A HALLOWEEN ELECTRIC DREAMHOUSE
Yesterday, amid a crush of sweaty people desperate for last-minute props, I visited a local Halloween superstore with my daughter, looking for a Pikachu mask. Well, there wasn’t much to choose from in the Cute Kid Division. But this particular hall of Halloween hell definitely had the adult sensibility covered. Of course there were the usual skimpy or otherwise outrageous costumes for purchase —ladies, you can dress up like a sexy Kim Kardashian-esque vampire out for a night of Hollywood clubbing, and gents, how about impressing all the sexy Kim Kardashian vampires at your party by dressing up like a walking, talking matched set of cock and balls! It’s been a while since I’ve shopped for fake tools of terror, but it seems there’s been a real advance in sophistication in the market for “Leatherface-approved” (I swear) chainsaws with moving parts and authentic revving noises, as well as axes and machetes featuring self-contained, ever-flowing spattered blood. And the masks, of course, are even more grotesque and gruesome that ever—flesh-eating zombies (some with flesh stuck in between their mangled teeth), up-to-the-minute super-terrifying clowns, mutants of every misshapen sort and, of course, the most terrifying of all, Donald Trump in mid-rally shouting form.
We walked out sans the countenance of my daughter’s beloved Pokemon favorite, and I was reminded once again that when it comes to Halloween, and especially movies for Halloween, I am definitely a classicist. I prefer the mist-laden moors, the graveyard overgrown with thickets of weeds and thorns and low-hanging trees, the figure moving through said graveyard draped in a shroud, the bolts of lightning illuminating a laboratory crammed with elaborate, spark-spewing coils and rotors and other evocatively eerie equipment, over the extreme envelope-pushing nihilism of the average modern gorefest. Make no mistake—I like the gore, especially the variety found in a typical Hammer horror from the ‘60s and ‘70s, when pushing the envelope was a decidedly quainter, if slightly salacious proposition. I just don’t like my nose rubbed in it for nose-rubbings’ sake. Endurance tests tend to lack the element of genuine pleasure, a perspective which might seem counterintuitive to horror fans who groove on the indiscriminate all-stops-out cornucopia of perversion evident in the average episode of American Horror Story. But I prefer my horror movies to have a touch of elegance and style, no matter how outdated that style might be to modern eyes, as a counterbalance to the relentless chills and fear.
Which is why I’ve spent this Halloween in the company of some of my old favorites, like Son of Dracula (1943), one of Universal’s least-seen and most underappreciated horror sequels, starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular heir to the legendary vampire’s bloodsucking legacy and directed by the splendid Robert Siodmak who when he made this terrific chiller was only a year or two away from terrific pictures like Christmas Holiday, a 1943 psychological thriller with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly (seek this one out if you haven’t seen it), The Spiral Staircase (1944), The Killers (1946), The Dark Mirror (1945), Criss Cross (1949) and The Crimson Pirate (1952). And when it comes time for Halloween, I always rely on Hammer. This year I’ve already spent time in the company of Ingrid Pitt, Madeline Smith, Peter Cushing and The Vampire Lovers (1970); Peter Cushing, Dennis Price and, of course, Madeleine and Mary Collison as the Twins of Evil (1971); and two of the very best Hammer productions, both directed by Terence Fisher—Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and the movie I consider to be the pinnacle of Hammer’s achievements in horror, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969).
All of which, but particularly Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, lead me straight up to the doors of Neil Snowdon’s Electric Dreamhouse. Neil is an editor and genre expert based in the UK, and Electric Dreamhouse Press, under the umbrella of PS Publishing, is the new cinema imprint he’s conjured to focus on genre-oriented writing from all over the world. This past summer Snowdon kicked off a very exciting project entitled Midnight Movie Monographs, a series of in-depth writings in short book form, somewhat in the vein of the BFI Classics or Devil’s Advocates series, dedicated to “the less reputable side of the cinephile universe,” the idea behind which is to bring together genre authors, filmmakers and passionate critical voices to create a collection of writing intended to illuminate some of the less-discussed entries in the horror film genre which have somehow escaped much in-depth critical consideration up to this point.
