal comes across as excessively whiny at times and dreadfully dull at others. Still, at least Milland put effort into the role and manages a few strong scenes, which is more than could be said for the shameful display put on by Jason Robards when, some years later, he too found himself filling in for Vincent Price in a Poe film, that one being Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue.
If nothing else, The Premature Burial proves that it wasn’t just fan bias toward Vincent Price that kept Milland and the movie from earning a more cherished spot. Price was more than a fan favorite: he was an integral ingredient in making the films successful. Without him, it wasn’t just that “things just aren’t same.” His absence from the Poe films very nearly causes them to cease being Poe films. Exactly why Price is so indispensable to Corman’s Poe pictures is a little difficult to explain, but if you see them, well then you just understand. Part of it, naturally, has to do with the fact that Price was a marvel at turning a bad script into a good movie, and while the script for The Premature Burial isn’t bad per se, it is perhaps something much worse: dull.
Corman pours on the atmosphere – there is more fog here than in the previous two films combined, and believe me those films had a lot of fog in them – but Ray Milland simply doesn’t have Price’s knack for making you want to listen to him talk even during the slow spells. He never manages to invest the character with any sort of spark, and as such no real sympathy for him or his story ever develops in the viewer. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance, and Milland has nothing to be ashamed of (unlike you, Jason Robards!), but, well — just watch the end, when Guy emerges from his inevitable getting buried alive scene and has thus gone completely bonkers and launches into a gleefully mad bout of revenge. Milland is OK, but you just can’t help thinking how great the whole scene would have been if Price was given a chance to do it.
The rest of the cast performs with the usual competency one has come to expect by this point from both AIP and Hammer films, though some of the characters seem to be involved in subplots that never really go anywhere or get fully explained (why was Guy out there helping steal a corpse in the beginning of the film anyway?). Besides Hazel Court, who gets more of a chance to act here than she did in Curse of Frankenstein (and has one of the best scenes in the movie, during which she explains to Guy that he’s already dead, and his obsession with being buried alive has, in a way, already buried him alive), familiar faces like Alan Napier (Alfred the butler from the old Batman television series) and Dick Miller (The Terror, Truck Turner, Gremlins, and about ten million other movies) are on hand to round out the cast with their solid character acting. Unfortunately, the script tends to let the performers down, and almost all the characters are either undeveloped, underdeveloped, or just plain unlikable.
Without Price around to liven things up, the weakness screams at you like one of those screaming skulls. You know the ones. The ones that scream. I don’t know enough to know how closely the movie clings to the original 1844 story, but by all accounts, it sticks to the source material pretty tightly. Poe himself was possessed of a very similar fear of being buried alive, which is why it figures so frequently into his stories and thus so frequently into the Poe movies. Still, after seeing a buried alive plot in both of the previous films, one can’t help but hope for something a little different the third time out. Instead, we get the “total package” buried alive movie, one in which interment of the living isn’t just a part of the plot, but the entire plot. And speaking of plots, did I miss the part where they tell us exactly why shadowy characters are attempting to drive poor Guy insane? Plus, you’d think that after the guy has gone on and on about catalepsy for the whole movie, when he actually does lapse into a cataleptic state, they’d do more than just shrug and go, “Well, looks like he’s dead. Let’s get to burying’”
The lack of freshness combined with some gaping lack of explanations keep The Premature Burial situated firmly around or maybe, if I’m feeling good, slightly above the mediocre mark. Plus, it’s just not scary. Even with the gnarled old trees and fog, there are never any chills, and certainly nothing on par with the rampaging sister Usher in House of Usher or any number of scenes in Pit and the Pendulum. As such, Premature Burial remained for a long time the ignored entry into Corman’s cycle, more or less skipped over as people hastened to get from Pit and the Pendulum on to Tales of Terror, Masque of the Red Death and The Raven, when everything was back as it should be and Vincent Price was once again stalking across the screen in period costumes. Premature Burial feels like a misfire – not a dreadful misfire, or an entirely unwatchable one, but a misfire never the less. The pieces — Corman, Poe, Price, Matheson, and musical composer Les Baxter — clicked so perfectly in the first two films that it becomes obvious something is amiss in The Premature Burial. The film does have its moments — chief among them Milland’s exquisitely enthusiastic tour of his “buried alive-proof tomb” — but the whole thing never fully gels. It was obvious that there just shouldn’t be any tinkering with the formula, so AIP made sure everything was back in place for the fourth film, the anthology Tales of Terror.
