Lee as M.R. James

Casting the Runes location pictures: Kirkstall

I did something I've been meaning to do for weeks today. I got Casting the Runes (1979) for Christmas. It's an ITV adaptation of the M.R. James story of the same name, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, but unlike most of its BBC equivalents it is brought up to date and set in the present day. Dunning is a broadcast journalist, rather than a researcher, who incurs Karswell's wrath by portraying him as a crank in a documentary on occultism, and she is also female. As I understand it, this was done largely to save money on period costumes, sets and locations, and indeed the same principle is clear even in the selection of present-day settings. It was filmed out of ITV Yorkshire's studios, which are literally used as Dunning's work-place, and because they are in Leeds, that is also where she and the other characters live and work.

Before lockdown, I watched it with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, who turned out to be a wonder at accurately recognising the locations I hadn't been able to pin down myself. There are some scenes set in and around a farm near a canal which we didn't recognise immediately, but I managed to locate those soon afterwards too, with a little help from someone on Twitter who pointed me to a collection of pictures of canals in this part of the world. So we'd reached the point where the only locations we hadn't managed to identify were the airport interiors used at the end - and I'm sure there will be plane geeks out there somewhere who can help us with those. Unfortunately, a planned day out to the farm and canal locations never materialised, because coronavirus hit just as we were starting to make concrete plans to do it. But I've been waiting for a good opportunity to use some of the locations within Leeds as goals for walks, thus cleverly combining exercise with an actual trip out to somewhere I genuinely wanted to go. Today, I finally did the first of those - to the ITV Yorkshire studios themselves.

It's actually completely the wrong time of year to attempt like-for-like photos on this production, because it is set in snowy winter weather. The best I could do is wait for an overcast day, but even then the sun began to come out soon after I arrived at the right location and obviously all the trees were in full leaf. I also quickly realised that I couldn't match the original camera angles precisely. My camera just has a different field of vision from the film cameras (I think?) that were used for these exterior shots, while in some cases they were clearly also raised up on tripods / rigs which I didn't have. But still, the purpose was leisure and exercise, not a precise reproduction. Collapse )

By the time I'd finished, the sun had come fully out, but that made for the perfect conditions to sit at the bottom of a grassy bank near the houses, drinking a bottle of water I'd brought. After a while, some children who clearly lived in the houses came along to roll down the bank, laughing and smiling at me each time they got to the bottom. Given that I spend most of my time now sitting in my house with only myself for company, that sort of thing counts for quite a lot these days. I had also clocked up 8000 steps on my phone by the time I got home, as well as clearly stretching some muscles which haven't had much use recently and making bits of my feet slightly sore because I'm not really used to wearing shoes.

Two other locations from Casting the Runes are within walking distance of my house, maybe three if I push it a bit. So now I've done this one as a proof of concept, I might follow up with some of the others over the next few weeks. Frustratingly, under normal circumstances I would have free access to one of the most distinctive interiors as well - the Brotherton Library, which plays the same role in this adaptation as the British Library's old Round Reading Room in the original story. But that one will have to wait until after lockdown.

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Dracula Risen hearse smile

10. Dracula: AD 1972, dir. Alan Gibson

I synchro-watched this film with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 this afternoon. It is one of my absolute favourites in the Hammer Dracula cycle - so much so that I apparently watched it once every two years at the beginning of the last decade: 2012 (LJ / DW), 2014 (LJ / DW), 2016 (LJ / DW). A four-year gap since my last viewing is therefore a long time for me!

It is so good, though, and rediscovering it today in all its vivid immediacy was just brilliant. The more I see it, the more I realise how much my personal fashion concept was shaped by it, and Stephanie Beacham's outfits in particular. Quite apart from the flares, the smock tops and the floppy hats, she is wearing purple in almost every scene. I listen to the soundtrack CD regularly in the car too, but there is a quite a lot of what must have been library music in the film itself which isn't on that CD, and which I've never successfully been able to identify via Shazam or similar - flute music as Bob and Jessica are driving around, the record Johnny puts on for Gaynor telling her the band were all stoned when they recorded it, and the music playing as Johnny stalks Marjorie Baines in the laundrette. I would love to find out more about all of those some time, but meanwhile will have to satisfy myself with exploring more of the music of Stoneground instead. I can see there is quite a lot of it on YouTube.

