Monday, October 26, 2020

Vincent Price Returns as Dr. Phibes

Vincent Price as Dr. Phibes.
When we last saw Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price), he was laying beside his dead wife in an hidden chamber, his blood being replaced with a mysterious fluid. Three years later, the blood-exchange process is reversed and Dr. Phibes--now revived--is rejoined by his faithful female assistant Vulnavia.

To their dismay, they discover their house has been demolished and a valuable papyrus has been stolen. Dr. Phibes immediately suspects Darrus Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), a scientist who knows the papyrus is part of a map that leads to the River of Life. Phibes and Vulnavia steal the ancient fragment and head to Egypt, where Phibes plans to revive his dead wife and secure eternal youth.

Valli Kemp as Vulnavia.
Bieberbeck, who has cheated death for centuries, pursues them in hope of also finding the magical river that will extend his life. Along the way, Phibes dispenses with Bieberbeck's henchmen using methods inspired by Egyptian mythology (e.g., one man is stung to death by scorpions).

If you've seen The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), then this 1972 sequel will hold no surprises. Both films derive their dark humor from Price's campy performance and the diabolical, often ingenious, ways that Phibes disposes of his nemeses. The 1920s setting, which added novelty to the first film, is less effective the second time around. That's largely because most of the plot takes place around an Egyptian temple (recreated cheaply on a soundstage).

Price's supporting cast is also far less impressive in the sequel. Peter Cushing and Terry-Thomas add a little spark, but their appearances amount to no more than cameos. Robert Quarry, who proved to be a menacing vampire in Count Yorga, lacks the hubris that made Joseph Cotten a worthy villain in the first Phibes picture.

American International Pictures (AIP) considered making a series of the Dr. Phibes films with colorful titles like Dr. Phibes Ressurectus, Dr. Phibes in the Holy Land, The Son of Dr. Phibes, and The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes. One sequel would have replaced Vincent Price with David Carradine in the title role! Fortunately, none of those films were made, for although Vincent Price is a delight as the revenge-minded protagonist, two Phibes flicks are more than enough.

Robert Quarry as the villain.
Robert Quarry has said in interviews that AIP signed him to a contract to eventually become Price's successor as the studio's top horror star. Allegedly, a reporter mentioned that to Price on the set of Dr. Phibes Rises Again, thereby creating a small rift between the actors. Still, they both went on to appear in Madhouse (1974), though it was also a boxoffice disappointment.

However, in between the Phibes films and Madhouse, Vincent Price starred in one of his most entertaining movies: Theatre of Blood (1973). He portrayed a Shakespearean actor--presumed dead--who seeks revenge on the critics that vilified him.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Roald Dahl's The Witches

Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch.
"Real witches dress in ordinary clothes, and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses, and they work in ordinary jobs," explains Helga to her eight-year-old grandson Luke. "Witches spend their time plotting to kill children, stalking the wretched child like a hunter stalks a bird in the forest."

It's not a pleasant bedtime narrative, but Luke doesn't seem to mind. Plus, that knowledge becomes useful when Helga and young Luke--whose parents die in a car accident--take a holiday to a seaside resort hotel. The Excelsior is also hosting a convention for The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. 

While playing with his pet mice, Luke learns that the society is merely a front for a large gathering of witches led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston). She has developed an elaborate plan to turn all the children of England into mice! Can Luke and his grandmother stop the witches or will he suffer the same fate as his new friend Bruno...who has already been turned into a mouse?

Luke as a mouse.
Made in 1990, The Witches is a devilishly delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1983 children's novel. Dahl, who penned children's classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, never shies away from dark, quirky plots. The film version of The Witches retains those elements. In fact, Helga relates a downright scary tale of a girl captured by a witch, who suddenly appears as part of her father's painting of a farm. One day, her image is in the barn; another day, she is feeding the chickens. The girl's image grows old over the years and disappears one day. Spooky stuff, eh?

Most of The Witches has a lighter tone, though, as Luke and Bruno spend the second half of the movie as talking mice. As opposed to using CGI characters, director Nicolas Roeg employs real mice and mice puppets created by Jim Henson. The puppets may not look realistic, but they are convincing enough and very charming.

The highlight of The Witches are the performances by the two leads, Mai Zetterling as Helga and Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch. The latter shines brightest in a scene in which the Grand High Witch addresses her underlings, berating them for not eliminating enough children and then inspiring them with a motivational speech about how they will transform all the English children into rodents. If you've ever listened to a keynote speaker at a convention, you will appreciate the satire and Huston's impeccable delivery of her address.