Release Year: 1962 | Country: United States | Starring: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Richard Ney, Heather Angel, Alan Napier, John Dierkes, Dick Miller | Writer: Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell | Director: Roger Corman | Cinematographer: Floyd Crosby | Music: Ronald Stein and Les Baxter | Producer: Roger Corman
When a creature is so vile, so evil, so much an affront to the nature of the world and of God himself as is the vampire Count Dracula, there is no easy way to destroy him and keep him down. So it is that in every episode of man’s struggle against this infernal prince of darkness, we mortals seem to succeed in wholly destroying this spawn of Satan only to see him find some way to cheat death yet again, as he has for so many centuries now, so that he may once again rise up and cast his long shadow of terror and bloodshed across the countryside. It seems this notorious bloodsucker has any number of ways he can reverse the effects of his apparent destruction, but the most powerful one by far is making certain that his movie provides bushel baskets full of money for the producers.
With the power to produce so much green, it was a given that Hammer Studio’s Dracula would find a way to resurrect himself after being trapped under the ice at the end of Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Death by running water seemed a more easily circumvented fate than actor Christopher Lee’s emphatic statements regarding his unwillingness to portray the caped one again. Lee made a big name for himself with his turn as the undead ghoul in Hammer’s ground-breaking Horror of Dracula, but he was determined that the name he made wouldn’t be Dracula. So he bowed out of the sequel, Brides of Dracula, and didn’t return to the role until he was comfortable that he’d established himself as something more than the vampire count. But 1967′s Dracula, Prince of Darkness proved that audiences were still bloodthirsty not just for Dracula, but for Christopher Lee as Dracula. That people were so quick to revert to identifying him solely with Dracula made Lee squeamish about reprising the role yet again, though the outstanding success of Prince of Darkness meant that Hammer could hardly pass on making another film.
So would begin a long and sometimes irritating cycle of Christopher Lee making a Dracula movie for Hammer, complaining about what crap the film was and how he would absolutely never, ever do it again, then appearing in Hammer’s next Dracula film a year later. Although Lee did have his viable points for being dissatisfied with the role — chief among them that it grew increasingly unlike anything portrayed in the original Bram Stoker novel — in the end his continuous complaining coupled with the fact that he’d always show up to do another one “under protest” kind of makes you want to tell Christopher Lee to shut the hell up. Hey, I like me the Christopher Lee, but it’s not like the man built for himself some legacy of impeccable artistic integrity. He did show up in Chuck Norris films and other things far worse than even the least of his Hammer Dracula films. But that’s Christopher Lee for you. Sometimes he’s just a bit of a blowhard, but that doesn’t make his turn in these films any less enjoyable.
So obviously, despite Lee’s public bellyaching, Hammer managed to sign him on for a sequel to Prince of Darkness. There was really no reason to tinker with a winning formula, and so they figured they might as well bring back Terence Fisher to direct and Jimmy Sangster to do the screenplay. Things didn’t quite work out that way though, and when Fisher was injured in an auto accident, Hammer turned to Freddie Francis to fulfill the directorial duties. Additionally, Anthony Hinds ended up writing the screenplay (under his frequent pseudonym of John Elder). As good as the Sangster-Fisher team was, there was nothing to mourn in having Francis and Hinds working on the picture. Both were solid company men with a lot of good work to their credit. In fact, Freddie Francis’ tendency to experiment more with dreamlike, experimental set-ups would be a nice change from Fisher’s meticulous concentration on realism and detail.
The film lets you know right away that it isn’t going to mess around, although this warning turns out to be a bit of a fib since the movie does end up messing around a bit. But we begin with one of the finest opening sequences Hammer would devise for a Dracula movie, as a young boy goes to fulfill his duty as the local church’s bell ringer only to find the corpse of a young woman, drained completely of blood, dangling inside the bell. It’s a fantastic image in a film whose main strength is going to be in its imagery. This all occurs, we are led to understand, sometime during the events depicted in Prince of Darkness. The film then picks up some months after that one ends, with the local priest a hopeless drunk and the church abandoned. When a loudmouth, obnoxious monsignor rides into town, he berates everyone for still being afraid of Dracula even though the fiend was indisputably destroyed by that rifle-toting monk in Prince of Darkness.