The first two titles out of the gate this past year have both been greeted with quite a bit of critical acclaim themselves—John Llewellyn Probert’s consideration of the Vincent Price-Diana Rigg classic Theatre of Blood (1973), and a volume dedicated to Martin (1977), George A. Romero’s underappreciated twist of vampire psychology, written by Jez Winship. (Both volumes are now available directly from Electric Dreamhouse.)
And Snowdon has a lot more in store. Here’s a quick rundown some of the Midnight Movie Monographs books and authors projected for 2017:
Eyes Without a Face by Michael Brooke, critic for Sight & Sound magazine, DVD and Bluray producer;
Martyrs and Slumber Party Massacre by Stacie Ponder, writer/director/critic/comics artist and author of the popular Final Girl blog;
Carnival of Souls by Stephen R. Bissette, comics artist and writer (Swamp Thing, Tyrant) and film critic for Video Watchdog, Gorezone and Fangoria;
Sinister by Mark Morris, author (Toady, The Black, The Immaculate, The Wolves Of London, Albion Fay) and screenwriter (Doctor Who);
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death by Lynda E. Rucker, author of The Moon Will Look Strange and columnist for Black Static magazine;
Black Sunday and The Karnstein Trilogy by Angela Slatter, World Fantasy Award-winning author of Sourdough and Other Tales, The Bitterwood Bible, Of Sorrow And Such, Vigil;
The Tenant by Kevin Jackson, writer, broadcaster, film maker and author of BFI monographs on Nosferatu, Withnail & I, and Lawrence of Arabia;
The Devil Rides Out and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me by Maura McHugh, writer of prose, comics and film, including Twisted Fairy Tales and Witchfinder: Mysteries of Unland;
Freaks by Johnny Mains, author of Plugged into the Mains, and A Little Light Screaming and editor of Dead Funny, Best British Horror and Aickman: A Centenary Celebration;
The Fury by Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr, film critics and directors of Original Sins and the documentary A Life In The Death Of Joe Meek;
The Stone Tape by Fiona Watson, screenwriter (Twisted Tales, Let Us Prey) and writer for the online film journal Senses of Cinema;
Island of Lost Souls by Jonathan Rigby, author of English Gothic, American Gothic, Euro Gothic and consultant on A History of Horror;
Blood on Satan’s Claw by Kimberly Lindbergs, writer and critic at Movie Morlocks and Cinebeats;
Eraserhead by Anton Bitel, film critic, Sight & Sound;
Messiah of Evil by Maitland McDonagh, film critic and author of Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds, the first book length study of the films of Dario Argento;
Face of Fire by Stephen Laws, author of Spectre, The Wyrm, Chasm and Ferocity;
Phase IV by Neil Mitchell, film critic for Sight & Sound, Total Film and Electric Sheep, and film programmer for the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts;
Manhunter by Philip Simpson (Making Murder: The Fiction of Thomas Harris, Psycho Paths: Tracking The Serial Killer through Contemporary American Film and Fiction) and Scott Bradley (The Book of Lists: Horror, The Dark).
