Sandwiched in between the final episode of Star Trek and the 1977 release of Star Wars, Space: 1999 occupies an odd bit of historical real estate and has an even odder tone of voice, though it’s easier to make sense of if you understand where science fiction was when Space: 1999 debuted. It might help explain why a group of rambunctious young sprouts, such as my friends and I were at the time, were so tolerant of what was a rather morose, talky, slow-moving show. But that’s how science fiction was at the time. The original Trek was colorful and had it’s fair share of action, but much like football, if you timed the actual action against the scenes of people sitting around saying stuff, there was far less jumping around and exploding than people recall. And post 2001: A Space Odyssey, science fiction really shed its pulp trappings and entered a period of pretty trippy, contemplative mood. This was science fiction as I knew it: sort of melancholy, a lot to do with environmental catastrophe, and not really centered on “action.” It’s why we could watch Silent Running at a birthday party and love it. and It’s why we could become obsessed with a show that seemed to feature a lot of Martin Landau frowning and speaking in a hushed monotone.
The story to this point: the good doctor of questionable moral standards, one Baron Victor von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) escaped the guillotine he was facing at the end of the first film, Curse of Frankenstein, only to find himself beaten to death by angry amputees at the end of the second film, Revenge of Frankenstein. Luckily, his apprentice in that film, Hans, turned out to be a most capable student and was able to bring Frankenstein back from the dead, making him, in effect, the first man to successfully pull off Frankenstein’s experiment with reanimating corpses. So there you have the first two Frankenstein films from England’s Hammer Studio, two of the company’s best films and two of the best horror films ever produced. Well, you can forget all that, because although the third film in the series, Evil of Frankenstein once again stars Cushing in the lead role, and although there is a helper named Hans, just about everything else established up to that point by the previous films is chucked out the window for some inexplicable reason. Perhaps if we step back and look at some of the events that lead up to this film, we can comprehend why it seems such an oddity in the overall Hammer Frankenstein series. Or maybe we won’t. Either way, you’re getting the story, so you might as well sit back and make yourself comfortable.
When last we saw Baron Victor Frankenstein, he was being marched to the guillotine to face a beheading for the murders committed by his man-made man, not to mention the murders in which he himself dabbled. Well, you can’t keep a good mad scientist down, and there are none better or madder than Cushing’s Frankenstein. With the help of a prison attendant who wants access to the Baron’s peculiar talents, Frankenstein escapes the execution and sets up a new identity and a new medical practice in another town. Hey, cheating death is what Frankenstein is all about, right? All seems to be going well for the doctor, who has a bustling private medical practice and a commendable public hospital for the poor. Sure he draws the ire of the local medical society when he refuses to join their ranks, but all in all, this new Dr. Stein (put a lot of thought into that one, didn’t ya, Victor? Better than Alucard, I reckon) seems to have turned over a new leaf and started working for the good of mankind. But wait…wasn’t that what he thought he was doing the last time around?
The first Hammer movie I saw was late one night at my grandparents’ house, back when horror double bills were a Friday night TV staple. Mostly these were old Universal flicks, but occasionally if I was lucky there’d be a couple of Hammer horrors. I found these much more exciting than their earlier American counterparts, in fact I still do; vivid colour, actual gore, and an undercurrent of sex that provoked definite interest in young Dave. Also, better acting (there, I said it) and none of those awful Hollywood cockney coppers, gor bloimey Guv’nor. From then on, I was predisposed to see any Hammer film that came along, but this was pre-DVD (it was even pre-VHS, which makes me feel very old) so opportunities were limited. A few years and one wonderful technical revolution later, I discovered a video tape in Dad’s not-too-secret ‘special’ pile. It was Countess Dracula, not exactly a typical Hammer film, but it introduced me to the vision of loveliness that was Ingrid Pitt. More importantly it introduced me to Ingrid Pitt’s boobs. That was it; I was lost.
As the only contributor to Teleport City who resides in the fine country of Great Britain (and it is fine, despite most of it seeming to be on fire as I write this), I like to be able to bring you the occasional bit of Brit weirdness. Of course the brilliant minds at T.C. are already familiar with much of the classic and cult cinema exported by the likes of Hammer, Amicus and others, but today I’m going with something a trifle more obscure. Today’s review subject is one of the few releases by an ill-fated outfit named Tyburn Film Productions.
