Hammer Horror Month: Dracula A.D. 1972

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This is it. We have arrived at the last week of my Hammer horror film spotlight. Halloween will be upon us tomorrow. October has flown by faster than a witch on a broomstick. So, without further ado, I give you the last film in my Hammer spotlight. It’s the counterculture Dracula movie I never knew I needed. That’s right. My final selection this month is Dracula A.D. 1972.

Let’s cut straight to the chase and discuss the plot. It involves Dracula being resurrected via a séance in swing 1972 London and the Dracula’s quest to wipe out the descendants of Professor Van Helsing.

In London 1872 – the final battle between Lawrence van Helsing and Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) on top of a coach results in Dracula dying from a stake made from the remains of a wooden wheel. Lawrence dies from his wounds and, as he is buried, a servant of Dracula buries the remains of the stake by the grave and keeps a bottle of Dracula’s ashes and the ring. One hundred years later, the colourful 1972, Johnny (Christopher Neame), the great-grandson of the servant joins up with a “group” containing Jessica (Stephanie Beacham), the grand-daughter of the present vampire hunter, Abraham van Helsing and with their unknowing help resurrect Dracula in the 20th Century who is determined to destroy the house of Van Helsing, but who can believe that The king of the Vampires really exists and is alive – in 20th Century London?–IMDB

It should be noted that Lorrimer Van Helsing, the family descendant of Lawrence Van Helsing, is played by Peter Cushing. Mr. Cushing was destined to play a vampire hunter on-screen and constantly battle Christopher Lee. And as a Hammer fan I wouldn’t have it any other way. Two of Britain’s greatest actors gave us great entertainment when they appeared on screen together multiple times.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is ridiculous even by vampire movie standards. The idea of him being resurrected by swingers in London is just ludicrous. But the reason this film works for me is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Right after we get through the traditional Hammer Dracula opening with him being killed near a creepy castle, there’s a swift change in tone. All the sudden we here 70s disco music. At that point I half expected Blacula to show up. Side note: see Blacula if you haven’t. It has to be seen to be believed. But then, so does Dracula A.D. 1972. But I digress.

This film is just a hoot. The séance scene alone makes it worth seeing. It’s gloriously over-acted and overdone with overly dramatic music and satanic imagery. If you need a good chuckle, this is your movie.

The real reason to see Dracula A.D. 1972 though is when Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing battle it out in the end. Even amidst a preposterous story line, cheesy 1970s music and questionable fashion statements, these two horror icons put on an entertaining third act. The payoff of the film makes up for the camp of the first two.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is campy, overdone, and it’s one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve ever had watching a cheesy horror flick. Today the multiplex is plagued with unnecessary sequels and remakes. While Dracula A.D. 1972 is no award-worthy masterpiece, you have to admire it on some level because it dares to have an original story idea.

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Hammer Horror Month: The Phantom of the Opera

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Greetings, readers! Apologies for the delay of this week’s blog entry. But here it is. Since October is Halloween month, I thought it would be a perfect time to spotlight some of my favorite Hammer horror productions. This week my selection is The Phantom of the Opera. The story about the disfigured phantom who haunts an opera house in Paris has been done multiple times as a movie and of course as a Broadway musical. While the silent version with Lon Chaney is my favorite, Hammer’s take on the classic tale is definitely worth a look.

In the 1962 version, the setting has been changed from Paris to London. There are also a few other changes to the story, including the film giving us some background on the phantom.

The corrupt Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough) steals the life’s work of the poor composer Professor L. Petrie. (Herbert Lom). In an attempt to stop the printing of music with D’Arcy’s name on it, Petrie breaks into the printing office and accidentally starts a fire, leaving him severely disfigured. Years later, Petrie returns to terrorize a London opera house that is about to perform one of his stolen operas.–IMDB

I’m not sure the phantom’s back story was completely necessary. But it does give the film a fresh take on the classic Gothic tale. My biggest quibble with the change in the story line is that it makes it feel more like a straight up revenge story. In the original novel and previous versions, we felt for the phantom because he was an outcast due to his appearance and his plight to be loved. It was a great spin on the idea that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But I digress. Let’s talk about the things I really like about this version of The Phantom of the Opera.

Many people have played the disfigured phantom over the years: Lon Chaney, Gerard Butler, and even Robert Englund (yes, the same man who played Freddy Krueger). Herbert Lom plays him in this version. His more subtle approach is an interesting choice. Lom plays the role more grounded in reality and more like a straight up dramatic part. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have his very theatrical moments. But it does keep the story grounded in reality. I also enjoyed the performance of Michael Gough as Lord Ambrose. He makes for a wonderful villain. Gough to me is one of Britain’s most underrated actors. Modern film viewers likely remember him as Alfred the butler from Tim Burton’s Batman. This film really lets him shine, and it’s all the better for it.

