?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

The local cultural offerings of last weekend could not have been more perfect for me. Not only did the National Media Museum in Bradford put on a Hammer Horror themed film course, but Robert Lloyd Parry, who played M.R. James in Mark Gatiss' documentary about his life on Christmas Day, was to be found doing live readings of Lost Hearts and A Warning to the Curious in a derelict warehouse in Holbeck on the Sunday evening. Fitting it all in to a single weekend was a bit of a logistical challenge, but I am so glad that I did.

The film course was entitled Sex, Death & British Horror: Hammer in the 1950s, and involved screenings of the three iconic films which made Hammer's name as a horror studio in the late '50s - The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy - each preceded by about half an hour's worth of introductory talks. On the Sunday afternoon, we were also taken into the museum's archive to see some of the most relevant items from their Hammer collection, while each day ended with tutor-led discussions of the films in the Media Museum bar. Seeing the films and the archive was awesome, of course, but I have experienced those before, whereas the chance to sit around with equally-geeky people steeped in the same material and keen to discuss it in depth was in many ways the best part of the weekend for me. Really, that wasn't exactly unique for me either, since many of the most vocal people in both discussions also happened to be my friends already, so I can have that experience almost any time I like - as indeed we did as we walked out of each screening, or on the bus afterwards. But it's still nice to do it in a slightly larger group, and with some extra perspectives and opinions in the mix.


7. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), dir. Terence Fisher

Our first screening, early on the Saturday afternoon, was Hammer's first real foray into full-on Gothic horror, and their first ever colour film - The Curse of Frankenstein. I have seen it before, obviously, but only a 'normal' sort of number of times - probably three or four - not the excessive numbers I've racked up for Dracula, some of its sequels and The Wicker Man. I've certainly never seen it on the big screen, or indeed even seen the cleaned-up version of it which is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD, so it was a treat to witness in all its crisp and luxuriant splendour.

So much that later became iconic begins in this film that it is difficult to view it with the fresh eyes it deserves, but even if you can't quite manage that it holds up well anyway as a treasured classic. Jimmy Sangster's trademark ability to capture the essence of the original novel even while paring it down ruthlessly to a 1.5-hour film deliverable on a minimal budget (also key to the success of Dracula) is very much in evidence. I won't list every example, because there are a lot, but I mean things like the way the Antarctic framing sequences of the novel are translated to a simple prison cell in the film, preserving the basic idea but saving both screen-time and location shooting. Bernard Robinson's beautiful sets, with their contrasting greens and reds and clever sense of space even where there wasn't any seem so self-assured that it's hard to believe this was Hammer's first colour film. And there are Lee and Cushing in their first ever Hammer performances - Lee imbuing a role which has no sympathy scripted into it with a hearty measure nonetheless via his physical performance, and Cushing playing an obsessive villain with the same crispness and drive which later made his heroic roles so fascinating (seriously, there is but a very thin line between Van Helsing and Frankenstein).

Above all, though, viewing it with twenty-first century eyes, we couldn't help but be struck by its epic potential for queer readings. Obviously part of what made Hammer's horror offerings so successful was the overt sexuality which the studio inserted (as the title of our course acknowledged), which in the case of this story involved creating a buxom house-maid, Justine, for Frankenstein to snog passionately in corridors and then treat like a cad, and turning Elizabeth into her sexual rival. Though played at face value as an entirely heterosexual set-up, this in itself led to some dialogue with quite different overtones, as when Frankenstein tells the jealous Justine during a particularly steamy corridor session that his cousin Elizabeth will soon be her new mistress: "It will be your duty to serve my cousin Elizabeth, and see to her every need as thoroughly as you have mine... in a different way of course."