Tyburn was the brainchild of Kevin Francis, son of Oscar-winning cinematographer and sometime genre director Freddie Francis. The elder Francis had already made successful films for the aforementioned companies, faring slightly better at Amicus. Here he directed a series of effective portmanteau horrors including Tales From the Crypt and Torture Garden, plus the excellent De Sade-themed feature The Skull (we’ll skip politely past The Deadly Bees and They Came From Beyond Space). His work at Hammer was more patchy; Paranoiac and Nightmare are good, Hysteria and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave less so, and The Evil of Frankenstein is largely awful. Kevin started out as a runner on his Dad’s Dracula sequel, which was seemingly enough to give him the film bug. Kev realised that with the help of contacts from Francis Sr.’s address book, he too could produce some Hammer-style gothic horrors. Thus Tyburn was born.
Sadly Francis the younger made a grave miscalculation: he tried to launch a rival to Hammer and Amicus in 1974, when both those studios were in their death throes. Hammer’s demise has been discussed extensively elsewhere on T.C. so I won’t go over ground that Keith has already expertly covered. Amicus was limping along putting out the occasional adventure film like At The Earth’s Core, but would fold soon afterwards as relations between the company’s founders broke down. Tigon, Hammer’s other main rival, had flirted with more modern, gruesome horror movies, but founder Tony Tenser wasn’t happy with this new direction. Tigon switched to distributing terrible (if successful) sex comedies for a few years, before Tenser retired from the film business.
I’m not entirely sure what Francis was thinking, since there’s not a whole lot of information about him. In the one interview I managed to find, he responded to the question of why he started Tyburn with a glib “I needed to earn a living.” In fact the biggest part of his motivation seemed to be the opportunity to work with Peter Cushing, a childhood hero and the reason Francis cites for getting into films in the first place. I can’t really argue with that; who wouldn’t want to work with someone as awesome as Peter Cushing? Certainly Cushing shows up in the bulk of Tyburn’s product, such as it is. Legend of the Werewolf was the third and final Tyburn film released in 1975, after which the company didn’t do much of anything for a decade. Their first production, Persecution, hewed closely to Hammer’s psycho thriller formula, even down to hiring a fading Hollywood female star in the Bette Davis mould (in this case it was Lana Turner). Their second film, The Ghoul, is a remake in all but name of The Reptile, with a full complement of former Hammer talent. By the same token, Legend of the Werewolf will seem familiar to anyone who remembers Hammer’s earlier Curse of the Werewolf, but more on that later.
The film opens with a voiceover by Peter Cushing, describing how races of people throughout history have been forced to flee their homes by persecution. And thus we see a couple of peasants doing just that in what we’ll later discover is France, the mother heavily pregnant. They are apparently Jews fleeing the Tsarist pogroms in Russia, though the film doesn’t really make this clear. She gives birth as Cusing informs us the child is being born at day-for-midnight on Christmas eve, when wolves are apparently compelled to look after newborns. It doesn’t stop them eating mum and dad, however. A few years later, the hairy feral child is found by Maestro Pamponi (Hugh Griffith, The Abominable Dr. Phibes), owner of the world’s most depressing travelling show. Since his only other attraction is a slightly-tattooed lady, Pamponi seizes the opportunity to parade the caged boy in front of local peasant folk.
But as the boy grows up he loses the excess hair and feral traits, making him largely useless to the show. Now he’s known as Etoile (David Rintoul), a handsome yet simple lad who unfortunately turns into werewolf, when he sees only in red-filter-for-night vision. One full-mooned night he kills Tiny (Norman Mitchell, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell), the travelling show’s general dogsbody. Horrified by what happened, Etoile runs away. He finds himself at a rundown zoo on the outskirts of Paris, which has few patrons because of the smell of the sewer running beneath. The zookeeper (Ron Moody, Oliver!) is impressed with Etoile’s affinity with the animals, especially the wolves, and gives him a job.
A group of local young ladies like to come and eat their lunch in the park, and Etoile takes a shine to one of them, Christine (Lynn Dalby). She’s also attracted to the handsome, guileless new arrival. She fails to reveal however that she’s actually a prostitute at a nearby brothel run by Madame Tellier (Marjorie Yates). Incidentally, one of the prostitutes is played by legendary nude model and star of Naked As Nature Intended, Pamela Green. Anyhow, Etoile goes along to the brothel to ask Christine out on a date, and gets turned away. He tries to sneak in and sees Christine with a rich client. Assuming she’s being ravished against her will, he flies into a wolf-like rage and attacks the client. This gets him thrown out and forbidden from seeing Christine again. Later that night in full-on wolf mode, Etoile attacks and kills the punter.
