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 ParisElvis 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.