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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Look at Alex Van Helsing ARCs and an interview with Laura Arnold of HarperTeen

A couple of interesting items today:

First, Inkpop has a very interesting interview with HarperCollins editor Laura Arnold, my own editor on Alex Van Helsing, the series I've been working on but which, of course, hasn't seen the light of day yet.

In the interview, Arnold talks about what must be a maddening part of the job: offering critiques of works in progress. Now, I have to say I've never actually worked with any editor as thorough as Arnold, so I don't know if all of them are this detailed, but you gotta be impressed at the process:

Arnold will often talk about the plot and discuss whether it makes sense, is logical, and moves at a good pace. Then, onto characters. “Are the characters acting in ways that seem consistent with, well, their characters?” Arnold says. “We’ll talk about the voice of the narration: does it feel too young or too old? Is the content of the story in line with the voice and the audience? Later on we’ll work on the details—individual sentences, word choices. I go line by line through the manuscript, and then I send it to the author for his or her review.

It's a thorough, back-breaking process. It's got to be mind-numbing. I've seen massive, three-page, single-spaced critiques. By the time the book sees print, AVH#1 will have been edited more than any work I've ever done-- which, honestly, I'm thankful for. I don't know about other writers, but my favorite part of writing is the big push, laying out heaps and pages of work. The details are every bit as important but I have to be dragged to them. The first one is a sort of art, the second is craft, and craft is work, and you have to compel yourself or be compelled to work. With a good editor, you've got someone forcing you to work.

Mind you, I love the craft. I love the nuts and bolts. But I'm still in awe of how these guys love it more.

Oh, hey- as noted on my official Alex Van Helsing blog:

Check this out-- just got back from Christmas travel and waiting at the front door was a box of Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising "ARCs"-- that is, Advanced Review Copies, essentially paperback versions of the upcoming hardback. The typography for the cover is not final-- in fact, there's a big red PROOF label on the cover indicating that nothing whatever about it the book is technically final. But of course it's pretty darn close, because now is that time.

Still and all, Alex's first adventure in print is for the first time in some sort of printed form, and that's pretty cool.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sword of Dracula review at Taliesen

A fellow blogger-- and a real expert of vampire lit-- has done me the swell compliment of a review of Sword of Dracula-- check it out!

...Now the castle is hidden behind a shield but, also, the castle is made of blood. I really liked this concept; Dracula as the master of blood manipulation. With enough reserves he can create a castle… thus Castle Dracula in Stoker's novel could have been a construct. If we take this a step further and consider the cut version of Stoker’s ending - Castle Dracula falling as Dracula dies - then in this universe it would have been Dracula relinquishing control of the blood (and, in this universe, one guesses that would have been when he faked his death). Its not only castles, other examples of blood constructs include guard dogs and a coach and horses. Dracula is Vlad Tepes in this and to fill his reserves he drains his victims through impalement....

Thursday, December 10, 2009


DVD Review
The Hammer Frankenstein the Geeks Warned You About is Better than They Think


Reviewed Format: DVD
Rated: R
Stars: Ralph Bates, Kate O'Mara, Veronica Carlson, Dennis Price
Writer: Anthony Hinds (as “John Elder”)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Original Year of Release: 1970
Retail Price: x
Extras: widescreen enhanced; audio commentary; trailers; bios; posters and still gallery; Veronica Carlson photo album and art collection; interview
Movie Grade: B+ Disc Grade: B

There's a sort of common law among film geeks, sets of rules you're supposed to know-- secret knowledge of which film is the best or the worst, which episode of a show we all agree to sneer at, etc. There wouldn't be a point without the sneering. HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is a sneer target for Hammer fans: it's the ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE of the Hammer Horror set, without the revisionism that's over time turned OHMSS into a Bond favorite.

HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is the inseparable companion of Hammer Studios' 1970 piece, SCARS OF DRACULA. Of the two films HORROR is definitely the more modern, the more sophisticated, and the more competently mounted. But it's just as generally reviled among Hammer aficionados (who else could possibly care?) and marks with SCARS that point when Hammer began to fall.

