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Vampire Circus

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At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.

Dracula films had been, along with Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein films, the studio’s bread and butter, but Hammer experimented from time to time with non-Dracula vampire films, with varying degrees of success. The first of these, oddly, was the first sequel to the studios smash hit Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula finds Peter Cushing reprising his role as Dr. Van Helsing, but other than a few mentions here and there, Dracula is out of action for this film, and the action instead focuses on a second bloodsucker. Hammer had it in their head that the film series would be about Van Helsing, cruising around Victorian Europe fighting the various vampires Dracula had spawned, or something to that effect — sort of like the Sons of Hercules, only instead of huge bodybuilders in tunics, it was a skinny British guy in a greatcoat. Hammer’s reasoning may have seemed sound at first. Peter Cushing was their biggest star, after all, and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was, at the time, just promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee.


But Hammer sorely underestimated the appeal of promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee and, more importantly, the desire to actually see Dracula in any film that used the name Dracula in the title. So while Brides of Dracula is a spectacularly entertaining film, wasn’t what audiences or distributors were looking for. When Hammer dipped its tow back into the Dracula waters with Dracula, Prince of Darkness, they made sure that Dracula — played once again by now venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — was in the movie. But Hammer still liked to toy with the occasional non-Dracula vampire film, usually with great artistic success. 1963′s Kiss of the Vampire is wonderful, for example. But after the release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Hammer went into “all Dracula, all the time” mode, and any script for a vampire film had to be a Dracula film, because otherwise, the British public would miss out on another round of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula movies.

Time passed, and many Dracula films came and went. So many, in fact, that eventually Hammer had no idea what to do with the guy. He’d been killed once and for all more times than The Ramones had farewell tours. So in 1970, as the studio was entering its downward spiral years, someone decided to revive the old idea of a Dracula movie without Dracula. This time, however, distributors nipped the temptation in the bud, and Taste the Blood of Dracula has the iconic count crowbarred into the script so he could stand in the shadows and provide a running countdown of the people who had been killed. It’s quite a good movie, but Dracula himself is more superfluous than usual, and he was pretty superfluous in most of the films. The count would limp on through a couple more features, including Scars of Dracula (which I like more and more as the years go on) and Dracula AD 1972, before The Satanic Rites of Dracula put the final stake through the heart of the franchise, completing Dracula’s transformation from a raging force of nature into a supernatural demon and, ultimately, into a cartoonish spy movie style mad villain. All he lacked was a TV transmitter that allowed him to broadcast taunts directly onto an oval-shaped monitor on the wall of Van Helsing’s study.


At the same time the Dracula films were making their grim march to the grave, however, Hammer did succeed in bringing one corpse back from the dead: the idea of a vampire film unrelated to Dracula. This came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, but more specifically, it came in the form of star Ingrid Pitt and the newfound permission to feature nudity in their films. The Vampire Lovers was enough of a success that it spawned two loosely connected sequels — the weak Lust for a Vampire and the exceptional Twins of Evil. It also opened the doors for a flailing Hammer to try and find some way of mixing the old with the new, of sticking to the tried and true vampire film that had supported them for so many years, but without relying on Dracula. Modern twists on old formulas, if you will. This lead to two of Hammer’s very best vampire movies, and had the studio had more time, more money, and more faith in its product, they might have had themselves two new franchises capable of carrying the studio through hard times when madcap On the Bus comedies could not. One of these films was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. The other was Vampire Circus.

Both films felt very different from any of Hammer’s previous vampire films. Vampire Circus, in particular, is probably one of the weirdest feeling films Hammer ever produced. It’s not psychedelic, mind you, but it’s like one of those psychedelic themed novelty records made by some old guy still trying to be hip with the kids. Or like Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations. That’s a good album, but no one was really going to buy The Temptations as a trippy psychedelic band, especially in 1970. Similarly, Vampire Circus is a really good film, possibly even a great film, but it never quite succeeds in feeling “modern,” not when it’s up against something like Blacula, for example, or the glut of Satanism movies that were coming out around the same time. Instead, Vampire Circus becomes its own really weird creature, rather unique and unlike any of the vampire films that came before it. In fact, though you could draw a connection to the old Universal House Of… movies because of the inclusion of a traveling gypsy circus, Vampire Circus has more in common with a film like Freaks or The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao than it has with Hammer’s previous vampire films.


The best and worst the film has to offer is right at the front, before the credits even role. A simple yet eerie and effective intro finds a local village man and his daughter in the woods. The little girl is tempted away from her father by a woman we know just isn’t quite right. The father, upon noticing, shrieks with terror and clamors to rescue his daughter, but it’s too late, and she disappears with the woman inside a creepy looking castle. The distraught man then rounds up a posse to carry torches and shake pitchforks at the inhabitant of the castle, a mysterious and threatening character named Count Mitterhouse (TV bit actor Robert Tayman). So far, so good. Everything has been really creepy in the same way the picture on the cover of that first Black Sabbath album is creepy. Yeah, it’s just a grainy photo of a weird looking chick in black robes standing in a clump of dead trees with a spooky house behind her, but it’s always scared me a little, even today. That woman would have definitely been in league with Mitterhaus, and if she lead you back to her lair with the beckoning of a slender (apparently green) finger, you’d be in for about two minutes of passionate spooky lovemaking and nudity, and then she’d rip your throat open or somehow manage to have gotten you lashed onto a series of hooks that pull off your skin or something like that.

However, what awaits within the walls of the castle is a bit different, and this is where the worst comes into play. Mitterhaus is absolutely ludicrous. He’s like a spoof vampire played by a drag queen in a disco musical written, directed, starring, and only seen by the world’s most flamboyant drag queens, and then at the end they all agree that the play was good but Mitterhaus was a little too campy for them. When you’re too campy for a theater full of drag queens, you are definitely too campy for a Hammer film, especially one that is otherwise so weird and serious. Not that Mitterhaus doesn’t have his strong suits as a character. For one, he lives in a cool castle populated by a couple sexy naked orgy women. He has lovely taste is sashes. And the fact that he’s kidnapped and lured a little girl into his sleazy lair gives the character an air of scummy, almost pedophiliac menace that really makes him a villain. You could always root for Dracula, even when he was at his worst and whipping Dr. Who with steel switches, but Mitterhaus just gives off a creepy uncle vibe. All this in and of itself is good for the movie, but Tayman’s performance is just ridiculous. It’s all mincing and eye rolling and silly face making. Even when he’s slaughtering his would-be attackers, he’s less frightening than he is…well, like a flailing dancer who got lost on his way to a John Waters film. Everything about the character is well written, but it’s like having it all and then delivering it in an Easter bunny outfit.

Still, when the worst thing about your film is that your vampire is a little too campy, that’s not bad. And when I say it’s the worst thing about the film, one has to measure that on a relative scale. Because silly though he may be, it’s hardly enough to spoil the film. In a way, I guess it makes Mitterhaus even more formidable. It’s like having your ass kicked by Mick Jagger’s character from Performance. You keep telling yourself, “This can’t be happening! He’s much to fey to kick my ass!” But that thought doesn’t stop him from doing it.


Eventually, Mitterhaus gets a stake through the heart and makes a face like a disgusted Southern bell who just won second place in the county fair beauty contest. With his dying breath, or whatever it is vampires have, he curses the town, swearing that the children of his killers will die to give him life again. Once again, it’s all really well done, easily one of the best vampire film intros ever, but it’s hard to take seriously with Mitterhaus camping it up to a degree that even Shatner and Vincent Price would tell him to take it down a notch. But with him in the grave the film can settle down and find its groove.

And that groove, as I’ve already said, is a mighty quirky one. The story picks up some years later. The town has been quarantined due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone caught attempting to leave the boundaries of the town is shot by unseen soldiers, or whoever is in charge of shooting people who try to escape from plague infected European towns. But other than tat, live seems OK. The elders, most of whom were in on killing Mitterhaus, while away their days figuring out plans to get the quarantine lifted. The village doctor doesn’t believe in vampires or that old queen Mitterhaus’ curse. Young people are in love. The inn, believe it or not, is not owned by Michael Ripper. In fact, there are very few familiar faces in this town, and no Hammer heavies in front of or behind the camera.


To this blighted town, though no one can explain how they get there, comes the Circus of Night, a small time, fairly creepy affair that employs, among others, a scary dwarf harlequin, an accordion playing mute strongman who will eventually grow up to be Darth Vader (David Prowse),a gypsy matron, a naked bald chick who does sexy tiger dances, a couple of potentially incestuous acrobatic twins who can turn into bats, and a hot young guy who can turn into a panther. Desperate for anything to take their minds off being a quarantined plague town cursed by a campy yet ass-kicking vampire, overlook the peculiarities of the circus and settle down for some good old fashioned family fun.

And man, what a circus it is. I attended a few circuses when I was young, and I remember a guy named Gunter who put his head in a lion’s mouth, and then I think a clown shot another clown with a seltzer bottle and they fired someone out of a cannon. That was cool and all, but I kind of wish I went to the circus where a tiger ran out and turned into a naked, chick painted with tiger strips, who then proceeded to do sexy dancing while being “tamed” by a guy before they finally just end up writhing around on the ground and practically doing…you know…it. And people seem to be amused by but not terribly upset by the fact that the people in this circus seem to be able to shapeshift into bats and panthers, or that a dwarf keeps grinning and running around making surprised “O mouth” faces. I guess they chalk it up to gypsy magic. Things aren’t as much fun once members of the circus break out the fangs and start preying on the children, usually after corrupting them in some sexual fashion. Each kill brings Mitterhaus a step closer to resurrection.


Vampire Circus benefits from the fact that Hammer was lost at sea, allowing new(er) directors to take a chance in hopes that something, anything, would stick and keep the studio afloat just a bit longer. That coupled with the relaxing of regulations regarding nudity meant that writer Judson Kinberg, in his first of only two career screen credits, could be much more explicit about the sexuality that has always existed in Hammer’s vampire fare. When first we meet Mitterhaus, he’s cavorting in bed with two naked women. He’s a rakehell and hedonist with a bit of the Marquis De Sade about him, and Vampire Circus gets to show more of that than they ever did in the past. He’s also a child murderer and has questionable taste in chest-exposing frilly shirts. Hammer’s Dracula was a combination of animal rage and desire, driven to do things not because he takes pleasure in them, but because it is his instinct, his thirst.