Mai Zetterling as Helga.
Mai Zetterling is equally good in her more nuanced role as the elderly Helga. Earlier in her career, Zetterling played sexy leading ladies, appeared in serious Ingmar Bergman films, and even directed movies and TV series. She earned a BAFTA nomination for her 1963 short film The War Game.

The rest of the cast of The Witches is littered with familiar faces, such as Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Bill Paterson (Comfort and Joy), Brenda Blethyn (Vera), Jane Horrocks (Little Voice), and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey).

It's hard to believe that The Witches was directed by Nicolas Roeg. Early in his career, Roeg was acclaimed for challenging dramas such as Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). The Witches is a definite departure, but Roeg imbues it with atmosphere, genuine warmth, and a playful sense of humor. He and screenwriter Allan Scott did change Roald Dahl's ending. The author was displeased and threatened to have his name removed from the movie. Personally, I think the film's ending is an improvement on the book.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Hammer's Frankenstein Films Ranked from Best to Worst

Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein.
1. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) - The series' fourth film finds Victor Frankenstein performing a brain transplant to "cure" a fellow scientist's insanity. No, it's not an act of compassion; Victor's sole motive is to gain his colleague's research data to further his own work. At this point in the series, Baron Victor Frankenstein has become the Monster--his obsession with creating life makes him willing to do anything. Director Terence Fisher's best set piece involves a water main that breaks in the backyard of a Victorian boarding house...where a corpse has been buried in a shallow grave. (Actress Veronica Carlson discussed this scene in our interview with her.) Cushing is superb as the now-cruel, heartless Frankenstein and gets great support from Simon Ward and Carlson as a young couple being blackmailed and Freddie Jones as the sympathetic "creature." The fiery climax would have been a fitting way to end the series. 

Susan Denberg as Christine after surgery.
2. Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) - This film marked Terence Fisher's return to the series after passing (wisely) on Evil of Frankenstein (1964). His visual style grabs the viewer with an opening scene featuring a guillotine silhouetted against a dark, rural sky. This time around, Victor is consumed with harnessing the soul after it leaves the body. However, as a character, Frankenstein takes a backseat to a story about a ill-doomed couple: Hans, a peasant lad haunted by his father's execution as a murderer, and Christine, the tavern owner's daughter who is crippled and scarred. The film's final third turns into a revenge tale, but most of Frankenstein Created Woman is both a literate, bittersweet love story and an essay about life and the soul. Veteran British actor Thorley Walters gives one of his finest performances as Frankenstein's assistant, a physician with an affection for alcoholic beverages. And James Bernard contributes one of his best Hammer scores, which includes a melancholy melody for Christine. For the record, Frankenstein Created Woman counts Martin Scorsese among its fans!

Cushing in his second appearance.
3. The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) - The first sequel to the previous year's Curse of Frankenstein tones down Baron Frankenstein's vicious streak. In fact, Victor is relatively reserved, though obsessed with transplanting a brain into another body. He finds a willing volunteer in his lab assistant Karl, whose body is deformed. Written by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Fisher, Revenge of Frankenstein is a solid, well-crafted effort and one of Hammer's best-reviewed films. It also features the best ending of the series and establishes the brain transplant premise that is revisited later in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
4. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) - Hammer's first Frankenstein film is a bold, colorful reworking of Mary Shelley's novel. Peter Cushing's Victor Frankenstein is an zestful intellectual burning with the desire to learn the secret of creating life. As screenwriter Jimmy Sangster's plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that Frankenstein--not his creation--has become the real monster. The emphasis on the Baron, along with Peter Cushing's compelling performance, is what will keep Hammer's Frankenstein saga going for seventeen years. Curse of Frankenstein also introduces the blueprint for the Frankenstein sequels: vivid color photography, Gothic-inspired settings, and Terence Fisher's willingness to show the gory details. The only major disappointment is Christopher Lee's creature, which is physically imposing but devoid of any emotion. Note that the gap in quality between the films we rank 1-4 is relatively small. All of them are vastly superior to 5-7.

