Thursday, October 10, 2019

Christopher Lee Battles Charles Gray in The Devil Rides Out

Christopher Lee as the hero.
Upon his return to London, Rex Van Ryn learns from the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) that their mutual friend Simon has been a mysterious recluse for the last three months. The duo motor over to a country estate recently purchased by Simon and interrupt what their friend claims is an astronomical society meeting. It's apparent that something else is going on and de Richleau confirms his suspicions when he finds satanic symbols on the observatory's floor and animals awaiting sacrifice.

It turns out that Simon and a young woman named Tanith are about to be baptized into a satanic cult led by a powerful black arts practitioner named Mocata (Charles Gray). Knowing that the following night is a sacred one for the satanists, de Richleau tries to devise a rescue plan while Rex struggles to understand what is happening.

Nike Arrighi as Tanith.
Set in the 1920s, The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil's Bride) ranks as one of Hammer Films' finest motion pictures. Richard Matheson--an acclaimed writer in his own right--adapted Dennis Wheatley's 1934 supernatural novel. The result is an intelligent script with Hitchcockian overtones.

Hammer's best director, Terence Fisher, ramps up the suspense with three thrilling scenes. The first is when de Richleau and Rex interrupt Mocata's bloody ritual to nab Simon and Tanith from his clutches. The following morning, a dapper-looking Mocata visits the house where Simon and Tanith are being guarded. In a scene straight from Hitchcock's playbook, Mocata exudes charm as he chats politely with the house's owner...and slowly bends her to his will. Charles Gray, who gives a masterful performance as Mocata, uses his penetrating eyes and smooth, controlling voice to great effect.
Charles Gray as Mocata, looking dapper and then in his ceremonial robes.

Fisher's final big flourish occurs in the climatic scene where Mocata uses all his tricks--and the Angel of Death--to lure de Richleau and his friends from a circle of protection. The scene is hampered slightly by merely passable special effects. A giant spider doesn't look all that big--the result of the film's modest budget, no doubt. However, as de Richleau, Christoper Lee's ominous warnings create a general air of unease.

It's no surprise that Christopher Lee considers The Devil Rides Out one of his best films. The sets are convincing and the English country houses--connected by narrow, empty roads--add to the feeling of isolation. Perhaps author Dennis Wheatley gets the credit here, but the decision to stage the satanic baptism ceremony in the woods at night was a brilliant one.

Christopher Lee and Charles Gray give commanding performances as powerful figures at opposing ends of the good-and-evil spectrum. The supporting cast is convincing in their roles, especially British TV veteran Sarah Lawson, who plays the woman who confronts Mocata in her home.

No review of The Devil Rides Out would be complete without mentioning one of the greatest shots in Hammer history. When Tanith is driving a car, Mocata appears to her--with only his eyes visible in the rearview mirror. It's an incredibly creepy image that lingers from one of the best horror films of the 1960s.

Charles Gray's eyes in the rearview mirror.

Monday, October 7, 2019

A Circus with Acrobats, Animals, and...Vampires!

Anthony Higgins is about to bite!
After a highly-successful decade in the 1960s, Hammer Films faced a crossroads in the early 1970s. Their Gothic horror films were no longer considered scary. In fact, they appeared rather tame compared to other movies playing at your local movie theater. Thus, the studio made a concerted effort to make their horror pictures sexier (well, with more nudity) and more violent. One of its most interesting movies during this period was Vampire Circus (1971).

A long pre-title sequence lays the groundwork for the plot. After a headmaster sees his wife take a young girl into the woods, he follows them to the castle of Count Mitterhaus. When he's prevented from entering the castle, the headmaster gathers a group of villagers who are convinced that Mitterhaus is a vampire. They force their way into the castle and kill the bloodsucking nobleman with a stake. With his last words, the count proclaims that the town will die and the villagers' children will die to give him back his life.

Adrienne Corri runs the circus.
Fifteen years later, the village is rife with plague and neighboring towns have created blockades to prevent anyone from leaving or entering. Yet, somehow a traveling circus gets through the roadblocks (when asked how, the troupe's headmistress says nothing). While the circus provides a pleasant distraction for the townspeople, its activities mask the motives of its bloodsucking performers. Their goal is to kill the children of the men that destroyed Count Mitterhaus.