And I’m excited to announce that I’ll be among those authors as well. My contribution to the Midnight Movie Monographs series will be a volume on Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, which as I said before is the movie that most fully sums up what makes a Hammer film great, as well as one of the most seminal influences on a life (mine) spent appreciating the signature elements of the genre and what a superlative horror movie can achieve. So perhaps as a warm-up, here’s a look at a piece I wrote in 2010 on Terence Fisher’s aforementioned masterworks, The Curse of the Werewolf and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, in anticipation not only of my own upcoming monograph but all those bearing the Electric Dreamhouse imprint and the expansive vision of editor Neil Snowdon, and of course Halloween, the rising moon of which is, if you haven’t heard, just a few hours away…
Director Terence Fisher began his 21-year run at Hammer Films in 1952 with a film noir entitled The Last Page, a.k.a. Man Bait. But in 1957 he kicked off a fruitful 17-year stretch by doing nothing less than fleshing out the template for the studio’s greatest financial and artistic successes, which would send them all on an impressive run of lurid yet stately horror films whose budgets were rarely betrayed by their production values. Hammer began life in the mid-30’s, the inspiration of two father-son pairs, James and Enrique Carreras and Will and Anthony Hinds. They specialized in under-the-radar low-budget fare that touched on all tones and subject matter, but found their greatest success since the studio’s inception when they released 1955’s science fiction thriller The Quatermass X-periment (known in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown). In the wake of a successful sequel, Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space), Hammer wisely decided to focus more or less solely on horror and science fiction output. They embarked upon what would ultimately turn out to be a reinvention of the Universal horror film stable, and their first four efforts, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and The Mummy (1959) were directed by Fisher (and all four starred the venerable team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee). Fisher would turn out to be the director whose style and career would become the most closely synonymous with Hammer horror.
Fisher’s somewhat more stately approach to the framing and pacing of his films indeed provided the template to which other directors for Hammer would both adhere and from which they would depart, with varying results from each approach. It’s entirely possible that horror fans of a younger generation than the one I come from might find a movie like Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf entirely too restrained. Seen from the vantage point of 1961’s keepers of morality, the heaving bosoms and generous splashes of blood ensured that this would not the case, of course, at the same time that it kept everyone else glued to the screen. What puts off impatient viewers who are accustomed to the more instant gratification-friendly filmmaking most prevalent in the last 20 years or so is Fisher’s complete sense of control and appreciation of the story’s rather epic perspective, his insistence upon taking the time necessary to tell the story properly. It is, after all, a movie whose ostensible main character, Leon Corledo (Oliver Reed), the recipient of the titular curse, doesn’t even appear until nearly an hour of running time has passed.
Fisher’s sure directorial hand conveys more confidence through a single pinky than his contemporaries can muster with both fists, and this confidence serves the storytelling trajectory well. The film begins by recounting the misfortune of a beggar who makes the mistake of intruding on the wedding party of a particularly foul and arrogant marquis. The beggar is tossed into a dungeon, where his sanity slowly slips away after years of imprisonment. The only person who has shown the least sympathy or concern for the beggar’s predicament is the buxom deaf-mute daughter of the marquis’s jailer, but her humanity is soon subjected to the most undeserved of horrors. Assaulted by the marquis after a failed rape, he orders her thrown into the cell with the beggar, who has lost all control over his behavior and his appetites. She is soon raped and impregnated by the animalistic prisoner and, after escaping and murdering the marquis, flees to the forest where she spends the next few months foraging for food and hoping to survive her pregnancy in secrecy.
As Movie Morlocks writer suzidoll notes in her thoughtful essay on The Curse of the Werewolf, the movie’s sense of a sprawling, epic narrative is not facilitated some much by splashy budgetary indulgences, but by the depiction of class strata that is fairly typical of British productions. “Issues of class are often part of Hammer’s horror films, either directly in the storyline or subtly through the fates and misfortunes of the characters,” she writes. This is certainly is the case in Curse of the Werewolf, where the poor and unfortunate are made to bear the brunt of the extremities of an aristocracy’s sense of entitlement and sexual rage, thus unleashing forces of evil that end up ravaging the society at large as a result. Indeed, Hammer’s own Plague of the Zombies, which was released five years later, in 1966, nimbly navigates the subject of class-related exploitation in a way that connects it on a line of social horror films from Val Lewton (I Walked with a Zombie) to Wes Craven (The Serpent and the Rainbow).