Hammer Horror had changed the face of horror with a Gothic wave that began in 1957 with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and ruled the sixties. Hammer represented the rejection of the science-obsession of the fifties and a return to a fixation on magic and mystery. Even science fiction hero/villain Frankenstein found his place in the Hammerscape, a richly colored, heavily art-directed world seen again and again through the Hammer gothics.

But no spell can last; as the sixties drifted out, the studio lost momentum. And then: ROSEMARY'S BABY. THE EXORCIST. THE OMEN. The gothic period came to an end the moment horror came to the high-rise.

Ah, but HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, bless it, came out in 1970, when the end was still uncertain. Hammer fans traditionally hate the movie because the beloved Peter Cushing, who had played Victor Frankenstein through five movies so far, is replaced by the dashing, petulant Ralph Bates. Like Sean Connery after the OHMSS fiasco, Cushing would pick up where he left off two years after HORROR with FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, a genuinely moving and strange picture that brought the whole series to a close and ignored the Bates picture.

HORROR is of a piece by itself, almost a parody of the Hammer gothics directed by Jimmy Sangster, the man who wrote 1957's CURSE and knew the Hammerscape perhaps better than anybody. The movie drops entirely the creeping madness of the sensitive and noble Peter Cushing Frankenstein and starts over with Ralph Bates as a rude, snobbish, arrogant, narcissistic sociopath who casually slaughters anyone who gets in his way. Bates plays Victor from his years at primary school, when he talks a teacher into a mild heart attack, through the beginnings of his man-making career.

The trick of the film-- somehow dismissed for years-- is the nasty humor that runs through it. Sangster, a first-time director, needs no apologies-- he has a feel for framing absurd and dark situations in funny ways. The film is so subversive it's almost postmodern. I've seen the film insulted for years-- even referred to as "lowbrow," something it's almost completely not. It's just a bit nasty. At one point Victor has dinner with an old man whose brain he hopes to harvest for his creature; while the old man talks in silence we see through Victor's eyes, where the numeral "25" in grease paint appears on his forehead-- Victor numbers the parts he needs. He commissions a bodysnatcher whose grave-robbing scenes play like Tarantino, as the graverobber and his wife banter and dig. The graverobber and Victor are thrilled when a ferry wrecks (fresh bodies) without the slightest qualm that someone out there might want those bodies.

There's never really any explanation why exactly Victor needs to put the creature together from different parts, anyway, except that the guy seems to like making it complicated. Bates plays Victor like Hannibal Lector, always speaking in a bored sort of lilt that says he knows more than you. This is FRANKENSTEIN: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.

When the monster finally arrives, it's David Prowse in a skullcap and loin-covering bandages. The brain was bad, so the monster is a homicidal maniac, leaving Frankenstein in the comic situation of trying to stop a monster of his own device not because he's remorseful but because it's inconvenient.

Sangster has Bates surrounded by beautiful and charming people he doesn't deserve-- Veronica Carlson, that strapping late Hammer queen, plays the doting, bubble-headed society girl Elizabeth, while Kate O'Mara is Victor's more suited mate, a lusty, double-crossing housekeeper. The rest of the world are Victor's casual playthings; he murders his father because the old man won't send him to college; he leaves college on the run from the dean whose daughter he impregnates; he murders his best friend when a conscience proves inconvenient. He smiles a lot.

HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is a nihilistic movie played with a rigorously relished dark wit not seen since ARSENIC AND OLD LACE and rarely seen again until RESERVOIR DOGS. The strange part is it's still Hammer, lush and vibrant and full of German/cockney lawmen and buxom maids. It's well worth a look-- especially since it's now returned on DVD.

About the DVD. The version I saw was "widescreen enhanced for a 16X9 TV," or "anamorphic," as far as I'm concerned unhappily smashing what should be a letter-boxed image into the whole (non-widescreen) TV screen, leaving a sometimes-too-noticeable elongation of the characters. The nice thing is that if you have a widescreen TV, you won't have this problem. But the film is clean and rich, better than previous video versions.

