Tuesday, August 23, 2011

3 on 3: Hammer Films

All this month, the Cafe has presented "3 on 3 panels" in which three experts answered three questions on a single classic film topic. For this final week, the Cafe poses three questions on Hammer Films, Britain's "House of Horror" to: Kevin from Kevin's Movie Corner; Alex from Korova Theatre Presents; and Sarkoffagus, the Cafe's resident authority on Hammer.

1. What is your favorite of the Hammer Frankenstein films and why?

Sark: Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. It's one of the few Frankenstein films I've seen (from any country or studio) that has a completely unsympathetic doctor, in lieu of the man simply being a misunderstood genius. This allows the character to revel in corruption and manipulation, and the more often he crosses the boundaries of good taste, the more he becomes the "monster" of the film. As his severity escalates, so, too, does the intrigue in watching him. Best of all, it's a showcase for Peter Cushing, whose energetic performance makes a lingering impression.

Kevin: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Probably Peter Cushing’s best and most ferocious performance in the series, a haunting turn by Freddie Jones as the creature, one of the greatest shock scenes in Hammer’s filmography (the burst pipe), an intelligent and adult screenplay and a devastating ending. Not one to send the audience out with a smile on their faces. Oh yeah, and Veronica Carlson too. Runner-up: Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), one of the saddest horror movies ever made. Yes, saddest. Just heart-wrenching in parts.

Victor Frankenstein confronts his
creature in The Curse of Frankenstein.
Alex: The Curse of Frankenstein is the first of seven films and is undeniably my favorite, though this series is more consistent in quality than Dracula. I like this film for many reasons, specifically the (unintentional?) subtext: "The story becomes a pretext for mankind’s toying in the clockwork of heavenly conception, unwinding the springs of electric impulse and restarting of tick-tock hearts. But it can also be seen as a Cold War parable of unleashing the atom, a power now beyond control, feared knowledge now spread like a virus among political psychopaths."

I don't quite believe it coincidence that the creature resembles a horridly burned victim of radiation, much like those poor souls who perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Christopher Lee imbues the creature with a sublime gentleness, mostly reflected in those sad eyes, a victim himself of science gone mad. To hide its face in shame, to be self-aware of its deformity is a pity...and Victor Frankenstein is to blame! He and his Promethean ego.

Terence Fisher's direction is wonderful, structuring the film in flashback and never shying away from the Technicolor gore (though tame by modern standards). I also like the tracking shot when the creature is first revealed, and compare it to John Ford's famous close-up in Stagecoach when he introduces John Wayne! Though Victor's head is eventually placed on the chopping block, nothing in the Hammer universe is ever what it seems.

2. What is your favorite of the Hammer Dracula films and why?

Sark: Brides of Dracula. It takes a consummate film to make viewers forget that the imposing Christopher Lee as Dracula is nowhere to be found. Hammer has always been known for methodically paced, gothic period pieces, but this movie is, at its very basic, a romantic action film. Cushing shines the brightest as Van Helsing, and Yvonne Monlaur is an appealing love interest. Drop in some vampires, and you've got first-class cinema!

Christopher Lee surveys a victim in
runner-up Taste the Blood of Dracula.
Kevin: Have to go with the first, Horror of Dracula (aka Dracula). Not exactly Stoker, but full of unforgettable scenes. In the last 50 years we’ve been inundated with vampires, but I can only imagine what audiences felt when they first saw this in 1958. Even today the close-up of Lee’s shocked face as he opens his eyes and his blood stained lips as he hears his vampire wife being staked is spine chilling. James Bernard’s landmark score, Hammer’s ace production design and that unforgettable climax make this a true classic. Seeing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee go at it at the end is one of my all time favorite sequences. Runner-up: Taste the Blood of Dracula.

Alex: The first of a series is once again my favorite: Dracula. Though director Terence Fisher cuts Stoker's narrative to the bone, excising exposition and Victorian misogyny, Fisher does create a wonderful action film that is well paced and well bled. I prefer Hammer's version to the classic Universal which is well shot, I've always like Tod Browning's work, but it's too meek and visually reserved. Stoker’s text is rich with sensual delights underscored by some dreaded Freudian fear of women empowered by liberation from chaste cultural mores.

Fisher’s mise-en-scene conveys information so the story can jump cut quickly to the next setup. For example, as Van Helsing searches the castle for his cohort Jonathan Harker, he discovers a shattered picture frame. In one shot we learn the who, what, when, why, and where, of Dracula’s next appearance: he’s in search of the beautiful Lucy and her precious bodily fluids. This is compact storytelling that wastes little time with lengthy establishing shots or obtuse dialogue, and propels the journey towards its candelabra climax!

