Sunday, July 27, 2014

CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER (Brian Clemens, 1972)


The swashbuckling hero Kronos and his affable and intelligent hunchback companion Grost are called to a small rural community to solve a series of mysterious murders. They discover a gruesome attribute as the victims were not just murdered but had their vitality literally sucked from their bodies with a spot of congealing blood upon their lips. With the help of Dr. Marcus and the sultry Carla they finally confront the living dead.
Director Brian Clemens helms one of the last great Hammer films with visual flourish, turning a simple vampiric “whodunit” into a Technicolor spectacle haunted by dark shadows. The film opens with a close-up of a silver cross upon the breast of a beautiful young lady. She’s sitting under a tree primping herself in a handheld mirror as her friend stands nearby. Clemens shoots over the shoulder of the sitting girl to catch the reflection of her friend in the mirror as they talk; a stylistic signature that he will use throughout the film. As the friend runs off to collect flowers Clemens gives us a strange POV shot that moves slowly toward the sitting girl. We suddenly see over the girl’s shoulder and into the mirror; this time, we see a reflection of a dark cloaked figure. Her look of horror slowly turns into one of longing as she reaches towards the figure in a loving embrace. The mirror now discarded shows the reflection of the dark figure picking her up. Clemens pulls focus from the mirror’s image slightly to show blood dripping upon its clear surface. Her friend stands dazed as a rider (Dr. Marcus coincidently) stops and calls out. As he approaches the standing girl Clemens begins the shot at her feet and slowly rises to eye level; we see her staring as if mesmerized towards her friend who is seemingly just sitting under the tree as before. Clemens gives us another tracking POV shot matching the first but this time it belongs to Dr. Marcus. In one shot the POV tracks towards the girl as everything seems normal until she turns her head to the right and stares directly into the camera: she is now a violently aged woman with blood upon her lips. We get the Doctor’s reaction shot then jump into the opening credits. It’s a very good stylish opening that catapults us into the story. Clemens will continue to use reflections, POV shots, and long takes to engage the audience in an otherwise straightforward plot.
The acting is competent without being over-the-top or campy which plagues some of the contemporaneous Hammer films of the 1970s. Horst Janson plays the titular character with aplomb and level-headedness while his cohort imbues the hunchback companion with a learned dignity, Watson to Janson’s Holmes. Caroline Munro regrettably is nothing more than window dressing and hardly speaks at all. It’s a shame that Kronos doesn’t even offer her a change of clothes as she wears the same ragged dress the entire film.
The most impressing scenes are the sword fights. The first one is too quick to be seen; just two slashes, blood spattered upon the wall and then three men fall dead. The second happens in a grave yard during the daytime as a group of villagers seek to avenge Dr. Marcus’ death. Clemens frames this fight mostly in medium close-up as Kronos swirls and jabs, knocking the villagers down without killing them. Though Clemens doesn’t resort to quick cuts (haha) he angles the camera enough to create the illusion of actual swordplay. However, the final confrontation is excellent as Kronos and the villain stab and kicks each other in long shots which makes each leap and slash much more realistic. It’s an epic battle as it seems obvious that the actors are actually doing the fighting! Clemens only resorts to close-ups of injury and bloodletting and lets the action hold in these long takes with minimal editing.
Captain Kronos ends in atypical fashion. Most Hammer films end immediately after the denouement but here we get a brief coda as Kronos bids farewell to his lovely maid Carla. He and Grot then ride off to hunt down evil wherever it may rise. Unfortunately, this film never spawned a sequel or series and remains Captain Kronos’ only adventure.  
Final Grade: (B)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

HANDS OF THE RIPPER (Peter Sasdy, 1971)

