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.

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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.

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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.

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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 set 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 flat when measured 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 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.

ghost_of_frankenstein_poster_04

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.

Annex-Lugosi,Bela(GhostofFrankenstein,The)_NRFPT_02S

 

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.

mountaingoats

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.

herbs

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.

joyce woolf

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…).

Norwich1971

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.

cavehill

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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Double Bill Three – The Wolf Man (1941)

THE WOLF MAN (1941)                      July 16th 1977                  00.00-01.25

‘Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright.’

         Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains)

The Wolf Man was the film that introduced the final addition to Universal’s roster of A-list monsters from the Golden Age, and also the film that marked the emergence of Lon Chaney junior as a major horror star, in the role – that of Lawrence Stewart Talbot, the eponymous Wolf Man – that he remained most fond of for the rest of his career. So influential was this taut, economical 1941 masterpiece that many people assume it to have been the first werewolf film, but in fact this is not the case. I’m indebted to the Universal Horrors Challenge at https://randallmalus.wordpress.com/ for knowing of a lost 1913 silent called The Werewolf, and there was also Universal’s surprisingly turgid Werewolf of London in 1935, which is much better known amongst horror fans but remains entirely obscure among everyday non-horror folk – or Huggles, as I’m determined to start calling them. So it is The Wolf Man that is the true progenitor of the werewolf sub-genre, and it is such an impressive piece of work that it fully deserves that plaudit. Fast-paced, punchy and moody, the film had everything my twelve year old self, who had just yawned a bit through the earlier screening of The Mummy, could have wanted, and I loved it accordingly. I still do, come to that.

Poster-WolfMan,The(1941)_01The script by Curt Siodmak, who was to become one of the key players in the second phase Universal horrors of the 1940s, is a masterclass in tight yet ambitious storytelling, maintaining every iota of tension throughout the film’s pared-to-the-bone 70 minute running time, and also incorporating some beautifully resonant folk poetry which is so effective that it is hard to believe it isn’t authentic. It’s not only the ‘Even a man who is pure in heart..’ rhyme which Siodmak’s script passes from cast member to cast member in what must surely be the most ‘werewolf-aware’ village in the world, but also Marya Ouspenskaya’s beautiful lament :

The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own. But as the rain enters the soil and the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over. Now find peace for eternity.

I don’t expect to see it cropping up in a poetry module on a Literature syllabus anytime soon, but for me that’s more lyrical and profound than a lot of the stuff that does.

Also remarkable about Siodmak’s contribution is just how much of what we think we know about werewolves in fact originates with his screenplay. From the transformative power of the full moon to the fatal qualities of silver to the mystical pentagram, Siodmak conjures the feeling of long-established folklore so successfully that it feels entirely convincing and traditional. The achievement is all the more remarkable for the lack of a recognised literary classic on which to hang it all. There’s no equivalent to a Stoker or a Stevenson, a Shelley or a Poe, for the werewolf movie.

Perhaps a consciousness of this lies behind one of the film’s few flaws – unable to rely on the kind of foreknowledge an audience might have for the vampire or the man-made monster the script falls back occasionally on bursts of rather awkward exposition. It’s a pardonable inelegance, however, when set against the powerful sense of doom which Siodmak layers moodily over the narrative from the word go.

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He’s ably assisted in this by some of the most atmospheric fog-enshrouded visuals Universal ever achieved and by the briskly imaginative direction of George Waggner, alongside another triumphant Jack Pierce makeup design.

Also worthy of attention are some subtly affecting supporting performances. There’s Bela Lugosi, squeezing everything he canvlcsnap-2017-03-09-11h38m07s229 from the seven lines the script offers him, as the lycanthropic fortune teller who passes on the curse to Chaney’s Talbot. There’s one of Hollywood’s most reliably terrific supporting actors, Claude Rains (who horror fans forever remember for his exceptional performance in The Invisible Man, and who was shortly to come as close as humanly possible to stealing Casablanca  from Bogart and Bergman) as Larry’s concerned father. There’s the consistently excellent Evelyn Ankers as Gwen, and more appealing takes on the square jawed hero than usual from both Ralph Bellamy and Patrick Knowles.

vlcsnap-2017-03-09-11h42m53s14Most of all, there is Marya Ouspenskaya as Maleva, the gypsy woman. She carries an extraordinary dignity, tenderness and power, dominating the screen in every moment in which she appears and making so striking an impression that she was recalled for the sequel, Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man.

On re-watching the film now, however, almost as striking as just how much of the now-established werewolf mythos springs from this single text, is how many of the conventions of the genre are nowhere to be seen. For one thing, there is no facial transformation scene. Chaney’s change from man to beast is indicated through a series of dissolves between close ups of his increasingly hairy feet, before said feet start to stomp across his room with a further dissolve showing us those feet now stalking across the misty forest floor.

The sequence actually works very well, in context, if you are able to ignore the fact that Chaney pulls off his shirt and tie to reveal a white vest before sitting down in the chair in which the metamorphosis takes place, but when he’s out in the forest in the full wolf man regalia he’s in a dark shirt and a different pair of trousers. Ever since noticing this glitch, I’ve longed for someone somewhere to come across a long-forgotten deleted scene in which a fully Wolfied Chaney rifles through his wardrobe to pick out the perfect outfit for the sophisticated lupine about town to wear while popping out to kill a handy gravedigger in the woods.

More significantly, the mid-section of the film resembles a psychological thriller much more than a conventional monster movie, leaving the possibility that the supernatural trappings of the story are merely a reflection of Chaney’s increasingly hysterical perspective open until more than half way through the film’s narrative. At one point Chaney’s tortured face is freeze-framed and there’s an effective, but quite unexpected kaleidoscopic swirl of distorted faces, silver canes and wolfbane which reminds me most strongly of the jarring animated montage with which Hitchcock surrounds Jimmy Stewart’s face to signal his character’s mental disintegration in Vertigo.

Perhaps it is partly this emphasis on the psychological over the physical which has led some viewers to dislike the film, often pouring scorn on the cod psycho-philosophical dialogue between Rains and Chaney, or Rains and the imperturbable local doctor, as unconvincing and pretentious in what is essentially a cheapy monster B movie. Rather more fairly, these poor deluded souls may also point to the incontrovertible fact that, though it may be just possible to suspend disbelief far enough to accept that even a man who is pure in heart may become a wolf when the Autumn moon is bright, it is completely impossible to believe that Lon Chaney jr is Claude Rains’ son. Or a member of the British aristocracy.

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Let’s just agree to be the least likely father and son in cinema history

But all of these ideas about the film, the good and the bad, are missing the point in the end. Because The Wolf Man is not actually about poor, doomed Lawrence Stewart Talbot’s tragic downward spiral into despair, lycanthropy and yak hair. The Wolf Man is about Mark Welch. Not for most people admittedly. But most people are wrong. The Wolf Man is about Mark Welch.

