Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Skull (1965)

“Christopher Maitland sat back in his chair before the fireplace and fondled the binding of an old book. His thin face, modelled by the flickering firelight, bore a characteristic expression of scholarly preoccupation. 
Maitland’s intellectual curiosity was focussed on the volume in his hands. Briefly, he was wondering if the human skin binding this book came from a man, a woman, or a child. 
(…) It was nice to have a book bound in a woman’s skin. It was nice to have a crux ansata fashioned from a thigh-bone; a collection of Dyack heads; a shrivelled hand of Glory stolen from a graveyard in Mainz. Maitland owned all these items, and many more. For he was a collector of the unusual.” 

The Skull is one Amicus’ first horror films. Coming hot on the heals of their first portmanteau flick, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, this is actually a feature length movie though ironically based on a short story, The Skull of the Marquis de Sade, by Robert Bloch, i.e. the kind of material that they would later typically use for the anthology productions.

Horror films about obsessive collectors are a fascinating sub-genre that have very rarely been explored outside of Amicus where Robert Bloch appears to have been the driving force behind that niche (see also “The Man Who Collected Poe” segment of Torture Garden).

For The Skull Milton Subotsky co-adapted Bloch’s screenplay about an esoteric collector (Peter Cushing) who starts a descent into murder and madness when he is being offered the genuine skull of the Marquis De Sade.

Though the movie by and large follows the general plot of the short story to the point where certain lines of dialogue are even lifted verbatim, given the requirements of a feature length production there are added sections that are virtually dialogue free in which the film truly shines.

For these scenes director Freddie Francis managed to create some memorable bravura images that clearly demonstrate the cinematographic skill that would ultimately lead to him winning an Oscar. (Official Director of Photography here was John Wilcox.)

A Gothic pre-credits scene is bathed in a very Bavaesque light and depictures a silent, moody grave robbing. At one stage everything is filmed from the point-of-view of the corpse. It appears as if the corpse was lying in a glass tomb and could look through it to see the dirt removed from the coffin.

The film has lots of those strange angles and we often get to see everything from the perspective of the skull, a type of imagery that Alfred Vohrer was also very fond of in German Edgar Wallace Krimis at the time.

Long periods without sound or talk other than musical cues and purely visual imagery dominate this production that is also chock-a-block with little unnerving details such as somewhat distorted mirror reflections or bizarre camera angles.

The most famous of these scenes is midway through and could have been taken straight out of TV’s AVENGERS series: Maitland appears to get arrested and is brought to a Kafkaesque location, a large but mainly empty room only presided over by a judge surrounded by demonic statuettes who communicates through mute sign language and forces him to play a game of Russian Roulette, probably the most drawn out one prior to Deer Hunter. Maitland afterwards escapes through a maze of red corridors, and is threatened by gas and crushing walls while the skull is seen floating through the air. It’s a wonderfully filmed surreal nightmarish vision that vastly improves on the short story’s equivalent which features a rather more conventional form of torture by Iron Maiden.

The visual opulence of this production is furthermore highlighted by some of the most stunning set designs to be found in a 1960s horror production (courtesy of Scott Slimon and Bill Constable).

The characters all live in individually styled surroundings emphasizing their various collecting interests: Maitland’s library; an opulent billiard room with tribal masks; a phrenologist’s apartment featuring a range of masks and dragons as well as lots of books, crystal balls and skulls; the paintings in the shady dealer’s room.

According to Deborah DelVecchio and Tom Johnson in Peter Cushing: The Gentle Man of Horror and his 91 Films all this was filmed in Shepperton Studios “on one composite set which consisted of five rooms and a hallway”.

The Skull is probably the closest we have to a Cushing/Lee-Team-Up in which Peter Cushing plays a Baddy against Christopher Lee’s Good Guy though Cushing’s character is never inherently evil just involuntarily under an evil influence. (And Lee is not really a Goody, just scared and not-evil.) In actual fact the film ramps up the body-count in comparison to the original short story where there were decidedly less killings and none of which were cause by Maitland. 

The film is a major tour-de-force for Cushing who features in the vast majority of the scenes and often is required to silently act within the confines of a dialogue-free atmospheric scenery.

