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Horror exhibitions road-trip

The other cool Dracula-related thing I did recently was to go on a little road-trip with the lovely ms_siobhan to see two exhibitions dedicated to our favourite kind of horror films: British productions from the 1950s to '70s, and especially those made by Hammer. As luck would have it, the exhibitions we were interested in overlapped by about a week (over Halloween, natch) and were both located in the east Midlands area. So although each was quite small and it would have seemed a bit of an endeavour to go to either one from Leeds on its own, between the two they made for a very agreeable day out.

Our first port of call was Northampton, where the city's Museum and Art Gallery was hosting an exhibition of film posters entitled 'Scream And Scream Again: The Golden Age Of British Horror'. It's actually a touring exhibition, put together by an organisation called Abertoir who run a horror festival in Aberystwyth, so although the Northampton showing has finished now, it's worth looking out for it at a museum near you in the future if you like the sound of it. It wasn't huge, consisting of probably about 25-30 posters plus some collected front-of-house publicity stills in a gallery about the size of a typical village hall, but it provided a very well-selected cross-section of some of the best films of the era.

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We enjoyed talking about the films represented, which ones we'd seen and what we thought of them, as well as discussing the posters qua posters. They tend towards the lurid and sensational of course, and often wildly mis-represent the films as they were actually made - mainly because a lot of them were produced before the film itself, as a way of drumming up financial backing. But they can also be real triumphs of design and are almost always much more exciting and dynamic than today's moodily-lit, over-produced equivalents. Also, although their mis-representation must have been annoying at the time, in retrospect it's kind of charming and amusing to imagine the films which would actually match the posters. This one, for example, is actually for Twins of Evil, which even the most ardent Hammer horror fan would normally admit is a bit weak. But the poster very strongly suggests it includes Christopher Lee playing Dracula, which obviously would have made it considerably better:

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Particular highlights for me included the posters for Michael Reeves' two sole-directed films, with the one for The Sorcerors I think counting as really good design:

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And everything Hammer Dracula-related, including this mad psychedelic poster for Taste The Blood of Dracula which Google's language detector tells me is Croatian, and of course the wonderful Dracula AD 1972, which I had to be pictured next to!

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Our one disappointment with this exhibition was that the signage wasn't very good. People's names were spelt incorrectly, one label had the right title but entirely the wrong text (transplanted from another label), and most fundamentally they didn't actually have anything much to say about the posters themselves - only the films, their plots and their production context. We wanted to know more about the people who had designed the posters, how they had worked and how the collection had been brought together. But anyway, it was very enjoyable all the same.

We also both really liked Northampton as a whole. Neither of us could remember having been there before, and we did see it at its best in lovely sunshine and still-mild weather, but it certainly struck us as worth visiting. In fact, a lot of people I know would enjoy the regular collections of museum itself, because Northampton has a proud history as a major cobbling centre, so basically the whole ground floor of the museum (apart from the temporary exhibitions gallery where the horror posters were) is entirely devoted to SHOES! Victorian lace-up boots, clompy glittery platforms, fancy stilettos, you name it. You can get a taste of the sort of thing they have from their Shoe of the Month blog feature.

We found lots of interesting architecture in the town centre, of which I made a particular point of capturing some of the Art Deco highlights:

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Before setting off on the second leg of our journey we also enjoyed lunch and hot drinks in a very nice but distinctly vampire-unfriendly cafe, housed in the front parts of a huge Georgian church in the town centre.

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Or maybe they were just making sure we had everything we needed for our vampire-hunting adventure?

Our next destination was De Montfort University, Leicester for The Monsters of Hammer: A Screen Bestiary. This is the work of the University's Cinema and Television History research centre (CATH), who now hold Hammer's scripts archive (as well as a growing collection of other Hammer-related material), and were also responsible for the unique staged reading of a never-produced Dracula script, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula which I enjoyed SO MUCH last year. Needless to say, I've been following their activities very closely ever since (and indeed before), so I was very excited for this.

The exhibition had been set up in the University's Heritage Centre, and was physically even smaller than the Northampton one, but they had packed a lot in! We spent a good hour-and-a-half there, compared to about 30-45 minutes in Northampton, and although that's probably more than most normal human beings because we are so geeky about Hammer films and needed to examine each item in detail, discuss it at length and take loads of photos, it is still probably good for almost an hour's interest even if you just look at each item and read through the text once. First, some general pictures to show the overall layout, size and feel of it all:

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And now let's focus in on the most important aspect of the exhibition - the Dracula material, of course!