But it is their introduction of the character Paul Krempe which opens the door to something more than suggestive double-entendre. Paul is another example of Sangster's efficiency-parings. He's basically an amalgamation of the Baron's University educators (also pared down to a home tutor), and his childhood friend Henry Clerval. But by the time we have seen him and Victor go through a growing up / training montage together which is packed full of shared passions and moments of triumph, all while just the two of them are living together in the same house, it is difficult to see them as anything other than a romantic couple. From then on, the whole story is basically about the strains and reconciliations in their relationship. Though both are equally excited by the possibilities of their experiments, differences of approach begin to emerge, until Paul withdraws first from the work and then from the house itself. But he can never quite stay away, always susceptible to being tempted back by the promise of one more scientific wonder - until, that is, the closing scene in the prison cell when he finally finds the strength to reject Victor forever, in spite of his impassioned pleadings, and to walk away from the pain.

Someone should totally do a fanvid of their most passionate moments, set to a tragic song about doomed bromance. But that someone will not be me.


8. The Mummy (1959), dir. Terence Fisher

Though The Curse of Frankenstein started everything and Dracula will always be my favourite, in the context of this weekend it was actually The Mummy that really blew me away. As for The Curse of Frankenstein, I've only seen it a few times, so it retains a freshness and ability to surprise which obviously Dracula doesn't quite have for me any more (not that I am not still discovering new things in it - I just have to look a little harder, is all). And on the big screen in full digital restoration, it didn't half deliver.

I don't think I'd ever consciously realised before how closely The Mummy's Egyptian flash-back scenes in particular follow the conventions of contemporary ancient / Biblical epic films. I guess lavish spectacle plays to best effect on the big screen (whereas it can sometimes just seem like an unprocessable mess of tiny details on a small screen), and the scenes of Ananka's funeral ceremonies are definitely a serious attempt at delivering this. The music is absolutely soaring and amazing too, and again something which can be appreciated better via a full-scale cinematic sound system than a television set. But perhaps most characteristic of the epic genre, and something I definitely should have noticed before, is the use of faux-Egyptian wall-paintings as backdrop to the opening credits - a classic visual 'promise' to bring the ancient world to life via the medium of film. I was half-expecting the standard accompanying claim that the story we were about to witness was based on meticulous research into the ancient sources after a few minutes of that - but of course that would be stretching things a little too far for a Hammer film!

That's not to say that no research at all had gone into the historical aspects of the film. It includes a fairly reasonable voice-over account of Egyptian royal funeral rituals, spoken by in-film Egyptologist character John Banning over the flash-back scenes of princess Ananka's funeral procession. But while I make no claim to be an Egyptologist, even I know that Karnak is not a god, but a place (with temples to at least four different divinities in it). Ananka's funerary artefacts were also clearly (and inevitably) based mainly on Tutankamun's, which is pretty anachronistic given that she was supposed to have died 4000 years before the main story (set in 1895), whereas he died only 3250 years before that point - and after some pretty major intervening religious and artistic changes, too. But that's all par for the course for a low-budget film, and exactly what I would expect if Hammer had ever done anything set in the Roman period, too.

[Hold on a minute.... *Googles* Oh dear gods! Yeah - turns out they went there.]

Anyway, as either Matthew Cheeseman or Helena Ifill (I already can't remember which) pointed out in their opening talk for this film, it was made only very shortly after the Suez crisis, and was obviously a great way to explore some of the issues which that had thrown up via analogy - post-colonial guilt, regret / nostalgia for Britain's past glories, mingled fear and respect for the exotic Other, etc. I am no more an expert on the fine details of this event than I am an Egyptologist, but the basic outline which we were given before the film was that after President Nasser nationalised the Suez canal in 1956 and then blocked it to shipping in 1957, Britain and France launched military action together to try to regain control of it. Meanwhile, concerned over the fact that the USSR were supplying Nasser with arms, the United States were keen to defuse the whole thing, and put strong pressure on Britain and France to withdraw from Egypt and pursue a diplomatic solution instead.

