Monster Double Bill 2

Double Bill Two – Saturday 15th July

22.40 – 23.55 The Fantastic Disappearing Man (United Artists, Landres, 1958)

00.00 – 01.15 The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (AIP, Corman, 1963)

Look at me… You can see me if you try. You can see me in your mind. I can free your soul… I can take you from the blackness into the light. Look at me … Can you see me now?

Count Dracula (Francis Lederer)

I’ve come to tell you what I see. There are great darknesses. Farther than time itself. And beyond the darkness… a light that glows, changes… and in the centre of the universe… the eye that sees us all.

Dr James Xavier (Ray Milland)

So a week had passed, as weeks are wont to do. I know, I know. It’s that kind of profound insight that elevates my horror-related ramblings to the level of High Philosophy. Eat your heart out Schopenhauer.

The second entry in the 1978 BBC2 season featured a pairing of films rather less well known and more rarely seen than anything I’d so far come across. Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends (the 1977 season of horror double bills – the first one I’d watched) consisted largely of all of the best-remembered Universal monster movies, coupling them with either 1960s Hammer Horror or one of the Corman Poe Pictures. The opening double bill of this, the 1978 season, had offered up Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Man Who Could Cheat Death, which were, relatively speaking, minor Universal and Hammer films, but recognisably Universal and Hammer nonetheless. The double bill of Saturday July the 15th, however, travelled for the first time into territory altogether more offbeat and obscure, since it consisted of an almost unknown 1958 United Artists vampire movie originally called Return of Dracula, but transmitted here under its alternative British title The Fantastic Disappearing Man, and The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, a Roger Corman AIP sci-fi film from the early 60s which neither starred Vincent Price nor pretended to have any connection to Edgar Allan Poe and is, therefore, much less well remembered than the Poe cycle.

One thing the two films have in common (beyond both having the word ‘Man’ in their titles) is a consciously, almost aggressively contemporary setting, which further heightened the slightly uneasy sense of this being unfamiliar terrain. Hammer’s films, just like the Poe Pictures, were almost defined by their period settings, and while the Universal cycle did typically give their monster movies a contemporary 1930s flavour this was prevented from ever becoming too overt by the timeless, fairy-tale quality of their middle European locations and by the fact that the 30s themselves had long receded into what seemed like the distant past for a child like me, lapping up the films for the first time in the late 1970s. The Fantastic Disappearing Man, however, brings Dracula to small-town 1950s America, an all too familiar apple-pie America of teenage sweethearts, high-school hops and costumed Halloween parties, with teams of vampire hunters squealing urgently up to the mausoleum gates in Fords and Buicks. The Man With the X-Ray Eyes is more modern still, and steeped in Americana, all gleaming hospital corridors, high rise blocks, basement tenement offices, carnivals, Vegas casinos and revivalist missions. Contemporary horror can sometimes have a more unsettling immediacy than the classic gothic – it was this, in part, that defined the really game-changing horror films of the next decade or so, films like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist – and, at least for the thirteen-year-old me watching them on a balmy summer night in 1978, that was certainly the case with this pairing. It also, perhaps, helps account for the fact that this particular double bill is burned rather more indelibly into my memory than many of those that followed. The tone of the double bills, over the course of this season, became less cosy and comfortable than the films I’d encountered a year before, and it was this specific Saturday – the especially challenging Man With the X-Ray Eyes in particular – which first pointed in that direction.

To take The Fantastic Disappearing Man first. For the sake of clarity, I’ll continue to use the British title here since that is how it was billed and broadcast in 1978, even though I usually tend to think of it as The Return of Dracula – the title on my DVD copy of the film. The alternative titles tell you a lot I think, both about the differences between the British and American markets and the specific context into which the film was unleashed. You see, given that to the best of my knowledge The Fantastic Disappearing Man was the first time since the Universal films that an American studio had Returned to Dracula (see what I did there?); given that its daringly contemporary setting offers quite an innovative approach to the subject, and most of all given that, at least for me, it’s actually a very good film, its relative obscurity is a little surprising, and is largely down to the context of its release. And that context can be summed up in a single word: Hammer. Rarely can the fate of one film – this one – have been so entirely wrapped up with the overwhelming power and success of another film – Hammer’s majestic 1958 Dracula (or Horror of Dracula in America) – despite the films being made completely independently of one another. The Fantastic Disappearing Man was shot in October 1957, while Hammer’s Dracula began production in November of that year, and wrapped in January 1958. When it came to release, however, Hammer were a little quicker out of the blocks, with Dracula opening from May to June 1958 in both the USA and the UK, while The Fantastic Disappearing Man was released, on a smaller scale and to much less fanfare, at about the same time in the US (under the title The Return of Dracula, perhaps hoping to cash in on some of the success of Hammer’s smash hit) but didn’t reach the United Kingdom until November, by which time it had become The Fantastic Disappearing Man, possibly in an effort to avoid comparison altogether. And while if you were only judging from a synopsis the United Artists film (with a modern American setting, a vampire count who has moved with the times in order to be able to hide in plain sight – a rather stylish 50s overcoat doubling for the iconic cape – and a bobby soxer heroine) might seem more innovative, in fact what Hammer did with an apparently more traditional Victorian Dracula is so genuinely radical and startling that The Fantastic Disappearing Man was almost entirely eclipsed and overshadowed.

The American film, despite its seeming novelty, in fact takes a largely conventional approach – it’s not, in its essentials, far away from something like 1943s Son of Dracula, with Dracula as the subversive alien outsider disrupting and undermining the modern world (itself almost exactly the strategy Stoker uses in the original novel when he moves his vampire count from old-world Transylvania to a modern England of railway timetables, phonographs and typewriters), and there is really very little in its narrative which couldn’t work equally well in a nineteenth century setting. The modern world is there, but it’s not really integral to the film. Although it makes for quite an interesting effect, in the end it’s simply window dressing. A similar kind of uncertainty afflicts something like Hammer’s later Dracula A.D. 1972 where Swinging London seems to exist only for the film’s slightly outdated groovy ‘teenage’ cast while Christopher Lee’s resurrected vampire remains restricted entirely to the gothic surroundings of a de-sanctified church and doesn’t really interact with the modern world at all. What Hammer’s 1958 Dracula does, however, is bring a thoroughly modern sensibility to bear on a nineteenth century setting. Lee’s potent, dynamic, intensely physical Dracula is not the old world coming to take revenge on a complacent modernity, but a lithe, urbane, virile and ‘modern’ man himself, and what’s true of Hammer’s conception of the vampire count is also true of the film as a whole. Colour; pace; urgency; swashbuckling action; lurid Kensington gore liberally applied, and, perhaps most significant of all, full-blooded (geddit?) sexuality – it’s the Victorian world for the rock and roll generation, with the result that, made and released almost simultaneously, The Fantastic Disappearing Man appears by contrast almost quaintly old-fashioned in many respects.

There’s no disgrace in that, of course. Hammer’s Dracula is breathtaking; electrifying; one of the greatest and most important horror films ever made, and if you have to be overshadowed, well, it’s better to be overshadowed by one of the very best. It’d be a lot worse to be overshadowed by The Mole People, say. Even so, I think it’s something of a shame, because, viewed on its own terms The Fantastic Disappearing Man is an interesting and highly effective film with a lot to recommend it.

First and foremost, there’s Francis Lederer’s performance as Dracula. When it comes to responding to actors in the role, there’s always a lot of subjectivity at play. Ever since the publication of the novel in 1897, Dracula has been a shapeshifter, a chameleon, capable of an almost infinite variety of iterations and reinterpretations, almost all of them valid to one degree or another. Dracula is a kind of empty vessel for each succeeding generation to pour their anxieties and dark desires into. If I happen to like the stately, odd, rather otherwordly quality of Lugosi even more than the animalistic power of Lee, well, that’s just me. It doesn’t make the Lugosi version right and Lee’s wrong. They’re both wonderful. I very much like Louis Jourdan in Count Dracula, the 1977 BBC TV adaptation (my favourite screen version of the story), but don’t much care for either Denholm Elliot’s Dracula in the 1960s ITV anthology series Mystery and Imagination, Jack Palance’s 1974 take for American television, or Marc Warren’s in the 2006 BBC Christmas production. Yet Elliot, Palance and Warren are all wonderful actors, and I don’t think I could say with any degree of fairness that any of them are simply wrong in the part. It’s just that, for my tastes, none of those very fine actors are particularly well-served by their productions, though there are some interesting things in all of them. In the 1940s, John Carradine was perhaps even more poorly served by the paucity of material given him in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, and yet I like the actor’s Dracula very much. Complete miscasting is actually very rare. To the best of my knowledge (bearing in mind that, worldwide, there will always be many more screen Draculas I haven’t seen than ones I have) it’s a list of just one in fact: Lon Chaney Junior in Son of Dracula, an actor who is absolutely terrific elsewhere. But although miscasting is generally not an issue, for my part I tend not to like the versions of the character which lean most strongly towards the ‘Dracula as Byronic romantic hero’ trope – in particular Frank Langella in the 1978 John Badham film (a marvellous film in many ways, but one which I find crucially flawed by its conception of a Dracula who is entirely a swoon-inducing creature of smoulder and charm) and Gary Oldman in the later stages of Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula; all doomed love and doe-eyed yearning for Winona Ryder’s Mina. But again, Langella and Oldman are brilliant actors, and in their own way both are brilliant Draculas. Just not my Dracula. If Dracula Untold is largely a failure – and I think it is – it’s not the fault of Luke Evans’ very effective performance. And while the recent Moffatt/Gatiss Dracula was a mixed bag of things I absolutely adored and things that just didn’t work for me – at least not as seamlessly as the same duo’s magnificent Sherlock – the performance of Claes Bang in the title role was definitely one of the things I loved.

