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It seems an awfully long time ago now since the Hammer horror / M.R. James weekend which I began writing up in this post, but I do still want to record the rest of it, as it really was spectacularly awesome.

In my previous post, I wrote up individual reviews for the three Hammer films which we saw at the Media Museum, but I also wanted to note down a few thoughts on the experience of watching all three together over the course of a single weekend. For some reason, they weren't actually screened in the order they were produced - we saw The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Mummy (1959) on the Saturday, and then hopped back in time for Dracula (1958) on the Sunday. I can't figure out the rationale for that, and obviously it isn't critical as I'm sure we were all perfectly well able to re-order the films in our heads and understand the progression from Frankenstein to The Mummy, but I do think that watching the three in their original release order would also be an experience very much worth having.

The three films were the work of very nearly the same 'dream team' of people - Terence Fisher as director, Jimmy Sangster as script-writer, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as lead actors, Bernard Robinson as the designer and Jack Asher on cinematography. The only slight differences emerge for The Mummy, where the role of producer shifts from Anthony Hinds to Michael Carreras, and the music is the work of Franz Reisenstein rather than James Bernard. So watching them as a set really brings home the consistencies which you would expect to see in that situation, as well as revealing the evolution of the studio's collective vision and aspiration. Things like Bernard Robinson's love of green and red colour schemes and stained-glass windows are particularly striking, as is Jimmy Sangster's penchant for writing what are essentially love-triangle (or sometimes love-square) stories. The sense of evolution through the three stories is perhaps harder to pin down to specific details, but I definitely felt a strong sense of increasing confidence, scope of ambition and of course available budget from the first to the last, culminating in the visual spectacle of The Mummy.

Obviously my real focus was on Christopher Lee, and his developing acting partnership with Peter Cushing, though. I thought this was probably the case before we started, but was delighted to be able to confirm that Lee really does strangle Cushing in all three of these films. It's almost like Sangster was a tropish hack writer who re-used the same limited range of ideas in every script he ever wrote, or something. I like to imagine the two of them practising this between takes, with Lee perfecting his vengeful domineering face while Cushing worked on getting his bulging frog-eyes just right. In return, Cushing only actually kills Lee in Dracula and Frankenstein, since in The Mummy Kharis essentially commits suicide instead by walking back into the swamp from whence he came.

Lee's monster-characters also become progressively more sympathetic with each film. This isn't scripted into his first role as the creature in Frankenstein at all, but is nonetheless inserted by Lee's physical performance - for example when the Baron is instructing the creature to stand up or sit down, and he manages it haltingly with a sort of pathetic willingness to please. It is perhaps slightly scripted into Dracula, as for example in the fact that Dracula is clearly motivated for much of the film by the desire to replace his staked vampire bride, but again it isn't very prominent - rather, it is Lee who fills Dracula's eyes with a tragic sense of unfulfilled longing and (as he dies) agony and confusion. But then finally for the The Mummy the sympathy is strongly scripted in from the start, as we learn how Kharis has been motivated all along by unrequited love, and has suffered very badly for it. In part this may just be the nature of the source material, but Frankenstein's creature is written to provoke considerable sympathy in the book, so taking that out was clearly a conscious choice by Sangster, and yet a direction which he successively moved away from in the subsequent films. Perhaps he was just developing a better sense of what makes a 'monster' truly fascinating - but I like to think too that he was beginning to realise what Lee was capable of, and to write for him accordingly.

Anyway, the course did not end with the third film, but culminated instead with a trip down to the Media Museum's archives to see the most relevant items from their Hammer special effects make-up collection, acquired from the estate of Roy Ashton (but also including material used by his mentor and colleague, Phil Leakey). I saw some of this material in 2012 during a Fantastic Films Weekend, but on that occasion it was all on display in glass cases, and my mobile phone camera at the time was definitely not as good as the one I have now. So this time I was able to see the material at a much closer range, including getting to see inside the exciting tins with labels reading 'vampire bites', 'eye pouches' etc., rather than just seeing them from the outside, and I was also able to get rather better photos.

They had various prosthetic body-parts, including what are believed to be the eyeballs purchased by the Baron in The Curse of Frankenstein:

Eye Pouches Prosthetic noses and ears Frankenstein's spare eyeballs

The grim reaper face mask from Amicus' Tales From the Crypt:

Tales from the Crypt grim reaper

Lots of photos of Peter Cushing, including some lovely ones of him at home with his wife and a great caricature:

Peter Cushign at home Peter Cushing caricature

A publicity shot of Christopher Lee, with a dedication to Phil Leakey, presumably written for him when he retired (or just left Hammer?):

Christopher Lee photo with inscription to Phil Leakey Lee inscription to Leakey close-up

It reads "Phil, with all my most grateful thanks for all your heroically patient and brilliantly effective efforts on my behalf - and on my unfortunate face. From one sensitive creative artist to another, Christopher Lee."