Kiwi Kingston as the Monster.
5. The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) - After a gap of six years, the series resumed with a subpar outing in which Frankenstein finds his creature encased in ice and revives it. There is no connection to the previous films other than Peter Cushing playing the Baron. Evil of Frankenstein is more of an homage to Universal's horror films. In fact, for the first time, Hammer was allowed to employ the famous make-up design used in the Universal movies. The screenplay veers from the established formula by introducing another villain: a wicked hypnotist named Zoltan. The result is a less interesting role for  Cushing's obsessed scientist. The great cinematographer Freddie Francis takes over as director and, while Evil is visually interesting at times, Francis would fare far better with Hammer's Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). Additional footage was shot in 1966 to expand the running time for American broadcast television.

Ralph Bates as a young Victor.
6. The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) - With its box office profits starting to dwindle, Hammer made the unprecedented move of allowing veteran scribe Jimmy Sanger to mess with its Frankenstein franchise. Sangster wanted to create a Victor Frankenstein for the 1970s, so he recast the title role with the younger Ralph Bates (later a villain on TV's Poldark), emphasized the sexual elements, and injected a dose of black comedy. The plot is basically a remake of Curse of Frankenstein and, while it's interesting at times, the parts never gel. David Prowse portrays the Monster, which looks like a wrestler from a Santo movie. Prowse would played the Monster again in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell and go on to portray (but not voice) Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies.

Cushing in the role for the last time.
7. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) - At the age of 70, director Terence Fisher returned to the Frankenstein saga one last time in what would also be his final film. Peter Cushing also returns as Baron Frankenstein, who is now the resident physician in an asylum. Once again, Victor is obsessed with a brain transplant and assisted by a young surgeon (Shane Briant), whose own experiments have gotten him sentenced to the asylum. It's a lackluster outing that verges uncomfortably on black comedy and shows how far the impressive series had fallen in the five years since Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. The ending is amusing, though. In the U.S., it was released on a twin bill with the much superior Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Scott Eyman Discusses His New Biography "Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise"

On October 20th, Simon & Schuster will publish Scott Eyman's new biography Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise. Eyman, a former literary critic for The Palm Beach Post, has written the bestsellers Pieces of My Heart and You Must Remember This (both with Robert Wagner) and John Wayne: The Life and Legend. He has also written biographies about about Hollywood greats such as Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. We had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his new book on the life of screen legend Cary Grant.

Café:  There have been numerous Cary Grant biographies, including ones by his daughter Jennifer Grant and ex-wife Dyan Cannon. What inspired you to write Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise?

Scott Eyman:  Reading his diary. He kept it for about five months in 1918, when he was 14 years old. There is no mention of his mother, one or two passing references to his father. Most of the time he’s cutting school to go to the movies or the music hall. Especially the music hall. What struck me was how self-contained he was, and how indifferent he was to any family or society expectations. He was a street kid. Later that year, he made his break by getting kicked out of school and apprenticing with a troupe of acrobats. It was going to be a performer’s life for Archie.   

Café:  You include a great quote from the actor: “I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.” Why do you think Archie Leach felt the need to “create” the Cary Grant persona that he displayed in public and in movies?

SE:  Archie was born working class and felt he had to fit into the niche of currently popular actors of the time, who ran to elegance – Noel Coward, Leslie Howard, etc. Given his looks, it was a perfectly rational decision. Also, it was a way of building a barrier between himself and his beginnings. That said, he often made a point of talking about Bristol, and occasionally worked “Archie Leach” into scripts as an in-joke. He wanted people to realize that he was in on the joke, and I think it was also his way of signaling he wasn’t a phony or hypocrite.

Café:   Do you believe that, in his later years, he became more comfortable reconciling his private and public lives? If so, what drove this change?

SE:  Very much so. It was a combination of LSD and quitting show business. LSD worked for him in a way that therapy hadn’t, enabled him to reconcile with himself. When he retired at the age of 62, he no longer had to worry about being exposed as an imposter, which I think was an ongoing cause of anxiety.

Café:  You state that Cary Grant was conservative in choosing roles, turning down challenging ones in films such as Tender Is the Night (1962) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). What do you think would have been the impact on his career had he accepted riskier roles?

Cary Grant in None But the Lonely Heart.
SE:  He would be regarded less as a screen archetype and consum-mate comedian, more as a consummate actor. But he was psychologically conservative. Once he established a persona and discovered how the public liked to see him, he rarely (None But the Lonely Heart, Father Goose, etc.) deviated from it. That said, I don’t know that he regretted turning down the likes of A Star is Born or The Third Man. I’m inclined to doubt it. He had his reasons, and they had to do with his psychological needs.