All of which is a lengthy way of pointing out that when I say Francis Lederer’s performance as Dracula is among my favourites, it’s an opinion that, on the one hand, is a reasonably informed one – in the sense that, like Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet and the Doctor, there are plenty of versions to choose from and I’ve seen more than my fair share – but on the other, it is just an opinion. And if your top three will always be Langella, Oldman and Max Schrek, that’s perfectly reasonable and I wouldn’t presume to try to change your mind. Though if you were seriously trying to make the case for John Forbes-Robertson in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires we might have to have words.

Lederer’s Dracula is an interesting composite. On the one hand, he is imbued with a fair degree of quite convincing old world charm, and he is believably able to ingratiate himself into the American family who serve as his hosts, taking him to be their cousin, a painter named Bellac Gordal who (fortunately for Dracula’s cunning plan) none of them have seen in many years. With his plain black suit and tie, his dark overcoat and his understated accent (Prague-born, Lederer’s accent, though evident, is much less marked than Lugosi’s) he is quite capable of assuming an identity that enables him to be fully accepted as a genuine, if slightly eccentric and anti-social, visitor. This is a Dracula, like Lee’s, who seems fully human, real, and corporeal. Unlike Lee however, Lederer’s vampire also retains many of the more mystical elements drawn from Stoker’s novel which Hammer were determined to strip away – in his first appearance at the American train station he literally manifests out of thin air. He also projects an effective, icy menace, by contrast to Lee’s animalistic sensuality, and an underlying seething disgust for the forces of ‘normality’ which he is infiltrating.

In this regard, Lederer’s performance reminds me of another, even more accomplished one; that of Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Indeed, in some ways it is easy to see The Fantastic Disappearing Man as a – slightly more obvious and literal – reworking of Hitchcock’s classic. Both films centre around a visit to a small, cosy American town by a long lost relative who is not what they seem – Lederer’s vampire count is a literal imposter where Cotten actually is a relative, but beneath the initial family bonhomie Uncle Charlie is a homicidally misanthropic serial killer. In both cases the mysterious stranger exerts an exotic fascination for, and shares an unexplained, almost supernatural connection with, the teenage daughter within each family: Norma Eberhardt’s Rachel Mayberry in The Fantastic Disappearing Man and Teresa Wright’s Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. In both films it is the teenage protagonist who ultimately brings to light the villain’s true nature and destroys him. And, as has been observed by, among others, David Sterrit in his 1993 book The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Richard Allen in his Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony, Hitchcock’s portrayal of Uncle Charlie draws quite consciously, if implicitly, on vampire iconography.

The opening shot of Cotten’s Uncle Charlie shows him lying completely immobile on his bed, fully dressed in a dark suit and tie. It emphasises the darkness of his room, particularly as it follows a series of shots establishing a bright, comforting setting with neighbourhood children throwing a ball in the sun. Uncle Charlie is introduced to us through his unnerving stillness, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (Anthony Hopkins’ described his childhood memory of Lugosi’s Dracula as an influence on his own performance). Cotten’s stiff, unmoving pose brings to mind the vampire in his coffin by day. A few moments later, pursued through the streets by two mysterious men, Hitchcock mischievously chooses not to show us the means by which Uncle Charlie escapes to a rooftop, further adding to the sense of him as an almost supernatural creature. For Hitchcock, of course, the vampire references are no more than a handy visual shorthand to indicate Cotten’s inner darkness, a darkness which preys upon the complacency of the picture postcard perfection of American small town life. In The Fantastic Disappearing Man, as you would expect in an actual vampire movie, that iconography is deployed more directly but often to a startlingly similar degree and purpose. There are shots of Lederer in his room which closely echo Hitchcock’s opening sequence, the difference being that we are also shown Lederer in a couple of later sequences as literally, rather than purely metaphorically, a vampire in his coffin.

Subtle and sophisticated, in the end Shadow of a Doubt is a genuine masterpiece, one of Hitchcock’s most powerful, playful and profound meditations on the nature of evil, while The Fantastic Disappearing Man has no pretension to being any more than an efficient little chiller, but its use of the framework of the earlier film (which I think is certainly a conscious borrowing) helps lend it a greater point and potency than most quickie 50s drive-in horror. Within its limited ambitions, the film feels very achieved; it has shape and structure and some convincingly drawn characterisation.

It also uses location shooting very effectively. Spared the expense of having to create a Transylvanian or a period setting, the use of the Hollywood hills is imaginative and, at times, genuinely eerie. The abandoned mine workings which Dracula occupies in lieu of a crypt are highly atmospheric and the barren, dusty landscapes offer a genuinely novel mood for the vampire story, as does the use of a contemporary, neat and well-tended graveyard. The frequent exteriors give the film a grounded, realistic tone that hints at the genuine edginess Romero would achieve in not dissimilar surroundings ten years later in Night of the Living Dead. The only evident drawback is a degree of narrative inconsistency which the use of day for night shooting entails. With emphatic traditionalism, the narrative makes clear that Dracula must remain in his coffin by day and can only emerge at night. However, when he rises from his coffin – in a simple but effective dry ice sequence – and exits the mine he is casting a very visible shadow.

Perhaps paradoxically, the film is in many ways a relatively faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel, following a number of the original plot points and characterisations beat for beat. Once Dracula arrives in the New World, we have the blind, ailing Jennie (Virginia Vincent) fulfilling the Lucy Westenra role as the count’s initial victim who rises from the grave as a vampire before being resoundingly staked by our surrogate Van Helsing, a representative of the ‘European Police Authority’ played by John Wengraf and his Dr Seward stand-in, the Reverend Whitfield (Gage Clarke) in a moment which, quite startlingly, switches into colour for a single shot, as though we were suddenly watching a Hammer movie after all. Norma Eberhardt gives a very effective and engaging performance as Jennie’s friend Rachel Mayberry, or, in effect, Mina, to whom Dracula now turns his full attention, and her altogether irritating high school sweetheart Tim, played by Ray Stricklyn, is essentially a teenage Jonathan Harker. There are also some often overlooked elements of the novel which are included here. For instance, Stoker’s Dracula adopts the form of a large white dog – probably a wolf misidentified by local witnesses – when the Demeter is first washed up on the Whitby coast; a form which in this film he uses at a deserted train station to attack and kill one of the mysterious vampire-hunting agents who are on his trail. Stoker’s vampires are able to dissolve and materialise at will, sometimes as mist, and the film dutifully shows us just this when Jennie rises from her grave to find Dracula waiting for her in the mausoleum. Perhaps most closely of all to the tone of the source material, the scenes of vampiric predation are presented with a dream-like, ambiguous quality. In Stoker, Harker’s account of his encounter with the three vampire brides in Dracula’s castle, and both Lucy and Mina’s recounting of their encounters with Dracula emphasise a kind of hypnotic, half sleeping half wakeful state which is exactly duplicated in The Fantastic Disappearing Man, so effectively in fact that I’m still not certain whether the scene where Lederer’s Dracula preys on Rachel in her bedroom is intended as dream or reality in the world of the film.

All in all, The Fantastic Disappearing Man hangs together remarkably well. It may be a little unambitious, but it’s an efficient and very effective film, well-directed and well-played by its leading actors, with some highly charged and atmospheric moments and is altogether a very enjoyable watch. If it had only had the luck to be released a couple of years earlier, it might have had a greater impact than it did and today might be a more fondly remembered film than it is.

