Some time ago, I jetted off to London to spend a few days with a companion exploring the rich history and richer beer of that fine English town. Normally, when I travel I leave it up to myself to plot an itinerary and seek out the spots I want to visit. But in London, we had naught but a couple days and plenty of history to cover, so we signed up for one of those guided theme tours that sounded like it would appeal to me: Sinister London.
Blue Movie Blackmail is known by a variety of names, the original being Si può essere più bastardi dell’ispettore Cliff? My Italian is nonexistent and Google Translate isn’t exactly helpful (“It may be more bastards Inspector Cliff?”), but I think the general gist of the name is something like ‘Is anyone more of a bastard than Inspector Cliff?’ When eventually looped into English (in a few cases by the Anglo cast themselves) it was released in the USA as the somewhat baffling Mafia Junction and in Britain as the rather more accurate Blue Movie Blackmail. It does also have the distinction of being shot mostly in London, so I may be able to relate some interesting titbits as a resident of these parts.
The first Hammer movie I saw was late one night at my grandparents’ house, back when horror double bills were a Friday night TV staple. Mostly these were old Universal flicks, but occasionally if I was lucky there’d be a couple of Hammer horrors. I found these much more exciting than their earlier American counterparts, in fact I still do; vivid colour, actual gore, and an undercurrent of sex that provoked definite interest in young Dave. Also, better acting (there, I said it) and none of those awful Hollywood cockney coppers, gor bloimey Guv’nor. From then on, I was predisposed to see any Hammer film that came along, but this was pre-DVD (it was even pre-VHS, which makes me feel very old) so opportunities were limited. A few years and one wonderful technical revolution later, I discovered a video tape in Dad’s not-too-secret ‘special’ pile. It was Countess Dracula, not exactly a typical Hammer film, but it introduced me to the vision of loveliness that was Ingrid Pitt. More importantly it introduced me to Ingrid Pitt’s boobs. That was it; I was lost.
Yes, it’s yet another review where I talk about a British movie company that isn’t Hammer wherein I mention Hammer every other word. Sorry about that, I’ll try and get it out of my system early on. Hammer Hammer Hammer. The problem is, most writing on the lower tier of British film companies in the 50s and 60s was on H*****, since they were the most successful both commercially and artistically. Other companies that made genre films, such as Amicus, have garnered critical interest by association through shared casts and crews. Part of this is because Hammer (and Amicus too on some occasions) could take a B-movie budget and create something that looked like an A-movie, um, movie. But beneath Hammer there were a whole strata of other companies that made real B-movies, the ones that were only ever destined to be second features or, with a bit of luck, entries in cheap TV anthology shows. It’s only recently that these films have gained any sort of academic and collector interest.
The businesses in question have pleasantly workaday, provincial names; Butcher’s Film Service, Grand National Films, Present Day Productions, Adelphi Films and the legendary cheapest of the cheap, Danziger Productions. This company was founded by Jewish-American brothers, Edward J. and Harry Lee Danziger, who had what one would have to describe as chequered pasts. Edward was a lawyer who had been involved in the Nuremberg trials during his army service. Harry Lee studied music at the New York Academy, and depending on whose account you believe had either played trumpet in a cruise ship band, or been first violinist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He’d also found time to explore the Amazon and win a Silver Star and Purple Heart. At some point he even managed to market a brand of liqueur, Danziger Gold, so called because of the bits of gold floating in it.
The brothers had previously operated a sound studio in New York, specialising in the dubbing of foreign films for American release. Later they switched to producing features of their own in the US before trying their luck in Britain. The reason the Danzigers abandoned their homeland is, like everything else about them, somewhat murky, though it may have been to avoid the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist. They saw the film business as just that; the cheaper you could make the product, the more profit you stood to retain. And the Danzigers made them cheap; as Edward once observed, “nobody makes ‘em cheaper!” It was something of a running joke/horror story among the London acting community, if your current employment was less than salubrious; ‘it could be worse, you could be making a film for the Danzigers.’ Actors who were smart took their salaries in cash on a daily basis.
Initially Edward and Harry Lee rented space from existing facilities, but this was uneconomical for their thrifty productions. After failing to buy Beaconsfield Studios, the brothers purchased some land not far from the famous Elstree. The site contained abandoned aircraft engine testing sheds from world war II. They expanded and converted these buildings into well-equipped soundstages, naming the complex with some hubris ‘New Elstree.’ From here they could knock out a movie in ten days and an episode of TV in two and a half. And knock them out they did; like the rest of the B-producers, mostly murder mysteries and comedy, though with the occasional foray into sci-fi (Devil Girl From Mars, Satellite in the Sky). They called on a stable of solid actors who weren’t stars, or at least not yet – Venerated Horror Icon Christopher Lee starred in a pre-Hammer film entitled Alias John Preston for the company, bemoaning his salary of £75. Other actors would pop up regularly, including Francis Matthews and Dermot Walsh (there was some kind of rule that two out of every three Brit B-pictures had to star Dermot Walsh). Occasionally other companies would rent space at the studio – Quatermass II (a.k.a. Enemy From Space) was filmed there. The Danzigers actually became very successful at TV series, with Mark Saber/Saber of London and Richard the Lionheart (starring, yes, Dermot Walsh) being especially popular.
I’m not really sure why the brothers chose to go with an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, outside of their habit of ‘adapting’ previously existing material, often without credit (rip-off is such an ugly word, isn’t it?). True, interest in horror films based on classic literary works was exploding thanks to, er, some outfit who’s name may or may not begin with an ‘H’. It’s even possible The Tell-Tale Heart was an attempt to hitch a ride on the success of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation Fall of the House of Usher. This was released in the UK in the summer of 1960, and if anyone could knock out a cash-in movie in record time, it was the Danzigers. As it happened, The Tell-Tale Heart sat on the shelf for a further three years, and wasn’t released until after the brothers had pulled out of film and TV production altogether (again for somewhat murky reasons, though the studio not being profitable enough is one likely cause). But more on that a little later.
The film starts with a classic Universal-style warning, including a title card with the following cautionary information: “To those who are squeamish, or react nervously to shock…” (there follows a blank screen with the sound of a relentless, sinister beating heart) “close your eyes, and do not look at the screen again until it stops!” The effect is spoiled a little by the ‘boingggg!’ of a kettle drum as the beating starts – composers Tony Crombie and Bill LeSage seemed to think this was a sinister sound as they used it throughout the score, but the effect is sadly more comedic.
When we rejoin the action, we find a man screaming in the grip of a nightmare. His landlady and a friend burst in on him, crying “Mr Poe! Edgar!” The author (for it is allegedly he) takes some form of medication, then drifts off into another dream, where he is now Edgar Marsh (Laurence Payne, TV’s Sexton Blake and both versions of The Trollenberg Terror). Marsh is a timid reference librarian, desperately shy around women, and only able to express any kind of sexuality via his stash of smutty, nude daguerreotypes. Poor guy, if only there had been a worldwide web in Victorian times. Maybe with some kind of cool, steam-powered brass computers to download from ‘Mrs. Arbuthnot’s Celebrated Collection of the Empire’s Finest Suicide Girls, dot com.’ I’m pretty sure speculative fiction writers have imagined a steampunk version of everything else, so why not steampunk internet porn?
Where was I?
Oh yes. From the window of his bedroom, Edgar can see into the chamber of sexy flower shop employee Betty Claire (the lovely Adrienne Corri, Vampire Circus). Edgar is immediately smitten, but is too nervous to talk to her. He asks his much more worldly friend Carl Loomis (the inevitable Dermot Walsh, Ghost Ship) for advice. With Carl’s help, Edgar manages to persuade Betty to join him for dinner, but he’s still painfully shy. Escorting her home, Edgar is afraid the stairway to Betty’s room is too dark and asks to see her to the door. This is somewhat amusing since the interior set is extremely well lit, though we’re clearly meant to think it isn’t. To Corri’s credit she manages to read her line – about a mean landlady refusing to waste money on candles – with a straight face. Anyway, at the door Edgar makes a clumsy pass, and is given his marching orders.