Anchor Bay, champions of Hammer, have outfitted the DVD with assorted goodies. We get a commentary from writer/director Sangster, who stays interesting because of the smart use of writer Marcus Hearn as a facilitator to ask questions and steer the commentary. But more pleasing is the devotion of the DVD to Veronica Carlson. The movie's love interest (one of the most beautiful and charming actresses to grace Hammer) turns up for a 17-minute interview, accompanied by a gallery of her paintings (Carlson is now a portrait painter on Hilton Head) and an equally welcome gallery of her swinging-London-era pinups.

I enjoy all the extras, but I'm looking for the time when DVDs seem to be more organically designed. If Carlson merits her own set of extras why does the "Talent Bio" section include Bates and Sangster, but not Carlson? On the positive side, the designers have given more thought to usability than most and created a selection routine that for once makes it clear what you've selected. (God, but I'm sick of DVDs where I can't tell what I've selected until too late.)

But why does Anchor Bay continue to forget to include subtitles? Weren't most of these films captioned long ago?
All told: a fine addition to the Hammer legacy, presented better than it has been in years.


DVD Review
Lovecraft finally done right, from the director of THE RE-ANIMATOR—just pay no attention to the cover

Reviewed Format: DVD
Rated: R
Stars: Ezra Godden, Francisco Rabal, Raquel Meroño, Macarena Gomez, Brendan Price, Birgit Bofarull
Writers: H.P. Lovecraft (novel), Dennis Paoli (Screenplay)
Director: Stuart Gordon
Distributor: Lions Gate Films
Original Year of Release: 2002
Retail Price:
Extras: 16x9 widescreen; 2 audio commentaries with Stuart Gordon featuring writer Dennis Paoli and actor Ezra Godden; storyboards, production artwork; English and Spanish subtitles, trailer
Movie Grade: A Disc Grade: A


Thick, gray sheets of rain and images half-seen behind battered village shutters and doors, and behind: beauty and horror, alien and old and hysterical.

Dagon is one of my favorite horror films, having landed on that short list after its release this Summer. The movie is a remarkably creative piece that accomplishes two seemingly at-odds mean cinematic feats: it successfully adapts HP Lovecraft, one of the last century’s most unfilmable writers, and it does it with humor that enhances from the horror rather than detracts from it.

It’s hard to put good humor in horror—I was always one of the critics who was a little turned off by hamminess of films like Stuart Gordon’s Re-animator or the out-and-out camp of farce like Toxic Avenger. But now Gordon himself has come back to his beloved HP Lovecraft with a much more mature style of cinematic humor reminiscent of the sad comedy of Evil Dead II. Example: there’s a moment when our hero, Paul (British actor Ezra Godden) tries to steal a car to get away from some strange creatures chasing him. After he manages to sneak into the car, he rips out the wires below the ignition to hotwire the car. This is the first movie I’ve ever seen that ends this sequence the way it logically should if Paul is anything like me.

The movie opens with a boating accident, as two couples sailing on a boat off Spain hit a sudden storm and wreck on some high rocks. With one of the party injured, the young couple Paul and Barbara take a raft in the storm to the decrepit fishing village they see nearby.

Stuart handles these early moments brilliantly—it’s rare to see so clearly that moment when the characters cross a threshold into another world, as the atmosphere suddenly turns foggy and strange and the pair begin to search the deserted village for help. They find a strange, dilapidated church, and a priest whose distant eyes would tell you or me not to trust him at all. Gordon plays the shouldn’t these guys get the Hell out of this town motif well by keeping us aware that the heroes are trying to help their injured friends. By the time that duty is less compelling, it’s too late.

Dagon unfolds the details of its horror at a steady pace, in layers that make you cringe and laugh as the strange, aquatic creatures who inhabit the village appear. The monsters in Dagon are the villagers, who wear human clothing and more and haunt the village in some strange imitation of human life. The best humor of the story comes when we see these creatures trying desperately to act like people. Who are they? People, or their descendants, whose souls and bodies are in the thrall of something very old.