I didn't expect any of this to map particularly directly onto the film, but blow me if it wasn't mirrored precisely and exactly in the nationalities of the major protagonists. The oh-so-very-English hero John Banning (Peter Cushing) has a French wife, Isobel (played by a genuinely French actress, Yvonne Furneaux), and having raided the treasures of ancient Egypt in the face of explicit warnings to leave well alone from an angry local, Mehemet Bey, they of course find themselves the subject of an attack which they are incapable of handling on their own from Egypt's ancient past, i.e. the Mummy itself. And who is then called in to help them? A sceptical American police inspector, played by Irish actor Eddie Byrne but doing a very distinctive New York accent, who at one point quite explicitly tells Banning not to go to Bey's house trying to play the amateur detective. In what I suppose then amounts to a sort of nostalgic wish-fulfilment for lost empires, things are actually resolved in the end not by the American, but by the fact that ancient Egypt (the Mummy), though not modern Egypt (Mehemet Bey) is still in love with France (Isobel, thinking her to be a reincarnation of the princess Ananka), and basically gives up the fight after she tells him to put her down and returns to England (her husband) instead.

I'd love to know how consciously-topical any of that was, but certain aspects of it at least, such as asking an Irish actor to play his role with an American accent, are definitely deliberate choices. Meanwhile, there is all sorts of other detail and nuance at work which collectively creates the sense of a film that has a great deal going on. It's noticeable, for example, that we see the Mummy come to life for the first time from a crate which has fallen into the bottom of a swamp - a motif introduced for the first time by Hammer, and missing from the various Universal Mummy films from which they cobbled together their plot. As we covered in the discussion session afterwards, this readily evokes the oily, stagnant waters of the blocked-off Suez canal. But I did wonder if it was also an attempt to spice up the Mummy legend by appropriating the horror of swamp monsters like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and perhaps also link in with ancient Britain's closest equivalent to Egypt's Mummies - that is, peat burials.

Then there is the clever set-dressing, like the iconic red colouring for the British colonies on the globe in John Banning's study, or the prominently-placed chess set in the same room which echoes the struggle between Banning and the Mummy (also used to similar effect in Dracula). Banning's leg injury, and resulting stiff-legged limp, also help to cast him as the Mummy's opposite number - as indeed he is, because in the end this is all a love-triangle story about the two of them fighting over Yvonne Furneaux. The Mummy, though, can't speak for himself (having had his tongue cut out before being locked in a cupboard to face eternity), so it is with his modern compatriot, Mehemet Bey, that Banning engages in verbal conflict. I'm pretty sure most script-writers' handbooks have a very forceful chapter on the importance of not writing ten-minute scenes consisting of nothing but two people talking to one another, but this one set two strong characters with clear agendas and firmly-held beliefs against one another, treating both with absolute seriousness and respect, and the result was absolutely electric. Such a pity, though, that the same seriousness and respect was not extended to the multiplicity of comic (fake-)Irish characters, whose Irishness didn't have any relevance whatsoever to the plot, and seemed to have been included purely for the sake of a good dose of Paddywhackery.

In general, then, a really self-assured film which shows off Hammer's collective qualities at their best. Very much worth watching, too, for Doctor Who fans, because of its knock-on influence on both The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967) and Pyramids from Mars (1975). The former is basically an Egyptology tomb-raiding story translated to the fictional planet of Telos, and (as magister confirmed for me) features George Pastell, who played Mehemet Bey in The Mummy as a very similar character named Eric Klieg - ostensibly a consultant native assisting the archaeologists, but it soon turns out that he is more interested in allying himself with the Cybermen. As for Pyramids from Mars, it has more or less everything The Mummy has: a fez-wearing modern Egyptian worshipping ancient gods and ordering Mummies around; a large English country house full of Egyptian relics; two middle-aged Egyptologist brothers; poachers in the forest; people firing at the Mummies with rifles; a tomb filled with green light. They are simply put together in a slightly different order and with space aliens filling in for ancient Egyptians. It's not news to most Whovians that Doctor Who drew heavily on Hammer's output, of course, especially in the mid-70s: The Brain of Morbius, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Horror of Fang Rock are all other notable examples. But it's nice to revisit the links occasionally anyway, and especially when you are a big fan of both.


