More Hammer, Lee, and Cushing Trinity!
By Kristin Battestella
Why not spend the summer delighting in another batch of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Hammer Horror treats both vintage and anew?
The Bloody Judge – The battle scenes are awesome in this twisted 1970 historical from the late writer and director Jess Franco (The Awful Dr. Orloff). The music is sweet; the colorful design looks the part and doesn’t feel cheap at all. One can even forgive the bad English dubbing, mixed languages, and sudden subtitles amid the otherwise fine script, dialogue, and native Anglo delivery. The persecution plots and political intrigue are nice, too – even if it has been done better and feels too Witchfinder General knock off. Unfortunately, the fake blood is obvious, and the nudity presented is just too bizarre. The skin scenes are actually almost too subdued to start – one expects more in early seventies euro horror. However, the flesh gets awkward quickly with an out of place full frontal sex scene and lots more much too much shocking and fleshy torture. It’s initially effective to see the cruel rack and sadistic pain thanks to its great juxtaposition – these wicked, supposedly in the right officials against the nature loving, harmless witchcraft accused. Sadly, the exploitative sex and violence goes overboard as the hour and forty-plus minutes goes on. It’s just too dang nasty – talk about torture porn! Ultimately, this uneven attempt at horror and sexploitation detracts from what could have been a seriously fine, macabre historical lesson. It’s a pity, as it’s certainly fun to see Birthday Boy Lee rocking that judicial wig! He’s just right as the creepy lawman checking out the bodices, bosoms, and wenches on trial but doesn’t have much else to do. Although Big C is great when he does get some demented ups and downs and crime and punishment and fans will enjoy his scenes, the entire picture would have been better served by doing a complete history on the titular mayhem.
From Beyond the Grave – Peter Cushing sports a hint of accent for this final 1974 anthology from Hammer rival Amicus Productions, and the creepy antiques and curiosity shop themes are an interesting precursor to Friday the 13th: The Series. Demented music, great sounds, and smoke and mirrors effects add to the fun seventies styles, colors, askew camera angles, and shadow techniques. Séances and possessed mirrors take over in the first story, “The Gatecrasher,” and David Warner (The Omen) is delightfully tormented into murder for this largely one-man tale. “An Act of Kindness” continues the weirdness thanks to street peddler Donald Pleasence (Halloween), his kind of kinky daughter Angela (Symptoms), and some deadly voodoo for good measure. Some dark humor sets off the psychic warnings, demonic touches, and poltergeist effects in “The Elemental,” and lastly, Ian Ogilvy (Witchfinder General) and Lesley-Anne Down (North and South) discover centuries-old occult disaster behind “The Door.” The character developments may seem slow to start or the writing somewhat soft or tame today, but there’s enough blood and action to carry the macabre mood. This one makes we want to marathon all the Amicus anthologies for one massive, eerie late night! We don’t see Cushing too much, but we shouldn’t be fooled by his seemingly so cute and innocent proprietor. Don’t these people know not to cross Big P?!
The Resident – I didn’t like the last Hillary Swank horror attempt The Reaping – actually I dislike any time she goes off her Oscar winning type coughP.S. I Love Youcough. Thankfully, she’s solid as a strong but socially awkward and somewhat man needy doctor in an ominous apartment for this 2011 nuHammer thriller. Likewise, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Grey’s Anatomy) is effective, even if it’s obvious he’s the too good to be true handyman in a horror movie. At the standard 90 minutes, precious time is wasted with cool opening credits – not usually a good sign for a recent horror film – and the story is slow to get going and ultimately quite predictable. The cheating boyfriend explanation for her moving comes a little too late and the color gradient looks over processed, but the hospital blood and gore are well done. Of course, Christopher Lee has a great introduction. He looks like a perfectly respectable grandfather, yet there’s something just a bit creepy old man about him, and I love it! Although the casting and plot could have easily gone the college bimbo route and it sets up some naughty, eerie hi jinks, the brief Swank nudity and up close lingerie shots are surprising. Fortunately, smart shadows, lighting, reflections, and some unique camera angles add to the suspense. The frenetic flashback answers a lot of questions and ups the stalker vibe, too. Yes, it turns this film from a seemingly haunted house bump in the night horror tale to a nasty if somewhat typical real world thriller, and there isn’t a lot of mood, atmosphere, or truly spooky feelings as a result. Though pleasant, the New York contemporary city vibes and final reliance on plot holes, tools, hardware horror, and chases hamper the “it could happen to you” fears. It’s a bit misguided and could have been more, but the cast is likeable and some quality character twists win out.
