Double Bill Eight – The Raven (1963)

THE RAVEN (1963)                    August 21st 1977          00.05-01.30 

‘Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!” ‘

Dr Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price)  

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Okay, let’s get this straight. As those of you who have been happily guffawing your way through my previous posts will readily attest, I am a funny guy. A very funny guy. In fact – if you’ll permit me – I am a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. I am wont to set the pub table on a roar at any available opportunity. I am the sultan of the sarcastic retort. The wizard of the witty riposte. The aristocrat of the acerbic aphorism. The duke of the devilish double entendre and the clown prince of punning parody. Oscar Wilde and Woody Allen purloin my polished one-liners. My mots could not be more bon. My sense of humour, in other words, is finely honed.

Even so, there is a kind of broad, overly assertive comedy which leaves me completely cold. Jim Carrey, for instance, is an actor whose work I can admire very much in more restrained, dramatic vehicles like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The moment he begins to try and make me laugh, however, he has something like the effect on me of nails being scraped along a blackboard. It’s not just Carrey. There are whole genres of humour that feel to me like being grabbed by the throat, banged over the head,  kicked in the nadgers and told to think it’s funny. Gurning and screeching comics straining for impact set my comedic teeth on edge. To offer a double-act example of what I mean, for those of a certain age and nationality: Morecambe and Wise were simply funny, while Cannon and Ball were being funny (American readers may need to mentally substitute ‘Laurel and Hardy’ and ‘The Three Stooges’ respectively to reach the same conclusion). The being shows, and just ends up feeling uncomfortable. It’s why I hate pantomimes.

It isn’t just professional funny folk. Enforced jollity in all its forms is equally painful to me. There’s a particular breed of joyless personality, who is always somehow nerve-shreddingly in search of ‘fun’. People who regard the novelty tie as a perfectly acceptable substitute for a personality. Overly keen Secret Santa organisers. Fiercely devoted fancy dress fans. Anyone who describes themselves as ‘wacky’. They tend to find men dressed as women hilariously funny in and of itself and hurl themselves into comedic charity events with an utterly humourless enthusiasm that borders on the maniacal. My usual approach if faced by one – or worse, several – of these irritatingly frolicsome fuckers is to explain through gritted teeth that, as a long term and committed proponent of the Miserabilist faith, my religion demands that I am surrounded at all times by a five hundred yard fun-free exclusion zone.

Bringing it closer to this site’s home territory, this is the reason I can never really enjoy, for instance,  Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Many later critics have been generous to Universal’s final monster mash-up, this time played completely for laughs, seeing in it an affectionate farewell to the Golden Age. For me however, good though both Lugosi and Chaney are while reprising their best known roles, the film is an unpleasant watch due to the laboured, grating gag-fest Bud and Lou  bring to the material. Having said that, in its defence the film has the comedic elegance of P.G. Wodehouse if measured against the ghastliness of the post-millennial comedy-horror farrago that is the Scary Movie series.

Of course I recognise this says more about me than it does about anyone else. Humour is, by definition, subjective. If someone finds something funny, then it is funny, whether or not I happen to agree with them. It doesn’t make them ‘wrong’, and me objectively ‘right’. Even though I am. But all of this would seem to make it likely that Roger Corman’s 1963 The Raven is simply not for me.22_midi

Any film that features Jack Nicholson dressed as a pantomime Robin Hood, complete with feathery hat, scores dangerously high on the jollity scale in my book.

You see, by this point Corman had begun to feel almost as trapped and frustrated by the conventions of his Poe cycle as he had previously been by the endless round of low budget black and white AIP quickies which he had created the Poe films in order to escape from. Desperate to find something new in the formula, Corman remembered the humorous ‘Black Cat’ segment he had added to his 1962  portmanteau film Tales of Terror, as well as the pairing of that segment’s stars, the ubiquitous Vincent Price and, for the first time, Peter Lorre. For his adaptation of The Raven, Corman had screenwriter Richard Matheson heighten and extend the tongue in cheek tone to feature length. Perhaps he was emboldened in the approach by the fact that, even more than the narratively slight short stories the previous Poe pictures had used as inspiration, Poe’s famous poem had almost no narrative at all, so there was no plot to depart from.

Of course, the connection to Poe in Corman’s tale of battling mediaeval magicians is no more tenuous than that in Universal’s 1935 vehicle for Karloff and Lugosi, but the mood of the two films could not be more different. Where Universal had responded to Poe’s verse with a dark, morbid take on tormented genius and obsession, Corman’s film works as broad, knockabout farce. As such, with my hard earned ‘Mr Picky’ persona when it comes to comedy, I could be expected to find AIP’s The Raven a gratingly unpleasant experience.

In fact, I love it. I loved it then, and I love it still.

Here is why.

Back in 1977, viewing it for the first time, Corman’s film had more than enough brooding gothic trappings to delight my morbid adolescent heart. castleOf course even as a twelve year old, I could see the tongue in cheek, almost Scooby Doo tone of the film, but there were still a series of beautifully realised crypts and coffins and decaying corpses. It still had gothic castles and haunted palaces aplenty. It didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t played straight; the production design was absolutely straight, and the trappings were more than enough for me. In fact, viewed later, and with greater knowledge of the film’s production history, The Raven has even more of these things than the earlier, more Poe-faced (see what I did there?) movies, since a typically canny and cash-conscious Corman had stumbled on the strategy of re-using sets from the previous Poe pictures alongside a new build for each subsequent production, thus delivering incrementally richer environments with each successive film.

It was more than just the sets though. The film had Price and Lorre and Karloff, a piece of dream casting so good it was repeated, with Basil Rathbone thrown in for good measure, for another AIP knockabout horror comedy, the even more enjoyable Jacques Tourneur directed Comedy of Terrors. And the dream casting begins to meld into another reason I continue to love the film, despite its slightly forced and over-eager attempts to amuse: Saturday night nostalgia.

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Corman’s film, with its big guest stars and its juvenile lead (who was a huge celebrity by 1977) all hamming it up in silly costumes, slotted beautifully into the wider landscape of the seventies Saturday night British television on which I grew up. The BBC’s iron domination of the Golden Age of Saturday TV was all built around the cult of personality. That was the common factor running through all of the programming now so fondly remembered:  big, bold personalities that burst off the screen. From Basil Brush and Tom Baker in the early evening, through Brucie or Larry on The Generation Game, to the Two Ronnies, to Gemma Jones’s fantastic embodiment of the larger than life Louisa Trotter in The Duchess of Duke Street, to Parkinson and his superstar guests.

These were actors that seemed almost too big for the small screen, presenters that were bigger than the shows they presented. It wasn’t, for instance, anything particularly witty in the scripts or anything exceptionally skilled in the technique of puppeteering that made The Basil Brush Show such a fixture of Saturday night children’s entertainment, but the manic ebullience of Basil’s own misguided conviction in the unrivalled hilarity of his material. ‘BOOM BOOM’ he cried repeatedly, collapsing sideways in sheer joy at the magnificence of whatever cringeworthy punchline he had just delivered, and a nation felt his joy, and shared it.

Similarly it was not, in the end, the fantastic, dark, engrossing script work of Terrance Dicks or Robert Holmes that will have hard-edged grown men in their 50s – and I count myself a proud member of their number – grow misty-eyed when recalling how much Doctor Who meant to them as children, but the ferociously daring intensity of Tom Baker’s goggle-eyed commitment to the role. Or, if you prefer, Jon Pertwee’s earlier, effortlessly commanding ability to reassure for England, were reassuring an Olympic Sport.

It was into this context that Corman’s The Raven dropped as the second feature of a BBC2 horror double bill in the early hours of August the 21st. The heightened, knowingly hammy performances of Price and Lorre and Karloff were far more about personality than about ‘acting’ – just of a piece, in other words, with the rest of the BBC’s Saturday night schedule. No-one could argue that the actors are carefully subsumed and effaced by their characters here; in fact it’s just the opposite. The effect of the whole piece is precisely because it is Price, and Lorre, and Karloff, just as though the old ghouls were guesting in a creepy comedy sketch on Dave Allen at Large or The Two Ronnies. It’s possible to watch the entire film as though it were ‘a play what Ernie wrote’ while mentally picturing Eric Morecambe in Jack Nicholson’s role using the props to badly ventriloquise the opinion that the whole thing is ‘Ruggish’.

Nicholson and birdThe beautiful dovetailing of the personalities on screen was not entirely reflected off-screen, however, if Corman’s recollections of the set are at all accurate. The problems ran a little deeper than Nicholson’s understandable dislike of being crapped on by the production’s trained raven – although he evidently became a little less fastidious later in his career. He didn’t seem to mind being crapped on by the screenwriter of Man Trouble, or the director of Wolf, for example. It wasn’t even the difficulties surrounding the ageing Boris Karloff’s increasing physical discomfort and incapacity – by this point the actor could barely walk in real life.

price and lorreNo, the main issue came in the shape of Peter Lorre’s free and easy approach to minor matters like the dialogue. Improvising furiously, he irritated the normally affable Karloff by failing to offer up any of the lines which the by-the-book Englishman was waiting for. Karloff, ever the consummate professional and the epitome of the old-school ‘trained act-or’ felt wrong-footed and uncomfortable with never knowing where the next cue was coming from. According to his own account, Vincent Price was forced to act as a kind of emollient in soothing the troubles between his two antagonistic co-stars.

In the end, sadly, the last laugh is on poor Boris, since Lorre ends up comprehensively upstaging everyone and walks away with the film. His Dr Bedloe, by turns pompous, cowardly and wonderfully self-aggrandizing, is a joy to watch, even in the moments when he is physically represented on screen by the raven (when it wasn’t busy whitewashing the set), and Lorre’s performance is by some distance the most enjoyable and entertaining thing in a massively enjoyable and entertaining film.

Perhaps this might also be the most opportune place to consider Lorre’s place in the horror stars’ pantheon, since it was his only appearance in this 1977 season of BBC2 horror double bills. For one thing, unlike say Lugosi or Karloff or Chaney or Price or Lee or Cushing, Lorre was never predominantly a horror film actor. Yes, it’s true that you could point to non-genre roles for all of the others (even Lugosi had Ninotchka opposite Greta Garbo), but I think it’s fair to say that these always feel like interesting side-roads or footnotes to what was basically a horror film career. In Lorre’s case, however, his position is probably more indelibly associated with eye-catching supporting roles opposite Bogart in both Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, or with the series of subsequent, Bogartless, noirish thrillers he made with his other co-star from those classics, Sydney Greenstreet – wonderful films like The Mask of Dimitrios in which Lorre played against type as the film’s writer hero. Starting in Germany with an unforgettable performance as the eponymous child killer in Fritz Lang’s M, Lorre’s screen image is also strongly associated with his wonderful line in psychopathology, with key roles in early Hitchcock pieces like the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, or the Hollywood adaptation of Crime and Punishment for instance, but these were still clearly not operating within anything that could meaningfully be considered part of the horror genre.

In fact Lorre’s status as a major horror star is based on only a handful of performances, notably as Dr Gogol in 1935’s Mad Love, and in Robert Florey’s wonderfully atmospheric The Beast with Five Fingers in 1946, before parodying this image in horror-comedies like Tales of Terror, The Raven and Comedy of Terrors, a tendency that began with his magnificent comedic turn as Raymond Massey’s cringing co-conspirator in the 1940s screen adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace. Nonetheless, so powerful was the impression Lorre generated in a relatively minor number of excursions into the genre that it seemed natural for RKO to throw him alongside Karloff and Lugosi as an equal part of the ‘spooky’ element of a largely forgotten 1940 comedy called You’ll Find Out, or that he looms large alongside both Chaneys, Karloff, Lugosi and Price, never feeling out of place in their company, in Heroes of the Horrors, Calvin Thomas Beck’s biographical approach to the genre, a book beloved of all monster kids everywhere.

There’s much to enjoy in Corman’s The Raven, but Lorre is right at the heart of most of it, justifying the director’s feeling that the actor had not only all the horror credentials required to sit so beautifully alongside Karloff, Price and Poe, but also the quality of knowingness to judge exactly the degree of campery and ham to lend a performance which would most perfectly enhance a hybrid piece like this.

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There’s one final, more personal reason I love The Raven though.

It was the only film over the entire course of five consecutive year’s worth of summer seasons of BBC2 horror double bills which my mum enjoyed as much as I did. More often than not, I would be watching at least the second feature alone, but sometimes mum would sit up and watch with me as she did on this occasion, and this was the single time I can remember her expressing a wholeheartedly positive response to the film in question. vincent and the bird biggerIn fact, for years afterwards if one of us was talking too much, or expressing an opinion mum didn’t much care for, she would press her thumb and first finger together in a passable impression of Vincent Price’s final gesture in the film and pronounce – in a rather less passable impression of Price’s silky tones – “Quoth the raven nevermore.”

Mum wasn’t keen on ‘dark’, or ‘troubling’ or ‘gloomy’. Certainly not ‘scary’.  She viewed the world with an essential optimism, and didn’t like to acknowledge the dark behind the curtain. When it finally came at her, in the shape of the death of my dad, she chose to grow a tumour and die of a broken heart rather than deal with a new and darker world.nextscan1 So although, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, both mum and dad were extraordinarily tolerant of my obsessions, I think there’s no doubt that mum in particular would have preferred me to enjoy a somewhat sunnier mental and emotional landscape than I did. Whenever I chose to share whatever dark fixation was preoccupying me at any given moment, she would give an affectionate but slightly baffled shake of the head, and mutter the word ‘Morbid’ while wistfully imagining a more clean-cut, athletic, square-jawed path through adolescence for me.

So The Raven, its light-hearted silliness counterbalancing its tombs and terrors, pleased her, and for once found us on the same page when it came to the pleasures of the monster movie double bill.

Humour suited mum better than horror. When I try to picture her now, peering back through the fog that so cruelly intervenes when we try to hold the face of a dead loved one in our mind’s eye, I can only ever see her laughing.

Which, of course, is just what she would have wanted.

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Double Bill Eight – Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1942)

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1942)      August 20th 1977        22.00-23.15

If I ever find peace I’ll find it here.

Lawrence Stewart Talbot (Lon Chaney jr.)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. It sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? A comically bad title, designed like a satirical comment on the worst kind of brainless formulaic Hollywood  nonsense.

meetswolfmanravenpricelistingsIn fact, if you believe screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s account, that is indeed exactly how it started out. When producer George Waggner buttonholed him in the studio commissary and asked him for his ideas for a new Universal horror movie, Siodmak indulged his sardonic instincts with a throwaway gag. ‘How about Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat-Man…I mean Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’ he suggested. Much to Siodmak’s surprise, rather than seeing the joke, Waggner signed him up to the project on the spot, thus opening the door to ‘Alien vs Predator’, ‘Jason vs Freddy’ and in fact the whole concept of the ‘Shared Universe’ so important to modern-day Hollywood thinking. Marvel Studios and Warner brothers’ DC franchise both owe a lot to Curt Siodmak’s sceptical gag.

So too does modern-day Universal, currently attempting to launch their own shared universe with the false start of the ‘not especially good’ Dracula Untold and the ‘even less especially good in fact downright not good at all’ Tom Cruise version of The Mummy.

Siodmak was always pretty cynical about the quality of his own work, even more so about the horror genre, and most of all about Hollywood in general. He’d have fallen about laughing at the idea of a pretentious idiot like me taking any of it seriously, let alone thinking it worthy of thousands of words of exploration. And even I would have to admit that the problems with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man extend well beyond the cheesy formula-driven sequelising logic that Siodmak first mocked, then delivered. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is a film beset with problems.

Firstly, the title suggests a balance that the film doesn’t deliver. By now, three sequels on from the 1931 original film, the Frankenstein Monster was more than a little tired. The Wolf-Man, on the other hand, had only had one previous, very successful, outing, and so this sequel is pretty much the ongoing story of Lawrence Stewart Talbot, with the Monster forming a much less prominent element in the narrative.

faro_la_faro_liSecondly, the film, like many another mid to lowish budget quickie of the period, makes up some of its running time with an extended ‘tra-la-lee fol-de-rol’ Tyrolean musical number set during the Festival of the New Wine, no doubt intended to get maximum value out of Universal’s brilliant middle-European village set. In the context of a 40s monster movie though, the thigh slapping lederhosen sequence feels distinctly odd.

More significantly, the casting posed a real problem for Universal. Karloff had quit the role of the Monster unequivocally and irrevocably after seeing the formulaic writing on the wall during Son of Frankenstein. The present incumbent, having had a go at filling the Master’s asphalt-spreader’s boots in Ghost of Frankenstein, was Lon Chaney jr. However, Chaney was also, and much more recognisably, Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man.

For a time, Universal considered the idea of giving their favoured Chaney both roles, accomplishing this through a mixture of split screen, stunt doubles and other trick photography. However, a number of practical obstacles, alongside Chaney’s reluctance to undergo dual makeup ordeals, led the studio to abandon the idea. frankenstein-meets-the-wolf-man-lon-chaney-jack-pierceDespite his somewhat vainglorious boast about his one stab at Karloff’s most famous role – “I can do anything that guy can” – Chaney had not enjoyed the experience of making Ghost of Frankenstein, partly because the mutual dislike between him and his co-star Evelyn Ankers had only increased since their pairing on The Wolf Man, and partly because he liked makeup chief Jack Pierce even less. He had, in short, hated the part of the Monster only marginally less than he was soon to hate the equally makeup-heavy role of Kharis in Universal’s Mummy series.

Besides which, there was never any question of Chaney abandoning his favourite role as Larry Talbot, a part the actor fondly described ever afterwards as ‘my baby’. All of which left Universal in need of a new Monster.

Not unnaturally, the studio turned to the only other horror ‘name’ fit to grace a poster or marquee alongside the likes of Karloff or Chaney. Step forward, Bela Lugosi. Fortuitously, the climax of the previous film in the series had given us the brain of Lugosi’s Ygor being transplanted into the Monster’s skull, providing the monster for the final sequence of Ghost of Frankenstein with Lugosi’s instantly recognisable Ygor voice, as well as a nasty case of blindness. So if the audience now recognised Lugosi’s features beneath the makeup, it was, quite reasonably, simply Ygor’s expressions showing through.FMTWBlanket_Photo

Lugosi himself was no longer at a place in his career where he could high-handedly turn down the role of the Monster as he had done more than a decade earlier in the wake of his Dracula success. He readily accepted, despite the physical demands of a role that, by now entering his sixties, the actor was not really best placed to fill.

As a result, a number of key shots, even some of the close ups (including the iconic moment when Chaney first discovers the Monster frozen in ice in a subterranean cavern, and some parts of the ultimate battle between the two monsters ) quite visibly don’t feature Lugosi,  but stunt double Gil Perkins instead. Or stunt double Eddie Parker, depending on which account you accept.

Worse still for the finished film, however, Siodmak’s script originally picked up directly from the conclusion to Ghost of Frankenstein. frankenstein-meets-the-wolf-man-talbot-monsterThe Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was given lengthy expository dialogue, which during filming Lugosi delivered in his Ygor voice. The screenplay also retained the Monster’s blindness, again as established at the end of the earlier film. Lugosi developed the arms-outstretched lumbering walk (so beloved of generations of monster-impersonating schoolkids to come) as a highly effective way of suggesting the sightless creature’s caution and vulnerability. It also explains the quite brilliant flourish of sly malice Lugosi gives to the close-up of the Monster on the operating table towards the end. Not only has his strength returned, his sight has been restored.

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So far so good, and certainly watching Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man as part of a BBC2 horror double bill season only a couple of Saturdays after seeing Ghost of Frankenstein, this twelve year old fanboy had no problem retaining the continuity from the earlier film, which made Lugosi’s stumbling stiff-armed walk perfectly logical.

However, back in 1942, audiences hadn’t necessarily seen the previous film for a couple of years, if at all. Hearing Lugosi’s heavily accented voice emerging from the Monster’s mouth without the benefit of the narrative build-up that Ghost of Frankenstein had given to the same effect in its concluding scene, struck audiences at Universal’s test screenings as hysterically funny.

Universal’s bosses panicked, and the film’s soundtrack was re-edited in post-production, excising all Lugosi’s dialogue and thus removing all reference to the Monster’s blindness. Consequently, audiences were treated to the Monster lumbering around with his arms extended for no apparent reason, while occasionally and wordlessly opening and closing his mouth like the world’s deadliest goldfish. The apparent absurdity is exacerbated by the fact that, while Lugosi adjusted his performance according to the development of the narrative, the stunt doubles simply aped the straight-armed Lugosi stomp even in the fight scenes after the Monster’s sight has come back.

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As a result of all this, through no fault of his own, Lugosi’s performance was rendered bizarre, even risible. He would not appear in another role for Universal until six years later in the last dying gasp of horror’s Golden Age, 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This is perhaps the only example in cinema history of an actor being blacklisted by a studio for having had the audacity to have stuck strictly to the script the studio had given him.

Given the range of problems the finished Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man is unable to hide, it’s extraordinary that I love the film as much as I do. But I do.

The film’s director Roy William Neill, best known for his briskly efficient and hugely effective helming of Universal’s exquisite Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, delivers some wonderfully inventive and imaginative visuals.

The opening sequence in the Welsh graveyard where poor Larry Talbot has been laid to rest is as atmospheric a feast for the eyes as anything Universal ever did. The set for the Llanwelly cemetery is magnificently realised, the crooked gravestones offering a suitably morbid punctuation to the sloping landscape, darkened skeletal trees rolling across the foreground as Neill’s camera tracks the nervy progress of our two opportunistic graverobbers. It would surprise me greatly if I were to learn that Roger Corman had never seen the sequence before filming the equally effective graveyard-set opening to The Premature Burial.

The scene is just as wonderful once the two men break into the Talbot tomb, hoping to liberate Larry’s gold valuables from the coffin in which he was interred after being beaten to death by Sir John at the end The Wolf Man. The lighting is moody and powerful, and the sense of encroaching doom as the full moon flits across the sky outside the little window and the wolfbane is lifted away from Talbot’s perfectly preserved corpse is genuinely intense.  The eventual fate of the first graverobber, caught in the iron grip of the rejuvenated and transforming werewolf and pleading in vain for help as his terrified friend scrabbles his way back out of the tomb creates a real degree of pathos.

Curt Siodmak’s cheery cynicism notwithstanding, I also love the film for the exceptional and courageous willingness of the writer to embrace rather than evade the deep pessimism and despair at the heart of the subject matter. Talbot’s only goal in searching for Frankenstein’s secrets is to discover the means by which he can die; if we’re rooting for Chaney – as we certainly are – then what we’re rooting for is his successful suicide.

1118full-frankenstein-meets-the-wolf-man-screenshotThere aren’t many mainstream Hollywood genre movies where the narrative drive stems from something so unremittingly bleak; the film’s philosophy is essentially Schopenhauer plus yak hair. In this regard, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man goes one step further than its near contemporary, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The joyous sentimentality of the conclusion to Capra’s masterpiece tends to lead audiences to forget the tone of disillusion and despair which dominates the middle section of the film. Jimmy Stewart’s subjective feeling that he has wasted his life may be shown to be objectively false in his triumphant snowy return to Bedford Falls, but that doesn’t make it any less real while he experiences it. Chaney’s Talbot also despairs, but he has no Clarence to console him, and no Christmas bell to signal an angel getting its wings. Siodmak follows the suicidal logic of his story remorselessly to the end, the film’s tragic monsters locked in conflict as the castle collapses around them, but even more than its bitingly effective screenplay it is Chaney’s performance which renders the film as powerful as it is at the human level and which, like Stewart’s, magnificently exudes essence of ‘Everyman’.