The village itself is a movie world created from whole cloth, flooded with rain and ominous, and just dripping with literacy of films that have gone before. Watch how Gordon passes along the other-worldly lessons of Argento’s Suspiria with the corridors of the hotel Paul stays in, or even calls back to City of the Dead with its use of one of horror cinema’s most sublime creepy triggers: barely seen figures in the distance, just in frame. Movies like City of the Dead and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, in fact, seem to have informed Gordon’s work here: Dagon rests squarely in the camp of stories about protagonists who fall into other-worlds-right-around-the-corner. But it stays fresh not by keeping tongue in cheek, but by daring to find the hero’s situation as funny as it is. Gordon has moved past camp and irony and into black comedy.

Dagon is such an inventive, joyously creative horror film that critics are having a hard time figuring out what to make of it. Most of them have focused on assets and called them liabilities, unwilling to succumb to the film’s spell. They don’t like accents—much of the explanatory dialogue belongs to the person least equipped to deliver it, Spanish actor Francisco Rabal, whose accent is so thick you can only catch every third word. Personally, I think Gordon did this on purpose: we have to strain to understand the old man, which heightens our sense of panic. Nothing in the movie works the way other horror movies would have them, and that seems to disturb critics. Genre is supposed to be predictable while we leave creativity to art films.

How inventive? So inventive that you’ll probably be catching DAGON first DVD, instead of in a theater.

But the touches add up: I love that Paul is a hero who behaves more or less like a normal guy—his fighting is clumsy, his panic realistic, and his tenacity inspiring. He sometimes does stupid things that come across as very, very believably stupid. In the commentary, Ezra Godden reveals he patterned his performance after Woody Allen and Harold Lloyd, the glasses-wearing, accident-prone everyman from the silents. It’s a fascinating choice.

Playing a key role in the film is Macarena Gomez, whose face alone is a special effect—with a fragile, sharp, wide jaw and huge, liquid eyes, Gomez appears barely mortal, as if she’s sidestepped into our dimension. She’s a magnificent discovery and the part she plays would crush beneath anyone else.

Dagon closes in on you and gets stranger and stranger, and ends in a place as different from the tranquil sailing vessel and the drizzling village as any place can be: an entry to the realm of HP Lovecraft’s Deep Ones. Stuart Gordon’s work has matured and given us a classic horror film that fans of the genre simply cannot ignore.

About the DVD.

As if to make up for the lack of theatrical exposure DAGON received, Lions Gate has prepared a DVD release that is certainly better than that received by most theatrical releases—certainly those that lose money at the box office. The only negative is the DVD’s misleadingly cheesy cover (instead of some mysterious wispiness and Macarena Gomez, we get a dark shot of a howling half-human creature—leading one to think this movie is the sort of exploitative cheese that it’s distinctly not.)

But where recent DVD releases of movies like THE HOWLING have appalled me with the sort of accidental manner in which things are thrown on, DAGON has the goods I’m looking for: subtitles in two languages, a library of production art shots and storyboards, and most importantly, commentaries.

Both commentaries on the DAGON DVD feature director Stuart Gordon, one with lead actor Ezra Godden and the other with Screenwriter (and Gordon’s former college roommate) Dennis Paoli. This is a brilliant idea, because we get the thoughtful Gordon focusing on story-construction issues with his writer and production issues with his actor. By focusing the conversation, the conversations seem more genuine and helpful than a lot of DVD commentaries I’ve reviewed, where various people are thrown in and just sort of ramble.

We learn a lot of neat tidbits, such as that Macarena Gomez, an actress I regard as her own special effect, was willing to do her underwater scenes in freezing coastal water. Or that the whole film was done with a handheld camera, leading to its claustrophobic sense. As a writer, I’m most interested in the director’s reports of various drafts of the script, and how shifting the action from New England to Spain changed the feel of the film. I also found that some of the commentary vindicated the director for some of his choices—we learn he deliberately avoided subtitles in the theater, to heighten the confusion felt by the lead.