As for thirteen-year-old me watching way back in 1978, well, I certainly enjoyed the film, but at the same time it left me a little uneasy. You see, by then I knew what a vampire movie was, and it meant Universal. Or it meant Hammer. Or imitators thereof. It meant Lugosi or Lee, or Louis Jourdan or Carradine, or even, at a push, Lon Chaney Jr. It meant Gothic castles. It meant wolves howling and bats fluttering. It meant capes, dammit! As far as I was concerned back then, I was an expert! Horror movies? Vampires? This was my thing. I’d read Dennis Gifford a hundred times, and Alan Frank and Carlos Clarens just as often. And yet The Fantastic Disappearing Man was something of an unknown quantity. If it had even been mentioned in any of those books then it had been granted no more than a passing reference. And it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like cosy old Universal, or thrillingly transgressive but ultimately cosy Hammer, or even the earnest and sincere ‘let’s be faithful to the novel’ BBC version. Good though it was, The Fantastic Disappearing Man didn’t feel like any of them. There was nothing especially disturbing or unsettling about the film itself – it was hardly Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which was to scare seven shades of shite out of me in its first television showing just over a year later in December 1979. Even so, the vague element of uncertainty that came with my experience of watching The Fantastic Disappearing Man , that sense that I just wasn’t on the familiar ground that I had thought I was and that the world of the horror film was maybe bigger and odder than my ‘expert’ self had yet quite got fully to grips with made for slightly less comfortable viewing than usual.

Not nearly as uncomfortable as what was about to come, however.

The Man With the X-Ray Eyes landed very powerfully for me back then, again not so much because there is anything particularly disturbing on the surface of the film – even though it begins and ends on a visceral note of shock, the opening credits playing over a gleeful close up of a single eye floating in an experimental beaker and the final shot of the film being a freeze frame of Ray Milland’s anguished face, bright red sockets where the eyes he has just torn out should be – but because the film’s peculiarly queasy, philosophical tone felt even further from my usual experience of a horror movie than The Fantastic Disappearing Man.

So now I’m going to make a bold claim. Roger Corman is horror cinema’s greatest auteur. Howl your outrage if you wish. Remind me that he’s the king of the cheap exploitation picture, that he famously shot the entirety of his film The Terror in two days using sets left standing at the end of the schedule for The Raven. Check with me, with just a touch of supercilious condescension, whether we can really be talking about the director of Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Little Shop of Horrors (also shot on a two-day schedule) and A Bucket of Blood? Yes, I’ll reply slyly, that’s the chap, the same Roger Corman who, between 1960 and 1964 directed no fewer than nine of the best horror films ever made. By all means cancel me for my thoughtcrime (cancelling is really only a threat to someone who actually has a career anyway). But just before you go, pause a minute to think about the likely alternatives.

James Whale? Well, Bride of Frankenstein is certainly a finer film than anything in Corman’s horror ouevre. Arguably, so is the original Frankenstein. But Whale only has two other horror credits to his name, and both The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House are wonderfully entertaining but essentially slight films. Corman’s The Raven and Tales of Terror are similarly slight and similarly enjoyable, but beyond them Corman has a much more substantial body of work within the genre than Whale. The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Haunted Palace (the first, and for me still the best, cinematic adaptation of Lovecraft), The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia. If none of those quite touch the heights of Whale’s two masterpieces, well, they’re not far off, and there’s seven of them!

Okay then. Not Whale. But if it’s a combination of quality and quantity you want, then surely Terence Fisher is your man. He directed nearly all of Hammer’s Frankenstein films, and all of the good ones. In Dracula, Brides of Dracula, and Dracula Prince of Darkness he directed three of the best vampire films ever made. Throw in The Mummy, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Devil Rides Out and you can see an extraordinary ability to sustain the very highest quality across a substantial body of horror work. And that’s before you even throw in the lesser Fishers, the ‘not quite as good but still pretty damn good judged by any normal standards’ films such as The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Phantom of the Opera and The Gorgon. And I won’t argue. It’s an exceptional run of wonderful films, wonderfully directed. Fisher may well have a case to make as horror’s greatest director. But my claim for Corman was not as the greatest horror director, but as its greatest auteur. And I’m not sure Fisher’s level of control over those wonderful films is sufficient to really grant him that status. The mark of Fisher’s work is an exceptionally skilled craftsmanship, an absolute professionalism. But ‘Hammer’ is the ultimate signature on those films – none of them could ever really be billed as ‘A Terence Fisher film.’ Fisher’s films tell a story, powerfully and beautifully, and there’s no reason to feel they should be doing any more than that, but I’ve never really felt they are expressing a personal vision. There are other very good Hammer films – Quatermass and the Pit say, directed by Roy Ward Baker, or The Plague of the Zombies, directed by John Gilling – that I would certainly believe had been made by Fisher if you told me so (if I didn’t already know better which I do so there!), and by the same token, if you told me Gilling or Baker had directed Brides of Dracula or Curse of the Werewolf or Hound of the Baskervilles I’d see no reason to doubt it. Corman, however, is instantly identifiable – a few frames of any of his horror movies would usually be enough to recognise his style. And ‘An AIP film’ doesn’t really mean anything in the way that ‘A Hammer Film’ does. The signature on the Poe pictures (and their close relatives, like The Man with the X Ray Eyes) is emphatically Corman’s. If you’re in any doubt, just take a look at the couple of films AIP tried to pass off as Poe pictures after Corman had finally, irrevocably left the series. Despite the presence of Vincent Price, and despite using titles like The Conqueror Worm (the American title of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General) or The Oblong Box which are drawn from Poe in an effort to suggest a continuity with the earlier entries, the later films never feel remotely like Corman’s movies. There are other major contributors to Fisher’s Hammer movies; Jimmy Sangster’s writing; Bernard Robinson’s designs; Lee and Cushing among others. The same is true for Corman; often Richard Matheson’s scripts; Daniel Haller’s designs; Price, of course. But they’re utterly Corman’s films, and I’m not sure the same can be said for Fisher.

So I maintain, Corman is the horror genre’s greatest auteur, in large part because of his ambition. Always a commercial filmmaker whose proudest boast is that none of his films ever lost money, paradoxically Corman is also an aesthete and a theorist with a passionate interest in the artistic possibilities of film and at least one foot in the art house, something just as true of the kinds of European films he chose to distribute as it is of the films he directed himself. For all their skill and professionalism, no-one ever came out of a Fisher movie looking at the world differently, or feeling that they’ve grappled with the existential and philosophical depths for a couple of hours in the darkness of the cinema. That’s for a Bergman, or a Fellini.

Or a Corman.

Films like The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, The Premature Burial, The Masque of the Red Death seem to me to express a single, consistent, bleak and profoundly pessimistic vision, a personal vision and style as idiosyncratic and immediately recognisable as any more critically respectable cinematic auteur – Godard, or Truffaut or Bunuel say. The difference being of course that Corman is a genre filmmaker and they are not. For me though, that’s beside the point. Using genre to say something powerful and profound is in some ways an even more impressive trick.

OK, so it’s depth and consistency of vision you want then, you say? What about Hitchcock?

Well, unarguably, Hitchcock has a body of work which surpasses – well, anyone’s, actually. But I’ve never felt you could really consider Hitchcock a horror director. Psycho, certainly, and The Birds arguably, but other than those two I don’t feel ‘horror movie’ is an appropriate term to describe any of his films. Of course the Master of Suspense knew how to manipulate and scare an audience, but he’s not really working within the horror genre in any meaningful sense. And while you could certainly make a decent case for the best of the new wave horror directors – for me that’s John Carpenter and George Romero, both of whom made a number of wonderful horror films – when it comes right down to it I just think Corman made even better ones.

So, I repeat, Roger Corman is horror cinema’s greatest auteur, and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is as good a film as any to justify the claim, even though it is atypical in a couple of key ways – firstly, like The Premature Burial, it has Ray Milland rather than Vincent Price as the lead, and secondly it is a sci-fi/horror hybrid with no connection at all, not even a spurious one, to Poe.

Milland is Dr James Xavier – no relation to the boss of the X-Men – an experimental researcher who is investigating ways of expanding the range of human vision. The ‘Xavier’ is presumably coined in order to tie in with the ‘X’ of ‘X-Ray Eyes’ – in fact a large ‘X’ filling the frame is the only on-screen title which appears in the film, The Man With the X-Ray Eyes being reserved for posters and trailers and press kits. As a result, for years my younger self laboured under the misapprehension that Corman was trying an exploitative trick drawn straight from the Hammer playbook (as in The Quatermass Xperiment and X the Unknown) to draw attention to the film’s tantalising ‘forbidden fruit’ X certificate status, before eventually realising that an American audience would have had no idea what an X certificate was.