The next day, Edgar is distraught and apologises profusely. Betty, taking pity on the shy fellow, agrees on another date. Unfortunately at the restaurant it’s quickly obvious she is finding Edgar very tiresome, though he remains oblivious. By coincidence Carl is dining there too. Edgar is delighted to see his friend, while Betty is immediately taken with the confident and handsome Carl. Betty is so besotted she fabricates an excuse to interrupt Edgar’s chess game the next day, because she knows Carl is his opponent. To Carl’s credit he warns Edgar not get in too deep, as he can clearly see what sort of woman Betty is. His words fall on deaf ears though; Edgar is already planning to ask for Betty’s hand in marriage. Poor Edgar is now looking like something of an idiot, what with Carl’s reluctance to hurt his friend crumbling, and Betty all but tearing Carl’s pants off in public. Unfortunately that night Edgar, having been rebuffed once more, observes Carl having his fiendish way with Betty in her room. The next morning Carl says he’ll break it to Edgar gently, though Betty doesn’t care as long as they’re together. But Carl never gets the chance; that night the supposedly sick Edgar sends for him, only to beat him to death with a poker.
After Carl has been missing for a few days, Betty contacts the police. The Inspector (John Scott, who had a long career playing policemen in bit parts) is unimpressed. This is not the first time Carl as fled town to avoid either gambling debts or an overly-attentive woman. She visits Edgar at work, and he feigns surprise at the level of her concern for his friend. In fact Edgar seems generally more relaxed and confident around her. However, later that night he is disturbed by persistent, repetitive noises; a clock, a dripping faucet, and finally the beating of Carl’s restless heart from beneath the drawing room floorboards. Betty observes the deterioration in Edgar’s behaviour as the heart torments him, and becomes suspicious. She sees Edgar return from hacking out Carl’s heart and burying it in the park, and realises that he must have have seen their deceitful night of passion. The police are still not interested though, what with Edgar being a respectable member of the community (I love the idea that a reference librarian is surely not capable of committing such a horrible crime).
Betty has no option but to sneak into Edgar’s house while he’s out trying to drown his sorrows. She finds the bloodstained, bent poker and takes it to the police. Finally the Inspector agrees to question him, but Edgar can hardly make out his words as he now hears nothing but the beating of the heart. Unable to stand it any more, Edgar is driven to make a mad confession. He is shot and killed by the Inspector as he tries to escape, and for good measure gets impaled on a spike (which just happened to have been standing in his hallway, apparently). We then jump back to author-Edgar, who tells his friend Carl about this latest horrible dream, how they were both there along with a mysterious girl. Looking from the window, Edgar sees a woman resembling Betty, and the heart begins to beat once more…
The Tell-Tale Heart was among Poe’s most filmed stories even by the time of this adaptation, including a celebrated animated version from a couple of years earlier. The Danzigers’ regular writers, Eldon Howard (Edward’s father-in-law) and future Avengers creator Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter), got around this by throwing out almost all of the original text. In the short story – which like a lot of Poe’s work, puts the emphasis firmly on ‘short’ – the narrator kills his elderly landlord because he’s afraid of the old man’s evil eye. Howard and Clemens add an entirely new framework in much the same way Richard Matheson did with Pit and the Pendulum, retaining only the element of the beating heart itself. And the script is extremely good, providing just enough character beats for us to know immediately who these people are. We aren’t explicitly told why Edgar is so terrified and repressed around ladies, but the way he gently caresses a portrait of a stern older woman (presumably his mother) tells us all we need to know.
The cast, despite being made up of B-listers, is excellent. Laurence Payne has to do most of the heavy lifting, and he’s well up to the task. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom as Edgar guilelessly raves about his best friend to Betty, oblivious to the fact that she’s almost drooling in his presence. Edgar’s rage and descent into madness could slip into the ridiculous in the hands of a lesser actor, but Payne makes it feel very real and tragic. It’s to his credit that Edgar remains sympathetic even after his terrible crime. Dermot Walsh is also very good, mixing the confidence of the cad-about-town with a genuine reluctance to hurt his friend, and then guilt at having done so. Adrienne Corri has the least enviable task, as her character is probably the least likeable. Betty does little to hide her boredom with Edgar or her lust for Carl, and is clearly indifferent to hurting her first suitor’s feelings. It’s quite satisfying that, although she survives the film (or story-within-a-film), she has to live with the death and dismemberment of her lover.
Director Ernest Morris was a regular on television and the B-picture circuit, working with the Danzigers frequently. He turns in some excellent work here, helped by Jimmy Wilson’s stark black & white cinematography and Norman G. Arnold & Peter Russell’s production design. The Danzigers’ movies often borrowed furniture from The Mayfair Hotel, which they also owned, but the results are impressive. The studio-bound nature of the film (including backlot exteriors on New Elstree’s standing street set) serves to reinforce the sense of claustrophobia and repression in Edgar’s life. Morris makes the most of close-ups on Laurence Payne’s distraught, haggard face, and the sparingly-used special effects (a rug or patch of grass pulsing along with the heartbeat) are very effective. Morris’s best work comes in a scene where Edgar, Betty and Carl go out to dinner. As Edgar and Betty dance, the camera focuses on her gaze, always fixated on Carl even as she is spun around the floor by the delighted, oblivious Edgar.
Which isn’t to say that the film is perfect by any means. The score doesn’t always jibe with what’s happening onscreen, especially as far as that bloody kettle drum goes. The scenes with the police inspector smack a little too much of filler, though not to the extent of most B-pictures of this era. And there are a few amusing missteps, such as Edgar living on the Rue Morgue – it’s pretty clear the film is supposed to be set in London, or at least another English city. This certainly isn’t the only film to make the mistake that Victorian prostitutes were sexy young things rather than prematurely-aged, gin soaked derelicts, but it’s an anachronism that always amuses me.
Though The Tell-Tale Heart must rank among the best work to come out of the Danzigers’ operation, it wasn’t released until after they’d abandoned filmmaking. The movie struggled with the British Board of Film Censors due to the gory and sexual content. In particular, a film where the main character is a voyeur with definite women issues, was troublesome coming in the wake of Peeping Tom earlier the same year. It seems the Danzigers didn’t have the same type of collaborative relationship with the BBFC that Hammer did, and The Tell-Tale Heart languished unreleased until 1963. Thankfully it’s now available on DVD, though if you want to see it I’d recommend the remastered UK release. The American disc from Alpha Video uses a misframed, blown-out print that does the film no favours at all. As well as being a great little movie and one of the best British B-films, The Tell-Tale Heart is a pleasant reminder of when movie producers were fast-talking, cigar-chomping* chancers who were out to make a quick buck, but could sometimes create great work almost by accident. As Brian Clemens said of the Danzigers in a recent interview, “they weren’t the Mafia. But they were close.”
*n.b. I have no evidence that the Danzigers spoke above normal speed or smoked cigars, chomped or otherwise. But you get the idea.
Release Year: 1963 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Laurence Payne, Adrienne Corri, Dermot Walsh, Selma Vaz Díaz, John Scott, John Martin, Annette Carell, David Lander, Rosemary Rotheray, Suzanne Fuller, Yvonne Buckingham, Pamela Plant, Graham Ashley | Screenplay: Brian Clemens, Eldon Howard | Director: Ernest Morris | Cinematography: Jimmy Wilson | Music: Tony Crombie, Bill LeSage | Producer: Edward J. & Harry Lee Danziger
As the only contributor to Teleport City who resides in the fine country of Great Britain (and it is fine, despite most of it seeming to be on fire as I write this), I like to be able to bring you the occasional bit of Brit weirdness. Of course the brilliant minds at T.C. are already familiar with much of the classic and cult cinema exported by the likes of Hammer, Amicus and others, but today I’m going with something a trifle more obscure. Today’s review subject is one of the few releases by an ill-fated outfit named Tyburn Film Productions.
Tyburn was the brainchild of Kevin Francis, son of Oscar-winning cinematographer and sometime genre director Freddie Francis. The elder Francis had already made successful films for the aforementioned companies, faring slightly better at Amicus. Here he directed a series of effective portmanteau horrors including Tales From the Crypt and Torture Garden, plus the excellent De Sade-themed feature The Skull (we’ll skip politely past The Deadly Bees and They Came From Beyond Space). His work at Hammer was more patchy; Paranoiac and Nightmare are good, Hysteria and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave less so, and The Evil of Frankenstein is largely awful. Kevin started out as a runner on his Dad’s Dracula sequel, which was seemingly enough to give him the film bug. Kev realised that with the help of contacts from Francis Sr.’s address book, he too could produce some Hammer-style gothic horrors. Thus Tyburn was born.