This death proves puzzling for police Inspector Gerard (Stefan Gryff) and judicial surgeon Professor Paul Cataflanque (Peter Cushing!). The signs on the body suggest a wolf attack, but the attacker was too large. More victims, all regulars at the brothel, begin to stack up. Paul investigates and discovers that all of them were clients of Christine. There’s also the body of a poor sewer man with no dialogue other than “Aarrgghh,” played briefly by Hammer’s eternal innkeeper Michael Ripper. Noticing Etoile’s behaviour around the wolves, and a handy sewer grate right by the brothel, Paul puts two and two together. But as his explanation is rather far-fetched, the local Prefect orders all the wolves at the zoo destroyed. Etoile is forced to do it, which causes him to fully wolf out. He escapes into the sewer. Paul follows and tries to help him, but the police are not far behind. Inspector Gerard, armed with a silver bullet on Paul’s advice, shoots Etoile. The hapless wolfman dies in Christine’s arms, along with Tyburn’s hopes of being a successful production company.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the idea behind Tyburn seems to have been to make something akin to classic Hammer. Unfortunately Legend of the Werewolf feels more like a latter day Hammer film, looking massively twee and out of date. Bear in mind it came out in the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, Frightmare, Black Christmas and The Wicker Man to name but a few. Even more unfortunate is how Legend of the Werewolf combines the elements of a mid-60s Hammer gothic (mild gore, no nudity) with the substandard production value and leaden pacing of one of their 70s duds. Sets were mostly recycled from stock flats in Pinewood Studios’ scene dock, and they look downright threadbare.
The script doesn’t do much to distinguish itself either. It comes from the familiar pen of John Elder, actually the nom de plume of former Hammer producer Anthony Hinds. The original idea was a combination of two treatments; Kevin Francis’ ‘Plague of the Werewolves’ and Hinds’ ‘Wolf Boy.’ Having read both I’d say most of the elements come from Hinds’ version, which included the Russian immigrants, the 19th century French setting, the travelling show, the zoo and the brothel. Interestingly, Guy Endore’s novel Werewolf of Paris is not cited as a source, which is surprising; this film is very similar in places to Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf from 1961, also scripted by Hinds. That film WAS based on Endore’s book, despite the setting being switched to Spain to use the sets built for an abandoned Spanish Inquisition movie. According to Freddie Francis, the French setting in Legend… was inspired in part by John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, a film where Francis had served as camera operator. Probably the biggest innovation in the script, which has its roots in the Francis treatment, is the police procedural aspect. This at least gives Peter Cushing something to do.
Cushing is, inevitably, the best thing about the movie. Professor Paul Cataflanque is a typical Cushing hero; a brilliant, educated but compassionate man of science, but one with a mind open to non-scientific explanations. There’s not a great deal to distinguish him from Van Helsing or Sherlock Holmes, except that Paul has more of a sense of humour. Cushing was pleased about this and plays it with an amused twinkle in the eye. And let’s be honest; there’s nobody better at playing this kind of character than Cushing. As always, despite being able to phone it in, Pete gives it his all. It’s the fact that he’s consistently so good with such average material that Cushing is my favourite actor ever. On that, Kevin Francis and I are in full agreement.
The remaining cast members are a mixed bag. David Rintoul in his first film role isn’t bad, though he’s no Oliver Reed; he plays Etoile as largely innocent, almost a bit simple, but this works. It makes the character quite sympathetic, as he’s more of a victim than anything. Rintoul didn’t do much film work, but he’s had a long career on television. The most famous name apart from Cushing is Ron Moody, who plays the zookeeper as rather too broad comic relief. The remaining cast are drawn largely from TV guest-starring roles and don’t make much of an impression.
The direction by Freddie Francis is workmanlike, a far cry from his inventiveness on the likes of The Skull or The Creeping Flesh. Francis has a thing for shooting from the POV of the killer – he does it brilliantly in both of the aforementioned films – but here the werewolf-cam red filter quickly becomes annoying. The score is by another late-period Hammer regular, Harry Robinson (The Vampire Lovers), but doesn’t have much to recommend it. The whole thing was recorded in one day so it’s perhaps not surprising.