The only other two actors in this production with any decent screen-time to speak off are Patrick Wymark as a wonderfully sleazy procurator of artefacts and Christopher Lee as a friend and fellow-collector who first of all gets embroiled in a bidding war over some demonic figurines and afterwards wants nothing more to do with them. It’s rare that we ever hear fear in Lee’s voice but this is one of the few occasions where he is made to portray a man at the end of his tethers.

Also watch out for Michael Gough as an auctioneer and Patrick Magee and Nigel Green as a coroner and police officer, all three in tiny blink-or-you-miss-them short appearances that beg the question why so many reasonably well known actors at the time constantly show up in what amount to little more than extra parts at that stage in their careers.

All in all, The Skull is one of Amicus’ best productions if not even THE best. Though the studio is mainly known for their portmanteau movies, it required a feature length adaptation of a short story to help them properly unleash a highly atmospheric feast. Some may consider this to be a bit short on actual horror but for me this is one of the most intriguing visual treats the studio had to offer.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The ever-changing faces of Victoria Vetri

Or should I call this: The ever-changing hairstyles of Victoria Vetri?

Either way, I just happened to come across two of Vetri’s TV appearances this weekend:

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.’s The Indian Affairs Affair still features her under her alternative nom-de-plume Angela Dorian.

The episode is the series’ Season Two finale and with its exaggerated “Cowboys’n’Inchuns”-imagery already gives a taster for the campy madness that was to follow in the subsequent season.

All of the Native Americans on display may be American but they’re hardly native. Even Illya Kuryakin joins in and dons a dark wig and a fake accent.

Dorian/Vetri plays Charisma Highcloud, the daughter of an Indian Chief (played by familiar in face if not in name, Ted de Corsia) held captive by Indian hating L.C. Carson who intends to drop a hydrogen bomb and apparently needs the Indian’s reservation for his schemes. (Don’t ask.)

Seriously, whatever happened to the hydrogen bomb? Isn’t it time we get a decent hydrogen threat again? Atomic warfare is so lame in comparison!

Much to her father’s annoyance, Vetri’s character sustains her student’s lifestyle by becoming a Native go-go dancer in New York.

For MISSION IMPOSSIBLE’s Squeeze Play she is back again to her more paler real self. This Season 5 episode is one of the shows with Leonard Nimoy and Leslie Warren in its line-up, both of which also have prominent roles infiltrating the hide-out of a dying Mafia don (Albert Paulsen, who had previously also appeared in a variety of other roles for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE) with the intention of obtaining his secret list of heroin distributors and causing an internal struggle in its ranks.

Vetri again plays a “Chief’s” younger family member, this time the grand-daughter who is pretty much innocent but has inklings of the nefarious activities of all those sharp-suited men in sunglasses around her.

Truth be told if the mention of “Angela Dorian” hadn’t triggered something in my memory I may never have connected her with the blonde-haired bewigged cavegirl of Hammer’s WHEN DINOAURS RULED THE EARTH. Strange that someone who has become something of an iconic figure in Hammer Fandom, should ultimately be so unrecognizable in most of her other performances but such is the fate of Brunettes who briefly become famous as Blonde Bombshells.

The MISSION IMPOSSIBLE episode is currently available on YouTube or Netflix US. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. may be on YouTube for some…. but not for my region. I watched this courtesy of my fab U.N.C.L.E. box set.

Now I better be off trying to come across some more of Vetri’s TV work. It seems that due to her looks she was often hired for more “ethnic” roles and therefore featured in a number of Western series as well, not just 1960s Spy shows.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Four Sided Triangle (1953)

Given that Hammer’s official YouTube channel has made some of their lesser known and previously only difficult to get a hold off early black & white productions more readily available, it is pretty pathetic that I haven’t spent a few sleepless nights yet in front of the screen in my endeavor to plug a few more of my holes in my Hammer filmography.

Time to change this…..
(Spoiler Alert: Please continue reading only after watching the film first.) 

FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE was Terence Fisher’s first Sci Fi movie and some of its concepts indeed seem to predate some of their later Frankenstein flicks (e.g. CREATED WOMAN).