Lon Chaney junior is the least loved and the most underrated of the great horror stars. He’s very good in The Wolf Man, and for my money he’s even better here. Given the chance, as he is this time, to hit the ‘tortured soul’ button from the word go rather than a third of the way through the movie as in the previous film, he makes Talbot’s plight touching, human and genuinely affecting. In lesser hands the performance might easily have slipped into bathos  but Chaney never puts a hairy paw wrong. His humanity lends a truly tragic element to Talbot, fully engaging our sympathies, and is a tribute to Chaney’s considerable skill and charm.

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It’s not the actor’s fault that Universal overused him in the 1940s, or that some of the vehicles he was offered – the couple of Mummy films he did, or the Inner Sanctum series for instance – were poor enough that even Lugosi at his most energetic and histrionic would have struggled to lift the limp corpses of their narratives out of the mire. Admittedly Chaney’s take on the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein is oddly flat, but then he had the misfortune to be the first actor faced with the unenviable task of following Karloff’s era-defining performance. Hopelessly miscast in Son of Dracula, he actually makes a half-decent fist of it despite the natural disadvantages of his bulky physique and evident all-Americanness.Frankenstein-Meets-the-Wolf-Man_03

But it’s his performance as poor tormented, doom-laden Larry Talbot on which a defence of Chaney’s right to be mentioned in the same breath as Karloff and Lugosi must depend, and although he played the part – with equal conviction and commitment – on five separate occasions for Universal, the definitive version is here, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

It’s not only Chaney though. The rest of the cast is also excellent. There’s Marya Ouspenskaya reprising the role of Maleva and Illona Massey replacing Evelyn Ankers as Elsa Frankenstein (much to Chaney’s delight no doubt). There’s Dennis Hoey, known and loved by generations of Sherlock Holmes fans as the pompous and dunderheaded Inspector Lestrade in the Rathbone/Bruce movies, here effectively playing the same role in all but name. Briefly, there’s Dwight Frye, who had been there at the beginning in both the 1931 classics that had set the whole thing rolling, in his last role before a tragically early death; a role the bulk of which, sadly, hit the cutting room floor with much the same force as Lugosi’s dialogue and later career. And, inevitably, there’s Lionel Atwill.

Skilled direction. Atmospheric visuals. A powerful script. A magnificent central performance. An excellent supporting cast. Hopefully this represents more than enough to establish that there are many logical and rational reasons for loving Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

However, it wasn’t really until I had children that I began to understand that the illogical, irrational ones are much more powerful.

I became a parent for the first time almost a decade ago, and am now the proud father of two daughters, one seven and one nine. Over those years, they have taught me many valuable lessons. In the early days, they taught me that the ‘bigger on the inside’ dimensional transcendentalism of the TARDIS is more scientifically plausible than it seems, since tiny babies can apparently produce two hundred times their own bodyweight in poo. A related lesson; they taught me that if the price of Protecting the Environment is washing re-usable nappies then the Environment can fuck right off. Global apocalypse is much the lesser of two evils. They taught me that long term sleeplessness is a viable life choice if incapacity, incompetence and incandescent irritability are no obstacles to your day to day existence. In fact, if you happen to be running for President, those qualities are positive advantages. More recently, they have taught me that a single episode of certain children’s television programmes can last for thirty seven months. Or seem to at least.

Mostly though, they’ve taught me what the phrase ‘Unconditional Love’ actually means.

I’m not at all certain that such a thing actually exists in any other form, or even if it should. However completely and passionately in love with your partner you may be, that love is still subject to the possibility of change. Even if it survives time, and circumstance, then, hypothetically at least, the actions of the other person could alter the nature of your love for them. Your love now may be total, absolute and overwhelming, but there are unspoken conditions attached to it. And so there should be. I love you this much while you don’t hurt me, while you don’t abuse my trust, while you don’t betray me.

That’s the proper basis for any adult relationship; we should all have sufficient self-respect to make our love conditional in that way. If we don’t, we lay ourselves open to being one of those people who stays in an abusive relationship out of ‘love’; neglecting to notice the glaringly obvious truth that if someone hits or humiliates you it tends to suggest they don’t even like you very much. Of course, we lucky ones never have to even think about the unspoken conditions on which our relationship is based. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

With my children however, those conditions simply don’t exist. There is absolutely nothing either of my daughters could do that would alter my love for them by the tiniest fraction of an iota. The love of parent for child is divorced from the conditional, from any semblance of rationality, from the very notion of cause and effect.

You see, in truth – and whisper the secret quietly – neither of my girls is completely without flaw. Of course they are kind and clever and funny and utterly brilliant, but that’s not the whole story. One is so shy and withdrawn that she will barely speak outside the house, and inside the house is prone to tantrums of quite indescribably terrifying proportions. The other is pathologically incapable of shutting up for a nanosecond at a time, and yet deeply insecure and craving approval beneath her apparent social confidence. Aware of how completely different they are, at times they can be utterly horrible to one another. Like most of us, they can both be prone to a degree of self interest and neither is above the occasional self-serving lie. They are not total strangers to materialistic greed.

They have flaws drawn from me. They have flaws drawn from their mother. They have flaws entirely their own. They have flaws stemming from nature and flaws stemming from nurture and flaws stemming from any other bloody place flaws might be lurking. The same is true of me and of the rest of the human race, but the difference with children is in the nakedness of their flaws. They’re just not as well-trained in the arts of dissembling as the rest of us.

A year or two ago, in my own hideously  ill-advised version of the love trial from King Lear, I asked my daughters what they wished for. My eldest, having learned the value and rewards to be gained through offering up the ‘right’ answers, smiled sweetly and replied  “I wish for happiness for my whole lovely family.” Her younger sister, marching to the beat of a deeper drum, replied “Cake.”

But the point is this. Not one of those flaws undermines the inescapable and undeniable truth that my daughters are two of the most wonderful creatures this world has ever been lucky enough to have walk upon it. And more. I don’t love my children despite their flaws. I love my children because of their flaws. I wouldn’t wish for an atom of them to be other than it is. And that love never burns more fiercely proud and protective than when those flaws are most evident. When they’re making mistakes, when they’re failing or falling, when they’re upset or isolated or making wrong choices and choosing the wrong road, when they’re some way from the top of their game; those are often the moments when I’m most aware of how profoundly and proudly and desperately my heart aches with love for them.

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And to those of you wondering what any of this has to do with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – my tangential fault, not yours – my answer is this. Although different in degree (even my fanboy heart couldn’t really love a monster mashup movie from 1942 quite as much as I love my kids) it was something of the same kind of ‘unconditional all flaws happily accepted’ love that my twelve year old self felt for the film, and that I’ve found myself eventually working my way back towards.

For many years in between the 1977 season of BBC2 horror double bills and today, whenever I watched or thought of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (which was, of course, far more often than any sane man would admit to) I found myself wishing for a different film. I was wishing for a film that retained Lugosi’s dialogue, for a film that explained the Monster’s blindness and made sense of Lugosi’s performance. I was wishing for a film that cast Karloff instead of Lugosi and spared the Hungarian’s blushes. I was wishing for a film that gave the monster a fairer deal, or for a film that didn’t have Far-o-la Far-o-li running infuriatingly around my head for days afterwards. I was wishing for a film that was a bit more tastefully titled, that didn’t wear its formulaic intentions quite so obviously on its sleeve.

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If the 1977 me could have met and talked with the 2017 version, perhaps sitting amiably around a campfire like Talbot and the thawing Monster, the twelve year old me would have laughed at the poor, unfortunate, myopic creature I had become. “It’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man!” he would have reminded me. “The Frankenstein Monster meets the Wolf Man in it!! They have a fight!!!! What more do you want?!!!!!”

And the middle-aged father I have become would nod sagely and agree. Why wish for a different film when the one you’ve got is fantastic? Why bother with might have beens at all? Why waste precious time wishing for things in life to be different at the expense of seeing the brilliant stuff that’s right there in front of you?

It’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. What’s not to love?

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Double Bill Seven – The Raven (1935 ) and The Black Cat (1934)

THE RAVEN (1935)                      August 13th 1977               23.05-00.05

THE BLACK CAT (1934)             August 14th 1977               00.05-01.10

‘Come, are we men, or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me?…Are we not both the living dead? For now you come to me, playing at being the avenging angel…childishly thirsting for blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like.’

Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)

‘Death is my talisman. The one indestructible force. The one certain thing in an uncertain universe. Death.’

Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi)

rt rav bcPerfection. It’s a slippery and difficult concept, isn’t it? Such an elusive, even absurd, idea – something that can never be anything other than an unattainable dream in this too too sullied world of ours. As Woody Allen has it, ‘if even one guy is starving somewhere it puts a crimp in my whole evening’. We know it’s impossible, we know that life is compromise, is compromised, is compromising. And yet it nags at us. We just can’t quite let go of that pale and insubstantial shadow. Perfection. We dream of it, we search vainly for it, all the time knowing that we’re tilting at windmills. But at least in our daydreams, and our most secret wishes, we tilt anyway.

Interestingly, it’s through the secret alchemy of combination that we dream most potently that such elusive, impossible perfection might be found. We dream that it can be found in that one other person. Mr Right, the soulmate, the impossible girl.

In the good old days when compilation tapes were a key component in any self-respecting sensitive young soul’s weaponry of mass seduction we all understood the magic of combination so much better. Is it possible to achieve the same effect with iTunes Playlists, do you think? I doubt it. The mechanism’s too easy; it doesn’t speak of nights spent diligently recording and sequencing to achieve the perfect result, which couldn’t then be shuffled into a new state of being with the tap of a finger on a touchscreen. There was nothing random about it, not in the long hours spent agonising over exactly which tracks most perfectly represented your heart’s truth, and even less so in the even more difficult task of establishing the perfect running order.

Combination, again, you see. The segue from shoegazing introspection, to upbeat but heartfelt, to wittily ironic, taking tone and tempo, lyric, and first and last chords into the reckoning. Every element was crucial. The inexplicably magical combination that would make the tape that little bit more than the sum of its parts, and would allow your scratchy C60 to transcend the temporal and touch the hem of the eternal. The slightest misstep and the compilation tape crashes and burns, its power mysteriously dispelled in an instant of Neil Young slipping awkwardly into Everything But the Girl. It was always impossible of course – the perfect compilation tape has never been made, any more than the perfect life has ever been lived, or any more than anyone ever slept with me because of my impeccable taste in music anyway.

Even so, the double bill of the 13th August that offered the magical combination of The Raven and The Black Cat represents this for me; a shimmering single vision of perfection. A strange kind of Platonic ideal, glimpsed not in shadows on the cave wall, but in black and white flickering ghosts on a little screen in the corner of a small living room in a Norwich suburb. At the risk of sounding even more like a candidate for Pseuds Corner than I usually do, there is something that approaches the divine for me in watching these two beautiful films together, the magic wonder of combination making my experience of this double bill about as close to spiritual experience as I’m willing to admit to. And so I’d like, if I may, to talk about these two films together rather than one at a time, because in some strange way that’s how I’ve always thought of them, not as separate entities, despite their entirely unconnected and distinct characters and plots, but somehow mystically conjoined into a single whole, like Fish‘n’Chips.

TheBlackCat‘n’TheRaven.

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Perhaps this is even stranger since this double bill represented a departure from BBC2’s typical – and wonderfully effective – combination of an old one and a new one. The Black Cat and The Raven were made only a year or so apart, and although 30s Universals both, neither is typical of the Universal cycle in that there is no supernatural monster (despite Karloff’s bizarre appearance in The Black Cat and heavy makeup job in The Raven). Wonderful horror movies though they are, neither is a Universal Monster movie in the vein of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy or The Wolf Man or any of the proliferation of sequels to the great originals.

bela_ravenThe Raven tells the story of Richard Vollin, a brilliant doctor, with a morbid fixation on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. His surgical genius saves the life of a beautiful young woman, played by Irene Ware, and upon her recovery, she becomes mildly infatuated with Vollin, while he develops a madly intense erotic obsession with her. Her starchily conventional father and her fiancé stand in the way of the relationship however, and denied the chance to fulfil his love, a crazed Vollin uses his Poe-inspired torture chamber to wreak revenge on those who thwarted him.

pThe Black Cat centres on a young honeymoon couple who become embroiled in the conflict between Vitus Werdegast, a prisoner of war recently returned to seek revenge on Hjalmar Poelzig, the man who betrayed him to the enemy, stole his wife and daughter and also happens to be the leader of a satanic cult.

There is nothing to connect them really, except for the almost entirely spurious connection to Poe in their titles, a certain shared morbidity, and, crucially, their casting. Both films were designed as vehicles for Universal to pair Karloff with Lugosi, thus enabling lots of promotional ballyhoo along the lines of ‘The screen’s twin titans of terror – together!’, or ‘Karloff the uncanny and Bela ‘Dracula’ Lugosi – twice the chills!’

And for once, the ballyhoo was expressing an extraordinary truth. The combination is magical. The films shown together as a double bill combine into something greater than the two component parts, and so too do Boris and Bela themselves.

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Both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had perfectly acceptable solo careers in the silent cinema, and when they were pressured into forming a double act, it was Stan alone who took artistic control of their films, while Ollie simply turned up, did the job, and went home. For all that, however, it is the indefinable joy of the two of them together, in combination, which lifts the experience of watching their films beyond the everyday and into a realm very close to perfection. Just as is the case with Morecambe and Wise, the only comedy double act worthy of mentioning in the same paragraph as Stan and Ollie. And just as it is with Boris and Bela. Something inexplicable happens to me when they are joined on screen.

I don’t believe in God, but He’s there, if He’s anywhere, in those moments of ineffable wonder when something adds up to more than the sum of its parts, opens a door, however briefly, on the transcendent, and points us, however uncertainly, towards a world which is better and cleaner and purer than the one we’re stuck with most of the time.

00db83ac6ed4de912ba1bad038b7fcd7Setting aside the chance to see the face of God though (because that might conceivably be just me), what TheBlackCat’n’TheRaven does undeniably offer is the chance to see the first pairings of the two great horror stars of the golden age, and the only collaborations which were on equal terms at a time when each was at the height of their powers.

There were many later outings for the deadly duo, admittedly. The Invisible Ray in 1936 is a terrific film, but it’s a Karloff vehicle with Lugosi – very effectively, and sympathetically – heading up the supporting cast. The same was planned for Son of Frankenstein, but in the end it’s Lugosi’s film, with Karloff’s Monster playing second fiddle – although, Karloff being Karloff, he plays second fiddle like Stephane Grappelli.

Considerably less distinguished than either is 1940’s Black Friday, planned as another more or less equal match before being scuppered when Karloff got the collywobbles, rejected the dual role written for him and was given Lugosi’s mad scientist part instead, with the relatively unknown Stanley Ridges being drafted in to play the Jekyll and Hyde lead and Lugosi bumped into a meaningless supporting turn.

A much, much better film – and the couple’s final pairing – was Val Lewton’s 1945 The Body Snatcher, directed by Robert Wise. By this time, however, Karloff was unquestionably the star, and Lugosi, on whom age, alcohol, and a temporary separation from his wife Lillian were taking a visible and heavy toll, is given not much more than a cameo – although you wouldn’t have known it from the RKO promotional campaign. The front office knew Lugosi could still be a draw, particularly alongside his old rival.

werdegast-poelzig-and-the-karen-under-glassBy contrast there is a delightful fairness about the two films in this double bill. The gleeful perversity Karloff brings to the characterisation of Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat is so brilliant and bizarre that most observers would agree with me that he takes the film on points, although the justified riposte is that the tormented yet heroic role of Werdegast allows Lugosi to show some of the range he was rarely given the chance to display. The Raven provides the perfect counterbalance, however, showing a dominant Lugosi at his bravura best, which is perhaps another reason I can only think of the films together. Lugosi’s brooding Vollin is a tour de force from the outset, and he barnstorms his way through the increasing hysteria of the later scenes with a maniacal delight that Karloff’s more subdued Bateman offsets very effectively.

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Even in my own private preferences I find it impossible to separate the two films. I love The Black Cat for its wonderfully expressionist set design, effortlessly demonstrating the peculiarly Gothic heart beating beneath its ultra-modernist Bauhaus; I love The Raven for its brooding, morbid Romanticism. I love The Raven for the intensity and commitment that it lends – through the screenplay and Lugosi’s performance – to the portrait of the ‘tortured genius’; I love The Black Cat for the sly perversity Ulmer’s inspired direction and Karloff’s knowing performance sneaks spectacularly past the censors. I love The Black Cat for the bleak pessimism of its moral vision, revealing profoundly that both the virtuous Lugosi and the corrupt Karloff are equally trapped and doomed, both, as Poelzig puts it, ‘the living dead’; I love The Raven for the dualism of its moral structure, as Lugosi’s initially sympathetic Vollin slides into damnation and Karloff’s truly monstrous Bateman finds redemption at the last. I love them both for their wonderfully atmospheric lighting, literate screenplays and for the uniformly excellent performances.teacigar

All wrapped up together, it makes the experience of watching them both – as I always have to – a blissful and a beautiful thing, and for all their darkness and morbidity the films make me profoundly happy.

I’m led to the question of where and when I’ve been happiest, apart from when watching TheBlackCat’n’TheRaven on the 13th of August 1977. If you ask people that question, more often than not they will tend to tell you a particular period of their lives. I was happiest at school, or in my university years, or when I was working at such and such, or when me and so and so were together. I think they’re missing the point. By definition, perfect happiness is a matter of isolated moments, of single instants. It simply cannot be sustained across any length of time, no matter how positive your general circumstances might be. The ordinary and the mundane have to intrude, as certain as breathing. It’s not happiness you’re talking about – it’s contentment maybe, or wellbeing, but that’s just not the same thing.

So for me I was happiest one day sitting alone on the upper deck of a bus between the Irish coastal towns of Portrush and Portstewart, a copy of Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce in my hands, while the sun danced and sparkled on the waves, and again as the sun danced on the water across the Dorsodouro, it seeming a matter of the most perfect joy that the light should arrange itself just so, and once more that moment in 96 as Gascgoine flipped that ball up and over Colin Hendrie’s head and volleyed a sublime finish in the Wembley sunshine, and again as I bellowed the words ‘Now I’m your old man, and you are my missus’ from behind my Dylancirca66 Rae-Bans and hit the chords at the end of Greetings to the New Brunette on my Burns Steer, bathed in sunlight on my wedding day.

villians-sometimes-sleepAnd what is it that these fleeting moments have in common? Freedom. Complete personal determination. A sense that, at that exact moment, my life was fully and entirely my own, owing nothing to anybody. I could step off that Portstewart bus and go – anywhere. Nowhere I had to be, nothing I had to do – the choice was my own. The dancing Venetian sunlight carried me momentarily to a place beyond circumstance, beyond mortality, beyond the passage of time. And Paul Gascgoine, just briefly, lifted me outside the cares of the world, outside my job or my not entirely happy relationship of the time, and I stood uplifted in the middle of a screaming pub, drenched in the beer of a hundred similarly and suddenly uplifted pint-clasping hands, and for a few seconds was allowed a glimpse into a better and a truer world. I was, in those moments, my own sovereign self, and life was one limitless opportunity.

Annex-Karloff,Boris(Raven,The)_03But have you spotted the odd one out? A wedding is about any number of things, and mine was an expression of perfect joy, but whatever else it may be, a wedding is not a declaration of freedom or of owing nothing to anybody. Those perfect, absolutely unsullied moments belong to an altogether different phase of life, before every moment, whatever kind of gift it may be, comes bundled up in responsibility and worry and commitment.

There’s a moment in Anne Tyler’s beautiful bittersweet novel The Accidental Tourist which sums it up so much more eloquently than I could ever manage that I’d like to cop out and offer you her words rather than my own. Following the death of his child, the end of his marriage and his own desperate attempt to find safety in emotional isolation, Tyler’s hero, Macon Leary, rescues a small boy he has become somehow responsible for from a group of bullies and begins to find himself, almost against his will, reconnecting with life and the world.

But when they started walking again, he slipped his hand into Macon’s.

Those cool little fingers were so distinct, so particular, so full of character. Macon tightened his grip and felt a pleasant kind of sorrow sweeping through him. Oh, his life had regained all its old perils. He was forced to worry once again about nuclear war and the future of the planet. He often had the same guilty, secret thought that had come to him after Ethan was born: From this time on I can never be completely happy.

Not that he was before, of course.

Maybe that, in the end, is why perfect happiness is not what defines our lives. Not because happiness is an ideal we can never reach, but because life – compromised, compromising life – with all its fears and failures and responsibilities, is so much better than perfection. So I’ll never be completely happy again? Good. I’ll mix my freedom with love and commitment and terror and laundry and washing up, and through that combination (as surely as Boris and Bela and TheBlackCat’n’TheRaven) I’ll get as close to fulfilment as I can ever touch.

Perfection is just a shadow on the wall. I’ll take flesh and blood any day. TheBlackCat’n’TheRaven has plenty of shadows and walls, and plenty of flesh and blood.

That’ll do for me, in the end.

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Double Bill Six – The Premature Burial (1962)

THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1962)              August 6th 1977          23.55 – 01.10

‘I wasn’t running from what was inside that coffin. I was running from what I knew to be inside me.’

Guy Carrell (Ray Milland)

For me, Roger Corman’s wonderful The Premature Burial provides the most profoundly unsettling experience of all the films across the entire run of BBC2 horror double bills. Undeniably a masterpiece, it is a disturbing, uncomfortable and haunting experience which perfectly captures the essence of Poe’s peculiarly queasy tone while in its details not owing him much more than the title.

court corman titleIt’s an often-told story that Corman had a difficult time trying to persuade his bosses at AIP that for the same money it would take to make yet another double bill of low budget black and white quickies he could instead give them a single, colour, ‘proper’ horror film to rival the Hammer product sweeping so profitably across the States. In particular, they objected to his proposal of an adaptation of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (of which more later) on the grounds that he’d be making a monster movie with no monster in it. ‘The house is the monster’ Corman quickly and successfully improvised.

Well, the Usher strategy was an enormously profitable one, and The Premature Burial was the third of what was to be an eventual eight films in the Corman AIP ‘Poe Cycle’, though this time, uniquely, the starring role of Guy was taken by the accomplished Ray Milland when on every other occasion the lead was Vincent Price. And this time, the monsterless monster movie took on the biggest bogeyman of them all. In The Premature Burial, Corman might well have pointed out, Death is the monster.

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The first and last shots in the film are of headstones. The most significant sequences in the film unfold in a graveyard or in the mouldering family crypt, over which broods the pervasive presence of Milland’s obsession that his father was buried alive. Succumbing ever deeper to the paranoid conviction that the same fate that befell his father now awaits him, Guy’s imaginative ‘mancave’ solution is to build himself a homemade tomb studded with an endless succession of escape methods in the event that he wakes up after his own funeral, culminating in a draught of poison should all else fail. The twitching dead frogs and galvanic batteries with which Guy and Miles experiment in the basement serve to position Milland as a surrogate Peter Cushing, but unlike Baron Frankenstein’s obsession with the creation of life, Guy is obsessed only with avoiding death. The honeymoon which Guy and Emily never manage to go on was to have been in Venice, an entire city which has been slowly dying for centuries.King

Even the dog dies.

Or, at least, poor old King appears to die, before recovering from the lightning strike which seemed to have killed him, only to deepen Guy’s fear of premature burial.