DAGON is one of those films that makes you shake your head in sadness at the odd machinery that gets some poorly made films released, and some well-made films swept straight to the home. What is beginning to be different is that with the right DVD support, that doesn’t have to be a tragedy.


DVD Review
The filmic equivalent of LIVE! NUDE! VAMPIRES!


Reviewed Format: DVD
Rated: R
Stars: Michael Johnson, Suzanna Leigh, Ralph Bates, Yutte Stensgaard
Writer: Tudor Gates
Director: Jimmy Sangster
Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Original Year of Release: 1971
Retail Price: $24.98
Extras: anamorphic widescreen; audio commentary; trailers; bios; gallery of posters and stills
Movie Grade: B- Disc Grade: B-

The best image in LUST FOR A VAMPIRE comes right up front, as a red-and-black-cloaked vampire cuts a peasant girl's throat and pours the blood out on a skeleton while he chants in Latin in order to bring a hot naked female vampire to life.

Lurid and absurd, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE lies as far from the lush power of HORROR OF DRACULA as a vampire film from the same studio can get. But unlike its handsomely snooty sister release BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE is never dull. LUST FOR A VAMPIRE is the kind of bad film that never seems to even dream it could be a good one. We could argue that all works should strive for greater heights, but that's another discussion.

I like this strange, randy movie, where a vaguely promising plot is occasionally interrupted by LIVE! NUDE! VAMPIRES! The story tells of the square-jawed freelance writer Richard LeStrange, a man far less interesting than his name, who travels across the Hammerscape in 1831 to research vampires and ghosts, topics in which he has no belief. When LeStrange discovers a school for girls in the shadow of a famous ruined castle, he insinuates himself into a job as an English teacher, chiefly so he can chase the girls at the school.

You have to love a movie where not only do professors brazenly chase students, but in fact it's the reason they become professors. We can't blame him-- this is a school where the students spend much of the day giggling, playing on the lawn, and doing weird isometric exercises in chiffon robes. These exercises, shown when LeStrange first arrives, feel as if the schoolmarm is training some sort of scarf-wielding Kung Fu Army, and promise a much weirder film than LUST FOR A VAMPIRE actually is.

At the school, LeStrange falls immediately in love with Yutte Stensgaard as Mircalla, a blank-expressioned but buxomy new student. Mircalla and the professor start a secret affair, calling for LeStrange to cover for Mircalla, who is also a lesbian vampire with a knack for killing locals and fellow students. But if there's any reason to see LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, it's not the Stensgaard skinny-dipping or the lesbian kissing or the extreme nippular content of the film. The reason to see LUST FOR A VAMPIRE is "Strange Love," a slow pop song (not unlike "To Sir With Love") that plays over LeStrange and Mircalla's moonlight love scene. The warbly 1970 song jars the movie with such absurdity that the viewer is left utterly thrilled that he saw such a travesty.

Chasing after LeStrange is fellow professor Janet Playfair (!), Suzanna Leigh, for whom prospects must be quite limited. Janet wants to turn Mircalla in, but LeStrange, in love with the student, tries to stop her. By the end of the film, when Mircalla's vampire act is discovered and suddenly an Act III mob chase is upon us, Miss Playfair seems to win the day. Sadly, she remains covered.

Jimmy Sangster, the man who actually wrote CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA, directs LUST FOR A VAMPIRE as if he hopes they all get out alive. Apparently he fell into the job when Terence Fisher broke a leg, and Sangster has never liked the film. For me it's a weirdly watchable mess: LUST FOR A VAMPIRE is a film that has studied every trapping of a decent Hammer film-- witness the weird colors-- and has bungled every one of them. It's a bad, bad film, but I could watch it ten times before sitting through more expensive mistakes like THE AVENGERS again.