After some initially promising, ultimately very ominous, results obtained by testing his serum on an unfortunate monkey which develops the ability to see through solid objects but dies, apparently of shock (‘What did he see?‘ asks Xavier’s colleague Dr. Diane Fairfax, very well played by Diana Van der Vlis), Xavier inevitably succumbs to the temptation to become his own experimental subject, like Jack Griffin and a hundred others before him. And the first half-hour or so of the film unfolds relatively straightforwardly; experimental success; funding pulled by narrow-minded executives; Xavier’s abilities enabling him to save the life of a young patient but bringing him into conflict with the medical establishment in the form of the senior surgeon he contradicts; increasing dependence on the drug in an effort to more reliably control the effects; and, of course, given a title designed to cash in on the fantasies of a generation of comic-book reading adolescents intrigued by the erotic possibilities presented by the X-Ray Specs adverts in the back pages, there is a light-hearted party scene in which Xavier enjoys his new-found capacity to see through clothing, all framed in an almost comically tasteful early 60s ‘shoulders up and knees down but nothing in between’ series of shots. It’s all very effective, and very well played, particularly by the trio of Milland, Van der Vlis and Harold J Stone as Dr. Sam Brant (the Frankenstein trope of the more cautious friend and colleague trying vainly to rein in the wild genius), but nothing in the first section really departs from relatively conventional, realist norms.

The turning point comes at the end of the first act, when Xavier accidentally pushes Brant out of a high window during an argument, and, having killed his friend, becomes a fugitive. There’s then a time jump, and we next encounter Xavier as ‘Mr Mentalo’ doing a mind-reading act in a carnival sideshow. From the first visual – a robed Milland blindfolded by a scarf bearing a striking single eye design – we are in a very different world, with a very different tone, from the crisp white corridors of the hospital and the laboratory. Corman has moved us beyond science and into the metaphysical.

Even the most immediately evident flaw in the carnival scenes – the slightly jarring use of stock footage for the fairground exteriors – actually lends a further layer of unreality which doubles down on the hallucinatory, visionary quality of Xavier’s continuing odyssey. He is now a man alone, separated from humanity by his vision. Religious allegory begins to accrue, neatly foreshadowing the film’s devastating conclusion in a revivalist tent. The most telling dialogue in the opening section of the film came when Brant tells Xavier that only the gods see everything, and Xavier replies with Promethean pride ‘I’m closing in on the gods.’ Now he has tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and is exiled as a result of his ability to see what the rest of mankind cannot. More, he has killed, and like Cain, is doomed to a life of purgatorial wandering.

The unsettling, existential tone of the middle act reaches a strange and wonderful conclusion in a scene where a number of the other carnies, along with Xavier himself, discuss his abilities, and what, if they are real, they might mean. It’s a fascinating intermission – pausing the action to reflect on it – and it reminds me of nothing more than the ‘end of days’ cafe discussion in The Birds. In both cases I think, it’s a scene which shows the filmmaker straining against the bounds of their own reputation. The Hitchcock of The Birds, flattered by the praise and critical respectability recently bestowed on him by the Cahiers du Cinema young bloods like Truffaut and Chabrol, is determined to offer them a film which feels like a European arthouse movie, finally demonstrating that he is more than just a great entertainer, while Corman, the King of the Bs, has an arthouse sensibility which sees him restlessly pushing the limits of what he can achieve – exploitation becomes Art in his hands.

There’s a sense in which Milland’s Xavier is not only seeing through solid objects; he is seeing a different America than the one he has known before, an America of poverty, of stunted dreams and quiet despair. There’s kindness and hope and intelligence here, but there’s also greed and narrow-minded, self serving malice, embodied specifically in the very effective performance of the comedian Don Rickles as the carnival barker who becomes a manager to Xavier, seeing greater potential financial reward coming from establishing him as a kind of healer rather than a sideshow performer. The sense of despair only grows stronger as Xavier encounters an American underbelly of sickness and misery – patients unable to access real health care turning to him as a miracle worker. As he realises however, confronted with a dying and frightened old woman, he may have the ability to see her cancer, but not to cure it, and he can offer her no more than a comforting lie.

It is here that Diana Fairfax finds him once more and the film begins to move towards its final act. After an abortive attempt to use his powers in a Las Vegas casino to get hold of the money he needs to continue his research and, hopefully, ameliorate the increasingly unbearable consequences of his ability to see, Xavier finds himself on the run from the police. Crashing his car, he stumbles blindly – or perhaps more accurately, he stumbles too-sightedly – through a desert wasteland until he comes upon an evangelical revivalist meeting; the faithful fervently accepting the word of the granite-faced fire and brimstone minister. Like an old testament prophet, Xavier tries to explain his vision, a vision so acute now that it passeth all human understanding. He stumbles in anguish towards the preacher. ‘I’ve come to tell you what I see. There are great darknesses. Farther than time itself. And beyond the darkness… a light that glows, changes… and in the centre of the universe… the eye that sees us all.’ But the faithful reject his insight, and the preacher falls back on a literal interpretation of scripture. ‘If thine eye doth offend thee,’ he demands, ‘pluck it out.’ Seeing no other way out of his agony, Xavier does just that, and we end with a startling freeze frame of Milland’s Oedipal fate. Stephen King described his memory of seeing the film, which he remembered, wrongly, as ending with Milland’s anguished voice crying out ‘I can still see!’ Hearing of this, as Corman put it ‘Stephen King imagined an ending to my film. And his ending was better than mine.’

Corman is also on record as saying that this is the only one of his films which, given the money and the opportunity, he would be interested in remaking, because of the possibilities raised by the exponential developments in visual effects since the early 60s. For myself though, I’m not so sure. The psychedelic effects in the film work perfectly well in showing that Xavier is seeing the world differently – they don’t make the mistake of trying to literally depict a world beyond the reach of human vision. Instead the film conveys Xavier’s shift in perception through some truly extraordinary dialogue, delivered beautifully by Ray Milland – who, incidentally, is absolutely terrific here, just as he was in Corman’s The Premature Burial, never for a moment giving a hint of condescension towards material which many another former Oscar winner might have regarded as beneath them – ‘The city… as if it were unborn. Rising into the sky with fingers of metal, limbs without flesh, girders without stone. Signs hanging without support. Wires dipping and swaying without poles. A city unborn. Flesh dissolved in an acid of light. A city of the dead.’ The fact that we can’t see what Xavier actually sees is surely a part of the point, a part of his doomed isolation and an underscoring of the idea that we are not meant to see too much. As Shirley Jackson has it in that wonderful opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House ‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.’ And this is what the film explores; it’s not just a literal expansion of Xavier’s eyesight, it’s a heightened insight into the nature of reality which he discovers, and which destroys him. Corman always showed an interest in the hallucinatory, in altered states. Just look at the wonderful dream sequences he inserts into all of the Poe films. And although The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, released in 1963, comes a little before the psychedelic revolution got into full swing three or four years later, Timothy Leary was already making waves as a Harvard professor researching and advocating the use of LSD, and it’s certainly possible to see the film as a rehearsal for Corman’s full blown drug film, 1967’s The Trip, written by Jack Nicholson and starring Peter Fonda. Xavier’s ‘serum’ opens the doors of perception and allows him to see ever more deeply into the nature of things. But the revelations and the visions that lie beneath the everyday crust of reality are increasingly terrifying and increasingly impossible to bear.

This, in the end, is why The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, which is essentially a sci-fi movie, can sit perfectly happily within a season of horror double bills. Although there is nothing overtly frightening on the surface of the film, it makes for deeply uncomfortable and unsettling viewing. It was a new kind of horror for me at the age of thirteen, even more profoundly new than the earlier Fantastic Disappearing Man, because at that age I knew nothing about Weird Tales; about Lovecraft; about Cosmic Horror. I knew the gothic, from Stoker, and from Universal and Hammer, and the idea of forbidden and dangerous knowledge was familiar from Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but this peculiarly unsettling sense of the unknowable and the incomprehensible, this sense that the terror of the story derived not from the monstrous or the evil but from a revelation of the truth of humanity’s hopeless position in the universe, from an awestruck vision of the face of an ancient God was not something I had encountered before. And when, many years later, I finally discovered Lovecraft, the cosmic dread I found there reminded me of nothing more than watching, both enraptured and profoundly uncomfortable, as Corman’s The Man With the X-Ray Eyes unfolded in the early hours of Sunday the 16th of July 1978.

For me at least, horror was never going to be quite the same.

Particularly since the following week’s double bill, as promised in the inappropriately soothing tones of the closedown continuity announcer, offered not only the birth of Hammer, at least as we know it, in The Quatermass Xperiment, but a first encounter with the New Wave: George A. Romero’s The Crazies.

