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A little over two years ago, I went to a staged reading of an unproduced Hammer script held at De Montfort University's Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre entitled The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula (LJ / DW), as part of the Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham. This was essentially the same deal – a line-up of actors giving a live reading of a script based on unproduced material from the Hammer archives as part of the 2017 festival. In this case, though, there had never been a fully-developed original script. Instead, what the archive had to offer was a 13-page story treatment put together in 1970 by David Allen, but never taken any further.

For the purposes of the festival, Steven Shiel and the Mayhem team had worked that story treatment up into a full script, consciously aiming as they did so for something in keeping with the kind of film Hammer would have produced at that time, if they had developed this one for release. As for the Dracula reading I went to, they had also put together a nice set of opening credits, various evocative stills to project onto a cinema screen behind the actors during the reading, and some sound effects. The actors themselves had also broadly dressed correctly for their parts, without looking too much like something out of a fancy-dress shop, and occasionally did some body language or actions to match what was going on in the script – for example, removing braces or undoing shirt buttons when hot.

Again, as for Unquenchable Thirst, I came equipped with a notepad and basically wrote continuously throughout the production to capture an outline of what was going on, because I knew the production was a one-off and that there was no guarantee I would be able to experience the story again. I'll provide a brief plot outline here, since other than the lovely [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 who accompanied me, no-one else likely to read this was there (to my knowledge). So the story is set in the early 1920s, and we begin aboard the zeppelin Helios, staffed with a British crew plus one American journalist, which is gliding over the north polar regions in search (initially) of a lost former expedition. The story proper begins as they find it, in the form of a ship stuck in the ice, and by the time they have boarded it, looked for clues and returned, we have learnt a) that the previous expedition had set off in search of a lost ancient civilisation, b) that its leader, Justin Halvard (or Halbard? I was never sure), may have survived, and c) that there are some bizarrely prehistoric-looking birds around. On flying a little further north, they discover a lush and verdant valley with its own tropical micro-climate, but here they are attacked by the titular pterodactyls. The Helios is badly damaged, and two crew members who had set off to reconnaitre in a biplane become separated from the rest: Dr. Fulmer, the expedition leader, and Easton, a journalist.

From this point onwards we follow Fulmer and Easton exclusively as they explore the valley and encounter further strange prehistoric creatures, before ending up in a village whose people look Nordic and have no knowledge of technology. They are called the Dallicks (sp?), and conveniently one of them, a young woman named Delandria, speaks English, which she learnt from none other than Justin Halvard. But there's some dark secret which these villagers won't speak about. After a few days, Fulmer and Easton manage to ascertain that a) there are some caves at the edge of the jungle out of which a fierce and inhuman tribe called the Sithar (sp?) emerge at night and attack the villagers and b) Justin Halvard was last seen setting off for those caves. Of course, they have to investigate. Deep in the caves they find a lagoon and at one end of it a partly-submerged alien space ship – clearly once very futuristic, but now rusting to pieces. On further investigation, they also find a city which the original residents of the space-ship clearly built, and infiltrate it by crossing an aqueduct, only to be captured by the Sithar once inside. They wake up in a prison, to find themselves finally reunited with the other crew-members from the Helios.

In the city, they discover that the Sithar are reptilian creatures operating in a hedonistic, autocratic society. They capture villagers and (now) the zeppelin crew in order to make them fight to the death in a Roman-style arena. But, among their number is a half-mutated Justin Halvard. Though now as much reptile as man, Halvard is able with some difficulty and with the prompting of the zeppelin crew to remember and explain the situation. The Sithar are the cruel remnants of an alien race who came 100,000 years ago to study Earth animals and take on their best aspects. They made water from ice to feed generators to create a tropical climate – a closed system in which to study the animals. But what turned them into barbarians was man. They amplified his traits and absorbed them into themselves, but this gave them greed without emotions. In actual men, these traits are balanced, but the Sithar could not balance it and were taken over by only the worst of human nature.

Let's just pause for a moment for this very pertinent snippet from Futurama:


Anyway, after a dramatic fight-their-way-out-of-the-arena sequence the zeppelin crew escape. Delandria's parents, who were taken years before by the Sithar and have become their slaves, fight their own mutation process to help her escape but die themselves in the attempt, and Halvard likewise helps at first but is then overtaken by his animal nature and has to be shot. Back out in the jungle, the Sithar have streamed out of the caves to attack the Dallick village. But with the help of the Helios shooting from the air, the villagers are able to defeat the Sithar. The Helios proceeds onwards to the crater inside which their city is located, and bombs it into oblivion. After this, the Helios crew prepare to depart – except for Fulmer, who has decided to stay and help the Dallicks develop into the lost civilisation he had always hoped to find, and Easton, who has fallen in love with Delandria.