Death lurks in every corner of the narrative – just as you’d expect from a film called The Premature Burial – but even more startlingly it exerts a presence in almost every frame. The production design foregrounds it from the opening shot onwards, tracking across a mist-shrouded, consciously artificial and studio-bound graveyard, flecked with lifeless, twisted stick-trees and framed against a sickly painted night-sky backdrop. It’s in the eerily whistled version of ‘Molly Malone’ which continues to echo hauntingly throughout the film, and in the top-hatted mourning dress of the scene’s grave-robbing doctors. Most of all, perhaps, it’s in the livid red blood-smears on the bottom of the coffin lid and in the crash zoom onto the frozen, screaming face of the corpse, now revealed to have been buried alive.

It’s not only the magnificent first sequence however. As the opening credits roll we cut to the stately progress of a jet-black horse drawing what appears to be a black funeral carriage through the same fog blanketed landscape, and then move inside to focus on the black, mourning-clad Hazel Court as Milland’s fiancée Emily.

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There is, as we are soon to discover, no narrative reason why she should first appear in mourning dress when she is simply going to see in person why Guy has broken off their engagement by letter. Corman and designer Daniel Haller have made a production decision based purely on atmospheric, rather than narrative, logic, choosing to use the costume design to keep the idea of death before our eyes at every moment.

The only flicker of colour is provided by the striking scarlet feathers in Emily’s black bonnet, calculated to create, perhaps consciously, an association with the bright red flare of her lips, and vividly contrasting her black-clad and bustled respectability. Sex and death. Sex and death.

black and red 1The reds and blacks that continue to dominate the production design once we are inside Guy’s mansion have a clear symbolic function, which point towards Corman’s use of Hazel Court throughout the film. Her amoral sensuality is the flash of red on the black palette, the flicker of Eros in the face of Thanatos. Emily is Desire in the kingdom of the Dead.

It’s an opposition that runs throughout the film, but one that is never embodied more clearly than in the wedding night sequence. Having had a funny turn at the reception, Milland is laid out on the couple’s four-poster, black-suited and still as death, while Hazel Court, diaphanous nightgown floating softly around her, leans over her unmoving husband, gently caressing his forehead, his cheek, his chin, and lends a desperate, sensual urgency to the soft, deep, lingering kisses she offers her corpse-like groom.

Hazel Court occupies an exceptional place in the history of the horror film, working for Hammer on Curse of Frankenstein and The Man Who Could Cheat Death, before becoming Corman’s leading lady of choice, appearing for the director in The Premature Burial and equally powerfully in The Masque of the Red Death, and also showing a talent for comedy in The Raven. What unites her performances across these disparate films, and what develops increasingly powerfully from one to the next, is a much more full-blooded and potently sensual quality than was often to be found elsewhere in the films of the period.

Female sexuality in films is usually synonymous with youth, conveying a rather dubious connotation that sexual desire is the preserve of young girls barely out of high school and that, much past twenty five, a woman is sexless mother or nothing. What Hazel Court is able to do, much more unusually, is the unabashed sexuality of the grown woman. The contrast between the two ideas is one which is drawn very boldly in Masque of the Red Death – embodied in the casting of a wide-eyed and fresh-faced Jane Asher as the girl Vincent Price lusts after and aims to corrupt, which is perfectly balanced by the maturity of Court’s stellar performance as Price’s lover.

graveyard end guy and emilyThere is no ‘younger woman’ in Premature Burial, but Court’s performance here is, if anything, even more exceptional. Although she is revealed by the end as the film’s nominal villain, I can forgive Emily any amount of duplicity and manipulation – Court’s performance is such that she holds my complete sympathy throughout the film. I’d far rather side with her rich, earthy sensuality and hedonism than with Guy’s dreadful, self-absorbed and selfish fetishisation of death. If I had the misfortune to be married to Milland in the film I’d certainly be plotting his speedy demise too. The waste of Emily’s life as Guy takes his psychotic revenge for her betrayal seems to me a far worse crime than anything she does to him. At least Emily was alive in the first place, which is more than you can say for the death-fixated Milland.

graveyard end bodiesThe film’s final track across the graveyard, away from the dead bodies of both leading actors until the frame is filled with the words ‘Rest in Peace’ carved into a weathered stone seems to suggest the meaningless inevitability of death’s triumph over us all. Yet it was the sheer, unashamed sexiness of Hazel Court that was to be the film’s most lasting impression on me. The red feathers rather than the black dress. The red lips rather than the clammy tomb. In memory, at least, sex triumphs over death.

And, just to say, Court is spectacularly sexy in the film. Not just in her first appearance, nor only in the wedding night sequence. There’s also a fabulously telling little moment when the servant announces a call from Miles Archer (the doctor to whom she has taken emily mirrora fancy, despite her marriage to Guy) and Hazel Court looks down thoughtfully, stands, checks her reflection and adjusts her hair before receiving him. The moment speaks volumes about Emily’s instinctive worldview that desire is natural and should be embraced, not repressed. There’s no guilt or indecision, just a complete, unselfconscious acceptance of her own sexuality.

The moment is echoed even more strongly later, after Guy’s apparent death, when she reclines on the bed in front of a bizarrely oblivious Miles, the tight framing emphasising the bareness of her shoulders as though she were naked. But much more than the hint of flesh, it’s in her eyes. The knowing, poised and unashamed gaze Hazel Court gives the scene is extraordinarily erotic.

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Sometimes there’s a tendency to argue that these things are always relative. The ‘Yes, Lana Turner smouldered in the context of the 1940s but it’s hardly Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct is it?’ kind of idea, as though the modern attitude to censorship and permissiveness has a monopoly on the genuinely seductive, like each new generation of teenagers demanding the right to believe that they invented sex. Hazel Court in The Premature Burial gives the lie to the relativism as far as I’m concerned. The look in her eyes as she lies, bare-shouldered and eager, in front of her prospective new lover is more overt and explicit for me than any number of erotic thrillers filled with fleshy but soulless montages. The scene is sexy by the standards of any day or age because of the knowing desire and sexual confidence Court lends her performance.

It all combines to make Hazel Court’s Emily, for me, horror cinema’s most perfect femme fatale (I’d spare an honourable mention for Linda Hayden’s brilliant performance as Angel Blake in Blood on Satan’s Claw, but Hayden’s youth at the time makes it a very different kind of role) and a performance which was more than enough to make a startling and lasting impression on the twelve year old me watching more than a little breathlessly from his parent’s sofa in the summer of 1977.

Now, flash forward twenty years.

A late 90s January morning, stupidly early, struggling out of sleep under a steely, slate-grey sky. The phone rings, harsh and metallic in the early morning silence. The phone. A sudden, lurching, sick in the stomach moment. We’re all afraid of early morning phone calls, aren’t we? Afraid that they’ll be that phone call, the phone call we never even want to think about receiving. And this time, just this once, it is.

My mother’s voice, far away on the other end of the line, sounding oddly distant and emptied. ‘Michael?’ she says. She’s hesitant yet urgent at the same time. ‘There’s something wrong with your dad.’

‘What is it? What do you mean?’

‘He’s in his chair. He was eating his porridge, and then he started shaking. He stopped eating his porridge and he was shaking and then he just slumped and he made this awful noise…Michael? Michael? I think he’s dead.’

The porridge is the thing, isn’t it? I don’t know why, in that context, mum felt it important to specify the particular breakfast involved, but she did. We think about death coming in many forms, sudden or violent, brutal or tragic, dramatic or peaceful, but never quite so banal. We don’t picture the Reaper popping round over the Quaker Oats. We tend to leave those sort of details aside.

Shakespeare understood it though, as he did so many other things. For me, the most unbearably moving moment at the end of King Lear isn’t the hideous juxtaposition of ‘the gods defend her’ with the immediate entrance of Lear carrying Cordelia’s dead body, nor Lear’s desperate denial of the undeniable, nor his anguished ‘howl, howl, howl, howl.’ It is the moment Lear truly accepts the horror of his loss, and the profundity of his tragedy is punctuated by a spot of bother with his collar: ‘..thou wilt come no more/Never, never, never. – Pray you, undo/This button here..’ It’s that sudden interjection of the trivial and the mundane which renders everything else so human and so anguished and so desperately, unbearably true.

‘Oh God,’ I mumble helpfully into the phone, and then ‘Oh Christ.’ Ha! the God botherers cry triumphantly – proof that there are no atheists in foxholes! The argument rather neglects the fact, however, that had I been speaking to anyone other than my mum, I would almost certainly have said ‘Oh shit… Oh fuck’ instead, demonstrating as an alternative hypothesis that there are no constipation sufferers or celibates on that metaphorical front line.

crypt3I’ve always felt Hemingway’s phrase about the earth moving during sex to be a bit overblown (oo-er). But this phone call shows me that death can do what sex can’t. I have the distinct sense of a shift in the axis of existence at exactly this moment. The ceiling and the sky beyond it seem to move oppressively close while the rest of the world recedes into long shot, and I have a sickly falling sensation that I’m lost, and standing on some kind of conveyor belt carrying me further and further from home and that there’s no getting off, not ever.

I hold it together enough to mutter that I’m on my way. ‘Please hurry’ she says, beginning to cry properly.

Fortunately, at the time I was living only a handful of streets away from my parent’s home – a five minute drive at most – but, unfortunately, I couldn’t drive back then, having failed my test at 18, then left home and been without the money or the pressing need to take it again at any point since. At this moment however, the sensation of helplessness and inadequacy is overwhelming.

Not overwhelming enough for me to actually do anything about getting my licence in the immediate aftermath though; that doesn’t happen until, almost ten years later, I am faced with a similar sense of my own humiliating uselessness when my wife is allowed home from hospital only on the proviso that someone can drive her back at a moment’s notice if need be, and we have to ask her stepmother to come and stay for a few days as designated driver.

I ring a taxi. I speak numbly to my partner of the time. After some centuries the taxi arrives, and we head round more or less in silence. I don’t really remember that short journey at all, except for one specific moment, staring bleakly out of the window at the passing privet, mancavecoffinand clutching somehow at the presence of a robin in the hedge as a sign that this was all just a terrible mistake. That, as in all those cruel, cruel films, he wasn’t really dead at all, and would open his eyes to pass humorous comment on the tears of all those gathered around the body.

We arrive. We go in. I remember nothing of what is said. I’m in the living room, somehow, and there he is. He is sitting in his big brown leather armchair, his head lolling back and his mouth hanging open. His sightless eyes are wide. There’s no question of doing anything. He is so completely gone. It doesn’t even look like him. This is the dead body of my father. This is how Death looks.

My hand moves to my mouth. I look away because I have to and look back for the same reason. That bloody bowl of porridge is resting on a shelf between the chair and the fireplace.

My feelings come like this. First, there is shock. Not shock in quite the usual sense though. Not shock at the loss and what it means and what life will be like now and how mum will cope, though that’s all buried in there somewhere deep down.

No, it’s the shock of the visual that dominates the moment. It’s the sudden instant of horror that sears itself onto the retina and stays there like the shock reveal in so many, many of these horror films I cradle and clutch to my inadequate heart to try to explain and understand so much that is wonderful and frightening and terrifying in the world around me, and here they are again, these strange old movies, even here, even now, these strange old films I first encountered so long ago with my dad snoring peacefully upstairs.

poor wretchI react to him now just as if he’s Karloff framed in those trademark three tightening close ups, or Lon Chaney turning to Mary Philbin, finally unmasked in The Phantom of the Opera, or the crash–zoomed face of the ‘poor wretch’ buried alive in the opening sequence of The Premature Burial.

Hard on the heels of the shock is the tiny, shameful, guilty, giggling flicker of relief. ‘So close, so close, but it’s him not you’, whispers that still, small, and utterly self-centred voice from the back of the brain. ‘You’re still here. You’re still breathing and sucking up the present tense. Alive.’

And then, above and beyond it all, the sudden and absolute certainty of conviction that I’m looking at a vision of the future. One day, who knows how far away, this figure in the chair, cold and ugly and lifeless, will be me. I am but my father’s son, and to this same favour I must come. In that moment, I become Ray Milland’s Guy, absolute in his conviction that his father’s terrible fate is now his own. My death ceases to be hypothetical, ceases to be a projection, and is made concrete in those split seconds at ten past seven on January 22nd 1999.

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Of course, that revelation has grown less raw and immediate with each passing year, but I carry it with me now, and have done through every second I’ve lived since that slate-grey January morning.

Finally, shockingly too late, it stops being about me, and becomes about mum and dad, and doing what I can to make this one iota less appalling and unbearable. I make a couple of phone calls, to medical people. I’m told I mustn’t move him. Something to do with the fact he’d had a hospital appointment recently means there’s likely to have to be an autopsy. A doctor will be along soon. I ask, and am given the concession that I can turn the chair around, so that at least my mum doesn’t have to be staring at the body for the next hour. I do that, and start phoning people to let them know.

Then I ring work, and, get this, I set cover lessons for my classes. It’s either a sign of the impossibly high standards expected of the modern era’s teaching machine, or of my continuing and debilitating fear of being told off or found out as the unprofessional faker I really am. Either way, it suggests that my head has stopped functioning properly. At the end of the phone call the school secretary tells me how sorry she is and for the first time I feel tears beginning to steal up on me.

A lot of the rest is a blur. A cold, numb, nagging empty. Moments and impressions remain. Mum insisting on starting to clear out his clothes, there and then, that day, and burying her face in a bundle of jumpers that held his scent. Aunts and sandwiches. A camply oleaginous registrar who seemed to take a bizarre shine to me.

I fell into something of a black pit in the days and weeks and months following dad’s death. funeral povNothing remarkable or unusual in that, I know, but no less oppressive for being commonplace. Ordinary, run of the mill actions – going to work, putting the kettle on, climbing the stairs – all seemed to carry with them a backwash of futility and inauthenticity. Life emptied itself of meaning. There was no point in anything.

Of course, in the larger, existential terror of the human condition, this is simply facing up to the inescapable reality of the universe. Our insignificance is a given; of course there is no meaning or purpose to anything we do, and if we fail to accept this then we never really emerge from the nursery. To assume or hope for anything else is simply a failure of courage, or of the imagination; childish and contemptible. Even so, to continue to function we need to be able to tell ourselves that what we are doing is somehow worth doing, and I found it impossible to do so for a time.

I was Ray Milland in The Premature Burial, frozen and terrified to the point of paralysis.

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Strangely, however, in one of those curious moments of synchronicity which would annoy me intensely if a novelist tried to put them over on me and yet which do actually occur from time to time in life, the days which followed hard upon dad’s death contained within them the specific experience I needed to sow the seeds of recovery. Red feathers against a black dress.

Two days after the funeral, and now back at work, the office passed me a phone message from an Emma Brown who had rung and left a number asking me to ring back if I could.

This was quite out of the blue. I’d known Emma pretty well a few years earlier, and we had carried on a mildly flirtatious relationship which a combination of my own lack of courage and a range of tricky personal contexts – I was unmarried, but in a long term relationship at the time, amongst other things – prevented from ever developing into anything else.

audrey-cooperPerhaps, in truly clichéd vein, it was this perceived unattainability that fuelled the longing. At the time I had known her, I had also become fixated with the rich, playfully sexy qualities of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which was casting its lush, mysterious spell over the world back then just as, extraordinarily, it is doing once again as I’m writing this, twenty five years later. Fanboy to the end, Emma became entangled in my head with coffee black as midnight on a moonless night, Angelo Badalamenti’s hauntingly sensual soundtrack, and Sherilyn Fenn’s hauntingly sensual Audrey Horne.

Since then, however, Emma had moved to Southampton, and worked for a while in a school somewhere in Guildford. During the early part of this time we’d exchanged letters, and met up a couple of times when she visited Norwich, but had inevitably lost touch after a while. Life moved on, as it should, and while I still spared the occasional wistful daydream for what might have been, I hadn’t given any serious thought to Emma for years. There’s an Elvis Costello song called Just About Glad on his 1994 album Brutal Youth which I remember had felt like my last shrug of goodbye to all that.

I’m just about glad that I knew you once

And it was more than just a passing acquaintance

I’m just about glad that it was a memory

That doesn’t need constant maintenance

There are a few things that I regret

But nothing that I need to forget

For all of the courage that we never had

I’m just about glad

This mysterious phone message was the first contact we’d had since the early 90s. When I returned her call we arranged to meet the following lunchtime in a pub at the end of the road – teacher pub lunchtimes seem to have sadly disappeared in today’s OFSTED-quaking education system, but those were different times.

My head was full of dad and death and depression, and perhaps surprisingly, I can say truthfully that I’d not really dwelled on the prospect of seeing her again and there wasn’t a particularly strong tingle of anticipation as I stepped into the darkened bar.

I saw her immediately, talking to two tall, much older men in suits at the bar, and there was something strikingly erotic about the tableau, something about her absolute power and control of these two figures towering above her, something about the way they leaned into and over her that suggested an almost magnetic allure. Quite unexpectedly, I felt my stomach lurch in that hardly-ever-experienced-as-an-adult first love adolescent way.

A few moments later, and she was sitting opposite me. Her hair was shorter than it used to be, but otherwise she was almost unchanged. The sun was slanting in from the window beside our table, catching the satin blouse she was wearing and making it sheer enough that I found it rather hard to concentrate. I didn’t have much to say, but she filled me in on some of the things that had happened to her since we’d last met. Sitting beside Cecil Parkinson – former Chairman of the Conservative Party and all-round randy old goat – at a young Tory dinner she’d organised and him telling her she was the sexiest girl in the room. Having to leave her last teaching job as a result of the brief affair she’d had with a PE teacher who was married to the Deputy Head – ‘The poor man had never had oral sex. I mean it was cruel.’ And then the laugh, dry and dirty.

And I saw it all clearly, quite suddenly. The socially ambitious tory. The unrepentant hedonist. Both of them aspects of an unquestioningly egocentric view of self and appetite as the only relevant things in the world which should have been deeply unattractive but in fact had me all but trembling like a schoolboy.

emily an miles

And as I looked into that open upturned face, its rounded cheeks, its bold eyes and its delicate, fine-boned nose, it came to me that I was sitting opposite Hazel Court in The Premature Burial, and that I was overwhelmed by the kind of yearning that I hadn’t really felt for a long, long time; perhaps not since I’d actually been a trembling schoolboy.

With something like the force of revelation, this moment of Joycean epiphany revealed to me quite suddenly that not only was this the first time I’d felt alive since my dad’s death, it was also the first time I’d felt alive in a lot longer than that.

At the time all this happened I’d been in a stable, ostensibly happy relationship for many years. My partner of the time was thoughtful and clever, our views on life, politics and people were in accord, and we had a long shared history. I admired and respected her, and liked her very much. But in that moment, sitting opposite a young woman I wasn’t sure I liked at all, but wanted with every atom of my being, emilyI realised that ‘happy’ was not the right word for my life, or for the state of our relationship. We were comfortable. Companionable. Content. Colourless. The overwhelming guilt I felt as Emma’s eyes gazed into mine with the same potency Hazel Court leant Emily’s bedroom scene with Miles in The Premature Burial was not only about how desperately I wanted to sleep with her, but about my sudden awareness of how pathetically little of myself I was able to offer to my partner, and how much more she – and everyone – deserved.

In other words, we’d both been guilty of settling, and it took the death of my dad, with it’s reminder that life is just the flare of a match in an eternal night, plus the electrical jolt of desire I felt sitting at that unremarkable pub table, to open my eyes to the fact. Sex and Death, Sex and Death. Red feathers and a black dress. Happiness was elsewhere. ‘Comfortable and content’, it was instantly clear to me, wasn’t giving either of us what we really needed.

Schopenhauer and the pessimist school may argue that the human condition is one of inevitable suffering, that to be comfortable and content is to be one man pick’d out of ten thousand and that happiness can only ever be defined negatively as the absence of pain, but they’d never watched Emma Brown turn eating a smoked salmon roll into an act of seductive temptation so erotic that it would have made even Hazel Court blush.

The riot that had quite suddenly erupted in my heart was not only the opposite of the despair and paralysis I’d fallen into while failing to deal with my grief, it was also an absolute prefiguring of the need for change.

Were life as straightforward as most stories, I might be able to tell you that Emma and I walked hand in hand into a rosy sunset. But it isn’t and we didn’t.

I went back to work for the afternoon, and I only ever saw Emma once more, later that night, by which time I was so helplessly drunk I could barely move. The other, slightly less Joycean epiphany I had that day was that it wasn’t a good idea to mumble paralytic, incoherent and squirmingly embarrassing confessions of  your depth of feeling to the object of your obsession while trying not to dribble on her chest. Then I went home, never saw her again, and spent the next few months attempting, ultimately unsuccessfully, to repress and ignore the lesson I felt I’d learned and to go on with life exactly as it was.

A bit more significantly, however, a year or so later I found myself outside a café in Venice drinking red wine alone at a table on the Piazzetta opposite the Doge’s Palace and listening to the house band play a smooth piano, bass and sax instrumental of La Vie en Rose punctuated by the relentless tourist buzz and the percussive slapping of water from the Lagoon. Drunk and more than a little maudlin, and contemplating the by now unavoidable breakdown of a fifteen year relationship that had turned out, for each of us, to be more of an evasion of life than an expression of it, I took a bleary-eyed look around me.

piano bar

Venice. A fantasy city built on stilts in the water, a Disneyland for grown ups. A city Emily and Guy never got to for their planned honeymoon, but a city simultaneously sexually extravagant and death-haunted enough for them each to have loved it, encompassing as it does both the Eros of Casanova’s exploits and the Thanatos of Thomas Mann’s mournful parable. And of course, horror film fans, also Don’t Look Now, which features both the most powerfully affecting sex scene and the most powerfully affecting death scene the genre has to offer. A city built on the very idea of transience, thrown into existence in defiance of time and tide and possibility.

From where I sat, surrounded by the fantastical folly of the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica, the whole absurdly beautiful edifice of St. Mark’s Square, and all of it, by infinitesimal but irrevocable degrees, all of it, slowly sinking into the water, I knew that everything was dying. Nothing could last. Nothing was forever. All things must pass. Simultaneously I knew that it didn’t matter. What might be gone in a year or a decade, a second or a century, was here now and that the experiencing of it, coffinguyof life and existence, here, now, in this single unique and irreducible instant was all that mattered.

I finished my wine and walked away – but I left the Ray Milland part of me at the table.

Life isn’t neat, and the journey that stretched back to watching Hazel Court flirt with Guy and Miles in The Premature Burial in the second half of a 1977 BBC2 horror double bill and forward to a bottle of wine on the Piazzetta, and back to a leather armchair in a living room with a bowl of porridge on a shelf and forward to a pub table, sunlight, a window, a satin shirt, and a smoked salmon roll, wasn’t over and done with. It would continue to twist and turn, the consequences of all this playing out even more uncomfortably and painfully over years because of my own lack of courage and indecisiveness.

Even so, it was a road that led me forwards. It meant movement, not paralysis. It was a road that led me to the place where I am today, which, with all the imperfections and frustrations and disappointments that every life contends with, is a life that has room in it for the riot in the heart, for love, for the brevity of human life and the urgency of the present tense.

For that, Emma, Hazel, and dad – amongst others – my thanks.

rip

 

 

Double Bill Six – The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN  (1942)   6th August 1977     22.50-23.55

‘You can make us one. We’ll be together always. My brain and his body. Together.’