It's worth noting that technically LUST FOR A VAMPIRE is the second film in a loose Hammer trilogy called the Karnstein Cycle, which dealt with characters based on Le Fanu's Carmilla. It would be interesting to watch the film with the other two, the superior VAMPIRE LOVERS and TWINS OF EVIL. But TWINS hasn't seen the light of day in years.

About the LUST FOR A VAMPIRE DVD. Once again we have an anamorphic widescreen presentation which can play havoc with some DVD players, rendering an elongated picture at times. Otherwise it's a decent enough DVD, with commentary once again moderated by writer Marcus Hearn. After the poor video I've seen of this film in the past, it's nice to see how clean it appears here. The colors really rip.

As always, though, I have questions-- why do the talent bios include Yutte Stensgaard, but not Suzanne Leigh, who actually provides commentary with Director Sangster? Why include Ralph Bates, who plays a supporting role, but not Michael Johnson, who plays the lead? And I can't stand the bio of Yutte Stensgaard, which is snobbish and mean to a woman who, though not much of an actress, most likely never meant any harm. (Bruce Wright in Nightwalkers points out that acting is relative, anyway, and compared to anyone in Ed Wood's films, Yutte Stensgaard is fantastic.)

Also, points off for no closed captioning.

All in all, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE is a big, lurid splash of red from Hammer, a permissive reel in yet another direction as the studio tried to find a new voice in the early seventies. It's as bad as everyone ever said-- no missing gem in the way I argued SCARS OF DRACULA was-- but it's enjoyable, amazingly bad for all that.

The Plague of the Zombies

The Plague of the Zombies
by Jason Henderson

Producer: Anthony Nelson-Keys

Director: John Gilling

Screenplay: Peter Bryan and John Gilling


Sir James Forbes-Andre Morell
Sylvia Forbes-Diana Clare
Dr. Peter Thompson-Brook Williams
Alice Thompson-Jacqueline Pearce
Clive Hamilton-John Carson
Denver-Alex Davion
Sgt. Swift-Michael Ripper

"Are you at all familiar with Voo-Doo?"

Watching Hammer today is a strange practice of viewing a picture through the gauze of thirty years and several thousand miles, providing a moment of entertainment at once recognizable and yet distinctly alien. The Plague of the Zombies was made in 1966, and it is impossible to step outside of the perspective of a viewer who has, since, seen Night of the Living Dead and Michael Jackson's Thriller. There are two large theories for viewing an old horror movie like this, and each has its critical proponents:

# View the picture as if you are seeing it in 1966. This is an exercise in trying to imagine the picture in the context of life at the time - Kennedy has been dead three years, Thunderball came out last year, etc.

# View the picture as detached from time and place, and respond merely to the picture itself, on its merits. This is the one that, in fact, most of us do first- which is why old movies can be irritating, since they usually lack modern editing or pacing. There's a more generous side of this, though: I might watch seven Hammer Draculas, Frankensteins, or seven James Bond pictures in a row, ignoring the fact that they span three decades, but thinking of them as a "series" of texts connected to one another.

With Hammer horror, though, I think it's best to employ a hybrid variant, or you'll miss a lot of the best effects. Unlike James Bond, most Hammer horrors are period pieces that take place in that curious, vaguely Victorian Hammerscape. It is absolutely impossible to view Hammer without thinking about the fact that this movie indicates how a cast and crew in the 1960's thought life might have been like in the 1890's, so the commentary on sexual mores is distinctly sixties in style, filtered through Victorian characters. Then, your own viewing of the picture cannot help but be effected by your placement at the turn of the twenty-first century. Likewise the period settings are often used to push certain political ideals of the sixties which may seem irrelevant to the turn of the century. And so on.

With this film, though, you needn't work all that hard. The Plague of the Zombies is a thoroughly charming zombie movie which actually embraces some pretty heavy themes of despair (it charms you into not noticing.) The movie was released in the United States as a double-feature with Dracula-Prince of Darkness, and it's chic to call this the superior picture. It's probably true. Dracula: POD is lucky enough to play with some themes already in place, plus Chris Lee; we fans will sort of imprint on whatever's there and will be grateful if the movie succeeds in helping. of the Zombies sets out on its own and tries to break new ground, and succeeds without any help from us at all.