In a pastoral English village, Robin (John Van Eyssen who is better known as (HORROR OF) DRACULA’S Jonathan Harker) and Bill (Stephen Murray), two friends since childhood, are collaborating together to create what was apparently going to become a prototype for Star Trek’s replicator. They are assisted by Lena (Barbara Payton), a childhood sweetheart who has just returned back from a stint in the States, and makes up the third (and later on also forth) side of their triangle.

Payton’s character is potentially the most interesting one in this movie as she is so decidedly off-centre, yet the film seems to treat most of her later decisions with the utmost normality.

We first see her in a flashback playing knights and lady with the boys and clearly already favouring Robin. Following a lengthy stay in the States she meets up with Dr Harvey (James Hayter), the narrator of this film, and proudly proclaims that she intends to spend all her money and subsequently “die in some reasonably unmessy fashion”.

This is quite possibly one of the most casual suicide declarations ever filmed and even more shocking as we never seem to get a proper idea why she considers herself such a failure and disappointed with life. What a way to get introduced to a character!

Meeting her old friends again, however, seems to give her a fresh purpose in life and she acts as their assistant and quickly rekindles her mutual infatuation with Robin, leaving Bill just longing after her.

Most of the research work is depicted as taking place in a laboratory that could easily have also been used in both the Universal or Hammer Frankenstein productions. Where at first the goal was to replicate inanimate objects, duplicating life is the obvious next step, especially given that Bill comes up with a plan to copy Lena giving him at last a chance for some quality time with her artificial twin but leading the viewer with a few more choice head-scratch moments with regards to her dubious decision making skills.

Not only does she readily agree to volunteer without batting an eyelid for this untested replication process. Her artificial twin (called Helen) is a carbon copy even down to her emotions for Robin yet out of some misdirected sense for – yes, for what exactly? it is never clear - , she decides to marry Bill, only to attempt to drown herself. To make things even worse, she subsequently believes that getting her memory wiped just so she can forget about her real true love is indeed a good idea (“an empty mind and a new beginning”).

And never during any of this do we get a feeling that this is anything else but common sense decision making! Any single one of those decisions is actually beyond creepy so not emphasizing that creep factor in the movie and making all those actions appear downright normal is in the end an awfully wasted opportunity and a missed chance.

This could have become a proto-Cronenbergian Mind Fuck but just ends up being a very average and mercifully short production based on a preposterous idea. Even a potentially disturbing surprise ending is solved amicably, unlike the literary original that appears to have gone just this extra bit further with regards to the final outcome.

William F. Temple’s original story was adapted to the screen in collaboration by both Terence Fisher and Paul Tabori, a Hungarian author who on top of writing some English language pulp fiction novels wrote a number of screenplays as well and was also involved with Terence Fisher’s next film, SPACEWAYS, yet another early Science Fiction movie by Hammer.

Whereas most of the talent in this film was just at the beginning of their careers, sadly 26-year-old Barbara Payton was already approaching the end of hers.

Once an up and coming potential Hollywood Star she was a true-life Femme Fatale and after having made the rounds through a number of her leading men and nearly being responsible for the death of one of them following a vicious brawl over her, she was deemed toxic in Hollywood and reduced to shooting the likes of BRIDE OF THE GORILLA.

Going to Bray was meant to be a new start for her. FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE was filmed from August – September 1952 and shooting on her second Hammer film BAD BLONDE/THE FLANAGAN BOY started right afterwards on September 25.

Alas, there was little else to come for her careerwise. She fell into a vicious spiral of alcoholism, drug abuse and homelessness, was at one stage reduced to sleeping on park benches and ended up selling her body. She died much too young at the age of just 39 as a result of heart and liver failure.

Though it’s easy to blame the Hollywood system for her downfall, it must also be said that there are ample examples of normal folks out there pressing the self-destruct button out of their own volition.

A cover story in CONFIDENTIAL magazine published an exposé: “How I went from a $10.000 a week movie queen to a $5 party girl!”

In her memoirs I AM NOT ASHAMED she wrote choice nuggets such as:

"I went out with every big male star in town. They wanted my body and I needed their names for success. There was my picture on the front pages of every paper in the country... Today I live in a rat infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rose wine. I don't like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men. I love the Negro race and I will accept money only from Negroes. Does it all sound depressing to you? Queasy? Well, I'm not ashamed."