Ygor (Bela Lugosi)

So after the enjoyable diversion into tortured lesbian vampires and Cornish zombies of ghostprematurelistingsthe previous week, the following Saturday’s BBC2 horror double bill returned to the central spine of the season, Universal’s unfolding Frankenstein series with the next entry: The Ghost of Frankenstein.

It’s hard to argue too vigorously with the received wisdom that The Ghost of Frankenstein marks the beginning of the series’ downturn in quality. It’s an enjoyable, fast-paced and efficient little film, but it is a little film, both in the quite literal sense of its B movie-suitable 68 minute running time, making it the shortest film in the Frankenstein series, and in the evident lack of both the financial and the creative resources which had characterised the previous three films.

It’s not only shorter than the other films; it’s flatter. The set design, despite the presence of the brilliant middle European village  which Universal was to use and re-use through its second wave 40s monster rallies, is neutral and anonymous when measured against the lavish production designs of the earlier Frankenstein movies. The lighting and cinematography are also somewhat bland, and to demonstrate that this is not merely a case of judging a cheaper B-movie by the standards of its more expensive A-feature predecessors, compare Ghost of Frankenstein with its equally cheap and cheerful but richly atmospheric near-contemporaries, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The problems with Ghost of Frankenstein are due at least as much to a lack of imagination as a lack of cash, and they are thrown into even sharper relief by the inclusion of a flashback scene of footage from the original 1931 Frankenstein. It’s a bad sign for a film when its most impressive sequence is actually taken from another film made eleven years earlier.

The rather more uninspired, formulaic approach extends to the narrative itself, which begins with a group of disgruntled torch-bearing villagers storming a castle and ends with a different group of disgruntled torch-bearing villagers storming a different castle.

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The beginning or the end? Both, actually.

It also infects some of the performances. No-one is dialling it in exactly, but with the exception of Lugosi no-one seems able to bring more to the script than it deserves. Cedric Hardwicke is perfectly effective and assured as Ludwig, Henry Frankenstein’s other son, but his stolid respectability feels more than a little underwheming when judged against the manic, hysterical qualities both Colin Clive and Basil Rathbone had previously brought to the surgical table.

The always reliable Lionel Atwill – yes, he’s back again – lends some skilfully drawn elements of wounded pride, professional jealousy and low cunning to his role as Doctor Bohmer, but there is none of the wonderful inventiveness he leant to Inspector Krogh in the previous film. The equally reliable Evelyn Ankers is fine as Ludwig Frankenstein’s daughter Elsa, but nothing like as affecting as she had been in The Wolf Man.

107And to address the elephant in the room, there is a Karloff-shaped hole at the centre of The Ghost of Frankenstein which, for all his considerable bulk, Lon Chaney junior is unable to fill. In my mind, the film is closely allied to Dracula’s Daughter for the way in which both films, whatever strengths they may have to offer, are ultimately defined and dominated by the fact that their leading men – Karloff and Lugosi respectively – are missing from the film.

Chaney’s broader features present an immediate physical contrast to Karloff’s gaunt, haunted visage, but his largely immobile face also lacks Karloff’s expressiveness, and although I wouldn’t go so far as to say Chaney gives a bad performance, the lack of Karloff’s subtlety makes it an oddly hollow one. Chaney’s is a monster emptied of character. GhostOfFrankenstein18Moments obviously intended to give opportunity for some Karloffian nuance and pathos – the tenderness between Ygor and the monster, the scene where Chaney encounters a little village girl and carries her to a rooftop to fetch her lost ball – fall strangely flat here, and in these moments the absence of Karloff is a much more powerful impression than the presence of Chaney.

Not that the film has nothing to enjoy. There’s a particular thrill for the sharp eyed fanboy in noticing that the first set of villagers includes Dwight Frye, who had gabbled and giggled and chewed the scenery with the best of them as Renfield in Dracula and Fritz the hunchback in Frankenstein – his blink and you’ll miss him appearance here ready testimony to a career fall even more precipitous than Lugosi’s. Lugosi himself, reprising his favourite role as Ygor, introduced in Son of Frankenstein, effortlessly dominates the opening and is by some margin the best thing in Ghost of Frankenstein.

GhostOfFrankenstein11He’s given some great lines. ‘Your father was Frankenstein – but your mother was the lightning!’ is a belter which Lugosi relishes to the full. Ygor’s sly manipulation of the ‘educated and cunning but not quite as cunning as uneducated Ygor’ Dr. Bohmer works wonderfully and is beautifully played by both Atwill and Lugosi. But even Lugosi, magnificent though he is here, does not quite reach the standard he set in Son of Frankenstein, at least partly because in the crucial interactions, Chaney’s monster doesn’t offer him the kind of subtlety and personality to play against which he was afforded by Karloff.ghostoffrankensteinYgorMonJanet

The return of Ygor is certainly the most enjoyable element of a film which, whatever its shortcomings, remains intensely watchable, but the manner in which The Ghost of Frankenstein manages his return might itself be revealing.

I must admit to loving the cheerfully slapdash speed with which Ygor’s startling resurrection after being unequivocally shot to death by Basil Rathbone at the end of Son of Frankenstein is explained away with a portentous, and utterly nonsensical line of dialogue – ‘Ygor does not die that easily…’. Even so I can’t help wondering if it isn’t also the jump the shark point for the series; the moment where Universal begins to display a degree of contempt for its own output. How do you bring back a character from the dead? Who cares?

Ygor’s return from the undiscovered country from whose bourn only he, Jesus and Elvis have ever made it back alive has more than a hint of Bobby Ewing suddenly appearing in the shower; some sense of the screenwriters holding up their hands in surrender as though a white towel were being hurled at the feet of any last vestiges of credibility. A sense, in other words, that any old rubbish will do for an audience stupid enough to like this sort of thing in the first place.

Certainly the lack of respect for continuity irritated my twelve year old self (who in many ways was so much older and more earnest than the middle-aged child writing these words today) as he sat in front of the latest BBC2 horror double bill muttering his fanboy outrage about flagrant disregard for canon. He didn’t mutter for long, however, because he loved The Ghost of Frankenstein, uncritically and entirely.

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The young adolescent is a strange audience. At that age I could be peeved by the lack of realism in the continuity, even though the result of it was that I got another fantastic hour of Bela Lugosi’s Ygor, but beyond that I simply did not register that, on the whole, the film just wasn’t as good as the others. The truth is that, watching in 1977, I didn’t notice the flat, unimaginative sets. I didn’t notice the lack of atmospheric, fog-enshrouded visuals once Ygor and the Monster had stumbled through a well-realised graveyard in the opening moments. I didn’t notice the flatness of Chaney’s performance. I didn’t notice that the Monster’s fondness for the little village girl here was any less convincing than Karloff’s affection for Donnie Dunagan in Son of Frankenstein. I didn’t notice that the narrative more or less went round in a circle, or that the ghost of Ludwig’s father didn’t look much – or at all – like Colin Clive. Perhaps above all, I just didn’t notice how much less complex, demanding and grown-up this film was than its predecessors.

All I saw, watching wide-eyed as The Ghost of Frankenstein flickered across the TV screen back in 1977, was that this was the next Frankenstein film and that as such it was, by definition, utterly and completely brilliant.

And some days, if I’m very lucky and the wind is in the right direction, there’s just enough of that twelve year old left in me that I can, sometimes, manage to relish the uncomplicated, undemanding, ungrown-up things that can be a part of what makes life worth living without feeling the need to analyse and dissect and unpack them until all the joy and wonder slips away through my tightening fingers. On those rare days, I still love The Ghost of Frankenstein – amongst other things – enthusiastically and breathlessly and whole-heartedly, and although age and experience mean I can’t be quite so blind to the flaws of the film or to the greyness of so much of existence as I once was, I can at least adjust the focus of my eyes a little to catch a fleeting glimpse of a film, and a world, that shines with child-like delight if viewed without cynicism.

Some of the best things of all in The Ghost of Frankenstein centre around the film’s approach to personality, identity and psychology in the brilliantly bonkers brain-swapping shenanigans that form the climax of the narrative.

It started in the very first film of course, with Dwight Frye’s butter-fingered Fritz dropping the handily labelled ‘Normal Brain’ intended for Henry Frankenstein’s creation and rapidly substituting it with the jar marked ‘Abnormal Brain’. Interestingly though, the original film doesn’t submit to an idea as deterministic as the fact that the Monster is dangerous because of a simple and physiological question of brain tissue and brain chemistry. Rather, Whale’s original 1931 masterpiece seems to suggest it is misunderstanding and mistreatment (as at the hands of the sadistic torch wielding Fritz himself, persecuting a cowering and whimpering Karloff) which prompts the Monster’s ferocity, not the mere unalterable fact of him getting the brain stamped ‘Abnormal.’

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I was reminded of Fritz and his handy labels not long ago, when a colleague of mine came into the staff room clutching a 1960s teacher training text book which she had found in a clear-out of her stock cupboard. One chapter was titled How to spot a Mental Defective and was illustrated with a black and white photograph of an unfortunate child smiling at the camera accompanied by the helpful caption ‘A Mental Defective.’ I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a copy of the book in question to anyone who finds themselves overusing the phrase ‘Political Correctness Gone Mad’ to give vent to their irritation at the modern world, as a gentle reminder that there are worse follies than well-meaning if a little over-earnest attempts to make some of the ways in which we use language a bit less offensive.

If the original Frankenstein lights a subtle Bunsen burner under the test-tube debate surrounding identity, mental illness and the physiological versus the psychological, The Ghost of Frankenstein turns up the heat and watches gleefully with a maniacal cackle as it bubbles out of the test tube, across the laboratory table and over the floor.

To begin with, Ludwig Frankenstein is not a research scientist in the vein of his father, but instead runs a hospital for Diseases of the Mind. The asylum is of course, one of the archetypal settings for horror – perhaps initiated as such in literature by Dr. Seward’s sanatarium in Dracula, though there may well be earlier examples I’m forgetting. Pre-dating what we now think of as the horror genre of course, the depiction of insanity as a source of simultaneous comedy and terror is one of the key conventions of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, but in the horror film it is the madhouse itself, as much as its inhabitants, which carries the power.

As such, Ludwig Frankenstein’s sun-drenched, rose-gardened hospital is considerably less overtly gothic than, say, Seward’s asylum in Badham’s 1978 Dracula, Boris Karloff’s institution in the 1946 Bedlam, or the eponymous Asylum from one of the best of the Amicus portmanteau films. Even so, it’s brightly-lit upper levels and clinical laboratories conceal a network of stone dungeons in the basement which Ludwig uses to conceal the Monster, and it can fairly easily be read as a metaphor for the conscious, rational mind above and the dark primordial chaos of the unconscious mind beneath.

the-ghost-of-frankensteinThe metaphor might be extended by seeing Hardwicke’s icily controlled Ludwig as the living embodiment of the disapproving superego , facing down the wild aggression of Chaney’s monster with no more than a stern look and a stiff upper lip. Atwill’s Dr Bohmer then becomes walking ego, serving his own ends through an entirely self-centred rationalism, with the Monster as pure Id, child-like in his appetites and instincts. Ygor, perhaps, sits somewhere between the two.

For many an English child of the 1970s though, the local mental hospital had attained a kind of mythic quality in real life rather than simply in old films. We all somehow seemed to live in the shadow of the ‘looney bin’ back then. Those old, often Victorian-built buildings lurked stonily in the corners of every major city, but they loomed just as large in the adolescent conversations and urban myths of the time as they did in the topography of the suburbs. Listening in to our ‘this really happened…true story…friend of a friend…’ narratives back then anyone would have been convinced there was a wild-eyed knife-wielding escapee around every corner, even before John Carpenter rendered the trope immortal in Halloween.

The truth about our own local institution was more benign, as I had every reason to know, since that was where my dad worked. He’d moved between jobs a fair bit as a young man, from the navy to the railways to the prisons, but from the point I begin to have any really continuous memory up until his retirement, a period of about twenty years, he was a maintenance electrician at St Andrews Hospital, a fifteen minute walk away from our house. For all our excitable adolescent urban myth whispering, there was never any real sense of threat about the place. It was a relatively open site, with voluntary and non-dangerous patients who were free, if they wished, to have a wander out of the grounds and up to the river or the local shops.

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Then…

Mostly, there was just sadness. A sizeable number of the patients were Polish immigrants who had arrived during the war, some of them to fight against Hitler, and then, largely due to language difficulties and no-one really knowing where to put them when the war was over, they had been housed temporarily in the hospital, and twenty or thirty years later were too institutionalised to be anywhere else.

Occasionally, there was also laughter. I hope we weren’t quite like the fashionable Georgian ladies and gentlemen whose idea of an entertaining afternoon out was to nip down to Bedlam to laugh at the loonies, but Dad would sometimes have us in stitches with his accounts of some of the more bizarre behaviours he’d come across in his time there.

There was the little old lady who pretended to be asleep in an armchair and then, as soon as dad’s back was turned, leapt to her feet, scuttled across the ward, unplugged his drill from the wall, and then rushed back to the armchair and resumed snoring as though nothing had happened, repeating the whole exercise four or five times much to dad’s bafflement before he finally spotted her in the act. There was the patient who registered his protest against the rather demeaning uniforms the inmates were still being forced to wear in the early days of my dad’s time in the hospital by solemnly removing the much hated straw boater from his head, placing it on the floor in front of him, urinating copiously into the offending headwear, and then returning it to its rightful position.

As time went on and I got a bit older – by now the BBC2 horror double bill fan with whom you’ve become all too familiar – dad used to take me down to the hospital most Sundays for us to take advantage of the full sized snooker table in the recreation room, and on these jaunts I would often meet one or two of the patients whose personalities and peculiarities had assumed almost legendary status.

The one I remember best was a gentle giant of a man named Sid Stoneybroke, so called because whenever he saw any of the hospital workers he would stand stock still, arms outstretched like the crucified Christ and call out ‘Stoney Broke’ at which point my dad, or whoever happened to be on the receiving end of Sid’s dignified demonstration of tragic impecunity, would hand him 10p or whatever small denomination coin they had on them. These Sid would put together to buy his favourite delicacy, tinned spam. He would then remove the spam from the tin, storing the meat in the pocket of his jacket until it attained just the degree of sweatiness he preferred.

I think it’s a relatively typical sign of the times that Dad’s hospital, as I always thought of and referred to it, is no longer there. The hospital itself has long since closed down, its sprawling grounds, its cricket pitch and its bowling green ploughed up and built over, the whole site now just an ugly conglomeration of office blocks. It leaves me with slightly mixed feelings I have to say. On the one hand, those vast old residential institutions were a ghastly throwback to a Bedlam model of mental illness, and their closure in favour of the much more right-on sounding ‘Care in the Community’ programmes a cause for nothing but celebration. Even so, a progressive phrase like ‘Care in the Community’ can actually be a mealy-mothed euphemism for ‘Close that expensive institution, sell the site off to private businesses in a thinly disguised land-grab swindle and dump the residents onto the street,’ while Dad’s hospital, and the men and women who worked there, did at least offer some kind of security and safety to the patients who had ended up there.

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…and now

I wonder where Sid Stoneybroke would find himself in today’s world.

I also wonder now, as I began to even then, what happens to explain how someone ends up slipping so far outside of society’s norms. Is this a matter of tablets, and chemicals, and concrete physical abnormalities in the brain, or is it simply a question of what Thomas Szasz, dismissing the very idea of mental illness,  insisted were merely ‘difficulties in living.’ Where does our personality, our identity, lie? Is there a ‘mind’ which is somehow distinct from the simply physical ‘brain’? As Morrisey once elegantly had it – Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I dunno.

The breathtakingly entertaining ending of Ghost of Frankenstein insists on a very simple and straightforward physiological resolution to the debate. Brain transplants. When Ygor’s brain ends up inside the Monster’s skull, the Monster speaks with Lugosi’s instantly recognisable voice. It appears the brain even transcends an entirely different set of lungs and vocal chords. Of course, Ygor is not the only contender for transplant in a filmic climax that might be subtitled ‘Whose Brain is It Anyway’?

The-Ghost-of-Frankenstein-1942-3Cedric Hardwicke’s Ludwig Frankenstein is persuaded out of his initial plan to destroy the Monster through dissection by the appearance of the ghost of his father – who interestingly looks and sounds like an out of focus Hardwicke himself rather than Colin Clive (who appears in flashback elsewhere in the film) perhaps seeming to suggest a subtler, more psychological and Freudian sense of different parts of the self talking to one another rather than the speedy brain-swaps of the film’s denouement. Instead he decides to replace the monster’s brain with that of his kindly colleague, Dr Kettering, recently murdered by Lon Chaney on the rampage. In this way, he is convinced, the Monster’s destructive tendencies, which are only there because of a diseased brain, will disappear.

Ghost-of-Frankenstein-The_02The Monster himself, however, has a different candidate in mind. He fancies the brain of the little girl with whom he bonded over a ball on a rope, perhaps seeing in her grey matter the possibility of a return to a child-like innocence for himself. Karloff’s Monster was already a child-like innocent, able to convey this movingly in a gesture or two. Chaney’s Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein is essentially brutish, and can only aspire to innocence with the transfusion of a handy child’s brain. To this end he kidnaps the little girl, and when Ygor tries to persuade him to a different course he crushes his only friend behind a door.

Ygor has still other plans. As he tells Ludwig ‘Ygor’s body is no good. His neck is broken,Ghost-of-Frankenstein-The_04a crippled, and distorted. Lame and sick from the bullets your brother fired into me.’ As a result, he fancies the kind of strength and power he could achieve with his ‘sly and sinister’ brain in the Monster’s massive frame. Unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade Ludwig, he works smoothly on manipulating Atwill’s Dr Bohmer, who surreptitiously substitutes Ygor’s brain for Kettering’s prior to Hardwicke transplanting it into the Monster.

In the end though, the film’s relentlessly physiological approach to identity is the undoing of the Ygor Monster. A matter of blood incompatibility renders him blind. ‘What good is a body without eyes?’ he cries. Then the second group of villagers launch their attack and everything blows up. Again.

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Not necessarily influenced by The Ghost of Frankenstein, nor by Sid Stoneybroke and my dad’s place of work, nor even by my fear of becoming like Norman, the special boy in my primary school who used to do a strange dance and sometimes didn’t make it to the toilet, I used to genuinely fear as a child that my brain would stop working properly and I would become a different person. At one point I learned a new long word and carefully consigned it to memory as a way of reassuring myself that so long as I could remember that special word I knew my brain was still working. I’ve actually included it in this post, and there’s a special prize (not really) for anyone who wants to hazard a guess as to the identity of my talismanic ‘still not mental’ word. If you think you’ve found it feel free to offer a suggestion in the comments section below. Sort of like the crappest DVD Easter egg ever.

Even today though, losing my mind is my greatest fear. There may, admittedly, be more immediate ones. Heights terrify me. So does change. And so do thick set men with sticks. That last one dates back to high school hockey – all the same people I was scared of in rugby lessons, but now they were heavily armed. So perhaps if a thick set man with a stick took me to a high place and forced me to change, it’s conceivable that my fear of losing my mind might slip briefly onto the backburner, but in the ordinary run of things it’s the biggie.

I’m far more frightened by Alzheimer’s, for instance, than by cancer or heart disease. Don’t get me wrong – I have plenty of fear to go round, and I can devote hours of terror to a twinge in my chest, or a dull ache in my left gonad but, for me at least, dementia tops the lot. A heart attack, an inoperable tumour – they just take your life. But Alzheimer’s? It steals your soul and leaves you hanging around. That’s the last and nastiest twist of the knife – it kills you, absolutely; it utterly annihilates everything that you are, or ever were, or ever could be, but you’re still here.

That uncanny and problematic combination of absence and presence is right at the heart of horror, an insidious evil and a pervasive fear. The clown’s frozen face; the zombie’s shambling walking deadness. That which looks like us but isn’t. In horror’s animated corpses and doppelgangers, in its devil dolls and moving statues, we are trembling at an awful prefiguring of one possible future. That one day we will walk, and talk, and not be us at all; both present and finally, irrevocably absent.

An aunt of mine died recently, at the age of 91. No tragedy in that, certainly. It might almost be the definition of that proverbial ‘good innings’. The only tragedy was that she didn’t die three or four years sooner, before dementia had taken hold and siphoned her away in stages, leaving her an angry and increasingly emaciated zombie on a bed, shouting meaninglessly at the world around her. If I’d had the chance to offer her Ygor’s brain I’d have done it quicker than you can say ‘Hardwicke’, but unfortunately brain transplants are not yet available on the NHS, even if one of the workers in her care home did bear more than a passing resemblance to Lionel Atwill.

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Postscript 2 – The Fandom Menace

I’ve always been a fan, I think. It makes me wonder about the difference between being a fan and just liking things. My wife, for instance, is not a fan. This doesn’t mean there aren’t books or films or telly programmes she loves. There are. She will happily gobble down a TV box set beside me, and there are many cult shows she likes more than I do – Game of Thrones and Mad Men for example. She can disappear into a novel more fully than anyone else I’ve ever met, so much so that conversation becomes impossible. As, with a troubling degree of convenience, does the possibility that she might play with the kids or do the washing up.

The difference is that, while she may be just as completely absorbed as me by one of these things when she’s reading, or watching, or listening, she doesn’t feel compelled to expend much time or energy on it the rest of the time. She doesn’t crave the action figure, or read the Official Guide to Season Two. Nor the unofficial one. She doesn’t scour the internet for interviews with the showrunner/ director/ novelist/ singer songwriter in question. She doesn’t allow it to colour the way she looks or dresses or feels or views other people or the world around her. The difference between the fan and the non-fan, in the end, is in the degree to which you allow the thing you love to occupy the inside of your head when you’re not actually in its company.

To offer just one small example. I’m a fan of the American band the Mountain Goats. It’s a fairly recent fixation, and it’s probably all too predictable for me to say that it’s one that began when their song Up the Wolves cropped up on the soundtrack at the end of one of my favourite episodes of the brilliant AMC zombie series The Walking Dead. I adored the song at first listen – quite an unusual thing for me, perhaps driven by the way this first encounter was tied up in my mind already with the backstory of Daryl Dixon, my favourite character from the show – and was immediately and fannishly unprepared to leave that adoration at the casual enjoyment level of most viewers.

sunset treeI didn’t recognise the song, or know what it was called, but a quick Google of the chorus lyric meant I could source it quickly enough. Persistent as the true fan, this one hearing was enough for me get hold of the album The Sunset Tree which a quick run through of track lists on Amazon told me was the album which featured the song. A more sensible approach might have been to simply download the one track I knew I liked, but that would not be a fannish enough response for the likes of me. And the album was extraordinary; a breathless, fragile, beautiful song cycle full of beauty and hope and pain and survival.

Again, the casual fan – I’ve seen it suggested that there is no such thing as a casual Mountain Goats fan – might have stopped at that point. Oh no. Not me. More research. I find that the band is essentially the vehicle of the singer songwriter John Darnielle, whose first novel, Wolf in White Van I immediately order and blissfully devour over a couple of days. I hunt you tube, and find interviews and concerts galore.

On one of these forays I come across a song that speaks to me as instantly as had Up the Wolves. This one is called Animal Mask. It’s the beautiful clarity and simplicity of the chord pattern which attracts me first. I play a little guitar myself and have written a few songs from time to time, one or two of which I would proudly claim even begin to stumble awkwardly from the barren valleys of Appalling Incompetence to almost attain the distant peaks of Borderline Mediocrity, and that limited little bit of abilty and experience is enough for me to recognise and admire that beautiful finger walk from G to some kind of suspended C. It’s a chord move which I also knew from a few Oasis tracks and Tracey Chapman’s Talking Bout a Revolution as well as a song I’d written called Grains which used the same two chord step. That was a love song I’d written about my then lover, now wife, and at first a straightforward love song was what I heard in Animal Mask too.