3. Although Hammer is most famous for its two series above, the studio made plenty of other quality movies...some with monsters and some without. What are some of your other favorite Hammer films and why do they appeal?

Oliver Reed, filmed from underneath
the water, in Paranoiac.
Sark: Paranoiac -- My favorite of Hammer's superb black-and-white thrillers. Thoroughly captivating, plus an exceptionally creepy mask. Blood from the Mummy's Tomb -- Easily the strangest and most unsettling mummy film I've ever seen, the movie is rich in atmosphere and an overall sense of doom. Countess Dracula -- She's no vampire, but Countess Elizabeth Nádasdy craves blood just as much as a fanged creature of the night. Bolstered by a remarkable and tragically underrated performance by Ingrid Pitt, this film is vintage Hammer: gloriously bizarre and undeniably mesmerizing.

Charles Gray as the dapper villain
of The Devil Rides Out.
Kevin: The Devil Rides Out. Probably my all-time favorite Hammer horror film, despite the embarrassingly bad special effects at the end. (It’s almost like they ran out of money.) But the 1920s atmosphere, a standout performance by Charles Gray, Christopher Lee in heroic mode and a genuine aura of creepiness make this one a winner for me. Never Take Candy From a Stranger (1960): This uncompromising look at the town’s refusal to accept there is a child molester living in their midst is the bravest film Hammer ever made. Scream of Fear (1961): My favorite Hammer mystery thriller with twists I never saw coming. Marvelous lead performance by Susan Strasberg.

Alex: My favorite Hammer film is Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth), the third in the BBC series of Professor Quatermass productions. Director Roy Ward Baker films in mostly medium shot and close-up, with urgent dialogue and few establishing shots which create a made-for-television style narrative: most likely because this is an adaptation from a BBC series. A thinking fan’s science fiction film, how delightful!

But there are other standouts that are often overlooked because of the Hammer label, yet have little to do with horror or science fiction. Two great War films Yesterday’s Enemy and The Camp on Blood Island make David Lean’s epic look like melodramatic kids playing at war. Director Val Guest imbues these films with brutal honesty, never shying away from the tough (and unfair) responsibilities that men face during wartime. The Nanny is a great thriller with Bette Davis, owing as much to Hitchcock as to director Robert Aldrich. And it has one of the creepiest kids since Jack Clayton’s The Innocents or Mervyn Leroy’s The Bad Seed!


DorianTB said...

Rick, you've done it again -- a great panel discussion, with experts whose love of Hammer Films vibrates in every word of their "3 On 3" discussion! I was truly fascinated by what Sark, Kevin, and Alex had to say. I particularly liked this passage from Alex's discussion of Terence Fisher's version of DRACULA, which reminded me of the opening scene in Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW: "For example, as Van Helsing searches the castle for his cohort Jonathan Harker, he discovers a shattered picture frame. In one shot we learn the who, what, when, why, and where, of Dracula’s next appearance: he’s in search of the beautiful Lucy and her precious bodily fluids. This is compact storytelling that wastes little time with lengthy establishing shots or obtuse dialogue, and propels the journey towards its candelabra climax!" You've got me wanting to keep an eye out for many of the films you mentioned, some of which I haven't seen in years. Thanks for whetting my Hammer Film appetite; great job all around, guys!

Anonymous said...

This is more like it! Hammer films rock so it's great to see them get some serious discussion. "Frankenstein Created Woman" is my favorite of the Frankenstein series though "Destroyed" is also excellent. I agree that "Brides" is the best Drac. The problem with the last question is that it precludes a lot of great Hammer vampire films that didn't have Dracula. I'm a big fan of "Vampire Circus," "Kronos," "Kiss of the Vampire" and the Karnstein films.

Grand Old Movies said...

This has been a wonderful series to read, with so many interesting opinions and insights; I've found it educational. I'm just getting started in my Hammer Horror viewing, so I've been taking notes on what to see ("The Devil Rides Out" is on my list). I like Hammer's "Kiss of the Vampire" and its interweaving of vampirism and aristocratic depravity; it extends the vampire mythos past mere horror shocks and into culture and psychology; which I think is what can be said about Hammer's horror oeuvre as a whole. Fascinating point made by Alex on Frankenstein's creature as a symbol of atomic radiation effects. Great job, everyone!

toto2 said...

Wow! This 3 on 3 selection and panel is absolutely phenomenal! I agree with Sark and Kevin that "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" is a tour de force for Peter Cushing. Alex, I really liked the quote you posted about "mankind's toying in the clockwork of heavenly conception" because that sums up the Frankenstein predicament very well.

