Tag Archives: Ralph Bates

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I Don’t Want To Be Born

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I have a shocking confession to make: I don’t own many movies featuring dwarves. When our fearless leader Keith suggested submitting a review to the little people roundtable, I was forced to confront this deficiency. A couple of my kung fu flicks might feature cameos by short actors, and sure I’ve got the Weng Weng spy epics, but those are already well served by reviews here. Willow? Too obvious. Seven Dwarfs to the Rescue? Too awful — and given the venerable members of the B-Masters, one that’s quite possibly been covered elsewhere. So I have been forced to fall back on a movie from my home country of Great Britain’s 1970s, one which resides variously under the titles The Monster, I Don’t Want To Be Born, Sharon’s Baby* and A Colossal Bag Of Concentrated Suck (one of these might not be real).

* the kind of attention to detail that made this film such a joy is summed up in the fact that there’s nobody in the movie called Sharon.

The film concerns Lucy Carlesi (venerated soap icon Joan Collins), a former cabaret dancer of some sort, currently attempting to give birth to her first baby. It’s not going well, causing the attending physician Dr. Finch (Donald Pleasence!) to observe “this one doesn’t want to be born!” I have to admit, if the first sight to greet me was creepy-looking Donald Pleasence in a surgeon’s mask I might be a bit reticent too. So our credits play out over Finch and the nurse attempting to forcibly drag the baby from Lucy’s womb. We know this is a difficult process because of the exaggerated zoom effect director Peter Sasdy throws in as Lucy’s POV. This would be a tense scene except for the jazzy lounge music serving as a theme, which surprisingly comes from the baton of Doctor Who composer Ron Grainer.

Anyway, the baby is eventually born whether he wants to be or not, much to the delight of Lucy’s husband Gino (Ralph Bates). Bates, as you probably know, was the guy Hammer tried to break in the 1970s as the next Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. It wasn’t an overwhelming success, probably because Bates never had the charisma of those two legends, but also because he was saddled with fairly indifferent material. Of his Hammer work there’s some good (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde) and a fair amount of bad (everything else).


Here, Bates plays an Italian businessman. Cue a performance that escaped from sitcom-land, when some wacky ne’er do well is trying to pass himself off as an Italian count or the Pope or something by going “Pizza! Spaghetti! Chianti!” in a patently false accent. Anyway, Finch tells Gino that his baby is healthy and unusually large. They discuss the baby’s name, Nicholas. “I want-a call-a him good EE-taliano name-a,” explains Gino, “but Loosee, she insist-a! Polpetini! Arrivaderci!” Something like that anyway. Incidentally, the pretty black nurse in this scene is none other than Floella Benjamin, who will be known to my fellow Brits (at least old ones like me) as a popular children’s TV presenter.

Things don’t stay idyllic for very long: after hearing a piercing scream, Finch and Gino race into Lucy’s room to find that she has apparently been bitten by the ba… the baby… OK. I’d wanted to get to the end of the review before addressing this, but honestly I can’t. It’s just too ridiculous not to get out of the way up front. We’re in familiar Rosemary’s Baby/Exorcist/Omen territory here, except that instead of a Satanic pregnancy, the Devil’s child or a possessed young girl, what we have here is… a killer baby.

And not just any baby, but a completely benign, affable-looking baby. Every time the wee tyke is supposed to attack, there’ll be a shot of someone leaning over the cot, an off-camera scream, the victim staggering back somehow bloodied, and then a cut to the little fella in his knitted mittens and hat. His expression, far from being sinister, seems to say “don’t look at me; I’m a baby. I still get praise for shitting myself.”

As soon as Lucy and Gino get the baby home, he attacks the housekeeper Mrs. Hyde (Hilary Mason, who’s been in everything from The Six Wives of Henry VIII to Robot Jox), and breast feeding is out of the question. Nicholas is also quite upset in the company of Gino’s sister, Albana, who’s a genuine Sister Albana in that she’s a nun (Eileen Atkins). Increasingly concerned, Lucy confides in her best friend, another cabaret artiste named Mandy. Mandy is played by the goddess in human form that is Caroline Munro, though for some reason her pleasant London accent has been overdubbed by someone else with a slightly different London accent. I’d question the reasons for this some more, but I’m still reeling from the FUCKING KILLER BABY!