Legend of the Werewolf was released by Fox-Rank Distributors on a double bill with Hammer’s Vampire Circus, and the pairing actually did decent business. Quite what the audiences made of the stodgy and old-fashioned Tyburn picture in comparison to one of Hammer’s more inventive later works, I don’t know. Certainly Vampire Circus, along with the rest of Hammer’s output, has had the longevity; it recently had a blu-ray release. Meanwhile Tyburn’s films are almost impossible to find. My copy is sourced from an old, long-deleted VHS tape, the same as my copies of The Ghoul and Persecution. And Legend of the Werewolf was Tyburn’s last release for nearly a decade. According to Francis the company did pretty well out of these three films, so quite what happened behind the scenes that prevented any more productions, I don’t know. Fox-Rank’s deal omitted North America, and perhaps the firm’s financial backers had other problems. In any case, Tyburn returned briefly in the mid-1980s with a TV movie called The Bells of Death, starring a very frail old Peter Cushing in his last appearance as Sherlock Holmes. After that, nothing much.
It’s all a bit peculiar, but given the obscurity of the films and the company, I doubt the truth will ever come out. While volumes have been written on every aspect of Hammer, and there’s a decent amount on Amicus and Tigon, I only know of one book about Tyburn. Making Legend of the Werewolf was published by the British Film Institute’s Educational Advisory Service in 1976, as a textbook on a typical British film production for kids taking media studies at school! It’s a frustrating book, going into exhaustive detail about things like the production budget and shooting schedule, but contains scant information on the company itself. So the only conclusion I’ve been able to draw is the old ‘the British film industry was kinda fucked, as usual’ and leave it at that.
Hrm, I wasn’t expecting this review to go all serious and academic and stuff, with references and everything. But the film is a bit too glum to generate a whole mass of riffing, even with Michael Ripper as a sewer attendent.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: United kingdom | Starring: Peter Cushing, Ron Moody, Hugh Griffith, Roy Castle, David Rintoul, Stefan Gryff, Lynn Dalby, Renee Houston, Marjorie Yates, Norman Mitchell, Mark Weavers, David Bailie, Hilary Labow, Elaine Baillie, Michael Ripper, Pamela Green | Screenplay: Anthony Hinds | Director: Freddie Francis | Cinematography: John Wilcox | Music: Harry Robinson | Producer: Kevin Francis
The years 1976 to 1986, roughly spanning ages four to fourteen for me, seem to be when I discovered the bulk of what I would end up liking for the rest of my life. At the time, my enthusiasm for entertainment that was sometimes, to be charitable, of dubious merit, could be chalked up to simple naivety — the juvenile tastes of a juvenile. Perfectly acceptable, even if it did mean that I was prone to celebrating things like Treasure of the Four Crowns and Gymkata. However, years — nay, decades — later, I find that when I go back and revisit these films so beloved in my youth, rather than having a quiet chuckle at how silly I was back then, I actually enjoy them just as much. And sometimes even more.
Time after time, I’ve sat down to be disillusioned, or to wonder how I could have liked such lowbrow fare when I could have spent my time brushing up on classic works of literature, only to find myself hooting with glee and running about the room in unabashed glee as I witnessed some fantastical orgy of ninja gore or oiled-up barbarians. Think of it as my childlike sense of wonder, if you are feeling generous, or shake your head in sorrow as you realize that I did indeed completely stop growing mentally at age fourteen.
Still, one must assume that even I have my limits, and there must be a film at there that I loved as a kid and would not still love as an adult. I was told countless times by many people I trust that the 1979 fantasy film Arabian Adventure would be that film. Because make no mistake about it — I loved this film when I was it in the theaters. Looking back on it, I could remember very little. I don’t think I ever saw it again after that first time. All I could recall about the film was a genie, something about Mickey Rooney inside a giant golden clockwork robot, and magic carpet dogfights. Heck, I didn’t even remember that it starred venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. I have no idea why I didn’t remember him but did remember Mickey Rooney. I don’t think I was a big Mickey Rooney fan in my youth. In fact, I think I’ve only ever seen two Mickey Rooney films in my entire life.
