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The plots of two of the films which I saw on the second day of the Fantastic Films Weekend depended heavily on motifs of disguise, with key characters turning out to be someone other than they had appeared to be. So there are significant spoilers under the cuts for Captain Clegg and The Man in Black.

19. Captain Clegg (1962), dir. Peter Graham Scott

This is a tale of piracy and smuggling, based most directly on Russell Thorndike's novel, Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, but also sharing quite a number of story motifs with the earlier smuggling novel, Moonfleet. As a result, it also shares significant overlaps with the later Doctor Who story, The Smugglers (1966), which draws freely on Moonfleet too. All four feature notorious pirates who have died before the main story begins, graves relating to them in the local churchyard, smugglers' rings which the local clergyman and Squire are involved with, rumours of ghostly apparitions, and representatives of the King keen to bring the smugglers to justice. As I said in my Friday write-up of The Quatermass Xperiment, it's no particular surprise to find on watching a Hammer film that it has left its mark on later Doctor Who stories. Here we seem to be dealing with common sources (particularly Moonfleet) more than direct influence, but I could easily believe that team behind The Smugglers in 1966 were consciously aiming to tap into the same audience as Captain Clegg in 1962. Much later, the creepy living scarecrows in Human Nature / The Family of Blood may well also have their origins here - although in fairness, Captain Clegg is far from the only story to feature iconic Scary Scarecrows.

In this particular story, Peter Cushing turns in a fine performance as the local parson, Dr. Blyss, who turns out in fact to be the long-thought-dead pirate Captain Clegg. Since evading a hanging ten years ago, he has been leading the local smuggling ring under an assumed identity, playing the part of a sternly moralising clergyman by day and a dashing law-breaker by night. He's not the only one living under a false name, either - the local inn-keeper's ward, Imogene, also turns out to be his daughter, though finding this out doesn't deter the passions of the squire's son, played by Oliver Reed. Meanwhile, the King's soldiers are in town to investigate rumours of smuggling, bringing with them a former member of Clegg's pirate crew whom he had left for dead some years earlier after cutting out his tongue. After being sent on various wild goose chases by the smuggling confederacy - and especially Michael Ripper in one of his classic likeable-ordinary-fellow roles - their leader, Captain Collier, finally manages to get to the bottom of things. But it isn't Collier's exposure of Dr. Blyss's true identity that does for him - he has gained too much popularity in the village by spear-heading their smuggling activities for that. It's his former pirate crewman with the excised tongue, who finally catches up with the captain and gets his revenge.

Though from the Hammer stable, and released under the alternative title 'Night Creatures' in the USA, this isn't really a horror film, as it doesn't feature anything supernatural, or indeed anything humanly horrific like a crazed serial killer. Captain Clegg's treatment of his former crew-member is pretty grim, but it is not sadistic - it is cast as an over-reaction to a serious crime on the crew-member's part (attacking Clegg's wife), and indeed we are strongly encouraged over the course of the film to see Clegg as a changed man with worthy motivations, and to sympathise with him and his smuggling chums. The opening scenes of the film do feature skeletal horsemen riding across the marsh, and we laughed because they looked so fake, thinking that we were enjoying the charm of Hammer's now-dated special effects. But actually it later turned out that they were supposed to look a little unconvincing, because they weren't meant to be 'real' phantoms at all - rather the local villagers in costumes with luminous paint, busy scaring off anyone who got a little too close to their smuggling operation. So kudos to Hammer for playing around with our expectations.

There were plenty of other classic Hammer tropes, though - like scenes of village life set largely in the local inn, carriages thundering through the night (but carrying coffins full of contraband booze rather than vampires), tolling church bells and attempted exhumations. And of course Yvonne Romain as Imogene and Oliver Reed as Harry, the squire's son, are there to provide the requisite romance story and eye-candy. It's a pity that in her case this had to extend to an attempted rape scene, in which Mr. Rush, the inn-keeper and her guardian, locks himself in with her in her bedroom and she only escapes from him by jumping out of the window. This served partly to insert dramatic tension and help to characterise him as the bad apple in the smuggling ring who needs to be got rid of - but it still seemed pretty clear to me that it was also intended to provide titillating images of an attractive partially dressed, heaving-chested woman in distress. As I said recently in relation to Dark Shadows, though, it's not like there are enough otherwise-interesting genre films for the discerning viewer to be able to afford to filter out all the ones with gender-fail in them - and at least this one has the excuse of being fifty years old.