While Mandy is at the house, the baby — oh God this is so ridiculous — ‘the baby’ goes crazy and wrecks his room. Distressed, Lucy tells a lengthy tale of her last night at the club where they both worked. Lucy’s act, which seemed to involve being dressed as a gypsy and not removing any clothing, was a smash hit with the rich sheiks and businessmen in the audience. Her act routine involved a hunchbacked dwarf, but again not in an apparently seedy way. I guess my idea of debauched 70s nightclub life is a little distorted. Anyway, the dwarf, Hercules (George Claydon) makes a pass at Lucy backstage, but she’s repulsed. Also she’s in the middle of a torrid affair with the club owner Tommy (John Steiner). Hercules, who doesn’t take rejection well, curses Lucy, telling her she’ll have a baby that will be possessed by the Devil. It’ll also be a giant, as big as he is small. The baby, irritatingly, remains resolutely normal-sized.

And thus the movie progresses with all the required beats. At Nicky’s christening the baby goes berserk, demonstrated by the actor playing the priest faux-struggling and waving the little shawl-wrapped bundle about like a rugby ball. Since the child is clearly, ha, out of control, Dr. Finch recommends a course of sedation and a live-in nurse (Janet Key). Before long the baby is trying to drown the nurse in the bath, and when that doesn’t work he manages to shove her onto rocks in a river. While sitting in his pram. Seriously.

While Lucy has horrible visions of the baby with Hercules’ face (realised by making poor George Claydon dress up as a baby and lie in a cot), Nicky is screaming with rage every time Sister Albana prays, or somehow teleporting dead mice into Mrs. Hyde’s tea. Lucy is still clinging to the idea that there may be a rational, scientific explanation for Nicky’s behaviour, and goes to see Tommy in case he has a family history of killer-baby disease. Y’see, Lucy was still sleeping with Tommy around the time she got pregnant, because I guess he couldn’t resist her gypsy-dancing-with-a-dwarf routine. Tommy turns out to be an unrepentant cad who is now sleeping with Mandy. Lucy meets him at the club where he’s auditioning strippers, which does allow the requisite bit of nudity into the film. Tommy is unimpressed, trying to convince Lucy to return to the stage. The gypsy/dwarf number was apparently such a hit that things have never been the same without it. With his charms failing to work on Lucy, Tommy demands to see the baby for himself. This doesn’t go too well when the little fella punches Tommy in the face.


With this violent bruiser of a child in the house, nerves are strained, so Gino convinces Finch to admit the baby to hospital while he takes Lucy on a therapeutic holiday. Nicky however has other ideas, luring Gino to the garden, slipping a noose around his neck and then dragging him several feet off the ground before hiding the body. A baby does all this, you understand. I feel it needs repeating.

So now with Gino missing Lucy really goes to pieces. Finch, convinced by Sister Albana that there may indeed be Satanic forces at work, goes to the house and finds what appears to be Gino’s decomposed body. Which is impressive given that he only disappeared the previous morning. Nicky doesn’t take too kindly to the discovery and beheads Finch with a garden spade. With everything spiralling out of control, Nicky finally attacks and kills Lucy. Sister Albana’s only option is to perform an exorcism, which has the added effect of causing Hercules to collapse and die mid-performance at the club.

Oy.


So I suppose the first thing to say about I Don’t Want To Be Born is that there’s nothing particularly inept about it, at least compared to other British horror cheapies of this era. Peter Sasdy was a decent TV and film director, working for Hammer among others. The cast are mostly solid, Ralph Bates’ mama-mia accent aside. Even Joan Collins, an actress who I largely can’t stand, isn’t terrible. This film was made during that period of her career she seems eager to forget, between the early ingénue days and the TV mega-stardom of Dynasty. This was the time Collins moved between TV guest slots and parts in crummy horror films, whether it was being attacked by super-enlarged footage of insects in Empire of the Ants or getting molested by a tree in Tales That Witness Madness. Caroline Munro isn’t in the movie nearly enough, but she does get to wear a basque and stockings, which is very welcome.

The problem here though — and it’s an insurmountable one — is this is a movie about a killer baby. I wish I could elaborate on that more, but every time I try to express my thoughts in a coherent fashion I just want to write KILLER BABY KILLER BABY KILLER BABY! Cinema is the medium of the imagination, and in the hands of a talented filmmaker anything is possible. So I suppose there may be a way to make a genuinely frightening, disturbing film about a killer baby. Sadly, this is not it. I don’t even LIKE babies and I think the little chap is cute. Does he want a lil’ dagger, does he? Yes, oosa cute ickle killer baby, yes you are…

Release year: 1975 | Country: England | Starring: Joan Collins, Eileen Atkins, Ralph Bates, Donald Pleasence, Caroline Munro, Hilary Mason, John Steiner, Janet Key, George Claydon | Screenplay: Stanley Price (screenplay) | Director: Peter Sasdy | Cinematography: Kenneth Talbot | Music: Ron Grainer | Producers: Nato De Angeles, Norma Corney | Alternate titles: The Monster, Sharon’s Baby