Anyway, for years I snooped around, hoping to discover that Arabian Adventure had suddenly appeared on home video in some format that wouldn’t require me to shell out $30 for someone’s crappy VHS bootleg with a label hand-written in pencil. But for one reason or another, it always seemed to be MIA, and so I was left celebrating the merits of the film while all those around me who had seen it more recently made with the ominous proclamations of, “You’re going to be disappointed with that one, chief.” Impossible! I mean — seriously: magic carpet dog fights!
Finally, after years of waiting outside a temple, seated in the lotus position and refusing both food and water, ignoring the rain, the snow, the scorching heat, the jackals, the police telling me to move along, after all of that, one day I performed my hopeful little search on Netflix, and low and behold, there it was. Arabian Adventure! Needless to say, I had to bump certain classics, like Kickboxer IV (oh, the things I’ll do for Michelle Krasnoo…the things I’d let her do to me…), a little lower on the list, but it was worth it to move this long-awaited gem from my youth to the top of the queue. Finally, the moment of truth had arrived. Would Arabian Adventure prove to be, as has been predicted by soothsayers and friends with my best interests at heart, a massive disappointment, forcing me to call into question everything I’ve ever held dear, permanently casting a gloomy shadow of resentment and melancholy over my childhood? Or would my seemingly indefatigable ability to pleased by damn near anything triumph, reinforcing the idea that I see the world through the rose-colored lenses of a child and also have the brain of a seven-year-old?
Well, I’ve rewatched the movie now, and let me say this: magic carpet dogfights.
Yes, it’s true; my bottomless lack of taste (I’m watching Navy SEALS as I write this) and sound judgment wins again! I enjoyed Arabian Adventure to no end, reveled in every clunky special effect, thrilled to scenes of guys gliding around on magic carpets suspended by wires, and looked with the kind eyes of an old friend upon the visage of Mickey Rooney running around inside not one, but three giant golden clockwork robots. And then there’s venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee as the evil caliph Alquazar, doing his usual shtick and sporting a big ol’ mustache. And then there’s a kid with a monkey, a beautiful princess, a dashing prince, a scheming fat guy, some chick who lives inside a sapphire, Peter Cushing as the world’s least convincing Arab, and did I mention that this movie has magic carpet dogfights? Yes, I did.
And what makes my adoration of this film all the more shameful is that it has all these things, but doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with them. The prince and princess are boring. Mickey Rooney is irritating and seems to have been bitten by a radioactive community theater performer and thus been imbued with all the proportional over-acting and hamming abilities that come with such a position in life. The special effects,while ambitious, are rarely any good. The entire movie plays like a fan-made “greatest hits of the Arabian Nights” highlight reel. And none of that seems to matter to me.
So here’s the deal. The film begins with young Majeed (Puneet Sira) and his pet monkey arriving in a matte painting of the ancient Arabian city of Jhador, populated primarily by second unit stock footage of camels and guys sitting around in doorways. Majeed has arrived in the middle of sweeping events. People are plotting the overthrow of the ruthless Caliph Dracula (venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee), while Caliph Dracula himself is plotting to recover the mystical Rose of Elil, a sacred artifact that will, in some vague way, grant him the ultimate power to rule over the world, or something to that effect. Artifacts that grant you the power to rule the world are rarely clear on exactly how they plan to go about it. They are, in that way, very much like your modern politician — all full of promises and rhetoric, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts, the promises tend to fall apart. But that’s small potatoes to worry about for a guy who has somehow managed to imprison his own soul in a fire pit and spends his free time taunting it. For its part, the soul spends most of its time being sort of petulant and whiny and generally making you understand why Caliph Dracula imprisoned it in the first place.
Unable to retrieve the rose himself, for it must be plucked by a pure and righteous hand, Caliph Dracula enlists the aid of dashin’ Prince Hasan (Oliver Tobias), who has fallen in love with Princess Zuliera (Emma Samms) despite having never actually seen or met her, and who seems completely oblivious to the fact that Caliph Dracula is evil and enjoys crushing his subjects beneath the iron fist of his mad tyranny. But he looks damn good in his swashbuckling Arabian prince outfit. Majeed ends up in possession of a magic gem that contains a trapped sorceress (Capucine) who, grateful for him releasing her, grants Majeed three life-saving wishes. Through typical movie convolution, this results in Majeed suddenly appearing on the back of a magic carpet piloted by dashin’ Prince Hasan and Khasim (Milo O’Shea), a spy assigned by Caliph Dracula to accompany dashin’ Prince Hasan and stab him in the back (literally) once he has the rose. Needless to say, Khasim is vexed that this half-naked young rascal has suddenly appeared out of nowhere on their magic carpet, and so he spends the bulk of their flight trying to knock him off.