As Hammer vampire movies go, Vampire Circus is an above-average entry with some intriguing ideas, most of which aren't fully developed. The male vampires are not just irresistible to the village women...they're almost sexually addictive. When a mother initially refuses to let her daughter secretly meet with one of them, the girl breaks down in tears and pleads frantically. Some of the vampires are shapeshifters, including one that can transform into a black leopard. But the most original aspect of Vampire Circus is its combination of vampires (scary) and circuses (creepy...you know they are!). 

Robert Tayman as the Count.
With one exception, the low-wattage cast is solid and features actors associated with Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange, Doctor Who, and TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The one weak link is Robert Tayman as the villainous Mitterhaus (the actor's voice was dubbed by David de Keyser). He projects an effeminate quality that negates his effectiveness. Perhaps, it's the combination of his chest-baring costume, gold choker, hair, and make-up. In any event, he never comes across as sexually powerful nor especially threatening.

As I watched Vampire Circus recently, I was reminded of another movie about a traveling carnival that delivers evil to a small town: the 1983 film version of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. It's a flawed movie, too, but, like Vampire Circus, it projects an unusual fairy tale-like quality. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

Margaret Rutherford Goes for a Ride at the Gallop Hotel

Margaret Rutherford.
The best way to approach Margaret Rutherford's four "Miss Marple" films is to forget that she's playing Jane Marple. Rutherford's films are comedies with a little mystery and her character bears only a slight resemblance to Agatha Christie's spinster sleuth. The best of Rutherford's movies may be the second one, Murder at the Gallop (1963), which boasts a charming setting, a strong supporting cast, and a decent mystery. Surprisingly, the plot is adapted from a Hercule Poirot novel called After the Funeral.

It opens with Miss Marple and her friend Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis) witnessing the death of a wealthy eccentric named Enderby. The police quickly conclude that the old man died of natural causes. However, Miss Marple suspects foul play based on finding a cat lurking around Enderby's residence. The old man had a deathly fear of cats. Thus, his heart attack could have been triggered by the sudden appearance of a feline.

Robert Morley as a suspect.
An eavesdropping Miss Marple learns that Enderby's fortune will be split among four relatives. Well, make that three because one of them is murdered shortly after the reading of the will. Now determined to find the culprit, the elderly sleuth checks into the Gallop Hotel, which is run by Enderby's nephew Hector (Robert Morley). The hotel's other guests include the remaining relatives who will share Enderby's fortune. Surely, one of the them must be the killer--but can Miss Marple expose the murderer before there's another homicide?

The villain's identity seems pretty obvious, though the mystery does incorporate one of Agatha Christie's patented tricks. It just strikes me as odd that the producers chose not to adapt one of the Miss Marple novels. There's even one that takes place at a hotel (At Bertram's Hotel).

The Gallop Hotel.
Still, the English countryside settings exude quaint charm, even in black-and-white. If there was really a Gallop Hotel (it was actually a farm in Aldenham, Hertfordshire), I'd certainly be interested in booking a holiday there--murderer or not!

As for Dame Margaret Rutherford, her performance is a matter of taste. I'm not a big fan, but I have film friends who find her delightful. For non-fans like me, at least her antics are nicely balanced by Stringer Davis, Rutherford's real-life husband, whose quiet presence provides a calming contrast. Robert Morley tops the supporting cast, though James Villiers and Katya Douglas have fun as a distrustful couple.

If you're in the mood for a crackling Agatha Christie mystery, then Murder at the Gallop will not be your cup of tea. However, if you're just seeking out a light comedic mystery with a short running time, then you may find it amusing. Of course, you'll need to be able to tolerate the irritating, "playful" Miss Marple music that crops up every few minutes. Unfortunately, it seems to be a staple throughout all four of Margaret Rutherford's Marple movies.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Hercule Poirot Discovers Death in the Clouds

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.
When a passenger sitting across from him on a Paris-to-London flight is murdered, Hercule Poirot becomes determined to find the killer. It's not just a matter of bringing the criminal to justice, the timing of the crime is a personal affront to the famed Belgian detective!

Cathryn Harrison as Lady Horbury.
The victim, the mysterious Madame Giselle, turns out to be a moneylender (and blackmailer) to affluent society members on both sides of the Channel. The suspects consist of:  Lady Horbury (one of Giselle's clients), her friend Venetia, an archaeologist, a dentist, a mystery writer, and the two flight attendants. The murder weapon appears to be a poison dart shot from a blowgun. But how could anyone have committed the crime within the confines of the first-class cabin with no one noticing? As for Hercule Poirot, he was napping!