Meanwhile, fluffy toy elephant and award-winning Lib Dem blogger Millennium Dome has been using 'Captain Clegg' as a pseudonym for the Liberal Democrat leader for some years (along with Mr. Balloon for David Cameron, Mr. Frown for Gordon Brown, Mr. Millipede for Ed Miliband, etc). I never realised it was a particular reference to anything before, but I'm guessing he knew about this film all along. Certainly, there are parallels to draw out - depending of course on perspective. I note that Captain Clegg fought against an authoritarian tax regime on behalf of the people, and did so partly by adopting what appeared to be a rather conservative guise. It's perhaps cheering for those of a Lib Dem persuasion that he managed to get away with this for ten years - although I can't honestly see our Clegg pulling that one off from where we are at the moment. And who, I wonder, will be the harshly-treated former member of his crew who eventually dispatches him? We will have to wait and see...

TV pilot: Tales of Frankenstein: The Face In The Tombstone Mirror (1958), dir. Curt Siodmak

This is exactly the sort of little-known gem I go to the Fantastic Films Weekend to see - the pilot of a planned-but-never made TV series, shown in a double-bill with the film below. It's essentially a Hammer production, but was shot in the US and directed by Curt Siodmak, most famous as the screenwriter for Universal's The Wolf Man. As a result, there are a few American accents about the place, and something recognisably Hollywood about some of the make-up and photography, but also plenty of Hammer staples. We see a travelling couple who stand out a mile in a local village inn with checked table-cloths, a Gothic castle where they are sent away by a frosty owner, a death-scene with a doctor who shakes his head and says there's nothing he can do, a spot of grave-robbing, an appeal to the last vestiges of humanity lurking within a fearsome monster, a doughty local policeman, and a troubled scientist who doesn't intend to hurt anyone but whose obsession with his work goes just that little bit too far.

What I really liked about it, though, was the fact that pretty much the entire story was driven by a female character - Helen Westcott as Christine Halpert, the wife of a dying man. When she and her husband appear at the beginning of the episode, it is clear that it is her agency and drive which has brought them to seek out the famous Baron Frankenstein in the hope that he will be able to save the life of her husband. She then eloquently argues the case with Frankenstein in the face of his refusal to help, deals with the consequences when he won't, and is all ready to leave with dignity after her husband dies. But a few chance references alert her to the fact that Frankenstein must have robbed her husband's grave to acquire a new brain for his half-completed creature, and she reacts by going straight to the castle, demanding redress and ultimately saving both herself and Frankenstein by persuading her husband's traumatised consciousness to cease its monstrous killing spree.

I'm not sure quite where the planned TV series would have gone from here. A voice-over at the start implied that although the first episode was an actual Tale of Frankenstein, it was in the series' remit to present a range of other tales which qualified under the same title by just generally being horrific, rather than actually being about Frankenstein himself. So I guess the same characters would not have been reused. But nonetheless the treatment of the female lead in this particular episode was very promising, and it's a pity that the series wasn't continued.

20. The Man in Black (1949), dir. Francis Searle

This was the second part of the double bill opened by Tales of Frankenstein, and is another little-known Hammer gem. It pre-dates their specialisation in the horror genre, and is in fact a murder mystery. It tells the story of a man named Henry Clavering, who suspects that his second wife is trying to kill him and claim the inheritance he had intended for his daughter, so fakes his own death in order to trap her into revealing her plans. But, rather like Captain Clegg, while there is nothing genuinely supernatural in it, some of the characters do imagine that they are seeing or hearing ghostly activity.

Sadly, another thing which this film has in common with Captain Clegg is a scene in which a young female character (the daughter, Joan) is assaulted by a male character (her step-sister's fiancé, Victor) demanding kisses from her, has to escape by getting out of a window and into the grounds, and is rescued by another man. But the presence of this motif in both films simply reflects the fact that very few people in 1949 or indeed 1962 thought there was anything problematic about consistently portraying women as passive victims in need of rescue. It would be damaging to try to suppress that aspect of our cultural history - especially since its echoes are still rather pervasive today.

Anyway, the story as a whole was good, with some very effective twists as people's true motivations or identities emerged - although I remain confused about what exactly had happened to the real Mr. Hudson (the family's boatman / groundskeeper) by the end of the film. There were some beautiful period clothes, shoes and hair-styles on the female characters, too. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of it was the casting of Sid James of Carry On fame in the role of the suspicious husband. As Robert Simpson said when introducing the film, he actually proves to be very good at playing a straight, non-comic role, demonstrating a good range which includes him convincingly playing the part of another character in disguise for much of the film. So that is a whole extra dimension to Sid James which I didn't previously know about.

After seeing this double-bill, I could have gone and watched Barbarella, or this year's collection of short films, which multiple people assured me were excellent. But I've learnt in previous years that doing nothing but back-to-back films can be pretty exhausting - and besides I didn't want to miss the chance to view the museum's Hammer horror make-up collection, compiled from archival material left to them by make-up artists Phil Leakey and Roy Ashton. The stuff actually on view wasn't that extensive, although apparently they have a lot more sketches and photographs which you can book an appointment to view in detail at any time. But I did get to see some interesting design sketches, concept models and photographs, as well as some actual latex attachments used to achieve the distinctive looks of the Mummy and Frankenstein's creature. Best of all were Dracula's actual fangs from the original 1958 film, complete with a chamber which allowed blood to drip down them through little wires, and sat in a glass case next to tins with hand-written labels saying things like 'Vampire bites' and 'Nostril enlagers':

Dracula's actual fangs from 1958!