But quickly, as I listened and re-listened obsessively, I came to know the lyrics as well as the chord structure, and it didn’t seem to fit. beat the champDarnielle appeared to be singing, tenderly and lovingly, about wrestling. That’s actual wrestling, costumes and tag teams and half-nelsons and all that, not wrestling as some kind of double entendre. Fan fan fan, I had to know more. Yes, I discovered, the song was indeed about a cage fight and was actually a track from Beat the Champ, which was – and get this – a concept album about the world of professional wrestling. And not today’s big budget Hollywood star producing corporate version, but the low end pre-WWF world of pro wrestling which Darnielle remembered from his 70s childhood.

I immediately fall even more deeply in love with John Darnielle. It’s not that I’ve ever liked, or had any interest in wrestling whatsoever, but the sheer chutzpah of insisting on a much derided childish obsession as worthy of an album of songs made me – perhaps wish-fulfillingly – recognise a kindred spirit, thousands of words as I am into a blog about the deep philosophical significance of a season of horror double bills I saw forty years ago when I was nearly twelve.

But still I hear a gentleness, a vulnerability in the words which call me back to my original sense of Animal Mask as a love song. Some things you will remember, he sings, slightly tremulous, completely heartfelt, Some things stay sweet forever… Ostensibly, the song is about the formation of a wrestling tag team in the heat of battle, but now I’m hearing, in the singing, in the delivery of the lines, the power of metaphor. It’s a song about forming bonds, about trust and hope, about what we get from, and give to,  relationships and friendships and love.

I don’t think I’m an exceptionally gifted or astute listener or critic, and I don’t kid myself that anything I’ve described so far about my evolving relationship with the song is anything which an average, reasonably motivated listener might not have got to. What happens next though, is different, and it’s the true mark of the fan.

I keep digging. I listen, and I listen – at this point the Mountain Goats seem to have erased the whole of the rest of my record collection. I can’t listen to anything else without thinking ‘Why am I listening to this when I could be listening to the Mountain Goats?’ and quickly rectifying the mistake by listening to the Mountain Goats instead. So I listen, and I listen, and I listen. And something else seems to begin to work its way mysteriously through the song’s central metaphor.

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They won’t see you, he sings, Not until you want them to, with an extraordinary, tender protectiveness, that doesn’t quite sit with a sense of the song as either a straightforward wrestling ballad or as love affair metaphor. So I dig deeper. Interviews, live clips. And there it is, eventually. A live performance from the Newport folk festival, and Darnielle introduces Animal Mask with a funny and self-deprecating explanation of the song’s wrestling background, and just at the end, a throwaway line just before those beautiful chords kick in. ‘And it’s also about the delivery room,’ he says.

And now the song reveals itself to me so purely, so openly and entirely that I can no longer listen to it without tears stinging my eyes. I don’t think I would ever have reached that reading of the song without that throwaway line, and without hearing an interview subsequently in which Darnielle elaborates a little, movingly, on the relationship which forms so immediately as your child is presented to you in the delivery room, that moment in which you form your own specific tag team, passionately and protectively.

And now the song makes me cry, because I’m connected to it on an intensely personal level which would never have happened without the obsessive dedication that sent me though hours of songs and interviews and youtube footage. I don’t think anyone would pick up on the parent and child bond theme of the song from a casual listen, or even a few casual listens. The lyric is so oblique, so indirect, I don’t think that immediate connection is possible. It could be argued, I suppose, that this is a weakness in the songwriting; that if the song relies on a level of metaphor that requires a fannishly obsessive response, then the song doesn’t stand on its own two feet – a metaphor needs to be readily understandable and general to really resonate, rather than specific and cloaked. But, needless to say, I don’t agree.

darnielleThis last, most specific level to the song doesn’t narrow the power of the metaphor; it deepens it. I don’t share Darnielle’s ability as a songwriter, sadly, but I do share the intensity of those moments in the delivery room. His experience and mine become one, because that last, half hidden and very specific and personal level of the song is general in a deeper sense, and the fact that, like a true fan he wraps up his most profoundly personal and emotional moments in the language of his own fannish obsessions means even more to me. It is, partly, because of this shared journey that I love the song so much. I cry with joy and tenderness and recognition. And this is the gift of the fan.

As a very small child I loved Watch With Mother, which English people of a certain age will remember was the umbrella title (and one which makes me smile now, not only for what it says about the blithely unknowing sexism of the time, but also because today it would be called Watch on Your Own while your parents check Facebook) for a lunchtime children’s TV slot which showed  a different programme each day – many of them now among the most fondly remembered shows of the period – things like Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Pogle’s Wood. Although I loved all of these, my own favourite was The Herbs.

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Just in case anyone under forty-five or who isn’t from the UK is reading, The Herbs told gentle, sweetly song-punctuated stories about the adventures of Parsley, the lion (‘I’m a very friendly lion called Parsley/And you must never speak to me harshly…’) and his friend Dill the Dog. ‘I’m Dill the Dog, I’m a dog called Dill’ Dill used to sing, with emphatic if rather circular logic. There were a number of other eccentric herb-related characters such as the aristocratic Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary, and the ruggedly proletarian Bayleaf the Gardener (‘I’m Bayleaf I’m the Gardener, I work from early dawn/You’ll find me sweeping up the leaves and tidying the lawn’). The witch Belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade, gave just the hint of threat so beloved of toddlers everywhere in this otherwise bucolic garden world, while Sage the owl provided some grumpy comic relief (‘I’m a rather fat feathery owl named Sage/ I’m not very happy in fact in a rage’).

For those of you by now not unreasonably wondering why instead of reading aboutparsley Hammer’s gruesome Plague of the Zombies in this blog about horror movies you’ve stumbed upon, you seem to be surrounded by almost unbearably cute friendly green lions waving at you, the point is that, even as a pre-schooler I was recognisably a fan. It wasn’t enough to simply watch the show. I drew Parsley the lion repeatedly, with the relentless resistance to boredom of the true obsessive. I had to have the annual. If there’d been the T shirt to have got back then, I’d never have taken it off. And perhaps most significantly, I made up continuing stories about Parsley and the gang when The Herbs wasn’t on.

I think this, for me, is the redemptive quality at the heart of fandom, in all its otherwise pointless nostalgia and adolescent self indulgence, and this is why I refuse to feel any further shame or embarrassment about the fact that, when alone, I’ll often find my hand curling, ring and index finger splayed in a passable imitation of the Lugosi claw, before it reaches out to pick up my Curse of Frankenstein mug for a swig of coffee, which I started drinking black twenty five years ago because that’s how Agent Cooper liked it. Whatever herbsannualelse it may or may not have done, my enslavement to the fan gene has been the spark to ignite whatever capacity for creativity or imagination I possess. My lifelong love of fantasy, and storytelling, and the pleasant tingle of suspense, can be traced back in a line through Whedon and Gaiman and Lynch, and Philip Pullman and Hitchcock and Star Wars, and the glorious fifty year history of the Doctor, through Conan Doyle, and horror double bills, and on back through Spider-Man, through The Hobbit and Stig of the Dump and Narnia’s wintry landscapes, and on, further and further back, through Mole and Ratty, through the Moomins and their apocalyptic comet, to the gentle garden adventures of a ragtaggle gang of condiment-christened animals and cultural stereotypes in The Herbs.

Without the trigger that comes from obsession, rather than mere enjoyment, I may never have found my love of story; may never have tried writing my own; may never have shone in English lessons; may never have gone to university. Who knows, in other words, how different, and how spiritually impoverished, my life might have been. The things that allow, or even demand, fandom as a response are precisely those which enlighten or enliven the creative process, by making the audience or reader active, rather than passive.

Social realism, soap opera, the kitchen sink – these things have their place, but it’s hard to see them inspiring fan fiction, or any sort of response beyond an admiring recognition of a certain kind of verisimilitude. Judy Blume, Jan Mark, Melvyn Burgess, others of their kind – these are wonderful children’s writers, but I don’t think they inspired many of their readers into writing themselves. J. K. Rowling on the other hand, will almost certainly be responsible for the next generation of storytellers, just as script editor and noveliser extraordinaire Terrance Dicks begat Russell T. Davies, Moffatt, Gatiss and all. I feel incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon so many stories and writers that made a fan of me, because in doing so they widened the doors of perception for me much more truly and lastingly than any drug. They made me who I am.

Inheriting the pattern from Parsley, and Doctor Who, it was Plague of the Zombies which prompted my first foray into horror film fan fiction. Strange in a way that it hadn’t happened earlier – but something in the way that Plague took place in Cornwall, rather than middle Europe, something about the rather sketchy backstory of its chief villain, triggered something in me, and at some point in the year that followed I attempted to write a full sequel – now sadly lost to the archives – called Return of the Zombies. The story was just a clumsy rehash, and the style – I’m guessing – was histrionic and forced, but it would also have shown the impact the horror double bill season had already had on my reading history.

I’d graduated directly from Doctor Who novelisations to Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Poe. At school, immediately prior to the swimming lesson which, in a fairly competitive field, marked my personal lowlight of the week, we had a blissful reading hour in the Library, allowing a final glorious escape before the humiliating watery plunge to follow.

During one of these hours I came across a specific edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, which I devoured obsessively, and monster makersalso of an anthology edited by Peter Haining called The Monster Makers which I read fervently and desperately, and returned to week after week after week, but most particularly to the extract from Frankenstein and to Poe’s The Facts of M. Valdemar’s Case. I have such fond memories of these old friends that it was a delight to me to come across the self-same editions of each of them together once more, and be able to rescue them from a purge of old stock in the library of the school where I now work. Shelley and Poe and Stoker became the models for my attempts to ‘write like the nineteenth century’ in my Plague of the Zombies sequel, and in almost everything else I wrote for the next three or four years.

Even later, as a supposedly more mature individual with more refined tastes, a student, rather than merely a reader, of Literature, the fan was never far away. As a nervous sixth former reading off-syllabus (always much more fun than on-syllabus) I discovered James Joyce, and immediately clutched him to my heart, but I did so as a fan, not as a student or critic. In the absence of a ‘Joyce Rules’ T shirt I carried around my copy of Ulysses ostentatiously, hoping someone might notice it, realise how clever and erudite I must be beneath the gawky awkward twitchiness of my everyday persona and therefore shag me. And I copied him. Embarrassingly badly, but I did.

I wrote stream of consciousness fan fiction.

Just as surely and appallingly as later I copied Dylan Thomas’s poetry, and Orwell’s prose.

Worse still, I responded to criticism of my literary heroes as a fan responds. There’s nothing measured in my dislike of Virginia Woolf, for instance. She had the temerity to object to the coarse, Rabelaisian quality of Ulysses and dismissed the most important novel of the century as a ‘queasy undergraduate squeezing his pimples’, preferring her own predilection for minutely dissecting the oh so sensitive thought processes of over privileged well-to-do dilettantes as they arrange the lilies and mull over their dinner plans. I loathe her work accordingly, never really giving myself the chance to see anything of value in the output of a writer universally recognised as one of the most insightful and perfect prose stylists in the history of the novel.

It’s the flaw of the fan; the total inability to see or accept anything from the other side. Someone telling me they like Woolf is a bit like them telling me they follow Ipswich – it may not be their fault, but it makes them Them rather than Us, and it’s hard to forgive. I stopped just short of chanting ‘You’re shit, and you know you are’ in lectures on Virginia Woolf, but it was only a small step away.

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Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

Football, incidentally, is fandom-lite. Most people experience it to some degree or other, and in many cases it can be all-consuming, but its place now is so mainstream that its fannish eccentricities and idiosyncrasies pass relatively unnoticed, normalised by their generality.

I’ve been a fan of Norwich City since going to my first games at Carrow Road with my dad in the 1971-72 season – working class rites of passage tradition that it is, or rather was, before such a thing began to be priced out of possibility. I would have been six or seven. I can still name that squad from memory (Keelan, Paine, Black, Forbes, Stringer, Anderson, Briggs, Paddon, Livermore, Foggo, Sylvester, Cross, Bone…).

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Again, the games themselves were never enough – I painted scenes from the match, the most vivid image captured in this way being the strikingly blond hair of Mervyn Cawston, the reserve team goalkeeper (yes, we went to reserve games too), framed through the net in mid dive forever, frozen into immortality by the power of my art – until it was chucked in the bin a week later. During long hours of back garden football with my dad I fantasised scenarios in which Sir Alf finally turned to my hero, Kevin Keelan – the finest goalkeeper never to be capped by his country, his career coinciding with an embarrassment of English goalkeeping riches that included Banks, Shilton, Clemence, Stepney, Bonetti and Corrigan – with a long overdue callup. I collected programmes and kept a scrapbook of match reports and features from the local paper.

All of this being completely normal, of course, except that a similar habit when applied to horror movies or sci-fi programmes has the perpetrator immediately delineated as ‘sad’, ‘nerd’, ‘geek’. And the same people most likely to snigger up their sleeves at all those convention-goers dressing up as their favourite Doctor, or pretending to be Klingons, see nothing odd in pulling on their replica shirts to go to the game on a Saturday afternoon. What is a middle-aged man in a Man United shirt that says ‘Rooney’ on the back doing if not dressing up as his favourite character?

Ultimately the point is not whether football fandom is better or worse than horror fandom, or sci-fi geekery, or any of the other outposts of obsession to which the human being can fall victim. In one of the more wonderfully hilarious news stories of the past couple of years, the police were called to a sci-fi convention in my home city to break up a violent clash between the Whovians and the Trekkies.

In the end the point is belonging, and it’s fundamentally tribal in instinct. We’re all desperate to belong: to lose ourselves and to find ourselves in the company of those who share our particular and absurd passion. On countless occasions I have threatened, raucously and tunelessly but in some imitation of song, to kick in the fucking heads of total strangers who happened to be sitting or standing in a different section of a football ground to me, not because I ever intended to do anything of the sort, but simply because I wanted to join in the song that everyone else around me wearing the same Canary-yellow shirt as me was singing.

A similar instinct once found me, several pints down and in my local to watch an England game, joining in with a particularly catchy number which had begun to echo around the bar before I even recognised or realised that I was singing No Surrender, and that, therefore, presumably, the BNP were in town. Interestingly, at the point I realised what was happening  my membership of a different, left-leaning, tribe, led me to stop singing along and begin bellowing ‘Shuttup you twats’ at the top of my voice every time the chant began, and ultimately led to me being invited outside to settle our disagreements. An invitation which I readily accepted, one of my favourite maxims at the time being Trotsky’s ‘If you fail to persuade a fascist by argument, acquaint his head with the pavement’.

samson and herculesRather more seriously, and perhaps one of the reasons I found ignorant hairy-knuckled Norfolk-dwelling Neanderthals chanting No Surrender so unacceptable; I spent most of the 1980s living in Northern Ireland (or ‘war-torn Northern Ireland’ as my Belfast-born friends of the time used to ironically introduce their homeland to anyone who came from anywhere else – ‘Hello. I’m Janet from war-torn northern Ireland.’). For the first part of that time I was a lapsed English Catholic living in a quiet but staunchly Protestant little triangle of coastal towns surrounding Coleraine, and hearing rumours about naïve English girls being punched in the face in pubs by locals for referring to the biggest local town as Derry rather than Londonderry.

For the latter part of the decade, just to really get to grips with the contradictions of my own position, I went to live antrim roadin Belfast, just off the Antrim Road. For those unfamiliar with Belfast geography, that was, at the time, middle class enough to be – probably – safe enough to have an English accent without worrying, and religiously mixed enough to – probably – be OK whichever foot you kicked with. I lived in a house from which you could, very occasionally, hear the bombs and the bullets, but in which you could also blithely ignore them. I loved Belfast, always feeling very comfortable with its warmth and vibrancy, and for years afterwards, now back home in England, would bore anyone unwise enough to ask for my impressions of my time living in the city with my startling and idiosyncratic insight that, like Newcastle or Liverpool or Manchester, it was really just a Northern Industrial Town. Then I bought a Billy Bragg album called William Bloke, which had a song about Belfast on it called Northern Industrial Town and realised my insights weren’t quite as unique and startling as I’d hoped, so I decided to shut up about Northern Ireland. Until now.

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A Northern Industrial Town, seen from the Cavehill

Politicians and sociologists, intellectual commentators and tut-tutting figures of all descriptions have attempted to explain the ‘Irish question’ in any number of different ways, and all of them riddled with irreconcilable contradictions. The leftward radical slant of the Provos for instance, none of whom ever seemed to recognise that there was a somewhat ambivalent quality to spouting internationalist proletarian socialist solidarity while shooting 18 year old working class squaddies. Sometimes while perched as a sniper in the ironically named Friendly Street. The point, in the end, is tribal. Not religious. Not political. The point is belonging. The we and the not-we.

There’s a well-known story about a young American reporter caught up in a skirmish at the height of the Troubles being dragged round a corner by balaclavaed and kalashnikoved paramilitaries who hissed at him with a gun to his temple ‘Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?’ To which the hapless reporter replied ‘I’m Jewish’, only to be undone by the remorselessness of his interrogator’s bigotry. ‘Of course you are. But are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?’

None of this is peculiar to Northern Ireland, admittedly, but I think it may be true that having spent most of the eighties across the water may have meant I was a little less baffled than some of my contemporaries by the kind of thought processes that could later lead to fatwas and the burning of The Satanic Verses on the streets of Britain. To the Taliban and the shooting of young girls who dared to want an education. To ethnic cleansing and collateral damage and friendly fire. To 9.11 and 7.7, and cars driven at pedestrians on Westminster Bridge. To the rise of UKIP and Little England. To Syria and Islamic State and online beheading videos which attract almost as many views as clips of cats doing the funniest things.

Ultimately the path to peace is in ourselves. It’s a change of our own mental landscape we have to aim for. A revolution in the head. We need to stop judging, and abandon our own sense of shame. Accept our absurdity, embrace the ridiculousness of our tribal fandoms and enthusiasms and faiths and beliefs alongside the ridiculousness and absurdity of everyone else’s. We must truly and finally accept that our membership of this or that tribe is no sign of our greater moral worth or insight into the One truth, but simply an accident of birth or circumstance. Born forty miles down the road, and, much though I shudder to admit it, I’d have been an Ipswich fan. Actually, Virginia Woolf can write a bit.

In the end, The Whovians shall lie down with the Trekkies, and their sonics and their phasers shall be beaten into ploughshares.

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Double Bill Five – Plague of the Zombies (1966)

PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1965)                  30th July 1977     00.05 – 01.30

‘Zombie..!’

Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell)

There is a well-established and widely-accepted narrative of the history of Hammer Films into which Plague of the Zombies vlcsnap-2017-04-07-19h29m45s217might seem to fit nicely, filmed as it was in 1965 back to back with The Reptile, utilising the same sets and many of the same cast and crew as a cost-cutting experiment in reducing Hammer’s shoestring budgets still further. The accepted – and to me rather annoying- line goes something like this:

Hammer burst onto the scene in the late 1950s with a new, fast-paced and dynamic approach to Gothic horror. There was a brief run of very polished productions (Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and The Hound of the Baskervilles) before trouble with the censors and increasing difficulty in attracting American finance meant a quick descent into uninspired and cash-strapped sequels, often featuring a visibly disinterested and disapproving Christopher Lee. The 1960s for Hammer was one long exercise in diminishing returns until the company disintegrated into bankruptcy and irrelevance by the early 70s.

The truth however, as always, is rather more complex than the 30-second soundbite news agenda version might suggest. Yes, Hammer made some shockingly bad films in the 1970s, but they also made some very good ones such as Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter and the ‘ so much better than its title might give you any reason to expect’ Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. And actually, at least for me, Hammer’s early to mid-1960s output, despite the occasional misfire, includes the very best films the company ever made.

From that point of view, whoever selected the films for transmission in the 1977 season of BBC2 horror double bills demonstrated a quality of judgement bordering on genius. Not so much in the choice of the Universals, which, once you start with Dracula and Frankenstein pretty much select themselves, but in approaching the AIP and the Hammer movies the level of critical discernment is extraordinary.

The Premature Burial and Fall of the House of Usher, both of which I first saw as part ofbbc2 the 1977 season Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends, remain, for me, the most powerful and absorbing of Roger Corman’s Poe films. The others are all great; the more critically lauded Masque of the Red Death including some breath-taking cinematography by Nicholas Roeg; Tomb of Ligeia making full use of the opportunity to break out of the series’ claustrophobic, studio-bound conventions in its beautiful deployment of the Norfolk landscape, and The Pit and the Pendulum featuring some more overtly frightening imagery. Even so if I were given a choice of only two for my desert island film season it would always be the two shown on BBC2 in the Summer of 77.

Same with Hammer. The studio was so extraordinarily prolific that there is a wealth of wonders for the programmer to select from, but the decision to largely steer away from the more obvious selections – Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula Prince of Darkness – meant the inclusion of some of the less well-known gems which, for me at least, are the best things that Hammer ever did.

Brides of Dracula, Kiss of the Vampire, The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies. It’s an inspired selection – to this day they would probably occupy slots one, two, three and four in my list of favourite Hammer films (think I don’t spend my idle evenings making and remaking that particular list, even though it never really changes? Ha!). Of all Hammer’s films the only others that would ever edge close to that top four would be The Devil Rides Out and Quatermass and the Pit (both also from the company’s mid 60s period and both of which I saw first in a subsequent season of BBC2 horror double bills in 1979).

Thank you, anonymous acquisitions and scheduling genius of the airwaves, for bringing me Plague of the Zombies and the others in such quick succession. I can never repay you.

For one thing, Plague of the Zombies is still a very effective shocker, in the good old-fashioned sense of the word. Borrowing most of its plot points and characterisation from a combination of Stoker and Conan-Doyle, the literary pedigree was a promising one. One of the features that moves Plague of the Zombies beyond its unacknowledged source material, however, is a real nastiness in many of its key moments which is quite ‘modern’ in sensibility. I mean nastiness as a compliment; there’s a harder, edgier quality to the film than is often associated with Hammer in the 1960s.

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The most obvious example is the genuine brutality with which the film disposes of Jacqueline Pearce’s Alice, one of the films female leads. Ben Aris, in a zombie makeup which would hold its own in a gruesomeness competition with anything in The Walking Dead, appears at the crest of a hill, emits a gleefully inhuman cackle of delight and hurls Alice’s broken body down the rocky slope, her neck horribly and unnaturally twisted.

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It may be the best-known single image from the film, but it’s by no means an isolated moment.

There’s a truly disturbing sequence in which Squire Hamilton’s red-jacketed, fox-hunting vlcsnap-2017-04-07-19h34m31s18posh-boy henchmen kidnap Diane Clare’s Sylvia in a scene – virtually a restaging of the opening of Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles – which is quite overtly leading towards gang rape, with only the intervention of the squire himself preventing the action becoming even more horrifying.

There is also a fantastic sequence in which a zombified Alice rises from her grave, while a horrified Andre Morell murmurs ‘Zombie..!’ before striking off her head with a handy shovel.

That scene in turn prompts an equally gripping dream sequence – a very rare storytelling device for Hammer – in which a whole array of zombies struggle out of the earth to menace Alice’s horrified husband. Perhaps a response to the success of the dream sequences being so effectively deployed by Roger Corman in the Poe cycle for AIP, Doctor Thompson’s nightmare actually illustrates the differences between the approaches of the two companies far more than the similarities.