I don't want to repeat things I've written about this film in previous reviews, but I see that although I mentioned that it has "extremely competent cinematography" in my 2014 review, I didn't give any specific examples. Some of the sorts of shots I mean include Johnny seen through a bus window from across the road as he approaches the Cavern the day after the big ritual, his car approaching his flat seen through the square entrance-way, or Van Helsing viewed in a discarded shaving-mirror after his big battle with Johnny. But those are only a few examples. Throughout, the street scenes, the Gothic church set, and the many smaller interiors are really brought out to their best effect through interesting angles, focus pulls, panning etc. The man responsible deserves credit - and to have been given a better name by his parents than Dick Bush.

I also see that despite working it all out in my head about six years ago, I have never written out here my Very Fannish Theory for how this film actually fits perfectly effectively into the overall Hammer chronology. The apparent problem is that in this film we see Dracula being killed in 1872 and only resurrected in 1972, yet Dracula (1958) takes place in 1885, with Prince (1966), Risen (1968) and Taste (1970) all following on from it in a direct sequence. How, we might ask after seeing AD 1972, can he have been alive for all those stories in the intervening period? My explanation for this rests on the premise that in 1872, Dracula was not alone in London. Rather, Valerie Gaunt's character was there with him. She turns into a woman with the appearance of being in her 70s or 80s when Jonathan stakes her in 1885 (in Dracula 1958), so he probably bit her and turned her into his bride about 40 or 50 years before that - i.e. c. 1840. Perhaps he came to London around about then, and they were living there together perfectly successfully until they managed to come to Lawrence Van Helsing's attention in 1872?

Once you have her in the picture, you can flesh out the story of what happened on that fatal night in 1872. After Van Helsing kills Dracula, we see on screen Johnny Alucard's ancestor coming to collect and ritually bury some of his dust. But he certainly doesn't collect all of it. There is plenty left behind for, for example, Valerie Gaunt to come along after Johnny, and conduct a resurrection ceremony immediately. Naturally, after a traumatic event like that, Dracula and Valerie would choose to leave London for the safety of Dracula's native Transylvania - which is where we meet them both, thirteen years later, in Dracula (1958). By 1972, Valerie is long gone and Dracula has undergone many adventures, including a trip to India in the 1930s, but he has returned to London, not least because he knows he left instructions to his disciples to carry out a resurrection ritual in that year. But it isn't actually a resurrection ritual as such. Johnny thinks he is resurrecting Dracula, but we don't see any actual regeneration scene, as we do in some of the other films - just a load of smoke and then Dracula walking out of it. In fact, he was already alive and watching the ritual unseen as it unfolded, and stepped forward at the end to reclaim a small amount of his own lost strength, left behind with his dust a century earlier (the smoke) and his lost ring. Job done.

This still doesn't explain how Dracula can have gone to China in 1804 in the body of a monk and been killed there by Van Helsing in 1904 in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. I have to resort to "It must be another member of the Dracula family who is also a vampire and was imprisoned in that castle by the Christopher Lee Dracula" to deal with that. But it's all doable if you think creatively enough.

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Me Huginn beak kiss

9. The Masque of the Red Death (1964), dir. Roger Corman

I synchro-watched this with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 on Friday from a Talking Pictures TV broadcast which we'd both recently recorded. I have seen it before of course. I can't remember how old I was when one of the terrestrial TV channels (probably BBC2) did a late night Poe / Corman / Price season, but that was my first introduction to all three of them, and as I know I was avidly reading Poe by the age of about 14, it must have been before that. Later, I also had the pleasure of attending a Masque of the Red Death-inspired actual Masquerade Ball in 2006, which was quite, quite wonderful in many ways. But all of that was before I started writing regular film reviews here, so I haven't actually said anything about the film.