Mitterhaus, on the other hand, seems to take great pleasure in his lifestyle. He’s less animal, more decadent. Similarly, his minions in the circus use explicit sexuality to ensnare and kill their young victims. Emil the Panther seduces the burgomaster’s daughter and feeds on her during a series of sexual encounters. The incestuous acro-bats similarly seduce young men and women to take part in funky threesome action. It is not just important that they deliver fresh blood to Mitterhaus; they must also thoroughly corrupt their victims. Their master seems to draw as much power from this as he does from the fresh blood they dribble on his moldy corpse. If only he’d known that by the 1970s, all it too to bring Dracula back to life was a random bat flying into his window and dribbling some blood on his face. Heck, by the final Dracula film, you didn’t even need to bring Dracula back to life. He was just there, already in action (as much as “sitting behind a desk” can be action), and Hammer seemed to be saying, “Look, at this point do you even care how Dracula got brought back to life?” By comparison, Mitterhaus has to work pretty hard at it.


Tackling sexual politics has always been tricky for Hammer, and they’ve always walked the “have your cake and eat it too” thin line of cramming their films with naked sex appeal and heaving bosoms while skirting censorship issues by half-assedly grafting on “but in the end, the pure ones prevailed. Hooray!” final scenes. By their own admission, this was usually to keep uppity vicars and morally outraged censors off their backs while still being able show plenty of half naked women. As a libertine, rakehell, and dandy cad about town, I always roll my eyes when movies see no other outcome but tragedy for anyone evil enough to actually enjoy sex and a spot of hedonism. Victorian horror films usually counter that by expressly showing that it’s not the sexuality so much as it is the repression of sexuality that causes things to go sour. But the end result is the same. People who like sex usually die.

But ultimately, what it comes down to is that I am not inclined to worry myself about the sexual politics of Vampire Circus. These movies, like most movies, have to jump through so many hoops to satisfy so many cranky people that eventually, almost all politics, sexual or otherwise, are confused to the point of contradicting themselves, sometimes even in the same scene. I’m much happier to lie back in my reclining throne, slosh about my goblet of wine, and bark, “Send in the naked tiger dance woman!”

On the other hand, I do spend a lot of time thinking about other philosophical question as relates to entertainment. For instance, did every singer for a psychedelic 60s British band have a fling with a vicar’s daughter, and are all vicar’s daughters hot, blonde free spirits yearning to run naked and free through a field of barley? But then, I’m from the United States. I actually don’t even know what a vicar is. What is it, like some sort of a sports car? I did once have a crush on a Methodist minister’s daughter, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “vicar’s daughter” or “son of a preacherman” does.And anyway, it turned out she wasn’t a repressed girl yearning to rebel against her strict upbringing by letting me unbutton her blouse. She wanted to teach me about God, and I wanted to fondle her boobs in the choir balcony during church lock-ins. Needless to say, our relationship was as successful as my entire career as a churchgoer.


Anyway, where was I? I’ve gone and gotten myself all distracted now. Let’s move on to the general air of weirdness that’s instantly generated by setting a film in or around a traveling circus. In a way it’s a cheat, like those movies that film on location on the plains of Africa or the steppes of Mongolia and then expect awards for their sweeping, epic cinematography. The land itself did all the heavy lifting; all you really needed to do was set up the camera and pan around a spell. Similarly, old time traveling circuses are inherently creepy and awkward, just as they are inciting and mysterious. They infuse anything around them with those same characteristics. Vampire Circus definitely benefits from the “old time traveling circus weirdness” vibe that seems ingrained in our very psyches. It still works on me. I’m middle aged and I still dream of going to a parking lot circus and meeting some raven-haired gypsy beauty who will tell my fortune and embroil me in supernatural brushes with death as we fight the dark fate looming on my horizon. Or barring that, I dream of sitting around with carnival strippers and Johnny Eck, drinking whiskey and swapping stories about the rubes.


When I was little, I used to go with my Grandpa Bud to horse shows during the Kentucky State Fair every year. It was a pretty sweet deal for a little kid. You got to set up a campsite in a veritable city of horse stalls, sleep in the stalls (the horses were across the aisle in other stalls), and basically have the run of the fair. And the Kentucky State Fair, at least back then (I haven’t been in ages) was huge. There was a flea market back when cool stuff could be found at flea markets instead of on eBay, with all the flea markets now just selling OxyClean and ShamWows. The flea market took up two buildings the size of stadiums, and you could wander through all the weird junk and 4H dioramas for days. But best of all was that no one gave a rat’s ass about security, so even as young as I was, I was allowed to wander in and out of every building, through every door, every nook and cranny. I crawled through tiny maintenance access tunnels, wandered around in boiler rooms where hissing pipes seemed to go on for miles, and best of all, was never told to shoo off the midway, even in the middle of the night.


I’d sneak out and wander around, doing my best to avoid the teenagers who were doing the same but apparently had some sort of activity the boys and girls would do together. Not sure what it was. I got to watch people setting up and breaking down rides and attractions, pal around with creepy old men running the bumper cars and moon walk, and best off all, got after-midnight rides on the various disappointing spook house type rides which, despite being disappointing, continue to this day to delight me to a disturbing degree. Somehow, I did all this without ever once being molested or murdered by someone’s deformed son they kept locked in the bowels of their haunted house attraction.

At the time, I was high on a number of movies that involved similar settings. I saw Freaks at an early age, and it was right around the time Disney released Something Wicked This Way Comes. he Kentucky State Fair never had any stripper tents or freak show, but it was still pretty awesome running around in the middle of the night, with all those lights still flashing and the occasional hair trigger animatronic gorilla growling at me. Watching Vampire circus is sort of like wandering down a deserted midway int he middle of the night. There’s something undeniably spooky about it, but it’s also got this hallucinogenic allure. Whether born of myth or reality, circuses always have the air of something else going on, just behind the tent flap. Secret things, a whole other world to which you are not privy and only the select few can see. Ground down by daily humdrum, this world of beautiful gypsy fortune tellers and good natured strongmen, of devious managers and shifty mesmerizers, seems a much better alternative. Ignoring, of course, the backbreaking work and touring schedule, and the fact that if you join the traveling spooky circus, you may thing you are going to romance the gypsy girl or the sexy guy who turns into a panther, but mostly, you’re probably just going to be cleaning up chimp shit and taking care of Dracula’s corpse, which is in a poorly made display case.


But that doesn’t matter, does it? Carnivals, traveling circuses, gypsies — these things are awesome, pure and simple. And they infuse Vampire Circus with an atmosphere that is unique among Hammer horror films. In this strange world — almost, but not quite like our own — everyday items take on a sinister second nature. Most Hammer films aren’t scary these days, even f they are still quite good. But a film like Vampire Circus, while not exactly scary, manages still to be very…unsettling, perhaps. This works on a meta level as well. This is a Hammer film. Parts of it are very Hammer-esque. But it’s also not quite the same. The location shooting makes it different, for one, and the cinematography is off-kilter. There are no familiar faces. Certainly no Peter Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, but also no Michael Rippers, not even Ralph Bates. I was hard pressed to pick out any recognizable faces other than Anthony Higgins and Thorley Walters, and no one really gets all excited when, “That new Anthony Higgins film opens this week.” Not that this a cast of newbies, or that the cast lacks talent. Quite the contrary. Many of the faces are familiar from other movies, other television shows (Lalla Ward undoubtedly being the most recognizable thanks to her role as Romana in Doctor Who), but none of them are really familiar as Hammer stalwarts. It’s like walking into work one day and seeing that everyone has been replaced by someone else who does the same job, does it well, and is likable. You get along with them, even enjoy their company, and you certainly respect their work; you just can’t help glancing nervously around from time to time and wondering where the hell Michael Ripper went.


Thing is, I don’t think this movie would have worked as well if there had been familiar faces in it. After all, Hammer was ostensibly trying to break from the past, and nothing would signify that attempt quite as much as keeping the old guard off camera. If I see Peter Cushing, I know I’m in familiar territory, and I relax and enjoy the ride. But with a cast I don’t know, I have no idea what to expect. Who’s going to live, who’s going to die? Beats me. I just have to sit on the edge of the seat and watch the movie. Keeping the big guns off screen also means that B-teamers and background players get a chance to step forward and strut their stuff, proving why so many Hammer films are so good. Even the people who don’t have any lines are good actors. The lack of familiar faces onto which we can latch means that the characters get caught up in the bizarre events surrounding them far more easily. If it was Cushing out there, we’d expect him to say, “My God, man, it can’t be! Mitterhaus is dead!” Then he would competently go about exterminating the vampires and saving us all. But Cushing isn’t there to protect us, and that uncertainty is palpable.

Of the cast that is present, most are forgettably competent, which is kind of how they need to be for the film to succeed. The film continues Hammer’s trend of featuring young protagonists in hopes that would lure kids into the theater. This really started in Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula, and culminated in the groovy hep kids in Dracula AD 1972, though they still needed Peter Cushing to show up, research some books, and make a grim face of determination as he engaged Dracula in their latest final showdown. In Vampire Circus, bot the heroes and the villains skew young. Some adults are on hand, of course, though their primary function is to prove too weak to stand up to these freaky young vampires. Our nominal heroes Dora (Lynne Frederick, who went on to star alongside Peter Sellers in The Prisoner of Zenda) and Anton (John Moulder-Brown, who looks like some of the Pauls from Hammer’s last few Dracula films) don’t make much of an impression, but they are serviceable enough when surrounded by so much oddness.


This anonymity applies to the crew as well. There’s no Anthony Hinds here, no John Gilling or Terence Fisher. Instead we have first-time director Robert Young and first-time (almost only time) writer Judson Kinberg. Bringing in some fresh blood helped Hammer shake the formula up while still allowing it to remain recognizable. Vampire Circus feels much more like a continental horror film, like the dreamy, often illogical horror films of Italy or France where ambiance and imagery is more important than logical procession and and solid plot. This was pretty new territory for Hammer. Hammer horror may have relied on the fantastic, but it often presented it in as scientific and logical a fashion as possible for a horror film. Although Vampire Circus still follows a logical narrative — things still make sense — where as French and Italian horror films would not, it still boasts a very dreamy, supernatural state of being. That said, it also differs significantly from continental horror films in that there is a lot more action — plenty of vampire attacks and wanton point blank assassination of circus animals by drunken villagers. It may be dreamy, but it’s rarely ponderous.


Apparently, Young was given more or less free reign by Michael Carreras to do what he wanted, and Young wanted to make the film unusual. He certainly did that, and even though he ran out of time and had to edit around missing scenes he’d not had time to shoot, the film was ultimately one of Hammer’s most innovative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of their most successful. Critics and fans alike seemed confused. After years of complaining that Hammer product was stale and old fashioned, they seemed upset that Vampire Circus wasn’t stale and old fashioned. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break, can you? Young went on to work steadily in film and television, and in 1997 directed the all time classic…ummm…Blood Monkey. And no, that isn’t one of my frequent typos. The movie is not Blood Money, but Blood Monkey. F. Murray Abraham was in it, so you know it was classy.