Once again, as for Unquenchable Thirst it was a real thrill to experience this story fresh on its first telling, with no idea at all what would come next. Hammer films generally are so thoroughly discussed nowadays that if you are at all interested in them, and thus read relevant books and discussion forums, it is more or less impossible to go into any of their films without a bunch of preconceptions and expectations. So one of the biggest gifts the Mayhem team are giving us is the ability to escape that, and experience (would-be) Hammer films raw for the first time. They and the acting cast certainly all did a great job of bringing this one to life for us, and I know I was captivated throughout. It's nice and pacy, and has also sorts of lovely little character moments and comic sequences to offer (which I've largely omitted from the outline above for the sake of brevity, but which were very enjoyable at the time). Certainly, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I had a grand old time on the front row roaring our heads off at what is basically an adventure-comedy story, albeit with SF elements.

It belongs to a specific genre, neatly encapsulated by the two Wikipedia pages on Lost World films, and Lost World novels, which isn't as close to my heart as gothic horror. So while I can certainly see how it relates to some of the other Lost World stories I have half-watched, I can't set it very precisely within its genre. I could, though, see how, like most such stories, it is inherently colonialist – as for example emerges in the motif of Fulmer, the British explorer, staying behind at the end to 'develop' the Dallick civilisation (i.e. make it more like his). Probably that's part of why I am not all that into Lost World stories generally – well, that and because they essentially boil down to Men, Men, Manly Men having Manly Adventures and either winning women as trophies or telling them to stay in the kitchen.

On that particular front, Zeppelin v Pterodactyl isn't actually too bad – at least as scripted and performed at Mayhem. In fact it sort of works through the issue in the person of Ruth Imrie, a newspaper photographer. The Captain of the Helios initially grumbles about how the ship / expedition is 'no place for a woman', but in fact she proves nothing but an asset throughout, and is certainly very unafraid and self-determined. There is a nice scene where she is dressing rope-burns on her hands caused by a harpoon rope which she had fired at a pterodactyl during an attack on the zeppelin. She is saddened because men from the crew still died despite her best harpooning efforts, but at this point the Captain remarks that she did what she could, constituting a recognition of her value and resolving his earlier misogyny. Ruth herself them explains how she dressed the wounds of soldiers at Mons in the war, and saw good men die – but, for the same reason, she also knows that there can be miracles. So we have a quite rounded picture there of a woman who has become experienced and independent as a direct result of exactly the circumstances which did have that very effect for many women in the First Word War and its aftermath. How much of that is actually present in the original 1970 Hammer story treatment, and how much creative embroidery by the Mayhem team is difficult to say. But my guess is that there was an outline of a 'strong woman' already there, which Steven Shiel worked up to its best effect, where potentially that might not have happened in a real 1970s production.

I'm not sure either whether some of the gorier moments in the script are original or were the Mayhem production team's attempts to recreate what Hammer were doing in the early '70s accurately. I certainly know that I enjoyed hearing about two pterodactyls pulling apart a zeppelin crew-member between them, before one of them is shot and the other drops his bloodied corpse down into the valley below, though! I also liked the use of Classical motifs for the name of the zeppelin (Helios) and for the arena games which characterise the decadent society of the Sithar. And I was reminded of the Doctor Who story The Daleks both by the name of the villagers (Dallicks) and by the broader set-up of simple villagers living outside an advanced city inhabited by hostile mutants, including scenes of people going through caves to infiltrate it. The resemblance puzzled me initially because influence tended to flow from film to TV in the '60s and '70s, not the other way round. But then I remembered that that particular Doctor Who story had also been made into an Amicus film starring Peter Cushing – so of course anyone writing a story treatment for Hammer in the late '70s would have been aware of it, and liable to rework elements from it.

Anyway, a great evening all round, and I will certainly be continuing to keep a close eye on the Mayhem film festival and any further Hammer manqué productions.


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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
huskyteer
Jan. 29th, 2018 07:49 am (UTC)
This sounds absolutely amazing.
strange_complex
Jan. 29th, 2018 09:57 am (UTC)
Yes, I think you would definitely like it! It also involves giant sloths, which are unaccountably the main steed and beast of burden in the lush and verdant valley. We weren't quite sure on listening how that would work, but maybe the Sithar had spliced their DNA with some other variety of creature, making them less generally sloth-like than they appeared...
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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