Fandom, you see, can be a lonely, isolated and isolating business. Or, on reflection, perhaps there is a distinction to be made here. Maybe fandom is essentially social: all those football fans or Trekkies or death metal enthusiasts finding community and identity and camaraderie and self-definition through their shared costumes and at large scale, communal events – games or gigs or conventions. But I’m no joiner. Gangs and groups and clubs, whether physical or virtual, fill me with an almost existential terror. I try (or I used to try, until I decided to write a blog about it) not to reveal my ludicrous enthusiasms to people I meet, at work or in the wild social whirl of my everyday life – although the attempt at concealment is always doomed to fail in the end, some chance remark or association which I can’t bite back always leaping out to leave me revealed as the helplessly absurd creature I am.

I prefer to watch horror films alone, my choice of only Lugosi or Cushing or Price for company made easier by my childrens’ tender age and my wife’s deep dislike of ‘scary’ as a concept. It seems to me that many of the activities which best define us – in which we are most truly ourselves – are essentially solitary. Like masturbation. All of which perhaps suggests that maybe I’m not a fan so much as an obsessive.

Nonetheless, my love of these old films grants me automatic membership of an unassuming, unthreatening and largely anonymous community of a kind; one in which I take a quiet pleasure and which exists only because of the context surrounding broadcast television and the screening of these double bills in the 1970s.

People of a certain age – myself among them – will grow slightly dewy-eyed talking about the golden age of British television, and the way in which the entire country would gather around the Morecambe and Wise show, huddled together in the flickering light like mediaeval villagers held rapt around the fire by a lone storyteller. A single, shared, simultaneous experience, almost like an act of worship. It’s true, and nice, that for a young horror fan today with some curiosity about the classics there’s ready availability for everything. Never seen Dracula? A quick scan of Netflix, or You Tube, or if you’re really committed a fiver on Amazon and it’s yours.

Even so, there’s a certain magic about having to see something at the time it’s actually on, screened for an audience by someone else, a commonality of experience vital to the proper enjoyment of event TV.

In 1977 there were only three television channels in Britain, and that lack of choice produced real quality and a truly shared culture, in stark contrast to today’s broadcasting world, in which more and more choice usually means an ever widening proliferation of channels all broadcasting the same depressing rubbish. At the time, the bbc2TV broadcast of feature films was no different: shared, specific and single. No VCRs then, no DVD or blu-ray release, no streaming on demand. If you hadn’t seen a Bond film at the cinema, that Bank Holiday Monday night on ITV became a vast, communal premiere for two thirds of the country.

So it was with these horror double bills. Of course the audience was smaller, few but fit, but for those of us who were there, for a whole generation of spotty schoolchildren, otherwise geographically scattered, lonely and isolated, they were a desperately important formative experience. And I can very quickly recognise it in other people.

It’s a source of real pleasure to me to see a common grounding in the works of writers and artists I admire, because it suggests not only a shared sensibility but a strange kind of intimacy. I can watch an episode of League of Gentlemen, or read or see anything else in which Mark Gatiss, Mark-Gatiss-A-History-Of-HorrorReece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton or Jeremy Dyson have been involved and I know pretty much where they were, what they were doing, and how they were feeling on specific Saturday nights in Summer between the mid 70s and the early 80s.

Steven Moffatt, Mark Kermode, Matthew Sweet, Jane Goldman and Andy Nyman are other names I’d throw into the mix, alongside specialists in the darker end of teenage fiction like Anthony Horowitz, Marcus Sedgwick and Charlie Higson, and, although they may be a couple of years older, Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman too.

Then there are those, like Marcus Hearn, Dennis Meikle and Jonathan Rigby, whose critical and archival work addresses these films more directly but I’d be very surprised to learn that their scholarly life’s work didn’t have its roots in their experiences in front of late night Saturday BBC2.

More surprisingly, I’d hazard a guess at Jonathan Coe. Most of his witty and profound work, with its deft intermingling of the comic, the poignant and the socially conscious seems about as far from old horror as you’re likely to get, but the influence of films like The Cat and the Canary and The Old Dark House are plain to see in his wonderful novel What a Carve Up, and there’s hardly another of his works that doesn’t boast some sly reference to Universal B movies or Boris Karloff.

I’d even place an outside bet on the wonderful J.K. Rowling, defying gender stereotyping and lapping up all those gothic castles and haunted palaces.

I’m not a stalker – honest guv – and I will never write a fan letter, or tweet or Twitter or poke (are those the phrases? Somebody young let me know) any of the much more talented writers and creators I’ve name-checked. Even so, these double bills were sufficiently central to my own development, my own interests and my own sense of self that I can – I think – recognise their place in the hearts and minds of others when I see it reflected through the filter of their own work, especially if, like me, they were born in the 60s.

At the time, it never really occurred to me that there was anybody else feeling the same joy in the macabre visions being spun out before my eyes on a Saturday night. The films seemed, almost by definition, to belong to the isolated, and to the outsider. To me, in other words.

In Fever Pitch Nick Hornby nails the heart of football fandom beautifully as being accepted into a new, and enormous family ‘except in this family, you care about the same people and hope for the same things.’ Back then though, as now, everybody was a football fan – or at least all of the everybodies that seemed to count.

Horror was OK – it had the tang of transgression to make it credible in the playground and the classroom, and so it wasn’t like being obsessed with Disney or musicals or bird watching or trains, but it was also more than a little odd and out of the way. There was the equivalent of Hornby’s ‘family’ as it turned out, but it was a family that consisted of just one or two of us skulking in the corner of every playground or quadrangle (no class distinctions here) across the country, all feeling as if we were pretty much on our own in those pre-Facebook and fan forum days. A family which only existed with the benefit of hindsight.

In this regard I was lucky. I was not alone, not quite. When it came to horror, Mark Welch was my significant other. Although obsession is essentially private and inward, conversation fans its flames, and Mark Welch was the only other person in my school who knew who Jack Pierce was, or who was prepared to endlessly debate the Boris vs. Bela question. He himself was a Lon Chaney junior man as it turned out, and you don’t meet too many of those around. The Wolf Man was always his monster of choice, just as Dracula was always mine.

Why his preference for lycanthropic Larry? Well, Welch (it was always surnames back then) was a hairy kid, his longish curls always unkempt and straggly and seeming to crave the epithet ‘mop’ in a way that nobody else’s hair has ever quite managed, while whiskers appeared desperately keen to spring out of him, erupting with fecund abandon in apparently random patterns across his face.  Swimming lessons and post PE showers revealed pubes that would have decorously graced Bruce Forsyth’s scalp, even back in 77.