Sadly Francis the younger made a grave miscalculation: he tried to launch a rival to Hammer and Amicus in 1974, when both those studios were in their death throes. Hammer’s demise has been discussed extensively elsewhere on T.C. so I won’t go over ground that Keith has already expertly covered. Amicus was limping along putting out the occasional adventure film like At The Earth’s Core, but would fold soon afterwards as relations between the company’s founders broke down. Tigon, Hammer’s other main rival, had flirted with more modern, gruesome horror movies, but founder Tony Tenser wasn’t happy with this new direction. Tigon switched to distributing terrible (if successful) sex comedies for a few years, before Tenser retired from the film business.
I’m not entirely sure what Francis was thinking, since there’s not a whole lot of information about him. In the one interview I managed to find, he responded to the question of why he started Tyburn with a glib “I needed to earn a living.” In fact the biggest part of his motivation seemed to be the opportunity to work with Peter Cushing, a childhood hero and the reason Francis cites for getting into films in the first place. I can’t really argue with that; who wouldn’t want to work with someone as awesome as Peter Cushing? Certainly Cushing shows up in the bulk of Tyburn’s product, such as it is. Legend of the Werewolf was the third and final Tyburn film released in 1975, after which the company didn’t do much of anything for a decade. Their first production, Persecution, hewed closely to Hammer’s psycho thriller formula, even down to hiring a fading Hollywood female star in the Bette Davis mould (in this case it was Lana Turner). Their second film, The Ghoul, is a remake in all but name of The Reptile, with a full complement of former Hammer talent. By the same token, Legend of the Werewolf will seem familiar to anyone who remembers Hammer’s earlier Curse of the Werewolf, but more on that later.
The film opens with a voiceover by Peter Cushing, describing how races of people throughout history have been forced to flee their homes by persecution. And thus we see a couple of peasants doing just that in what we’ll later discover is France, the mother heavily pregnant. They are apparently Jews fleeing the Tsarist pogroms in Russia, though the film doesn’t really make this clear. She gives birth as Cusing informs us the child is being born at day-for-midnight on Christmas eve, when wolves are apparently compelled to look after newborns. It doesn’t stop them eating mum and dad, however. A few years later, the hairy feral child is found by Maestro Pamponi (Hugh Griffith, The Abominable Dr. Phibes), owner of the world’s most depressing travelling show. Since his only other attraction is a slightly-tattooed lady, Pamponi seizes the opportunity to parade the caged boy in front of local peasant folk.
But as the boy grows up he loses the excess hair and feral traits, making him largely useless to the show. Now he’s known as Etoile (David Rintoul), a handsome yet simple lad who unfortunately turns into werewolf, when he sees only in red-filter-for-night vision. One full-mooned night he kills Tiny (Norman Mitchell, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), the travelling show’s general dogsbody. Horrified by what happened, Etoile runs away. He finds himself at a rundown zoo on the outskirts of Paris, which has few patrons because of the smell of the sewer running beneath. The zookeeper (Ron Moody, Oliver!) is impressed with Etoile’s affinity with the animals, especially the wolves, and gives him a job.
A group of local young ladies like to come and eat their lunch in the park, and Etoile takes a shine to one of them, Christine (Lynn Dalby). She’s also attracted to the handsome, guileless new arrival. She fails to reveal however that she’s actually a prostitute at a nearby brothel run by Madame Tellier (Marjorie Yates). Incidentally, one of the prostitutes is played by legendary nude model and star of Naked As Nature Intended, Pamela Green. Anyhow, Etoile goes along to the brothel to ask Christine out on a date, and gets turned away. He tries to sneak in and sees Christine with a rich client. Assuming she’s being ravished against her will, he flies into a wolf-like rage and attacks the client. This gets him thrown out and forbidden from seeing Christine again. Later that night in full-on wolf mode, Etoile attacks and kills the punter.
This death proves puzzling for police Inspector Gerard (Stefan Gryff) and judicial surgeon Professor Paul Cataflanque (Peter Cushing!). The signs on the body suggest a wolf attack, but the attacker was too large. More victims, all regulars at the brothel, begin to stack up. Paul investigates and discovers that all of them were clients of Christine. There’s also the body of a poor sewer man with no dialogue other than “Aarrgghh,” played briefly by Hammer’s eternal innkeeper Michael Ripper. Noticing Etoile’s behaviour around the wolves, and a handy sewer grate right by the brothel, Paul puts two and two together. But as his explanation is rather far-fetched, the local Prefect orders all the wolves at the zoo destroyed. Etoile is forced to do it, which causes him to fully wolf out. He escapes into the sewer. Paul follows and tries to help him, but the police are not far behind. Inspector Gerard, armed with a silver bullet on Paul’s advice, shoots Etoile. The hapless wolfman dies in Christine’s arms, along with Tyburn’s hopes of being a successful production company.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the idea behind Tyburn seems to have been to make something akin to classic Hammer. Unfortunately Legend of the Werewolf feels more like a latter day Hammer film, looking massively twee and out of date. Bear in mind it came out in the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, Frightmare, Black Christmas and The Wicker Man to name but a few. Even more unfortunate is how Legend of the Werewolf combines the elements of a mid-60s Hammer gothic (mild gore, no nudity) with the substandard production value and leaden pacing of one of their 70s duds. Sets were mostly recycled from stock flats in Pinewood Studios’ scene dock, and they look downright threadbare.
The script doesn’t do much to distinguish itself either. It comes from the familiar pen of John Elder, actually the nom de plume of former Hammer producer Anthony Hinds. The original idea was a combination of two treatments; Kevin Francis’ ‘Plague of the Werewolves’ and Hinds’ ‘Wolf Boy.’ Having read both I’d say most of the elements come from Hinds’ version, which included the Russian immigrants, the 19th century French setting, the travelling show, the zoo and the brothel. Interestingly, Guy Endore’s novel Werewolf of Paris is not cited as a source, which is surprising; this film is very similar in places to Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf from 1961, also scripted by Hinds. That film WAS based on Endore’s book, despite the setting being switched to Spain to use the sets built for an abandoned Spanish Inquisition movie. According to Freddie Francis, the French setting in Legend… was inspired in part by John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, a film where Francis had served as camera operator. Probably the biggest innovation in the script, which has its roots in the Francis treatment, is the police procedural aspect. This at least gives Peter Cushing something to do.
Cushing is, inevitably, the best thing about the movie. Professor Paul Cataflanque is a typical Cushing hero; a brilliant, educated but compassionate man of science, but one with a mind open to non-scientific explanations. There’s not a great deal to distinguish him from Van Helsing or Sherlock Holmes, except that Paul has more of a sense of humour. Cushing was pleased about this and plays it with an amused twinkle in the eye. And let’s be honest; there’s nobody better at playing this kind of character than Cushing. As always, despite being able to phone it in, Pete gives it his all. It’s the fact that he’s consistently so good with such average material that Cushing is my favourite actor ever. On that, Kevin Francis and I are in full agreement.
The remaining cast members are a mixed bag. David Rintoul in his first film role isn’t bad, though he’s no Oliver Reed; he plays Etoile as largely innocent, almost a bit simple, but this works. It makes the character quite sympathetic, as he’s more of a victim than anything. Rintoul didn’t do much film work, but he’s had a long career on television. The most famous name apart from Cushing is Ron Moody, who plays the zookeeper as rather too broad comic relief. The remaining cast are drawn largely from TV guest-starring roles and don’t make much of an impression.
The direction by Freddie Francis is workmanlike, a far cry from his inventiveness on the likes of The Skull or The Creeping Flesh. Francis has a thing for shooting from the POV of the killer – he does it brilliantly in both of the aforementioned films – but here the werewolf-cam red filter quickly becomes annoying. The score is by another late-period Hammer regular, Harry Robinson (The Vampire Lovers), but doesn’t have much to recommend it. The whole thing was recorded in one day so it’s perhaps not surprising.
Legend of the Werewolf was released by Fox-Rank Distributors on a double bill with Hammer’s Vampire Circus, and the pairing actually did decent business. Quite what the audiences made of the stodgy and old-fashioned Tyburn picture in comparison to one of Hammer’s more inventive later works, I don’t know. Certainly Vampire Circus, along with the rest of Hammer’s output, has had the longevity; it recently had a blu-ray release. Meanwhile Tyburn’s films are almost impossible to find. My copy is sourced from an old, long-deleted VHS tape, the same as my copies of The Ghoul and Persecution. And Legend of the Werewolf was Tyburn’s last release for nearly a decade. According to Francis the company did pretty well out of these three films, so quite what happened behind the scenes that prevented any more productions, I don’t know. Fox-Rank’s deal omitted North America, and perhaps the firm’s financial backers had other problems. In any case, Tyburn returned briefly in the mid-1980s with a TV movie called The Bells of Death, starring a very frail old Peter Cushing in his last appearance as Sherlock Holmes. After that, nothing much.
