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.

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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.

Guilty Pleasures: Gamera

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Greetings, readers! All throughout September I’ve been discussing my cinematic guilty pleasures. No list of guilty pleasure films is complete without at least one kaiju film. While my favorite kaiju monster is Godzilla, I must admit I have a soft spot in my hurt for his atomic powered turtle counterpart as well. That’s right, this week’s selection is Gamera from 1965. The Gamera films are legendary to viewers of the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. They made for some of the most riff-tastic episodes in the series’ history.

Why do I love Gamera? Let me count the ways. First, the initial concept is pure B-movie magic. A fire-breathing turtle? Who doesn’t want to see that in a movie. And Gamera has an origin story similar to Godzilla. Gamera is resurrected by nuclear technology. The turtle is brought back to life by a nuclear explosion in the far north. He comes out of his icy grave and goes looking for energy. This leads to the next reason I love Gamera.

As Gamera searches for energy, he loves some pretty epic destruction in his path. Of course he eventually ends up rampaging through Tokyo. How Tokyo doesn’t have a giant monster contingency plan after Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan, I’ll never know. As Gamera tears through Tokyo, we get to see some pretty hilarious destruction of buildings that are clearly fake. And then there’s my other favorite thing: the shots of the Japanese army going after the monster. They way it’s shot, it looks like Gamera is being pursued by an army of GI Joe toy tanks and other military equipment. But the fake sets and props are part of its charm.

Oh, did I mention Kenny? At least that’s his name in the version with the English dubbing. Kenny is a little boy who, get this, has a sympathetic link to Gamera. So the atomic flying turtle made a friend. Isn’t that adorable. Kenny is the one person who sees Gamera as more than a monster and wants to save rather than destroy him. You get an awful lot of boy loves dog movies. But when was the last time you saw a boy loves turtle movie? Gamera is that magical movie.

Is the premise of Gamera preposterous? Yes. That’s par for the course in kaiju movies. Does it look cheesy? Yes. That’s another proud part of kaiju film tradition. And yet, the hokiness is exactly why I love Gamera. It’s a fun, light-hearted monster movie. The film is in the great tradition of monster B-movies. Gamera belongs in the kaiju Hall of Fame with Godzilla and Mothra. If it’s Friday night and you need a good monster movie to enjoy over popcorn, Gamera is for you.

Guilty Pleasures: The Stuff

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It’s once again time for me to confess to my guilty pleasure movies. This week’s offering is one of the most hilarious schlock fests I have ever witnessed. But underneath all the cheese is a sharp satirical take on consumerism. I’m speaking of the 1985 masterpiece The Stuff. Yes. That is actually a movie title. The film was directed by Larry Cohen, known for another cult classic: It’s Alive!, about a mother who gives birth to a killer baby. I also recommend that one.

But back to The Stuff. The plot involves an industrial spy hired by the ice cream companies to discover the secret of a best-selling dessert called The Stuff. It’s flying off the shelves and leaving those who consume it addicted/

Industrial spy and former FBI agent David ‘Mo’ Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) is hired by executives of the ice-cream industry to disclose the recipe of the phenomenally successful marshmallow- and yogurt-like desert called the Stuff. Somehow, its consumers become addicted in the product, and competitors want the formula. With the support of Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), the designer of the Stuff’s advertising campaign, and a boy named Jason (Scott Bloom), who refused to eat it after his family became consumed, Mo tries to prove that the Stuff is a malevolent and possibly sentient natural substance that is trying to take over the wills of the population of Earth.–IMDB

The Stuff is part consumerist satire, part horror, and part creature feature. And even though the set-up is fairly ridiculous, somehow all the elements come together and work.

Part of what makes this camp fest work is its cast. It’s lead by Michael Moriarty. After watching him on the early seasons of the TV drama Law & Order, I did  not see this performance coming. He proves himself just as adept at doing comedy as courtroom drama. I came away having even more respect for his range as an actor. And speaking of Law & Order, look for fellow alum Paul Sorvino in a great supporting performance.I also have to give a shout out to Garrett Morris. As Chocolate Chip’ Charlie W. Hobbs, he is also out to discover the secret of The Stuff. He has some of the funniest scenes in the movie. And his *spoiler alert!* demise is something both sick and funny. But his comic chops will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen his work on Saturday Night Live.

Another element that solidifies The Stuff as a cult classic is how it portrays the effects of consumerism. People who consume The Stuff turn into zombie-like creatures. What the film seems to be saying is that consumerist mentality brainwashes the public. The message appears a little extreme on the surface. But on some level it works. I have to say that I also love the cheesy 80s commercials for The Stuff. They feel a little like the ads for fake products on Saturday Night Live. They even come complete with 80s effects and hokey music. Trust me. The ads are hilarious.