Their quest for the magic rose leads them on a variety of adventures that involve a murderous genie (big Milton Reid, sporting weird googly eyes), a trio of fire-breathing monsters that end up being controlled by Mickey Rooney, and a lake of guys who try to grab your legs. As far as trials go, I have to admit, I’ve seen more challenging. I mean, Hercules had to clean stables that hadn’t been cleaned in dozens of years, and dashin’ Prince Hasan has to defeat Mickey Rooney? That hardly seems fair — especially when Majeed does all the work. I mean, maybe the psychotic laughing genie would have posed a threat if he had been able to hit the broadside of a mosque with his magic firebolts, but he proves incapable of hitting a squirming fat guy all of five feet away — and then he gets defeated when dashin’ Prince Hasan tips over a bottle! That’s Scooby Doo quality adventure right there. The quests get more challenging when Khasim pulls his power play. Before too long, dashin’ Prince Hasan and Majeed find themselves leading a revolution, rescuing a princess, fighting with Caliph Dracula in a lake of fire, and engaging in magic carpet dogfights with Caliph Dracula’s all-carpet air force of guy’s who primary skill seems to be to wave their swords awkwardly at dashin’ Prince Hasan, while he waves his sword awkwardly at them, causing hem to fall off their magic carpets. Someone should look into seat belts or something for those things.
Lyz at And You Call Yourself a Scientist — one of my absolute favorite movie sites on the web — said of Arabian Adventure, “It is hard to imagine any but the least discriminating of viewers — of any age — really enjoying this film.” And I can’t really debate her on this matter. Instead, about all I can do is admit that it has been my goal to live the sort of life and put forth the sort of opinions that would result in my eventual tombstone reading, “America’s Least Discerning Viewer.” My other choice for an epitaph was, “It Took a Dozen Texas Marshals to Finally Bring Him Down.” Anyway, I freely admit that pretty much all of the criticisms that someone could lay at the feet of Arabian Adventure stick with the tenacity of an extra-gooey Wacky Wall Walker fresh out of the gum machine capsule. None of these should come as any shock if you are familiar with the writer-director team who brought you this movie. Because the last couple of movies they brought you were just as bad or even worse (and yeah — I liked them, too).
Director Kevin Conner and screenwriter Brian Hayles are responsible for a trio of Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired fantasy adventure films: At the Earth’s Core, starring Doug McClure, Caroline Munro, and Peter Cushing (and featuring one of the single greatest lines and deliveries in movie history: “You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!”), and the one-two punch of The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot, both starring just Doug McClure. Hayles and Conner (they toured with Seals and Croft, I think) also made Warlords of Atlantis, which stars Doug McClure but is not based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story . It does often get me confused when I think it’s War Gods of the Deep, which featured Vincent Price and Tab Hunter — and buddy, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure. Oliver Tobias, also, is no Doug McClure.
Anyway, the films of Conner and Hayles are almost universally reviled by everyone except, apparently, me. And I have loved every last one of them. Even The People that Time Forgot. Even Arabian Adventure, though it could have really used some Doug McClure. In fact, given that the wooden dullness of our prince and princess is one of Arabian Adventure‘s greatest weaknesses, the film could have been improved immensely if dashin’ Prince Hasan had been played by Doug McClure and Princess Zuleira played by Caroline Munro. But I guess Doug McClure was too rugged and Joe Don Baker-esque to play a dashing prince (since he specialized in playing cool Americans in British films), and Caroline Munro had already been an Arabian princess in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Still, man that would have been awesome, or at least more awesome than Oliver Tobias and Emma Samms — both of whom look the part but offer very little in the way of charisma.
As bad as Conner and Hayles’ previous movies may have been, at least each of them had something that could keep people from being totally cranky about watching them. Land that Time Forgot enjoyed the services of Doug McClure and features WWI German U-boat guys fighting dinosaurs, and that’s enough for me. People that Time Forgot enjoys the services of Doug McClure with a caveman beard and Sarah Douglas in expedition jodhpurs. And At the Earth’s Core? My Lord! It’s got Doug McClure fighting night immobile paper mache monsters, Caroline Munro in a loin cloth waving a knife around, and Peter Cushing in one of the most hilarious “absent-minded professor” roles ever. Plus, it has the line “You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!” — which is bested only by Cushing’s line in Horror Express where, indignant at the suggestion that he could have been possessed by the monster stalking the train, exclaims, “Monsters?!?! We’re British!”