Of course the brotherhood of the hirsute is more than skin deep. There’s a clearly I_Was_A_Teenage_Werewolf-posteridentifiable parable of adolescence at work in the werewolf mythos, which was evident long before 50s exploitation cinema gave us I Was a Teenage Werewolf (bizarrely starring Michael Landon, later to find international fame as the world’s third most reassuring father in the saccharine 70s TV hit Little House on the Prairie – coming in just after my dad, and John Walton from the equally saccharine 70s TV hit The Waltons). From the sudden physical changes, the strange nocturnal impulses, the animal urges and the wildly sprouting body hair, to the less easily definable sense of a body, and even a soul, accelerating away from itself, wild and out of control, the werewolf is really just puberty writ large.

And it was not only in the hairy sense that Mark Welch got adolescence bad. Like me, he longed for Shirley Chambers, though he never told me so, anymore than I would have dreamed of mentioning the fact to him, or to anyone else, BECAUSE I DEFINITELY DIDN’T LIKE HER AT ALL ACTUALLY. No, the reason I knew of his desire for the divine Shirley was because it overcame him so completely that he lost control of his reason and actually did something about it.

I at least knew my place. I would keep my longing quiet and deniable, because I could see that Shirley Chambers was a celestial creature from beyond my sphere. She later went out with the captain of the football team, in true David Watts style. She was the most popular girl in the history of the universe ever. Mark Welch, on the other hand, was a spotty git, and no more popular than the likes of me. Nevertheless, in spite of this undeniable truth his inner Wolf Man overtook him utterly. He left a secret note in Shirley Chambers’ desk, inviting her for a romantic weekend bike ride, the big mistake lying in how instantly recognisable his handwriting was.

It even had sketch maps.

I wish, I honestly, honestly wish, that we lived in an American high school comedy world and I could tell you that, against all odds, the ruse worked,  she saw the inner value of the apparently nerdy no-hoper, and they strolled hand in hand to a happy future. But we don’t. The only truth to be revealed by American high school comedies is that apparently nerdy no-hopers later end up making wish-fulfilling American high school comedies. Mark Welch’s humiliation was immediate and horrible to behold, giving new meaning to the word ‘crestfallen’.

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Mark and Shirley

I don’t know if Welch had drawn inspiration for his sadly ineffective seduction technique from his hero Larry Talbot but it’s not impossible given the extraordinarily adolescent and immature – not to say creepy – nature of Chaney’s courting of Evelyn Ankers’ Gwen Conliffe in the film. To begin with, he eagerly spies on her in her bedroom through a long-range telescope. If that weren’t bad enough – and it is – he then tracks her down and jovially reports his voyeurism to her, even down to identifying the earrings she has on her dressing table, all with a grin that suggests he thinks he’s being a charming smoothy rather than a pervert. He then exacerbates all this further by blithely refusing to accept Gwen’s repeated ‘No’ when he asks her for a date, and seems equally unconcerned by the fact that she is already engaged.

Perhaps in fairness however, I should point out that, while my feminist 2017 self recoils in horror from the film’s blissfully unknowing sexual politics, back in 1977 if I had had a long range telescope and a nice vantage point from which to spy on any of the objects of my desire – Shirley herself, or Rachael Fahey or Kerren Punton or Karen who lived over the road or any of a hundred others – I would have been fiddling with my focus in a heartbeat, without a moment’s consideration or guilt. Even a man who is pure in heart may become a wolf…

Such is adolescent maleness; pumped full of hormones that you know only too well what to do with but lacking the social or emotional or empathetic qualities required to actually connect or communicate with another human being, or even to really recognise that other human beings actually exist.

That’s the twisted logic of objectification, and the instinct of the adolescent, which needs to be worked and matured through, and it’s plainly there to see in the image of Larry Talbot grinning excitedly through his telescope. It works, interestingly, to position even the unhairy version of the character as, despite his age and appearance, essentially a teenage boy. It also, perhaps, helps to explain Mark Welch’s catastrophic attempt to get off with Shirley Chambers.

They were hard times, and those schools were hard places. Even so, it’s not the undeniable misery which I now find most memorable, but the uncontrollable laughter. It is a strange fact, I think, that once you leave school you will never laugh so long and so hard and so hysterically again. Stuff just isn’t that funny later on. Actually, in retrospect, it’s quite difficult to determine what was so funny then, but somehow it was.

One of my most vivid memories of the time, and of Mark Welch in particular, is of spending the best part of a full day literally doubled up, helplessly giggling like a loon, tears squirting from my eyes, gasping for breath, sides aching and, despite the escalating threats from successive teachers, no more able to stop chuckling than I could have chewed off my own hand. The cause of this shared hilarity? The equivalent of the old Monty Python sketch about the wittiest joke in the history of the world; a joke so funny it is instantly fatal to the hearer and becomes the Allies secret weapon to win the war? The cause, ladies and gentlemen, was Mark Welch and I occasionally whispering to one another at the very moment the last paroxysm of laughter had subsided, the words ‘Stravinsky, Kaminski, Violinski’. Talk about you had to be there. For the uninitiated – though I don’t think the knowledge will add much to anyone’s sense of why this was so agonizingly hilarious – Mik Kaminski was the name of the violinist in ELO, and Violinski the name of his one-hit wonder spin-off band. Apart from the handy rhyme, I don’t think Stravinsky had anything to do with it.

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The unspeakably hilarious Mik Kaminski

As the Kaminski reference might suggest, horror films were not our first, or only, shared interest. Alongside a joint and oddly specific sense of humour, music represented another mutual passion. Through 1976 and early 77 I had a real but relatively casual interest in the softer, poppier end of prog-rock. ELO themselves, Manfred Mann’s Earthband, a hint of Genesis.  It was Welch who converted me to punk. The persuasion wasn’t subtle. There was no lending of albums – not when you only had about three – and no compilation tapes, since C90s weren’t cheap either. He just banged on about it so long and so often that in the end I gave in and started to pay attention.

Like the rest of the country the notorious Pistols Bill Grundy interview had been what first brought punk to my attention, but I hadn’t regarded it as anything more significant than a bunch of yobs hilariously swearing a lot on telly. Without Welch’s endless droning about this single or album track he’d heard on John Peel I probably wouldn’t have ever got any further than finding the whole thing a bit of a joke. But eventually I caved in, and everything was suddenly new.

I was too young to know what it was like in the 60s, with that extraordinary outpouring of talent and energy, each new single or album by The Beatles and The Stones and The Kinks and Dylan and The Who and The Beach Boys and The Byrds seeming better than the last, with that incredible sense of musical discovery being possible every time you switched on the radio. By the time that shining moment was palely reflected once more in the beautiful Britpop bubble of the mid 90s, much as I loved those bands, I was too old for them to really get to me, in the way that can only happen when you’re fourteen or fifteen and music is the centre of everything.