Price's Prospero is just great, and it's in many ways the definitive role for him. (Though actually, I could readily say that of many of his other roles coming to think of it.) He starts out as a cartoonish villain, proclaiming things like "Burn the village to the ground!" and is at his cattiest best when he tells a nobleman offering his wife as 'payment' to let them come into the castle that "I've already had that doubtful pleasure". But as the film goes on he gradually reveals, mainly to Francesca, something more of his inner jadedness and torment, and indeed an almost philosophical world-view. Juliana, his Lady Macbeth-ish wife, has much simpler motivations, throwing herself eagerly into the worship of Satan because she thinks it will bring her immortality and triumph over her competitors. But Prospero - for all that he is certainly petty and cruel at the same time - does it more because he is disillusioned with the world and the limitations of the Christian faith. It's a complexity which Price unveils and sustains in his unique fashion, as he did repeatedly throughout Corman's Poe adaptations. And, again as so often, we see it comprehensively deconstructed at the end of the film, when the Red Death appears and proclaims that he is simply death - not Satan or Satan's servant come to reward Prospero for his devotion.

But this is not just a great Price film. It's a great film with Price in it. His villainy would fall flat without the courtiers cruelly laughing along as his humiliates their fellows, Hop-Toad gets his fiery revenge on Alfredo (in the gorilla suit) for humiliating his wife, and Francesca's lover Gino and father Ludovico are forced to play poison dagger roulette in front of her. Visually, it's beautiful, from the howling wind and monochrome winter landscape outside the castle to the luxury within. I have a better appreciation now that I've read up a bit on Hammer's studio sets for how expensive and impressive the interior castle sets must have been at the time, with the way you can see across one huge room and through arch-ways into another, expanding away into the distance. And of course we all remember the striking coloured rooms with their details of Moorish window shapes, suitably coloured flowers and tableware. In the final, darkest room, as she approaches the altar for the ritual which she believes will make her Satan's bride, the lighting on Hazel Court is absolutely perfect, making her face and a plume of smoke from the incense stick she is carrying stand out just enough from the darkness. The hallucinogenic sacrifice scene which follows also makes good use of sound, creating an uncanny, out-of-body feel as we see but don't hear her screams, while a similar device is used to convey the impact of the Red Death in the final scenes as the bustle and music of the ball cedes to silence and slow, hypnotic motions as he passes by.

Talking Pictures quite deliberately broadcast this film now because the coronavirus pandemic gives it a new relevance, and I applaud the decision. Watching it with COVID eyes, we engaged in some discussion as the film went on about how the red death eventually gets into the castle, which neither us of could remember clearly. Was Francesca an asymptomatic carrier, so that Prospero was effectively punished for the lust that made him bring her inside? What about Gino and Ludovico, her lover and father, whom Prospero holds and visits in his dungeons? Who was touching or breathing on whom? But this isn't how the logic of the film works at all. Though on the surface the figure of the Red Death declares that he claims peasant and prince, worthy and dishonoured alike, in fact it is very much a morality tale, in which he enters into the castle to punish Prospero and his guests for their selfish cruelty, while allowing the innocent and good-hearted Francesca to escape. This is all too tempting a line to pursue in a drama, where it delivers the reassuring message that if we behave well enough, we too will be safe. But COVID has made us all perhaps more aware than ever that this sort of moral take on disease is no morality at all, since its logical conclusion is that the sick are to blame for their own suffering. That is a very harmful belief to transfer to real life.

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Dracula Scars wine

8. The Magic Christian (1969), dir. Joseph McGrath

This is one of four films in which Christopher Lee plays a spoof version of his own performances as Dracula. The others are Tempi Duri per i Vampiri (1959), Dracula père et fils (1976) and One More Time (1970), which I haven't seen.

It's a comedy (obviously), in which the main characters are played by Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr. I must say I'm no fan of Peter Sellers. Dr. Strangelove and Being There are both very good films, but mainly because both are dark political satires. In my experience, the more straightforwardly 'funny' Sellers thinks he's trying to be, the less I want to watch him.

This one is surreal and experimental, in a way that could only really have come out of the late 1960s. It's perhaps all too easy to label it 'proto-Monty Python', given that it literally has both John Cleese and Graham Chapman in it, very shortly before the first series of actual Monty Python aired, but it does feature a lot of their sort of humour. Examples include the helicopter pilot called Pontius, a scene in which the central characters go to the theatre to see Hamlet, and the person in the title role starts doing a strip tease complete with raunchy music and neon signs during the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy scene, and an escalating absurdity gag in which they go out with rifles to shoot game birds, but quickly upgrade to machine guns, rocket launchers and tanks.