Wake Wood – Perhaps this type of child death and parental grief horror is too familiar – it’s been done before, certainly. Fortunately, there is enough relate-ability, disturbia, and morbid in this frightening 2011 nuHammer ‘be careful what you wish for’ lesson. Despite the seemingly happy family introduction, things will obviously go bad for Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) and Eva Birthistle (Ae Fond Kiss) thanks to the creepy Timothy Spall (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) and his abacus of life and death calculations! The dramatic, intercut opening scenes don’t feel like a horror film. However, the subsequent despair, blood, gruesome effects, animal terrors, creepy townsfolk, and nasty rituals make for some very upsetting visuals. Some of the swift editing and quick camerawork is a bit too flashy, and those rituals do become overlong and too complex, yes. The voices are also tough to hear compared to the violence, and the accents will be tough for some stateside. Thankfully, the Irish locations and country scenery are very colorful and bright, making for a pleasant contrast and ‘what lies beneath’ the quaint eerie. More unique filming angles and photography accentuate the desperation and delightfully build the slow, sinister reveals. I don’t want to give everything away, but this one stands out among the standard crop of recent horror clunkers. There’s enough macabre for the expectant horror fan to enjoy, and a level of dramatic maturity with serious consequences and a few twists.
The Woman in Black – Harry Potter star Danielle Radcliffe does well in this 2012 nuHammer creepy haunted house ghost story adapted by Jane Goldman (Stardust, X-Men: First Class) from Susan Hill’s source novel. There’s a very nice gothic spirit at work thanks to the moody history, ghostly atmosphere, and mostly silent, one-man scares. Suspicious townsfolk and freaky kid deaths add to the sudden effects and camera tricks, and candlelight and darkness up the sinister for an overall, quite effective spooky. Though the period settings are perfectly decrepit in addition to the smart, darker photography, there is just a little too much drab unnecessarily weighing down the film’s look. Perhaps there was an intentional kinship to something black and white or a depressing palette meant to mirror Radcliffe’s widower Arthur Kipps and his desperate state of mind. However, this devoid, colorless, overly digital, saturated dreary feels amiss –we have the spooky and disturbing elsewhere in set decorations, story, and character. There’s no need to add this layer of off putting heavy – in fact, some rich late Victorian color and flair would have gone a long way in the household fears, local smarmy, and child scary simply because the viewer would have found something pleasing, if creepy, for the eye. This doesn’t look fun to watch, and some horror audiences expecting more action or panache may be disappointed by this style. There’s also a few plot holes and missed opportunities or speculation with Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood) as the upstanding, decidedly not superstitious Sam Daily. Were there townsfolk involved in the ghost causing history? Did Kipps really bring the titular vengeance as the bereaved claim or was something else at work? What the F happened to the dog? There’s room for some debate in the tale as it isn’t all explained in one big reveal, but a few clarifications would have been nice – especially since this budding sequel talk sounds kind of crappy. Despite a few questions and visual flaws, the 90-plus minutes here keep things ominous – the shocks and suspense happen without resorting to the crassness, gore, or nudity we so often find today. Bravo!
I was worried the nuHammer films would, well, stink, but two have been good, one’s decent with star power, and I’m looking forward to more!