Monster Double Bill – 1978

Double Bill One – Saturday 8th July

22.55 – 23.55 Murders in the Rue Morgue (Universal, Florey, 1932)

23.55 – 01.25 The Man Who Could Cheat Death (Hammer, Fisher, 1959)

But tiny children in grown-up clothes

Whisper all the crimes of Paris

Elvis Costello, The Crimes of Paris

You may think you know excitement. For all I know, you may be a bungee-jumping, thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie. You may remember something of what it was like to be a child at Christmas and think you know excitement. You may remember that time when against all possible odds it looked like you were going to get off with Sally Matthews in the Fourth form (obviously you may need to mentally substitute a more personally relevant name of whatever gender into this sentence in order to recall the kind of fever pitch delirium we’re discussing) and think you know excitement. The time you actually did manage to get off with insert relevant name here (almost inevitably several years after your almost close encounter with whoever your own Sally Matthews stand-in might be). The prospect of an unexpected or, whisper it quietly, an undeserved promotion at work. The plane touching down at the start of a holiday somewhere you’ve longed to see for half a lifetime. The morning before your team plays in the cup final. The birth of a child. By all means think back and enjoy the faint nostalgic glow of all those moments which make you feel you know what it is to be genuinely excited. But then pause, dear reader, to accept that you do not, cannot, know the true meaning of excitement at all. For none of these thrills can even begin to aspire to grasp vainly at the fiery wake of the winged-heels of my thirteen-year-old excitement in the days and hours leading up to the first night of the 1978 season of BBC2 horror double bills, a season given the new ‘everything you need to know’ umbrella title of Monster Double Bill.

You see I was, as they used to say, ‘a morbid child’ and I had become something of a fan of the previous year’s season of Saturday night horror double bills. Some of you reading this may already be aware just how much of a fan I had become, if you’ve happened to grab a copy of my book Dracula, Frankenstein and Friends. So the return of the double bills in the summer of 1978, a full year since the tarn had closed silently over the fragments of Roger Corman’s House of Usher at the end of that year’s season, had me in a state of anticipation so far beyond ‘eager’ that I’m not sure there’s even a word for it. Lovecraft almost certainly would have dubbed it ‘indescribable’ anticipation.

I can’t remember now, at this distance of forty four years, exactly when I knew the double bills were returning. I doubt it was months or even weeks ahead of time. Trailers and teasers and advance publicity campaigns, even for the most popular of TV shows, were much more sedate and restrained affairs back then, often virtually non-existent. If any of you reading this remember anything specific I’d be delighted to hear about it (please leave a comment below), but for a late night Saturday summer season of films on BBC2 it was much more likely to have been at the non-existent end of the spectrum than the sedate and restrained one. Perhaps a throwaway comment by a continuity announcer a week in advance, accompanied by a caption showing a still from one of the films in a box wrapped up with the BBC2 logo a bit like this later one:

Perhaps it was as late as reading that week’s Radio Times. It’s even feasible that I only knew on the morning of transmission looking at the listings in the Saturday paper.

And as if the simple fact that the double bills were returning at all was not sufficient cause for wild-eyed hysteria (and it was), we weren’t just talking any old horror double bill here. Oh no. The specific double bill to introduce this year’s offerings was a perfect example of the magnificently archetypal old one/new one formula which typified the BBC2 seasons. And not only that. The old one was proper early Universal and the new one was proper early Hammer (or ‘early’ in the widely accepted if inaccurate perception that 1931’s Dracula was the first proper Universal film and that what we mean by ‘Hammer’ only begins with The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955). And The Man Who Could Cheat Death was from the Golden Age of the colour Hammer Gothics that gave us in quick succession Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Revenge of Frankenstein and Brides of Dracula; like all the others it was directed by Terence Fisher; like all of them except Hound it was written by Jimmy Sangster, and even if it didn’t star Peter Cushing, well, it had Christopher Lee and Hazel Court to make up for it. And not only that. Murders in the Rue Morgue was not just early Universal, it was Lugosi. Lugosi! My favourite of all the great horror stars – and I loved them all with a passion that even Peter Lorre in Mad Love might have regarded as a tad excessive. And not just Lugosi, but Lugosi in the early 30s vintage that represented the actor’s absolute prime.

So it’s fair to say that on Saturday the 8th of July 1978, at the age of thirteen, I was, as my mum used to say, ‘in a bit of a tizz’.

What’s perhaps more surprising is that, given the level of eager delirium with which I approached them that night, in many ways neither film was a disappointment. Both have flaws, certainly, but for me then just as for me now, there are more than enough wonderful qualities in each film to make up for them, and Murders in the Rue Morgue, particularly, is very close to being a masterpiece.

It’s a familiar story that, for both star and director, Murders in the Rue Morgue was a kind of consolation prize. Universal’s original intention had been for Florey to direct Lugosi in Frankenstein, immediately capitalising on the actor’s success in Dracula. The twenty minutes or so of screen tests which Florey shot with Lugosi as the Monster, apparently closer in design to Paul Wegener’s Golem than the eventual iconic Jack Pierce makeup, are the Holy Grail of lost footage for horror fans. There seems to be a consensus in reports given by a couple of contemporary witnesses that the tests just didn’t work very well, but exactly what happened next is shrouded in mystery. Lugosi’s face-saving claims to have turned down the part because of a lack of dialogue have always seemed a little unlikely to me – he had campaigned relentlessly for the part of Dracula, making clear he was ready to work for next to nothing. Having landed it, and been such an enormous success, was he really going to turn down a major role in a major film at the same studio? On the other hand, Lugosi did see himself as a Leading Man in the traditional sense, rather than a monster, and probably fancied the part of the doctor rather than his creation. Most likely, it seems to me, is that when Universal handed the project on to James Whale, the hottest new director on the lot, he simply didn’t want Lugosi at all. What is certainly true is that, uncredited, Florey wrote a Frankenstein treatment that in its essentials is very close to the film which Universal eventually made with Whale, and Lugosi and Florey were paired on a Poe adaptation instead. No bad thing as it turns out, since Whale’s Frankenstein is a genuine landmark in the history of cinema (and gave us Boris Karloff), while Murders in the Rue Morgue is, on its own slightly lesser terms, a really wonderful film offering Lugosi a role (as Dr Mirakle) which is more than worthy to sit alongside both the undead Count and White Zombie‘s ‘Murder’ Legendre in the actor’s magnificent early thirties trilogy of evil.

The Man Who Could Cheat Death seems a little less successful to me, but nonetheless there are some fantastic things in the film and it remains an extremely enjoyable watch.

The two films sit comfortably alongside one another as a double bill partly because both belong essentially to the ‘mad scientist’ sub-genre, but even more so due to a question of location. Both concern murky goings on in nineteenth century Paris, although neither film’s portrayal of the French capital bears much relation either to the real city or to each other’s version of it. With its deep shadows and distorted angles, its looming buildings overhanging the streets, and its jagged, angular skylines, the oppressive, claustrophobic Paris conveyed by director Robert Florey is actually a much closer cousin to Holstenwall, the main setting of Robert Wiene’s hugely influential 1920 German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (the very first film shown as part of the BBC2 horror double bills back in 1975). In fact in many ways the whole film might almost be seen as an unacknowledged remounting of Caligari – the crazed scientist, the carnival sideshow, the young student hero, the rooftop abduction of the heroine, but (in the film’s most glaringly unfortunate flaw) a somewhat unconvincing ape fulfilling the role of Conrad Veidt’s mysterious somnambulist Cesare in the earlier film. It’s remarkable to think that when Murders in the Rue Morgue was made, Caligari (which for all its radical innovation seems from this distance infinitely more remote and archaic than its imitator) was only twelve years old; the equivalent to mentioning films like Inception or The Social Network or The Deathly Hallows today. The Paris on show in The Man Who Could Cheat Death, by contrast, was influenced largely by budget restrictions that were severe even by Hammer’s usual cash-strapped standards, so that after a rather impressive and atmospheric exterior pre-titles sequence in a beautifully lit fog-enshrouded Rue Noire (Fisher making excellent use of the Bray backlot I would guess), we are pretty much restricted to a handful of interiors. It’s also a Paris which seems just as suffused with Englishness as Hammer’s more typical geographically obscure mitteleurope, a fact I find oddly reassuring.

And so I was sitting poised at five to eleven on Saturday the 8th of July, primed and ready, paper and pen in hand in order to scrawl down as many credits and lines of dialogue as my aching wrist would allow in those days before video. And so it began, with the same strains of Swan Lake that I’d seen and heard kick off Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy a year earlier. And lo, it was wonderful.

Murders in the Rue Morgue sees Lugosi as crazed scientist Dr Mirakle, a dedicated evolutionist who makes his living in a carnival sideshow exhibiting a gorilla named Erik, but has devoted his life to both a higher and a darker purpose; to prove the truth of evolutionary theory : ‘My life is consecrated to great experiment. I tell you I will prove your kinship with the ape. Eric’s blood will be mixed with the blood of man!’ To this end, he abducts and experiments on women of the street, hoping – it seems – to impregnate them with a gorilla child, but finally sets his experimental sights on the film’s heroine, Camille, played by Sidney Fox, who astonishingly beat Lugosi to top billing here, just as, equally astonishingly, David Manners (David Manners!) had done in Dracula.