As befits the more psychological terrors the Poe films exploit, Corman’s frequent and brilliantly imaginative dream sequences feel vague, formless, hallucinogenic and genuinely dream-like. By contrast there is something hideously concrete about the dream scene in Plague of the Zombies, a sense that the undeniably nightmarish imagery is also solid, remorselessly physical and corporeal.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all, however, is the sheer pace of the storytelling. For illustration, consider the fact that all of the scenes I’ve just described occur, virtually one after another, in the space of about fifteen minutes of screen time. The sheer velocity of the narrative is exceptional, even by the adrenaline-packed standards of Hammer’s scriptwriters.

The performances are also worthy of attention. Andre Morell – previously a very effective Watson to Cushing’s Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles – is on top form as Professor Forbes. Crusty and irascible, he’s introduced to us treating his daughter as though she were an idiot and observing that he ‘should have drowned her at birth’ – to which our preferred response is clearly intended to be ‘what a lovable old curmudgeon’, which is, bizarrely, exactly what Diane Clare as his daughter seems to feel about it.

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‘You lovable old curmudgeon you.’

Morell is skilled enough to lend Forbes a considerable degree of charm alongside the grumpiness however, and he inhabits the role of upper class scientific hero adventurer convincingly.

vlcsnap-2017-04-07-19h33m53s151John Carson is an equally effective antagonist, doing suave aristocratic villainy to the hilt in a highly impressive performance aided by his uncanny ability to channel the voice of James Mason and thus echo all those cold-hearted blackguards Mason delivered in a series of Gainsborough melodramas of the 1940s.

Also worthy of note, lending a genuine depth and sincerity to the limited screen time she is allowed, is Jacqueline Pearce, later to help a whole generation of schoolboys through their difficult teenage years in her role as Supreme Commander Servalan in the BBC’s Blake’s Seven. Her Alice Thompsonvlcsnap-2017-04-07-19h55m16s180 is a subtle, affecting performance which helps give the horror of the character’s ghastly demise a far greater impact than it might have had were the part to have been played by a less skilled actress. Although only appearing in a handful of scenes, Pearce is responsible for much of what is best in Plague of the Zombies, and she was given a further chance to display her considerable talent for Hammer in The Reptile.

One further mention seems appropriate. Roy Ashton’s grisly makeup designs are genuinely terrific – the undead monsters here are the first screen zombies to actually look like rotting corpses, as opposed to the wide-eyed somnambulists seen earlier in films like the Halperins 1932 White Zombie and Val Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie for RKO.

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I think I may be right in boldly asserting that Plague of the Zombies also represents the last major cinematic outing of the original Haitian version of the zombie which had been introduced to the movie-going public in Lugosi’s White Zombie. Only a couple of years after the release of Plague of the Zombies, George A Romero’s seminal 1968 Night of the Living Dead stripped away all the magic and exoticism, re-imagining the zombie as a grimly non-supernatural creature lurching much more uncomfortably close to home in quasi-documentary form.

Given the seemingly endless proliferation of its hellish progeny, Romero’s masterpiece has a fair claim (at least alongside Psycho) of being the movie that spawned the contemporary horror film. It is, without question, one of the most influential films of the past fifty years, a movie of undeniable power, not least in its scathing social commentary, but also in it’s approach to narrative resolution. For me it is Night of the Living Dead which made the downbeat ending almost de rigueur for the horror genre, at the time subverting the convention so strikingly that it has itself become the convention, to the extent that Hammer’s narratives, with their ultimate triumphs of the forces of good, now seem rather quaint.

livingdeadFor all that, however, I rather like a touch of the supernatural in my monsters, and respond if anything even more deeply to the old-school zombie than to the thinly disguised satirical purpose of Romero’s gut-gobbling head splatterers and their descendants, in movies like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later or the brilliant TV series The Walking Dead.

There’s a satirical purpose in the old-school Plague of the Zombies too, of course, but it’s less overt and specific than, say, Dawn of the Dead’s pleasing ‘zombies as consumers’ shopping mall conceit which feels so on the nose as to be, in the end, a little trite, and for me the older film is ultimately more subtle and powerful as a result.

Class politics lie at the centre of Plague of the Zombies, but they remain the sub-text of a rattling good horror yarn, rather than giving the impression that the neat intellectual metaphor came first and the plot second. Consequently the Hammer film, like White Zombie before it, has much more of what is sometimes referred to as ‘heart’.

The zombie workforce operating the abandoned Cornish tin mine under the control of the aristocratic Squire Hamilton makes the sense of the zombie as a symbol of an exploited proletariat fairly self-evident. What is altogether less evident is why Hamilton feels it necessary to go to such extravagant lengths to run a tin mine – minimum wage is a possibility without necessitating the use of voodoo.

Marxist theory would see nothing strange in this however. The logic of ownership and acquisition always has an unacknowledged absurdity at its heart which makes the – in this case quite literal – objectification of the workforce an inevitable corollary of capitalist economics. Marx used the analogy of vampirism more than once to describe the relationship between Capital and Labour, but the zombie as a living (no, sorry, not living) embodiment of the process of reification is perhaps an even more potent symbol. Even death is not an escape from economic slavery.

The class conflicts simmering through Plague of the Zombies are not restricted to this central metaphor though.

The villainous squire, and even more overtly the gang of posh ‘young bloods’ who he controls, demonstrate a sense of total entitlement which is deeply unpleasant. When their fox hunt takes a wrong turn – deliberately misled by Sylvia, an early hunt-saboteur – they are quite prepared to disrupt a funeral procession, and utterly unconcerned when they cause the coffin to be overturned and the unfortunate corpse to tumble out.

This sense of entitlement is pushed to it’s logical extreme as a kind of communal droit de seigneur when they kidnap Diane Clare and hurl her from man to man, before cutting a pack of cards to see who gets first go.

Although clearly the hero of the film, Andre Morell’s Sir James is able to take a similarly high-handed and self-assured approach to such matters as the law – which is clearly meant for men of lower status than himself. Indulging in a spot of unauthorised grave robbing, he is caught in the act by (who else?) Michael Ripper as the local copper, but takes less than a minute to have Ripper on-side and helping out by volunteering to fill in the grave himself while Sir James takes a breather.

This sense of assurance, and entitlement, is what Sir James and Clive Hamilton share, and it makes the conflict between them an engrossing one, shown best in the one icy face to face confrontation the script allows them, as it is the only conflict between equals we see throughout the film.

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Elsewhere, the conflicts are all about inequalities in status and authority, all about hierarchy.

For instance, the working class villagers lucky enough to still be breathing  are bitterly resentful of Doctor Thompson, the middle class professional unable to explain or prevent whatever is causing the flurry of mysterious deaths which have afflicted the village. In a confrontation between Thompson and the villagers in the local inn the brother of the most recent victim snarls vlcsnap-2017-04-07-19h32m32s106‘Oh, so we’re not good enough for you…’, voicing the source of the villagers’ resentment. They feel it is Thompson’s disdain, regarding them as a bunch of backwards peasants, that means he feels it is not worth his time to discover why they are dying.

The confrontation is only defused by the arrival of the genuinely upper-crust Sir James, who is granted a natural authority as a ‘proper gentleman’, dealing with the locals with an aristocratic grandeur and insouciance which Thompson, educated but lacking in confidence, at times self-pitying and wheedling, at times almost aggressive, is unable to assume.

Brooke Williams’ Thompson is not particularly likeable, and certainly has none of the charisma of Andre Morell’s hero or John Carson’s villain, but I find myself sympathising with him more than the on-screen representation might suggest, because I understand a little bit about class insecurity myself. While I’d like to see myself as the assertively assured Sir John, or as one of the salt-of-the-earth loyal-as-they-come villagers, the truth is that I’m much closer to Thompson.

alt plague posterPerhaps it is a certain uncomfortable awareness of the ambivalences and insecurities of my own class position that means I respond so strongly to the symbolically heightened class conflicts that form the sub-textual heart of Plague of the Zombies. Even as early as that first horror double bill screening back in 1977 I’d already passed what was then called the eleven plus exam and was well aware that I was on the path to being educated away from my roots and into a different order of life, a process that solidified and accelerated as the years went by.

As I type these lines, I’m drinking a glass of St Emilion, from a bottle I bought nipping out to Waitrose just prior to my wife hosting a dinner party for her book group friends – teachers for the most part, though one of them has a touch of blue blood. Sinatra, Astaire, Bowlly, Crosby and Billie Holiday are crooning, Django is burning up the fretboard and Satch is tootling incomparably from my ipod dock; shelf upon shelf of books – nice copies for the most part, Folio and the like – surround me. And I’m writing by scented candlelight. In other words, I’m undeniably, irredeemably and inescapably middle class.

It wasn’t always so. Dad was an electrician by trade, blue overalls never mind blue collar. Mum worked on the factory floor. Wine was for Christmas, and it meant Asti Spumante, or, for a touch of extra sophistication, Blue Nun or Liebfraumilch. Books only came on loan from a library (except for Christmas annuals and my Target novelisations), and candles were only for keeping in a drawer as an emergency measure ready for the 3 day week and the miners bringing down Ted Heath’s government.

Moving between classes makes you more acutely aware of the betrayals and the unexamined hypocrisies inherent in the system than belonging in an unmediated, uncomplicated way to one class or the other, and guilt is an inescapable part of the process. It’s lodged somewhere deep down in my psyche, nagging away at me whenever I write a cheque for the cleaning lady. Resentment and bitterness are just as inescapable, however, surfacing every time one or other of our friends, many of whom are teachers in state schools, pack their kids off into the independent sector and perpetuate the inequalities at the heart of our society. And voting Labour once every five years does very little to alleviate either the guilt or the anger, even in these Corbyn days.

Perhaps that’s why, in some viewings of the film, I like those Cornish tin mining zombies much more than the young doctor who puts them up in flames in the final reel, and why in others I respond to the insecurity and uncertainty of the young middle class doctor himself more than the patrician authority of his old professor or the aristocratic entitlement of the villainous squire.

Incidentally, those 1970s power cuts may have brought the Tories low and inspiringly asserted the collective strength of the proletariat, but they also had the unfortunate side effect of making me miss Jon Pertwee’s Doctor sorting out Aggedor of Peladon. I cried for hours.

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Double Bill Five – Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER(1936)       30th July 1977       22.35 – 00.05

‘Mad? Or unbelievable?’

Von Helsing

daughterplaguelistingsDracula’s Daughter is, let’s face it, bonkers. Not to say that it’s a bad film. It isn’t. In fact, it’s a neglected and underrated little gem of a movie, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the weirdly perverse wrong-headedness permeating almost every decision Universal made about the project gives a kind of barmy quality to the finished film that is probably the reason why it’s so often overlooked and undervalued.

The thought processes of Hollywood producers frequently passeth all understanding, even setting aside probably apocryphal stories like the one about the Hollywood exec with an eye on the main chance who, in 1990, after hearing that the then box office hot Mel Gibson had signed up for the lead in Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, responded by copyrighting the title Hamlet 2: The Return. With all due apologies to the spirit of Bob Newhart, and involving considerably less exaggeration than you might suspect, I’d like you to imagine this telephone call taking place in an office on the Universal lot some time in 1935.

‘Hello Mr Laemmle … what a pleasure … yes, yes Bride of Frankenstein is still packing them in … oh, what do I think has made it such a big hit? … well, er, Mr Laemmle, if I knew for sure what makes a hit I’d probably be sitting in your chair instead of mine … but I guess I’d say audiences just wanted to see more of the monster … and we got back Karloff and Colin Clive from Frankenstein, and the same director, and carried on the story of the monster everybody loved from the first film … what’s that sir? It’s funny I should say that, because you’ve got a great idea of how to top it … I see … a sequel to Dracula … yes sir, I agree that sounds fantastic … would you like me to get Tod Browning and Lugosi on the phone … you wouldn’t … no sir, but I was just assuming that if we were following the formula that made Bride of Frankenstein so great we might want to carry on with Lugosi and the monster everyone loved from the first movie … oh … oh I see … Browning and Lugosi are already working together … oh, at MGM? … on a film where Lugosi plays a … oh … it’s called Mark of the Vampire … but it doesn’t matter because you’ve already got a better idea … oh, not technically your idea … David Selznick’s idea … the David Selznick who runs MGM? … no sir, I’m not aware of another David Selznick sir, but I just wasn’t … oh, you’ve already bought the rights from Selznick … for $12,500 plus a 5% share … I see … no, no sir, I’m sure it’s a great deal … it’s just that … well, don’t we already own the rights to Dracula? … we do … that’s what I thought … but we don’t want to come up with the idea for a sequel ourselves because … because you like Selznick’s title … OK … what title is that? … Dracula’s Daughter … no, no, it’s fine sir … it’s just … well … I think maybe someone here could have thought of the title Dracula’s Daughter for a bit less than $12,500 and a 5% share … oh, yes I see … you didn’t just buy the title … no, of course not sir, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that you were … you bought the screenplay from Selznick too … and it’s by who? … oh, Balderstone … who wrote the original film … no, no sir, genuinely, great choice … now we’re getting somewhere … so when do we start shooting? … oh I see … some problems with Balderstone’s screenplay … just teething problems, I hope sir … no, no teething … teething … you know, like vampires, and fangs … no, no sir, I won’t try to be funny again. So what kind of problems are there with the script? … I see … whips, you say … and chains … and she ties them up … and then they … yes, sir, I can certainly see that the Production Code Office might not appreciate that … yes … but it’s not a problem because … because you hired someone else to write a new screenplay … really? R.C Sherriff, who wrote The Invisible Man script for Whale … yes, well, he’s certainly good … no sir, I don’t have a problem with that … it’s just … well … couldn’t we have just hired Sherriff to write a script in the first place instead of paying Selznick … no, I understand, we’ve already been over that … and Whale’s agreed to direct? That’s fantastic news sir … but he wants what? … he wants us to buy the rights to a novel called The Hangover Murders for him to direct first … yes, well, I can certainly see how that would give us time to fix Sherriff’s script before we start shooting, so every cloud has a … wait a second, sorry … we need to fix Sherriff’s script too? … more whips … and more chains … and he touches her with what? … with her husband’s severed arm … well yes, I can certainly see that we might need to tweak that just a tad … well, thank goodness for The Hangover Murders then … oh, it’s not going to be called that … because the Production Code won’t let us say ‘hangover’… well, yes, I can certainly see that if they don’t like the word ‘hangover’ than they might have an issue with the whips … and the chains … and the severed arms … excuse me for saying this sir, but we are sure Whale and his friend Sherriff actually want to make this movie … no, no, it’s just I heard Whale really wants to get away from horror movies to do musicals … Showboat, yes … well, you don’t think he might be just making the Dracula script unworkable so he can do Showboat instead … yes, of course, much too cynical … I’m terribly sorry sir … of course … so … we’ve hired another scriptwriter to fix it … and we’ve paid Sherriff … really? … yes I’m sure $17,000 is cheap at the price for a writer like Sherriff, but if we can’t actually use his script at all … money well spent, I see sir … no, it’s not that … it’s just … well, it’s just that some people might see it as … not me, you understand, but some people might suggest that what we’ve done so far is spend $30,000 and all we’ve got to show for it is a two word title the janitor could have come up with on his coffee break … that’s not all we’ve got … Really? Lugosi is in … no, no sir, I take it all back, that is truly wonderful news … yes sir, I’d go so far as to say so long as we have Lugosi for this then we can’t lose … yes, yes, I know he was the reason Dracula made all that money for us in the first place … yes, so long as we have Lugosi … and you’ve fixed the script by? … by hiring another writer … yes I see … Peter who? … for another $2000 … but it hasn’t worked out because … because of the whips, of course … yes at least we have Lugosi, and Whale … and who? … Karloff too, you’re kidding … that’s wonderful … except … I see. Whale doesn’t want to direct after all … no, no I see … doing Showboat instead … no, not completely surprised sir, just call me Sherlock I guess … so now Karloff doesn’t want to do it after all … but it’s OK because … because you hired another scriptwriter … Garrett Fort … yes, yes, he’s good … but the Production Code don’t like the what, sir? … oh … the ‘perverse sexual desire’… they think Dracula’s daughter is a what? … no, well, I can see why they’re not keen in that case … but you think we can make Fort’s script work anyway if we can get her to look at the girl’s neck instead of her what? … oh, those … yes, I can see that would be better … so you’ve paid Fort $6,500 … no that’s fine, we’ve got a script now … no, sir, it’s just that … well sir, it occurs to me that we’ve paid about five times more for scripts we can’t use than for the one we can … No Sir! No, I’m emphatically not saying you need to pay Fort more … no, no sir … shouldn’t be focussing on the negatives, no sir … absolutely sir, at least we have Lugosi … and a script … and you hired a new director? That’s great sir … A. Edward Sutherland and … yes that’s good … except … except you’ve paid him off again for $17,500 … after he’d shot? … after he’d shot nothing at all … well, yes, at least we have Lugosi, and a script … and a new director … that’s great … Lambert Hillyer? … no, no, it’s just that … well, doesn’t he make Westerns? … well, it’s just that, well, Transylvania isn’t Texas you know sir … no, sir, that’s true, I was forgetting about that armadillo in Dracula’s castle … so now we have Hillyer … and we’re paying him how much? … a third of what we gave Sutherland for not directing the film, of course we are … and Sutherland went off to do a picture with W.C Fields … yes sir I believe it was Fields who said never give a sucker an even break … no sir, I absolutely did not mean to imply that you were a sucker … although, sucker, you know, bloodsucker, as in vampire … yes sir, I really will stop trying to be funny. So we’ve got a script, and the director, and at least we still have Lugosi … what’s that sir? You’ve decided you don’t actually want Lugosi after all? Even though he was the reason everyone went to see Dracula in the first place … but you don’t want Lugosi because … oh, the element of surprise … yes, well, I can certainly see that that would be surprising … and you’ve paid Lugosi $4000 for not being in the film … no, I’m not crying sir … no, it’s just … well, we’ve paid him a lot more for not being in the sequel than we paid him for being the star of the original … I’m not seeing the big picture, yes sir… I see, we don’t need Lugosi, because Dracula is still going to be in the movie … and Dracula’s going to be … he’s going to be made out of wax … of course he is … and does the wax dummy look like Lugosi … not even a little bit … and … what’s that sir … bankruptcy you say? … you’ve got to sell the company? … no Mr Laemmle, not totally surprised, no…’

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Of all the logically-challenged decisions Universal took concerning the project, the biggest one of course centred around the role – or lack of it – of Bela Lugosi. That Universal habitually undervalued and underused him almost goes without saying. That his performance in the 1931 original had pretty much single-handedly launched the Universal monster cycle and saved the company from liquidation is beyond question. Even assuming the studio judged the quality of his performances in the early 1930s as too theatrical for modern audiences, the profits generated by not only Dracula, but White Zombie, The Black Cat and Mark of the Vampire, for instance, might seem to suggest that the modern audience in question disagreed. Lugosi was a bankable horror star, so it would seem odd for Universal to be placing aesthetic considerations above commercial ones. He was most bankable of all in the role with which he would be forever most associated, and yet over and over again Universal went to extraordinary lengths to avoid doing the obvious thing.

They preferred the clearly miscast Lon Chaney junior when they finally re-introduced the immortal Count in Son of Dracula. They used the – admittedly much better cast – John Carradine for Dracula in their two House of …monster rallies. At least in the case of those films there were mitigating circumstances. Lugosi was visibly older by the mid 40s, and involved in touring productions of Arsenic and Old Lace.  In fact, Lugosi didn’t get a chance to reprise his most famous role on screen until he met Abbott and Costello in the very last gasp of the Golden Age.

In the case of Dracula’s Daughter however, Lugosi was still physically much the same man he had been in 1931. He was keen to be involved. The script was written to include a lengthy prologue featuring Lugosi as Dracula. And then not only did Universal decide not to cast Lugosi, they removed the character of Dracula entirely from his own sequel, the only case in movie history of the most important character in a film hitting the cutting room floor before a frame had been shot. And yet he remains in some ways the most important character, because his absence casts a pervasive influence over the film which means it is impossible to watch it, for all its many strengths, without a wistful sense of missed opportunities.

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What might have been…

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…and what was.

The bizarre decision making process behind the production blends rather happily with the emphasis on barminess in the story itself. We begin, with a pleasing respect for the original, in the moments immediately following the end of the first film, as two of Universal’s stock company of comedy coppers discover the bodies of Renfield and Dracula, with Van Helsing (now rather oddly re-christened Von Helsing) still lurking in the crypt. Not unreasonably, they assume Von Helsing is barking, and a murderer to boot.

vlcsnap-2017-03-30-13h57m30s99Banged up for homicide, the fearless vampire killer faces either the rope or a lifetime in a hospital for the criminally insane. To help him out of this mess, does he turn to a crack team of the finest legal brains in the country? Rumpole of the Bailey? Atticus Finch? Perry Mason? Petrocelli? No, Von Helsing places the whole of his legal defence in the hands of a psychiatrist he happens to know. Not because he’s angling pragmatically for an insanity defence, but because he thinks the headshrinker is best placed to demonstrate his innocence by proving the existence of vampires. In which the psychiatrist in question doesn’t believe. It’s like Miracle on 34th Street with haemoglobin.

All in all then, it’s remarkable how well the whole thing hangs together. The narrative is taut and pacy, and the acting excellent for the most part. I’ll admit to being ambivalent about Otto Kruger’s at times wooden and at times gratingly smug psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth, but Marguerite Churchill as Janet puts an appealing enough spin on the 30s and 40s trope of the independent, capable and confident ‘fast-talking dame’ seen elsewhere in films like His Girl Friday and also in genre fare such as Dr X.

vlcsnap-2017-03-30-14h08m27s8Irving Pichel’s Sandor is effectively menacing, and best of all, Gloria Holden lends a sombre, enigmatic power and poetry to the title role. Perhaps she was aided in this by her evident distaste for a type of material she felt was beneath her, which, paradoxically, imbues her performance with a strangely potent sense of icy detachment.

In fact, given the staginess which many critics feel ruins the original Lugosi film, the unbearable cop-out ending which destroys the otherwise atmospheric Mark of the Vampire, and the miscasting of Lon Chaney Jr as the vampire count which mars Son of Dracula, some have even argued that Dracula’s Daughter has a strong claim to being the very best vampire film of the golden age.

vlcsnap-2017-03-30-13h59m04s8There are certainly wonderful scenes and standout moments. Unconvincing wax dummy of the Count notwithstanding, the scene in which Zaleska lights Dracula’s funeral pyre, shielding her face from the cross and solemnly intoning a eulogy, is exceptionally beautiful and among the most atmospheric sequences in all of 30s horror. In its doom-black_sunday_posterladen melancholy and wonderful chiaroscuro lighting I think it’s possible to trace a direct line from this sequence to the visual baroque of Mario Bava’s critically lauded 1960s Italian horror film Black Sunday in which Barbara Steele gives a haunting performance with strong echoes of Gloria Holden’s Marya Zaleska.