A young woman is possessed by the sins of her father as a Psychiatrist attempts to exorcise these inherited demons. Peter Sasdy directs a competent and gruesome thriller with lush interior and exterior set designs and a cabal of actors who deliver the Victorian line-readings with veracity and efficacy.
Sasdy begins the film with torch-bearing townsfolk chasing a cloaked figure through the darkened streets of London. He cuts to an interior shot of a young woman clutching a small child to her breast as firelight flickers through the drapes. The man comes crashing into the room and the woman looks relieved instead of terrified, contradicting our expectation. She recognizes her husband and is relieved that he is safe since Jack the Ripper has struck once again. The man throws back his cloak and we see a horribly burned face. Her sudden epiphany is literally cut short as he plunges a knife into his wife’s chest. The child, peering through the crib-like bars of her prison witnesses the brutal violence. Her mother’s breast which a few moments ago was a place of serenity and comfort is now a crimson smear. The firelight flickers upon her face with a hypnotic intensity as the scene fades out.
Sasdy sets up the narrative in the opening sequence which foreshadows the conflict between science and superstition to come. Dr. Pritchard rescues the child Anna, now grown into a beautiful young lady, from being prostituted by her guardian, a fake Sear who forces Anna into acting as the spirit voice of deceased loved ones in order to fool wealthy clients. When Anna is incarcerated under suspicion of murder, Dr. Pritchard becomes her legal guardian in order to examine her psyche to reveal the sickness that leads to violent acts and intent. Anna looks like a porcelain doll, precious and fragile but we witness her transformation into a crazed killer, her hands blistered and palsied and her eyes void of cognizance. As the killings mount Dr. Pritchard makes excuses for her violent impulses while attempting to cure her, believing in the power of psychoanalysis over seance.
Sasdy introduces two supporting characters in Michael Pritchard (the Dr.’s son) and his blind fiance Laura. Though primarily utilized to heighten suspense in the final act, the characters also lend a competing model of a traditional Victorian relationship that repudiates his father’s almost incestuous fascination with Anna. Also of note is the fact of Laura’s blindness is not seen as a handicap as she is portrayed as a strong and independent character. Her blindness plays a role in the final scene in the Whispering Gallery but it’s not entirely relevant to the denouement: I would argue that the ending works regardless of Laura’s ability to see. Blindness is a key concept to the story but it’s not Laura’s handicap…it’s Dr. Pritchard’s! 
The Dr. soon realizes his impotence in treating Anna and is forced into seeking the aid of a Psychic; He despises the idea since he is a man of science but quickly succumbs to this spurious revelation. The plot revolves too easily around this point and his pursuit of Anna into Whitechapel after a grisly murder. It stretches credibility to believe that the Dr. so easily accepts the psychic’s strident pleadings. It is also rather humorous that as he races to find Anna he should so easily stumble into her in the crowded streets of Whitechapel within minutes of diegetic time.
HANDS OF THE RIPPER is really a misnomer since it really isn't Anna’s hands that are possessed; it’s her spirit. Though her hands are shown to become physically altered, her hands don’t act independently or follow some contradictory dreaded impulse. Sasdy doesn't shy away from a blood-spattering arterial spray or hatpin to the eye which makes this one of the goriest in the Hammer archives. Dr. Pritchard’s Freudian analysis can be applied to his own fate as he is impaled by Anna with a large sword. Far from misogynist, the subtext of the film seems to imply the power of femininity over authority, or at least reveals the nasty consequences of a patriarchal society. In the chase sequence, Dr. Pritchard runs by graffiti scrawled on a wall that proclaims the right for women to vote. Here, both of Anna’s “fathers” bear the burden of moral blame and she becomes victim of their indulgences. After all, is this not the historical thesis for the need of sexual equality?