But the highlight from my point of view was of course the exciting combination of prosthetic vampire bites (basically just latex disks with holes in the centre) and the teeth responsible:

Vampire bites Touch the Teeth of Dracula

The importance of not touching any of the material was, of course, strongly impressed upon us, resulting in some of us having to carefully hold our hands behind our backs to stave off our all-too-natural urges - especially where Dracula's lovely shiny curving fangs were concerned. And then of course there was general banter around the fact that 56 years earlier those very fangs had been in Christopher Lee's mouth, and there was probably enough biological material left on them to clone him. And somehow on the bus back to Leeds and during our walk into deepest Holbeck in search of M.R. James stories, this turned into a film script entitled Touch the Teeth of Dracula, which would involve some poor innocent soul succumbing to the urge to reach out and touch the fangs, and pulling their finger away with a shock to find it bleeding profusely, and the Count himself taking over their body and being reincarnated in 21st-century Bradford.

miss_s_b and I would then start fighting over him, and somehow (presumably after a thrilling coach chase to the Carpathian mountains) it would all end up with a fight to the death on the battlements of his castle, by the end of which we would both be on fire, and one of us would do Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 1 (falling forward) while the other did Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 2 (falling backwards), so that we tumbled in opposite directions to our doom. It was one of those classically geeky conversations where everyone is madly chucking in ideas, and no-one is quite sure where any of it came from, and all of it is completely ridiculous but somehow the sum total of it adds up to a thing of genius. I love those conversations - and the people I have them with.

All the while, we were traversing a landscape of Victorian industrial chimneys rumoured to have inspired Tolkien's Two Towers, moving steadily further from the traffic and lights of Leeds city centre and penetrating deeper into a domain of crumbling warehouses, cobbled side-streets and eventually open urban scrub waste-land. Catching up with a huddle of people ahead of us wearing long coats and wide-brimmed hats, we confirmed that we were indeed on the right course for the Holbeck Underground Ballroom, which was frankly welcome news as we started to pass work-yards populated with barking dogs and burly-looking men stoking oil-drum braziers. But the journey was well worth it. Inside, we found cheerful people serving wine in chipped white mugs for £1 a pop, free hot water-bottles to make up for the lack of central heating, and a room furnished with tatty sofas, drapes and various antique nick-nacks to mill around in while we waited for the show.

Eventually, we were ushered into the main performance space to snuggle up together on creaking sofas veiled in fabric throws, and watch Robert Lloyd Parry bringing M.R. James to life. If you saw Mark Gatiss' M.R. James documentary on the evening of Christmas Day, you will have a sense of what we experienced, because it featured several clips of Lloyd Parry in character as James, but seeing it in such an evocative space in the second row of an audience of no more than a hundred people was something quite different. I doubt James' studies at either Kings or Eton were quite so cold, or his readings of his own stories quite so impassioned, but I think this is probably the closest I'll ever get to the stories as they were originally intended to be experienced.

Lloyd Parry's performance seemed a little histrionic, or at times even hysterical, at first after a weekend spent immersed in the cinema, but I appreciated his intensity from the start, and once I had adjusted to the different medium it was truly spell-binding. His ability to convey characters from middle-aged women to pre-pubescent boys by means of body-language and accents is really impressive, and he certainly knows how to use dramatic pauses and inflexion to good effect. The closing word of his performance of A Warning to the Curious - 'since' - left chills running through all of us, and we now eagerly await his performance of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine which is apparently coming to Leeds in May.

I close with a couple of pictures of the set, taken without flash in order to capture the shadowy candle-lit feel of the experience. The text on the table is Pseudo-Anacreon's 'At the mid Hour of Night', and the post-card is of a church in Southwold.

Nunkie theatre set Nunkie theatre props close-up

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 3rd, 2014 10:24 am (UTC)
I so want to see Touch The Teeth of Dracula :-)
Mar. 3rd, 2014 10:44 pm (UTC)
Obviously we would have to find a place in the script for a reincarnated Peter Cushing as well, whom I'm sure we could clone using the Tales from the Crypt mask. Perhaps after witnessing the horrible spectacle of Jennie and I plunging to our doom, Dracula decides that he needs to re-evaluate his life choices, signs up for therapy, and of course discovers that his therapist is a certain Dr. Van Helsing...?
Mar. 5th, 2014 01:42 pm (UTC)
I'm deffo up for a cloning Mr Cushing experiment - though of course it could go horribly wrong and we could end up with a rampaging Cushing monster hybrid....
Mar. 5th, 2014 02:27 pm (UTC)
Ooh, now that's a whole other film in its own right, isn't it? He could come back as a mash-up combination of every character he's ever played, including all the monstrous ones like the Tales from the Crypt zombie guy. Then the same thing would happen to Christopher Lee as well and they could FIGHT!
Mar. 3rd, 2014 11:53 am (UTC)
The special effects collection looks amazing! And I love the film idea, you should get script-writing :D

I love the stories of MR James and I would like to see a reading of them one day - it's the way they were meant to be presented, of course.
Mar. 3rd, 2014 10:49 pm (UTC)
Yes, I definitely agree that readings of M.R. James' stories are the best way to experience them. There are some great dramatised TV adaptations out there, but you lose a lot of the wonderful original language that way. Robert Lloyd Parry seems to tour around with his performances quite a lot, although I don't know whether he ever goes to Scotland with them.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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