There’s also the wonderful direction from Terence Fisher. I could almost have called this month Terence Fisher month now that I think about it. Fisher was for my money Hammer’s best director. He brings a unique approach to the material. Fisher did the same when he directed Hammer’s productions of the Frankenstein and Dracula as well. He never seems to be going through the motions and simply recycling the material. Every film has his own unique stamp on it.

This version of The Phantom of the Opera also deserves recognition for a few technical contributions. Edwin Astley’s score is appropriately dramatic with Gothic vibes. The production design by Bernard Robinson and art direction by Don Mingaye does a good job of transporting us to haunted London instead of haunted Paris. It seeds a tone comparable with Tim Burton’s take on Sweeney Todd. Arthur Grant’s cinematography creates a great moody atmosphere. Finally, Roy Ashton and Frieda Steiger’s makeup cannot be denied. Lom really is a terrifying looking phantom. One of my quibbles with Gerard Butler playing the role a few years ago is that he looked less like a disfigured man and more like a model for GQ magazine with a mask on. That’s not the case here.

Is this the best version of The Phantom of the Opera? No. But it is worth seeing for its effective atmosphere and Herbert Lom’s unique portrayal of the character. Terence Fisher proves himself once again to be the best director working at Hammer. It’s worth seeing at least once.

Hammer Horror Month: The Gorgon

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Greetings, my ghoulies! It’s Halloween season. All during October I’ll be writing about some of my favorite Hammer horror films. This week’s selection is campy but fun. It’s The Gorgon from 1964. From that title, you’re probably assuming this is an over the top creature feature. To a certain extent you’re right. But the campy nature of it is part of what makes it such a fun film to watch.

The plot involves villagers being afraid of a full moon. Shockingly their fear is not of the Wolf Man. Rather, they are afraid of a woman who can turn people to stone. No, it’s not Medusa. But it wouldn’t be surprising if they were related.

When his father Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe)  and brother Bruno (Jeremy Longhurst) die under mysterious circumstances, Paul Heitz (Richard Pasco) travels to a small town to determine what is going on. It’s the early 1900s and he finds villagers who are weary of strangers and apparently live in fear, particularly when there is a full moon. He hears of the legend of Megaera (Prudence Hyman) , a Gorgon so hideous that to look at her will turn you to stone. Of particular interest to him are Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing) and his attractive assistant Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley). Namaroff is obviously hiding something and is very possessive of Carla, who suffers from blackouts and memory loss. With the help of his mentor, Professor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee), Paul tries to unlock the secrets around them.–IMDB

There are classic horror elements here. There’s a mysterious monster, paranoid villagers, and craziness brought about under the full moon. It has similarities to The Wolf Man and Frankenstein. But The Gorgon has fun doing its own thing. The effects are pretty good, especially of the gorgon creature. The snakes coming out of her hair are something to behold. The makeup department really outdoes itself. The team of Roy Ashton, Frieda Steiger, and Richard Mills deserve a big round of applause. The cinematography of Michael Reed also deserves recognition. His other credits include another favorite of mine: Dracula: Prince of Darkness. His camerawork gives the film a great haunted look. His other credits include another favorite of mine: Dracula: Prince of Darkness. His camerawork gives the film a great haunted look. And Terence Fisher gives us another solid directing effort. He’s one of the best directors to ever work for Hammer.

But enough about the technical aspects. Let’s talk about this cast. They’re all solid in spite of the fairly ludicrous material. Longhurst holds his own alongside Hammer legends Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Prudence Hyman has fun playing the gorgon creature in all her campy glory. The Gorgon also benefits from the presence of Barbara Shelley. She brings a real vulnerability to Carla that draws you into the story. Horror fans may remember her from the horror classic Village of the Damned.

The Gorgon isn’t just a campy monster movie. It’s a fairly involving mystery with a great Gothic look. It’s not the best Hammer film. But any movie with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is worth watching at least once.

 

Hammer Horror Month: Dracula: Prince of Darkness

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Greetings, readers! It’s October, my favorite month of the year. October brings Halloween, my favorite of all holidays. A major reason I love the holiday is it gives me an excuse to binge through my extensive horror film collection. This month I’ll be writing about my favorite Hammer horror films. For the uninitiated, Hammer is a British film studio founded in 1934. They became famous for a series of Gothic horror films they released between the mid-1950s through the 1970s. So, without further ado, this week’s selection is: Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

Most people likely identify Bela Lugosi as Dracula. He made the role famous in Dracula released in 1931. While I do enjoy that film, it feels a tad too stagey. And for me, the more terrifying Dracula is Christopher Lee. Yes, before he became famous for playing Saruman in Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels and was introduced to a whole new generation, Christopher Lee made a name for himself in Hammer Horror Films, often alongside Peter Cushing. But the depth of Christopher Lee’s career is a topic for another day. On with Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

To cut to the chase, Dracula: Prince of Darkness‘ plot involves unsuspecting travelers who end up at Dracula’s castle and one of them has their blood used to resurrect him.