But in Curse of the Werewolf those class scenarios are infused with the same kind of sexual awareness and legacy of symbolism that enlivened Hammer’s take on the Dracula legend (also at the hands of Fisher). In just the first phase of this multi-generational tale, the director, working with screenwriter Anthony Hinds, who himself adapted a novel by Guy Endore, lends a ripe, sexualized foundation to this take on the legends of lycanthropy which resonate throughout the film. It is a subtext unfamiliar to the many tales of Larry Talbot’s woes, the ones spun by Universal Studios, of course, but even the most recent incarnation directed by Joe Johnston. Even in those films the werewolf’s anguish has always been entangled with suppressed desire, blood lust and impulses that are at the very least unacceptable, and often hostile to civilized society.
But here that traditional subtext, often nearly buried out of sight, is openly discussed, perhaps for the first time in a major genre film. The themes are rather brilliantly woven into the very fabric of the sets (red being both the color of passion and, according to Fisher, the color of fear), the heightened, almost fairy-tale sense of dislocation—this werewolf tale takes place not on the moors, but in early 19th century Spain—and the stirrings of desire that get all tangled up with inexplicable dread. These impulses all find their expression in the impassioned restraint of Fisher’s directorial temper and Arthur Grant’s gorgeous cinematography, itself engorged on the lifeblood of the story and that which is, in the grand Hammer tradition, occasionally spilled or splashed on screen.
The young woman is rescued by a wealthy don of a much more empathetic temperament, but she soon dies in childbirth. However her son, the boy who will grow up to be Oliver Reed, survives and is soon experiencing inexplicable physical compulsions—mysterious patches of hair, an accidental taste of blood which moves from repulsion to sweet attraction and soon to a ravenous thirst— a lycanthrope’s pubescent confusion. He also dreams of running at night and killing like a wolf, and one morning the don discovers the boy in bed, bloodied, soaked with sweat and wounded by the steel ball of a hunter’s rifle. A kindly priest, the kind who often appears in stories like these with a wisdom of the unnatural that always comes in very handy, suggests to the don that the impulses that torment a man who may also be a wolf may be held at bay by the knowledge of being loved, but that the reverse—love’s trampling under the hooves of savage, bestial desire—is also possible. The don rears the boy successfully in a life of familial care until he becomes the grown Leon, who soon finds himself at the mercy of lustful cravings that he doesn’t understand, cravings that have dire consequences for him and the citizens of his village.
Reed is wonderful in the movie—his red-trimmed eyes, in full werewolf mode, spilling tears of anger, frustration and hunger—are seen in terrifying close-up over the movie’s opening credits, an accurate indication of the painful depths which his performance will plumb. And he is well served by Fisher’s fascination with those painful depths. Reed is given room here to create a characterization that collaborates both with the audience’s sympathies and with our desire to luxuriate in the rich palette of horror concocted by Fisher and the Hammer artisans, all in service to their gory vision of a familiar tale. (The movies violence, as I was pleased to discover upon a recent viewing, still has the power to shock.)
The Curse of the Werewolf is by no means ashamed of its familiarity, yet the glory of the movie is in its willingness to push not only the boundaries of the violence, but the very tactile sense of the world it depicts into ever more heightened realms that never disengage from its essential emotional undercurrent. The movie never parlays style or shock as simple ends in themselves. In a conversation with the Horror Dads on the Movie Morlocks site, I attempted to express why horror moves us, or at least me. “It is essentially a conservative genre– the order, once disturbed, must be restored–” I said, “that can easily accommodate the most radical, satirical, political and comic of perspectives.” I went on to say that one of the elements best expressed by a great horror film is “the moan of a creature who is slave to his/her baser instincts reaching out for a human connection and destroying, with intent or not, the thing he/she most wants to love.” Though I wasn’t thinking of any movie specifically when I offered these thoughts, The Curse of the Werewolf seems perfectly emblematic of these familiar horror themes executed to near perfection.