So for me it was the golden years of 77 and 78, that were truly to define my musical tastes most indelibly and completely, and again it was that wonderful sense that each time you listened to Peel, or Luxembourg, or Kid Jensen, some new Undertones or Buzzcocks or X Ray Spex or Members track would be the best thing ever. And for us suburban boys all around the country it was the radio and the music that drove it, not the fashion and not the trendy London art school gimmickry.

Despite Jimmy Pursey’s best endeavours, however, us kids still weren’t quite united. On the one hand there was the snarlingly threatening presence of the teds and greasers, always ready to bash a grammar school punk while weirdly acclaiming the sugar-coated retro 50s stylings of Showaddwaddy and Darts as the authentic voice of disenfranchised youth and even striking up a bizarre alliance with a nation of pre-pubescent schoolgirls in worship of Travolta and Newton-John’s seemingly endless string of Grease soundtrack number ones.

On the other, even within our own ranks there was little unity. For the first few months, there was only punk. But then someone noticed that My Aim is True didn’t really sound much like Rattus Norvegicus which in turn didn’t sound all that similar to Never Mind The Bollocks, and so was born the concept of New Wave and we all started judging one another on how credible our tastes were. A new single by The Rats? They’re shit compared to The Clash.

Wolf Man Welch and Dracula Galley were at loggerheads once more. He was for The Jam, hook line and Rickenbacker, while I worshipped Costello, patron saint of NHS glasses-wearing 9 stone weaklings everywhere.  As a result, though he liked Costello and I liked The Jam, we had to argue about who was best and could only do so by pretending that the other’s preference was total crap.

With musical differences already in place, of course it was inevitable that we should form a band. Punk’s famous ‘this is a G chord, this is a C, this is a D now release a single’ DIY aesthetic notwithstanding, we found it hard to get past the ‘having no instruments and not being able to play them even if we did’ phase of our musical development.

What we did have was the ability to endlessly debate the best name for the band. My initial suggestion was The Fucking Wankers, which I thought at the time – and rather shamefacedly have to admit, still think – the most hilariously in your face band name ever. I loved the idea that, rather than wild eyed Rottenesque snarling, we might step onstage in sober fashion, taking a Beatlesy bow, and then gently announce ‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We’re The Fucking Wankers’. Wedding bookings might have been few and far between, but artistic integrity has to come first, doesn’t it?

In any case, Welch was not so keen on the suggestion, and countered with the rather more sonorous ‘Yesterday’s Outcasts’. There was even a poem, briefly, intended for the sleeve notes, to which I believe I contributed the immortal couplet ‘Went to a party, stole some streamers/Yesterday’s Outcasts, tomorrow’s dreamers.’

With that kind of profundity, it’s little wonder that I quickly became the band’s lyricist in chief. I wrote a song called Brain Surgery, intended as our debut single (Anywhere around this great blue globe/If you have a frontal lobe/ They’re gonna get ya for/Brain surgery/Maybe a brain cell or two/The government back it to avoid a coup/All of society makes a moron of you/They don’t admit it but they know that it’s true), added B-side The Evolutionary Scale (Man is on the bottom rung/Though he thinks he can get no higher/Compared to us he’s a load of dung/Don’t think that I’m a liar) and quickly began work on punk rock opera and concept album Jesus Christ: Punk Rocker.

I intended something a little less blandly respectful than Rice and Lloyd Webber – in fact Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory, Eric Idle’s original title suggestion for what became Life of Brian, catches some of the spirit of what I hoped to achieve. My artistic vision was restricted, however, by having too much Chemistry homework, and I never got any further than a single song, called Crucified (the lyrics escape me now, but it’s a safe bet it wasn’t a gigantic developmental leap on from the searing social critique of Brain Surgery) and a proposed cast list for the film. Elvis Costello was to be Christ, of course, with Paul Weller as John the Baptist and Johnny Rotten as Pilate. Even now, I rather wish someone with a modicum of talent had stumbled on the idea and made it happen. Not to be, sadly.

Still grappling with the name which might best represent us – I had an inkling Yesterday’s Outcasts might have just the tiniest whiff of the pretentious about it, and wasn’t altogether in keeping with our stripped down Punk credentials – we eventually settled on The Superboes. That’s pronounced Superb-oes, not Super-boes, for those few of you miraculously retaining any interest whatsoever in my doomed tilt at rock stardom.

We invented a few album titles, like Sombrero Fallout (don’t ask me why – I’ve still never read the novel) and The Superboes Live (Almost) – a title I found funny because it dispensed with the requirement to actually be live, but I think on reflection may have owed slightly too significant a conceptual debt to a 1976 episode of The Goodies called The Goodies Almost Live.

Welch was also in the habit of creating his own weekly top 30 listings consisting of entirely fictitious singles, designed either to reflect events at school or to just have funny titles. Oddly, despite the questionable independence of these chart placings given Welch’s heavy influence on his own self-penned hit parade, our band only ever made number 1 once, with I Remember Nicky Goodwin (sung to the tune of Danny Mirror’s jaw-droppingly bad tribute single I remember Elvis Presley) and replacing The King with the name of an odd little boy in the year below us who once fervently berated me in the school canteen for using my fingers to eat a doughnut with the plaintively repeated lament “A spoon! You’re supposed to eat it with a spoon! A spoon! You’re supposed to eat it with a spoon!” Nowadays he would be diagnosed with Asperger’s and/or OCD. Back then he was just a nutter who made excellent comedy fodder for invented novelty singles.

Although one Christmas around this time I did get a three quarter size guitar and a four page ‘how to play’ manual which came with it, we never got as far as recording. Or gigging. Or rehearsing. In fact disconsolately following around a fourth year boy who was rumoured to own a drum kit and never having the nerve to speak to him was as close to getting together a proper band as we ever got. Somehow, a very slow acoustic version of The Drunken Sailor, which was all the combination of the manual and my own sticky-fingered incompetence (a quality that continues to haunt my guitar playing to this day) was able to offer up never seemed to quite cut it in the ‘let’s stop coming up with names and song titles and actually do something’ stakes.

Of course, even music had not been the first of our joint passions. Unlike most of the friendships in the first year of secondary school, ours had not been formed at primary level. We’d been to different schools, but an exceptional commonality of interest and experience formed an early and tight bond.

It was Who initially – avidly watching and sharing our impressions of the precedingwho Saturday’s episode on a Monday morning. My scumbag 1970s comp did not possess a water cooler, but Welch and I shared plenty of those moments, swapping Target novelizations and our own ideas for brilliant sci-fi stories which were always unacknowledged but unabashed rip-offs of already existing brilliant sci-fi stories.

As the years went slowly by, our reviews became less breathlessly enthusiastic and more smugly sardonic and sneering. Each adolescent schoolboy kills the things he loves, and like a teenager inflicting some deliberate cruelty on an old, once much-loved teddy bear to prove how far from childhood he has grown (and all the time crying inwardly over Twee-Twee’s sorry fate), we moved steadily further and further away from the show.