It’s all a bit peculiar, but given the obscurity of the films and the company, I doubt the truth will ever come out. While volumes have been written on every aspect of Hammer, and there’s a decent amount on Amicus and Tigon, I only know of one book about Tyburn. Making Legend of the Werewolf was published by the British Film Institute’s Educational Advisory Service in 1976, as a textbook on a typical British film production for kids taking media studies at school! It’s a frustrating book, going into exhaustive detail about things like the production budget and shooting schedule, but contains scant information on the company itself. So the only conclusion I’ve been able to draw is the old ‘the British film industry was kinda fucked, as usual’ and leave it at that.
Hrm, I wasn’t expecting this review to go all serious and academic and stuff, with references and everything. But the film is a bit too glum to generate a whole mass of riffing, even with Michael Ripper as a sewer attendent.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: United kingdom | Starring: Peter Cushing, Ron Moody, Hugh Griffith, Roy Castle, David Rintoul, Stefan Gryff, Lynn Dalby, Renee Houston, Marjorie Yates, Norman Mitchell, Mark Weavers, David Bailie, Hilary Labow, Elaine Baillie, Michael Ripper, Pamela Green | Screenplay: Anthony Hinds | Director: Freddie Francis | Cinematography: John Wilcox | Music: Harry Robinson | Producer: Kevin Francis
I just happened to throw this movie on the other day, not planning to review it, just in the mood for a bit of 50s gothic horror. The next day, the news broke of the sad death of the film’s writer, Jimmy Sangster. As one of the small group responsible for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (Horror of Dracula as it’s known in the US) and The Mummy, Sangster helped change the face of horror movies. He penned many other excellent films both for Hammer as well as other studios, not to mention TV scripts and novels. He was also a witty and engaging speaker, happy to hold court on his life and work. He’s one of those people who, although he lived to the ripe old age of 83, you can’t help feel went too soon. So by way of a personal and entirely inadequate tribute, here’s my review of Blood of the Vampire.
The film opens with a title card informing us that it’s Transylvania, 1874, where those suspected to be vampires are staked through the heart before burial. We immediately see this in action, the eagle-eyed among you possibly recognising future Bond villain Milton Reid as the stake-weilder. As the burial party leaves, a deformed, mute hunchback named Carl (Victor Maddern, Circus of Fear), kills the lone gravedigger and swipes the damaged body. Carl then seeks out a drunken doctor (Cameron Hall), who previously knew the victim and performs a heart transplant on the body. The doctor then makes the mistake of asking for more money, which earns him a stabbing from Carl as an animated bat flutters by. Because, y’know, vampires.
Meanwhile, at the Transylvanian High Court of Justice, Dr. John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is on trial over the death of a patient. The judge (John Le Mesurier, Dad’s Army) claims the testimony Pierre is relying on, from his teacher Professor Meinster, says the alleged mentor has never heard of Pierre. Thus the defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment. In the courthouse lock-up, after being menaced by a crook played by Hammer and Carry On regular Bernard Bresslaw, Pierre is allowed a few moments to speak to his fiancee Madeleine Duval (Barbara Shelley). She vows to find out why Meinster responded in such a strange fashion. Madeleine gives Pierre a locket with a rather fetching image of herself inside. By the way, is it me or are there a lot of people with French-sounding names in Transylvania?
Soon Pierre is transported to different prison than the one he was expecting. The head guard Wetzler (Andrew Faulds, The Flesh and the Fiends) is unpleasantly sneery and confiscates the locket. Pierre is placed in a dungeon with a guy named Kurt (William Devlin, Treasure island), who explains the place is worse than Hell, with horrible fates awaiting the inmates. The hunchback Carl, who now lives at the prison, swipes the locket from Wetzler and is mesmerised with Madeleine’s beauty. Hey, it’s Barbara Shelley after all. Pierre is put to work with other prisoners digging graves. One of the sickly inmates collapses, and even Wetzler’s vicious doberman can’t compel him to continue. But on hearing the warden Dr. Callistratus has suddenly returned, the terrified sick man gets up and carries on working. Later, Pierre is Summoned by Callistratus (Sir Donald Wolfit, Dr. Crippen), a strangely vampiric-looking man. Callistratus reveals he deliberately send for Pierre to come to his jail; as a doctor he can assist Callistratus in his research. The warden is working on identifying the different blood groups (it was by not correctly understanding these groups that Pierre killed his patient). As a reward, Pierre gets better quarters, and the run of the prison so he can take samples from the prisoners.
Unbeknown to Pierre, Callistratus has a second laboratory in the basement. Here he has Carl drain the blood from the previously collapsed prisoner, which he then transfuses to himself. Callistratus makes some cryptic comments about his work will go more quickly now that Pierre is helping. Carl discovers Callistratus’s housekeeper (Barbara Burke) spying on them, and before long she’s also an unwilling blood donor. Back at the high court, Madeleine has tracked down Professor Meinster (Henri Vidon), who confirms the letter read out during the trial was a forgery. The chief of justice sends Monsieur Auron (Bryan Coleman, The Hand) of the prison commission to look into the matter.
At the prison, Kurt tells Pierre about the lab beneath the other lab, and of terrible experiments that take place there. Pierre tries to bluff his way in and Carl attacks him, making Callistratus angry (well, more angry – his default setting seems to be furious). He reveals that he is trying to cure a rare blood condition, one which causes healthy cells to change to a new blood group that attacks all others. Callistratus is trying to find a combination of groups that can be transfused into a diseased subject to cure the condition. Pretty sure that’s not really how blood groups work, but never mind.
Pierre and Kurt try to escape, but it’s a set-up. Kurt is savaged by the guard dogs, apparently to death. Callistratus refuses to call them off as an example to the other prisoners. He tells the authorities that Pierre was killed in the escape attempt. Of course the whole case was a ruse to get Pierre to the prison in the first place, including Auron (who’s in on the whole thing) forging the letter from Meinster. Madeleine doesn’t believe Pierre is dead, so sets herself up as the new prison housekeeper and goes undercover. She quickly finds Pierre is alive, and has discovered evidence of Callistratus performing experiments on the supposedly-dead Kurt. After night falls, Pierre sneaks into Madeleine’s room. Their happy reunion is interrupted by Carl, who is smitten with Madeleine thanks to the locket. Pierre picks the stupidest hiding place in the room (right next to a mirror), allowing Carl to see him. After leaving Madeleine’s room Pierre checks Kurt’s grave and finds it empty. He’s spotted by Metzler, and in the ensuing struggle the guard is killed.
Madeleine is summoned to Callistratus’s chambers, where Auron is also waiting. The prison official recognises her, but does not reveal this immediately. Instead he follows her back to her room and tries to force himself on her. Carl sees this and, thanks to his infatuation, attacks Auron. With things falling apart, Callistratus lures Pierre to the other laboratory, where Madeleine is chained to a wall. Callistratus explains that because of his experiments with blood, superstitious locals branded him a vampire and he was sentenced to die. He infected himself with a blood culture to feign death and enable him to survive a staking and heart transplant, but the infection is now causing his blood to attack the other cells in his body. Now with Pierre’s help, Callistratus thinks he’s made a breakthrough that will cure the condition.
As a final experiment, Callistratus intends to transfuse all of Madeleine’s blood into the barely-alive Kurt, who has been deliberately infected with the culture. Carl though doesn’t want the new object of his affections to be hurt, so Callistratus is forced to shoot him. What’s left of Kurt doesn’t feel like co-operating either, grabbing Callistratus long enough for Pierre to get the better of him. With the mad doctor as a hostage, Madeleine and Pierre escape from the prison. Our hero vows to return after clearing his name, but Callistratus won’t be around to face justice; with the last of his strength, Carl releases the dogs, who in a nicely poetic bit of payback rip Calistratus apart. The end.