Final Grade: (B)   

Sunday, July 21, 2013

TASTE OF FEAR (Seth Holt, 1961)

US Title: SCREAM OF FEAR
Penny is seemingly a young girl whose thoughts are worth a great deal more than a copper cent, her dexterous mind imprisoned in a crippled tomb of flesh and bone. Seth Holt directs a deft little thriller whose labyrinthine twists led through a Gothic mansion of murderous intent and end upon the crashing surf.
Holt begins the first act with a dark haired young girl being pulled from a lake, the Alps rising above the scenario like some Olympian requiem. Her dead face remains hidden, a claw like hand groping towards the heavens, her identity revealed as only a shock of black hair sticking out from under a tarp. Holt then jump cuts to a jet plain landing in France and we witness out protagonist, a raven haired beauty confined to a wheelchair. This ambiguity propels the story: are we seeing a flashback that will lead to her demise, the plot now concerned with the facts of the possible crime?
Douglas Slocombe’s striking cinematography creates an eerie disjointed atmosphere and helps the mystery enter deep waters, utilizing deep focus to highlight foreground elements while revealing subtle information in the background: Strange candles whose light flickers like demon tongues, triptych compositions that in retrospect contain key objective evidence and underwater photography whose ghastly elements shock and awe. The soundtrack is embedded with the annoying habit of chirruping crickets and singsong birds, helping the audience to delineate night and day in this colorless film. In one indoor scene, Penny and her Stepmother are having dinner and their contentious conversation ebbs to reveal crickets…inside the house. The acting is first rate with Christopher Lee subverting expectations, and Susan Strasberg perfectly capturing the dichotomy of emotional reactionary and masterful pro-activity.
The narrative is awash with red herrings but remember: in water, no one can hear you scream!

Final Grade: (B+)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (Val Guest, 1958)

A stolid group of British POWs must contain an explosive secret from their captors or suffer the fallout. Val Guest directs this grimy sweat-house potboiler with a straightforward capacity of violent perception, as the ignoble Japanese soldiers are relegated to brutal masters without humanity, an insufferable truth averred to by survivors. 

The violence begins as a skeletal soldier digs his own grave and is then machine-gunned into oblivion while the entire camp is forced to watch. The Japanese Major laughs and rebukes the British prisoners; this is a man without heart or conscience. He is opposed by a British Major who knows the score (and it’s not in their favor) and motivates his men to survive day by day, hour by hour, to do their duty in order to live…because the alternative is to die at the hands of savages. 

Here in this dank sepulcher of razor wire choked by the endless jungle, faith becomes as useless as coded verse; war’s hellish parable. Make no mistake, this is a tale told from one perspective, the Japanese relegated to caricature and the captives portrayed as heroic though still humanly fallible. David Lean’s epic BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI is a drama of men playing at war with its morality firmly displayed on a tattered sleeve; Val Guest’s film depicts desiccated and shriveled men refusing to die who have realized that war is no game. 

Final Grade: (B)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

HYSTERIA (Freddie Francis, 1965)


The eponymous Mr. Smith seemingly falls victim to more than amnesia; his mind betraying his actions, he fears that he has become a devious murderer without a corpus delecti. But in the Hammer idiom things are never quite what they scream.
“Chris Smith” awakes from a car crash without memory of his past, his only possession a torn magazine cover sporting the lovely visage of a beautiful woman. Does this woman hold the key to unlocking his past? As he recuperates, an unknown benefactor pays his medical bills and even sets him up in a penthouse apartment. Lurking in this empty building are disembodied voices and, strangely, two exotic birds in a gilded cage. Meanwhile, Chris hires a private investigator to discover the identities of his mysterious patron, the cover girl and himself! The tangled plot quickly becomes a web of writer’s conceit, becoming more convoluted than reason allows.
Freddie Francis helms this tepid thriller penned by Hammer journeyman Jimmy Sangster, imbuing the film with a visually arresting form which is often more interesting than the illogical plot. The opening montage foreshadows events to a snappy jazz beat, which seems better suited to a beatnik road film than a psychological thriller. The film quickly becomes talky and explanatory, revealing plot points through exposition instead of exhibition. The slow pace is burdened further by Robert Webber whose bland performance makes it difficult to empathize or care much about his predicament. But Francis captures Webber in intriguing mise-en-scene: a triptych in a mirror reflecting his fractured memory; or an extreme high-angle omniscient shot where Webber moves through the crisscross lines of an empty parking lot like a game piece; and framed through the metal bars of a birdcage. Thanks to Francis the film is technically sound but the fatal flaw is embedded in the plot itself, as the tail (or tale) wags the dog.
A myriad of events must come together just right for this complex murder to be successful and ultimately, it’s not very believable. When the big reveal is exposed and Smith cops to psychological fraud, he becomes complicit in this humdrum battle of (nit)wits.
Final Grade: (C-)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (Terence Fisher, 1961)


