A General Election has been called, and I am the chair of a Liberal Democrat constituency party in a very, very winnable target seat. So I am unlikely to get much time for LJ / DW until after it has finished. BUT I've recently been to three very cool performances of different kinds, so I am damn well going to make the effort to record them before they entirely disappear from my memory.
This first one was another staged reading of an unproduced Hammer script held at De Montfort University's Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre, similar to the ones I have been to before of The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula
) and Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls
. This time, though, rather than being part of the Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham, it was produced by kierantfoster
, who has just completed a PhD on the unmade scripts, and got some postdoctoral funding to put it on. He told me he would be doing this at the Vampire Festival I went to in July (LJ
), so I kept a careful eye out in the months that followed, leapt on the tickets when they came out and enthusiastically recommended it to all my horror-loving friends. Kieran even commissioned a special poster by Graham Humphreys just for the event:JohnJJohnston
was kind enough to offer me crash space at his flat in south London for the night, so we met up beforehand for a bite to eat, strolling through Soho past Hammer House (where the studio's offices once were) on the way:
Then it was on to the cinema where more or less everyone who was involved with Hammer and is still with us was there - Caroline Munro of course, because she had a part in the reading, but also Judy Matheson, who had contribute a voice-over, and Madeleine Smith and Renee Glynne (script supervisor), I assume just because they wanted the fun of being at a Hammer performance, not to mention all the people who do Hammer art, and books, and run Facebook groups.
The set-up for the reading itself was similar to the other ones I've been to - a cast of actors, most with one major part and a couple of minor ones, reading the script with appropriate body-language and accents, with occasional music and animations projected onto the screen behind them to help the story along. Here is Jonathan Rigby doing a bit of opening narration, before settling down into his major role for the evening of the ageing, alcoholic stage magician Pendragon:
Having read up a bit on the history of the script and its various woes before the performance, I found that the most pressing question I had for kierantfoster
in the bar before things began was, "Is it actually a good story?", to which he replied "Er, it is now." From this I gathered that judicious editorial work had been done - but I still have to say that the plot-line was pretty bonkers and hard to make much coherent sense of. Besides which a fortnight has already passed since I saw it, so my memory of it may not be particularly sharp.
Still, these are the outlines as far as I can remember. The story is set in mid-70s (when the script was originally written), and the major locations are Bermuda and London. Bermuda beach, we gradually learn, is where Vampirella first fell to Earth, in the form of a bat, after an alien race called Akrons destroyed her home planet, Drakulon, where the rivers run with blood. There, she met alcoholic stage magician Pendragon, who helped her adjust to life on Earth and took her to London where her alien powers lent his act a new lease of life. But she cannot fully remember who she is or where she came from, and is only able to access her past in scant fragments via hypnosis with the help of her boyfriend, Allan. Meanwhile, planes and ships are disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle. They are scooped up, scanned, and then either returned or destroyed. And in London, a scientific organisation called Space Operatives for Defence and Security (SODS), of which Allan is a part, are trying to work out the cause of multiple cases of apparent mass murder and mutilation across the globe.
Early in the story, Pendragon and Vampirella perform their show at a London casino, but we also notice that a strange blue-eye man is tracking Vampirella. He turns out to be one of the Akrons who destroyed her planet, who is also operating the alien base which has been plucking vehicles out of the Bermuda triangle. Vampirella inevitably ends up captured and transported to the base, where she sees horrible visions of brains in jars, but initially she is returned to SODS, where the team are struggling to get their supercomputer to help them work out the cause of the mystery deaths. Their efforts, though, are undermined when their chief (played by Caroline Munro, though in a role originally intended for a man) turns out to be an alien infiltrator, whereupon Vampirella kills her. Vampirella is transported to the alien base again, where she this time confronts the blue-eye man and learns about her past and his role in destroying her planet. He suggests that they should team up and become all-powerful together, but instead she reveals the identity of the base to SODS, who destroy it. Vampirella escapes back down to Bermuda beach, where Pendragon is sitting, and they leave together.