By the time he made Frankenstein Created Woman in 1967, Terence Fisher had revisited the well of the vampire twice (1960’s highly-regarded The Brides of Dracula, with Cushing’s Van Helsing battling David Peel’s incarnation of the blood-sucker, and 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness which brought Lee’s sophistication back to Bram Stoker’s vampire, this time sans Cushing) and seemed ready to do something different with the Frankenstein formula. He and screenwriter Anthony Hinds delivered a brilliant genre-twisting and gender-bending idea: Frankenstein, still up to his usual existentially inspired hi-jinks, has a body—that of a beautiful young woman—whose skull ends up housing the brain of a wrongly executed man. But the brain is loath to cede its identity, and soon the woman begins a campaign of vengeful murder on those who caused the young man’s fate. There’s some rather neat (for its time) consideration of crossed-gender behavior thrown in the mix as well, and the absence of an actual monster provided exactly the right downbeat note to keep the level of inspiration in Hammer’s now four-film-old series running high.
Fisher returned for the fourth time to the continuing saga of Dr. Frankenstein in 1969. But something about staging the battle of the sexes within a body at war with itself seemed to have rather unhinged the good doctor. In fact, whereas in previous episodes it was fairly well understood that Cushing’s Frankenstein, as misguided as his methods were, as blind as his God complex may have made him, had intentions that were almost always good, regardless of how much death and destruction were their result. In Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Fisher and scenarists Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys waste absolutely no time putting whatever remains of Frankenstein’s altruistic tendencies to their final rest. If it was to be understood that Colin Clive’s obsessions to bring Karloff’s monster to life were put into perspective by the monster’s inability to control the impulses his damaged brain was sending to his stitched-together body, then Clive’s characterization of Frankenstein, even through the first two sequels, at least retains some measure of sympathy due in large part to his own empathy for his creation.
This was true of Cushing’s Frankenstein too, despite the more graphic stylization of the violence perpetuated by the monster, reflected in the violence with which Cushing’s Frankenstein had pieced together his creation’s visage. But Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed opens with a memorable sequence that makes audience identification with the titular surgeon unlikely right from the start—Frankenstein, wearing a frightening rubber mask that looks like a Captain Company version of Dustin Hoffman’s old-man makeup in Little Big Man, stalks and decapitates a colleague with a spray of the brightest Technicolor red, then threatens to do the same to a wino who stumbles upon his storefront laboratory. Luckily, the wino ends up only with the victim’s head in his lap—he gets to keep his own—and it’s not long before Dr. Frankenstein has to dump his current project and find other, more shadowy digs.
Cushing occupies Frankenstein here with an actor’s supreme confidence in his own ability to hold an audience. He knows the direction the character is headed is in one of irredeemable megalomania and condescension for those less intelligent than he, but he never winks or otherwise elicits anything resembling a plea for understanding. Instead, Cushing grabs the character by the throat and steers the ride to hell through some truly harrowing territory. His icy stare and vaguely regal air of superiority, mixed with a cunningly choreographed charm that morphs out of his sharp, angular features whenever the need arises, have rarely been put to better use than they were here. And few were better, in either timing or timbre, with the kind of florid speeches, here laced with seething anger and potential violence that were hallmarks of Hammer film dialogue, than was Cushing.
Frankenstein eventually checks in and lays low, under an assumed name, at a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Hammer stock siren Veronica Carlson), where he berates other medical professionals for their dismissive attitude toward his own experiments conducted in concert with another like-minded surgical maverick, a Dr. George Brandt. He soon discovers that Anna’s boyfriend Karl (Simon Ward) is a doctor at the mental asylum where Brandt, gone crazy before he could reveal to Frankenstein the secret of successful brain transplantation, is being caged. Karl is also involved in procuring illegal drugs for Anna’s ailing mother, and Frankenstein uses that information to blackmail the couple into facilitating, and taking part in, the continuation of his shrouded surgical experimentation. It’s soon clear that Frankenstein’s motives go far beyond simple advances of science for the benefit of mankind. This mad doctor truly is drunk on the idea of pursuing success for his own name’s sake, but also in exercising that power in rougher, more salacious and sinister ways. Already acknowledging that murder is but a messy fly on his moral windshield, he also takes time out to assert his dominance over Anna (and Karl) by humiliating her as often as possible and finally, for no reason other than that he can, raping her. (This sequence, now restored to the recent DVD release, was cut from the theatrical prints released in the U.S.) And he eventually forces Karl to help kidnap the dying Dr. Brandt from his cell and transplant Brandt’s brain into yet another body, that of one of the asylum’s directors (Freddie Jones).