Blood of the Vampire’s producers, Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, met in the army film unit during World War II. At the end of hostilities, they partnered up to produce a slew of b-movies from 1948 well into the sixties. Berman and Baker were canny operators, keeping a close eye on what their successful rivals Hammer were doing. To this end they hired regular Hammer writer John Gilling to pen a bunch of the cheap thrillers the future House of Horror were making at the time. When Hammer had hits with sci-fi films based on television serials, they secured the remake rights to ATV’s The Trollenberg Terror (the resulting film better known as The Crawling Eye). Then when Hammer had an even bigger hit with their bloody, Eastmancolor gothic horror pictures, Berman and Baker wanted a piece of that action too. And what better way than by employing the proverbial goose laying all those golden eggs for their rival; Jimmy Sangster.
Blood of the Vampire was released in the summer of 1958, shortly after Hammer’s Dracula and around the time of The Revenge of Frankenstein, both also scripted by Sangster. As you’ve no doubt gathered from the synopsis, despite the vampire trappings (and the rather misleading opening scene) this is more of a Frankenstein story. In particular the theme of using prison inmates as raw material for medical experiments is remarkably similar to Frankenstein’s scheme in the aforementioned sequel, though in that particular film the unwilling participants are patients in a poor hospital. Also the theme of a disfigured servant falling for the female lead, with unfortunate consequences, is almost identical between the two films. I’m not complaining mind you; Sangster usually had to knock out finished scripts at some speed, often after the film had already been announced, and even the best writers only have so many ideas. What’s impressive is that even despite sharing elements, the two projects are different enough to be enjoyable on their own terms. The Revenge of Frankenstein is one of Hammer’s best films, and while Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite up to the same standard, it’s still very good. It’s also worth noting that Tony Hinds’ script for the last of the series, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, borrows heavily from this film.
The Hammer formula called for a distinguished actor in lead role. This was usually Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, though André Morell was an acceptable substitute. Berman & Baker went for the prestigious name of Sir Donald Wolfit, one of the famous group of actor/managers that included Sirs Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Wolfit appeared in a number of genre films, most likely to fund his theatrical productions, though if you were to suggest to him he was a horror star you’d probably receive an angry response. Wolfit was by all accounts a nightmare to work with; unable to take criticism, awful to his stage companies, and known for filling them with mediocre supporting players who wouldn’t give him any competition. His peers saw him as something of a joke. After Wolfit’s death, his dresser Ronald Harwood wrote a play (later an Oscar-nominated film) entitled The Dresser (good title), about a dresser (see?) trying to keep an ageing, tyrannical leading actor called ‘Sir’ from going off the deep end. I’m sure it was totally fictional and in no way based on real life. Suddenly, Venerated Horror Icon Sir Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula sequels doesn’t seem so bad.
So with that in mind, how is Wolfit as Callistratus? Well, he’s pretty angry throughout; either because he’s a good actor and the part calls for it, or because he wasn’t pleased to be slumming in a derivative horror cheapie, or simply because he’s Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit. That said, it suits the character very well and thus he’s enjoyably nasty. Australian actor Vincent Ball is also good; he mostly did supporting roles in movies including a Carry On (Follow That Camel) and one of my favourite terrible British B-pictures, The Black Rider. Given the chance to step up to the lead, he’s great. After all of the interchangeable, rubbish Pauls and Hanses in Frankenstein and Dracula sequels, when the good-looking hero can actually act (and has a character), it’s worth taking note. Later Ball went back to Australia and worked on TV, including a stint in a soap much beloved of my wife in our university days, A Country Practice. Personally I wasn’t a fan; it was OK but it was no Young Doctors.
Then there’s Barbara Shelley, who requires me to find some way of expressing in words the action of gazing fondly into the distance and sighing. Barbara is one of my all-time favourite horror actresses. She was a step above the usual leading starlet, bringing a fierceness and determination to her characters even if, as written, they didn’t get much to do outside of being menaced. Her transformation from uptight wife to seductive vampire in Dracula, Prince of Darkness is among my favourite Hammer memories, and she was the company’s most prolific lead actress. At this point Barbara hadn’t yet appeared in a horror film for Hammer, though she gave an excellent performance in 1958′s The Camp on Blood Island (and had in fact made her film debut for the company in the little-seen 1952 thriller Mantrap). Her previous genre role had been as the titular Cat Girl in 1957, but this was her first foray into a gothic horror. Naturally, she’s brilliant. That fierce doggedness is very apparent in Madeleine, who despite her obvious fear still puts herself in harm’s way to save Pierre. Strong characters are a trademark of Sangster scripts; note that it was only after he stopped writing gothics for Hammer that those bloody Pauls and Hanses started to creep in.
One of Hammer’s selling points was their ability to make no-budget films look incredibly lavish and expensive, thanks to production designer Bernard Robinson. Blood of the Vampire isn’t quite on a par with Robinson’s work, but it’s pretty damn close. The prison sets are completed on an impressive scale, and only some dodgy matte paintings spoil the effect. Sadly the makeup is less successful, with Carl’s fake eye being the worst culprit. It’s plastered on with little care, can’t move or blink with Victor Maddern’s real eye and it’s not even the same colour. People complain about the prosthetics in Hammer films, but nothing Phil Leakey or Roy Ashton produced is as bad as this. Still, it’s an impressively gory film for the time, especially in the longer ‘international’ version (if you’re really interested this is available on DVD in Italy, though the print used is pretty poor).
Direction is by Henry Cass, who worked with the producers, Berman and Baker, often. His style is serviceable; he’s no Terence Fisher, but he gets the job done. It would be remiss of me not to mention that Berman and Baker found much greater success in the 60s on television. They secured the rights to Leslie Charteris’ character The Saint, which became a massively popular show starring Roger Moore. This led to a variety of other series including Department S and The Champions. But I digress.
I’ve just counted and for the second review in a row, I’ve managed to mention the word ‘Hammer’ multiple times for a film not made by that company. This time I’m doing slightly better; 20 uses on Legend of the Werewolf as opposed to 15 here. The problem is, it’s hard to discuss any gothic period horror, or indeed any British B picture from this era, without bringing them up. Such was Hammer’s (make that 16) influence that comparisons are inevitable, and a major reason for that influence was the pen of Jimmy Sangster. Personally I think that’s an awesome legacy.
Release Year: 1958 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Donald Wolfit, Vincent Ball, Barbara Shelley, Victor Maddern, William Devlin, Andrew Faulds , John Le Mesurier, Bryan Coleman, Cameron Hall, Barbara Burke, Bernard Bresslaw, Hal Osmond, Henri Vidon, John Stuart, Colin Tapley, Otto Diamant, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster | Director: Henry Cass | Cinematography: Monty Berman | Music: Stanley Black | Producer: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman
I have a friend who is a huge, HUGE World War II history buff. My Dad is similarly fascinated with that conflict, so between the two of them, I have picked up a certain smattering of interest in the terrible events of 1939-45. Not much, but enough to get highly annoyed at my fellow countrymen who only remember we ever had a war during international sporting matches to reinforce their own xenophobia. Enough to be able to tell the difference between a Spitfire mk I and, um, other types of Spitfire. Enough to know that the snazzy B3-style flying jacket I recently acquired is of the sort worn by B-17 bomber crews, and is somewhat inaccurate because it has two pockets instead of the correct one. Enough to come off as an enormous nerd, in fact, without the swathes of useful, in-depth information that makes being known as an enormous nerd worthwhile. I do though like to think I cut quite a dash in the sort of clothing once worn by the crew of the Memphis Belle. Speaking of which (see what I did there), if you go to the Imperial War Musem Duxford, you’ll see a B-17 named Sally B. This is the last airworthy B-17 in Europe and, in fact, starred in the 1989 movie Memphis Belle as the titular aircraft. Today she still has the rather demure nose art of that famous plane on one side, and her own sexy naked lady (the original Sally B, we assume) on the other.
Including The Shuttered Room in a Lovecraft-themed month of reviews is admittedly a bit of a stretch. To the extent that its source story is considered by anyone to be part of the Lovecraft canon, it is thought of as being only very peripherally so, with many of the author’s followers disdaining to give it even that distinction. The story originally appeared in the 1959 collection The Shuttered Room & Other Pieces, which was compiled by author August Derleth and published under his own Arkham House imprint. Derleth, a longtime friend and supporter of Lovecraft’s during his lifetime, is a bit of a controversial figure among Lovecraft devotees. While his championing of Lovecraft’s work is inarguably responsible in part for the author being as well known as he is today, some of the liberties that Derleth subsequently took with that work is seen by many as being of a considerably less laudable nature.