To prove his point, the Monsignor insists on dragging the parish priest up to Dracula’s now-vacant castle to exorcise the grounds and scatter assorted religious iconography about the place. Unfortunately, while he’s doing this, the drunken depressed priest takes a tumble off a ledge and cracks open his head right on top of the ice beneath which lies the perfectly preserved corpse of Dracula. As blood from the priest’s head trickles through cracks in the ice, it touches Dracula’s lips and, well, there you go. Instant vampire resurrection. This process of reviving the count seems a little, you know, unimaginative. Last time, someone had to be strung above his ashes and completely gutted before Dracula was revived, but this time it just takes a couple drops of blood and a convenient ignoring of the fact that, blood of a disillusioned priest or not, Dracula was still trapped beneath running water and should have just died again instead of being able to burst forth from his icy tomb to wreak terrible vengeance upon the world.
This method of bringing Dracula back would, however, look positively inspired by the time the series got to Scars of Dracula, where the count is brought back to un-life when a random rubber bat flies into his crypt and drools some blood on him without any sort of build-up at all.
The first thing one notices about this whole opening, which is really one of the best procession of images in any Dracula film, is the pervasiveness of religious imagery. Well, I guess the first thing you might notice is how the drunk priest’s head is gushing blood in one shot and is entirely healed mere seconds later in another shot. But the religious imagery is strong too, and indeed Risen from the Grave will emerge as one of the most potently religious of the films, continuing the progression of the series from the relatively secular adventures of Van Helsing (he pays lip service to God, but his primary faith is in science and reason, and he sees vampirism in terms of being a disease) to the “I’m religious but I’ll trust my gun to do the Lord’s work” view of Father Sandor in Prince of Darkness, and now into the realm of Dracula not as a plague, but as a supernatural force that exists apart from and in defiance of the laws of a rational universe.
The Van Helsing-esque voice of the enlightened man of reason comes, somewhat more pathetically than with Van Helsing, from the character of Paul, a student and avowed atheist who is in love with the Monsignor’s niece, though the Monsignor is none too thrilled to have a Godless screwball courting a member of his family. The battle between the forces of secularism and religion is almost more prominent than the battle against Dracula, who eventually discovers that the Monsignor has stuck a big golden cross on the castle door and thus seeks ruthless revenge on the Christian defiler by enslaving the weak priest and moving into the basement of the inn where Paul works. If you’re thinking this is kind of a lame ultimate revenge against all mankind, then you’d pretty much be right. But Dracula also enslaves a buxom bar wench, so it’s not a total wash-out.
Dracula plans to eventually get around to making a vampire out of the monsignor’s niece, but he doesn’t seem to be in any big hurry, which means that while he gets to spend a lot of time hanging around in the cellar being illuminated by eerie green lights, we have to spend a lot of time watching him hang around the cellar being illuminated by eerie green lights. It does indeed make for some frighteningly effective imagery, which seems to be the entire point of this film, but a procession of eerie images doesn’t necessarily assemble into a completely enthralling or entirely coherent film. Things do drag a bit in the middle as we watch Dracula push around the wench and the priest while Paul and his love engage in late-night rendezvous on the rooftop. We know that eventually Dracula is going to kidnap her and there will be a scene of horses wildly pulling a carriage toward Castle Dracula. We just wish there wasn’t so much dead time before that happens.
This movie does contain one of the scenes that really set Christopher Lee off to ranting about how awful all the films are. Paul manages to drive a stake — and quite a large one at that — through Dracula’s heart, which Dracula proceeds to yank out and throw at Paul. Turns out you have to stake the vampire, yeah, but it’s meaningless unless you also pray while you are doing it. Paul, being an atheist or perhaps somewhat versed in vampiric lore, refuses to pray. Who’s heard of such a thing? You just slam the stake in, cut the head off, and then you’re done for the day. This particular scene drove Lee nuts. He still brings it up even today. Everyone knows that once you drive a stake into a vampire’s heart, he’s done for, prayer or no.