The English couples Helen Kent (Barbara Shelley), her husband Alan Kent (Charles Tingwell), his brother Charles Kent (Francis Matthews) and his wife Diana Kent (Suzan Farmer) are traveling through the Carpathian Mountain on vacation expecting to climb the mountains. When they are eating in a tavern, they meet Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) that advises them to not go to the castle in Carlsbad. However they ignore the warnings and take a mysterious carriage to the infamous castle. They are welcomed by Dracula’s creepy servant Klove (Philip Latham) that tells them that his master died many years ago. Along the night, Helen overhears someone calling her and Alan sees Klove carrying a trunk through the corridor. Alan decides to snoop and follows Klove. However, the servant attacks him in the basement and uses his blood to revive Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) from his ashes. Now the trio of English tourist will experience the presence of the evil creature in their lives.–IMDB

And from there it’s a pretty standard monster movie where people try to survive and destroy the creature. But the film is a favorite of mine for many reasons.

First, there’s Christopher Lee. What can I say about this man that hasn’t been said already? He’s the definition of a legend. And he makes for one terrifying Dracula. His body language alone is frightening. With just one sinister look he can be scary as all get out. I find him more menacing in the role than Lugosi. But that’s just my taste. And, of all the Dracula films he made, this one was the best all around production.

Terence Fisher’s direction is rock solid. Fisher directed a number of Hammer productions, including The Mummy which also featured Christopher Lee. He sets the mood very well. I love the buildup to getting to Dracula’s castle. Once we get there, the creepy vibes are instantaneous. From the gothic vibe of the castle (Bernard Robinson really did an amazing job with the production design and Don Mingaye’s art direction compliments it perfectly). Michael Reed’s cinematography is the icing on the cake. It gives the whole film a downright haunted look.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness looks great, has a solid script that picks up right where Dracula (1958) left off. And the performances are good, especially Christopher Lee in the title role. Every time he’s onscreen his menacing and absolutely captivating. This a darker, moodier, and scarier film than Dracula (1931). That isn’t to say I don’t like the original film. I just prefer this one. I encourage you to see both and draw your own conclusion. Dracula: Prince of Darkness is one of my favorite Hammer films. I hope you’ll check it out.

Guilty Pleasures: The Tingler

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It’s the last week of my spotlight on film’s that are guilty pleasures of mine. My final selection is a really cheesy gem saved by the presence of the always entertaining Vincent Price. It’s William Castle’s schlock fest: The Tingler. The plot is laughable, the effects cheap, and the dialogue hilarious in places. And yet, it’s a good time and a proud entry into Castle’s cheesy horror movie catalog.

The “plot” (and I use that term loosely), revolves around a creature that literally feeds on fear and the idea that you can literally die from the emotion.

Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) is a pathologist who regularly conducts autopsies on executed prisoners at the State prison. He has a theory that fear is the result of a creature that inhabits all of us. His theory is that the creature is suppressed by our ability to scream when fear strikes us. He gets a chance to test his theories when he meets Ollie (Philip Coolidge) and Martha Higgins (Judith Evelyn), who own and operate a second-run movie theater. Martha is deaf and mute and if she is unable to scream, extreme fear should make the creature, which Chapin has called the Tingler, come to life and grow. Using LSD to induce nightmares, he begins his experiment.–IMDB

The strong point of this film is not insightful dialogue or unexpected plot twists. It’s the fun of watching where Castle and his actors go with the ludicrous premise. At the center of all of this, and making the movie watchable, is Vincent Price. Price has always been one of my favorite actors. Not only is he easy on the eyes and has a great voice, he’s a consummate professional who can make even the cheesiest of movies watchable. The Tingler is a great example of that. With his line delivery and inventive performance, he makes the film much more entertaining than it should be. Price is fun to watch as the mad scientist, and the supporting cast around him go with it. Of the supporting actors, Coolidge is my favorite. He’s a good foil for Price. Although it’s worth noting that Judith Evelyn has some pretty effective suspenseful moments.

At this point I should probably mention the creature design of The Tingler itself. It’s pretty corny, even by B-horror movie standards. You could probably get a prop of its quality at your local Halloween Express. It’s basically a giant rubber worm with antennae. Seriously, it makes the flying saucers in Plan 9 From Outer Space look credible. This makes the *SPOILER ALERT* finale where the monster gets loose in a movie theater all the more hilarious. The secret to defeating the fear monster is to scream? Really? Come on. Apparently when the film was released, certain theater seats were rigged with joy buzzers. When the tingler came on the screen, the buzzer would give who was sitting in the seat a jolt. Castle called it percepto. He made cheesy movies, but he knew how to market them. That’s for sure.

The Tingler is pure cheese. It’s not scary. But it does have some strong moments of suspense, especially when the creature comes after Price’s character. Price and Castle also worked together on the entertaining horror film House on Haunted Hill. That movie is scarier, but has a definite cheese factor, especially where the effects are concerned. But I digress. The Tingler delivers about what you expect from its premise. Price is entertaining as ever and it’s a good movie to enjoy with a bowl of popcorn on a Friday night.

That’s a wrap on my guilty pleasure films! What are some of your and why? Weigh in in the comments section.