There are, however, a couple of room-based elephants that need addressing in relation to Murders in the Rue Morgue before going on to explore just what a wonderful film it is. Firstly, and paradoxically, the one scene in the entire film which is lifted directly from the Poe short story on which the film is very loosely based – the ‘comic’ scene in which each of a gaggle of ‘earwitnesses’ to a murder insist that they overheard a different foreign language, all, it transpires, misperceiving the grunts of an excited ape – is a cringeworthy and lengthy misfire at precisely the wrong moment in the film. Secondly, of course, there is the ape itself, Erik the gorilla. Although, perhaps in keeping with Mirakle’s desire to create a hybrid missing link, Erik is already a composite creature made up of all too obviously mismatched shots of an actual chimpanzee (yes, wrong species entirely) and a man in an unconvincing monkey suit. Given that the umbrella title for this series of films was Monster Double Bill, the ‘monster’ being by far the weakest element of the film may be part of the reason so many other of the Universal horrors are better remembered and more highly regarded than this one.

Either that, or it’s Lugosi’s hair.

Or, to put it more accurately, Lugosi’s curly wig and quite extraordinary monobrow. The effect is not dissimilar to that of sitting down to watch the first three Second World War era Universal Sherlock Holmes movies, probably being already acquainted with Basil Rathbone’s more familiar appearance from the earlier 20th Century Fox films The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and being greeted by perhaps the most exceptional example of poor tonsorial judgement in the history of cinema.

I’ve seen it suggested that the thinking behind Universal’s bizarre decision regarding Sherl’s locks came from a degree of uncertainty around their vigorous updating of the most Victorian of crime-fighting duos. It was certainly exciting, and cheaper, to have Holmes and Watson battling sinister Nazis in a contemporary setting but, the argument goes, reluctant to lose all the nineteenth century flavour, Universal hoped to give Rathbone some hint of a fin-de-siecle aesthete, a Wilde or a Swinburne. Instead he just looks like the Emperor Nero in a fedora and Universal wisely reverted to a more conventional slicked back look for the later films in the series. Quite what possessed them with regard to Lugosi’s Rue Morgue look is even harder to imagine. If I had to hazard a guess, however, I might suggest that the idea could only have been to make Lugosi less dangerously sexy. ‘I think he’s fascinating,’ Frances Dade’s Lucy murmurs dreamily in Dracula just a few months earlier, as did the actor’s largely female fanbase. Curly wig and monobrow firmly in place, however, and Sidney Fox’s wide-eyed Camille is able to murmur ‘What a funny looking man. He’s a show in himself’ as Lugosi’s Dr Mirakle begins his carnival routine.

There’s a line in the stage play Arsenic and Old Lace, written specifically for Boris Karloff, in which Karloff’s Jonathan Brewster claims to have murdered a previous victim because ‘He said I looked like Boris Karloff.’ It’s a good joke, even when transferred to the film version with Karloff’s part played by Raymond Massey. Although an older Lugosi frequently stepped into the role in 1940s touring productions, the line doesn’t really work with Lugosi in the part. Karloff, with his soulful eyes and his countless marriages, was by no means ugly, but his appearance undeniably precluded him from ever being Leading Man material. A Leading Man, however, was precisely what Lugosi had been on the Hungarian stage, before his left-leaning politics (which he shared with Karloff, both playing a role in establishing the Screen Actors’ Guild in Hollywood) forced him to flee Hungary following his activism in the 1919 revolution. Once Dracula made him an American stage star in the late 1920s, he was sought out by Clara Bow, Hollywood’s original ‘It’ girl, and they enjoyed a brief, passionate affair (the nude portrait of her he commissioned in 1929 remained on prominent display in Lugosi’s various homes until his death in 1956). It’s well documented that in the wake of Dracula, he received sackloads of mail from adoring female fans. Carol Borland, his co-star in Mark of the Vampire, described Lugosi as ‘the most sexually attractive man I have ever met.’ It may be difficult to recognise from a more determinedly naturalistic 21st century perspective, seeing only weird leering and staring in his 1930s performances, but Lugosi was an undeniably sexy man.

Perhaps it was considered too much, even in those pre-Code days, for Lugosi’s overtly sexual quality to be allowed to combine with the sadistic pseudo-medical experimentation Mirakle performs on a young Arlene Francis and the bestial perversity of his project to ‘prove man’s kinship with the apes’ by mixing Erik’s blood with that of a young woman – the precise mechanics of which are left mercifully vague though the implications are allowed to remain clear. Combine the perversion and the sadism with a monobrow and some odd curls however, thereby calming those racing female pulses to acceptable levels, and Lugosi becomes a monster to be feared rather than desired, his evil overt rather than seductive, which is altogether less troubling to studios and censors and moral guardians of all persuasions everywhere.

And just to say that, rising above his hair (not an easy task), Lugosi gives an absolutely incandescent performance here. You might even say a hair-raising one (geddit???). He positively drips charisma. Of course he delivers ‘sinister’ as only Lugosi could, but there are shades and nuances here too. There’s sardonic humour, and Luciferian pride and defiance, as he responds to a carnival heckler in his first scene: ‘Heresy? Do they still burn men for heresy? Then burn me monsieur…light the fire! Do you think your little candle will outshine the flame of truth?’ There’s the odd sincerity he brings to the moment – I’m not sure any other actor could have got away with it – where he converses with Erik in his own language, his strangely earnest silliness allowing for a degree of ambiguity as to whether we are witnessing a simple bit of carnival flimflam, or Mirakle’s deranged delusion, or a genuine Doolittlesque cross species conversation. He even manages to wring a degree of audience sympathy out of the startlingly brutal experimentation scene, in which, in a film in its own way as replete with religious imagery as Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein, Arlene Francis’ tragic prostitute is seen crucified in the rear of the frame, and is subjected not only to Mirakle’s sadistic tests but his rabid misogyny. ‘Your blood is rotten, black as your sins! You cheated me! Your beauty was a lie!’ he snarls. His rage shades swiftly into realisation (‘Dead?…You are…dead?’), despair, and remorse. Hands raised in an attitude of supplication and prayer, he sinks to his knees like Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. There’s an extraordinary close up which conveys a saint-like quality on the murdered woman. Then, with brutal realism, there is only denial and objectification, as Mirakle refuses to allow his feelings of guilt to interfere with his remorseless sense of purpose and so turns away from his crime, and from his fleeting recognition that his victim was a living, breathing human being. ‘Get rid of it,’ he murmurs wearily to his servant.

It’s an extraordinary scene, more savage in execution and implication than pretty much anything else Universal ever did, closer in spirit in many ways to the harsher tone Hammer were to make their own twenty five years later, but with the same sly eye for the power of iconography to be found in James Whale, and it showcases Lugosi at the very height of his powers. There’s bravura here, certainly, but there’s subtlety just as surely, not a quality Lugosi has often been credited with over the years.

If Lugosi is by a distance the best thing in the film (and that’s no real criticism, given just how good the performance is and given the fact that Lugosi is much the best thing in most of the films he appears in), that’s not to say there aren’t other wonderful things in it. Most notably, Florey’s visual sense is exceptional. There is, of course, the influence of German expressionism throughout – notably Caligari, though the scene in which the shadow of Erik’s hand falls over Camille’s sleeping body owes just as much to Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Equally however, the mobility and experimentation Florey gives to his use of the camera also brings to mind the French impressionist pioneers of silent cinema, just as is the case with Rouben Mamoulian’s more celebrated Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1931. The scene where the camera is mounted on the swing as Camille rises and falls, allowing us to feel something of her sense of weightlessness, recalls the freedom of an impressionist innovator like Florey’s countryman Abel Gance and gives the lie to the idea that early sound films all necessarily involved a static, immobile use of the camera. Not only that, but the camera’s movement between buildings in some of the later scenes prefigures some aspects of Hitchcock’s work on something like Rear Window. It’s overall a very impressively directed film, and really nice to see Lugosi in a film which exhibits undeniable visual flair coming so soon after his breakthrough in 1931, given how heavily – and somewhat unfairly – criticised Dracula has been over the years for its rather more pedestrian camerawork. Interestingly, Karl Freund (shortly to direct The Mummy for Universal) served as cinematographer on both films, just as he had on a film as daring as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in Germany a couple of years earlier.

The film’s pre-Code credentials are much more evident than most of Universal’s horror output from the early thirties, with its overt references to prostitution and strong implications of bestiality. In the period it’s rivalled for the sheer nastiness of its central idea only by Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton as Dr Moreau (also from 1932 and also starring Lugosi, although in a much less heavily featured role), which has a similar sense of evolutionary angst and equally clear associated implications of bestiality. If this seems a strange area of anxiety to us now, it’s perhaps worth remembering that for audiences in 1932, Darwin’s Origin of Species was as recent as the work of Oppenheimer, or Watson and Crick (and Rosalind Franklin – the woman written out of their genetic research) is for us, and we’re certainly still dealing with the ramifications of what splitting the atom and the DNA double helix really means for our world and our identity, just as an audience back then might still be working through some of the implications of natural selection for religious faith and a sense of what it was to be human. And a fear of the idea that a certain kind of pseudo-scientist might regard human beings as no more than suitable subjects for vivisection was soon to take on a horrible reality with the emergence of truly demonic figures like Josef Mengele.