It’s a shame that, as of this writing, Vampire Circus remains missing in action in the United States. In fact, I believe it’s missing in action in England as well. It’s really one of Hammer’s most impressive, quirkiest efforts. I’m afraid that I’ve gotten lost and dreamy in my review of the movie as well, and at this point I’m making no sense and ought to just wrap it up by saying that regardless of how bad things were for Hammer in the 70s, the movies that came out of it were usually very good and very interesting. I don’t know that Vampire circus had the franchise potential Captain Kronos had, but I could have seen a series of films tracing the horrors that follow around a sinister circus of shape-shifting bloodsuckers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, and Vampire Circus ended up being a one-time deal. It’s a really good one-time deal, though, so if you get the chance to check it out, do it. It’s a much better way to have ended Hammer’s vampire film cycle than was Satanic Rites of Dracula.

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Pirates of Blood River

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After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.

So someone at England’s Hammer Studios, possibly Anthony Nelson Keys or Michael Carreras, walks up to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and says to him, “Jimmy, old boy, we want to make a pirate film, and we want you to write it.” Sangster, fresh off the astounding success of his scripts for Hammer’s most famous films — Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, and Curse of Frankenstein, among others, excitedly agrees. It’ll be fun to bring the Hammer style into the realm of swashbuckling pirate movies. Sangster’s mind is undoubtedly already formulating a story when Keys and/or Carreras adds, “Only here’s the thing: we don’t have any money for a boat, so don’t write a script that features a pirate ship.”


A pirate movie without a pirate ship? Sangster, by his own admission, was somewhat baffled by the whole idea. Of course, pretty much every pirate movie sets a good deal of its action on land. Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood spends at least as much time on land as he does standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” But he does spend time standing in heroic poses at the wheel of a ship, yelling “avast” and “me hearties.” And his films feature plenty of ship-to-ship action, raids, and cannon fire. Ditto the Disney films. Plenty of on-land action, but also plenty of ship-to-ship shenanigans. It’s hard to believe that even the tiny budgets within which the average Hammer Studio film had to operate couldn’t be stretched in some way to come up with a pirate ship for their pirate movie, since hard to believe that anyone would make a pirate movie without a ship. But no. Sangster’s task remained the same: write a pirate movie without a pirate ship.

By 1962, Hammer had become synonymous with horror films, even though the studio’s output before the release of the above-mentioned “big three” delved into pretty much every genre, as most studios would. But once Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein were released, it was all about Hammer horror. Any other type of production was pushed to the back burner, both by the studio itself and by the public, who proved in those early days to have a near insatiable appetite for the lurid, colorful style of sex and blood Hammer routinely used to outrage critics and members of the decency police. But the desire remained, however flickering, to make sure Hammer didn’t become just a horror factory, and doing a period piece pirate film seemed like a nice fit. They could recycle most of the props and costumes from their other films. And although they weren’t horror films, pirates lent themselves to easy adaptation to horror film tropes, what with all the skulls and creeping about and stabbing each other that went on in them. They just couldn’t have a boat, although they were afforded a few seconds of stock footage of someone else’s boat to show during the credits.


In some ways, perhaps, this rather large restriction ended up helping Sangster, because the end result is a cracking good adventure story in which you barely even notice that the pirates never set foot onto a ship. Onto a raft, yes, but never a ship. I’d expect no less from Sangster, who is, in my opinion,easily one of the best screenwriters who ever entered the business. Unable to fall back on pirate movie standards like the cannon battle and a scene of guys with swords clenched in their teeth swinging from one ship to another, the harried screenwriter delivers instead a landlocked pirate film that, in many ways, plays out like an American western, albeit one with far more men adorned with a variety of colorful silk scarves.

American Kerwin Mathews — Sinbad in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad — stars as fiery young Jonathon Standing, the member of a Huguenots settlement on a remote island somewhere that I don’t think is ever clearly defined. The Huguenots were basically the early Protestants, frequently at odds with Catholic kings and churches and prone to being persecuted and going to war with dominant Catholics throughout the 1500s, well into the 1600s. The island settlement, then, is one of relative secrecy, and it is lorded over by a council of religious elders who dole out law based on strict Protestant interpretations of the The Bible. This apparently worked well for many years, but by the time Jonathon Standing comes around to make out with buxom Hammer glamour regular Marie Devareaux, the council has become largely corrupt, creating tension throughout the townsfolk, who feel that the elders have given in to petty power obsessions and greed rather than dictating the word of God. Jonathan’s own father is the head of the council, but even if some vestige of an honest and noble man still exists within old Jason Standing (Andrew Kier, actually the same age as Kerwin Mathews), he is too weak-willed against the other members of the council for it to matter. In fact, when Jonathan himself violates the rules of the town by comforting the abused wife of one of the council members, Jason condemns the popular young man to hard labor in the colony’s prison — a virtual death sentence, we learn. The conviction of Jonathan only serves to make the crowds angrier, but like most angry crowds, there is much muttering beneath the breath and complaining, but no one is quite ready yet to take up the torches and pitchforks.


In prison, Jonathan fares poorly, as his popularity with hoi polloi makes him a target of the sadistic guards. So it isn’t long after his clothes have been reduced to prison regulation tatters that he escapes, leading his captors on a wild chase through the island’s swamps before coming face to face with Count Dracula! Well, with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, here playing French pirate captain LaRoche and sporting a deformed hand and an eyepatch. LaRoche makes about as nice as a ruthless, cold-hearted pirate can and cuts a deal with Jonathan. In exchange for the Huguenots not telling anyone LaRoche and his crew use the cove as a rest stop, LaRoche will…actually, I sort of forgot what his end of the bargain was.

It doesn’t really matter, because as soon as Jonathan leads them toward the settlement, the pirates start killing and making demands about a treasure they claim is hidden within the town. Jonathan knows they are mad, that there is no treasure, but that doesn’t stop the motley band of cutthroats from laying siege to the town. The townsfolk rally to their own defense and seem to be holding their own for a while, but their wooden walls were meant to defend against wild animals and jungle critters, not well-armed pirates. LaRoche and his gang soon capture the town, promising to hang people until the elders give up the treasure. It’s up to Jonathan and his young friends to wage a guerrilla style war against the occupiers, culminating in a fairly unsurprising revelation about the alleged treasure and the giant statue of the town founder and a fairly exciting duel between Jonathan and LaRoche.


Despite the lack of a pirate ship, Pirates of Blood River has a tremendous amount going for it. Chief among its many assets is the cast, buoyed by a likable Kerwin Mathews and an exceptional venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, who gets to stretch his acting chops a little more than usual in the role of LaRoche. Lee was a big star by 1962, but two of his biggest roles had been entirely speechless, and one afforded him like three lines and five minutes of screen time. He was known, therefore, far more for the characters he played than he was as venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee the actor. Pirates of Blood River lets him come out from behind the bandages, scar make-up, and fangs and, in their place, wear an eye patch and speak with a French accent. LaRoche is a good character, one that interests viewers because it’s obvious that there is much more to the him than we are ever allowed to discover. How did he lose his eye? What happened to his hand? How did he become a pirate? Why is he so haunted and determined?

None of these questions are ever answered, and that allowed LaRoche to be interesting without being over-exposed. We are teased with his mysterious past, but it’s never demystified for us. Free from the fetters of playing a creature, venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee seems to really be giving it his all, channeling perhaps Basil Rathbone’s backstabbing French pirate from Captain Blood. He also handles the swordplay well. The duel between he and Mathews is excellent, and even though he is tall and lanky and playing a guy with one eye and a gnarled arm, you never really doubt that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee could whup you if he wanted to.


Propping up the pirate end of things are some of Hammer’s most reliable supporting players, including Michael Ripper in a rare non-innkeeper role. Here he is LaRoche’s supposed best friend, though it’s obvious LaRoche doesn’t consider anyone a friend. Ripper really gets to ham it up, speaking with a bombastic uber-pirate style that would make Long John Silver himself proud. Also int he cast of scalawags is a young Oliver Reed, though he’s not really around terribly long. The entire crew tears into their roles with joyous abandon, as merry and drunk as they are threatening and violent. On the other side of the fence is another set of villains: the town elders. Just as ruthless, just as greedy, only far more devious about it. Caught in between these two forces are Jonathan and the townspeople who respect him as a voice of reason and proponent of liberty. It’s very much a “freaks versus the squares” cultural battle and not unlike what we would see a few years later in Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik: hip young people caught between two opposing yet similar monoliths of status quo society.

For Diabolik, it was a corrupt government and organized crime; for Jonathan, it is a corrupt theocracy and a bunch of pirates. In the end, neither side appeals to our free spirits, and they chose to reject them both. Hammer often found itself in trouble with religious authorities because of the content of their films. They usually weaseled their way out of it at the last second by having Peter Cushing clutch a Bible or something, thus proving that the film was good and moral. In the case of The Pirates of Blood River, despite the absence of a Frankenstein monster, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster really gets to lash out against religious intolerance and hypocrisy. The elders start out kind of jerky, and then you think maybe Jonathan’s father will have some sort of a change of heart at some point. But he only gets worse, and he is willing to see every single person in the town butchered rather than give up the treasure about which only he knows. In the end, he gets his just desserts, as does the dastardly LaRoche, leaving Jonathan to start society anew.


Although this was a decidedly non-horror adventure film, there are still horrific elements in the movie, as there would be in other of Hammer’s subsequent pirate movies. The opening sequence, in which Jonathan is discovered making out with a married woman, is probably the film’s most horrific scene. Pursued through the swamp by vengeful town elders, the poor woman stumbles into the titular Blood River, which happens to be infested with piranhas. As originally filmed, the poor girl screams and thrashes about as blood bubbles up all around her. The piranhas themselves are wonderfully realized by nothing more than having rapidly moving ripples spread out across the water.

Hammer wanted the film to receive a much more family friendly rating, in the spirit of increased returns and inspired no doubt by the exciting but family-friendly Disney pirate films. The scene was eventually cut down to remove the blood, and then restored years later for the film’s long-awaited debut on DVD. It’s a chilling scene, and director John Gilling plays it wise by letting the imagination do most of the work. The screaming and the blood is graphic enough. He doesn’t undercut the power of the moment by cutting to a shot of a rubber piranha. I do regret, however, that they don’t cap the scene with a shot of a perfectly intact, bleach white plastic skeleton bobbing to the surface. That’s always classy. But I guess Hammer was saving all their skeleton-related pirate hijinks for Night Creatures.