It has a central plot, in which Peter Sellers' character, Sir Guy Grand, adopts Ringo Starr's, who begins the film as a homeless person sleeping in the park, but is given the name Youngman Grand by his new adoptive father. Guy Grand is so immensely rich that he can basically do whatever he likes, and his main interest seems to be performing experiments to explore the effect of money on other people. As he puts it, everyone has their price. So he goes round bribing a parking inspector £500 to literally eat his own ticket, offering an art dealer £30,000 for a (possible) Rembrandt before cutting it up in front of his eyes, bribing a team of Oxford dark blues to turn the Boat Race into a fight, and scattering fresh bank-notes into a vat of blood, urine and faeces adorned with a sign saying 'FREE MONEY HERE' and then standing back to watch as a lot of City types with bowler hats and umbrellas wade in to retrieve them.

But these episodes are exactly that - episodic. Where many another film about a person from the top of the social hierarchy adopting someone from the bottom would concentrate closely on those characters, developing them and showing us scenes in which they at first clashed or failed to understand one another, but then eventually reached a common ground and were reconciled, there is nothing of that here. Indeed, you don't even hear the dialogue in the initial scene when Guy goes up and introduces himself to Youngman in the park - just see it from a distance. After that, the adoption is simply a done deal, and Youngman follows Guy around the place as he requires, not doing much other than observing and saying 'Yes, Dad' as a lot of strange things happen to them.

Quite a bit of the humour reflects the era's growing awareness of sexual and ethnic minorities, in ways that generally side against the 'squares' who aren't au fait with such matters, but not necessarily with the minorities in question. At one point, two boxers all squared up for a big macho fight in front of the TV cameras surprise everyone by kissing instead of punching each other (not that we see it directly), whereupon the commentator observes: "The crowd seem to be sickened by the sight of no blood." Later, Yul Brynner as a transvestite cabaret artist delivers a sultry performance of 'Mad About the Boy' which culminates in him lifting off his blonde wig to the horror of a hitherto-entranced patron. And a passenger on the cruise ship from which the film takes its title is heard making reactionary racist remarks shortly before discovering that the evening's entertainment is a pair of Mr Universe body-builders, one Afro-Caribbean and one Causcasian, who strut their stuff to a song about 'Black and White', and are later seen dancing together at the ship's disco.

As for Christopher Lee, he's one of many, many star cameos in the film, some others of which I've already referenced above. He initially appears on the cruise ship dressed in a smart ship's waiter's uniform, delivering a tray of drinks to a female passenger, and I suppose the original audience would have assumed at first that he was no more than that. But the surprise twist is so utterly blown now that it's the very reason I watched this film - in fact, he turns out to be a vampire, who first bares his teeth and bends over the woman to help himself to a drink of his own, before striding down the corridor, cloak billowing, to follow up with a chaser of the captain. The corridor scene in particular is very effectively shot with a backwards-tracking camera in slightly slow motion, and in some ways perhaps captures the essence of his Dracula performances better by dint of being an overblown parody than Hammer could ever quite manage when presenting him seriously. He and Hammer were absolutely at the apogee of them at this point, churning out an average of roughly one a year, and the cameo must have felt like quite the snapshot of the contemporary zeitgeist.

But it's all over in a few seconds, though it is quite crucial to the plot, as it's also the cue for everything in the ship to descend into total chaos and anarchy. Soon afterwards, it turns out never to have left the dock at all, but to have been shut up in a warehouse in central London all along, while its passengers underwent a fake cruising experience. Guy Grand's group barely notices.

There's a sort of charm to the movie as a whole, but probably not the same charm its original viewers were expected to feel. The Beatles' 'Come And Get It' is the centrepiece of the soundtrack, usually played straightforwardly, but sometimes picked up by e.g. a marching band for a bit of variation. For a song which I'm pretty sure was meant to sound full of youthful spirit and joie de vivre, it somehow comes across as sad and wistful in this movie, much as I often find is also the case with Hanoi Rocks songs (none of which I ever heard until well after Razzle had already died in Vince Neil's car). It's all very obviously a relic of a bygone age.