The film isn’t much loved among Universal afficionados, perhaps precisely because of the slightly nasty aftertaste the subject matter leaves. It’s not spoken of with the same kind of affection as the great monster movies, or even the studio’s other 1930s Poe adaptations, The Black Cat and The Raven. Nevertheless, for me at least, it’s a marvellous piece of work. Richly atmospheric and visually stylish, featuring Lugosi at his very height and career-best direction from Florey – only rivalled by his other, almost as effective entry into the horror genre with 1945’s The Beast With Five Fingers. If, as a result of its reputation as ‘lesser’ Universal, you’ve never taken the chance to see it I do urge you to catch up with it when you can. You won’t be disappointed, any more than I was back in 1978. Though you might be a bit less excited than I was before it started.

In the end of course, the gorilla turns on Mirakle and kills him, then sets off on a chase over the Caligari-styled rooftops of Paris before being shot by Camille’s gentleman caller, Pierre Dupin (here just a penniless young medical student rather than Poe’s Holmes-anticipating analytical detective) and plunging into the Seine below. A nicely cyclical final scene returns us to the Morgue keeper who we had previously seen cataloguing the body of one of the murdered prostitutes now recording the admission of the body of Mirakle himself, and then, after only an hour, we have ‘The End’, and ‘It’s a Universal Picture’ superimposed over the circling globe, before finally, for good measure, Universal’s trademark 1930s ‘A Good Cast is Worth Repeating’ (irritatingly it still had Sidney Fox’s name at the top) giving me just the chance to scribble down any names I’d missed the first time, along with a capitalised and double underscored THAT WAS BRILLIANT!!! on my notes before settling myself down for The Man Who Could Cheat Death. Quite often the double bill films would be separated by highlights of golf, or cricket, but this was one of those wonderful occasions when we ran straight from one film into the next.

The Man Who Could Cheat Death gives us the story of brilliant scientist and gifted artist Dr Georges Bonnet, who has discovered a means of retaining eternal life and youth. Every ten years he must receive a newly transplanted parathyroid gland, a method which has enabled him to live for over a century while still appearing no more than about 35. The drawback is that the gland requires a donor, meaning someone else must die, and that in the times leading up to receiving the replacement gland he can tend to turn a bit green about the gills and get a bit murderous – side effects he can stave off for a while by drinking a bubbling green potion.

Rather like Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Man Who Could Cheat Death’s reputation has suffered by comparison with the films made around it. Just as Murders is unlikely to be a favourite film of many Universal fans, so Hammer fans are unlikely to place The Man Who Could Cheat Death on any of their top five, or even top ten, lists. And we horror fans love a list. It’s widely regarded as a slight misfire. It might have been different. The signs were good. The required ingredients seemed to be in place – another reunion for the Jimmy Sangster and Terence Fisher combination which most fans would regard as Hammer’s writer/director dream team, and also a reunion of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Hazel Court from Curse of Frankenstein. As was Hammer’s typical approach, a distribution deal was struck with one of the American studios – this time, uniquely, with Paramount – and another established horror property was readied for the Hammer treatment. In this case the pedigree was not quite as strong as the sources they had worked with up to now – The Man in Half Moon Street, a play by Barre Lyndon adapted with moderate success into a 1945 film by Paramount and as recently as 1957 into a television play starring the German actor Anton Diffring was hardly on a par with the nineteenth century classics Hammer had largely utilised up to this point – but nonetheless the subject (a kind of twist on the Dorian Gray theme with the ‘glands’ trope thrown in) was sufficiently macabre to be well within Hammer’s comfort zone.

Then Cushing, pleading exhaustion, dropped out of the project just six days before production was scheduled to begin. It’s hard to overstate just how important Cushing was to the first wave of Hammer gothics. Put simply, he was their star, occupying a similar significance to Hammer that Vincent Price was shortly to establish to the AIP Roger Corman Poe Pictures. Often from a distance, we tend to think of Lee and Cushing in tandem, as equal partners, as they became later. But in 1959, it was simply not so. Lee had played the Monster in Curse, and of course the title role in Dracula, but Cushing, not Lee, was the star of those films. When Hammer turned next to The Hound of the Baskervilles, Cushing was Holmes with Lee in the relatively minor role of Sir Henry Baskerville – he wasn’t even the villain. In those early days, Hammer saw Cushing alone as their star, and Lee as not much more than a useful support player, a situation that didn’t really change until he returned to the role of Dracula for the company half a decade later in Dracula Prince of Darkness. So the loss of Cushing so close to the start of filming was a devastating blow. With hindsight, the obvious thing to do would have been simply to give Lee the Cushing role – mad scientist Dr Bonnet. Problem solved. And in the same world of might-have-been in which Cushing made the film, or Lee turned out to be a brilliant lead as he certainly would have, The Man Who Could Cheat Death might now occupy a place closer to Hammer fans’ collective hearts. But Hammer simply didn’t regard Lee as a leading man, and even in the absence of Cushing he had to be content with the relatively thankless supporting role he’d been given. Instead, Hammer turned to the same man who had just played the Bonnet part in the recent TV adaptation, Anton Diffring, perhaps influenced to see him as a surrogate Cushing by the fact that Diffring had also just played the part of Baron Frankenstein for Hammer in an abortive TV project called Tales of Frankenstein. Diffring is a perfectly good actor, and his performance is fine – even if his tendency to stare into the middle distance rather than addressing his co-stars can become a little distracting – but he’s no Cushing (who is?) and, knowing all this, it’s a little hard to watch The Man Who Could Cheat Death today without wondering what Cushing’s greater subtlety and nuance in the lead, or even Lee’s sheer presence, might have done for the film.

In 1978 however, watching breathlessly from our living room sofa with the brilliance of Murders in the Rue Morgue still whirling round my head, I didn’t know any of this production background. Perhaps partly because of that, I was able to watch it with my customarily uncritical adolescent enthusiasm, and I loved the film. And if I’m a bit more aware of its flaws today than I was then, it’s still a film in which I can find a lot to enjoy.

The flaws, at least it seems to me, essentially come down to pacing. Even with a typically brisk 83 minute running time, the film feels very slow by Hammer’s usual high octane standards, particularly in the lengthy, rather static and dialogue-heavy drawing room scenes. Unlike his work on the gothic classics, which can almost be defined by his unerringly brilliant ability to cut to the chase (sometimes literally), Sangster’s script for The Man Who Could Cheat Death feels laboured and repetitive. Perhaps the problem was budgetary – with the entire film pretty much unfolding in three rooms, Sangster can’t find much for the characters to do except sit and talk. Perhaps the stage origins of the story defeated him, although Sangster elsewhere showed an ability to supercharge more intractable material than this – the opening fifteen minutes of Dracula, in particular, might almost be used as a screenwriting masterclass in how to accelerate the narrative pace when adapting prose fiction source material which is designed to unfold slowly. Whatever the reasons, after an effective opening and before an even more effective ending, the central section of the film tends to flag a little, without either Sangster, or Fisher, or the cast being able to inject sufficient tension.

Even so, the more typically ‘Hammer’ elements of the film land beautifully for me. The makeup, both in the earlier scenes where Bonnet is struggling with his desperate need for replacement glands and in the film’s full-Hammer climax where he ages rapidly to death in a fiery conflagration, is excellent, and the idea of his caustic touch scarring his victim’s face, while it makes little logical sense, creates a powerful shock, always a higher consideration for Hammer than narrative logic. The lighting, particularly the deliberately heightened green filters which drench the frame in scenes involving the potion Bonnet takes to stave off the worst effects while waiting for his life-saving transplant is delightfully lurid. The scene where the bubbling vial of green liquid is revealed in the safe is almost comically schlocky, but for me it adds to the charm of the moment. These were certainly the elements of the film which appealed most to my adolescent self watching on a warm Saturday in 1978, ghoulish creature that I was.

There are other elements of the film however, which I appreciate much more now than I was able to then.

Most of them coalesce around the way the film deploys Hazel Court as Janine. I’ve written elsewhere about what an impressive actress I think Hazel Court is, and how, first Hammer, and then increasingly Roger Corman in the Poe films, gave her license to be overtly sexual in a way that was, I think, extremely unusual for the time. There were plenty of actresses trading on glamour and sexuality at the time – this was the era of the blonde bombshell after all – but the on-screen personas of Marilyn, Jayne Mansfield and the rest were potent largely because of the desire they inspired in men. Female stars of the time are objectified, in the main. Monroe’s sheer magnetism is so powerful that she begins to transcend the objectification, but that was down to her own mysterious grace rather than anything more progressive in most of the films she appeared in. Overall there wasn’t much suggestion in 1950s cinema, genre or otherwise, that women were desiring creatures themselves, except in the traditional ‘finding Mr Right’ way. In her horror career Court is certainly objectified to a degree – hence the legendary lost ‘continental’ cut of The Man Who Could Cheat Death which featured her appearing fully topless in the scene where she poses for Bonnet’s sculpture – but it is equally true, on the other hand, that her characters are permitted an unabashed, full-blooded, rather grown-up sensuality and an unusual degree of agency.