There is a later, equally effective scene in which Holden, hoping that Dracula’s death has liberated her from the curse of vampirism, begins to play the piano as an expression of her new-found freedom, only to find herself becoming seduced by ‘the darkness’ once more. The dialogue moves between Holden’s increasingly ineffectual attempts to cling to the light and her darker impulses, which are voiced vlcsnap-2017-03-30-14h05m13s120through her servant Sandor’s expression of morbid dread. ‘Evil shadows…bats wings…’ he intones, as though giving on-screen advice to Universal’s set dressers. Their conversation is underscored by Zaleska’s increasingly schizophrenic piano playing in order to suggest both her desperation and her helpless inability to escape her own essential nature. The scene creates a new and highly influential sense of vampirism as addiction, or mental illness, an idea developed through Zaleska’s later hope that Jeffrey’s psychiatry may offer her a cure.

The diegetic music proves very effective in embodying the character’s conflicted nature – using music from within the world of the film to anchor the emotions of the characters in this way is rare outside the conscious artifice of musicals, but it’s a technique horror has frequently used to great effect. There are comparable scenes in both Kiss of the Vampire and The Reptile from this season alone, for instance.

However, the best known moment in the film, and the most controversial, is the one played between Holden and Nan Grey as the artist’s model and soon-to-be victim. In itself, the scene plays very powerfully, as an ever more intense Zaleska persuades the young girl to remove her blouse to pose for a portrait, and is then unable to control her rising blood lust, moving ever closer as she hypnotises the terrified Grey until the scene culminates in an off-screen scream.

As a straightforward scene of vampiric seduction, it works very well, and could be seen as no more than an echo of the earlier moment in which Zaleska entrances and drains dry a mute, top-hatted city gent. More troublingly, however, the very very thinly disguised subtext here is to see lesbianism as the ‘addiction’ with which Zaleska is struggling.

Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect anything else in the context of the 30s Hollywood studio system, and it’s true that Zaleska is portrayed quite sympathetically for the most part, but even so, I still find it a tad uncomfortable to see, fairly overtly, homosexuality being represented as mental illness.

Dracula’s Daughter is not the only film of the period to create this image of the threatening, dark-clad lesbian, of course. mooreheadThink no further than Agnes Moorehead as Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, terrifying Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs De Winter while lingeringly caressing her predecessor’s underwear. Subtlemuch. If you’ve never read Vito Russo’s book, or seen the documentary film based on it by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, I’d heartily recommend The Celluloid Closet for a thoughtful, informative and moving exploration of the representation of homosexuality in classic Hollywood cinema.

It might perhaps be easier to tolerate depictions of homosexuality as a mental disorder which might be ‘cured’ in screen fiction, were it not for the horrible and tragic reality of the ‘treatments’ and ‘cures’ that were in fact inflicted upon so many gay victims of societally-approved oppression through much of the twentieth century. The Alan Turing story, recently filmed as The Imitation Game, is probably the most high-profile example of such state-authorised torture, but is in fact only one of many such shameful case histories.

vlcsnap-2017-03-30-14h07m13s43At the time Gloria Holden was making her advances towards Nan Grey, homosexuality was widely seen as a disease. It would not have been too much of an imaginative leap from actual, everyday reality to have her see in Jeffrey’s psychiatry the possibility of a cure for the ‘sickness’ which is weighing on her, nor to have the voice of twentieth century science confidently assert the idea that such a disease exists, and that it can indeed provide such a cure.

It’s more than fifty years since Thomas Szasz published The Myth of Mental Illness and drew attention to society’s tendency to label anything it finds uncomfortable as a disease (in Soviet Russia any form of political unorthodoxy was a diagnosable symptom of mental illness, just as was homosexuality in the West), but there are cultures and communities around the world in which to be gay is still seen in the same twisted light.

Even in the liberal West, where there have undeniably been enormous advances in attitudes and legislation over the past twenty or thirty years, homophobia continues to blight the lives and the development of thousands of innocent people, and those advances, if not fought for, will be all too easily eroded as a newly illiberal wind begins to blow.

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Turing himself received a posthumous Royal Pardon, which was described as a ‘fitting tribute to an exceptional man’, rather than, more appropriately, as a recognition that he did nothing wrong in the first place. It was the rest of us who did something wrong. Like countless other unexceptional, entirely ordinary and anonymous men and women, Turing suffered horribly purely because an entirely natural sexuality was seen as sickness or sin, often diagnosed by prejudice masquerading as science or faith.

Understandably, given the repression and oppression they have faced, many in the gay community eagerly embraced the idea of the ‘gay gene’. Turns out it’s a DNA thing, with no element of choice attached. While I understand the impulse, I don’t feel the end to prejudice lies in so deterministic a direction. Whatever the truth of the scientific evidence, it’s the interpretation of it that troubles me. It can move so quickly from a ‘fact of biology’ to ‘Don’t blame me. It’s not my fault’, the problem there being the underlying acceptance that there is a ‘blame’ or ‘fault’ to begin with. And there simply isn’t.

For me, the only real ‘fact of biology’ at work here is that sexuality – yours, mine, Marya Zaleska’s – is not about categories and labels and boxes. Sex is more joyous and fluid than that – or at least it is if you’re doing it right. If we truly want to move beyond prejudice, I think we need to break the boxes, and change the labels. Sexuality is a spectrum, not a locked down identity. A continuum, not a fixed point. I believe it may have been Gore Vidal I remember saying that human beings are not ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’, they are merely ‘sexual’. I think that common identity, which we all share, points a much more positive way forwards than we have found so far. Certainly a much more positive one than Dracula’s daughter was able to find with Jeffrey.

Predictably, the conclusion of the narrative sees the Countess destroyed. Accepting that there can be no ‘release’ from her own nature, she kidnaps Janet and returns to Castle Dracula, an interior equally impressive here as it was in the original film. Leaning lasciviously over the supine heroine, she is interrupted by the intervention of Garth, and then gets an arrow through the heart courtesy of a jealous and fatally wounded Sandor. Yes, she is penetrated by his shaft. Sigh. Cue Janet waking, Jeffrey realising his true feelings for her, and the heterosexual norm being reasserted once more.

In fairness to Dracula’s Daughter however, at least Zaleska’s subtextual lesbianism is treated seriously and with some degree of empathy, rather than objectified for the male gaze as would be the case by the time Hammer got its hands on the literary wellspring for lesbian vampires, Sheridan LeFanu’s novella Carmilla. Hammer’s early 70s Karnstein trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil) was very much a case of ‘Fangs for the Mammaries’ I’m afraid, and a clear indication that attitudes to sexuality had added titillation to the mix without shifting far from the central view of lesbianism as disease and perversion.

We’ve thankfully moved on since then, but there is still much further to go in finally abolishing the damaging and degrading myth that there is such a thing as ‘normal’.

After all, as Marya Zaleska herself poignantly points out, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, doctor, than are dreamed of in your psychiatry.’

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Double Bill Four – Kiss of the Vampire (1963)

KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963)                       July 23rd 1977   23.45 – 01.10

Blood! More blood!

When I think back to the BBC2 horror double bills of the 1970s (and by now it may be becoming apparent that that’s something I do quite a lot), there are two specific images which remain frozen onto my inner eyeballs more vividly than any others, and it’s interesting to me that both are from this 1977 season, Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends! and both are from Hammer films.

One is a moment from The Reptile in which John Laurie’s mad Peter sprawls into close up, framed through a window, eyes blank and staring, his neck black and crusty from the reptile’s bite and white foam bubbling from his lips, and the other is this one, from the opening of Kiss of the Vampire.vlcsnap-2017-03-22-17h10m45s173

The mournful toll of a funereal bell. A gnarled tree, leafless and twisted, occupies the foreground of a gloomy, shadowed graveyard. A sombre, muted gaggle of mourners. A grim-faced, black-clad figure appears at the brow of a hill, approaches the graveside and suddenly launches the gravedigger’s spade through the splintering wood of the coffin. Ear-splitting scream. Close up of coffin lid. Bright red blood wells and pulses around the spade, before the camera glides through the coffin lid to reveal the face of the woman within, fangs bared, and we crash into the opening titles.

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It’s archetypal Hammer, the same conscious ‘shock ’em quick’ strategy which governs the opening of their majestic 1958 Dracula and the same copious use of that oddly lurid approximation of human blood which has become immortalised as ‘Kensington gore’. It was always too startlingly crimson for any undue realism to intrude, but also the perfect shade to make the most striking use of Hammer’s lush Eastman colour stock, as much a part of the production designs as the red-painted berries foregrounded in Curse of Frankenstein, or the scarlet of Christopher Lee’s eyeballs.

The image has remained with me forever, and I’m led to wonder why. It’s not the film itself I remember so vividly, and in fact there are many of the films I first saw in these  horror double bill seasons which I remember better, as whole texts. And although naturally I’ve seen Kiss of the Vampire many times since (or perhaps that’s not so natural if viewed with any degree of rationality), it’s still that specific moment, captured in mental freeze frame like some internal PrtScn technology, which sticks with me, rather than the film as a whole. And of course, it’s the gore, isn’t it?

Gore holds a curious place in the history of the genre, and also in my relationship with it. To a contemporary generation of fright fans for whom the question ‘how good is the film?’ is almost directly synonymous with the question ‘how gory is it?’ this may seem unbelievable, but blood and guts have not always been a convention of the genre. The golden age of black and white offered a pinprick of blood on Renfield’s fingertip, and that was about it. No lingering close-ups of death and mutilation. No body parts. Suspense, malice, and sub-textual perversity, yes, but gore had no role to play. Shadowplay, off-screen stakings and out-of-shot screams. That was horror. Until Hammer. Until colour. Until the gunshot to Chris Lee’s face in Curse of Frankenstein.

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As the vividness of my memory of Kiss of the Vampire’s plunging spade suggests, in the first flush of my horror film enthusiasm I responded to the visceral impact (or perhaps more literally, the viscera) of Hammer’s gore revolution in a way both powerful and direct, just as 1950s cinema audiences, faced with a startlingly new and bloody take on the gothic, had done before me.

The most immediate and obvious evidence of my response was confronted by my English teachers in those early years of secondary school. After having spent a futile year of pleading with me to write about something other than alien invasion, they were suddenly presented with a startling succession of severed limbs and buckets of blood. No amount of healthy, clean cut role model types in the books on the required reading lists could stem the blood-dimmed tide; no suggested story title was sufficiently innocuous to avoid a set-piece dismemberment. Picasso had his blue period (don’t trouble to check it out, art philistines, it’s not nearly as interesting as the name suggests); this was certainly my red one.

Looking back, I regard this first prelapsarian flush of gory enthusiasm as roughly analogous to the utter, cheery brutality and innocence of the childhood id. I see it again now, in my own children’s hysterical laughter when a squabbly tug of war over a plastic baby results in each of them suddenly gazing in surprise at a severed leg clutched tightly in their hand while the torso flops disconsolately onto the carpet. Either I’ve bred two prospective serial killers, or children have an instinctive sense of the absurd comedy inherent in the body’s brutalisation.

It was a relatively brief interlude for me, however, before the intervention of the disapproving superego. As I increasingly began to value the subtlety and restraint of the ‘old ones’, I came to reject and undervalue the newer, bloodier aesthetic with ever more censorious fervour. I became that rarest of horror fan animals, the anti-gore purist.

While the heightened gothic atmosphere, the literary respectability, the high production values and the distinguished acting chops of Cushing, Price and Lee allowed me to – a little bit guiltily – continue to adore the Hammers, the Amicus anthologies and Corman’s AIP Poe Pictures, the 70s new wave was too much for me.Crazies poster

Despite the gore I continued to find perfectly acceptable in my own essays I reacted with genuine anger and disgust to the gritty and disturbing realism of the blood and entrails on offer when the 1978 season of BBC2 horror double bills included a screening of George A Romero’s The Crazies. It took many years before I was able to see the satiric genius in Romero’s gore-fixated oeuvre, or any merit whatsoever in the likes of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Carpenter’s Halloween or anything with Wes Craven’s name attached.

Of course artists are always gradually pushing boundaries, and the 70s new wave of horror films – almost all remade in the last decade  – now themselves seem tame to the Saw and Hostel generation, but for me the brutal pessimism and nihilism I first encountered in Romero’s dystopian visions continues to make for slightly queasy and uncomfortable viewing.

Whether pleasure or objection, both reactions to the gore which has become so established a convention of the genre stem ultimately from the same source, which is a profound sense of transgression. The gore movie revels in its ability to display the forbidden and the taboo. In the real world we’re not supposed to see the insides of another human being, unless we’re a surgeon or a soldier. I remember a friend of mine trying to describe to me what his experience of being in the operating theatre for his wife’s caesarean had been like, and, growing slightly wide-eyed, he whispered conspiratorially ‘I’ve seen Kate’s spleen.’

Some of us are drawn to the transgressive and the forbidden, others are terrified and disapproving; most of us are a bit of both. I don’t pretend to be Richard Dawkins – not since the court case, anyway (sorry again about that Richard) – but I wonder if there may be a biological, evolutionary imperative at work here. Many of the deepest fears on which the horror film works have a buried, ancient, primeval quality – the darkness beyond the circle of fire, the monster lurking in the woods. To the hunters of the ancient past the sudden startling exposure of the body’s interior could mean urgent, life-threatening danger but might equally be the precursor to food. Blood serves as a warning but also an appetiser. Somewhere in the primordial swamp of the collective unconscious, I think we’re still responding to the same stimuli.

francis_bacon_8I may be – yet again – merely revealing my own intense philistinism, but I strongly suspect that it’s a similar response at work in my love of the art of Francis Bacon. For others there may be an altogether more refined aesthetic in play, but I fear there’s something rubberneckingly voyeuristic about my appreciation of all those twisted bodies, all that semi human roadkill somehow always caught in a moment of agonised transformation. We are all raw meat for Bacon. See what I did there?

 

There are many and varied reasons why David Lynch is my favourite filmmaker – not least his ability to capture an extraordinarily beautiful, poignant and romantic sense of yearning and a deeply felt humanity which is often overlooked by those who see only the nightmarish qualities in his work. Alongside those qualities, though,  a further key to my love of his films is his Baconian morbidity, on display in the various gunshots to the head taken by Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Deputy Cliff in Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me and Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart; in his love of giants and little men; in the half glimpsed anguish of Bill Pullman’s transformation into Balthazar Getty in Lost Highway; in the loving way his camera enfolds and caresses Spike, the baby (‘they don’t know if it is a baby’) in Eraserhead; and of course in John Hurt’s heartbreakingly moving turn as John Merrick in The Elephant Man.

There’s always a sense of the physical in flux: Bacon’s paintings and Lynch’s films share a preoccupation with the wild, excessive possibilities that may befall the body, both as a source of horror and as a sensual indulgence of the act of looking. If Bacon and Lynch stand at the artier end of the spectrum, then amongst more lowbrow horror fare, Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks occupies similar territory of course, and whether through disease, deformity or the trauma of sudden and bloody violence – a spade through the coffin lid, for instance – the brutalisation of the body is perhaps the dark subtext of all horror stories

vlcsnap-2017-03-22-18h26m47s36Beyond the impact of Kiss of the Vampire’s memorably bloody opening, for me the film is one of the best of Hammer’s vampire pictures. Like Brides of Dracula – which it closely resembles in a number of ways – it remains partly defined by its christopherleelessness, but I find the icy detachment of Noel Willman as Dr Ravna, the lofty patriarch of a perverse vampire family an interesting variation on the theme. Hammer’s Dracula also carried a coldly autocratic manner with him, but coupled it with an animalistic ferocity and sensuality. Lee’s sinewy physicality is replaced here by Willman’s remote, cerebral quality – he reportedly informed his fellow cast members that he intended never to vary his facial expression in playing the part – which seems to suggest distaste, rather than desire, for his victims.

Willman is introduced immediately post credits as a sinister observer; with the economy and tautness of narrative approach I was beginning to recognise as characteristic of the Hammer style he is established for the audience as the source of danger and threat from the off.

If Willman’s Dr Ravna is an interesting variation on Lee’s Dracula, then the contrast offered by Clifford Evans’ Professor Zimmer to Cushing’s Van Helsing is even more startling. Fulfilling essentially the same role, Evans brings a fiery, even frightening quality to the part. ‘This time it’s personal’, vlcsnap-2017-03-22-19h03m08s84his tagline might have run, because it emerges that it is Zimmer’s own daughter, corrupted by the decadent vampire cult (in this film vampirism seems to be more like a lifestyle choice than a supernatural affliction) whose body he has defiled with the gravedigger’s spade in the opening sequence. He is harsh and unapproachable in a way that was never true of Cushing’s at times frosty, but ultimately warm and humane vampire hunter. He is a broken down drunk at the beginning of the film – in a scene which echoes Cushing’s burning out of Meinster’s bite in Brides of Dracula Zimmer tellingly uses alcohol rather than holy water to cauterise his wound. By the film’s conclusion, he is prepared to use an occult ritual to turn all the powers of Hell (summoned in the slightly less than impressive form of plastic toy bats Hammer bought in from Woolworths) against the vampires in a ‘by any means necessary’ manner which would have been quite alien to Van Helsing. Zimmer is every bit as fascinating a departure from the established template as Willman’s Ravna.

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Fear the toy bats of the apocalypse!

Don Sharp, the director of Kiss of the Vampire was new to Hammer and to the horror genre, which perhaps accounts for the very interesting variations he works on the established Lee/Cushing/Terence Fisher formula. Perhaps the most notable of all these innovations, however, is the way he reconfigures the Hammer film as something more akin to the paranoid thriller.

Paranoia is key to Kiss of the Vampire, and it is perhaps inevitable that the film owes the biggest debt of all Hammer’s gothics to Hitchcock. Hammer had enjoyed some minor success in the wake of the master’s 1960 low budget box office bonanza Psycho with a short series of black and white contemporary thrillers which wore the influence unashamedly on their sleeves; Taste of Fear in 1961, Maniac and Paranoiac in 1963, and Nightmare in 1964 now often grouped together under the everything you need to know label of ‘mini Hitchcocks’.

Under Sharp’s able direction however, Kiss of the Vampire was a much more original homage to the master in it’s fascinating combination of Hitchcockian paranoia with Hammer’s more familiar gothic period milieu.

When Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniels’ newlyweds finally arrive at the local inn, the quirkily friendly innkeeper and his close-lipped, tearful wife, apparently welcoming but clearly harbouring dark, tormented secrets of their own, seem to have stepped straight from The 39 Steps or The Man Who Knew Too Much.

vlcsnap-2017-03-22-18h28m51s253An extended sequence of paranoid cinema par excellence develops when de Souza awakes after a ball at Ravna’s chateau to find his wife missing and no-one willing to admit that she has ever existed. It is the dilemma straight out of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (itself reworked in a little known early Terence Fisher movie called So Long at the Fair) but as befits a frantic search for a spouse rather than a stranger, it is played at an even higher pitch, and de Souza’s rising panic and desperation is palpable.

The failure to convince, or to be believed, or even to get anyone to listen, is the key to Hitchcock classics like North by North West and The Wrong Man. It’s essentially a childhood fear, isn’t it? That sense of panic, and injustice, and the horror that a cold and smugly complacent adult world will judge us and condemn us and simply refuse to listen because, of course, it knows best.

The fear of voicelessness is surely a universal part of everyone’s childhood (remember the most visceral moment in the Wachowski’s The Matrix, when Neo is apparently under FBI interrogation and the mysterious Agent Smith somehow, impossibly, seals up his mouth?), and it is one on which Hitchcock – and Don Sharp here – nags away at remorselessly, like scratching a scab.

There’s another, and perhaps an even deeper, kind of paranoia at work in Kiss of the Vampire though. It’s no coincidence that the young couple at the heart of the narrative are honeymooners, a recurrent motif in the horror film.

What is it about young honeymooners or nearly weds? Why should they so often be at the head of the queue for persecution from vampires and villains of all persuasions?  What makes them so vulnerable? It’s true of quality genre fare like Kiss of the Vampire, White Zombie and Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat, but also abysmal schlock titles like 1964’s Honeymoon of Horror or 1982’s Horror Honeymoon. I suppose again it is a vulnerability associated with transition – with the uncertainty inherent in moving from one stage to another.

The general assumption would have been that the young couple on screen were sexually inexperienced, certainly for 1930s audiences faced with The Black Cat, and in the main for those of the 1960s, particularly when the film is set in period like Kiss of the Vampire. Indeed, one way of seeing the film, with its decadent cult of hedonistic vampires is as a puritanical rejection of the permissive values which were transforming the sixties. The threat then derives from placing their naivety in conflict with a more experienced, perverse version of adult sexuality – whether Ravna and his ‘family’ in Kiss of the Vampire, Murder Legendre and Beaumont in White Zombie or Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat.

Stepping over the threshold of adult sexuality is often seen only in terms of its pleasures and its excitements, but it has its terrors and anxieties too, of which ‘will I be any good?’ is only the most obvious. Ian McEwan dissects the psychology of nervous young newlyweds with the precision of a surgeon in his novel On Chesil Beach, but the paranoia was there for all to see writ large in the subtext of classic horror many years before that.

Gerald and Marianne Harcourt are introduced to us as the conventional ‘happy couple’, utilising all the period’s stockvlcsnap-2017-03-22-18h11m46s240 devices, including a very chaste sort of suggestiveness to establish the idea that they are ‘in love’ (‘whatever in love means’, as a grim-faced Big Ears once glumly observed to camera while standing sulkily beside his Noddy). Alongside it though is a strange, rather stiff, unnatural and colourless quality, a forced jollity which feels curiously uncomfortable and artificial. De Souza’s Gerald and Daniels’ Marianne seem to represent neither wild young lust nor cosy domesticity, but a tense and uneasy hinterland between the two.

The tension is subtly but unmistakeably exploited when the pair accept an apparently vlcsnap-2017-03-22-18h19m42s137innocuous invitation to dinner at the Ravna chateau. While a complacently oblivious Gerald looks on, his wife is entranced, enraptured and comprehensively seduced by the piano playing of Ravna’s ‘son’ Carl – the only member of the ‘family’ to incongruously adopt a cod German accent.

Jennifer Daniels plays this almost dialogue free scene exceptionally well, her face, framed in tight close up, registering at first merely polite interest, which quickly shades into something altogether more burning and intense, into sensual pleasure and an overt sexual attraction. As the intensity of Carl’s playing increases, she begins to rock backward and forward, entirely overpowered by the strength of her own response, and it is only at this point that de Souza’s Gerald notices something may be wrong.

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‘Are you alright?’ he asks, quite uncomprehending of the nature of the scene which has unfolded and fearing merely that the little lady may feel a trifle faint. Marianne’s eyes never flicker however, the desperate urgency of her attention still fixed unwaveringly on Carl as she gasps (like many an actress before and since in a quite different kind of movie) ‘please…please don’t stop.’ The contrast between the sexual power and potency of the Ravna household and the dull stolidity of Gerald could hardly be more overt.

The power of the scene is heightened further by the fact that it is cross cut with the sequence in which Zimmer – in slow motion at the crucial moment – burns out the vampiric poison from the bite inflicted earlier on his hand by Tanya, the teenage temptress of Ravna’s pseudo family who is later revealed to be the missing daughter of the innkeeper and his wife. The parallel editing brilliantly draws out the contrast between the alluring and decadent temptations the cult offers and the true horror the film posits as lying poisonously beneath its seductive surface. In this it taps neatly into the anxieties of a generation of 1964 parents watching aghast as their children grew their hair, discovered the pill, invented sex and simultaneously dropped acid and their aitches.

The editing, incidentally, supervised like all the great Hammer films by the unsung James Needs is magnificent throughout. So, come to that, is the cinematography, here handed to Alan Hume, rather than the brilliant Jack Asher, now deemed ‘too slow’ by Hammer’s economy-conscious producers despite the fact that his wonderful work on the earlier films had, alongside Bernard Robinson’s exceptional production designs, done so much to establish the characteristic ‘Hammer look’.