Anyway, for those who might like to see Christopher Lee's scenes, but can't be bothered with the whole movie, if you have a FB account they are all included in this video of the climactic scenes on the cruise ship. Indeed, if you don't even want to sit through 7 minutes and 22 seconds just for about 30 seconds of Christopher Lee (however good those 30 seconds might be), his bits start at 02:52 and 04:48. Enjoy!

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Willow pump

Classic Who: The Daemons (1971), The Awakening (1984)

I had initially intended to follow up my little trip out to greet the sunrise on May morning with a ritual viewing of The Wicker Man, but I have seen that film quite a few times now, and the more I thought about it the more I realised that actually I had a copy of the classic Doctor Who story The Daemons recorded on my Sky box (from back when the Horror channel was showing it), which is also set on and around May Day. Furthermore, I had been meaning for ages to track down and revisit The Awakening, which I remember vividly from my childhood for involving one of the Doctor's companions (I'd misremembered Peri, but it is actually Tegan) being about to be sacrificed as a Queen of the May. So a May Day double bill was born.

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All in all a good way to mark May Day, and perhaps also a timely reminder to myself that lockdown poses an excellent opportunity to fill in some more of the Classic Who stories which I've either never seen, or not for too long.

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Dracula 1958 cloak

7. Dracula (1958), dir. Terence Fisher

I synchro-watched this with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 yesterday afternoon, as we were in need of some comfort-viewing. I've reviewed it a bunch of times before (previous reviews all linked from here: LJ / DW), so won't say too much about it here. We mainly spent the time squeeing over its many wonderful features - the pineapple, Lee's swishy cloak, the resolution of the Cushing finger and the expansive feel of the sets. And occasionally discussing the continuity questions it raises, like how come it is May when Harker arrives at Dracula's castle, but 1st December when Dracula's hearse goes through the customs post at Ingstadt.

[personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 did raise the interesting question of whether the Bride means it on any level when she talks about what an evil man Dracula is, and how he is keeping her a prisoner in the castle. That is, is it all wholly a ruse to get Jonathan Harker to come close enough to her for her to bite him? Or is it to some degree a true reflection of how she feels about having become a victim of Dracula herself at some time in the past and been condemned to vampirism because of it, which the vampire possession now affecting her can easily mobilise precisely because it is true? I suspect that probably is part of what is meant, in the same way as we later see Lucy calling Tania to play with her and greeting Arthur with a request for a kiss - both things she would have wanted to do in her human life, but now hideously twisted to a demonic purpose.

Also, I'm not sure I'd picked up the full implications of the 'we' in this little exchange between Arthur and Van Helsing before:
ARTHUR: There's so much in Jonathan's diary I don't understand. Can Dracula really be as old as it says here?

VAN HELSING: We believe it's possible.
I do know that he goes on to say "I've carried out research with some of the greatest authorities in Europe and yet we've only just scratched the surface" only a few lines later, but there he distinguishes more carefully between himself acting as an individual ("I") and the combination of that self and the authorities he has worked with ("we"). Meanwhile, the earlier "we believe" doesn't quite work to mean "Jonathan and I believe" by this point either, given that both characters in the scene know that Jonathan is dead, so he'd be more naturally spoken of in the past tense. Obviously I am vastly over-reading dialogue which only ever aspired to be fit for purpose here, but anyway to me it speaks of a team of active vampire hunters, of whom Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing are the two who happen to have been selected to go and deal with Dracula, but whose numbers are greater and who form a separate and distinct group from the greatest authorities in Europe whom VH has also consulted in the course of their work. That's what I like to think, anyway.


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Penny Dreadful

6. The Keep (1983), dir. Michael Mann

Alas and alack for me, I watched two terrible films in a row, and this was the second one. At least I didn't subject [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 to this one - I'm not sure our friendship would have survived it... ;-)

I wanted to watch it because the plot summaries said it was about an unknown, terrible and implicitly quasi-vampiric Thing which had been trapped inside a keep in Romania for centuries, and was unleashed upon modernity by occupying Nazi troops during the Second World War, which sounded like a good premise. I also read that the Thing's name was Radu Molasar, and as Radu is the name of the historical Vlad III Dracula's brother, this spoke to my theory that the 'Dracula' played by John Forbes-Robertson whom we see at the beginning of Hammer's Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, who is similarly imprisoned inside a castle, is the Christopher Lee-Dracula's brother, imprisoned by him for some kind of betrayal or misdemeanour centuries earlier. However, none of the vampiric promise of the film was realised.

