08 January 2013

More Hammer, Lee, and Cushing Huzzahs!


More Hammer, Lee, and Cushing!
By Kristin Battestella

There’s no better time than the cold weather months to snuggle in with classic horror heavyweights like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and that scary studio, Hammer Films.  Grab the popcorn and coco and get your pulse racing with these assorted Lee films, Cushing collaborations, and Hammer treats.

The Brides of Fu Manchu – Christopher Lee returns for this 1966 second installment in the oft-adapted series, and yet after 3 additional Fu Manchu films and all these subsequent years, it is still a bit strange to see him in such Asian designs. Today’s audiences may indeed find it difficult to accept that past producers found putting white actors in this, for lack of a better term, Asianface acceptable. Though not as demeaning as Karloff’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, the iffy is still worse than the likes of You Only Live Twice. The villainous stereotypes and dated racism can make the presentation difficult, but dang nab it, Sir Christopher is still delightful here. He is completely transformed, yet his booming stature and vocal command raises the plot above the erroneous portrayals. The action, suspense, and adventure are well done, too, and again, if it weren’t for the cringe-inducing Chinese perceptions, this is actually an enjoyable, well done film with a bit of sixties kinky if you’re looking for it. Lee fans, sociology students, and film historians should take a look.


Corridors of Blood – Obsessed doctor Boris Karloff battles Our Man Christopher in this solid black and white tale of macabre medicine in 1840s London.  Karloff’s Dr. Bolton means well in his research of early gaseous painkillers, but the barbaric surgeries, primitive laboratory gadgets, and ghoulish amputation montages add to the debauchery. As his medical compatriots warn, “The pain and the knife are inseparable.” We don’t see one dang cut or ounce of blood, and yet when a little girl is put on the table... Perhaps this isn’t true horror, but there are some cringe-worthy delights here. Karloff provides great desperation and obsession in the search for anesthetics, leading to criminal manipulation and intriguing addiction angles. Lee, of course, is the young, imposing, and dirty henchman Resurrection Joe. He’s seedy and salacious with no scruples, and the standoff between Karloff and Lee makes for a dynamite finale. Adrienne Corri (A Clockwork Orange) and oft-Hammer gal Yvonne Romain (The Curse of the Werewolf) have some saucy fun as well, and the mid 19th looks both high and low are lovely. The music is great, too, although I fear this 1958 treat may suffer a touch from its lack of some expected Hammer color flash and scandal. With so many connections to the studio, viewers today might take this for a Hammer film and be disappointed. Thankfully, the Criterion DVD adds to the entertaining 90 minutes with gasp! subtitles, commentary, archival interviews with director Robert Day (also The Haunted Strangler with Karloff), a half hour audio session with Yvonne Romain, censorship cuts, and more.


Flesh and Blood: Hammer Heritage of Horror – It took forever for this elusive 1994 documentary to arrive from Netflix! Nonetheless, this hour and forty minutes narrated by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is chock full of great photos, retro posters, archive footage, and film trailers illustrating the behind the scenes stories and production highs and lows of the famed Hammer Film Studios. Lovely reflections by Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds help recount the earliest Hammer films- from struggles in the thirties and World War II to The Quatermass Xperiment and budding science fiction success. Interviewees such as Hazel Court, Freddie Francis, Ingrid Pitt, Caroline Munroe, Joe Dante, Rachel Welch, and our dear narrators seemingly touch upon nearly every Hammer picture- the Frankenstein series, assorted gothic monsters, the Dracula disagreements, blood, bosoms, and the studio’s eventual seventies downfall. Understandably, some of the footage is lower in quality, the sound remixing is tough, and there’s an obviously dry, British style to the presentation. This documentary also shouldn’t be confused with The Horror of Hammer trailer compilation companion or several other similarly themed documentaries. However, this treat is essential for die-hard Hammer fans, horror enthusiasts, and film historians.


The Hound of Baskervilles – A solid and demented colonial prologue opens this 1959 Sherlock Holmes treat in the expected Hammer Horror style, and oft director Terrence Fisher keeps the suspense and thrilling moments going. Our dynamite duo has some sweet indoor and outdoor photography and lush Victorian looks to play with, too.  Peter Cushing is speedy and witty as Holmes, with an extra suave pose and flair to his actions, and boy Christopher Lee looks so young and smashing!  He fits perfectly as the snotty heir presumptive and should have been a traditional romantic lead far more often. Andre Morell (Ben-Hur) is also quite the fun, capable sidekick as Watson, and likewise Francis de Wolff (Scrooge) as Mortimer keeps the plot chewed and juicy. This is a fast-paced hour and a half with a smartly timed and unraveling puzzle. I definitely wish Hammer would have continued a Sherlock series as planned. If the Doyle arena weren’t so crowded today, I’d love nuHammer to try its hand. I suppose each generation wants to put its stamp on the detective, and perhaps not all fans of the newfangled Holmes approaches will enjoy the dry wit, British humor (should I say humour?) or possibly stuffy style here. Cinematic tricks, visual cues, and action twists are added to the tale, sure. However, all the traditional magic here exceeds an old-fashioned audience’s expectations.  Longtime fans of the cast, Holmes, and Hammer designs will certainly delight.


Lust for a Vampire – I’ve finally been able to see this 1971 middle Karnstein companion piece to The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil, and it’s replete with fine gothic music, lovely outdoor locations, and lots of great Hammer Red- costumes, blood, and d├ęcor.  Although there are no subtitles, time was taken for a DVD commentary, extras, and a fun menu interface, and Mike Raven (I, Monster) is dubbed over for a bemusing Christopher Lee imitation. The film does lose some luster without Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, and the regular Hammer cult names, but Yutte Stensgaard (Scream and Scream Again) is pretty and ethereal enough to carry the picture.  Sure, the blonde girls look the same, and they all look more seventies than 1830s with wispy nipple shots and ballet routines, dorm school topless back rubs, and vampire skinny-dippings. A few scary zooms and screams are nice, as are the foggy nights and period atmosphere. Although I’m not sure about this ‘Strange Love’ over the top vampire sex scene music montage. It really takes the audience out of the film, ruins the spooky tone, and makes this one perfect for a juicy drinking game. This isn’t all bad by any means-especially, if you like this type of film- but it’s not as scandalous or polished as its predecessor was.


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