It is her own desire, rather than her desirability, which drives her across the three films she made with Corman – The Premature Burial, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death – and that stands interestingly in relation to the earlier films she made for Hammer. She’s perfectly good in Curse of Frankenstein – she looks amazing and the performance is very good, but the specific quality that emerges fully in the Corman films isn’t present yet. The part is too prim and conventional, perhaps, and the film doesn’t give her the chance to make any more of it. The Man Who Could Cheat Death, however, gives her far more opportunity. Her Janine Du Bois is perfectly happy to be involved with two men – Christopher Lee’s reliable, but rather dull Dr Pierre Gerrard, and Diffring’s Georges Bonnet, who she is clearly enamoured with – without ever feeling the need to end her relationship with either.

There is also a wonderfully telling moment early in the film, at Bonnet’s reception for his latest sculpture, when a male guest, accompanied by Janine herself, discovers another work by Bonnet, hidden behind screens and veiled. Removing the cover, he is startled to discover what is obviously a nude sculpture of Janine herself. Hazel Court’s expression reveals just how much a totally unruffled Janine loves the moment. No embarrassment or discomfort – that’s instead written all over the anonymous guest’s reaction – only pure pleasure in a moment of absolute and unashamed sexual vanity, both for the slight sexual discomfiture she causes the other guest, and also because it confirms for her the desire she inspires in Bonnet. It’s brilliantly played, and very Hazel Court; very close to the quality she brings to similar moments in the later Corman films.

What is very different about this film’s treatment of her naked sexuality however, is that the film does not feel the traditional horror movie requirement to punish her for it. Court’s characters in all three Poe films burn brightly and are then killed off for their ‘sins’. Janine in this film is allowed to retain the audience’s sympathy, and to escape to the final credits alive, despite her slight selfishness, her rather charming vanity, and her powerful sensuality. Indeed it is her character who serves the role of audience identification; it is Janine who investigates and discovers the truth, and even then – despite being trapped for a time in Bonnet’s handy cellar – still appears to briefly contemplate the possibility of running away with him, despite his clearly apparent instability and immorality, simply because she wants him. In all kinds of ways, this film is not Sangster’s finest hour, but in a genre and a period which doesn’t always have the best record in terms of providing strong roles for women, his script for The Man Who Could Cheat Death is a fascinating and honourable exception. Interestingly, when Sangster moved away from the gothics to begin writing Hammer’s run of Psycho-styled contemporary black and white thrillers he was clearly at pains to improve the quality of the female roles. It seems as though it was an issue which preyed on his mind.

Almost as interesting is the fact that, unlike Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein (who has no interest whatsoever in Hazel Court’s Elizabeth beyond convenience), The Man Who Could Cheat Death leaves us in no doubt that Bonnet is genuinely and sincerely in love with Janine, despite the madness and the murders, despite the willingness to do anything to survive, including trapping her in a cellar and threatening her life in order to blackmail Christopher Lee into performing the operation he needs to prolong his life even further. Though rather less demonstratively, it is clear that Lee’s character loves her too, and in that regard it’s also interesting that Lee offers no comment, no hint of jealous outrage or disapproval to either Janine or Bonnet – it seems to me that this can only have been a deliberate decision of Sangster’s rather than just a careless omission. In other words, while the film – in keeping with the typically Manichaean world view of the early Hammer films – clearly condemns and ultimately destroys its monstrous villain (Bonnet himself) for the usual ‘meddling with things that man should leave alone’ mad scientist stuff, no moral judgement whatever is applied to any aspects of the central relationships. A shaded, rather ambiguous complexity of desire, emotion and motivation is seen as perfectly permissible. These are grown ups who are left free to want and love whoever they wish, however unconventionally. And for that, yay Jimmy.

I love the film’s conclusion for its restoration of Hammer’s more customary frenetic pacing. A tense sequence with Janine in the cellar, surrounded by the busts of Bonnet’s previous victims, leads her to discover that Monique, the woman he attacked after unveiling her sculpture in the opening scenes, is still alive, scarred and insane, held captive by Bonnet. Apparently submitting to Bonnet’s blackmail, Lee agrees to perform the operation, sensibly falling back on the rather obvious expedient of doing the surgery but not actually implanting the new gland. As a result, when Bonnet returns to the cellar and to Janine, time finally catches up with him in a rapid aging sequence just as effective as those at the end of Hammer’s She, and, indeed, Christopher Lee’s brilliantly achieved disintegration at the conclusion of Dracula. Cue the required conflagration, and we reach the end of a film that, though usually seen as minor Hammer, certainly when compared to the wonderfully supercharged energy of the films made on either side of it, retains enough interesting features and effective scenes to be a highly enjoyable and rewarding experience.

And so it was over, at least for another week. The breathless excitement of the return of the horror double bills had been fully justified as far as my thirteen-year-old self was concerned (and his mid-fifties child would find it hard to disagree with him), and, just before sleep, there was one further treat. Coming next week, the continuity man murmured in his softly spoken ‘time to go to bed’ closedown voice : The Fantastic Disappearing Man (a Dracula movie! One I’d never even heard of!!) and Ray Milland (from The Premature Burial!!!!) starring in Roger Corman’s (Roger Corman!!!!!!!!!) intriguingly titled The Man With X Ray Eyes. Or at least intriguingly titled for any 1970s child who ever foolishly sent off their hard-earned pocket money for a pair of X-Ray Specs (the disillusioning plastic spectacles, not the rather wonderful punk band fronted by Poly Styrene) from an ad in the back of a comic. I still bear the scars.

And the less said about Sea Monkeys the better.

I Bid You Welcome

Just five short years ago, in a world before Donald Trump became President and then wasn’t, a world before Brexit, before facemasks, lockdowns and toilet roll shortages, I started a blog dedicated to the BBC2 Saturday night horror double bills which had played such a central and influential part in my 1970s childhood. More specifically, I focused on the films in the 1977 season, given the umbrella title of ‘Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends!’

As I wrote, back in those carefree innocent days, it gradually became clear to me that I wasn’t really writing about the films themselves so much as what they had meant to the morbid twelve-year-old I had been in the summer of 77, and also the many – and different – things those strange and wonderful old movies continued to mean to me in middle age. I began to understand that I had taken on a much bigger, more demanding and personal task than I had realised. Just as they had back in 1977, the films still seemed to be helping me uncover and recognise a lot of half-hidden truths about myself and some of the ways in which I view the world around me. The unanticipated length, and sometimes the difficulty, of the posts led me to believe I was actually writing a book rather than a blog. So that’s what I did instead.

Well, after a couple of years of redrafting and editing, the book is published and available on Amazon at a very reasonable price. Self-published, I should probably add in the interests of full disclosure, since bizarrely I found it hard to convince any agents or publishers of the vast commercial potential of a book of philosophical reflections about a bunch of old horror films transmitted forty years ago. The blind fools! I’ll show them I tell you! Grisham, Rowling and the rest, Dracula, Frankenstein and Friends is coming for you!

And that was that, I thought. I’d said pretty much all I had to say on the subject of classic horror between those covers, and could turn to something new. And I began working on a novel, and a couple of other projects I’d been thinking about for a while. And yet, and yet…

Not for the first time, those odd old movies began, quite unexpectedly, to pull at me again. It struck me, sitting here at the beginning of August, that we’re genuinely back into what I still think of as horror double bill season. Was it Tennyson who said in the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love? I appear to be living proof that in Summer an old man’s fancy darkly turns to thoughts of Bela Lugosi.

So here I am, back and blogging. What is nagging at me especially strongly is just how many other great films I’ve missed out by choosing to focus so exclusively on the one double bill season which meant most to me personally. So this time round, it won’t be so neat or so formal. Most of the content will still be horror-related (because I’m me), but sometimes I may choose to write a bit more freely about other things I love, or whatever strikes me particularly strongly at any given moment. For some kind of overall structure though – because I need a frame to hang my otherwise random ramblings on – I’ll be undertaking a rewatch of all the horror double bill seasons (except for Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends! that is. Been there, done that, written the book…) and seeing how I respond to them. A full list is available here if you like to know what’s coming:

Maybe you’ll find we have a memory in common. Maybe you’ll passionately disagree with some of my opinions. The Houses of Dracula and Frankenstein are large and interesting places, after all, with room for many mansions. Feel free to comment. And watch this space.

I bid you welcome.