In truth our early years had been spoilt; the UNIT family Pertwee era of 1970-74 followed by Tom Baker’s glorious first three years still represent the show’s golden age for me, and many of the later Tom Baker stories were indeed hard to love.  The show’s demographic shift away from dark, gothic-influenced teen-friendly stories towards more overtly comedic, pre-school devices like the cute robot dog K9 left us out in the cold – or perhaps the shift was more in ourselves than in the show. Whichever, the more determinedly bleak and pessimistic Blake’s 7 began to fill the grown up sci-fi shaped hole in our hearts, sharing as we did the almost universal  adolescent conviction that dark and gloomy is somehow intrinsically more ‘adult’ than positive and upbeat.

In its subject matter and some of its dialogue, as well as its doom-laden mood and atmosphere, The Wolf Man itself might seem to fulfil that requirement for gloom. Indeed some of Claude Rains’ Jekyll and Hyde style philosophising that the wolf is simply an expression of the dark side of the human personality, along with Larry’s more than a little dubious pre-werewolf way with the ladies, suggests to me that perhaps Larry Talbot might have been originally intended to be a rather darker character than the one who finally emerged on screen. Lon Chaney jr is probably the least highly rated of the great horror stars amongst fans of the genre, but I don’t accept the charge in some quarters that he was a bad actor. He wasn’t. In fact he was a very good actor, but within a comparatively limited range.

lon as everymanWhen called on to do dark and sinister – as in Son of Dracula say – he floundered. But he could do affable Everyman, and alongside it turmoil and torment, extraordinarily well, and this is what he gives to Lawrence Talbot. Rather than his performance suggesting a dark underside, which the character’s behaviour and some of the dialogue might easily have supported, he takes the opposite tack, and as a result his character’s descent into despair and monstrosity is rooted in compassion and generates enormous sympathy. I think Chaney’s very touching and effective performance, so ripe for empathy in its ordinariness, is a major part of the reason The Wolf Man resonated so strongly with me, and even more so with Mark Welch.

There’s an extraordinary level of dependence that forms in those adolescent relationships. As in so many things, it’s only in absence that that level of dependence becomes fully realised. On the odd occasions Welch was off sick the days stretched out like funeral bells, and I’d wander the school grounds miserably, on the assumption that it was better to present a moving target, glumly searching in vain for whatever dark corner seemed least obtrusive to hide away the endless lunch hours.

I remember the fear and desolation which ate away at me like the gnawing wolf within poor old Larry Talbot over the course of one long summer holiday when it seemed likely that a change in his dad’s job would mean Welch had to change schools and wouldn’t be back the following September. Even that year’s set of Saturday double bills only provided a temporary respite from the nagging unease – particularly since there was a hint of bottom barrel scraping about the 1979 offerings, which included lowlights like Night Monster and Black Friday. No mobiles, no texting or Facebooking back then. It wasn’t until that September morning when he walked in again that I knew the outcome, and there have been few occasions in my life when I’ve been more pleased and relieved to see anybody.

There was certainly nothing physical about the relationship, and I don’t think I’m in any kind of denial when I say that there was no undercurrent of repressed sexual feeling about it either, despite the sneering insult ‘you bears’ hurled like confetti at the happy couple about a hundred times a day. ‘Bear’ incidentally was a strange, and, given that I’ve never met anyone since who knows the phrase, probably school-specific piece of slang meaning ‘bender’ or ‘bum bandit’, themselves terms of endearment to which I was no stranger. Nonetheless, the intensity of the connection could hardly have been heightened if there had been. And yet…

Mark Welch was my best friend from some point in late 1976 to the end of June 1981. I can be that precise not because of any sudden death or other such dramatic incident, but because at the age of 16 I scraped enough O levels to get me into Sixth Form. Welch only got two, which didn’t do the same for him. He phoned me on results day and told me. That was the last time we ever spoke. We had no reason to after that. School had been the only context for us, and he wasn’t at school anymore. Without the context, there was no relationship.

It leads me to wonder about myself a little. I’ve never lived alone, and in my forties became what people still refer to as a ‘family man’, and yet in many ways I think I’m self-contained almost to the point of neurosis. I take real pleasure in my own company, and have always had the capacity to shrug off friendships like a snake shedding skin. Welch may have been the first, but he certainly wasn’t the last.

There was Paul, a childhood playmate with whom I spent the bulk of my Saturdays for more than a decade, while drifting further and further apart the whole time. I passed the 11+ and he didn’t, so Grammar school and Secondary Modern made for the first separation. I grew increasingly bookish and nerdish, and our mutual frames of reference receded as our teenage years rolled by. At sixteen he got a job at a carpentry business making doors, and although I continued to see him on the occasional Saturday, it was more out of habit than anything else. When I left for university I failed to get in touch when I came home for holidays and the friendship was over. I later heard he’d lost part of his hand in an accident at work, and feeling guilty, met up briefly over the space of an awkward couple of pints, but, duty done, I allowed the relationship to lapse, permanently this time.

At university there were long, desperately earnest and intense nights of conversation and bottled pretension which came to a similarly abrupt end. I think it’s normal, isn’t it, to form intense relationships through the crucible of flat sharing and wild living in your university years and then gradually lose touch as a decent period elapses? I managed to lose touch with my college friends while I was still sharing flats with them.

A little later as a trainee teacher I formed a tight-knit group of friends, and discovered for the first time as the earnest 80s gave way to the laddish 90s that I could make people laugh around a pub table and that to do so wasn’t necessarily reactionary and oppressive. As a result that year remains one of the most simple, fun, and uncomplicated periods of my life, and I still think very fondly of the people who shared it with me, but no more than a couple of years after it was over I couldn’t have given you addresses or phone numbers for any of them, which was entirely down to me.

Over the years since then there have been bandmates and song writing partnerships, drinking buddies and football fan friends, stag dos and weddings and births and dinner parties, but it makes me strangely comfortable to note that with the fortunate exception of my wife, my family and the odd work-based friendship, I’m not in touch with anyone I’ve known for longer than about five years. I’m not absolutely sure what the slight tingle of pleasure I get from shedding people, from moving on and avoiding intimacy or lasting entanglements, says about me, except that the anonymity that comes with being known only partially and fleetingly by anyone except those very closest to me feels right and true and secure.

An introvert and an obsessive. Like poor old Larry Talbot, I really am a lone wolf, in the end.

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Double Bill Three – The Mummy (1932)

THE MUMMY (1932)                  July 16th 1977                     22.50-00.00

‘He went for a little walk!’

Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher)

mummywolfmanlistingsMummies have never really done it for me. This isn’t a psychological revelation – no Norman Batesing intended. I’ve just done my Freudian bit in the section on Brides of Dracula anyway. No, it’s the lumbering bandage-shrouded variety that have always left me a little cold, dating right back to the faint disappointment this screening gave me for the couple of minutes between it ending and the start of The Wolf Man, which I immediately loved.

