As is my way, I have returned to The Cultural Gutter for my monthly Frolic Afield science fiction article. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, The Dandy Doctor celebrates the sartorial choices of the Doctor’s many incarnations, concentrating on the dandiest and coincidentally my favorite version: Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. Fluff your ruffled shirt, don your velvet smoking jacket, and join me in the TARDIS’ walk-in closet.
Sandwiched in between the final episode of Star Trek and the 1977 release of Star Wars, Space: 1999 occupies an odd bit of historical real estate and has an even odder tone of voice, though it’s easier to make sense of if you understand where science fiction was when Space: 1999 debuted. It might help explain why a group of rambunctious young sprouts, such as my friends and I were at the time, were so tolerant of what was a rather morose, talky, slow-moving show. But that’s how science fiction was at the time. The original Trek was colorful and had it’s fair share of action, but much like football, if you timed the actual action against the scenes of people sitting around saying stuff, there was far less jumping around and exploding than people recall. And post 2001: A Space Odyssey, science fiction really shed its pulp trappings and entered a period of pretty trippy, contemplative mood. This was science fiction as I knew it: sort of melancholy, a lot to do with environmental catastrophe, and not really centered on “action.” It’s why we could watch Silent Running at a birthday party and love it. and It’s why we could become obsessed with a show that seemed to feature a lot of Martin Landau frowning and speaking in a hushed monotone.
When British television production company ITC commissioned then changed their mind about a second season of producer Gerry Anderson’s science fiction adventure series UFO, Anderson wasn’t one to let all the hard work that went into pre-production design go to waste. He tweaked the scenario a little and gave the proposed series a new name: Menace in Space. This new take on the concept would feature the inhabitants of a moon base being hurtled out into space after a cataclysmic accident on Earth blows the moon out of orbit. Unfortunately, Anderson’s sleight of hand with his idea for UFO 2 didn’t fool ITC president Lew Grade, who remained unconvinced after the mediocre performance of UFO that a new Anderson science fiction series would be any more successful.
As a kid in the 1970s, I watched Space: 1999 fairly religiously. And perhaps not entirely unpredictably, I didn’t remember a thing about it other than the uniforms and the Eagle spaceships, the giant toy of which a friend owned and would pit in battle against my Micronauts Hornetroid. As to the actual content of any one episode, however, I drew a persistent blank despite the hours I’d logged watching it during one of its many syndicated Saturday afternoon broadcasts. I had a vague sense of it being sort of heavy, and maybe a little profound, or what passed for profound before the eyes of an eight year old. Despite being a member of the so-branded Star Wars generation, I had as a child and still have as a grown man a deep appreciation for science fiction at its most ponderous, heavy-handed, self-important, earnest, and weird. So when I had a chance, through the magic of an affordable DVD release of the series, to go back and revisit the series — or more accurately, visit it again for the first time, such as the case may be — I was quite excited.
The story to this point: the good doctor of questionable moral standards, one Baron Victor von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) escaped the guillotine he was facing at the end of the first film, Curse of Frankenstein, only to find himself beaten to death by angry amputees at the end of the second film, Revenge of Frankenstein. Luckily, his apprentice in that film, Hans, turned out to be a most capable student and was able to bring Frankenstein back from the dead, making him, in effect, the first man to successfully pull off Frankenstein’s experiment with reanimating corpses. So there you have the first two Frankenstein films from England’s Hammer Studio, two of the company’s best films and two of the best horror films ever produced. Well, you can forget all that, because although the third film in the series, Evil of Frankenstein once again stars Cushing in the lead role, and although there is a helper named Hans, just about everything else established up to that point by the previous films is chucked out the window for some inexplicable reason. Perhaps if we step back and look at some of the events that lead up to this film, we can comprehend why it seems such an oddity in the overall Hammer Frankenstein series. Or maybe we won’t. Either way, you’re getting the story, so you might as well sit back and make yourself comfortable.