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Taste the Blood of Dracula

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Last time we saw the prince of the undead, he was impaled on a cross and turned into that pink sawdust bus drivers sprinkle on the floor when kids throw up. For just about anyone, even the common vampire, that would signal the end, once and for all. But this is Dracula we’re talking about, and if Dracula Has Risen from the Grave proved to be a financial success for England’s Hammer Studio, then you could bet good money on the fact that they’d find yet another way to bring the Count back from the dead, even if he’d been impaled on a cross and even if series star Christopher Lee was back out on the streets again telling anyone and everyone who would listen that the Dracula movies were awful and he would absolutely, positively, under no circumstances ever play Count Dracula again. Anyone who knows the cycle knows that means that the next film in the cycle, Taste the Blood of Dracula, stars Christopher Lee as the titular count, and that in turns means we’d have to read even more quotes from Lee about how he was practically forced to do this film, but that he’d sure as heck never do another one.

There are two common paths of thought regarding Lee’s frequent and increasingly irritating complaints about Hammer’s Dracula movies. The first is that, well, Christopher Lee is just sort of cranky and overly pompous about the whole thing. The second is that he made these statements with the full blessing of Hammer and with every intention, despite what he was saying, of reprising the role so long as the movies proved profitable. Having the star of a film out there talking about how horrible it all is and how he never wants to do another one is a surefire way to get people curious. Certainly Hammer seemed to have suspiciously peculiar luck with convincing Christopher Lee to go back on his bold proclamations. So either Lee is was a talker who never lived up to his own assertions, or he’s just a cog in a clever Hammer marketing ploy, or Hammer has some bundle of pictures or other bunch of material that they use to regularly blackmail Lee.


In fact, Taste the Blood of Dracula was originally scripted by Anthony Hinds on the assumption that Lee would make good on his boasts and refuse to appear. Much like Brides of Dracula before it, Taste the Blood of Dracula was going to employ the threat of Dracula and his disciples without actually featuring the bloodsucker himself. As originally written Taste the Blood was going to be a showcase for Hammer’s great young hope, Ralph Bates, the man they hoped would serve as the banner star for a new era of revitalized Hammer output. It seemed like a good idea. Christopher Lee was becoming more difficult by the day, and one has to assume that despite the man’s marquee value, Hammer would be happy to just move on without him for a spell. And Ralph Bates was certainly an able man around which to structure the faltering studio. Where as Cushing and Lee and the previous generation of Hammer actors had represented an older, more distinguished presence, Bates was young and handsome and would appeal, Hammer hoped, to the younger kids who were fast becoming the bread and butter of the movie industry.

As the studio entered the 1970s, they were beginning to feel the weight of a faltering British film industry, a dearth of ideas for new movies that would keep Hammer fresh, and most of all, the feeling that Hammer films were simply outdated and old-fashioned. Behind the scenes, Hammer was rudderless and without any real leadership or idea of where the studio was going. As a result, Hammer’s output during the 1970s was notoriously uneven, though several high points managed to rise above the widening pool of substandard Hammer fare. One of the keys to Hammer succeeding in the 1970s involved a serious update of the stodgy and old-fashioned reputation. This meant, among other things, more daring scripts, less naive looks at life, and above all, some new blood in the acting department that would appeal to existing horror fans as well as those shaggy-haired hippies and burn-outs with their bell bottoms and their Sergeant Pepper albums.


Unfortunately Warner Brothers, who distributed the films in the important US market, wasn’t going to buy any of this. They didn’t know who Ralph Bates was, and more importantly, they didn’t care. If Hammer wanted their Dracula film distributed in the United States, then it damn well better have Dracula in it. American audiences wouldn’t put up with a bait and switch (the success of Roger Corman and Al Adamson disproves this assertion), and if Warner couldn’t have Christopher Lee in the film, then the film couldn’t have distribution in the United States. Hammer scrambled to appease Lee in the same way but for much less money than the producers of the James Bond films begged and bought Sean Connery back into the Bond series (at roughly the same time. Diamonds Are Forever came out in 1971, but given the speed with which Hammer films were made versus the more liberal schedule of a Bond film, it’s likely this sort of desperate buying back of established stars was happening at around the same time). With Lee on board again, under protest as he couldn’t stop reminding people, a hasty rewrite of the script was in order so that Dracula could actually appear in the film to see who it was that going around tasting his blood.