In fairness, some aspects of the visual design were worthwhile. Somebody had obviously got out some books on Romania and made a fair effort to reflect its appearance in the architecture of the village outside the Keep and the villagers' clothing. Although the film was actually shot in Wales, they had hidden this fact quite well via tight camera angles. They had also built quite an impressive set for the interior of the Keep, and used it to good effect sometimes in shots involving interesting angles, lighting and smoke. But even in the visual department, much of it was shot and soundtracked like an '80s rock video. Apparently, Tangerine Dream did a soundtrack album for it, but as far as I understand it this isn't what's actually on the prints of it now available. Instead, it's just dreary synths wandering in and out of tune. The Thing is initially shown as merely two glowing eyes obscured behind a huge cloud of smoke, which is quite good, but then later on the smoke clears and we see him, and this turns out to have been an error.

Otherwise, there is not much good I can say. The script was considerably worse than that for The Secret of Dorian Gray. I think those involved in the production thought it was atmospheric and profound - certainly, there were a lot of shots designed to convey this. But the greatest actual complexities it achieved involved the Thing declaring that it wished to scourge the Nazis from its land, but then turning out to be just as bad as or maybe worse than the Nazis. Quite the conundrum.

The rest of plot is neither very good nor effectively conveyed. After the scenario with the Nazis and the Keep has been established, we suddenly switch to Piraeus (the port of Athens), where we begin following the journey of a mysterious figure called Glaeken. (I'm not sure whether his name is ever actually used in the film - I got it from the Wikipedia page). Over time, we learn that he has purple eyes and green blood, cannot be seen in a mirror, is not killed by bullets, and carries a mystical staff which he eventually combines with a mcguffin from inside the Keep to create a weapon which defeats the Thing using the very latest '80s laser effects. (These scenes in particular very much reflect the recent popularity of the original Star Wars trilogy.) But it's never made at all clear who he is, how he got the staff, how he knows the Thing has been unleashed from the Keep, or why he wants to defeat it. Also, the film contains exactly one (1) woman, Eva, who is there primarily to be an object of desire or concern for the male characters - especially Glaeken, with whom she unconvincingly falls in love, and her father, a medieval historian roped in by the Nazis to try to understand the Thing. She is the subject of an attempted rape by the Nazi soldiers, and after that her role is for her father to struggle to protect her and for her to express trauma when Glaeken appears to have been killed.

The Wikipedia page relates a troubled production history, including how the director had envisaged a much longer running time allowing for a more dramatic final confrontation followed by a happy ending for Eva, Glaeken and her father and all sorts of extra details. But space could have been made to clarify the plot and develop the characters better within the running time allowed by halving the length of the many lingering atmospheric shots, which the film as it stands does not really earn. And I am here to tell you that nothing I have read about the additional material the director wanted to include would have improved the film - only lengthened it.

Don't go there; don't even think about it. I have watched this film so that you will never need to.

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Penny Crayon

5. The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970), dir. Massimo Dallamano

This is a truly terrible film which [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I synchro-watched a couple of weeks ago. It has a terrible script, terrible dubbing and terrible acting. But we enjoyed snarking our way through it, and it did include some marvellously 70s outfits.

Obviously, it is based on Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, with the setting updated to 1970s London. Dorian's extravagant lifestyle is conveyed by showing him on yachts, at lavish parties, at art exhibitions, in discotheques and in swimming pools. And the sexual indulgences only hinted at in the novel are seized as an opportunity to tap into contemporary liberation to maximum titillatory effect. Early on, we meet Dorian and friends in a gay bar with a drag stripper. Then later there is both FF and MM eroticism, as well as two very stereotyped camp chappies cavorting outside a bar called The Black Cock. Also M-on-F and F-on-M oral sex and another scene of what may have been implied anal sex, or perhaps just penetration from behind (we weren't sure), but certainly took place in a stable stall right next to a horse, anyway. I mean none of this was wildly explicit - it's not a porno. But it's very definitely what we are set up to understand.