Arabian Adventure does not have the benefit of charismatic players like Munro, McClure, or Peter Cushing — which is an odd thing to say, since it features Peter Cushing. Cushing is one of a handful of “special guest stars,” which is a nice way of saying that they owed Conner some sort of a favor or something. Cushing appears in a bit role as a holy man imprisoned in Caliph Dracula’s dungeon, and as an Arab holy man, Peter Cushing is a very convincing 19th century British scientist. The other guest stars — Mickey Rooney and Milo O’Shea — have larger parts and even pass themselves off fairly believably as Arabs (by the standards of fat Irish guys pretending to be Arabs), but each one seems intent on outdoing the other in the field of hammy over-acting. I suppose that’s good, because no one else seemed all that interested in putting any effort into their parts. Actually, that’s not true. I firmly believe that Oliver Tobias tried really hard. But he’s the film’s Keanu Reeves. He’s earnest, good-looking,and really wants to do a good job; he just can’t. But at least the script gives him some chances to shine, even if he fails as an actor to rise tot he occasion. He gets to have badly executed sword fights, fly around on magic carpets, jump over stuff, and tip over a genie bottle. Poor Emma Samms is saddled with a character so thinly written that the poor actress was doomed to be boring before the first frame was ever shot. Her princess is a sheltered woman who has never left the confines of Caliph Dracula’s palace. She has nothing to do but walk from room to room, and eventually sit around and listen to Caliph Dracula’s imprisoned soul complain about being imprisoned. Eventually, dashin’ Prince Hasan rescues her. Or really, Majeed rescues her and dashin’ Prince Hasan happens to be int he same general area and of legal age, so what are you gonna do?
Speaking of which, although I apparently didn’t mind them as a kid, as an adult I usually hate movies starring children. I don’t care for children in general, so watching a movie about one just seems pointless to me. But young Indian actor Puneet Sira seems possessed of all the charisma and charm that is lacking in Samms and Tobias. It’s hard not to compare him to Sabu, the young Indian star of films like Arabian Nights and Thief of Baghdad. So let me compare him to Sabu. As a Sabu stand-in, he’s exceptional, and we should be thankful that Conner at least took the time to find a likable and talented child instead of just casting Sabu, then in his…oh. Umm, then in his grave. OK, backing away from whatever Old Man Sabu joke I was hoping to make…
Which leaves us with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Although his character is called Alquazar in this film, I prefer to refer to him as Caliph Dracula for two reasons. First, I know doing stuff like that irritates venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee (who I’m sure reads this site all the time) to no end, and any chance I have to irritate venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee is a chance I can’t let pass me by. Second, he basically gives the exact same performance he gave in Satanic Rites of Dracula, and Dracula AD 1972, and the Fu Manchu movies (they apparently let him keep the mustache from those films, because he has it on here), and honestly — most of the movies he’s ever been in. Don’t get me wrong — he does it very well most of the time, but it does tend to get a tad familiar. His character here is given very little to do other than wait around in his lair while his minion does all the hard work (a la Dracula AD 1972), so venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee doesn’t really seem to be giving it his all.
Eventually, he gets in a really clumsy battle with dashin’ Prince Hasan, then chases Majeed up a rock, but that’s about it. Oh, and he turns a fat guy into a frog. But he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it very much, and once again, I can’t help but think how much better this film would have been if they’d cast someone else — Vincent Price, for example. Oh, now there’s a movie! Vincent Price, Doug McClure, and Caroline Munro! If I had myself a magic sapphire genie, that would be my first wish. My second wish would be that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee wrote me an email about how my jokes hurt his feelings, and then he ends the email with a sad face emoticon. Of course, my third wish would be that George Clooney was my friend. We’re both Kentucky boys, after all. Since Doug McClure is, sadly, no longer with us, I’d let Clooney be in my remake of Arabian Adventure. I don’t know who I’d get for Alquazar. Luckily, Caroline Munro, now nearly 60, is every bit as hot and talented as she was in her 20s. Maybe I could cast Alec Baldwin as Alquazar. Or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee!