Frankenstein Must be Destroyed was, of course, notable for the increased level of violence of its tale, an appeasement to clamoring Hammer fans made possible by the concurrent loosening of content standards both in the U.K. and in the U.S. at the time. (The MPAA had only recently adopted its rating system, which tagged FMBD with an “M”– suggested for mature audiences—and later re-rated it the perplexing yet somehow equivalent “GP,” while it garnered an “18” certificate in Britain, limiting attendance to those over 18 years of age, the equivalent of an “X” in America.) It was, I’m sure, the first time I’d ever seen a decapitation (implied) on screen before, followed soon after by a generous display of the bloody head. (Most horror fans my age probably witnessed their first full-on separation of head from body courtesy of The Omen in 1976.) Upon seeing it again as an adult, what it seems most notable for now is as another piece of evidence in the case for Terence Fisher as perhaps the genre’s most underrated and under-regarded director. Fisher’s style was lurid as the subject matter demanded—he took advantage of every rich color splashed onto the sets by Hammer art director Bernard Robinson and knew exactly how to maximize the erotic appeal of heaving bosoms traversed by a trickle of blood. But his hand as a director had a measure of stateliness, which is assuredly not a backhanded way of suggesting his camera was static or unresponsive.
He knew, as the well-trained and observant directors of his time all knew, where to place the camera to emphasize the story and the effect that the actor was going after. His films are quickly, expertly paced without being over-edited or stuffed full of tricks meant to distract from the director’s lack of confidence. And Fisher, given that somewhat classic style, was never one to condescend to his material, even when, on occasion, it deserved derision. (Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell was considered an inauspicious way for such an elegant director to end his career, but you’d never know it from the way he visually signed the film.) Fisher was unafraid of seeming callous and brutal due of the behavior of his characters. Yet he more often carried with on the violation of a cranium by hand drill or surgical saw just under the frame, without plunging the camera headlong into open cavities and gushing wounds, thus freeing the imagination to do its worst while the camera kept its sturdy gaze on the determination of the demented Frankenstein, or on the revulsion of his reluctant assistants. He combined and balanced directorial economy and lightning reflexes with the grand, velvety, bloody flourishes that were the bread and butter of the Hammer film in a way that other directors at the studio could occasionally approach but never truly match.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed carries on with the downbeat, nihilistic horrors that were amplified and expanded in Woman, itself yet another instance, like its predecessor, of a Hammer Frankenstein film absent the iconographic lumbering monster so often misidentified by its creator’s name. Freddie Jones, not typically an actor associated with subtlety, is allowed to paint a portrait of exceptional pain as “the creature,” whose brain (that of Dr. Brandt) cannot process or accept the reflection of another man’s body, shaved bald and sporting a ragged stitch to hold his skull cap tight, in his mirror. And neither can Brandt’s wife, to whom he returns one night, unable to reveal himself for fear of her inability to understand what he is telling her about who he is. (He hides behind a silk changing curtain as he speaks to her, and his pessimistic presumption turns out to be agonizingly accurate.) Jones draws us in deep, through his eyes welling with tears, into the tormented state of this doctor, once Frankenstein’s colleague, now a victim of the same arrogance he once perpetuated. This portrait, seething with confusion, rage and newfound empathy for those in his own past whom he subjected to callous experimentation in the name of a greater good, is among the finest in the entirety of the Hammer Films catalogue, a catalogue already not unfamiliar with good actors who choose to rise to the occasion instead of bend down to pat it on the head. It is Brandt’s helpless anger, illuminated by Jones’ heartfelt and committed portrayal, and Fisher’s sensitivity toward the character’s plight, that finally lifts Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, despite its rather clipped finish, above the usual fare and into the realm of the finest treatments and variations of the Frankenstein legend ever filmed.