One of the many things that makes Lovecraft interesting, at least for me, is the discussion of why his writing work, if it does work for you (and despite my jokes about gambrel rooftops and fishmen, it does work for me most of the time). Everyone has their own reasons. Some can be agreed upon by the larger body of Lovecraft fans. Others are acutely personal. My example has always been my tendency to go backpacking in the wilds of New England, seeing firsthand how, even in our modern, developed world, civilization can vanish abruptly, leaving you surrounded by nothing but the night and woods. Even in those small states, the amount of land that gives way to untamed solitude is vast, and when you walk into the middle of it with nothing but boil-in-bag stroganoff and a headlamp to fend off the grip of the wilderness, it becomes a lot easier to believe Lovecraft’s tales of ancient things lurking in the mountains and foothills. You look up and realize how tiny you are. You look around an realize how vulnerable you are. Wolves, bears, and rutting moose are bad enough. I guess if I had to also deal with chattering crab monsters from space, I’d find them a lot scarier than I might have while sitting at home with a dram of Glenmorangie, reading The Whisperer in the Darkness. Because as has been pointed out to me in discussion, it’s not so much the monster as it is the isolation.
At the end of the day, I have to shrug and surrender to my baser side and say that Michael Carreras probably needed to be kicked in the shin at least once. Possibly more than once, but at least once. Allow me to explain myself. Michael Carreras was the son of Hammer Studio founder James Carreras, and he used that relationship to finagle himself a more or less permanent fixture in the hierarchy of the studio, until eventually the reigns were passed to him entirely and the whole show collapsed. Now not everything with the name of Michael Carrereas on it was an embarrassing display of nepotism. In fact, there is much about Michael’s involvement with his father’s studio that is of high merit. He served as producer for most of the studio’s best films. As a director, he was a mixed bag, but he did manage to deliver The Lost Continent, one of Hammer’s loopiest and most hilariously daft adventure films. And after directing a decidedly pedestrian follow-up to Hammer’s smash hit The Mummy, he redeemed himself somewhat by stepping in to finish the job of directing the superb Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb when original director Seth Holt passed away. No, there is much about Michael’s tenure at Hammer that is worth celebrating. It’s just that at some point in the 1970s, he lost his fucking mind.
I think by now, we’ve covered the demise of Hammer Studio in the 1970s enough times that I don’t need to go into much detail here. You should know the drill by now. The Hammer formula, which had been so bold in the early 50s and throughout the 60s, failed to keep pace with changing social values and cinematic trends so that, by the end of the 1960s, their once fierce and rebellious content looked quaint and old-fashioned compared to what everyone else was doing. Studio head Michael Carreras was thus desperate to right a sinking ship and discover some way to keep the studio afloat. On top of that, however, was lumped the general collapse of the British film industry, meaning that Carreras suddenly went from trying to save a sinking ship to trying to save a sinking lifeboat tied to a sinking ship. It is not, obviously, an enviable position in which to have been. But it was not an unwinnable situation, as other studios would prove. The key was to adapt. But it was with the task of adapting that Carerras proved singularly untalented despite — and likely because of — all else he’d accomplished.
Horror films had changed dramatically, thanks in large part to the pioneering films of Hammer. With the release of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen, horror showed a marked move toward not just Satanic-themed films, but toward more cynical “evil triumphs” films. While major studios were finally deeming horror a genre worthy of their attention, low-budget and independent film makers were turning out stuff like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, far more visceral and completely different from anything that had come before and certainly much more extreme than anything Hammer was willing or even able to produce with the BBFC looming over them. The focus of horror shifted significantly from England tot he United States, and since the United States had always been a major market for Hammer’s product, they found it hard to compete with the home team. Things were no different in mainland Europe, where the Italian giallo thrillers were also pushing the envelope far beyond what British censors would allow Hammer to get away with.
The boys from Bray may have pushed the envelope in terms of sex and violence for ten years, but by the time “The End” appeared, good usually triumphed and the creature, either tragic or evil, was vanquished. But these new horror films were happy to let evil win. There was no way Hammer could compete with that, just as there was no way they could compete with a major Hollywood studio taking an interest in horror. Lower budget American horror film, largely produced by American International Pictures and their imitators, surpassed in sex and violence the Hammer product that had helped inspire them so many years before. AIP, in particular, seemed to understand that while there would always be big studio horror films aimed at adults, for horror to survive as a whole, a shift had to be made away from adults and toward teenagers. Teens, since the early days of AIP, had played a central role in the success of the studios films. Post World War II, there was a whole generation of young people who began earning money not to help the family survive, but so they could spend it on the stuff they wanted. Most films, however, were aimed either at adults or children. AIP stepped in and made movies for teenagers, and the results were solid gold.
Hammer, by contrast, had never really targeted teens as an audience. When, toward the end of the studio’s lifespan and desperate for some new revenue stream, Hammer finally tried to throw a bone to the younger generation, it was generally pretty feeble and had the feel of old men trying to write in the persona of a younger person about whom they knew next to nothing. Thus you get the goofball but not unappealing mixture of 60s mods and early 70s hippies that show up in Dracula AD 1972. But even disregarding the screwy attempts at seeming young, Hammer wasn’t speaking to the kids. Whenever AIP made a movie for teens, they were keen on making sure there were as few adults present as possible.
Those who were, were often ineffectual authority figures, crackpots, or oppressive parents against whom we rooted for the kids to rebel. In the end, it was the younger generation that saved the day, usually in some way that involved a surfing competition or young hot rodders zipping around a small southwestern town in their dune buggies. Hammer, by contrast, could never really divorce itself from authoritative paternal figures. So while Dracula AD 1972 may have been full of hep kids spewing misguided attempts at youth slang, it’s stolid old Peter Cushing who sweeps in to clean up the mess and save the day. And as photos have proven and our friend El Santo has said, you can dress Peter Cushing up in a hip hop jacket and baseball cap, but there’s still the stuffiest stuffy old man suit in the word beneath it all.
So Michael Carreras was creating a no-win situation for himself. On the one hand, he wanted to find something new and invigorating for the studio to do. On the other hand, his ideas were terrible and all seemed to revolve around comedies about people tripping while going up the steps of a public bus. On the one hand, he said Hammer needed a new direction, something away from horror or more in line with what modern horror had become. On the other hand (Hammer had a lot of hands), at the end of the day, all he could think of was to do the same old, same old, but with more nudity. He wanted to do something different, then he complained when directors tried to do something different. In a word, Michael Carreras was lost.
I don’t know what blinded him exactly other than having too many fires to deal with while being too stuck in his old ways, because the remedy he needed was right in front of him. With the tanks of both the Dracula and Frankenstein films very nearly empty, Hammer turned to three other stabs at vampire films in hopes that something might stick and give them a new franchise that would keep the studio hobbling along for at least another year. The most successful of these attempts was the Karnstein trilogy, three films based loosely on Carmilla and notable for being the point at which Hammer finally shrugged and started showing boobs (thanks largely to the involvement of AIP as a production partner). The trilogy produced two of Hammer’s very best horror films (Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil) and one of their very worst (Lust for a Vampire). The second attempt was Vampire Circus, in which the studio attempted to put a twist on their vampire theme by looking toward the dreamier, more hallucinogenic horror films of continental Europe (specifically France and Italy). It’s a very good movie, but it was simply too weird for Hammer, and possibly too weird for most British and American audiences, or so thought Carreras.
The third attempt was a curious combination of the studio’s tried and true vampire formula mixed with a dash of the old swashbuckling “pirate movies without pirate ships” Hammer made in the early 60s, combined with something Hammer had never put in any of their previous horror films: a sense of humor. This was Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, and it remains my very favorite Hammer film and one of my favorite films in general. A pity that Michael Carreras didn’t see things the way I did.
While Hammer in the 70s may have been flailing, that doesn’t mean they didn’t produce a lot of great movies. In fact, it was likely because the studio was in such dire straights that they were willing to try almost anything — or at least claim that they would try almost anything, sort of like how I’ll claim to eat anything at least once, until someone actually calls my bluff and tries to stuff a grub in my mouth. This meant that an influx of new talent emerged from the long shadows of Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster, and the rest of the extremely talented but rather aged old guard. Among the men employed by Hammer to try to freshen things up a big was Brian Clemens, best known at the time as one of the integral parts of the hugely popular British television series, The Avengers. In that way, perhaps, Hammer had hired one of the very men who was helping to destroy the studio. The success of The Avengers was unparalleled, and while it may have started out initially as just a television show, by 1967, it was being shot in color and boasting production values that would rival many films. On top of that, the series had the perfect blend of old guard, represented by Patrick MacNee as John Steed with his bowler and suits, and new — as embodied first by Honor Blackman, but then taken to a whole new level by Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. The scripts hewed to a basic formula, but they were highlighted by smart dialog and witty banter between the two incredibly likable leads. And even Steed, despite looking every bit the British gentleman, had a streak of rebelliousness and irreverence that made him appealing to younger viewers.