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Regardless of anyone’s opinion of the genre, the technical accomplishment of Hammer’s best films, all achieved on the slenderest of budgets, is exemplary and unquestionable, and it’s a crime that the BAFTAs and Oscars that the craftsmen responsible so emphatically deserved were never bestowed on them by a shamefully sniffy film establishment. The quality of their work was so high it’s little wonder to find the finest cinematographer Britain has ever produced, Freddie Francis, becoming one of Hammer’s most reliable directors, or so sophisticated a film stylist as Martin Scorsese quite happy to describe the influence and inspiration he derived from the studio’s output.

vlcsnap-2017-03-22-18h23m16s229The masked ball sequence, particularly, is perhaps the finest example in the Hammer canon of all the technical elements working perfectly together. The lushness of the costumes and the masks, both sinister and beautiful. The sumptuous colour palette – particularly the rich scarlet of Marianne’s gown set against a sea of black tailcoats and, perhaps surprisingly, Ravna’s pure white robe. The sensual and haunting music of James Bernard, composer of nearly all of the very finest and most distinctive Hammer soundtracks. The ballroom set itself, which, like all Bernard Robinson’s work, offers luxury on a shoestring. The prowling, sinuous camerawork, and the exceptional fluidity of the edit which glides us seamlessly from a swirling, crowded dance floor to a sinister tableau in which only Carl and an apparently oblivious Marianne occupy the floor while a still and silent crowd of masked figures observe impassively from the sidelines. It moves the narrative of Marianne’s seduction forward with a beautiful visual economy, and like so much of Hammer’s best work it’s simultaneously sexy and scary.

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Alongside this lush, exotic, sinister and sumptuous eroticism, stumbles poor Gerald. He is absurdly flattered by the apparent interest of the beautiful Sabena, and indulges in some vlcsnap-2017-03-22-18h25m01s254awkward drunken flirting while paying a clumsy lip service to fidelity of the grinning and finger wagging ‘I’m a married man’ variety, completely oblivious to the schemes that are working on and around him.

Reargrounded by the framing of the earlier piano scene and rendered ridiculous in the ballroom sequence, poor Gerald is utterly inadequate and uncomprehending. How could he ever hope to provoke or understand, let alone fulfil, the intensity of desire the vampire cult seems to unleash in his young bride? There’s a terrible inevitability to her vlcsnap-2017-03-22-18h31m08s82succumbing. Later, entirely subsumed into Ravna’s dark subversion of the nuclear family, a sultry and contemptuous Marianne spits into the face of the husband who has finally tracked her down.

This ultimate male paranoia is the fear played on at the heart of the film. Gerald’s failure to recognise or satisfy a female sensuality which lies always beyond his reach leads to Marianne eagerly submitting to the temptations of a fuller, richer, more mysterious and powerful version of sexuality than he could ever be capable of awakening. It’s a vivid embodiment of a universal male fear, and one that Edward de Souza’s rather charmingly effective performance as the rather charmingly ineffectual Gerald makes all the more ripe for empathy.

After all, isn’t it true that for most of us male desire seems somehow single and clear, easily defined and measurable in inches and fluid ounces? Female sexuality, on the other hand, seems shifting, looser and deeper, more subtle and ephemeral, amorphous, ambiguous and crucially, impossible for a man to truly grasp or control.

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The same dilemma underscores Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and David Lynch’s extraordinary Lost Highway, perhaps most of all in the sequence in which Balthazar Getty’s Pete and Patricia Arquette’s Alice make love in the desert. Pete’s yearning and the brilliance of the headlights bleach the frame to almost white, accompanied by This Mortal Coil’s haunting cover of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren. What might, in a more conventional and less honest film, have served as the culmination of the couple’s longing is here concluded by Arquette leaning in to whisper ‘You’ll never have me’, before walking out of the hapless Getty’s reach, and clean out of the narrative itself.

Male anxiety in the face of female desire is archetypal. It’s this anxiety which accounts for a great deal of Kiss of the Vampire’s undeniable power, but in a much more genuinely sinister way this same anxiety is at the heart of much that is repressive and brutal in male mistreatment of women through the ages and around the world. It’s at the root of witch trials and the burka; of female circumcision and the story of the Fall; of chastity belts, bible belts and the degradations of pornography; of honour killings and twitter rape threats. The male will to power is always ugly, but in this fearful and psychotic determination to control that which it both fears and desires it is ugliest of all. Horror movies are often described as misogynistic, not least because they play on exactly this kind of male anxiety, but for me films like Kiss of the Vampire suggest that it’s more complex than that.

I recognise that this is hopelessly, naively, fatuously optimistic, but I sometimes dare to dream that my daughters could grow up in a world which has no further place for male aggression against women, where opportunities are equal and freedom real. A world where individual men and the fucked up male societies they create no longer feel the need to control and punish women for their own panicked sense of inadequacy, impotence and longing.

I’m afraid I have to admit, reluctantly, that I don’t really believe such a world will ever come to pass, but if it does, the work will be done in part by things like Kiss of the Vampire, which allow the roots of male fear and envy and resentment to be embodied, and explored, and, like the vampires in the final reel, dragged screaming and shrivelling into the daylight, rather than repressed and distorted and turned viciously outward against the innocent.

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Double Bill Four – Son of Frankenstein (1939)

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN                                     July 23rd                 22.10-23.45

Butler-eating babies! Head to head beds!

I have a hard time with favourites.

SonKisslistingsWhen people find out you like films – or books, or music – they’ll almost inevitably ask you what your favourite is. It’s a well-meant attempt to engage you in conversation on a subject they know you’re interested in, but the downside of course is that it reveals them to be somewhat lacking in what Renfield, in between gobbling files and spiders, called ‘the aerial powers of the psychic faculties’.

After all, given the wealth of delights which the history of cinema, or even just the horror genre, has to offer, anyone with half a brain cell should know it’s impossible to pick a single favourite. Depends what you mean… Depends what for… Depends what mood I’m in… I went through a phase of rather wearily trying to explain all this to them. Then I went through a phase of replying by asking them to tell me which of their children was their favourite. Then I didn’t have any friends and no-one wanted to talk to me anymore. So now I say Son of Frankenstein.

The film holds a very specific place in the Universal cycle. It’s the first film in the second wave of Universal horror, appearing after an almost three year break in the production of monster movies which had come about partly as a result of the virtual ban on the genre in Britain. The British market served as a lucrative source of extra income for the Hollywood studios, and so the embargo which held sway in this country after the perceived sadism of the 1935 Karloff/Lugosi vehicle The Raven made the American studios abandon the genre in favour of safer stuff which could still generate decent audiences in Tunbridge Wells. It was only the vastly profitable reissue of the original Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938, which, taking Universal entirely by surprise, convinced the studio that there was life in the old ghouls yet, and prompted Son of Frankenstein into production.

Son of Frankenstein, however, is not only, or even primarily, the first of the new cycle, but rather the last of the old. In its casting, in its set design, in its budget, Son is the last of the glossy, high profile Universal horrors. From here on, they were essentially B movies, made fast and efficiently on slender budgets to play as the second feature – often very imaginatively and effectively, but very different in tone to the grandiose prestige horror productions which characterised Universal’s early thirties output.

Florid, lush, rich and stylised, Son of Frankenstein is both a culmination and a summation of all that came before, and although its very healthy profits were sufficient to launch a new, rather less ambitious cycle, it represents the end of the Golden age of classic horror, somehow seeming to embody and encapsulate all the different and apparently disparate strands of the earlier films.

The set design is wildly expressionistic, but seems  to draw not only on the Caligari flavoured visual style of Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, but also encapsulates the more full-blooded gothic of Dracula and Frankenstein while even somehow maintaining  a kinship with the ultra-modern Bauhaus of Ulmer’s The Black Cat.

There is a heightened, baroque quality to every aspect of the film which steps precipitously close to parody, without ever quite tripping over (it’s no co-incidence that this is the film Mel Brooks draws on most heavily for Young Frankenstein).

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Now nobody’s going to be cross. Just tell us the truth. Did you eat Benson?

The film even boasts a wonderful line which suggests of Benson the butler that he ‘went up to the nursery with the baby’s supper dish…we haven’t seen him since,’ enabling a whole generation of horror fans to dreamily envisage the monstrous butler-gobbling baby. It’s a testament to the lavish, delirious atmosphere the film creates from the first frame to the last that it wouldn’t have seemed entirely out of place.

I have a similar feeling for Son of Frankenstein as I do for Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – it’s my favourite of all the spaghetti westerns, taking many of the stylistic tics which characterised the early, more prosaic versions and pushing them almost to breaking point. The result is an extreme, vertiginous experience: breathtaking, operatic and epic, but just one step further would bring the whole edifice crashing down in a puff of bathos. Both films are a joyous summation of, and progression from, past glories, but leave nowhere to go for their respective cycles. The enjoyable, briskly pedestrian Universal horrors that came later were perhaps the only direction the studio could have taken after the wild excesses on display here. In every way, Son of Frankenstein feels like a wonderful ending.

The acting too is beautifully judged, played to the absolute hilt but somehow – just – never quite slipping into the overripe or hammy, and Son of Frankenstein boasts probably the finest cast ever assembled for a horror film. Karloff, and Lugosi and Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill, and all of them at the top of their game. It’s a true ensemble piece, beautifully and diversely played by each of them.

It’s Karloff’s swansong as the monster, SonofFrankenstein18and although he’s given rather less to do here than in the first two films, the howl of anguish he delivers over Lugosi’s dead body is right up there with the ‘catching the sunbeams’ moment from the original and stands unabashed alongside the brilliance with which he endowed every moment of Bride of Frankenstein.

Rathbone too is a delight, his Wolf Frankenstein operating at a deliciously sustained pitch of barely contained hysteria. His scenes verbally fencing with Lionel Atwill’s equally impressive turn as the shrewd Inspector Krogh are a pure joy, anticipating their return battle as Holmes and Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon a couple of years later.

Atwill himself deserves special mention here I think. Less well-known today than the first rank monsters, he sits alongside George Zucco in the pantheon of horror stars, never quite hitting the heights of a Lugosi or a Karloff, but always effective, always reliable, never giving a bad performance and at times giving a great one.

A few years earlier, in Mystery of the Wax Museum, Atwill had been – alongside the ubiquitous and wonderful Fay Wray – part of one of the great monster reveals of all time when his ‘face’ is beaten away to reveal a genuinely hideous makeup job beneath. It’s a film, remade very well in the 50s as a 3D Vincent Price vehicle called House of Wax and remade again, appallingly, as a vehicle for Paris Hilton in 2005, which remains one of my very favourites from the golden age of the early thirties, not least because of Atwill’s fantastic performance.

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Here, in Son of Frankenstein, his Inspector Krogh is a minor gem. He’s complex and believable, with the blackly comic bits of business Atwill lends to the character’s false arm – the Strangelove-anticipating salutes, the monacle cleaning – proving an endless source of pleasure and suggesting the actor’s wickedly dark sense of humour.

If horror has a first eleven Atwill deserves a place. Chaney, Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney jr., Carradine, Lorre, Rathbone, Price, Cushing, Lee, Atwill. That’s eleven. Poor George Zucco will have to make do with twelfth madman.

My fondness for Atwill was only increased by my later discovery of the career-threatening sex scandal which engulfed him in 1940, revealing the clipped and rather portly actor as the unlikely wet-lipped host of a string of wild and frenzied orgies and as the owner of an unrivalled collection of pornographic films. In fact it was only the loyalty shown to Atwill by Universal which enabled his career to survive the scandal – a fact I’ve always found a little odd given how shamefully the same company misused, mistreated, and ultimately ignored Lugosi, whose exhilarating but dreadfully underpaid performance in the massively profitable Dracula in 1931 had effectively saved the company from ruin.

As a dyed in the wool Lugosi worshipper, it’s also a source of enormous pleasure and pride to see my favourite so charmingly and effortlessly stealing the film from actors with the power and presence of Rathbone, Karloff and Atwill.

His Ygor in Son of Frankenstein is very possibly the greatest single performance in the history of the horror film, filled with charm and menace, cunning and sly humour, pathos and passion, and all underscored by an exceptional degree of – for want of a better term – twinkle.

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Those critics – and they are legion – who, on the back of his early thirties films, regard Lugosi as a one-trick pony capable only of a series of stylised, theatrical variations on his version of the immortal Count tend to conveniently forget Ygor, possibly because Lugosi is so completely subsumed into the character that he is virtually unrecognisable.

Perhaps a part of the sheer sense of mischief, of delightful play, at work in Lugosi here is as a result of the enormous relief he must have felt to be in the film at all. He had been virtually unemployed for the previous two years and had lost his house, production on horror films having been effectively ended in Hollywood, with no American producers able to see that Lugosi could be accepted by audiences as anything other than the ‘horror man’.

As it was, Lugosi was initially only hired for a few days’ work in a minor role on a minimal wage – the studio knew of his desperate financial straits as well as the potential marquee value of his name and shamefully used his desperation to hire him on the cheap. It was only the innate decency of the film’s director, Rowland V. Lee (alongside his bloody-minded willingness to defy the studio executives), which expanded Lugosi’s role and kept him employed throughout the shoot. In return Lugosi’s performance delivered Lee a piece of film history.

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It could and should have been enough to offer Lugosi a second shot at major film stardom, at least as a talented and versatile character actor, and it very nearly was. Impressed despite themselves with what Lugosi had delivered, Universal placed him under non-exclusive contract, brought him back to reprise Ygor almost as effectively in Ghost of Frankenstein and considered him for the lead in The Wolf Man. For the second time in his career, however, Lugosi was supplanted by the appearance of a new rival for the horror crown. First it had been Karloff, now it was Lon Chaney jr., who over the next few years was to play not only the Wolf Man but all of the classic Universal monsters including – worst insult of all – Dracula.

Nevertheless, whatever sorrows and disappointments and humiliations laid in wait for Lugosi, Ygor remains a performance to be relished and appreciated for all time. Given immortality by the magic of celluloid and the charisma of the actor, the role is a powerful and enduring testimony to Lugosi’s talent and grace, however much that talent may have been wasted by the limited opportunities he was to be given later.

son-of-frankensteinPerhaps it was not only that sense of relief which injects something extra into the performance, and into the feeling of the film as a whole. Never really friends, but never the daggers-drawn rivals they have sometimes been portrayed as either, the teaming of Lugosi and Karloff here seems genuinely close. At the time of the filming of Son of Frankenstein both men had recently become first time fathers, and perhaps it was this bond that leant the on-screen chemistry a sense of warmth and camaraderie that is never suggested elsewhere in the many collaborations of the horror cinema’s greatest double act.

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Boris Karloff on set with Bela Lugosi junior

The power of the new father bond should never be underestimated. Something in the heady cocktail of delight and fear and dad-shock opens one up emotionally. I once had an extra phone line installed unofficially and without charge by a telecom engineer simply because a conversation over the obligatory cuppa revealed his girlfriend had just given birth to their first child while my own daughter was only a few months old.This was a notable exception to the normal pattern of such encounters for me, incidentally. Does anybody else find workmen in the house as awkward as I do? There’s the whole ‘do I leave them to it and read a book in the living room or do I stand around awkwardly while they work in case they want to talk?’ debate. Then, assuming I’ve made the latter choice, there’s the whole ‘assumption that I know something about plumbing/ electrics/ windows/ phones/ wireless connections/ insert relevant trade here’ thing. An assumption that, for whatever pathetic reason, I feel as if I can’t contradict without having to add shamefacedly ‘I’ve no willy’, like Eoin McLove in Father Ted. Thus lots of knowing ‘mms’ and ‘yeahs’ and informed nodding, interspersed with a few well-placed ‘mates’ added in an accent a bit more rough and ready than my own, none of which makes me look like an idiot at all.

I don’t know why I should feel as if I need to maintain some vague semblance of manliness in those situations – or why it should be ‘manly’ to know about combi boilers anyway. When talking to me, no-one feels the least need to fake a knowledge of assessing pupil progress in the Key Stage 3 English Curriculum for fear of appearing to be a bit of a jessie.

Behind - Son of Frankenstein (1939)Whatever the reasons – new fatherhood, the return of an apparently deceased genre, the personality of Rowland Lee – the film has a golden, late summer feeling to it, and contemporary accounts suggest that the shoot was indeed a very happy one. In large part it may be the faint, insubstantial traces of this joy in the making which transmits itself to me and renders it, though I would readily admit it may not be the best film ever made, my favourite. In fact, a bit like John Lennon being asked if Ringo Starr was really the best rock drummer in the world and laconically replying ‘He’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles’, I’d be quite prepared to concede Son of Frankenstein is not even the best film in this season. Certainly The Premature Burial and Fall of the House of Usher are more eerie and unsettling. Frankenstein is darker and bleaker and The Black Cat more strikingly original. Dracula is more ground breaking, while Brides of Dracula and The Reptile are faster-paced and more dramatic. Bride of Frankenstein is wittier and more moving. I think those things are undeniable, objective truth. But then, pleasure is essentially subjective, isn’t it?dpotter

Of course Shakespeare is a greater dramatist than Dennis Potter, but The Singing Detective moves and impresses me more deeply than Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth put together. The ‘me’ is the key element in that heretical statement. It goes without saying that Potter’s masterpiece isn’t ‘better’ than Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it moves me more. An accidental co-incidence of elements in my history, my background, and my personality make me more receptive to the lesser work than to the greater.

It’s in this sense that, with a polite raise of the hat to Christopher Ricks, it’s perfectly fair to investigate the question whether or not Bob Dylan should be spoken of in the same breath as Keats, and why I will always love old horror movies and TV fantasy more than Greek tragedy or the nineteenth century novel. Joss Whedon is not a better writer than George Eliot, I just happen to like his work more, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Art is not a competition: my unique, entirely subjective appreciation of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer does not wipe Middlemarch out of existence, any more than my love for Norwich City makes them in any objective sense a better team than Manchester United.

Even more than this defence of subjectivity, however, and rather less often commented on, I’d argue that our responses are much more a part of the specific circumstances surrounding our encounter with the artistic work than is often allowed for. Our personal context, in other words. In an extended interview with Chris Rodley my favourite director, David Lynch, described one specific viewing of his own film Eraserhead, in which it appeared to him ‘perfect’. Lynch has never struck me as especially arrogant or self-satisfied, and Eraserhead is not a film I particularly enjoy, and yet I know exactly what he was driving at. Lynch wasn’t suggesting he had made a perfect film; only that on that one particular day, in that one particular set of screening circumstances, the film had felt that way to him.

On the Saturday I most recently re-watched Son of Frankenstein, I went to see Norwich City, having looked like being drawn ever more inexorably into mid-table obscurity, produce a dizzyingly good performance to beat Nottingham Forest 5-1, with each and every strike a magnificent goal of the season contender. It was a blissful Saturday afternoon fit to convince me that promotion was still on the cards this season, and the surge of disproportionate joy I felt carried me over into the film, which presented itself to me as absolutely perfect.

1939_SonFrankenstein_img9There was not a single flaw, not a moment of Son of Frankenstein I would have wished any different; an uncharacteristic generosity of spirit I even extended to the presence of Donnie Dunagan (later to be the voice of Bambi) as Basil Rathbone’s teeny tot son Peter. Under normal circumstances the appearance of a child actor in any film is enough to make me wish to immediately call upon the combined services of the childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Joan Crawford with a wire coat hanger.

Nearly forty years previously on the 23rd of July 1977, when I settled down to watch Son of Frankenstein for the first time, the Summer holidays, and an escape from all the miseries of school, were properly underway. The England cricket team, boasting the elegance of the late Bob Woolmer and the nervous energy of Derek Randall in its batting line up, a bowling attack including Bob Willis, John Lever, Chris Old and ‘deadly’ Derek Underwood, Tony Greig’s gangly all-round brilliance and Alan Knott, still the finest wicketkeeper ever to pull on the gloves, had recently beaten Australia by 9 wickets and were well on the way to regaining the Ashes.

A couple of weeks earlier had seen what may well have been the greatest Wimbledon men’s singles ever, back at a time when I had become almost obsessed by the tournament, perhaps because in the 70s and early 80s the players’ games seemed to be somehow an expression of personality as much as ability, a pleasure that the modern game, for all the exceptional talents which grace it, no longer seems to offer spectators.

The semi-finals that year saw Jimmy Connors win, but in the process, almost unbelievably, lose a set to an unknown teenager who had come to play in the junior tournament but progressed all the way through the qualifying rounds of the real thing, before beating seasoned pro after seasoned pro to reach the semis of the main event. The upstart’s name was John McEnroe. In the other half of the draw the semi was between the iceman and the rock star, Bjorn Borg against his practice partner Vitus Gerulaitus, and the pairing produced an epic five-set battle which eventually went to Borg 9-7 in the fifth and remains for me perhaps the greatest, most enthralling tennis match I’ve ever seen, rivalled for skill and drama only by the two finals Borg contested with McEnroe in 1980 and 81 respectively. The final in 77 was no let-down either, Connors beginning like an express train and Borg only gradually finding a way back into the match to take it in another gruelling five sets.

The charts across that July included The Pistols with both Pretty Vacant and God Save the Queen (of course it was number 1 in the week of the silver jubilee, even if the BBC pretended it wasn’t, just as surely as Ding Dong The Witch is Dead wonderfully dominated the charts in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral), ELO’s Telephone Line, The Stranglers’ Peaches/Go Buddy Go, The Ramones’ Sheena is a Punk Rocker and spyposterHalfway Down the Stairs by The Muppets.

The Spy Who Loved Me was in cinemas and I’d been to see it with my mum (how cool was I?), probably this very week. Still my favourite of the Bond films, this one is more familiar to non-Bondians as ‘the one with the underwater car’ – a white Lotus Esprit – or ‘the one with Jaws’. Even though we initiates know that in fact there are two ‘ones with Jaws’ because the steel-toothed henchman played by Richard Kiel was popular enough to be brought back in Moonraker, the next, considerably less effective entry in the series. The Spy Who Loved Me was the last Bond movie for many years to achieve a fully successful balance between humour, entertainment and excitement, many of the later films teetering over either into self-parody or, in reaction, a determined po-facedness, and I continue to love the film to this day.

But perhaps most significant of all in influencing my mood as Son of Frankenstein began was that this was probably the point when my love of the horror double bill became secure. I’d settled in, in other words. This was the fourth week and I was no longer finding out, or realising. By now I knew how much I was going to love each three hours or so in front of the TV late on a Saturday night and there was an extra dimension of cosiness, pleasure and joy in that foreknowledge.

All of these things together combined, mystically, in front of this particular screening to create a sense, of living, however briefly, in the best of all possible worlds. It couldn’t happen independently of the film of course. No amount of summer holidays or sporting or musical excellence could have made, say, Night of the Lepus into an all-time favourite for me, but when those personal, contextual intangibles combined with the intrinsic quality of a film as good as Son of Frankenstein I was sold for all time. Which is why it’s my favourite. Even though I don’t have a favourite because the idea of having just one favourite is … etc.

Whether it’s a film or a book, a football team or a life partner, we love the things and the people we love for a reason – or reasons – and our response in the end is our own, unique and sovereign and irreducible: a fact that, in this world of ever more received opinions and ever more skilled and insidious methods of infiltrating and colonising the insides of our heads, we should kick and scream and fight and scratch to defend.

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