Taste the Blood begins with a clever intro that signals the film’s intention to put more work than usual into the process of reviving Dracula. A merchant traveling via coach with a couple of your standard issue gruff, superstitious villagers is bragging about the rare wares he has acquired during his recent antiquing sojourn through the Carpathian hills. While he may be proud of his knick-knacks, the villagers aren’t as impressed, and when the merchant mentions a certain village, they just haul off and kick him out of the coach. Stranded in the woods at night, the merchant begins to hear the standard “stranded in the woods at night” sound effects. Owls, scurrying, and a howl that may or may not be Oliver Reed from Curse of the Werewolf. When a blood-curdling shriek fills the air, the merchant realizes that some seriously foul things are afoot in this cursed forest. By and by he falls off a ledge and comes face to face with the thrilling climax of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Once that movie finishes up, the merchant twists up his courage and sneaks down to collect the remaining artifacts, which include, as the title suggests, the blood of Dracula, or at least the powdered “just add water” variety we’re used to seeing once Dracula finishes dying.


Some time later, we meet three upstanding citizens of Queen Victoria’s England, and as you can guess, all three of them aren’t nearly as pious as they pretend. Ring leader William Hargood (Geoffrey Keene, who appeared in Cromwell every James Bond films beginning with The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 and concluding with The Living Daylights) is the most despicable of the bunch as he beats and berates his daughter for smiling at a boy and engaging in other acts of harlotry while, the very same night, gathering his cronies together for a night of exotic pleasures at the local brothel. Hargood and his fellows form sort of a mini Hellfire Club, though their indulgences in the forbidden pleasures of the world consist almost entirely of going to same brothel every month under the guise of “charity work” and then sitting in a room, drinking liquor, and watching foreign women dance naked. I’m not saying that isn’t a fine night out on the town, but as far as experiencing the taboos from the farthest reaches of the globe go, it’s pretty pedestrian stuff.

Hargood seems to realize this, and their boredom with their panty-waist sin leads them to seek out eccentric dandy Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who is one of those broke counts who gads about town in the finest high society frippery, scamming free meals from expensive restaurants and mooching off exquisite looking women of loose morals and poor judgment as he twirls his walking stick, doffs his top hat, and snaps his hankie about. In other words, a perfectly fine role model. Courtley is rumored to have dabbled in the black arts of Satanism or voodoo or something sinister, and so the three upstanding gentlemen seek out his company, though they never stop insulting him — which seems to me a poor way to treat the madcap young fop you’re asking to initiate you into the next level of debauchery. Courtley sees in the gentlemen the perfect opportunity to get enough money to do something he’s always wanted to do: namely, visit that merchant from the pre-credit sequence, buy Dracula’s stuff, and mount a ritual to return the count to life. Reason? For the hell of it, it seems, which is as good a reason as any, I suppose.


As one would imagine, the ritual goes awry when Hargood’s friends balk at actually guzzling down the thick, foaming blood of Dracula milkshake with which Courtley presents them. The ensuing argument results in Courtley’s murder as he thrashes and writhes about after drinking the blood himself. Hargood and Co. high tail it out of the ruined old building in which the fun was taking place, and Courtley, not surprisingly proves to be just the vessel Dracula needs to return from the dead once again to wreak his unholy vengeance upon those who murdered his assistant, which doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense when you remember that Dracula has no idea who Courtley is, and that Courtley’s death was necessary for Dracula to return to the land of the living. But what do you want when the script gets rewritten at the last minute?

The remainder of the film sees Dracula (Christopher Lee) gaining control over the sons and daughters of the three men against whom he bears this grudge, so that he can have them murder their own parents, which frees Dracula up to stand nearby in the shadows and count down the number of people against whom he has successfully extracted his revenge. Considering there’s only three of them, it’s not much of a countdown.


One of the things that sets this film apart from previous Dracula films is that Dracula is arguably the hero of the film. Though we still have to see him destroyed in the end, there’s little doubt that he’s no more vile than the men he’s hunting. When he manipulates Hargood’s battered daughter Alice (Linda Hayden, Blood on Satan’s Claw) into smashing her wretched father’s head in with a shovel, one almost feels like cheering, especially since this comes after a grotesque scene in which a drunk and leering Hargood viciously beats his daughter and looks on the verge of flat out raping her. Previous Dracula films have had gray characters — the self-righteous blowhard Monsignor from the last film springs immediately to mind — but those characters always had redeeming qualities. Hargood possesses no such qualities. He is despicable from beginning to end, and the audience has no problem feeling that he got what he deserved. The only thing wrong with his death, as I see it, is that it’s the first, leaving the other two far less revolting characters to carry the plot when, if you ask me, Hargood’s death should have been the climax of the story. Instead, we get Dracula hunting down the remainder of Hargood’s cabal while milquetoast Paul (yet another Paul — nearly as many of these in Dracula films as there are Kloves, or Hans’s in the Frankenstein movie) tries to save the soul of his beloved Alice Hargood and, in the process, send Dracula back from whence he came.