I’m not sure quite why this should be so. I’d shared some of the strange fascination with all things ancient Egyptian that had overtaken the nation in the early 70s following the brouhaha which accompanied the Tutankhamen exhibition in London, and become fixated with a Schools History type folder which my sister owned, all fold-outs and little envelopes full of reproductions of letters and documents about Carter, Caernarvon and King Tut. I’m still a sucker for those ‘book as artefact’ kind of publications and have more of them than I can afford littering my shelves. And the Tom Baker Doctor Who story The Pyramids of Mars which had been shown a year or so before had thrilled me to my core, with its barrel-chested robotic mummies and its Egyptian gods as von-Daniken style ancient aliens. A little later my Aurora plastic glow-in-the-dark mummy kit was loved just as much as the others, and when I came to read Bram Stoker’s mummy-themed ‘slightly less well-known than that other novel of his’ The Jewel of Seven Stars I adored its musty, oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere.

But the films themselves? Universal made a total of five mummy films, and Hammer managed four of their own, not to mention Stephen Somers’ more recent franchise combining the Universal character with some light-hearted Indiana Jones high jinx, and the best I could truthfully say about any of them is that I find them OK. Perhaps it’s because, after all the fuss about the resurrection itself, everything tends to be a bit downhill from there, the films’ stomp and strangle narrative strategies making them the original progenitors of the stalk and slash glut of Jasons and Freddies that ultimately so denuded the horror film in the 1980s.

And so my memories of this screening of the great grand Mummy of all that came after are rather less vivid than for many of the other films in this original run of summer double bills. I know I was bowled over by the opening five minutes, and if called upon – which I never was, oddly – could perfectly reproduce Bramwell Fletcher’s mad, giggling delivery of his ‘He went for a little walk’ response to Imhotep’s revival, but beyond that I can remember only a vague dissatisfaction. The fully made-up version of Karloff’s mummy was glimpsed for a matter of seconds and only in this one scene, and the dusty and de-bandaged Ardath Bey guise in which he spends the rest of the film seemed to me a much less impressive presence. The film moved at a drearily funereal pace, plodding stodgily through its narrative more slowly than a limping mummy, a charge often, and much less fairly, levelled at Browning’s Dracula, of which The Mummy is in fact virtually a disguised remake. All of which means that I have rather less to say about this one, given that it’s impression on me at the time was relatively low-key, and so I’m going to try a different approach at this point.

I’m screening the film now, as I write, and I’m going to record my impressions as I watch, re-assessing the disappointment of a twelve year old from my middle aged perspective. The completist in me insists I have the DVD in my collection, but it’s not a film I’ve returned to often since 1977 so I’m coming to it relatively fresh. Picture these words being scribbled into my bumper pad for boys as the film unfolds before me, and this section unfolding in real time, with all the tension of an episode of 24 – minus the explosions, chases, imprisonments, tortures, miracle recoveries, and with considerably less shouting  .

So, here we go. Before I even get the DVD out of its case there’s a strange, fluttering sparkle of excitement, even love. And make no mistake about it, I love these films. Not in the trivialising way we overuse that most sacred of words to describe our feelings for the banal and the mundane (‘I love chips’ or ‘I love TOWIE’). Equally not in the more fully integrated way I love my wife and kids of course. No, this is more like an adolescent crush, in all its joy and fervour and occasional shamefaced guilt. I get all warm and fuzzy as I slide the disc into the eager and welcoming openness of the DVD player, tingling with anticipation for the moment I will hear those bright and breezy brasses as the brave little plane circles the spinning black and white globe of the Universal logo, so full of hope and promise. And it’s on a Saturday night of course, just as it always was so many years ago when BBC2 screened its blissful summer seasons, expanding my mind and enhancing my life in the process.

Of course, to accept the essentially adolescent nature of the obsession like this is to invite an accusation of regressive infantilism. It’s a charge that’s hurled around a lot in newspaper think pieces by – usually right wing – commentators to account for everything from the apparently unforgivable crime of adults being prepared to be seen publicly reading the Harry Potter novels, to the shocking waste of license payers money on an overgrown children’s show like Doctor Who, to the great dumb guns and big bang rattle and hum of the summer blockbusters that are said to have been destroying ‘proper cinema’ ever since Star Wars reared its obscenely populist and profitable head.

So be it. Anyone who’s ever been an adolescent will know how intense and overwhelming first loves are. They’re not grown up, but they’re not trivial either. They matter. They shape us. And we never forget them. Of course, most people reading this paragraph will be thinking of a first girlfriend or boyfriend, while I’m thinking of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Still, I’m not so sure there’s a difference, in the end. And believe me, I’m all too aware of what that says about me.

The picture appears. There’s the globe and that little plane. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m so in love with that universal planelittle plane. I say ‘little’, though if the globe is to scale then the plane is roughly the size of South America. I adore those production company logos. RKO Radio with its giant mast bleeping out a call that King Kong is about to begin, 20th Century Fox with its searchlights and buttonholingly assertive brass jingle which, for me, is always announcing Star Wars. But of all of them, it’s the Universal one that thrills me most to this day, and most of all in this, it’s original and most primitive form (by the mid 30s the style was slicker and more assured, but though the globe remained, some of the poetry had gone). Something about that old plane, circling the whole slow spin of the whole wide world, is so suggestive of adventure and daring and danger that it is the perfect precursor to any horror film.

There was always a divide amongst lovers of these double bill seasons, which, in their archetypal form paired first a 30s Universal followed by a 60s Hammer or AIP, as to whether you preferred the black and white ones or the colour gory ones. I heard Mark Gatiss – a man I could listen to for hours on almost any subject, but most of all on his love for horror – describe in an interview somewhere how he always felt he was just sitting through the old film waiting for the real thing to come later, but in my heart I was a Universal man. I loved the Hammers, but I always felt they were essentially straightforward and prosaic, ‘rattling good yarns’ certainly, but not much more, while giffordthe ‘old ones’ had some of the timeless magic of myth or fairytale. I think a lot of that preference might be to do with the fact that I came to Dennis Gifford’s wonderfully warm, witty and nostalgic Pictorial History of Horror Movies, with its sniffy and shockingly unfair dismissal of Hammer as essentially a modern day Monogram (the poverty row studio that churned out cheapy creepers in the 40s with Rondo Hatton or a down on his luck, visibly ageing Lugosi), before turning to Alan Frank’s equally lovely Movie Treasury Horror Movies with its clear preference for the shock of the new. Impressionable and young, the theorist that gets at us first will often have a lasting influence. Thus my Pavlovian drool over the Universal logo with its brave little plane.