I don’t know what other cuts Hammer made to the film that have since been restored. The sword wounds are all pretty bloody. Not Lone Wolf and Cub geyser of blood bloody, but when a guy gets impaled, the sword on which he was impaled comes back all covered in grue. Still, I suppose that’s about as family friendly as Hammer was capable of being, and it’s family friendly enough for me. i don’t come from the school of thought that maintains all children’s fare must be bloodless, harmless, and never ever scare the wee ones. I’d much rather take my family to see Pirates of Blood River than a movie where a sass-talking CGI animal learns a skill that helps him win a contest while referencing pop culture.


That does bring us to another of the film’s sundry assets: director John Gilling. By all accounts, Gilling was difficult to work with even under the best circumstances. In the case of Pirates of Blood River, it seems he was nearly intolerable. Gilling wasn’t meant to be the director originally, but the man they’d assigned to the job had been in a spot of trouble with the American Un-Activities Committee, that embarrassment of a Congressional organization that spent so much time and money trying to ferret out commies and liberals int he motion picture industry. Kerwin Mathews was nervous about working with such a man, fearing that the long arm of stupidity would reach him even in England and ruin his career back home. Not that, by 1962, Mathews had much of a career.

But it was enough that the supposedly bankable American was uncomfortable, so the director was replaced by an unenthusiastic John Gilling. As a director, coming into a production for which there is already a script, a cast, a crew, and sets is usually thought to be rather an unenviable situation, and Gilling wasn’t shy about letting his displeasure be known. Still, however big a jerk he might have been on set, the end results were usually fantastic. That was certainly the case in 1966, when he directed one of my favorite Hammer horror films, Plague of the Zombies. And it’s the case with this film as well. Pirates of Blood River, even without a ship, is a fast-paced, well-made adventure tale. As cranky as Gilling may have been, there’s no doubt that he still put himself into making the best possible movie he could.


Released in 1962, it’d be a little disingenuous to claim that the movie was influenced by something like Vietnam, even though there is a definite counter-culture air about the story. More than likely, and as I alluded to earlier, the film was influenced both by previous pirate films and by Westerns. The Huguenot settlement, with it’s rough-hewn wooden walls, has the look of a pioneer fort. And the pirates laying siege to it is reminiscent of Western movie Indians doing the same. However, at some point in the film, the roles are reversed, and the pirates become the victims of hit and run warfare waged by Jonathan and his band of fighters who, despite being outmanned and outgunned, use their intimate knowledge of the jungle around them to pick the pirates off a few at a time, leaving the brigands harried, demoralized, and eventually, mutinous. That the pirates are French only supplies another link to the emerging conflict in Vietnam, but as Sangster has never mentioned this in an interview, I think it’s more a case of coincidence and hindsight equipping us with the ability to infuse the film with influences and meanings that aren’t there. Still, it’s kind of fun, and it keeps film studies professors in business and away from actual film work, where they would do untold amounts of damage with their crackpot experimental videos.


So make a pirate movie, they told Jimmy Sangster, one in which the only time the pirates are in the water is when they board a poorly made raft that sinks shortly after being launched. Whatever the challenges may have been, he pulled it off. And Hammer pulled it off. The Pirates of Blood River was well received by audiences, and in true Hammer fashion, that meant they would do their best to milk the popularity for as long as they could. Over the next couple of years, Hammer produced several more pirate films, usually with the same cast. They even sprang for a mock ship for one of the films, and they intended to recycle it for other pirate films until it caught on fire. Captain Clegg, also known as Night Creatures, was released in 1962 as well and continued the Hammer style of making pirate movies set entirely on land. In 1963 came The Scarlet Blade (the only Hammer pirate film that, as of this writing, remains unavailable on DVD). And in 1964, with The Devil Ship Pirates, they finally sprang for that mock-up of a ship, even though that film, like the others, takes place largely on land and sets. But that was about it for Hammer pirate movies. The ship accidentally caught on fire and thus couldn’t be reused (though the burning was incorporated into the film). As if that accident signified something more, production of Hammer swashbucklers more or less came to a close with that film as the studio focused itself almost entirely on horror films.

So while it may not have the panache of an Errol Flynn movie or the budget of a Disney live action film,and while it may not have a pirate ship in it, The Pirates of Blood River is still a solid adventure tale, with plenty of action, a dependable cast, and a look that fools you into thinking this is a much higher budget film than it actually is. It’s nice to see these old Hammer swashbucklers getting some attention.

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At the Earth’s Core

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So there have been a couple of reviews now, possibly more, where I’ve claimed that the crummy movie in question would have been much improved had the two leading stars been replaced by actor Doug McClure and actress Caroline Munro. I figured, then, it’s high time I reviewed a crummy movie that did cast McClure and Munro in the lead roles, and when one’s talking crummy films featuring either of those stars, it’s hard to find one that’s much crummier than At the Earth’s Core, a low-budget attempt by England’s Amicus Studio to bring to life Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar series of novels. Pretty much every pulp fiction writer, from Burroughs to Verne, wrote a hollow earth, beneath-the-surface of the planet adventure. Burroughs, in fact, wrote several, and these attempts to do Journey to the Center of the Earth one better comprise the Pellucidar books.

Burroughs wrote seven books in total, one of which is actually a cross-over adventure with Burrough’s most famous creation, Tarzan. And in 1976, a guy named Eric Holmes, with the blessings of the Burroughs estate, wrote a brand new Pellucidar adventure. He did it again in 1980, though that time he seems to have forgotten to get permission, and the publishing of the book was blocked by the Burroughs estate until 1993. I’ve always thought Burroughs’ writing seemed to be fairly well geared toward adaptation into film. But for some reason, almost every adaptation of his work ends up being either so different that it hardly even relates to the source material (the Tarzan movies) or is just ends up being a colossal failure. At the Earth’s Core, an attempt to adapt the first of the Pellucidar novels, falls into the latter category.

Well, it falls into the latter category for the greater portion of humanity. I however, and probably not surprisingly, happen to enjoy the film. I don’t love it, but I am certainly charmed by its offbeat tone, its astoundingly inept special effects, its plot that manages to be both incredibly streamlined and meandering at the same time, and most of all, its game performances from a trio of genre stalwarts who give it their all despite the fact that they must know this movie is, to steal a description from Douglas Adams, a load of dingo’s kidneys.


Peter Cushing stars as bumbling doctor Abner Perry, a turn of the century (that’d be the turn of the 20th century, whippersnappers) inventor who has built himself a gigantic drill he intends to use…well, it seems like he mostly intends to goof off with it by boring through a mountain on a bet. But one assumes that there are more visionary applications for the world’s most amazing drilling car. Accompanying Perry on the trip through the mountain is American financier and all-around lovable man of action, Doug McClure. Well, technically, his name is David Innes, but when has Doug McClure ever been anyone but Doug McClure? Sound of mind, able of body, good-looking in that “lovable lug” sort of way, and just as capable of piloting a magnificent drill-o-kabob as he is punching a caveman in the face. In short, if you are doing anything — from drilling to the center of the earth to exploring a lost world populated by rubber dinosaurs — McClure was the man you wanted along for the ride. And it’s a good thing Perry brings Innes along, because it doesn’t take long for the drill to prove too effective, sending the unlucky duo tearing through the earth’s crust and into Pellucidar, a fantastical kingdom that exists within the hollow earth.

Hollow Earth theories have been around for…heck, how long? Probably for as long as there have been theories about the Earth. Considering the incredible depths of some of the world’s caves, and the often bizarre creatures one sometimes sees issuing forth from their mouths, it’s not hard to understand how pre-historic — end even more recent — man would have conceived of some source for these creatures, some hitherto unseen world deep below the surface of the known world. In a time before caving technology, lights, and Iron Moles, even the largest of caves was an impenetrable, black abyss, and the surface of the earth itself could be no more than scratched by man. But at times, it would open up in earthquakes, spewing forth smoke and lava (and, presumably, monsters) and swallowing people whole. As such, the center of the earth becomes the location of countless mythological underworlds, from the Greek Hades to the Christian Hell.


As a movement, however, the hollow earth theories really gained steam in the early 1800s, when a cat named John Symmes Jr. put forth the notion that the Earth consisted of a crust 800 miles thick, with massive openings at either pole. Beyond the crust exists a habitable inner surface, with the core of the earth actually acting as a sun. Symmes intended to mount an expedition to one of the poles to prove his theory, but nothing ever came of it. Another expedition was planned by a newspaper editor and explorer named J.N. Reynolds, who actually managed to visit Antarctica, though not the pole itself. When, later in the 1800s, people started actually making it to the poles, the theory that there were openings into the hollow earth, hundreds and hundreds of miles wide, didn’t quite pan out. But history is full of beliefs that continue to find adherents long after pretty much every piece of evidence collected has disproven them, with the mantra of “cover up” always being a convenient defense against, “We went to the North Pole and there was no giant hole leading to a world that exists inside the earth.” Dismissed by actual science, hollow earth theories found new purchase among the pulp writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. As each subsequent writer took a crack at this world-within-a-world concept, the claims regarding what was actually inside a hollow Earth became more fantastic.

Famed science fiction pioneer Jules Verne probably did more to sensationalize and spread the hollow earth gospel than any crackpot scientist or explorer when he published A Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864. Several years prior, in 1838, Edgar Allan Poe used hollow earth theories as the basis for his story , The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. And even before that, in 1825, Faddei Bulgarin wrote Improbable Tall-Tale, or Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which he wove a description of three concentric layered societies existing within our planet. And in 1914, with the publishing of At the Earth’s Core, Burroughs seized on the hollow earth idea and used it as the basis for his series of involved and detailed adventure novels.


Despite setbacks in the scientific realm, hollow earth theories did not remain the sole purview of the science fiction authors. They enjoyed and, in fact, continue to enjoy sudden flare-ups in popularity from time to time, fueled by the fact that even the deepest hole in the world isn’t very deep. The Russians initiated the Kola Superdeep Borehole in 1962, an attempt to reach the point in the earth’s composition where the crust meets the mantle — the “Moho” as it’s known. After twenty-five years of drilling, the project was terminated after reaching a depth of 7.5 miles — about 1.7 miles short of the goal. But even so, it’d take a lean and hungry man to drop down the hole and see what was to be seen, as it’s only nine inches wide (Peter Cushing might have fit). Picking up where the Russians left off, and spearheaded by Japan, the international Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) seeks a similar goal but made the task easier by starting on the ocean floor, building upon work done by the Deep Sea Drilling Project and the Ocean Drilling Program.