The Plague of the Zombies is a Hammer Horror placed firmly in England- in Cornwall, in fact, on the southern tip of Great Britain, giving the picture a fairly contemporary feel, and making it extremely accessible to a new viewer. The plot, in brief: Young country doctor Peter Thompson is at a loss to explain the sickness that is killing the locals of his Cornish town, and is getting no help from the creepy local magistrate and rich man Squire Hamilton. Dr. Thompson sends a letter to his old mentor Sir James Forbes, who rushes off to Cornwall with his lovely daughter Sylvia in tow (Sylvia was a school chum of Dr. Thompson's equally lovely wife, Alice.) Sir James and Sylvia get to creepy town and find everyone acting strangely, poor Alice is the next to die, and Sir James takes an awfully long time to figure out who's responsible for the deaths and why. Hamilton, it turns out, is killing people and raising them from the dead, voodoo-style, for reasons entirely his own.

There are lots of neat scenes in this film, a very high quotient for a 90-minute picture.

Squire Hamilton employs a small army of young hooligans to do his bidding. For much of the movie we see these guys in Fox-hunting attire and on horseback, making them rather like a threatening bunch of fraternity brothers. Sylvia, who disapproves of hunting, disrupts their hunt early on in the film, and we're very worried when later the hunters manage to corner her in the woods. In a very tense and uncomfortable scene, the martinets surround her, leering, and forcefully remove her to Squire Hamilton's castle, tossing the terrified woman around like a plaything before Hamilton interrupts the proceedings. The sense of helplessness and threat of rape are deeply disturbing, especially since we get the impression that the movie is not going to play nice with characters we expect to progress by unscathed.

The first zombie appearance is frightening, even today: Immediately after her release from Hamilton's hooligans, Sylvia goes searching for her friend, who wandered off in a daze. She finds her way to a ruined mill, and hears a horrible, unearthly cry. She looks up to see a rotting, risen corpse, screaming at her from the hill. The shroud-clad creature is holding the lost Alice in its arms, and suddenly it flings Alice's corpse to the ground at Sylvia's feet. We liked Alice. We like Sylvia. So far we've been charmed into thinking this movie is about as threatening as an episode of Perry Mason and then this happens. This is skillful horror. This moment is riveting.

Later, Sir James asks Peter to assist him the autopsy of Peter's own wife. And Peter does, and by golly, handles it pretty well. There is something terribly wrong with these people, even the good guys. Moreover, it's always troubling when major characters die, because then we know that, once the movie is over, the characters don't get to go home and laugh. If important people are dead- in this case, the hero's wife- then the characters will suffer for years, even after the emergency has passed.

Squire Hamilton, played by the intimidating John Carson, comes to visit Sylvia and pay his condolences for the passing of Alice. We already know he's the bad guy, and even Sylvia suspects it strongly, so there's a delicious creepiness to the strong erotic attraction between the two. The Plague of the Zombies is, more than anything else, about the charm of evil.

Director Gilling does some wonderful things with the zombies in the mill where they're being forced to work. There are several scenes with lots of zombie business in the background, framed by an extreme close-up of a zombie face in the foreground, the way we usually see something like a column or wall used to anchor a scene. Zombies are so unusual, this is a jarring effect and works nicely.

The scene where the dead Alice rises from her grave is unnerving and deliciously perverse. It's just not right that someone should have to see their loved one's corpse rise toward them; this breaks all natural laws. Immediately after Alice's corpse is beheaded by Sir James, Peter falls unconscious and has a terrifying dream that seems like a preview of Night of the Living Dead, in weird greens and reds. This dream sequence is extremely creepy, and talked about at length just about everywhere.

There's a lot here. The Plague of the Zombies is a depressing film that sneaks up on you by seeming to be rather jovial until loved ones get hurt. Layered in are a number of themes, most notably a heavy distrust of capitalists and the rich, and some uniformly impressive make-up effects. It is also important to note that this was the first film to represent zombies as rotting corpses rising from their graves.