Café It was interesting to learn that Grant was also involved behind the scenes in making films, suggesting a remake of the British film Mandy, sending scripts to director Leo McCarey, etc. Had his career started later, could you envision him as a star/filmmaker along the lines of Clint Eastwood or Warren Beatty?

SE:  His timing was wrong for that. There were no equivalents of those careers in that era because the system wasn’t set up to service actors who wanted control of their careers. It was a classic tradeoff: we give you all this money and in return you do what we want you to do. The system began to change in the 1950s, with people like Burt Lancaster taking almost complete control of what they did. And Grant moved into production late in that decade, but that was about keeping more money, not creative experimentation. 

Café What do you consider Cary Grant’s best film performances and why?

SE:  Notorious and None But the Lonely Heart, because he dares to expose his anger and general prickliness. I love To Catch a Thief as a star turn. Among the comedies, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. And despite the fact that he hated his performance, I love two-thirds of Arsenic and Old Lace if only for his energy and technique, at least until I get exhausted during the last half-hour. 

Café You’ve written biographies of John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, Louis B. Mayer, Cecil DeMille, and other great actors and filmmakers. Who intrigues you as a future subject for a biography?

SE:  No comment. Lots of writers like to talk about what they’re writing, but I’m not one of them. I find it reduces my energy about a project, the build-up of internal compression I need to write a book. Suffice it to say that the next one will be about one of the major artists of the 20th century.


Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise (576 pages) is available for booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Hammer Time: Hands of the Ripper and The Satanic Rites of Dracula

Angharad Rees as Anna.
After movies featuring mummies, vampires, Frankenstein, and generic psychos, it was inevitable that Hammer Films would get around to Jack the Ripper. However, Hands of the Ripper (1971) is a bit of a surprise: a somber, well-acted tale focusing on the famous murderer's troubled daughter.

In the prologue, a young girl watches her father--the Ripper--stab her mother to death. Years later, Anna (Angharad Rees) has grown into a young woman who works for Mrs. Golding, a fake medium. After one of her seances, Mrs. Golding accepts money from a gentleman who wants to spend the night with Anna. When Anna resists the man's advances, Mrs. Golding intercedes, but the ensuing argument triggers Anna's horrid memories of her mother's murder. She grabs a poker and kills Mrs. Golding.

Eric Porter as Dr. Pritchard.
Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter), who suspects that Anna is the murderer, volunteers to care for the girl. In the beginning, Pritchard's interest in Anna is purely academic, as he wants to "cure" her. But, as their relationship progresses, he develops genuine feelings for the young woman that evolve from paternal to perhaps something more. There's only one problem: Anna can no longer control her murderous impulses.

For the  lead roles, Hammer cast two fine performers: Eric Porter, who won acclaim as Soames in the television drama The Forsyte Saga, and Angharrad Rees, the Welsh actress who would charm millions of viewers in the TV version of Poldark. The duo take what could have been a lurid film and bring out the pathos in it.

Indeed, the film's first half is an engrossing Victorian drama that barely resembles a Hammer film. Alas, that gives way to a mounting number of blood-splattered corpses as the story reaches its inevitable downbeat conclusion. Still, if you can look past the violent murders, Hands of the Ripper is worthwhile viewing thanks to its strong performances and production values.

Peter Cushing as Lorrimer Van Helsing.
At the other end of the spectrum, The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) is an inferior effort that wastes the talents of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It's a direct sequel to Dracula A.D. 1972 and continues the contemporary setting.

The opening scenes generate some interest by promising an Avengers-like plot--and even casting future New Avengers star Joanna Lumley as Van Helsing's granddaughter. However, the story falls apart when Van Helsing learns that Dracula wants to release a new super strain of the Bubonic plague on the world. Van Helsing offers an explanation of why Dracula would want to do this (no plot spoiler here!) and while it's novel, it just doesn't make sense.

A red-haired Joanna Lumley.
It's a shame that screenwriter Don Houghton didn't streamline the story and just focus on Dracula as a wealthy recluse (think Howard Hughes) who recruits influential world leaders to do his bidding in return for eternal life. That might have been a pretty good contemporary vampire film. Also, I feel obligated to mention that Satanic Rites features the most boring destruction of Dracula on celluloid!

The Satanic Rites of Dracula wasn't released in the U.S. until 1978. It was re-edited and re-titled as Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride. Fortunately, it wasn't the end of Hammer's Dracula saga. The studio produced one last film featuring the Count: the goofy--but highly entertaining--mash-up of vampires and kung fu known as The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).