A similar scientific expedition was attempted, I think, in the early 1980s, when me and my buddy Robby decided we were going to dig the deepest hole ever. We hiked way out into the woods down by this caves and began our glorious attempt. I think we got about a foot down before we hit bedrock. Shortly thereafter we all saw Red Dawn, and convinced that nuclear annihilation was unavoidable but that we would somehow survive, along with the girls on whom we had crushes, we revived the hole project with the intent of turning it into a nuclear fallout shelter. It never got any deeper, but we made it wider, covered it with a warped piece of plywood, and stocked it with important supplies, like a pocket knife, a canteen full of water (that had been in the canteen for probably two years), and some Star Crunches. The war with the Russians didn’t come, of course. Well, not yet. When it does, I’m sure the shelter will still be there, ready to protect us so that we might emerge from the rubble and build society anew, preferably as a society involving well-groomed cavegirls.


The IODP, incidentally, employs the services of one of the largest research ships ever built — nicknamed Godzilla Maru. There are, obviously, untold secrets yet waiting to be discovered. Psychic pterodactyls ruthlessly oppressing a race of stone age humans may not be among these secrets, but they make for better movies and adventure novels than if we’d had a movie in which Doug McClure extracted core samples from the Kola Borehole and discovered interesting things about the rate at which the temperature increases as one drills through the crust. Yes, fascinating from a scientific standpoint, but more fascinating than Caroline Munro in a tiny loin cloth?

Psychic pterodactyls actually aren’t that far off from what some modern-day proponents of hollow earth theory claim exists within the crust of our planet. Some think that it is the realm of ascended spiritual masters; others say it’s where UFOs come from. Atlaneans live there. Some even claim that at the end of WWII, Hitler and the remaining members of the Reich escaped to the hollow earth. Last I heard, the entrance to the hollow earth realm — which someone decided to name Agartha, since it needs a suitably cornball new age name — was at Mount Shasta in California. But this could have been updated to Nepal, Tibet, or some other suitably mystical location. I believe according so leading scientific researches, the only way to get there is to astrally project. And although hollow earth theories have persisted for centuries, it is perhaps no big shock to learn that the most ridiculous and new agey “facts” sprung up fully formed in the late 1960s.


Back in Pellucidar, however, Innes and Perry have their own troubles to contend with. It turns out that this realm within the earth is populated by all manner of poorly realized prehistoric creatures. As soon as Perry and Innes venture forth from the Iron Mole, they are attacked by dinosaur-like monsters that make the dinosaurs from The Land that Time Forgot seem amazingly lifelike. These creatures are realized by having a man in a monster suit stomp around a jungle set in slow motion, while McClure and Cushing sort of hunch over and dart back and forth for what seems like an eternity. Soon, the two begin to unravel the mysteries of the society that exists in this strange land. The Mahars are a race of psychic pterodactyl looking things, and they rule over a race of stone age humans, including one scantily-clad Caroline Munro as Princess Dia. When they handed out princessing duty, Dia got the short end of the stick, being appointed princess of a race of slaves. Keeping the cavemen in line is a third race of pig-faced thugs.

Needless to say, when a couple of Victorian-era bad-asses from the surface come to Pellucidar, armed with an umbrella and cigars, there’s gonna be a whole lot of whoop-ass and Doug McClure getting the puffy sleeves ripped off his Dr. Frankenstein shirt. Innes and Perry are captured and forced to join the slave march, during which Innes commits a social gaffe that causes him to get on the wrong side of Dia. But you know things are going to work out for them. Until they do, Innes is going to spend his days escaping and punching stuff, and Perry is going to try to unravel the mysteries of the Mahar’s power over Pellucidar. And then there’s going to be a big revolution. Well, as big as Amicus can ever afford to mount. And probably, a volcano or something will erupt.


At the Earth’s Core was released in 1976. The next year, Star Wars was released. If ever there was a crystal clear illustration of the quantum leap forward in special effects technology that film represented, this was it. At the Earth’s Core is dirt cheap, albeit in a fun and imaginative way. The monsters are man-in-a-suit effects that wouldn’t have passed muster in even the cheapest Japanese Ultraman series. Hell, even 1970s Doctor Who probably felt a little bit embarrassed to see what At the Earth’s Core had to offer. And yet, it’s precisely because they fail so spectacularly that the effects succeed. Coupled with a really weird score by Michael Vickers (who also wrote the ultra-funky theme song for Dracula A.D. 1972), the sets and monster suits lend the movie a completely phantasmagoric atmosphere. At the core (ha ha), it’s really a very simple movie, and one we’ve seen countless times (b-movie stars run around in cave sets until something blows up), but it takes on a completely bizarre, hallucinogenic mood that lends the film far more power to engross than it might otherwise have had. In other words, a movie this bad needs to be this bad. If it had been competent, it would have been dull beyond the point of enduring.

But because it fails in such a charming, weird way, it becomes much more than it would otherwise have been. Burroughs’ original novel was a sprawling epic, and there was no way Amicus was going to be able to bankroll such a story. However, this movie strips it down to its core (ha ha) while still managing to reach far beyond its means. This is, of course, sort of the defining aspect of director Kevin Conner’s filmography. He populates his films with tons of special effects that would have been considered crude if they’d been a movie released ten years earlier. Amicus was the perfect home for him. They were the cheap version of Hammer, and if you know how cheap most Hammer films were, that’s really saying something. The big difference was that the boys at Hammer knew how to work within their limitations without looking like they were working within limitations. Amicus aims for the special effects stars and comes back with a paper mache pterodactyl.


Aside from the charmingly inept special effects, At the Earth’s Core has a few other things going for it. By this point, it should be pretty obvious that I’m a fan of b-movie and television staple Doug McClure. He gives the exact same performance here that he did in his previous Amicus outing (The Land that Time Forgot) for the same director. I can’t claim that there’s anything special about McClure’s performances. He’s just this dude, and when crazy fantastical shit starts happening, he deals with it. He has charisma without trying. And he makes a good pairing with Peter Cushing, who turns in a believable if somewhat irritating performance as the proverbial absent-minded professor. Perry is somewhere between Will Hartnell era Doctor Who and Grandpa Simpson, with a dash of the Doctor Who character as played by Cushing himself in the two technicolor feature film adaptations produced by Amicus. It can get on the nerves a bit, to be honest, but Cushing does get the films’ two best moments: he takes on a dinosaur whilst armed with nothing but his crazy old professor umbrella, and when the Mahars are trying to use their psychic powers on him, he gets to proudly proclaim, “You cannot mesmerize me. I’m British!” If that’s not the greatest movie line ever, it’s only because Cushing also gets to say, “Monsters? We’re British, you know!” in Horror Express.

And then there’s Caroline Munro.


OK, yeah. You’re right. She doesn’t really have much to do in this film other than slink around in a furry micro-bikini while coated in a thin sheen of perspiration, but oh is she ever good at it. Who wouldn’t punch out Jubal the Ugly One to win her affections? Caroline represents everything that was good and right with starlets in the 60s and 70s. Yes, she brings the sex appeal, but she also brings an affable warmth and agreeability to the proceedings. There’s no hint that she feels this material is beneath her (and Munro could certainly perform at a much greater level than demanded of her in this film), no need to sneer or seem above it all. She’s in it and having fun, and there’s nothing about her that doesn’t make her the easiest girl in the world with whom to fall in love. Or whatever emotion governs a reaction to gorgeous cavewoman princesses with killer smiles.

Paired with the really weird LSD atmosphere of the movie, the cast makes At the Earth’s Core a treat despite its many impossible-to-ignore faults. Many times, I’ve been able to dismiss a film’s short-comings and justify my adoration of it by spinning some yarn about how I saw the movie as a young boy, and blah blah blah. Not so with this one, though. I first saw At the Earth’s Core when I was in college. Realizing that I was witnessing something completely weird, I threw a tape into my VCR and recorded about 70% of the film. It became one of the most cherished gifts I ever gave my stoner buddy Ken (the other cherished gift was Young Taoism Fighter). But I can’t even play the “dude, I was so wasted” card, because I was stone cold sober at the time. Granted, I hadn’t slept in like three days, and I’m pretty sure this was during the time when I was doing an experiment that involved eating Taco Bell for breakfast every morning after not sleeping. Whatever the case, At the Earth’s Core succeeds for me when it just as easily might have failed, thanks largely to the freaky feel and an able cast. Sometimes, you just like a bad movie.

Well, most of the time, if you are me.

Release Year: 1976 | Country: United States, England | Starring: Doug McClure, Peter Cushing, Caroline Munro, Cy Grant, Godfrey James, Sean Lynch, Keith Barron, Helen Gill, Anthony Verner, Robert Gillespie, Michael Crane, Bobby Parr | Screenplay: Milton Subotsky | Director: Kevin Connor | Cinematography: Alan Hume | Music: Mike Vickers

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Night Creatures

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Although England’s Hammer Studio made a variety of films, the trio of Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy solidified the direction of the studio and its identity with the public for the remainder of its life. And not without good reason. In their heyday, and even long after the studio had fallen into disrepair, Hammer showed a panache for producing lavish looking Gothic horror that was simply unmatchable. America’s AIP came close with Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe inspired cycle of films starring Vincent Price, but no one could approach Hammer’s consistency and longevity in producing world-class horror. Starting in 1958 and continuing throughout the 60s, and into the studio’s final days in the first half of the 1970s, Hammer produced an unbelievable string of incredible horror films — almost every one of them a hit — buoyed by the one-two punch of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee’s Dracula films and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein series.

It’s understandable that Hammer would focus on the genre that helped define them as a major player on the global film production scene, but even as the monsters and madmen were overrunning the studio, Hammer was still doing its best to make non-horror fare, including some noir-style thrillers, war films, and a series of swashbucklers. Over the years, these films have been largely overshadowed by the horror product, and in fact most have been extremely difficult to get a hold of them, with very few being released on home video, at least here in the United States. Thus, they became all but forgotten, even though they often used the same directors, writers, and stars (specifically Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee) as the horror films and were often films worth remembering.


With the bulk of Hammer horror films now released on DVD (with the exception of Twins of Evil and Vampire Circus, both of which remain curiously MIA in the United States), and with these releases bringing in some new fans and revitalizing interest among the older fans, distributors have begun dipping into the vast body of Hammer’s non-horror work. Over the past year or two, two volumes of Hammer noir and crime films were released, along with some of the more obscure psychological thrillers. And in early 2008, it was announced that Hammer’s collection of swashbuckling pirate movies was finally going to be released. With any luck, the near future will also see the release of Hammer’s war films and the remaining caveman adventures.

The first of Hammer’s pirate films to make it to DVD in the US was Captain Clegg, a curious beast of a film that got released first primarily because it was marketed in the US, at the time of its original release, as a horror film. Appearing under the title Night Creatures, the movie found its way onto a recent double feature release with The Evil of Frankenstein. And while Night Creatures does contain an element of horror, anyone who goes into it looking for scares is going to be confused.