Taste the Blood represents a more savage critique of Victorian society than any previous Dracula film. There has always been an undercurrent in the films of the ongoing struggle between enforced morals and repression and the wild animalistic abandon represented by Dracula. But in previous films, the scripts always came down on the side of society, preferring its ordered repression to the lust and passion of Dracula. Here, however, the tables are turned and if Dracula’s lifestyle isn’t exactly championed, it’s at least shown as being no worse than the hypocrisy and deceit of modern society. The point is made in rather a heavy-handed fashion, but so it goes. Although a more counter-culture, youth-friendly message about freedom triumphing over repression was nothing new in 1970, Hammer was still a relative neophyte studio when it came to tapping into the anti-authoritarian trends that had defined and all but escaped Hammer during the 1960s. With Taste the Blood, they’re attempting to play a bit of catch-up, so one can forgive the ham-handed way in which they deliver the message.


Dracula is, once again, little more than a supporting player, a sort of shadowy puppet master with very little screen time who does precious little more than lurk in the shadows rattling off the body count like the Count from Sesame Street. But then at the same time, he doesn’t have any less screen time or involvement in things than he did in most of the previous films. What Taste the Blood does is the same thing that Horror of Dracula and Prince of Darkness attempted to do, which is to keep Dracula constantly present as a threat, an ominous atmosphere of dread, even when Christopher Lee himself is nowhere to be seen. Only in the finale, which is admittedly half-baked, does Lee get to do his crazed thrashing about, though one has to wonder if the lord of the undead couldn’t think of a better way to fight off a weak opponent like Paul than standing on a balcony and throwing garbage at him. It’s just one step away from having Dracula swoop down and whack Paul on the head, then flutter up into the rafters to taunt him.

The rest of the cast is spectacular. Paul (Anthony Higgins, Vampire Circus as well as a small part in Raiders of the Lost Ark) is more boring than the previous Paul, but no more boring than any of the other straights we’ve had on parade. Linda Hayden acquits herself well as the other half of the boring romantic couple. The real strength of the cast lies in everyone else, an impressive assembly of solid character actors that perform above and beyond the call of duty, with Geoffrey Keen and Ralph Bates in the lead. For the couple scenes where he’s allowed to spring to life, Christopher Lee is as good as he always is. Michael Ripper, who seems to have appeared in just about every movie Hammer ever made, gets promoted from the role of “suspicious barkeep” to “lackadaisical inspector.” It’s probably one of the best casts ever assembled for a Dracula film, and although it’s common to bemoan the lack of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, there’s really no place for him thematically in this film, where the humans are generally so contemptible. Van Helsing’s compassionate authority figure would have stood out like a sore thumb.


Taste the Blood continues to take Dracula further and further away from Van Helsing’s theory that Dracula is is a perfectly explainable creature well within and soundly defeated by the powers of human reason. In fact, by Taste the Blood, Dracula is hardly even a vampire any more so much as he is some kind of supernatural demonic force. If ever he was the human-made monster, you wouldn’t know it at this point. The more secular means of dispatching a vampire — garlic, running water, so on and so forth — that were previously employed have, by this movie, been dispatched almost entirely in favor of religious iconography. Although Taste the Blood is as steeped in religious imagery as Dracula has Risen from the Grave, it doesn’t have any particular comment to direct toward religion the way that previous film did. Religion is simply a matter of necessity as Dracula has become less the prince of darkness and more the Antichrist himself. Or wait, are those the same? Whatever the case, Taste the Blood again presents us with a monster which, unlike Dracula as we knew him in the first couple of films, exists entirely within a religious — or sacreligious — realm where bravery and reason have less to do with destroying him than do faith and Christ.

Despite the weak ending, Taste the Blood is an exceptional entry into Hammer’s Dracula oeuvre. Director Peter Sasdy eschews the ultra-vivid palette that characterized the Terence Fisher films and goes for a more subdued hue to the film, something more akin to reality and less stylized. Buildings and street are dark rather than brightly lit, and there is a palpable sense of decay in everything. Even Christopher Lee grudgingly admits that it turned out to be a good film, though to this day he won’t stop going on about how corny the title is — and at least on this, one kind of has to agree with him, though I’d pay good money to see something under the same title debut on the Food Network.