Leon is born with tainted blood and position, cursed with both lycanthropy and dehumanizing poverty. Terence Fisher’s horror show becomes a metaphor of social hierarchy, of the diminished class struggling against the power of entitlement.

The first act is narrated by an omniscient presence, explaining the brutality of a local Baron and his cruelty towards the villagers, excising taxation without representation, bleeding the poor folk of their livelihood. A beggar stumbles into this morass and is caged, where he is reduced to pure animal instincts, imprisoned for many years in the tomblike dungeon. He eventually rapes a young servant and her child is born, not of man and woman, but of base vicious desire and trauma. Leon is eventually raised by a loving family, strangers who discover his pregnant mother drowning in a swamp, thus explaining the narrator’s identity. But Leon is a bastard who doesn’t stand a chance, as the tidal forces of destruction pull his soul apart.

Fisher focuses his story upon Leon and his knowledge of the beast that lurks within, his discovery that only love can tame the savage wraith. But his love is endowed to a wealthy landowner, and the pull of social gravity is a irrepressible as the moon’s ubiquitous presence. Leon is an innocent born into this mystical poverty, sharing the same birthday as the Christian savior and suffering the same sacrifice: he begs for death to save their souls. Like Jesus, Leon was birthed in a world of shit and treated as such by Pharisees.

Oliver Reed’s physicality is wonderful to behold, a grueling and growling ballet of blood, an extroverted performance that transcends subtly, like the clotted wounds splashed in bleeding Technicolor. The basic cinematography propels the narrative but doesn’t rise above the mundane, though a few interesting compositions exist. For example, when the baby Leon is purged we hear a howling before a baby’s cry, and the swaddled child is lifted up to the camera while a portrait of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus dominate the background, setting up the parable.




Final Grade: (B-)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF Limited Edition DVD



I received my limited edition steelbook a few days ago and it's an excellent addition to any film collection! I imported from the UK so the DVD is PAL and region 2 locked, so make sure your setup can handle both before ordering. I also own the US DVD that is part of the Hammer Collection Box and the A/V quality of this disc far exceeds it. The image quality is superb and makes me wonder why a high-def master wasn't produced for a blu-ray release. The first disc contains the film while all extras are relegated to a second disc, though all features probably could have been stored on one DVD. A great set with really superb cover art!

Now I can only imagine Yvonne Romain in 1080p....

Saturday, January 28, 2012

CHRISTOPHER LEE FILMOGRAPHY Circa 1976




This is a photo that came attatched to the introductory letter to the Christopher Lee International Fanclub.  I have also scanned the initial letter that promises a signed photograph for every member. I have that photo with a beautiful blue ink signature from Mr. Lee himself! The photo depicts Christopher Lee in a white suite holding binoculars with a mansion in the background. I wonder what movie that image is from? 




Sunday, January 8, 2012

CHRISTOPHER LEE BIOGRAPHY Circa 1976


A mimeographed biography that was part of the Christopher Lee International Fanclub newsletters that I purchased in the estate sale last year. I do have about ten more copies of both Lee and Peter Cushing fanclub issues each, but I need to take the packets apart to scan. I'll work on it and meanwhile, you're welcome to download each issue in my archive. It would be a shame to lose these to the sands of time, as there are many personal anecdotes and photos that I've never seen reprinted anywhere else!