Hammer’s dalliance with pirate films began in 1961 with the release of The Pirates of Blood River, starring venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, 7th Voyage of Sinbad‘s Kerwin Mathews, and Hammer bit player Michael Ripper in a rare feature role. Hammer’s production values were never higher than they were in the first half of the 1960s, where seemingly everything they touched came out looking astounding, and The Pirates of Blood River benefits from Hammer’s attention to detail — not to mention from venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee in one of his best Hammer performances and a chance to see Michael Ripper doing more than playing “the suspicious barkeep.”


It also starred young Oliver Reed, for whom 1960-1961 was an exceptionally good year. His first film as the lead — Curse of the Werewolf — came out in 1960, and he was charged with the task of supporting the film entirely on his own, in the middle of a Hammer horror frenzy that was defined almost entirely by Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. For Oliver Reed, a totally untested leading man, to be trusted with the lead in Hammer’s first color horror film that didn’t star Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was both a tremendous opportunity and a huge gamble. It paid off, though, and although Curse of the Werewolf never attained the iconic status of the Dracula and Frankenstein films, it became one of the most respected. From there, Reed was paired with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee for The Pirates of Blood River, and then, that same year appeared alongside Peter Cushing in Captain Clegg, the second of Hammer’s pirate outings. But while The Pirates of Blood River was a somewhat more traditional swashbuckler, Captain Clegg is a crazy mix of pirate, horror, and detective films.

Things start off piratey enough, with the mutilation and stranding of a crew member (big Milton Reid — one of those actors you know by sight if not by name) for attacking the wife of the captain, a mysterious and ruthless pirate by the name of Clegg. Leaving the dastardly crewman to his fate sans food, water, ears, or tongue, the film then skips ahead a number of years to the remote British town of Dymchurch, which is being visited by no-nonsense British Navy captain Collier (Patrick Allen and his magnificently manly chin — only Chuck Conners stands a chance against him) who suspects the small hamlet of being an offloading center for liquor smugglers. But Dymchurch hardly seems to be a den of smugglers and rapscallions, populated as it is by jolly coffin makers (Michael Ripper), upstanding squires (Derek Francis), upstanding squire’s sons (Oliver Reed), and the benign local parson, Blyss (Peter Cushing). Collier, however, is an experienced hand at flushing out smugglers, so he’s hardly taken in by innocent looks alone. However, a number of surprise inspections and raids lead to nothing but property damage and the ruffling of the town Squire’s feathers as Collier and his men accuse various townsfolk of ill doings only to come up empty handed every time. At this point, the film resembles a thriller or mystery far more than it does a pirate adventure.


Parson Blyss himself remains cordial with the captain, reminding the townsfolk that the man is just doing his job, but even the kindly parson is offput when he is attacked by one of Collier’s crew — the very man stranded and mutilated by Clegg, it turns out. Collier apparently discovered the man shortly after Clegg abandoned him, as Collier was hot on the trail of the pirate at the time. Since then, they’d kept him on as a crewman for heavy lifting, menial tasks, and amusement, even though the former pirate is prone to getting drunk and attacking people. Collier’s pursuit of Clegg, ironically enough, ended in Dymchurch, where the wily pirate was finally captured and hanged, Blyss himself delivering the final rites and convincing the local church to allow Clegg a proper burial in exchange for an apparent change of heart the pirate had while incarcerated. Plus, Blyss just likes to believe int he good of everyone.

Clegg isn’t the only dead man causing Collier. Legend has it that the marshes around Dymchurch are haunted by phantoms. In fact, a man was recently killed by them. Collier, ever the enlightened man of reason, sees little reason to believe in the phantoms, and in fact he is highly suspicious of them since the man most recently killed by them happened to be Collier’s own man, who had previously tipped the captain off to the smuggling going on in Dymchurch. And it isn’t very long before the viewer is clued in to the fact that smuggling is going on, and pretty much the entire town is in on it. Blyss is the brains behind the operation, coffin maker Mipps the operations man, and any daring-do that needs to be performed is handled by the Squire’s son and lookout, Harry Cobtree. Using a series of secret compartments and tunnels centering around the church and Mipps’ coffin shop, the town regularly runs illegal French wine, even under the very nose of Collier. The phantoms — glowing skeletal horsemen — are, naturally, just members of the local smuggling ring, who find the threat of ghostly marsh phantoms to be advantageous to the smuggling profession.

Things start to get complicated for our merry smugglers not just because Collier is so persistent in his investigations, but also because one of their member is lusting after a barmaid, Imogene (Yvonne Romaine), who is in love with Harry Cobtree. In a drunken rage, he attacks the young woman and, when rebuffed, reveals to her than she is actually the daughter of the notorious Captain Clegg, and that furthermore, he is willing to expose the smuggling operation to Collier. Imogene is terrified by the revelation that she is Clegg’s daughter, for fear that this knowledge will spoil her in the eyes of young Harry, who should already be forbidden from her on account of their different classes. But Harry is hardly phased by such outdated constraints, and Imogene discovers that he and Blyss already knew she was Clegg’s daughter. Blyss, sensing that Collier is close to unraveling their smuggling plot, begins arranging for Harry and Imogene to be wed then escape the town before the net is drawn closed around them. When Harry is wounded while serving as lookout for one of the operations, Collier launches an all-out attack on the smugglers, but Blyss and Mipps are his equal, and a game of cat and mouse ensues that comes to a dramatic end inside Blyss’ chapel.

Despite the fact that the revelation at the end of the movie is hardly a surprise, Night Creatures succeeds in being a cracking good yarn that draws its suspense not from the solving of the mystery — the smugglers are all named very early in the film — but by developing those people as characters then allowing you to revel in the race and maneuvering against Collier. Captain Clegg was originally meant to be called Dr. Syn, a remake of an earlier film which itself was based on Russell Thorndike’s novel, Dr. Syn. But by a strange coincidence, Disney happened to develop an interest in this otherwise forgotten novel and film from the 1930s at the same time as Hammer. Needless to say, Hammer wasn’t in a position to challenge Disney, who had already obtained the rights to the Syn title and character. However, Disney was willing to play ball with Hammer, and aside from requiring that they change the name of the title character, Disney was more than happy to allow Hammer to proceed with production.


Disney’s version, called The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh but also known as Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow, was released in 1963 and featured Patrick McGoohan (of The Prisoner fame, among other things) in the lead role. Being a made of television movie, it was decidedly more family-friendly than Hammer’s version, with its horse-mounted ghouls, exhumed bodies, mutilated pirates, and other such trappings. Still, there’s very little in Captain Clegg to prevent being a rip-roaring good time for young and old alike, and any foolhardy young lad such as I was would have been delighted by it (remembering, of course, that there was a time when children’s films could contain murder, shrieking ghosts, drunks, and Sean Connery punching people in the face).

I’ve not seen the Disney version, and I won’t dismiss it out of hand because Disney has been known to produce some damn fine pirate and adventure entertainment (such as the three Treasure Island films). Although Disney’s competing version kept Captain Clegg off the American radar, these days Hammer’s version is the one you can find on DVD, while Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow has become wickedly hard to track down. It was released on VHS a long time ago and played at some point on the Disney Channel (as bootlegs bearing the channel’s logo attest to). I know there has been some word of the old Wonderful World of Disney series — of which Dr. Syn was a part — finally finding their way on to DVD, so one can only hope that this little pirate adventure sees the light of day once again.

Night Creature‘s script by Anthony Hinds (one of Hammer’s most reliable producers-turned-screenwriters, having penned Curse of the Werewolf, Kiss of the Vampire, and a number of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy movies) is expertly paced and hues closely to the original film. Even though it never really becomes a swashbuckling adventure (although Peter Cushing does get to swing from a chandelier) or a horror film, Hinds exploits the trappings of both genres to create a thrilling hybrid driven by strong characters and solid British acting. Although Cushing is the star attraction (and rightfully so), most Hammer fans are overly delighted that Michael Ripper gets such a meaty role. Ripper’s career is defined by tiny roles, almost always as a cranky innkeeper or barman who refuses to give our hero a room for the night, then makes a horrified face when someone says the name Frankenstein or Dracula. Despite the brevity of each of these roles, Ripper never gave anything that his absolute all. With Night Creatures, he gets a meaty role, and he makes the most of it. In fact, despite Cushing being the headliner, the bulk of the on-screen action is in the hands of Ripper and young Oliver Reed. Neither lets the film down, just as the script doesn’t let them down.

It’s hard to believe that Reed was so inexperienced an actor. He exhibits an easy charisma and likability that pulls you in and really makes you care about the character. Reed’s career was a rocky and uneven one, owing primarily to a fondness for the drink. In the 1960s, Hammer was hungry for someone young to augment the team of Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Reed seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and indeed after turns in Curse of the Werewolf, The Pirates of Blood River, Captain Clegg, and some of Hammer’s psychological thrillers, it seemed like Hammer had a winner on their hands. Good looking, athletic, and possessed of abundant charisma that could be channeled with equal skill into warmth, intensity, and pathos, Reed was a star on the rise. He was even on the short list (which actually seems to have been very long, given the number of people that are always mentioned as having been on it) to replace Sean Connery as James Bond, and the thought of Oliver Reed in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — well, I liked Lazenby, and I love that movie, but had Reed been allowed to bring that deadly combination of charm and smoldering intensity to the role, I think he would have done then what wasn’t really accomplished until Daniel Craig took over the role in Casino Royale.


Unfortunately for Reed, his professional successes were balanced with personal trials. Stormy marriages were one thing, but when Reed was forced to endure endless barrages of questions about his drinking. Such interrogation by TV hosts and reporters often lead to the actor losing his temper, and his reputation for a drunk and a hothead plagued him for years, even when he was still making quality films. Unfortunately for Hammer, Reed never became the pair of shoulders that could carry the studio through tough times, as he was by then on to different opportunities. The task of being Hammer’s “next big thing” then fell on the shoulders of Ralph Bates, who certainly had the chops. But by the time Bates was on the Hammer scene, it was too late, and nothing was going to stop Hammer’s collapse.

Reed enjoyed success throughout the 60s and into the 70s, but by the 1980s, his star had faded considerably. Reed seemed to take it in stride. Although he continued drinking, he seemed happy to settle down to a relatively quiet life with his wife, at least until 1999 when Ridley Scott came knocking and offered Reed a part in Gladiator. It ended up being one of those rare parts perfectly suited for reviving the career of an old hand who had gone through stormy times and emerged older and wiser, ready to take on the role of elder statesman. Sadly, it was not to be for Reed, and he died of heart failure during the making of the film. Still, it must have felt good to be in the saddle again, and although it is done so posthumously, his role in Gladiator ended up being one of his best.