And then the film itself.  A few snatches of Swan Lake, again – the same haunting theme that introduced both Dracula and Frankenstein. I know it’s a confession only of my own ignorance and limitations, but classical music has never really engaged me. Opera and indeed all forms of classical ‘singing’ always sound weird and forced and histrionic to me, and although I can enjoy the odd ‘Popular Orchestral Classics’ kind of thing – anything where it’s got a recognisable tune – I don’t think I’m ever going to happen upon a piece of classical music that can stir my soul like Positively 4th Street, Waterloo Sunset, Baloo My Boy, This Ole Heart of Mine, Train in Vain, William it was Really Nothing, Up the Wolves  or (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes. Rather than the music of evening suits and opera glasses, I respond to the directness of music from the fields and the streets, the work of intelligent peasants rather than the work of the educated and the trained. Those intelligent peasants might be anonymous fifteenth century balladeers or Lennon and McCartney, but what they all have in common is being common, like me. Of course I know that this says much more about me than it does about the relative merits of classical and popular music, but these few moments of Swan Lake were among only a handful of encounters with ‘proper’ music which did anything other than alienate me.

On the back of its use in the early Universal films (for which it is absolutely perfect) I got hold of a recording of the ballet, and listened at first obsessively, then a bit more dutifully, and then finally found myself wearing out the one tiny section of the cassette which contained the Prelude used in the film titles themselves without bothering with the rest. Philistine to my very core, I’d argue that for me, orchestral music only belongs alongside the visual. I can adore soundtracks, but lack the discipline or the concentration or the subtlety of soul needed to love real music for and of itself. Perhaps that’s a part of why I find myself reflecting and meandering at such length on the subject of old horror double bills rather than Mozart or Michelangelo. Popular culture speaks to me in a profound and immediate way which high culture only rarely manages. Pleb to my very core, I take lowbrow to new heights.

The opening of The Mummy remains very impressive. There’s a sonorous beauty to the opening title – Oh!Amon-Ra – Oh! God of Gods—Death is but the doorway to new life —We live today-we shall live again—In many forms shall we return- Oh, mighty one.  The opening sequence in the tomb boasts some very atmospheric lighting, and a palpable sense of tension as Bramwell Fletcher yields to temptation and ignores the ubiquitous Edward Van Sloan’s stern warning not to touch that casket. The whole sequence seems paradigmatic of the horror film’s unfortunate tendency to wish to punish the crime of intellectual curiosity – witness Dr Frankenstein, who sought to create life ‘without reckoning on God’, or Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man who ‘meddled in things that man should leave alone’.

The cutaway close up of Karloff’s heavy-lidded eyesmummywakes fluttering open is among the greatest moments in all horror cinema – although it owes a lot to a similar moment with Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – and the long-nailed hand edging slowly into the corner of the frame, hovering above the life-restoring scroll for a moment before the unfortunate archaeologist becomes aware of it is no less impressive. And Bramwell Fletcher knocks it out of the park with his reaction. A short, but properly terrified male scream of shock, followed quickly by the genre’s greatest mad giggle, rivalled only by Dwight Frye’s similarly unsettling cackle as the crazed Renfield in Dracula. I’m afraid that a bit of experimenting has revealed I can’t do it anymore – though the attempt has, I believe, led to me getting a few odd looks from the neighbours.

Time passes, and we’re introduced to David Manners as our square-jawed hero. Manners is worthy of note as Universal’s preferred hero of the period, and it says something about the way a fan consumes a horror film that rather than the empathy or identification that the hero role typically requires of the audience, the actor has always generated a profound antipathy in me. He is an insipid and unpleasant Harker in Dracula; the apparently preferred audience response seeming to suggest that we should be in sympathy with Harker’s snootily xenophobic – and subjectively causeless – suspicion and assumption of superiority over Lugosi’s much more interesting and attractive ‘foreigner’. Manners is equally colourless and bland in essentially the same role in The Mummy and later in The Black Cat where his arrogant misreading of Lugosi’s entirely sympathetic Vitus Werdegast as ‘creepy’ and his willingness to shoot first and establish the situation later in the film’s denouement render his ‘hero’ utterly inadequate and ham-fisted. mannersSnobbish, dull, unimaginative and uninteresting was Manners’ stock in trade and the fan of these films is always engaged by the monster rather than the tedious hero, though to be fair to the actor, Universal’s take on the role of the hero is at fault here rather than his inoffensively competent performances. That said, I’ve never been quite certain whether the production teams skilfully and deliberately rendered their ‘goodies’ completely colourless so as to make the true stars of the show more vivid by contrast, or whether it was an accidental strategy forged from poorly underwritten characterisation at the script stage. Collusion or incompetence: either way, it remains galling to me that Manners was paid twice Lugosi’s salary for his role in Dracula.

Karloff reappears, and I’m reminded once more, if I needed reminding, of what an incomparably skilled physical actor he was. Bandages gone, his desiccated Ardath Bey moves as though only an effort of will keeps him from disintegrating into dust. Equally remarkable is Karloff’s first vocal performance of note – both Frankenstein and The Old Dark House which had preceded his work here rendering him mute bar the odd grunt and whimper – those sonorous, cadaverous, lisping tones almost as distinctive and imitable as Lugosi’s and forever immortalised for every Halloween loving child by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett’s charming impersonation on the novelty single ‘The Monster Mash.’ It’s an exceptional performance, once again.

I’m particularly struck, on re-viewing however, by a different, no less exceptional, performance: that of Zita Johann as the heroine, Helen Grosvenor, who is both the 1930s girl next door and the enigmatic reincarnation of Imhotep’s long dead love. Predominantly a stage actress who appeared in only a handful of films, Johann offers an extraordinary subtlety, inhabiting the traditional heroine role but endowing it with a rare degree of maturity and independence, while simultaneously able with the slightest shift of the body or drift in the eyes to suggest a yearning, timeless, mysterious soul out of time. She embodies both the ordinary and the exotic with equal conviction and grace. A multi-layered performance of great shade and complexity, it passed me by completely as a twelve year old but now would rank for me as among the very best of the period.

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Less dynamic than the drawing room confrontation of Lugosi and Van Sloan in Dracula there is a virtual re-staging of that iconic clash, with Van Sloan this time facing off against Karloff’s Ardath Bey in Lugosi’s stead. Despite Van Sloan being offered dialogue as juicy as his ‘If I could get my hands on you, I’d break your dried flesh to pieces’ the scene never escapes from the shadow of its more intense predecessor, although it is enriched by one extraordinary close up in which Karloff’s face seems almost to glow from within, an effect much more brilliantly achieved than Dracula’s pinpoints of light which were designed to sparkle in Lugosi’s eyes but tended to miss rather too often.