Production company ITC was quick to follow the example set by The Avengers, and before anyone knew it, British television was full of action and adventure series that were in color, trotted the globe (or at least parts of England made up to look like the globe), and took far more risks than more expensive, slower to adapt movies. If you were a bright young writer or director looking to do something unusual, you were much better off working on one of the many ITC shows — first espionage and, in the 70s, bad-ass cop shows. I don’t have the data to claim that these high production value shows were the main reason the film industry was hurting, but they certainly made a dent.
When Clemens got the chance to direct a film for Hammer, he went for it (The Avengers having wrapped up by that time). The story he brought with him was very much of The Avengers mode, with a sassier female character than Hammer had ever had before, a script full of wit and dark humor, and perhaps most striking of all, a hero. As Clemens described things, part of the problem he saw with Hammer’s Dracula films wasn’t so much that they were slaves to convention; it was that Dracula was the hero, or the anti-hero a the very least. Even though you knew he would die at the end, you still went to root for Dracula, because the people lined up as his nominal opponents were so incredibly forgettable and had been since the third film. Gone were the days when you had a hero as charismatic as Peter Cushing to cheer for. Dracula, Prince of Darkness had that gun-toting friar, but since him, who was there to go against Dracula? A seemingly endless parade of trembling clergymen and forgettable young blond guys named Paul. For lack of anything else, audiences began to side with Dracula — which is a testament to just how boring the heroes were, since Dracula usually had about five minutes of total screen time and spoke like three sentences.
Clemens wanted to change that, to give audiences a vampire movie where the vampires were the bad guys again and where there was a proper hero for whom people could root. For this character, Clemens drew largely upon the swashbuckling heroes of the past, and so was born Kronos, a vampire hunter — possibly immortal himself — possessed of a mysterious history, a knowing smirk, and a professor friend who, while older and wiser, is far away from the “knows what’s best for you” paternalism of Cushing’s Van Helsing. There was something of the counter-culture about both Kronos and his adviser, Professor Hieronymos Grost. Grost’s knowledge, after all, is of an arcane and in some cases profane nature, and if Kronos was a captain in some army, it must have been the same army as Oddball from Kelly’s Heroes. They seem both to have eschewed the traditional authoritative hierarchy of academia and the military in favor of just cruising around on their own, doing their own thing. This lack of respect for authority extends as well to other circles of the upper class: religious leaders, community leaders, the rich and powerful — Grost and Kronos seem happiest away from these types, camping out in a barn with a hot servant girl they rescued from being executed.
Clemens further twists the traditional vampire movie formula by proposing a world in which there are as many different types of vampires as there are types of dog, each with its own unique characteristics, powers, and weaknesses. In another nod to the film’s appeal to youth over tradition, the vampires against which Kronos finds himself pitted do not drain their victims of blood, but of youth. Likewise, the way in which you kill one vampire might not work on another (a conundrum which results in the film’s most devilishly funny scene, in which Kronos and Grost cycle through the entire array of ways they know to kill vampires, until they finally find one that works). In a way, this representation of vampires is a natural outgrowth of the theories on vampirism presented by Cushing’s Van Helsing way back in Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula. Back then, before Dracula became a Satanic prince of evil and conjured demon, Van Helsing framed the vampire in purely scientific terms. They were a part of our natural world, albeit a part that did not conform to the behavior one expected of creatures who looked like humans. Vampirism was a communicable disease rather than some Satanic curse or the result of corny rituals. Captain Kronos seems to pick this thread up and expand it, creating an entirely new species within which there are many natural variations.
Although I can’t say for certain if it was intended as such, it also works as a pointed satirical jab at the vast proliferation of ways in which you could kill and resurrect Dracula that were created out of necessity to facilitate yet another sequel. By the end of things, vampires were being killed by stakes, crucifixes, icy creeks, hawthorn bushes, lightning, windmills…who could keep track? So in the world of Kronos, you never quite know what will kill a vampire. Tradition does not work. Nor do you know exactly what effect its bite will have on you. As I said, I don’t think it’s an accident that the vampires in this film prey upon the young and drain them of their youth. In the climate of the 1970s, it’s the established powerbase exploiting the young, crushing them under the weight of an increasingly creaky traditional society, draining them of their vitality even as the vampires feed upon it for their own energy.
Although other Hammer films had taken swipes at certain established authority figures — witness, for example, the corrupt men in Taste the Blood of Dracula, or the ineffectual and cowardly priest in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave — this one the first time since perhaps The Pirates of Blood River that the studio gave audiences an uppity, charismatic, young firebrand willing to buck the system. Hell, Kronos even smokes the occasional 18th century doobie! At last, there was a Hammer movie and a Hammer hero that young people could actually get behind and perhaps even relate to. Someone who was more like one of them rather than like a parent, standing around waiting to disapprove and tell the whippersnappers how to properly do things.
Clemens’ movie is different right out of the gate. Just as he was a Hammer outsider, working with a cast composed largely of newcomers and outsiders, he also went outside the norm in searching for a composer and a style of music to accompany the film. He tapped Laurie Johnson, who had worked previously on The Avengers, among many other projects for film and television, to give the movie a theme that stood in stark contrast to the masterful but overly familiar “Hammer horror sound” created primarily by James Bernard. Bernard’s scores were heavy, bombastic, and thunderous. Johnson’s theme for Captain Kronos, however, is fast-moving and much lighter. It’s a combination of a theme from a swashbuckling film with the theme from a horror film, very much a reflection of Grost and Kronos themselves. Where as Bernard’s themes stalk and stomp, Johnson’s theme here gallops and parries.
Far away from the three piece Harris tweed and pocket watch look of most vampire hunters, Kronos is a mixture of pirate and soldier in appearance, with bushy blond hair and a rapier. Grost, by contrast, is a bespectacled, goateed hunchback, though he’s far from grotesque. They are two halves of a whole — the muscle and charm in Kronos, the brains and wit in Grost. For the lead role, they cast German actor Horst Jansen, and he certainly looks the part. Tall, confident, sexy, and swaggering. Even though they’re in the same profession, there’s very little of Van Helsing about the man. Kronos looks less likely to have been spending his days steeped in researching of arcane folklore and more likely to be lying on the beach, a tan young woman on one side and his surfboard on the other. What he learns, he learns through experience or via the wise counsel of Grost. Unfortunately, Jasen’s limited English results in something of a wooden performance, though for me it never really mars the film, as he’s carried by John Cater as Grost, a more than capable actor who is so good and so charming in his role that you don’t even notice most of the time that he’s a hunchback — though on occasion I mistook him for Lenin. Luckily, Grost is way more fun to be around and is a lot less likely than Lenin to have you executed for some trifle.
The duo is en route to a town that has been plagued by a series of mysterious attacks on young people who are found after the attack drained of decades and aged to the point of death. Kronos stops to liberate a beautiful young gypsy woman (Caroline Munro, recently featured in the studio’s Dracula AD 1972), who has been condemned for something Kronos and Grost find idiotic by men whom Grost and Kronos find equally idiotic. Thankful for her liberation, she swears servitude to the two adventurers, and while neither man seems overly keen on having a slave, neither does any man seem to find much fault in being accompanied everywhere by Caroline Munro in a peasant blouse with a plunging neckline. And later, when she offers herself to Kronos, he does what any man would do, and does not hesitate. A hero who smokes weed and enjoys sex? Where do they come up with this crazy stuff?
Kronos and Grost have been summoned by their old friend, Dr. Marcus (John Carson), who resides in the beleaguered town and knows that his two friends specialize these days in dealing with such peculiarities. Kronos, in particular, has it in for vampires, as both his mother and sister were killed by one. And while the process of draining a victim of youth rather than blood is slightly beyond the pale of a traditional vampire, Grost recognizes that tradition only accounts for a small percentage of what people know or don’t know about vampires. Soon the gang is on the case, sword fighting and riddle solving their way to the culprit behind the strange murders.