(Sorry about the shadow - I couldn't use a flash as it reflected on the glass, so this was the best I could do). I then wandered round the museum's new exhibition on the history of the internet, which explained the development of ideas like distributed networks very clearly, and included interesting collections of early technology with what now seems like unbelievably limited capacity. But I did find the cabinet which was clearly designed to help children understand what on earth life without the internet might have been like rather disconcerting, what with its record-player to demonstrate life without iTunes, Monopoly board for life without online gaming, letters to represent life without email and so on. It's rather scary at the age of 35 to discover that museums are devoting exhibition space to the strange, alien world of your own teens!

21. I Drink Your Blood (1970), dir. David E. Durston

My final Saturday film was grindhouse classic I Drink Your Blood - a tale of satanist hippies driven (even) mad(der than they already were) by rabies-infected meat pies. Before the main feature though, we were treated (Cottage Road Classics style) to some absolutely brilliant trailers for similar films such as Twitch of the Death Nerve, Pieces and Fangs of the Living Dead. All belonged to the school of horror publicity which claims that their particular film is so scary that the audience take their health / sanity / life in their hands on viewing it, with some stating that they were under a legal requirement to give a personal face to face warning to each cinema-goer about the possible health risks of experiencing too many shocks, and others urging patrons to to pick up a free insurance policy in the lobby guaranteeing psychiatric treatment for life if they were driven insane by the film. I concluded a couple of years ago that the more a film relies on this sort of stuff in its publicity, the more crappy it is likely to be, so I'm not particularly tempted to watch any of the actual movies - but the trailers had us all guffawing with laughter.

I Drink Your Blood itself is not what you would call thought-provoking, sophisticated or well-scripted, but that didn't stop it being enormous fun - or indeed quite revealing as an artefact of 1970s Americana. It has a small-town setting, but the small town in question is all but depopulated at the start of the film because of a dam-building project - which I guess conveys some kind of resentment against government bureaucrats whose large-scale infrastructure projects, designed to modernise America and benefit big cities, threatened life in the backwaters and left local populations vulnerable. A gang of hippies then roll up, but the way in which they are portrayed conveys massive contemporary fears and misconceptions, too. Socially liberated flower-children posing a challenge to traditional norms are distorted into perverted satanists bent on wreaking as much havoc as possible. There's a hefty dose of racism, too, inherent in the fact that the three ring-leaders and worst offenders from the hippy gang are an Indian guy, a Chinese woman, and black guy (who is sometimes a bit camp, too - so possibly some homophobia there for good measure). Meanwhile, scenes dealing with LSD and rabies are weighed down with dialogue so hokey and contrived that they come across as thinly-disguised public information films - don't do drugs and keep away from wild animals, kids!

Like every other film I saw on this day, this one features a sexual assault - in fact, it's pretty strongly implied that a teenage girl is actually raped by a couple of the gang members early on. The difference in this case, though, is that the film is so ineptly characterised and scripted that within a few hours she's totally over it, cheerfully going about life as normal, and indeed rolling around in the hay with a local lad who had joined the gang for a while but then got disillusioned. Meanwhile, contemporary cinemas seem to have been more concerned about the film's violence. Sarah Crowther explained in her introduction that the film had been cut in all sorts of different places according to local censorship laws, and that the version we were seeing had been restored as closely as possible to its original form by bringing all the different versions back together. But there were clearly still some scenes that were missing. For example, we saw the Chinese hippy woman pour a circle of petrol around herself, and sit down in the middle of it clearly about to set herself on fire, but never actually saw her do so - although she must have done, as we never saw her in the story again after that.

All the same, though, I don't think the violence in the original film could have been particularly graphic by modern standards, given that we were clearly seeing most scenes as they had originally been released. On the whole we didn't see anything much more that would also have cropped up in a Hammer film of the same period. It was clear that various characters were getting stabbed, having their limbs or heads cut off, being shot or getting a pitch-fork through the neck, but we didn't actually see any of it happening - we only saw the characters responsible moving to strike the blow, followed by a cut away to a blood spatter on the wall, and possibly a view of an obviously-fake severed limb afterwards. Still, as ms_siobhan pointed out afterwards, the contemporary real-life setting and human on human violence with no overtly supernatural aspect must have made it a lot more unsettling for viewers than the fantastical Gothic settings of Hammer movies, so I suppose that helps to explain the much greater reputation for shocking violence which this sort of film has.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 25th, 2012 11:36 am (UTC)
I've just written my review of this for Haddonfield Horror - will let you know if it gets published.
Jun. 25th, 2012 01:50 pm (UTC)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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