Someone must have gotten the memo and said, “Jesus, another mummy movie?” After three Hammer mummy movies, which in turn had followed some nine thousand or so Universal mummy movies featuring the vengeful bag o’ rags known as Kharsis, the general consensus was that the world pretty much had all the movies it needed in which some expedition disturbs a tomb, gets yelled at by a guy in a fez, and then gets stalked by the mummy looking to avenge the desecration of the tomb. Even in as few as three films, Hammer Studio seemed to be flogging a dead…I don’t know…Pharaoh or something. Though their first film, The Mummy starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee was spectacular, subsequent Hammer mummy movies bore essentially the same plot, and I do mean “bore.”
Hammer beats George Romero to the zombie punch by a year, but needless to say their effort, though perfectly respectable, was overshadowed by Romero’s groundbreaking classic. I went into this film with mixed feelings. On the one hand, all the stills I’d seen from it looked incredible. Very spooky and atmospheric. On the other hand, my most recent experience with Hammer studio director John Gilling was the dry as a mummy’s shroud The Mummy’s Shroud. But I’m a sucker for pretty much any and every Hammer film that’s been released, and I figure it certainly can’t be any worse than Zombie Lake. It turns out, in fact, that Plague of the Zombies not only isn’t any worse than Zombie Lake; it’s much, much better. Okay, maybe saying something is better than Zombie Lake isn’t saying a whole lot, so let’s revise the praise. Plague of the Zombies is a damn good film, maybe not the caliber of film that is Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, but certainly on par with other great zombie films like Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and easily one of the best of Hammer’s non-Dracula/Frankenstein films. Is that a mouthful?
When last we saw Baron Victor Frankenstein, he was being marched to the guillotine to face a beheading for the murders committed by his man-made man, not to mention the murders in which he himself dabbled. Well, you can’t keep a good mad scientist down, and there are none better or madder than Cushing’s Frankenstein. With the help of a prison attendant who wants access to the Baron’s peculiar talents, Frankenstein escapes the execution and sets up a new identity and a new medical practice in another town. Hey, cheating death is what Frankenstein is all about, right? All seems to be going well for the doctor, who has a bustling private medical practice and a commendable public hospital for the poor. Sure he draws the ire of the local medical society when he refuses to join their ranks, but all in all, this new Dr. Stein (put a lot of thought into that one, didn’t ya, Victor? Better than Alucard, I reckon) seems to have turned over a new leaf and started working for the good of mankind. But wait…wasn’t that what he thought he was doing the last time around?
Ho hum, the mummy again. That wouldn’t normally be my reaction, as I’m rather a fan of mummies and the havoc they wreak upon the living, but this entry into the Hammer compendium of vengeful Egyptian crypt guardians manages to do very little beyond eliciting a yawn. The Mummy’s Shroud’s problems are several, and not the least of them is the fact that it fulfills what seems to be the mummy’s curse demanding that all mummy movies be more or less exactly like all other mummy movies. This was Hammer’s third mummy movie. There is practically nothing at all on display in this film that is surprising. The plot is a rehash of the tried and true and terribly over-used mummy movie plot involving an expedition that disturbs a mummy’s tomb only to have some mad Arab resurrect the mummy and send it out to kill those who desecrated the temple. Honestly, the things you can do with a mummy are rather limited, so the spark in the story must come from telling it in a unique fashion or injecting some new element into the proceedings to keep them, at the very least, fresher than the cloth-swathed ghoul delivering terror on the screen.
If you ever visit Ye Olde London Town, try and fit the Jack the Ripper walk into your itinerary. Ideally you should do it in spring or autumn, so that when you start out it’s daylight. But as you wander deeper into the backstreets of Whitechapel it gets increasingly dark (and if you’re lucky, a tad foggy). That way, as you find yourself in the one spot on the tour they can say with certainty that the Ripper stood, it’s fully night. It’s a chilling moment, something notably absent from 1959′s Jack the Ripper. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film, just a rather silly one.