Vampirella as a character originated in a series of comic books, and the story sort of makes sense on that level - casinos, aliens, teams of scientists, kidnappings, supercomputers etc. Indeed, it may have worked best not as a live-action film, as Hammer were planning, but as an animation, where the very staccato story with sudden jumps from one scene to another without much obvious logic behind them might have seemed less surprising. I think it also suffered pretty badly from just having too many characters in it, so that none of them was very well-developed. Still, the core pairing of a washed-up but charmingly paternalistic Pendragon (a role originally intended for Peter Cushing) and a resourceful but out-of-place Vampirella was sound.
For me, the most effective scene by far consisted of a party hosted in their echoing old ballroom by two elderly sisters, Gloria and Constance, who have sent their man-servant out to invite their society acquaintances of the past without realising that they are all long dead. Instead, Pendragon and Vampirella show up, for plot reasons which I can't now remember, followed shortly thereafter by a motorbike gang who get right into the spirit of the party. The sisters are mainly just delighted that anyone has come, while Vampirella uses her alien powers to conjure up visions of the guests they had originally invited, who dance with them for a while, but then gradually fade away. I got the impression from the script that this was intended as visible fading, in which they would become more and more transparent before disappearing, but in my head it was done via edits - each time the camera cut to a new angle on the room, there were just fewer and fewer dancers until only the living ones were left.
Vampirella is a very different kind of vampire from Hammer's more usual gothic variety, both in that she is actually an alien and in that she behaves largely like an ordinary human being, only killing when people deserve it (e.g. the alien who has infiltrated SODS). But I was pleased to find that the story was designed to dovetail with the Dracula 'universe' nonetheless. This was partly done through two characters called Adam (the father) and Conrad (the son) Van Helsing, who come after Vampirella as though she were a typical Hammer vampire, but fail when garlic proves to have no effect on her. I like to think they are maybe the brother and nephew of Lorrimer from Dracula AD 1972
. Also, at the end of the film, as Vampirella and Pendragon walk off Bermuda beach, a horse-drawn hearse pull up and its driver informs them that his Master invites them to perform at his castle, whereupon a hand wearing a ring embossed with a D extends from the coffin inside. ♥
The linking narration from the original script was shared out between the various members of the cast when they weren't busy with other roles, and was similar to other Hammer scripts I've seen or read in the quantity and quality of descriptive detail. Indeed, it included some quite nicely worked out linking devices, like a from-space view of Earth switching to life on the planet by cutting from an image of the globe to a spinning bicycle wheel. I missed Jonathan Rigby's narratorial voice as we'd enjoyed it in The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula
a little bit, but he was great as Pendragon (pronounced as PENdra-gon rather than the more usual pen-DRAgon), channelling Peter Cushing quite uncannily in the role. This wasn't just about his vocal delivery, but something about his stance and the angle of his head which almost made the shape of his face seem to change and acquire a Cushing-esque gaunt profile and long nose.
Georgina Dugdale, whom I didn't even realise until afterwards is Caroline Munro's daughter, played Vampirella, interestingly choosing to do her as sweet and demure (but deadly when she needed to be), rather than the default sexy superhero that the character's comic art suggests. Caroline Munro herself unfortunately stood out a bit as less in command of her role than the others, and she obviously felt it hadn't been her best performance. I chatted to her briefly in the bar afterwards, as I was wearing a T-shirt with a big picture of her in Dracula AD 1972
on it, and a Hammer super-fan who knows her quite well insisted on taking me over so she could see it, and when I asked her if she'd enjoyed it she said straight away that she wished they'd had more rehearsal time. But she has such a lovely warm personality, and was so gushingly proud of her daughter (with good reason!) that no-one could possibly mind.
I came away feeling that it had probably never been a terribly good story, and there were probably good reasons why it was never made, but that it had been a brilliantly fun evening watching it come to life with an audience of appreciative people, and having the chance to reach that conclusion for ourselves. There is plenty more yet to be discovered in the Hammer script archive, and I for one will be there next time it's tapped into.
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