9. Dracula (1958), dir. Terence Fisher

Look, yeah, even I'm getting slightly embarrassed by how often I am watching this film at the moment. But I was hardly going to miss it in the context of this course, and it wasn't my fault I happened to be at the Media Museum when they were showing it three weeks ago, either. And even after all this time and so many viewings, I not only trod a little further along the usual familiar thought-paths which it sets off, but actually genuinely noticed a New Thing in it which I had honestly never spotted before. This was that the hearse which clatters out of Dracula's castle when Van Helsing arrives there in search of Jonathan Harker has a driver. Here he is:

Hearse driver

I'd always previously assumed that this hearse was driverless, and that the horses were effectively being driven telepathically from inside the coffin by Dracula, much as also happens in Prince of Darkness, and I felt pretty silly on finally realising that this isn't actually the case here. But in fairness this driver does appear only very briefly and from a distance, and when I mentioned it to fellow Hammer-obsessive magister on the way out of the screening, he said he'd only spotted him pretty recently too. I guess it is one of the things that restored prints seen on big screens enables. But the man is definitely there, and in fact is named on the H2G2 page for this film (see Trivia section) as George Mossman, owner of the Mossman Carriage Collection, which supplied most of the horse-drawn vehicles used in Hammer's films. That certainly sounds a lot more plausible than the IMDb's suggestion of John Mossman, anyway, who is very blatantly both the wrong age and the wrong nationality.

This might seem like a pretty tiny detail, but actually the appearance of this driver makes a pretty big difference to two wider aspects of the film, both of which basically concern how much Dracula does or doesn't lie to people. One is the issue of whether or not he has a household staff. When Jonathan Harker arrives at the castle, Dracula tells him that his housekeeper is currently away due to a family bereavement. For a long time, I assumed that he was lying, and he did not in fact have a housekeeper at all, because that’s consistent with how Dracula is portrayed in Stoker's book. But one thing I'm trying pretty hard to do with the Hammer Dracula franchise at the moment is to think away the baggage of previous tellings of the story, including Stoker's original, and to treat Hammer's films as a self-contained story universe in their own right. Once you do this, it frees you up to read all sorts of aspects of the films differently, and the "Unfortunately my housekeeper is away at the moment" line is a really good example of that. Because the fact is that Dracula's castle does look awfully well-cared-for, and I can hardly envisage either him or Valerie Gaunt going round it with a broom, and of course he does have Klove in the next film. Suddenly, the possibility presents itself that Dracula is actually telling the truth – he really does have a housekeeper, but it just so happens that that person is away temporarily.

The appearance of the hearse-driver strongly supports that reading. This person is clearly in Dracula's pay - either as a permanent employee charged with looking after his horses and carriages, or perhaps as a temporary one hired for the specific purpose of picking up a coffin and driving it to Carlstadt (similar to the temporary hiring of Jonathan Harker to sort out the library). On balance, I'd lean towards the hearse-driver being a permanent employee, simply because the speed with which he drives away from Dracula's castle suggests he is under directly-delivered orders from Dracula himself to get the hell to Carlstadt post-haste, and knows it would be very unwise indeed to disregard them. I would expect an ordinary hearse-driver charged with collecting a coffin and conveying it to a nearby town to assume that the job should be done slowly and with dignity. From there, it becomes extremely plausible indeed that Dracula also has other servants hidden away in the below-stairs areas of the castle whom we simply never see - including the fabled housekeeper.