Gaffs like that aside, this is really rather a better entry in the series than Christopher Lee would have you believe. The story, though uneven, benefits from greater depth than usual, with the battle between secularism and Christianity adding some real meat to the non-Dracula bits. Of course, any attempt to extract some sort of final message from the film is bound to be confusing. It’s religion’s fault that Dracula gets resurrected. If the Monsignor had listened to the superstitious peasants, none of this would have happened. And it’s Paul the atheist who must come in and save the day when Christianity fails to get the job done. But Paul also winds up perhaps more open to belief in Christ by the end of the film, which is full of redemption and vampires getting impaled on big golden crucifixes. So I guess the overall religious message of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is, “don’t be an asshole.” Don’t be intolerant or a zealot, because then you just open the door for Christopher Lee to go stand on your roof while enveloped in purple mist. And while it may be cool to have Christopher Lee on your roof for a while, eventually he’s going to start asking about eating some of your chips and stuff like that.
Appearance-wise, Risen from the Grave is the best looking of all the Dracula films to date, and really one of the best looking films Hammer ever produced. The atmosphere in the film seems to be heavily influenced by the more phantasmagoric look of Mario Bava’s films, and the result is a Dracula film awash in otherworldly colors and swirling camera filters. It gives the movie a more dreamlike, hallucinogenic mood, which is perfectly fitting to mark the series’ move toward more supernatural, less “man of reason” fare. The next in the series, Taste the Blood of Dracula (it’s salty!), would contain even more overt references to Dracula not as some sort of social disease that can be explained with and combated by science, but as a creature straight from Hell imbued with the powers of Satan himself and able to be both resurrected and defeated through a series of religious or sacrilegious rituals.
Lee’s appearance, likewise, is even more ghoulish than previous incarnations. Each film sees him get more pallid and cadaverous, while his eyes get more bloodshot. He’s in snarling animal mode here, throwing people around wildly and smashing windows. He even gets a few lines this time around. It was watching this movie that I finally had my little epiphany about Dracula’s behavior. I’m slow, so you’ll have to forgive me if this was obvious to everyone else long ago. I was always a bit annoyed by the fact that although he is four or five times stronger than a regular man, Dracula’s answer to a fight is to turn tail and run. I mean, Paul isn’t exactly an imposing figure. Then it hit me, and well, all I can say is “duh.” Dracula is a vicious beast, but a beast never the less, and even the most vicious beast in nature is more likely to turn around and run away than fight. It’s a simple animal reaction to being challenged. Unless he’s really hungry, Dracula would rather take off. Not that I’d recommend combating all vampires by waving your arms in the air and yelling, “shoo!” but it seems to work sometimes. Dracula is only fierce-acting around people he already knows are weaker than him.
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is a nice Gothic horror despite some slow spots. It’s got a decent cast, though as always Peter Cushing is sorely missed. It has a tremendous look, smart direction, the usual great James Bernard score, and a script that shoots for more meaning than usual. Lee is less of a presence here than in the last film, and his shadow doesn’t seem to loom as powerfully over everything when he’s not present as it did in Prince of Darkness. But when he does show up, he looks exquisite. Although Lee himself runs down these later films in the series, this one is actually quite good, and the next one would be even better.
In 1960, American International Pictures – well-known for being a low-budget film production house possessed of some genuine talent – released The Fall of the House of Usher. It was something entirely new for the company: a color picture, released by itself instead of as part of a black and white double-feature package as was standard operating procedure for AIP. Director Roger Corman, one of the studio’s most valuable assets, had pushed for AIP to extend their usual shooting schedule (from ten days to fifteen!) and shoot the film in color. AIP was wary, but Corman had proven his ability to deliver profitable results for the company over and over, so after hearing his pitch, they were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to his risky venture. With Corman as director, Vincent Price as the star, and Egdar Allan Poe as the source material, it seemed like it would be a decent enough success.