Dorian himself is objectified a LOT, usually from the male-gaze perspective of Basil (Richard Todd) and Henry (Herbert Lom). In fairness, he (Helmut Berger) is very pretty, and wears a succession of extremely well-tailored suits to pleasing effect. Those suits, along with a few halter-neck maxi-dresses on some of the female characters, were the highlights of the film for me. The portrait itself, sadly, does not do Helmut Berger justice, even before it starts getting corrupted. But at least they had the guts to show it, and indeed, to show it getting older / more evil-looking as the film went on, which cannot be said for all adaptations of Dorian Gray. They also increasingly applied a lot of talc / tippex to everyone's hair except Dorian's to represent them getting old, and about half-way through the film we also realised that the fashions were probably now supposed to look futuristic, like a woman in a mirrored dress. Unfortunately, though, they'd gone for such a high-fashion note in the first place that the change wasn't very clear, because all they had done was further exaggerate existing seventies trends - plus of course we knew perfectly well that that was not what had happened during the '80s and '90s at all.

The script uses lots of Wilde quotations, but unfortunately they are crow-barred in amongst otherwise very awkward and banal dialogue, made worse through being delivered by over-dubbed actors who weren't native English speakers. We had to sit through lines such as "My virginity shocked you", which nobody should have to suffer. Also, some plot points simply didn't make sense. Near the end, Dorian blackmails someone who already doesn't like him very much into helping him get rid of Basil's body by... showing him pictures of himself (Dorian) shagging his wife. Which surely would only make him hate Dorian even more, not suddenly want to help him after all.

On the whole, you very definitely should not watch this film, but then again if you have a friend to enjoy snarking at it with, it can be fun. I have just been reading through our chat log and giggling all over again at comments like these:
  • those logs weren't big enough to make that amount of crackle
  • she'll catch a chill
  • he looks like he needs feeding up
  • That's the angriest reaction I've ever seen to a chaise longue!
  • Lom's hairpiece working hard
  • Christ, this dialogue is laboured!
  • dangerous naked flames near such manmade fabrics
  • Eh up, shenanigans in the bushes!
  • surely the point of erotica is that you can see something - but now you can I take that back
  • Yikes, what are these terrible velvet shorts he's wearing!?
  • Looks like we're at an orgy now. Exquisite jacket.
  • oh thank god we're near the end...
  • I wonder what the tippex bill was for the make up dept
That was the true joy of this film.


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Lord S not unenlightened

4. Tam-Lin (1970), dir. Roddy McDowall

I learnt of this film's existence because somebody posted about it in one of the Facebook horror groups I'm a member of (probably Folk Horror Revival), but even in such circles it is very rarely mentioned - and that's a huge pity because when I finally got round to watching it, I discovered that it is absolutely wonderful. It's perhaps not quite a horror film, but as it is basically a reworking of The Ballad of Tam Lin it has all the supernatural, fantastical and menacing dimensions of the source material, while the folk element is assured by a lovely musical setting of the original ballad which pervades the sound-track and by the glorious Scottish landscapes amongst which most of the story unfolds. All of this is also spliced with late '60s / early '70s hippy / boho drug culture, which makes an excellent analogy for the unfettered indulgences of a fairy court.

The queen of that court is Michaela 'Micky' Cazaret, played by Ava Gardner, whom we learn is so rich she has no need to do anything but indulge herself in pleasure and enjoyment all day every day, and has gathered around her a court of young people to accompany her on the ride. They have no obligations to her for as long as the arrangement lasts, but when she tires of them and tells them to leave, they had better do so - or her personal assistant, Elroy, will soon ensure that they don't trouble her any longer. The role draws very effectively on Ava Gardner's real-life image as a high-profile film star of the previous generation, plausibly very wealthy and still beautiful, both of which give her power and authority over her court, but becoming increasingly insecure about her age in comparison to the twenty-something Beautiful People with whom she has surrounded herself.