Having long been out of print and commanding high prices, the book was re-published a few years back (and is still available cheaply for the Kindle) as well as a biography about her, KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE, named after one of her films. I hope to review these books a bit more extensively in the near future but you know me: I may also just vanish again for a while from the blogosphere.

In the meantime: Do check out the movie. After all it comes free courtesy of Hammer’s YouTube channel. It may just be an average production overall but with the Frankensteinian vibes and some off-beat moments courtesy of one of Tinseltown’s most miserable real life stories, this is worth a quick glance.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Deadly Bees (1967)

A contemporary Amicus horror film directed by Freddie Francis, starring Suzanna Leigh and a wild eyed, over-the-top and eccentric Frank Finlay, also featuring Michael Ripper as a publican, with songs by Elkie Brooks (dubbing Leigh) and The Birds on screen with Ronnie Wood and a screenplay co-written by Robert Bloch based on H.F. Heard’s bestselling Holmes pastiche A Taste for Honey.

So what could go wrong?

 Actually not all that much at first glance.

Though mainly known for their anthology horror concepts, these always were a bit hit and miss and it’s therefore good to see one of Amicus’ proper feature length forays into horror. Not making this a Gothic horror production wisely set them apart from Hammer while at the same time securing some of Hammer’s key personnel guaranteeing a certain recognition factor.

Suzanna Leigh plays a popular singer on the verge of a mental breakdown who is sent off to a remote island for some respite. (The doctor who diagnoses her is played by a blink and you’ll miss him Michael Gwynn.) The vibes of Swinging London are represented by Swinging Cameras going back and forth while capturing a performance by The Birds (and the bees… nudge nudge). In contrast rural England is frequented by merry publicans, cheerful lasses, eccentric characters and a dysfunctional couple, the husband (Guy Doleman, best known as SPECTRE agent Count Lippe from Thunderball), a brooding farmer/bee keeper who keeps his raging emotions only barely under control and whose venomous, chain smoking wife (Catherine Finn, Michael Ripper’s wife in real life) never lets him forget who it is that has the money in the relationship and out of spite never even bothers answering the phone even when she sits right next to it.

Watching this kaleidoscope of 1960s genre characters is a joy but of course this is the first killer bee movie ever made and based on a popular Sherlock Holmes pastiche, so how does this fare as either a horror or mystery movie?

Not that well, is the short answer……

The only thing frightful about the killer bee attacks is how awful they look. Given that Freddie Francis was a future Academy Award winning cinematographer it is surprising how bland the production looked. The bee attacks in particular are badly process shot in slow motion while the actors were flailing wildly with plastic insects of a kind stuck to their faces.

And for a mystery there really is very little of that. We only ever have two suspects for being the mastermind behind the bee attacks and one of them is so blatantly obviously suspected by just about everyone that the real killer simply must be the other one.

Given that this is an adaptation of a popular book it is surprising to see how much Amicus didn’t even bother with the novel’s main attraction: the fact that its hero, Mr Mycroft, is a very thinly disguised Sherlock Holmes enjoying his retirement as a rural bee-keeper!

In the movie there is no reference to either Holmes or Mycroft or indeed the male Watson substitute and book’s narrator. It appears that in Bloch’s original version of the screenplay these references were much clearer. Bloch had seemingly envisaged Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff in the main parts. Amicus and/or Freddie Francis, however, took a dislike to Bloch’s concept and changed it further on leaving only the barest hints of its initial source idea.

Still, this may be both a failed mystery and horror thriller and at the time those aspects may have been the primary reason for it being critically dismissed. Nearly 50 years after the movie first hit the cinema screens, however, the then current horror flick has started carrying a patina that easily masks its short comings.

For me it will always be a pleasure to watch Michael Ripper behind a bar and encountering a range of off-beat English characters as well as 1960s starlets, a trip back in time to a mythical England where animals attack and civil servants wear bowler hats. Freddie Francis may just be a journeyman director but he is my kind of journeyman director and the film is a very enjoyable way to spend some 83 minutes.

The Deadly Bees was sometimes paired in a double feature together with The Vulture.