House of Usher was more than just a hit; it was a smash, and critics and fans alike suddenly had to reassess the way they thought about Roger Corman, Vincent Price, and AIP. It was a grand accomplishment of American horror, full of imagination and wit and ambiance. It’s arguably one the best American horror films ever made, and certainly one of the top five or six gothic horrors from the period, ranking alongside the very best from Hammer, Mario Bava, or Antonio Margheriti’s own Edgar Allan Poe film, 1964′s Castle of Blood. It certainly convinced AIP to invest more time and money (relatively speaking) in Roger Corman and a second entry into the gothic horror film drawing from the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
Corman’s initial idea for a second film was to do Masque of the Red Death, but the then recent release of Ingmar Berman’s Seventh Seal bore several very similar images to what Corman was planning for Masque. Considering the reputation Seventh Seal was building for itself as one of the great films of all time, Corman felt it prudent under the circumstances to shelve the idea for Masque for a while and go on to film one of Poe’s most famous short stories, The Pit and the Pendulum. There was just one small problem: the story was really short.
That’s why they call them short stories, after all, and no matter how you sliced it up, there wasn’t enough material in the original story to account for a feature length film. But never fear! Corman and Matheson decided to employ the approach that would work for this and plenty of other subsequent Poe adaptations (especially those directed by Gordon Hessler after Corman’s departure from the world of direction). They wrapped Poe’s story up inside a story of their own design, written to the best of their ability to feel like Poe material. In the case of Hessler’s later films, as we shall see, this didn’t work too terribly well. For Pit and Pendulum, however, Matheson and Corman hit one out of the park, or at least got a triple. If it’s not a home run, it’s only because it bears a number of similarities to House of Usher, those these similarities are there primarily because they’re ever-present in the works of Poe.
Price, playing Don Medina, once again stars as the tortured head of a family cocooned within the walls of a crumbling estate that he believes to be the architectural embodiment of evil itself. In the case of Usher, it was because so many of the relatives who lived in the palace were evil. In Pit and the Pendulum, the sole reason for the lurking sense of dread is Don Medina’s father, a former Grand Inquisitor who used the palace basement as his torture and interrogation chamber. When young Barnard (Johnathan Kerr) receives a vague letter from Medina informing him that Barnard’s sister – Medina’s wife – has died, Barnard sets out for Medina’s crumbling villa to uncover the details of his sister’s untimely passing. Though frustrated initially, he eventually learns that Medina believes his wife was literally terrified to death by something she saw in the house, and presumably, something inside the off-limits torture chamber. Medina is also haunted by the belief that his wife was actually alive when they interred her in her tomb, something the local doctor swears cannot possibly be true.
Barnard is slow to buy into Medina’s “scared to death” explanation, and with no small amount of due reason. Medina, either out of grief, encroaching madness, or dishonesty is consistently aloof and vague in his explanation of things, and though he eventually lets Barnard see the taboo torture chamber, he absolutely refuses to open a sealed door that leads to what Medina pegs as a device of unspeakable cruelty and evil. And as one might surmise, strange and inexplicable spooky goings-on start plaguing the household, so much so that Medina becomes convinced that his dead wife, angry at having been entombed alive, has returned from the grave to seek unholy revenge.
To satisfy Medina’s terror and Barnard’s demand for some sane story of his sister’s passing, they decide to open the tomb. Things, as you would guess, only get worse from there, driving Medina to the point of insanity, then right over the edge of the cliff. The action culminates in the titular pit as Medina, his mind shattered, begins to believe he is his own Inquisitor father, and that it’s high time he got some use out of the old torture implements. It won’t be much of a surprise to fans of Corman’s Poe films to discover that there is a dastardly conspiracy behind the ghostly occurrences.
Despite the obvious similarity to House of Usher — the evil palace, the wretched ancestors, the premature burial of someone’s sister, and Price as a man at the edge of his sanity — Pit and the Pendulum doesn’t feel like a rehash as much as it does feel like a variation on a theme. Indeed, most of the Poe films would involve, in one way or another, the concept of premature burial and the torment of a man by specters from beyond the grave. But Matheson’s script manages to make it all feel, if not completely different, then at least looked at from a different angle. Different enough so that the movie still feels fresh.