Death in the Clouds was one of three feature-length episodes of Agatha Christie's Poirot that aired in 1992 during the series' fourth season. It's a mostly faithful adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1935 novel of the same title. A few characters are omitted, but the murderer's identity, method, and motive remain unchanged. In its simplicity, Death in the Clouds is one of Dame Agatha's most ingeniously-plotted  Poirot books.

Philip Jackson as Inspector Japp.
Although Poirot's friend Captain Hastings (wonderfully played by Hugh Fraser) is sadly absent, Philip Jackson's Inspector Japp takes up the slack. The beauty of Jackson's performance is that he makes a believable Scotland Yard inspector while also supplying a light dose of comic relief. For Poirot fans familiar with Jackson's work in the series, I recommend seeking out Raised By Wolves, an offbeat family sitcom in which the veteran actor is hilarious as Grampy.

Of course, the highlight of every episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot is David Suchet's portrayal of the title character. Agatha Christie didn't live to see Suchet as her Belgian detective, but her family approved his casting. Indeed, Christie's daughter Rosalind Hicks once told Suchet: "My mother would have been absolutely delighted with what you've done." Interestingly, prior to playing Poirot, Suchet was cast as Inspector Japp opposite Peter Ustinov as Poirot in the 1985 made-for-TV movie Thirteen for Dinner.

Death in the Clouds is one of the best episodes in the Agatha Christie's Poirot series. Boasting a great setting, a clever mystery, and an impeccable cast, it's a fine introduction for newcomers and a certain delight for Agatha Christie fans.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced

Joan Hickson as Jane Marple.
For many Agatha Christie fans, Joan Hickson's portrayal of Miss Jane Marple in the 1984-1992 British TV series is considered the definitive one. It's difficult to disagree, although I'm also fond of Julia McKenzie in a later television series. But whereas McKenzie showcased Miss Marple's soft side, Hickson admirably captures the elderly amateur detective's sharp intelligence and subtle interrogation skills. Her Marple can be warm and understanding--while simultaneously probing for a crack in a suspect's alibi.

Samantha Bond as a suspect.
The highlight of the Hickson series may be A Murder Is Announced, which aired in 1985 as a three-part episode. It begins with a most unusual premise:  A notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn newspaper announcing that a murder will take place at Little Paddocks at 7:00 that evening. Little Paddocks is the home of Letitia Blacklock, a elderly woman who lives with two younger cousins, a dear friend, a widow who serves as gardener, and a housekeeper. Anticipating the arrival of curious villagers, Letitia opens a bottle of sherry and prepares to receive her guests.

The drawing room is full of people when seven o'clock arrives. Suddenly, the room goes dark, the door is opened, and a man with a flashlight shouts: "Stick 'em up!" Three gunshots are fired amid much screaming. When the lights are restored, there is a corpse on the floor.

Letitia's friend Bunny recognizes the victim as a foreign lad who worked as a clerk at the local hotel. Apparently, he was the man with the flashlight. But who was he firing at and why did he kill himself? Or, if it wasn't suicide, who at Little Paddocks would want to kill a stranger and announce the murder beforehand in the newspaper?

Chipping Cleghorn (not a painting!).
In addition to Dame Agatha's crackerjack mystery, A Murder Is Announced makes excellent use of its rural 1950s setting and benefits from an exceptional teleplay. Powerstock, a village in Dorset, England, stands in for Chipping Cleghorn. Its quaint stone buildings and rolling hills provide a charming backdrop for murder and deceit.

The teleplay by veteran British writer Alan Plater remains remarkably faithful to the 1950 novel. Moreover, it captures the atmosphere of a post-World War II England where foreigners still drew suspicion and food rationing was a way of life. Miss Marple hardly appears in the first episode, in which Inspector Craddock (well played by John Castle) takes lead on the investigation.

Kevin Whately, prior to Morse,
as a Detective Sergeant.
When Craddock requests her assistance, based on the advice of his superior, Miss Marple confides that suspects will tell an elderly spinster things they might never confide to a police inspector. One of the series' best scenes has Miss Marple ever-so-subtly introduce the topic of family photos during a conversation with suspects. It's her way of gaining access to a family album that might contain an old photo of the killer.

As with many Agatha Christie mysteries, there are numerous red herrings and the key to unraveling the murderer's identity hinges on an incident in the past. That makes it a hard puzzle for the audience to solve, but armchair detectives likely won't mind. In this version of A Murder Is Announced, the joy lies in watching the investigation being conducted by Joan Hickson's Miss Marple.