See, last time I had a really big 'thing' on Christopher Lee, which was about ten years ago now, Lovefilm and Netflix did not exist, my local video shop had a limited range, I had a limited income so that although Amazon existed I could not simply buy anything I felt like from it, and many of the films I wanted to see were not available to purchase in any format anyway. Now, the range of availability is greater (though still nothing like comprehensive), and so are both my disposable income and the channels available to buy or hire through. So films which I have long read about in books but been unable to watch are actually available at long last via the click of a few buttons. Hooray for exponential steps forward in technology and communications!
Actually, I probably could have got hold of this particular film ten years ago - it would have been more a case of limited income stopping me than limited availability. But there are other films lined up on my Lovefilm list, or already in my possession, which I know I couldn't have done, because I tried at the time and was frustrated. More of those in later reviews.
For now, this one is an AIP film which borrows the title of an Edgar Allan Poe story, but discards the story itself in favour of a new one drawing on some of his classic tropes (e.g. burial alive, insanity, unavenged crimes from the past), and mashing them together with others such as body-snatching and deformed horrors in the attic. For AIP, it was a continuation of the Poe / Price films which Roger Corman did in the early '60s, but by this stage other directors were being used. In fact, this one was supposed to have been directed by Michael Reeves (of The Sorcerors and Witchfinder General fame), but he was unable to start it - not, as is often reported, due to his death, as filming had already been completed before that, but more due to the depression and substance abuse problems which shortly afterwards caused his death.
It features the coveted Price / Lee combination (actually it was the first time they worked together and the beginning of their friendship), and involves Christopher Lee playing Dr. Neuhartt, a rather sour Victorian medic who is keeping the local body-snatchers in business. Price, meanwhile, plays Lord Markham, a troubled colonialist aristocrat with plantations in Africa, a trusting and innocent fiancée, and a dread family secret in the attic. Alas, they barely interact on screen, appearing together only very briefly in a scene where Christopher Lee's character is already lying half-dead on the floor, having had his throat cut. But that is only one of many alases which affect this film.
Other flaws include:
- The dialogue, much of which is banal or lacklustre.
- The performances, most of which lack any real spark.
- Vincent Price's performance in particular, which (I'm sorry Vincent) really does feel dialled in. I know his USP as an actor was to play characters who are troubled to the point of being largely divorced from humanity, but here he just seems kind of wooden, and there are scenes in which his character definitely should show more emotion than he does - as for example, when he discovers that his brother (the dread family secret in the attic) is (apparently) dead.
- The conveyance of characters' motivations, which is often left completely obscure or revealed too late (with no particular advantage arising from the delay). The best example here is the lawyer, Trench, who takes extensive personal risks in order to help the brother in the attic, in spite of the fact that the only time he visits him there, the brother tries to strangle him. We learn some stuff about how he has been embezzling money from the family estate by forging documents, and he's also quite willing to accept 1000 guineas from Lord Markham to furnish a corpse to lie in state in the place of the brother. But this isn't an adequate explanation for why he takes the trouble to help the brother himself in the first place, especially because everything else he does gives the impression of an entirely selfish and cold-hearted man.
- The fact that every character is either unlikeable or under-developed, so that there is no-one we can really cheer for or hope will escape all the blood-shed. Lord Markham's fiancée / wife (from part-way through the film) is the closest we get, but she is a pretty bland character, and never in any serious danger, so it doesn't really work.
- The effects used to represent throat-cutting. I can forgive a lot where special effects are concerned for the sake of a good story, but this isn't a terribly good story anyway, and the cut throats are basically represented by a painted line of extremely unconvincing blood across the victim's neck. Since this happens several times during the story, they really could have done with putting more effort into making it look like an actual injury.
Meanwhile, on the plus side:
- The sets are superb, from the inherited Markham family home to the London streets where some of the shadier events of the film take place.
- So are the costumes - though sadly for Christopher Lee, not the wigs.
- Some of the camerawork is brilliant, especially during the opening scenes of an African ritual punishment.
- Lee's character, and his performance of it, are actually both pretty solid. Dr. Neuhartt's involvement in the body-snatching business makes him extremely vulnerable to blackmail, and he ends up embroiled in things he's clearly unhappy with as a result, so there is scope for a kind of suppressed frustration to the character, and Lee makes good use of it. This, of course, one of the reasons why he's worth 'following' as an actor - he's in a lot of great movies, but even in the second-rate ones you can rely on him to be one of the redeeming features.
- Quite apart from Lee and Price, it furnishes plenty of material for a good game of Spot Your Favourite British Character Actors. I was particularly pleased to see Rupert Davies (best-known to me as the Monsignor in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, but to others more likely as Maigret) and Colin Jeavons, whom I have loved dearly ever since his stint as Max Quordlepleen in the BBC's TV adaptation of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
But those aren't really enough pluses to significantly outweigh the minuses, especially while the handling of the female and black characters is distinctly of its time (shall we say?). The women, as usual, are all there to be sexual objects and / or victims for the men, and there is one extended tavern / brothel scene about half-way through in which several of the extras are getting up to some pretty rapey things, but it is treated primarily as titillation. As for race, there is an extent to which the film is attempting to offer a ham-fisted critique of British colonial involvement in Africa. Lord Markham himself recognises that the family estate there is exploitative; this is personalised when we learn that one of the Markham brothers knocked down and killed a local child on his horse; and what appeared to be a tropishly barbaric African religious ritual at the start of the film is later revealed to be an enactment of justice for the child's death. This was apparently enough to get the film banned in Texas for appearing to be 'pro-black'. But to 21st-century eyes, the portrayal is less than entirely radical. African local justice is still shown as both brutal and flawed (since they exact vengeance on the first Markham brother they can find without checking whether or not he was actually guilty), while the only black character who gets any serious screen-time or dialogue is an Ethnic Magician, who tells the white characters that he is versed in matters which they do not understand.
So, anyway. That's another film which I can tick off in both my personal filmic and televisual Horror bible and my list of every film Christopher Lee has ever made. But I won't be going out of my way to watch it again.
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