Finally, I have to mention the delightfully ridiculous effects in this movie. The stuff basically looks like marshmallow fluff come to life like the slime in Ghostbusters II. Seeing it take over those who consume it is a mental image I will never forget. On the believability scale, it’s as credible as the roving gelatinous mass in the cult classic The Blob.

The Stuff isn’t a satirical masterpiece by any means. But you have to admire what it tries to do. Can a product marketed effectively enough turn the pubic in mindless consumer zombies? The Stuff seems to think so. Larry Cohen’s film is very cheesy and 80s. But its charm is its original concept and the entertaining performances by its talented ensemble cast. And if you really want a great triple bill, watch The StuffThey Live, and Dawn of the Dead.

Guilty Pleasures: Plan 9 From Outer Space

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In the history of movies, there have been numerous notoriously bad ones. But some films raise mediocrity to an art form. In that regard, the Sistine Chapel of bad movies is Plan 9 From Outer Space. A critical and commercial bomb, the film is widely regarded as the worst film ever made. Obviously, anyone that makes that claim has never seen Punk Vacation. But I digress. Plan 9 looks cheap, the acting is stiff, the plot is preposterous…and yet it’s one of the most fun times I’ve had watching a turkey of a movie. It is the Casablanca of movies that are so bad they’re good.

Let’s get the “plot” out of the way (and I use that term loosely). It involves a powerful weapon and an alien invasion.

In California, an old man (Bela Lugosi) grieves the loss of his wife (Vampira) and on the next day he also dies. However, the space soldier Eros and her mate Tanna (Joanna Lee) use an electric device to resurrect them both and the strong Inspector Clay (Tor Johnson) that was murdered by the couple. Their intention is not to conquer Earth but to stop mankind from developing the powerful bomb “Solobonite” that would threaten the universe. When the population of Hollywood and Washington DC sees flying saucers on the sky, a colonel, a police lieutenant, a commercial pilot, his wife and a policeman try to stop the aliens.–IMDB

Zombies, UFOs, aliens…this film has everything! Aliens trying to stop us from developing deadly weapons was used as a plot device in the infinitely better classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still. But a Robert Wise-quality project this is not. Nevertheless, let’s talk about why this legendary bomb of a film is one of my guilty pleasures.

One of my favorite things about Plan 9 From Outer Space is how shoddy the sets and props look. When the UFOs fly, you can practically see the strings they’re hanging from. The UFOs look like they were made out of pie plates sandwiched together with duct tape and painted over. And the graveyard…holy smokes! You can tell the tombstones are cardboard. And, on top of all that, this film adds to the the cheese factor with stock footage.

The scene where the military fires at the flying saucers is real military stock footage.–IMDB

Even the one exciting scene wasn’t actually shot for the movie. Nothing screams classic film like some good old stock footage. At least the film is consistently bad.

But the cheese factor doesn’t stop there. Complimenting the wooden sets and cheap props is the equally wooden acting. Tor Johnson is about as convincing as a police inspector in Plan 9 From Outer Space as Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough. He lumbers from scene to scene and sounds like he actually believes the ridiculous lines he’s delivering. The lone bright spot in the film is the presence of Vampira. Vampira had her own themed show back in the day where she introduced cheesy movies. Imagine Svengoolie, but more goth. Go find the videos of it on YouTube. You’ll thank me later.

And allow me to share with you some of the award-worthy dialogue.

Colonel Tom Edwards: For a time we tried to contact them by radio but no response. Then they attacked a town, a small town I’ll admit, but never the less a town of people, people who died.–IMDB

Wow. You can feel the drama and compassion. According to this movie, small towns are acceptable collateral damage. And then there’s this gem of a line,

Air Force Captain: Visits? That would indicate visitors.–IMDB

You can’t make this dialogue up. It’s so laughable you shouldn’t drink while watching this film. You might choke to death.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is a film that has to be seen in order to be believed. Aside from Vampira’s presence and the last filmed footage of Bela Lugosi’s career, this is one stink burger of a film.But it’s so bad you can’t stop watching it. The film was directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. Wood specialized in schlock. His credits also include Bride of the MonsterGlen Or Glenda, and Jail Bait. The films were wisely overlooked by the Academy at Oscar time. Kidding aside, Wood loved making movies. And making a movie is no small task, even a bad one. If you’re interesting in learning more about the delightfully eccentric Wood and the troubled production of Plan 9 From Outer Space, go and borrow a copy of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. It’s arguably Burton’s best film with Johnny Depp giving a brilliant performance as the cult icon. It’s a great love letter to the cult figure.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is a legendary bomb you can’t afford to miss.