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Another point which strikes me now, to stir up the Boris versus Bela debate a little further, is the method Karloff chooses to convey his character’s sinister intensity as he looms over the water in his mystical chalice. Isn’t the gesture he adopts – a tautened hand, fingers rigid, clawing the air – a straight lift from Lugosi? Hindsight has long recorded the different fates of the two stars, Karloff’s versatility and range and shrewd professional choices contrasting with Lugosi’s car-crash of a career which led rapidly into bankruptcy, alcoholism and drug addiction, but of course at this very early point in each actor’s path that future was not yet written. At this point Karloff, like Chaney before him, was a specialist in ‘extraordinary characterisation’, but when it came to screen malice Lugosi was the supreme model, established not only by Dracula but by his stellar performances in Robert Florey’s visually remarkable Murders in the Rue Morgue, also in 1931, and perhaps most of all in the cheap but incomparably stylish and massively vlcsnap-2017-03-09-12h02m59s40profitable White Zombie. Doesn’t Karloff’s conscious or unconscious borrowing from his rival suggest a degree of uncertainty, an uncharacteristic lack of confidence, when, as here, stepping for the first time into more overtly ‘Lugosi territory’? Perhaps this was what Karloff had in mind when, interviewed in later years, he made his otherwise puzzling comment that Lugosi, or ‘poor Bela’ as he tended to refer to him, was ‘a great technician.’

There’s an accidental comedy for me in the way in which Manners’ hero springs to life in the immediate aftermath of his screen father’s horrible death. ‘Do you really think I have a chance with her?’ he cheerfully intones, the prospect of a quick bit of spooning with Zita Johann’s Helen sufficient to shift the clouds of grief for his noble father in an instant. Had David Manners been the Globe’s leading actor in 1605, Hamlet might have been a rather shorter play. It occurs to me in fact just how limited grief is in the world of popular film and television. An experience so desperately, overwhelmingly spirit-sapping in the real world that it can hollow all meaning out of existence is almost invariably shrugged off in a few minutes of screen time. The only notable exception of which I’m aware, and which in its absolute bleakness comes close to approaching the numbing awfulness of the actual experience is ‘The Body’, the brilliantly written and directed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer which follows the death of Buffy’s mother, the impact of which is allowed to continue to resonate throughout the rest of the show’s run.

As The Mummy draws to its impressively staged conclusion, Eros and Thanatos battling it out behind Zita Johann’s enigmatic eyes, I’m forced to admit that the film is wonderful; a much more complete, fully realised and memorable work than my twelve year old self was able to appreciate. It’s beautifully acted, sombre rather than sensational, and marvellously atmospheric, showing the benefit of all of director Karl ‘Papa’ Freund’s previous experience and talent as a cinematographer – a role he had fulfilled, let’s not forget, on Browning’s Dracula as well as on much better respected 1920s classics of German expressionism. Above all, perhaps, it’s an object lesson in subtlety and restraint, rather than in the rather clumsy stalk and strangle narratives I more typically associate with the mummy sub-genre.

All of which leads me to wonder why it is that tastes blur and shift so substantially as time passes. Back in 1977 I read The Mummy described as the most ‘poetic’ of the classics mummyposterin Carlos Clarens’ seminal study of the genre, and although I think I was probably more literate than the average twelve year old, at the time I simply didn’t understand what he meant. Somewhere else I think I remember hearing the children’s writer Michael Rosen talking about showing Oliver Postgate’s beautiful Bagpuss to a group of children and realising from their negative reactions that children don’t really respond to or understand the quality of melancholy. Perhaps that is the essential difference between the twelve year old me who found The Mummy a slow and turgid experience, and the fifty year old who finds it oddly moving.

There’s something in Karloff’s three thousand year devotion to a lost ideal that touches me now and passed me by then, some ache, or loss, or nostalgia that can only be felt by looking back rather than forward.

It’s an echo perhaps of the relationships among cast and crew which find their way somehow, subtly, onto the screen. Director Karl Freund was corpulent, middle-aged and unattractive; an autocratic, domineering presence on set and, according to Zita Johann’s account, rather brutal, and perhaps more than a little prurient, in his approach to his female star, demanding (in vain, as it happened) that she film the flashback scenes topless despite the obvious impossibility of getting such material past the censors. Like Hitchcock’s treatment of Tippi Hedren some thirty years later, one can’t help but feel the ageing director’s response to the youth and beauty of the actress to be the malice and anger of a frustrated toddler denied the toy it feels is its right – deplorable, but at least as likely to provoke pity as outrage.

I can’t help but see those emotions mirrored and heightened in the narrative of The Mummy. In the face of his own unspoken desire, and of the simultaneous longing and resentment the old and unattractive feel for the young and the beautiful, perhaps Freund was investing something of himself into the on-screen story of Karloff as Imhotep, a man yearning to recapture a long-lost, long-dead love and his inability to see the living, breathing Helen Grosvenor beneath the image of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon which he carries with him. It’s this desperate, helpless quest which drives the narrative, this baffled, even tragic sense of entitlement – this love was mine once, why should it not be so now? – which makes the story truly ‘poetic’, and melancholic. In the end it’s a wistful and bleak meditation on the cruelties of time and age.

We’ve all seen it in life in some variation or other, if not in ourselves then in others: a desperate, increasingly absurd and pathos-inspiring attempt to cling to past glories, to a sense of ourselves as we once were, of the things we missed out on or once saw as our right but which are so no longer.

I’ve known a man – I couldn’t call him a friend, but I’ve known him for more than twenty years – who for much of that time and before it found his pleasure and focus and sense of self in displaying his degree of talent and charisma in amateur theatrical productions. They afforded him the opportunity to socialise, and flirt, and perform and direct others and to have his pick of young women overawed by what they saw as his sophistication. To assume centre-stage, in other words, and let those younger and more naïve be won by his cleverness and charisma, and to bask with narcissistic abandon in the image of himself he saw reflected in their too easy to impress eyes.

During the course of those twenty something years, however, time has done its inevitable work. A good-looking older man has become simply an old man. The room in which he works is covered in old photographs of those productions, frozen images of past glories and, for those in the know, past conquests. The young girls in those pictures are now middle-aged mothers, and the young girls who have replaced them in his day to day life no longer give him a second glance. The room, and the man, have a strange, haunted quality, and in his eyes you see a bafflement that none of it works any longer. ‘How did I get here?’ they seem to ask. ‘Where did the real me go?’

The answer being, of course, that he went for a little walk, but unlike Imhotep, he isn’t coming back. There’s a hint of Hitchcock, and Freund, and Ardath Bey in those eyes. Uncomfortably, I would also have to concede there’s a hint of me too, with my greying hair and my guitars I never play anymore but cling onto anyway and my ‘look I used to be cool’ Rae-Bans.

Maybe, in the end, that’s the answer. At twelve, my dream selves could be the vampire count, aloof and brooding and dangerous, and the Monster, isolated and outcast and misunderstood, or the Wolf Man, battling his own inner turmoil. In my fifties, however, the inexpressible longing of a man out of time for a never to be recaptured past makes Imhotep a figure I finally understand.

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