Of course, none of this praise for Ripper or Reed is meant to sell the rest of the cast short. It’s just that, in the case of Peter Cushing, do you really need me to tell you how good he was? It’s Peter Cushing, for crying out loud! He was always good. As the resident piece of Hammer glamour (I spell it with a “u” for England), Yvonne Romain doesn’t have terribly much to do other than look pretty (which she does with ease — if not for Caroline Munroe, she might be the prettiest of all Hammer’s starlets), but I always found the Hammer beauties to be as able at acting as they were at being eye candy, and when she’s given something to do, Romain is as solid as the rest of the cast. She was already experienced with both period adventure films and horror, having appeared in such cult favorites as Circus of Horrors, Curse of the Werewolf (where she co-starred alongside Oliver Reed), episodes of The Saint (which, granted, pretty much every actor in England appeared in at some point), and Patrick McGoohan’s espionage series Danger Man.

And let’s not leave off poor ol’ square-jawed Patrick Allen as Captain Collier. It would have been easy for this film to make us root for the smugglers by making Collier a grade A jerk, but instead, Collier is ever noble, if a bit stiff, and the smugglers are forced to make us like them by force of their own character rather than depending on him as a foil. Collier is nothing other than completely honest and straight-forward, a model officer of the British Navy. And Allen is perfectly cast, not just because he has that incredible jaw and an air of authority. His accomplishments as an actor are too numerous to list, and long with Cushing, he’s probably the most experienced of the cast members. He even showed up in the Japanese sci-fi film Gorath!

Director Peter Graham Scott wasn’t a Hammer films regular, working primarily in television, but he does an excellent job here with a script that allows him to wander between creepiness (the marsh phantoms, the old windmill and the scarecrow) and adventure. This is really an actor’s movie, though, as many Hammer films were, and the chief function of the director in these cases was to know what he was doing and do it without getting in the way — which is exactly what Scott does. As such, he’s not a name a lot of people know, but sometimes the best director for a movie is the one who can make you completely unaware of the director. He does lend the film rather a unique look for Hammer films of the time by shooting on location and outdoors, rather than relying entirely on the Bray Studio sound stages.


I’m looking forward to the release of Hammer’s other pirate films, because while this one may be tangential at best to the swashbuckling genre, it still manages to be a superb adventure film with a real “boy’s own adventure” feel to it. What with long dead pirates, ghosts in the swamp, scarecrows, secret passages, and smugglers, it could have easily been a Hardy Boys adventure. I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t said more about Peter Cushing, but like I said, what more can you say? The man went into everything with total commitment, and Captain Clegg is one of his finest roles. The script plays wonderfully off Cushing’s slight appearance. When first we meet him in this film, he looks dainty and frail, and hardly the sort of man who could command a band of smugglers prone to dressing up like skeletons and galloping through the swamps. But when it comes time for him to take charge, the transformation is remarkable, and you absolutely believe him as the leader of men. “Absolutely believing him” is pretty much the very definition of Cushing’s film career, as he was remarkably gifted at making whatever was happening, no matter how outlandish, seem absolutely real.

Here, he benefits greatly from Hinds’ script, which affords him a degree of complexity and depth very similar to what he enjoyed and challenged audiences with in the Frankenstein movies. He is ostensibly the bad guy, heading up a smuggling ring, killing off informers, and foiling Collier’s attempts to do an honest man’s work. But if he’s a bad guy, Cushing’s Blyss is hardly evil, and his scenes with Oliver Reed and Yvonne Rainer allow him to radiate warmth and care. As with the movie itself, Cushing’s role here is not among his iconic performances, but it probably should be.

We’ll have plenty of chances to talk further about Peter Cushing. It’s not every day that you get to say more about Michael Ripper than, “he was excellent as the grumpy bartender.” Whether you call it Captain Clegg or Night Creatures is unimportant. By any name, it’s top notch adventure all the way around.

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Our Man in Marrakesh

I expounded recently, in my review of Throne of Fire, on the fact that I am still a sucker for cool cover/poster art, even though I know full well that the movie being advertised is rarely as good as the illustration advertising it. So let me now explore another of my sundry weaknesses: I have a weakness for cool-sounding team-ups. It probably started back when I was a wee sprout camped out in front of the television late at night, watching old Universal horror films. Frankenstein and the Wolfman, in the same movie? Boss! And while the high concept team-ups were generally slightly more dependable than poster art, that didn’t mean that they still weren’t, by and large, a bit disappointing most of the time. But still, come on! Frankenstein versus the Wolfman! Dev Anand versus hippies! And in the case of Our Man in Marrakesh, Tony Randall versus Klaus Kinski. Tell me that one isn’t epic sounding. And while my gullible faith in the high-concept team-up often let me down, I was certain that Tony Randall versus Klaus Kinski in a lighthearted Eurospy adventure would live up to the promise. I’m happy to say that, unlike Throne of Fire, I was pleasantly rewarded this time around.

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Devils of Darkness

So let’s say, just for the sake of argument, you’re a vampire. Not one of those post-Anne Rice vampires with the leather trenchcoat and the bad poetry and the ill-advised appreciation of Pigface. No, I’m talking about one of those older, more distinguished vampires. Not too bad, huh? I mean, yeah, there are drawbacks. I, for one, would miss the sun and a good day’s surfing. On the other hand, if you were to become any monster, a vampire would be pretty sweet. A mummy or Frankenstein monster would be the worst, of course. Mummies only have one outfit, and they have to spend the entire afterlife shambling around in pursuit of some dame who looks like some other dame the mummy loved back in ancient Egypt, and then a dude in a tweed jacket sets you on fire. And Frankenstein monsters have to do pretty much the same thing in terms of shambling, though at the very least they get to smoke cigars and drink wine. As for werewolves — sure, cool power, but you have no control over it, it only happens once a month, you can’t remember anything afterward, and your clothes are constantly getting ruined by your transformations.

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Satanic Rites of Dracula

What a long, strange trip it’s been for Hammer Studio’s lord of the undead, the prince of darkness, the king of vampires, Count Dracula. When first we met him back in 1958, he was a snarling beast, a barely contained force of nature that ripped into his prey with lusty abandon and was explained by his arch-nemesis Dr. Van Helsing in purely rational, scientific terms. Dracula, and vampirism in general (as expounded upon by Van Helsing in Brides of Dracula), was nothing more than a disease, like any other disease, and what we regarded as “supernatural” was really nothing more than an explainable part of the rational world that humanity had simply not yet learned how to explain. As Hammer’s Dracula series progressed, however, Van Helsing faded from the picture and was replaced by a procession of forgettable guys named Paul, usually in league with some sort of religious authority figure. In Dracula, Prince of Darkness, we have a monsignor who seems to have some degree of faith in faith’s ability to defeat Dracula, but he’s far more reliant on his trusty bolt-action rifle than he is on the Lord Almighty.

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Dracula A.D. 1972

And so we enter the dire straights of Hammer Films in the final throes of a long, drawn-out death much like those experienced by Dracula himself. As has been detailed elsewhere and will be summarized here, by the 1970s, England’s Hammer Studios — the studio that pretty much defined and dominated the horror market through the 50s and 60s — had fallen on hard times. The old guard had largely retired or died, and the new blood was flailing about, desperately trying to find the direction that would right the once mighty production house. The problem was that everyone felt like they needed to update their image, but no one actually knew how. In retrospect, though they may have seemed painfully antiquated at the time of their release, many of Hammer’s releases during the 70s were quite good and often experimental (by Hammer standards, anyway). This movie isn’t really one of them, but it’s still pretty enjoyable in a completely ludicrous way.

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Face of Fu Manchu

It seems fitting that my first post-thanksgiving review should be of a film this goofy. Thanksgiving back home in Kentucky was grand, as it included a visit to Churchill Downs where I raked in a small fortune in winnings (and by small, I mean small, like fifty bucks), bourbon drinking, fried chicken and fried biscuits at Joe Huber’s Orchard, Winery, and Family Restaurant, a visit to the Bass Pro Shop where I got to go on a light gun safari (end conclusion — you don’t want to hire me as your crack shot assassin — the only thing I could consistently hit was the turtle, and that was by accident), and a late-night conversation with my sister, my best friend from high school, as well as another friend newly met, about cadaver dissection in East St. Louis, machine gun battles in Guyana, and watching sub-dermal parasitic worms from the Amazon crawl around beneath the skin of your ankle.

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Scars of Dracula

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And we were doing so well! Most movie studios can’t sustain the quality of a film series beyond two films — and quite a few have problems even getting that far. It was no small feat, then, that Hammer managed to produce not one, but two consistently good series. Their Dracula and Frankenstein films set the benchmark for quality horror during the late fifties and throughout the 1960s. And you know, they almost made it to the finish lines with both of them. The Frankenstein series featuring Peter Cushing as the titular mad doctor lasted six films, with only the third film being a misfire, and not a very bad misfire at that. By the time Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was released, it was clear that the series was at its end, both creatively and financially. Still, it managed to go out with a dash of class, and the final film features the second worst monster in the series (the honor of worst, in my opinion, goes to Kiwi Kingston’s shrieking slapdash Karloff wannabe from Evil of Frankenstein) but one of the best stories and finest performances from Cushing. Even if the final film was not a financial success, everyone involved could hold their heads up high and be proud of all six movies.

And then there was the Dracula series starring Christopher Lee.

Like Frankenstein, Dracula started strong and managed to maintain the course for five films. Had they stopped with Taste the Blood of Dracula, it too would have retired a successful and respectable series. It was clear, in fact, by the fourth film that no one had much of an idea left regarding what to do with the character of Dracula. Another film in which a group of travelers end up at Dracula’s castle and are preyed upon for the remainder of the film just wouldn’t cut it. With Taste the Blood, Hammer tried to go in a different direction and make a movie where Dracula was a presence without being an actual character. American distributors, however, refused to buy a Dracula movie that didn’t have Christopher Lee skulking about in an opera cape, and so the Count was forced into the story in a rather awkward fashion that gave him very little to do beyond stand in the shadows and count. And that’s not what his title is supposed to mean.


Still, Taste the Blood was quite a good film even if Dracula’s physical presence has little to do with the plot. Like I said, had they wrapped it up with this one, everything would have ended on a positive note. But where as the financial failure of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell sealed its fate as the final film in the Frankenstein series, Dracula had the artistic misfortune of scoring yet another box office hit with Taste the Blood. And so it was that a sixth Dracula film was to be made, regardless of whether or not anyone had anything interesting to put forward.

