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These reviews are out of sequence, in the sense that I watched four other films before them which I haven't posted about on LJ yet. I have started writing about all four, and indeed started my write-up of Romania, too, but I am not doing a great job of actually completing LJ posts right now. So I am going to suspend sequentiality in favour of what I actually feel like writing and might manage to complete.

ms_siobhan and I already had a film-watching session lined up for this Sunday just past anyway, but in the wake of Christopher Lee's death we revised our programme in his honour. Since ms_siobhan is a huge Peter Cushing fan, and Lee and Cushing were such great friends, it seemed most appropriate somehow to use the occasion to watch two Lee / Cushing collaborations which neither of us had previously seen. So, I hastily acquired House of the Long Shadows and The Skull and we got stuck in.

14. House of the Long Shadows (1983), dir. Pete Walker

We watched this one first, largely for technical reasons (the quickest / cheapest way to acquire The Skull was from Amazon instant video, but we were struggling to get it to display on ms_siobhan's TV). Our plan had been to move forward chronologically, but TBH in the end watching this one first was for the best, as it is not a very good film by any standards, so this way things got better as the afternoon progressed.

It is a horror pastiche, which is just difficult to do well. The temptation, to which this film succumbs, is to max out on tropes and clichés, throw in a few oh-so-clever nods and winks, and not worry about actually having a decent story. Tongue in cheek, knowing, self-referential horror certainly can be done well, as Horror Express proves. But House of the Long Shadows does not succeed in the attempt. The story doesn't really make sense, much of the acting is piss-poor, and two successive reveals at the end which both show (on different levels) that the story we have been witnessing wasn't 'real' after all aren't enough to excuse these flaws.

That said, Cushing, Price and Lee (in that order) get excellent and very effectively-lit entrance scenes; the script-writer did do a good job of writing pitch-perfect dialogue for each of them; and they all turn in the consummately professional performances they are so much beloved for. You would not know to watch any of them that they were in a hokey second-rate piece of rubbish, or that their characters were not 100% alive and real. John Carradine and Sheila Keith are also excellent as a creepy pair of caretakers... OR ARE THEY???

Lee specifically gets ample opportunity to do one of his Very Best Things - the affronted middle-class Englishman, biting back his natural instinct for apoplectic rage in favour of a more decorous righteous disgruntlement. He also gets to wield an axe with full-on murderous enjoyment, and gets a marvellous death-scene to boot. So his parts are fantastic (as are Cushing and Price's), but the film as a whole just doesn't do him (or them) justice.

15. The Skull (1965), dir. Freddie Francis

This one is an Amicus film, and consists primarily of Peter Cushing delivering an extended character study of a slow decline into madness, induced by the skull of the Marquis de Sade. It was hugely more enjoyable than House of the Long Shadows, mainly by dint of offering a coherent story and taking it seriously. I wouldn't go as far as to dub it a masterpiece, but it has unusually high production values for an Amicus film, which translate in particular into some spectacular sets and costumes. It also takes time to develop its characters and build the tension of the story - which again is unusual for Amicus, who tended to gravitate towards portmanteau films, effectively consisting of 20-minute shorts. This is one single story, and indeed one which could have been done as a short - but here Amicus give it 1h30, and really wring the fullest macabre potential out of it as they do so.

The direction is by Freddie Francis, familiar to me in particular from Dracula has Risen from the Grave (shot the following year). There are quite a few signature Francis touches which I recognise from that film, including in particular the use of multi-layered shots which place strikingly-shaped objects like statuettes or candle-sticks in the foreground, while characters perform quiet, still, domestic acts such as reading a book in the background. The effects of the skull are also conveyed by some fantastically-surreal sequences involved stylish work with light, colour, close-ups, reverse point-of-view shots and bird's-eye or worm's-eye views to signal its unsettling emotional impact. It is just about possible to read the 'effects' of the skull as purely psychological, since its capacity to move mysteriously from one place to another are only ever witnessed by one single character at a time, and always someone (usually Peter) who is already being driven mad by its influence. There are also extended sequences with little or no dialogue (Wikipedia notes the final 25 minutes, but there is quite a lot before that as well), but between Francis' directorial touches and Cushing's tormented madness, you hardly notice this, caught up as you are in all the tension and motion.

Lee this time is in a supporting role to Cushing's star turn. His character's function within the plot is to form a contrast with Cushing by being the person who was tempted by the skull, but strong enough to be proof against it. So he is a little tormented, which he conveys nicely by staring hauntedly into the middle distance, but is basically a good guy. He also gets some opportunities to be urbane and suave, which is always a pleasure to watch, and furthermore wears The Jacket. But he comes to a sticky end when Cushing brains him with a Satanic statuette - and in all honesty I have seen better Lee death scenes than the one he delivers here (not really shown on screen at all, and merely conveyed by an implausible-looking slump over a snooker table). Cushing's character and performance, meanwhile, really anticipate his role as Lorrimer Van Helsing in Dracula AD 1972 for me - a slightly eccentric and old-fashioned academic, living in a nice London residence and studying the occult. I half-expected to spot a wood-cut of Dracula on his wall at any moment.

This means that I have now seen 21 out of Lee and Cushing's 24 collaborations, and two of the remaining three are pretty spurious (Hamlet 1948 = controversy over whether Lee is actually visible on screen within the final film at all; The Devil's Agent 1961 = Cushing's scenes deleted). As for the experience of watching Lee's films now that he is no longer with us on this Earth - it feels bittersweet. On one level, his very gift was his films, and we still have those. But on another, it is sad to know for sure now that there won't be any more, that he himself can no longer be part of the discourse around the ones he made, and that one more living link with the creative output of the past is gone. It all feels a bit like someone turning up the lights at the end of a really amazing film, and having to face up to the fact that the story is over and the magic has gone. A slightly thinner, greyer world, in other words. I'm just glad he was in it for so long, and did so much while he was here.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 15th, 2015 11:54 pm (UTC)
Aw, the last paragraph of this is so lovely. :)
Jun. 16th, 2015 05:30 pm (UTC)
I so enjoyed the Skull - would deffo watch it again and so may invest in a physical copy...but the House of Long Shadows was utter bobbins and such a waste of such wonderful talents....and the documentary was criminally neglectful of the wonderful Shelia Keith - if you haven't seen Frightmare then you need to add it to your list as it's well worth a watchm schlocky but good fun.

And RIP Mr Lee and thank you for all the hours of enjoyment you've given and continue to give me.
Jun. 17th, 2015 09:38 pm (UTC)
I suppose we must admit that it is possible that the remaining HOUR of that 'making of' documentary on the House of the Long Shadows DVD was entirely devoted to Sheila Keith... but it certainly didn't seem like it was going that way when we switched it off.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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