So you may be asking yourself how I can spend the bulk of a review talking about how crappy a film is, then use that as criteria for concluding that I love the movie. Hey, this is Teleport City, baby, and the scientific method simply does not apply. And yeah, Arabian Adventure fails on a lot of levels for a lot of people. But not for me, because I had as much fun watching it today as I had watching nigh those many years ago. The lack of charisma in the leads doesn’t bug me. The fact that venerated horror film icon is giving a “just collecting a paycheck until I can go on to better films like Howling II and An Eye For An Eye” performance doesn’t bother me. The weak effects don’t bother me. The film is childish and clunky, and I love it. I love the magic carpet dogfights. I love the crummy sword fights. I love all the opulent but obvious matte painting backgrounds.
Speaking of obviously painted backgrounds, now is as good a time as any to breach the subject of the special effects. In 1977, as you may have heard, Star Wars was released upon the unsuspecting masses, and whatever its merits as a film (and I’m not trying to seem edgy by being a Star Wars hater — I loved it then and I love it still today), there’s no real credible way to deny the profound impact it had on special effects. It represented a quantum leap forward, and while you can say that nothing was ever the same after that, the fact is that there were a few stragglers that came in post-Star Wars but with very pre-Star Wars effects. Sometimes this had to do with the effects supervisor. Sometimes it had to do with the budget. In the case of Arabian Adventure, I’m pretty sure it was both.
Like most sci-fi and fantasy films that came in the wake of Star Wars, Arabian Adventure billed itself as a Star Wars like special effects extravaganza. If Star Wars was like watching Harry Houdini make an elephant vanish, Arabian Adventure was like watching a clumsy kid try to pull off a trick from his Blackstone the Magician illusion set. It’s cute, even charming in its way, but also sort of awkward and embarrassing.
Special effects supervisor George Gibbs shoots for the moon and ends up a fair distance from his target. He was early in his career, having worked previously with director Kevin Conner on Warlords of Atlantis, and then doing some model work on Richard Donner’s Superman before moving on to this film. Hamstrung by a small budget and limited resources, I think he intended to rely heavily on the gee whiz quaintness of his approach and on the untrained eyes of young children. The most ambitious effects are the magic carpets, realized through a combination of rear-screen projection, hoisting guys around on wires, and then letting little plastic guys tear around scale models of the city. None of these work terribly well, but there is a charm to watching little action figures on flying carpets wobble about in between scale model minarets. The other big effects are the genie — which is simple superimposition and animation, and sahib Rooney’s giant monsters, which are miniatures that rely on forced perspective shots that are sometimes effective and sometimes make Majeed look like a giant.
Still, I always appreciate a crude effect, and Arabian Adventure is endearing in its unwillingness to live within its means. This film certainly didn’t kill Gibbs’ career, and he went on to create all sorts of wildly uneven visual or effects for everything from 1980′s Flash Gordon to Conan the Barbarian. Obviously, the got really good at his craft pretty quickly, and he went on to work on films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Brazil, Alien 3, and more recently, From Hell and Doom. His work in Arabian Adventure is without a doubt a throwback to effects that probably weren’t even considered all that good in 1969, let alone 1979, but like I said — they’re sort of cute. In fact, pretty much everyone who worked on the effects for this film went on to very successful, and in some cases award-winning, careers. It goes without saying that none of those awards were for Arabian Adventure.
I have a tremendous weakness (one of many) for fantastic romanticized visions of ancient Arabia, and as pedestrian as some may find it, Arabian Adventure manages to satisfy the kid in me. I mean, don’t misunderstand — this film is nowhere near the caliber of the old Arabian Nights film, or either the Douglas Fairbanks or Sabu versions of The Thief of Badhdad. And it’s not in the league of the 1960s Sinbad movies with effects by Ray Harryhausen. But as dumb Saturday matinee fare, I still enjoy Arabian Adventure despite the sundry flaws. It would make a perfect double bill with Sinbad of the Seven Seas starring Lou Ferrigno.
Release Year: 1979 | Country: England | Starring: Puneet Sira, Oliver Tobias, Christopher Lee, Milo O’Shea, Emma Samms, Peter Cushing, Capucine, Mickey Rooney, John Wyman, John Ratzenberger, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Brian Hayle | Director: Kevin Conner | Cinematography: Alan Hume | Music: Ken Thorne | Producer: John Dark
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
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.
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.
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.