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This was an absolute tour de force. Notice first of all how the word 'Dracula' turns into drips of blood running onto the exhibition floor. Very Hammer, and a great way to draw viewers in by blurring the boundary between the fantasy-world which was the subject of the exhibition and our reality. But even better in my view is what a static picture can't really convey - the way they had turned this iconic poster image of Dracula with his bride in the library into a 3D cut-out diorama. Again, a beautiful way of bringing the film and its world to life before us, and extra-exciting for me because I have always been particularly fascinated with that library set and everything it hints at regarding Dracula's character (rambled on about at some length here). Set at the front were some lovely pieces of memorabilia, including a copy of the shooting script for the film, which is nowadays widely available as an extra on the recent DVD / Blu-ray release.

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But the script especially wasn't just a Thing in a Case. The context of the library set, and the particular way in which it had been positioned, made it look like another of the books laid out on Dracula's library table, as I hope this shot captures:

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Very meta, and along with the rest of it (a little Google-hunt tells me) all the work of a third-year DMU design student named Chelsea Walker. She deserves one massive shout-out as far as I'm concerned, so - well done, Chelsea, and I hope you absolutely ace your degree and go on to amazing things.

Other Dracula-related treasures included a lovely poster which as it happened had not been included in the Northampton exhibition, and a very nice Prince of Darkness style cut-out with a Hammer horror timeline printed on it, which just cried out for photo opportunities:

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But of course the really exciting thing about the CATH archive is the unmade Hammer scripts (et al.) which it contains, and sure enough there they were - a selected representation in a little glass case standing proudly in the centre of the exhibition space:

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Well, I already know how I feel about The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, so I made sure to take the opportunity to pose with the actual script which had underpinned the awesome performance I saw last year. Also in that case is the production budget for the fabled Vampirella, which I can't say I'm terribly sorry they never made (even with Caroline Munro in the title role), and the script for a proposed Toho co-production, Nessie. OK, so let's take a peek at the other side:

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The Haunting of Toby Jugg is a Dennis Wheatley story which might have followed The Devil Rides Out, but (as far as I understand it anyway) didn't due to poor box-office performance. But what's that next to it there? Dracula on Ice? Wait, what?

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Yep, that's definitely what it says. As the side-view shows, it isn't a full script. Rather, it's labelled 'book and scenario', which in a film context seems to mean what I would call a synopsis - i.e. a descriptive outline of what a story would cover, rather than a fully-dramatised treatment. But wow! It was news to me that Hammer even got that far with anything of the sort. Can you even imagine? I would love to know more about what is in there and what on earth they were thinking.

That, though, is obviously the draw-back with a Things in Cases exhibition for this kind of material, no matter how visually appealing the design is. Don't get me wrong - it was a great exhibition which we really enjoyed, showing a very strong knowledge of and love for the subject-matter and allowing us to see lots of fantastic items of memorabilia. But of course what I really want from CATH's Hammer scripts archive is to be able to read for myself what is actually in the scripts. I've had something very close with The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, but even that was a one-time only performance which I can't experience again. And meanwhile I'm very aware that they hold a script entitled Vlad the Impaler which is a direct adaptation of a radio play I listened to last Christmas about how Vlad became the vampire Dracula, and which I am dying to read / hear properly - not to mention this Dracula on Ice scenario and who knows what else?

What I'd really like is for them to start publishing some of this material. I see in my mind's eye The Ultimate Hammer Dracula Script Collection, including a) the shooting scripts from the movies that were actually made, b) any earlier variant versions of those and most importantly c) all the ones which weren't produced at all. I don't even know if that is possible - presumably even the unmade scripts are still in copyright, so I can certainly see that it would be complicated. But I think publication has to be the ultimate end-goal of the whole project. Otherwise, for the vast majority of the public the difference between the scripts just not existing at all and lots of time and money being spent looking after, researching and cataloguing them will remain barely detectable.

Anyway, for now I would definitely encourage everyone who loves Hammer films to get along to DMU's Heritage Centre, enjoy their amazing exhibition, and fill in enthusiastic feedback forms to help support CATH's work and enable them to secure more research funding. It's open until next May, so you have plenty of time. :-)

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 9th, 2016 07:45 am (UTC)
This all looks brilliant - I love old/foreign/old + foreign film posters.
Nov. 9th, 2016 01:50 pm (UTC)
Me too! Plus I'm just really glad this sort of material is now considered suitable for museum exhibitions.
Nov. 9th, 2016 01:58 pm (UTC)
Yes!! Like the one I went to a few years back based around cover designs for Bond novels (a fascinating, zeitgeisty field).
Nov. 9th, 2016 01:27 pm (UTC)
It was an aces day out - looking forward all being well to another horror related road trip next year :-)
Nov. 9th, 2016 01:51 pm (UTC)
Yep, we'll have to get planning! There is always more to see. :-)
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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