In many ways, in fact, Pit and the Pendulum emerges as an even better film than its predecessor. There is something even more clinging, eerie, and nightmarish about the atmosphere. If Roderick Usher’s house was the very picture of decaying elegance, then Don Medina’s cliffside palace takes it to the next level. A sense of dread lurks in every corner. The set decoration is, as with House of Usher, extremely detailed and quite gorgeous. Corman departs from the previous film, and from the Hammer films that inspired him, by setting his tale not in the Victorian era, but instead much earlier. During the 1600s, I believe (Hammer’s Twins of Evil would later place itself during the same era, though in a much different setting). The costumes, like the sets, are superb. And like the first film, the ultimate success or failure of the movie rests on the shoulders of Vincent Price.
They prove most capable shoulders. Where the character of Roderick Usher was quiet, soft-spoke, and sinister, Don Medina doesn’t suffer from Usher’s peculiar sensitivity to loud noises, and so Price is allowed a little more freedom in his depiction of the main character. Price was an actor who was able to gauge more or less perfectly just how far over the top he has to play a character to make it successful. Medina allows him to push things a little further than the previous film, but his performance is infused with an amazing degree of pathos. Medina lacks any of the sinister tendencies of Roderick Usher, and so our sympathies are completely with him as we watch him struggle first with the fear that he buried his wife alive, and later that she is haunting him as revenge. Price’s performance is nothing short of brilliant, and his inevitable breakdown (it is a horror film, after all) is wrenching because he’s such a decent guy.
Countering Price’s noteworthy turn is his co-star, the relatively inexperienced Jonathan Kerr. Kerr’s delivery is stiff and at times awkward, and I believe he sets some sort of record for use of the word, “sir” in a single film. I don’t know if I’d go quite as far as calling it a bad performance, but compared to the rest of the cast, he’s the obvious weak link. And speaking of the rest of the cast, now would be a good time to mention that Pit and the Pendulum marks the America film debut of Italian horror queen Barbara Steele. Steele first came to horror prominence with her career-defining role in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, and she quickly became one of the icons of the horror genre. She appears here, in flashbacks and during the finale, to torment Price’s Don Medino with her beyond-the-grave beauty. Truth be told, it’s rather a limited role, similar in scope to later horror icon teaming like Price-Lee in Hessler’s Poe films, but then any Barbara Steele is good Barbara Steele as far as I’m concerned.
As with House of Usher, the cast is relatively restricted, though Corman does allow himself one or two more extra characters for a grand total of six — seven if you count the carriage driver from the beginning of the film who has no lines. With such a small cast, each actor counts, even in a relatively small role, and with the aforementioned exception, everyone is up to the task. In addition, they’re given gorgeously spooky sets to inhabit, and the script affords some real chills that I found to be much scarier than anything in the previous film. Of particular note is the scene in which they open the tomb of Medina’s wife to find her corpse contorted into a hideous shrieking pose. It’s quite a striking and terrifying image that relies less on being gross and more on playing to our basic fears, for though we may not obsess about it like Edgar Allan Poe or the characters in these movies, I doubt really that anyone takes too much comfort in the thought of being buried alive. The scene in the tomb capitalizes perfectly on our dread. Whispering voices add to the chills, and when the pit and pendulum torture chamber is finally revealed, it is a marvelous sight the likes of which wouldn’t really be topped until some of the wonderfully phantasmagoric scenes in Masque of the Red Death. The revelation of what exactly is going on isn’t a complete surprise for us looking back, now that so many films with a similar twist have been made, but it’s still decent if not a little underdeveloped in the motivation category.
Whether or not Pit and the Pendulum is a better film than House of Usher is a moot question. What is important is that it’s not a disappointment. It maintains the lofty standards set by the first film and proved the success — both artistically and financially — was no fluke. That Corman showed he could do it again at the same level and with the same results at the box office and from critics practically guaranteed that he would be making Poe films for AIP for as long as they could get away with it.
Release Date: 1961 | Country: United States | Starring: Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone, Patrick Westwood, Lynette Bernay, Larry Turner, Mary Menzies, Charles Victor | Screenplay: Richard Matheson | Director: by Roger Corman | Cinematography: Floyd Crosby | Music: Les Baxter