My favorite Dracula film is also "Brides of Dracula" and for that very reason you cited, Sark: It is so excellent you fail to notice that Christopher is nowhere to be found. "Brides" also features the most clever conundrum of all: a windmill. But I also love the climax of "Horror of Dracula" where curtains and candlesticks prove to be the most excellent of props as Peter and Christopher are at their impassioned best.

The third question is tough. "Quatermass and the Pit" is very thought-provoking and easily the best entry in the Quatermass series. "The Devil Rides Out" is quite frightening and it was wonderful to have Christopher cast as the good guy opposite the elegant Charles Gray. Yet, I love the cleverness of "The Snorkel" and the atmosphere of "The Gorgon."

This was truly a remarkable panel and I thoroughly enjoyed their posts!

Rick29 said...

This was a delightful discussion on Hammer Films--and that's high praise because I am a long-time Hammer fan. I agree with Sark and Kevin that FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is the best of that series. Yes, Peter Cushing is fabulous and Fisher excels at showing Frankenstein at his most ruthless. However, the film also resonates emotionally because the "creature" is a victim here more than any other Hammer Frankenstein (and Freddie Jones is quite good). I'm also fond of FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (which is, indeed, very sad), CURSE, and REVENGE. As for the Dracula series, I agree with Sark again--BRIDES OF DRACULA may be my favorite Hammer picture, period. However, I love the beginning and ending of DRACULA and have come to greatly admire the underrated DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (which features stunning cinemagraphy...no surprise since Freddie Francis directed). Finally, in regard to Hammer w/o Frankenstein and Dracula, I'll go with Alex's pick of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, which pulls off a brilliant premise. I just recently saw NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER and was greatly impressed. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT is a fave, too (even with fakey spider); THE SNORKEL is a lot of fun; and, recently, I discovered DEVIL SHIP PIRATES, which was highly entertaining.

R. D. Finch said...

A fascinating and impressively articulate discussion of a topic that was for me completely unexpected. A real primer for those of us not overly familiar with the Hammer output and a useful guide for future viewing. Also a good reminder of how diverse the Hammer films really were. Rick, when you called this a panel of "experts" you weren't exaggerating! One of the reasons these 3 on 3 discussions have been so great--and so readable--is that the questions are so precisely framed that they encourage succinct and focused responses.

Barry P. said...

Excellent discussion! I enjoyed reading the different takes on the Hammer Frankenstein and Dracula films. Alex, your take on "The Curse of Frankenstein" was intriguing.

Regarding the third question, "Quatermass and the Pit" is one of my personal favorites. Thanks for giving a nod to Hammer's significant contribution to the sci-fi genre. Another great, albeit overlooked, Hammer sci-fi film is "These Are The Damned," which I reviewed recently.

Kevin, I've heard a lot of good things about "The Devil Rides Out." I'll have to check this one out for sure!

Fantastic job, everyone!

Tom said...

I've seen most the films mentioned, but I must agree Christopher Lee is the best Dracula. More passion, more athletic, more toothy. Plus he can put on the evil act far better than Bela.

ClassicBecky said...

This one is a favorite discussion because I love Hammer films! In Question #1, it's difficult to choose, but I believe that Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is No. 1. In this question, I elieve Sark's explanation stands out: "...completely unsympathetic doctor" ... "...revel in corruption and manipulation, and the more often he crosses the boundaries of good taste, the more he becomes the "monster" of the film" ... "showcase for Peter Cushing, whose energetic performance makes a lingering impression." Very well put! Cushing usually plays sympathetic characters, and he must have enjoyed this opportunity.

In Question #2, I agreed with Kevin about The Horror of Dracula, and liked very much his description of the film's timeless appeal: "Even today the close-up of Lee’s shocked face as he opens his eyes and his blood stained lips as he hears his vampire wife being staked is spine chilling." Excellent, and so true!

In Question #3, I have to go with Alex, in his choice of Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth), and in his description of its appeal: "... mostly medium shot and close-up, with urgent dialogue ... A thinking fan’s science fiction film, how delightful!" I totally agree, and I like Alex's assessment.

All 3 of the writers did a standout job! Very enjoyable 3/3 post!

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable read and topic with a great panel of experts! i came by Hammer films as a child when they played on TV in the mid to late 70's. Having one television and an older brother, I had little choice in the matter. But, as with other films & series, I came to enjoy them. Interestingly, I only remember seeing the Dracula films, not the Frankenstein ones. Of those my favorite is the first in the series, Horror of Dracula. I will add one small note - I have a special affection for - or special fear of is probably moremlike it - Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Though inferior to its predecessors, the title of that installment alone brings a chill thru my bones. I can still remember the TV trailor with the VOICE
that resonated through the house and sleepness nights while awaiting the day it would be on TV AND more sleepless nights thereafter. Thrilled and out-of-my-wits scrared! Ah, those fond memories!