The Tam Lin figure is not exactly hard to spot - he's called Tom Lynn (played by Ian McShane) and begins the film as Micky's favourite lover, but incurs her wrath when he meets and falls in love with the beautiful and virginal Janet Ainsley (Stephanie Beacham). Stephanie, incidentally, isn't the only connection this film has with Hammer's oeuvre: Joanna Lumley, Jenny Hanley and Madeline Smith are also all present as members of Micky's court. Things play out much as you might expect if you know the ballad, including motifs such as Tom getting Janet pregnant, her seeking an abortion, her picking up a double-stemmed rose, and a wild hunt at the end in which Tom drives a white steed (car) and turns into a bear, a serpent and a flaming brand while Janet has to hold him tight until he returns to humanity.

According to Wikipedia, it is the only film Roddy McDowall ever directed, which is perhaps a shame, as he seems to have done a very good job - though in fairness it would only mean he had done less acting if he had done more directing, and I don't think anybody would want that. The whole thing is available on Youtube here, which is how I watched it, and I can attest that it is a good enough print to stand being cast to a large flat-screen TV.

Highly recommended to anyone who likes folk horror and / or films about Beautiful People getting high c. 1970. The two have always been more or less synonymous anyway.


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Cyberman from beneath

3. Quatermass and the Pit (1967), dir. Roy Ward Baker

Soon after lockdown began, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I worked out a basic way of doing a virtual film-watch together. We use FB messenger for it, starting off with a video-chat to say hi, catch up and get ready for the film, then switching to text-based chat while the film itself is on, and finishing up by returning to video to discuss what we thought of it and have a bit more social time. This was the first film we watched that way, taking advantage of the fact that Talking Pictures were showing it anyway, so someone else would do the business of pressing 'play' for us.

It's one of my absolute favourite Hammer films, but although I watched and wrote about the TV version a few years ago when the BBC made it available on iPlayer (LJ / DW) I don't think I've ever reviewed the film version here.

It uses a script developed for film treatment by Nigel Kneale, author of the original TV version, so fairly unsurprisingly it follows the same plot pretty closely. The most obvious differences are the removal of a subplot about a journalist covering the discovery, and the fact that the Martian capsule is found during work on the London Underground rather than during construction work in Knightsbridge. That latter change means that the relationship to the discovery of the London Mithraeum which so struck me when I watched the TV version disappears, but I don't really mind as the London Underground setting is excellent and so iconic of 1960s Britain. I think the character of Barbara is a little more prominent in the film version too, which is also very welcome as she is played by Barbara Shelley whom I love beyond measure.

The production values are very high on the scale of what Hammer could do, and indeed it's one of those Hammer films like The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula or The Mummy where a form of magic seems to have happened, and everyone involved was at their absolute best. In keeping with the TV version, it has a very intelligent script, dealing with profound social issues including racism and groupthink, and setting up well-defined and plausible conflicts between different forms of authority (military, academic, political, ecclesiastical). It does also perpetuate some of the same tropes around women and working-class people being more sensitive to primitive alien influences as as in the TV version, though I should note in fairness that we see our ultimate academic authority-figure, Quatermass, falling into the grip of it too.

It also has absolutely amazing sets, which were purpose-built for the film by Bernard Robinson on the back lot at Elstree, where Hammer were working at the time. You could very easily believe they were real London streets, but they aren't, as this image from Peveril Publishing's book Hammer's Grand Designs (which I highly recommend) shows:

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There are so many good scenes in it that it's hard to pick a favourite. There are plenty which build the tension up nicely as successive discoveries are made in and around the Martian capsule, including very good use made of horrible disorienting sound effects which drive characters mad, and then some good climatic moments such as when winds rush through the underground station, possessed crowds rampage in the streets and of course Roney heroically swings a crane into the huge Martian apparition at the end.

But I think one particularly effective scene comes about a third of the way in, when Quatermass, Barbara and a policeman investigate a deserted house immediately above the underground station. The policeman is visibly uncomfortable with the childhood memories he recounts there, knowing that he is supposed to be rationalistic, but also clearly experiencing visceral and traumatic flashbacks to what he experienced. It gets right to the heart of the conflict between the rational and the emotive mind which horror likes to probe at. And probably the best scene of all, mainly because the film has really earned it by this point, is the shot which the closing credits roll over, of Barbara Shelley and Andrew Keir outside the underground station just staring around them, traumatised at everything they have witnessed.

A fine example of what Hammer could do, and one I'll always happily re-watch.


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