Meanwhile, the second issue which the hearse-driver resolves, and which has puzzled me for years, is the fact that the customs officer at Ingstadt has a perfectly accurate record of the hearse's final destination in Carlstadt - viz, J. Marx, Undertaker, 49 Friederickstrasse. After Arthur Holmwood and Van Helsing have been to that address and found no coffin in evidence, Arthur himself raises the following possibility:
ARTHUR: The driver of the hearse might have lied to the frontier official about where he was going.
HELSING: Yes, but that fellow at the morgue wasn't lying. He was really surprised when he saw the coffin wasn't there.
For years, I've assumed that "The driver of the hearse" here actually (unbeknownst to them) meant Dracula, who by that point in the journey had emerged from his coffin and taken the reins directly. And that had always confused me, because surely Dracula would lie in exactly that situation. I mean, what sort of eedjit would allow a customs official to write down precisely where his coffin might be found when he already knows full well that he has vampire-hunters on his tail? But now I know that it wasn't Dracula who did this at all, but a human hearse-driver whom I've only just realised even existed. And I think that in turn probably also answers the nagging question of what happened to that hearse-driver after he delivered Dracula's coffin to the undertaker, and why he doesn't seem to be available to drive him back to his castle at the end of the film. You told the customs official the truth about where Dracula was going, thus potentially endangering him and messing up all his evil plans? DEATH FOR YOU - and with no redundancy payment, either.

So one tiny bit-part role, which doesn't even amount to a proper character but just a guy competent to steer a horse-driven hearse really, and who appears on screen for all of about half a second, has given me all that. Dracula as both less of a liar and more of a liar than we might think, and with at least one, probably two, and potentially a whole host of human employees at his service. This - this is why I love this film so.


I was going to write about the effects of viewing the three films so close together, of our visit to the Media Museum's Hammer make-up effects archive, and of the M.R. James readings in this post as well, but it's already got pretty long, and I won't have time to do any more until Monday evening, as I have to spend the weekend at my parents'. So this will do for now, and I'll pick up the rest next week.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
minnesattva
Feb. 21st, 2014 08:03 am (UTC)
It was Matthew Cheeseman. :) Just saying.

I stayed up later than I meant to last night because once I saw you'd written this, I wanted to read it before I went to bed.

Looking forward to the second half!
strange_complex
Feb. 21st, 2014 09:42 am (UTC)
Oops, sorry to have kept you up! Hope it was worth it. ;-)

Yes, I thought it probably must have been Matthew Cheeseman talking about the Suez canal, since it was a historical point rather than a literary one, but I lost faith in my memory as I was writing it up, so played safe.
minnesattva
Feb. 21st, 2014 09:47 am (UTC)
Well, I had to think about it too, I wasn't sure either. But she did the background of the Egyptian gothic and then handed over to him -- I think halfway through a slide! -- and wasn't Suez was the first thing he talked about? So it's easy for the memory to get confused. :)
ms_siobhan
Feb. 22nd, 2014 01:27 pm (UTC)
Am listening to the Dracula AD 1972 soundtrack as I read/type - it's cheesily wonderful. Wish I could see that on the big screen.

Hope you are having an okay weekend xx
strange_complex
Feb. 22nd, 2014 06:22 pm (UTC)
Heck yeah - I would pay serious money to see that on the big screen. That is of course exactly the sort of thing we need festivals like the Fantastic Film Weekend for, as I doubt there would be enough crazy people (like us!) to make it worthwhile for any cinema otherwise. :-/

Totally agree about the fab-ness of the soundtrack, though. I listened to it while driving down to B'ham yesterday, and it kept me cheerful through a series of very trying diversions and delays. I've also just picked up a belated Christmas present, which wasn't delivered in time for Christmas itself - this CD, which has soundtrack music from Dracula 1958, Risen, Taste, Hands of the Ripper (for some reason) and Vampire Circus. I'm really looking forward to listening to that on my way home tomorrow, and can of course do you a copy of that one too (unless it is the same as the one you've already got which you mentioned before).
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

Latest Month

December 2018
S M T W T F S
      1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031     

Tags

Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by chasethestars