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.
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.
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.