Scars of Dracula isn’t an abominably bad entry into the series. It’s just completely derivative and pointless, falling back onto the tiresome “doomed souls visiting Castle Dracula” and trying to set itself apart by giving Christopher Lee’s vampire count more lines in this one movie than he’d had in all the others combined. They don’t fool anyone, though, and while Scars boasts some memorable moments, the gestalt experience is one best forgotten. We have yet another Paul in this film, as well as another Klove (Patrick Troughton, best known to sci-fi fans as the second Doctor Who, or the Hobo Doctor as I call him). I think that’s two Kloves to four Pauls, and add them to the three or four Hans’s from the Frankenstein movies. Okay, two Kloves is one thing, but what’s the deal with Paul? Didn’t someone look back and realize they’d named the last three stiffs (you can hardly call any of them heroes) Paul, and thus they should go for a different name this time out, like Steven perhaps, or Beauregard? Well, by the time this series is over, a preponderance of Pauls will be the least of our concerns.


The movie wastes no time in letting us know we’re in for a bumpy ride as we go immediately to the lamest Dracula reincarnation yet. Now, if you recall the finale of the last film, Dracula was transported to London then disintegrates in an old church, leaving nothing but his trademark little pile of dust. When this film begins, however, Dracula is lying in his coffin back at Castle Dracula. A floppy giant rubber bat wobbles awkwardly into the room on visible wires and proceeds to drool a little of blood onto Dracula’s dust. Voila! The prince of darkness rises again!

Now you know, even ignoring the horrid continuity between this and the previous films (which went to great lengths to connect itself logically to the end of Dracula has Risen from the Grave), there’s no way to ignore that the ragged-looking bat prop is one of the single worst special effects in the history of Hammer horror. Someone wanted lots of bats in this movie; the least they could have done is check to see if anyone at Hammer could create them in a remotely believable manner. No hyperbole here — this thing would be embarrassing in a teenage goth’s shot-on-video horror short. How it managed to flop and wiggle its way into an actual professional production is a mystery to me. Maybe if they’d stopped at one bat, things wouldn’t be so bad. But we’re going to get lots of them, and each one will somehow manage to be more pathetic looking than the last.


Astoundingly, the scene manages to get even worse as Dracula (Christopher Lee yet again) sits up and the bat begins squeaking at him while Dracula nods his head and listens intently. I expect this sort of thing in a Lassie movie, maybe even in a tender scene shared between Godzilla and Anguilas, but Dracula? “What’s that, lad? You say a busty wench is down in the churchyard? Let’s go!” I mean, yeah, they stop short of having Dracula jump up, yell “Alakazam!” then shrink down to action-figure size so he can ride the bat around, but I’m sure if it had occurred to them, that would have happened too. When Christopher Lee complained about how dumb Dracula films were, it was usually unjustified in my opinion. This time, though — well, it’s pretty easy to see his point with this one.


Well, Dracula gets his busty wench kill in for the day, but this angries up the blood of the local peasants, and for once they don’t just sit around in the tavern staring ominously at each other. In fact, one almost has hope when Michael Ripper, appearing as “Angry Barkeep” for the nine thousandth time, decides they should round up a good old-fashioned torch-wielding mob and kill Dracula off once and for all for the fifth time. Now, this is all right! A torch-wielding mob of peasants within the first ten minutes of a film? That’s something I can live with. Unfortunately, they prove to be the most incompetent torch-wielding mob of peasants in the history of horror films, as they proceed to storm angrily up to Castle Dracula and knock on the door. I mean, they do it firmly and with stern looks on their faces, but if you’re going up the mountain to kill a murderous vampire and burn his castle to the ground, stopping to politely knock on the door sort of undercuts your entire message. It gets even worse when, despite the fact that they must be aware that Dracula and/or his hairy servant Klove noticed the huge mob of torch-wielding peasants coming up the road, Michael Ripper knocks again and says, “Open up! I’m quite alone!”


Since Dracula is asleep, I assume this all takes place in the daytime, so really, brandishing the torches angrily in the air probably lost some of its effect as well. But when you’re the kind of mob that can be stymied in its rage by a butler who refuses to open the door, torches in the daytime are the least of your concern, though you should probably be concerned regarding the efficacy of trying to burn down a stone structure. When they do gain access to the castle (I can’t remember if Ripper pulled the old “Okay, I guess I’ll leave then,” and made fake footsteps like he was walking away so that Klove would let down his guard and open the door), Klove doesn’t seem especially upset. He may be a hairy hunchbacked servant, but even he knows that trying to burn down a stone castle with torches may damage a few tapestries, but that’s about it. Still, the mob seems to consider it a job well done even though both Klove and Dracula survive. And, umm, the castle is still standing, too. Bravo, gents! Now let’s all go down to the tavern for a pint! When they return from their glorious triumph of getting a few walls slightly sooty (Klove will be scrubbing them for days to get them clean again), they discover that Dracula took the opportunity to send more floppy fake bats down to the town to massacre every last woman and child. This sort of puts a damper on their gaiety for the evening, and one has to wonder how a trio of floppy bats managed to massacre so many people and pull out so many eyeballs.

The story then shifts to another town, where the movie solidifies its place in the pantheon of bad films by featuring a wacky comedy sequence in which the philandering Paul (Christopher Matthews) gets chased around by the angry burgomaster after being caught in bed with the burgomaster’s daughter. Thankfully, the film stops short of piping in Benny Hill music, but then maybe this entire painful sequence would have been better if they’d thrown in a little “Yakkity Sax,” sped the whole thing up, and allowed Paul to pause for a second to pat an old man on the head. The Scooby-Doo style chase eventually leads to the birthday party of young Sarah (Jenny Hanley), who loves that rascally Paul even though his far nicer, less whorish brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) loves her. Eventually, Paul ends up at Castle Dracula, and yes, we realize we’re going to get another one of those “Whatever you do, don’t go to the castle” movies where everyone goes to the castle.


And that’s just the first third of the film. It doesn’t get any better from there despite the fact that Christopher Lee gets so much more screen time than usual. He hisses and seethes and screams and snarls his way through a series of unmemorable lines as he engages in all manner of brutality, including branding Klove with a hot poker, stabbing someone with a sword, impaling people on pointy light fixtures, and going nuts with the whip (once again on Klove). In fact, this is the first Dracula film where you expect the Count is more likely to just haul off and punch someone in the face than flash his mesmerizing red eyes at them and bite them on the neck. He seems to forget for most of the movie that he actually has vampire powers, and instead acts like a schoolyard bully, albeit a schoolyard bully with a tendency to wear a big cape for no discernible reason. This means Scars of Dracula has more gory action in it than any of the previous films, but none of it has much of an impact. Where’s the fun of watching Dracula slap Doctor Who around? Okay, maybe that sounds a little fun. Dracula also stabs a female vampire with a dagger. For some reason, this kills her. At this point, though, I don’t even care. I guess if Dracula isn’t going to bite people like a normal vampire should, then other vampires can be killed with daggers and so forth. I guess some vampires fear a wooden stake, and others fear a wiggling rubber dagger.

On the hero front, what can you say? This film gives you a milquetoast lead in Simon, and a standard issue cowardly priest (Michael Gwynn, who played the “monster” in the far superior Revenge of Frankenstein). You keep waiting for the priest to rise to the occasion and stop collapsing in his pew aisles and weeping, but that’s about all he ever does. The Dracula series had been following an interesting trajectory, starting with Van Helsing’s explaining Dracula in purely rational terms as a social disease to an increasingly supernatural demon to be combated not with science and reason, but with faith. Here, however, even that is chucked out the window in favor of having Dracula be nothing more than some asshole who happens to command a fleet of shaky rubber bats. Simon sort of drifts from one scene to the next until he eventually finds himself standing on the roof with Dracula, about to be killed until a bolt of lightning shows up to do his dirty work for him. Boy oh boy, we’re a long way from Van Helsing, aren’t we?


I did say that this film had some memorable moments, didn’t I? I mean, memorable because they’re good, not because they’re so awful. I guess what I meant to say is there’s the one scene worth remembering. One of the most notable sequences from the Bram Stoker novel involves Jonathan Harker observing Count Dracula entering and exiting the tower of Castle Dracula by crawling up and down the wall like a spider. For one reason or another, this scene had never been included in any theatrical version of the story, so scriptwriter Anthony Hinds and director Roy Ward Baker figured now would be as good a time as any. It does show, if nothing else, Dracula has learned the benefits of putting his crypt in an impenetrable tower with no entrance or exit save for the one window way up high that only a guy with spider climbing abilities can get to. It certainly makes more sense than keeping it on the ground floor with an unlocked door, as was his practice in previous films. Of course, once Christopher Lee went crawling up and down walls, there was no stopping Dracula. Frank Langela did it in hazy slow motion with billowing cape and romantic string music playing. Gary Oldman did it all herky jerky while wearing a big red robe. It just goes to show you that a scene of Dracula scurrying around don the wall may be cool, but it can’t save the whole movie.


Even the trademark Hammer look isn’t on display here, as cheap budgets make for cheap sets. Fire damage explains away the spartan appearance of Dracula’s castle, but that doesn’t make it interesting to look at. More than ever, the people who made fun of horror movies with cardboard characters and cardboard sets had plenty of ammo for their attacks. It can be fun, but you never once forget you’re watching a substantially lower quality movie than previous Dracula entries. There’s a reason this emerged as the goriest of all Dracula films, and one of the goriest Hammer films, period: they had to cover up the threadbare production with something.

Scars of Dracula isn’t quite a disaster, but it’s everything bad about Hammer films, and everything that critics unjustly accused Hammer films of being — only this time, there was no defending the product. Hammy acting, clumsy comedy, wretched special effects, weak characters — heaving bosoms is about all this one has going for it, and you can get those in any Hammer film, even the good ones. 1970 was simply not a good year for Hammer, with this, the awful Horror of Frankenstein (not part of the actual Frankenstein series, and not starring Peter Cushing), Creatures the World Forgot, and Lust for a Vampire overshadowing the studio’s two good films from that year: the wonderful Vampire Lovers and the acceptable Lady Bathory exploitation film, Countess Dracula. Scars of Dracula ends up being a highlight reel for anyone who ever wanted to showcase the lowest common denominator Hammer film.

Hinds was a good scriptwriter, and Baker was a more than competent director. So what went wrong? It can only be that, in the end, no one but the accountants gave a damn about making another Dracula movie. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. Scars of Dracula once again made money, which meant that, impossible though it may be, yet another Dracula film would inevitably be made. Fans grew hopeful when they heard Peter Cushing was back in the game as Van Helsing. They grew suspicious when they found out Dracula would be visiting the year 1972.

That's it! I'm transporting Dracula to 1972!
That’s it! I’m transporting Dracula to 1972!