The overriding philosophy behind this movie seems to be that Hammer horror hadn’t been scary for a long time, and it wasn’t going to be scary anymore. So why not make one that was exciting? And that’s exactly what Clemens did. Captain Kronos moves fast and boasts plenty of action. Jansen may be a bit stiff with his lines, but he looks good in a fight scene, and he gets plenty of them. Clemens’ experience with television meant he knew a lot about taking a meager budget and limited sets and making them seem far more lavish and expansive than they actually were. The result is one of the best looking films Hammer made during the period. Clemens made a lot of use of outdoor locations, which when coupled with the tone of the story makes Captain Kronos feel much more epic than the largely soundstage-bound Dracula films. He pulls off an epic feel, or at least a mini-epic feel, in much the same way John Gilling did when directing the “pirate movies without pirate ships” for Hammer a decade earlier.
The supporting cast is top-notch. Cater and Carson are old hands, and they deliver the goods as all solid British pros know how to do. Caroline Munro was on the fast track to becoming an icon, and while her role here as the gypsy Clara isn’t as iconic as, say, the space bikini in Star Crash, it’s still a role that is both energetic and sexy. There’s something about the woman that simply transcends everything. They really don’t make them like her anymore, do they? While her role here may not be as meaty as the lads’, it’s still one of the best developed female roles Hammer ever had. There’s no doubt as to why she became an icon. She has more charisma than my brain can even process.
If Hammer was looking for something new, a franchise upon which to hang the fortunes of the studio, they had found it. Captain Kronos is just that good. Unfortunately, Carreras was waiting around like one the youth sucking vampires from the movie. In Carreras’ own words, he visited the set one day to see how things were going and was aghast at what he saw. Clemens and his crew, Carreras felt, were not handling the material with the proper gravitas. Instead, they were making light of things, having a bit of fun, injecting a wicked sense of humor into a previously humorless genre. Clemens did not, according to Carreras, get it. He didn’t understand the proper tone of a Hammer horror film the way the old guys did. In other words, Carreras hired Clemens to give him something fresh and inventive, and then he got pissed off when Clemens gave him just that.
As much as Carrereas’ attitude irritates me, and as much as it embodies everything that was wrong with Hammer’s attempts to adapt to the changing times, it’s hard to lie the failure of Captain Kronos to become a franchise player entirely at the feet of the floundering studio head. Audiences had already lost interest in Hammer. The studio was done for. It would have taken a miracle to save it, and while Captain Kronos is cracking good entertainment, it’s not a miracle. Along with audiences, distributors had lost interest in Hammer as well. One of the things that had kept Hammer afloat was their fruitful partnership with American distributors. But those days were over, because Americans were doing Hammer better than Hammer, and under a ratings code that was far more liberal than what the British Board of Film Censors wanted to be. As such, it took almost two years for Captain Kronos to get released, and by that time, the game was over. Hammer had used up the last of its audience good will, and viewers didn’t embrace the film despite the fact that the few reviews it received were generally positive.
It’s a shame, isn’t it? Clemens vision for Captain Kronos as a film series was pretty cool, with Kronos appearing throughout different periods across the centuries, carrying on his battle with the undead and revealing that there was a much longer history behind the man than has hinted at in the first movie. When it was evident that there was no way Hammer was going to make it, and thus there would be no second or third Kronos film, talk shifted to production of a television series. Nothing ever came of that, either, and with the exception of a few appearances in a Hammer comic book, Kronos faded from existence until more recently, when it was rediscovered and people started thinking, “Holy crap, this movie is great!” Now it enjoys a lace in many people’s top five Hammer films, making it sort of the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service of the vampire movie world.
Which is doubly fitting since that once-maligned entry into the James Bond Franchise was saddled with a stiff leading man and found itself situated in a time when the series was trying to recover from the loss of the iconic Sean Connery (and the rise of social discontent). Like Horst Jansen, George Lazenby was top notch in the action scenes though, and just as Horst had a cool sidekick and a gorgeous gal, Lazenby was carried by a cool ally and the best Bond girl of all time, The Avengers‘ Diana Rigg.
What’s more, it’s a shame Hammer couldn’t pull out of the collapse. Maybe if Captain Kronos had been a bigger box office hit, and maybe if Michael Carreras had shown a little faith in the film, then Hammer could have made good on that tantalizing poster art for movies they intended to make but never had a chance to get to. Don’t tell me you don’t want to see Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls or didn’t hope Hammer wold make good on all that cheesecake nudie sci-fi artwork on the poster for When the Earth Cracked Open. Sure, they probably would have ended up less like the insanely awesome movies in my mind and more like one of those “lost world” films from Amicus Studio, but you know what? I loved those “lost world” movies from Amicus, so I would have been pretty psyched to watch something in which cheap looking little models of biplanes and blimps go head to head with wobbly pterodactyls on strings.
But those are exercises in what might have been, and while fun, the fact is there was never a Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls or a Captain Kronos series. No Kronos fighting vampires down through the ages. What we have instead is a single Captain Kronos that happens to be an incredibly good film. It’s really everything I want from my entertainment. Fast paced, witty, irreverent but also a very good entry into the genre with which it is toying. I don’t think I’d argue that there aren’t flaws for people to find in the film, but if they are there, I’m not really all that concerned with finding them. Had this been the last film Hammer made, it would have been a perfect swan song. Our heroes, riding off beyond the horizon to face down evil. Would we ever see them again? Who knows?
Instead, Hammer ended up with a few more death twitches and even more misguided attempts at finding a new market. Among these were an ill-advised attempt to replace the lost American market with the exploding Hong Kong market by partnering with the Shaw Brothers studios to produce two films: the plodding action caper Shatter starring Stuart Whitman and Shaw Bros superstar Ti Lung, and the entertaining but ridiculous Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, starring Peter Cushing and Shaw Bros’ star David Chiang. Both were attempts to cash in on the rising kungfu craze, and both failed. In the case of Shatter, it was hard to convince audiences that they should stop watching Bruce Lee and Five Fingers of Death and concentrate instead on a movie in which Stuart Whitman wanders around. It was like trying to convince Hong Kong audiences in the 80s to stop watching Jackie Chan and embrace Steven Seagal. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires featured Cushing as Van Helsing, traipsing around China, but it never really feels like an actual Dracula film — possibly because venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee finally made good on his boast and refused to appear in the picture, even though Dracula transforms into a Chinese guy in the very beginning of the picture. Instead, it feels like a Shaw Brothers kungfu film into which Peter Cushing wandered by accident. It’s pretty fun, in my opinion, but there’s no mystery as to why it wasn’t the film that salvaged Hammer’s reputation.
The end to Hammer horror finally came in 1976, in the form of To the Devil…A Daughter, Hammer’s painfully horrible attempt to cash in on the devil worship movie craze that seized us in the 70s. Too bad the film was dreadful — in my opinion the only completely unwatchable horror film Hammer ever made. It’s too bad Kronos wasn’t around to put that one down before it sucked so much life out of us. But so it goes, and whatever might have happened doesn’t change how much I enjoy Captain Kronos.
I suppose I’m happy to be watching these films after the fact. I’ve never felt that Hammer films were stodgy or old-fashioned, or that they had dated poorly, but that’s probably because I’m watching them from a vantage point removed from the original cycle. If I’d been able to write reviews in the late 60s or early 70s, I probably would have been complaining about the lack of originality, so on and so forth. I love Hammer films. I love the old ones. I love the ones from the 70s. Heck, I even enjoy failures like Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and Lust for a Vampire. In nearly two decades of film production, Hammer made one solitary horror film I can say I hate. That, my friends, is not a bad record, and I guess if I’d been in the shoes of Michael Carreras, I would have been as confused as he was. But then, I’m just a writer and a fan, not the head of a studio. I expect more from him than I would from myself, what with how it was his job and all. I appreciate everything the pioneers did — Jimmy Sangster, Terence Fisher, James Bernard, John Gilling — my God but they made some incredible films. And I love the years in which Hammer was trying to figure the strange new world out. I love Twins of Evil, Vampire Circus, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and I don’t hate Lust for a Vampire or even Horror of Frankenstein. So flailing or not, misguided or not, with the final credits having rolled on Hammer (I’ll believe the persistent “we’re back!” press releases and announced productions when I see at least one final product), all I can do is raise a glass of brandy to them (I prefer scotch, but what would Peter Cushing say?) and say, with complete earnestness, “Thank you.”