One the new tape: since this tape has just been released, now is an excellent time to view it just as it was originally, in a double feature with Dracula-Prince of Darkness. The fun there is to begin one's journey of recognition of Hammer sets, which of course were redressed and re-used, over and over.

Scars of Dracula

DVD Review
The Hammer film everyone hates—except us


Reviewed Format: DVD
Rated: R
Stars: Christopher Lee, Jenny Hanley, Dennis Waterman, Christopher Matthews, Patrick Troughton, Michael Ripper, Michael Gwynn
Writer: Anthony Hinds (as “John Elder”)
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Original Year of Release: 1970
Retail Price: $24.98
Extras: two-disc set; anamorphic widescreen; audio commentary; trailers; bios; gallery; documentary; music videos
Movie Grade: B+ Disc Grade: B+

Let’s get this part out of the way first: SCARS OF DRACULA is not a popular movie. It ranks, in critical estimation, as perhaps the absolutely lowest-regarded film in the Hammer Dracula series, with the possible exception of SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, which of course only about eight people saw. Bruce Wright’s NIGHTWALKERS says SCARS OF DRACULA “sports the production values of a Mexican soap opera,” while the NEW YORK TIMES called it, “garish, gory junk.” Johnson and del Vecchio’s HAMMER FILMS says SCARS OF DRACULA “has little to recommend it... the ‘plot’—which drops Dracula into the middle of another story in which he does not belong—is awash in unappetizing sex and violence. The film is totally lacking in artistry, and any comparison to the company’s 1957 classic would be unkind.”

Even Christopher Lee himself weighed in at the release with a disapproving quote, calling the film “the weakest and most unconvincing of the Dracula stories.” But he would later change his mind, as the new DVD release shows. (In the excellent commentary, the star admits that he may never have actually viewed the film in its entirety and now he finds it a pleasant surprise.)

But everyone else hates it, so is there any harm (or for that matter, any point) in saying that I kind of like this film? It looks as though Shane Dallman of VIDEO JUNKIE and I are going to be the only two critics left in the world with anything good to say about Hammer’s ’70s offerings. Here is what happened: the Hammer Gothics of the very late fifties and early sixties are classics in the truest sense—they redefined cinematic horror and set new standards in style. By the ’70s, horror had moved through yet another paradigm shift into the realm of terror—marked by American films such as THE EXORCIST, THE SENTINEL and THE OMEN, to name three. Hammer, meanwhile, continued to make its Gothic horrors, seeing less and less reward for its efforts. These ’70s Hammers, products of their period but oddly fit to it, are still costume horrors marked by the lush colors and redecorated sets of their older cousins. But looser cinematic morals brought lower-cut blouses and more graphic sex and violence.

Note I said “more graphic,” but certainly not much more by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps it’s my viewing from the vantage point of today, but I hardly find the fairly demure stabbings and torture of SCARS OF DRACULA to be in the same realm of violence one finds in, say, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. But what happens, I think, is that Hammer of the ’70s gets knocked for being there at all—in the age of THE EXORCIST it seems poetically appropriate that Hammer would have stayed and died in the ’60s rather than try to keep up. The fact that Hammer did try annoys the critics in the same way that we might be annoyed seeing Frank Sinatra sing Beatles tunes, or Paul McCartney sing something from Sting, and so on. We wish heroes and series to die young, we really do.

All of this to say that SCARS OF DRACULA is a pretty good Dracula movie with the bad luck of coming out too late. It’s certainly better than DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, a movie I enjoyed. Out of the five Draculas featuring Lee, I’d put it squarely at number two, after HORROR OF DRACULA, the original.

For one thing, I’m not sure what the complaints about the plot really mean. Dracula himself receives a great deal of screen time—in fact, it is refreshing to see him as a central part of the story. In SCARS, Christopher Lee’s Count is a twisted and malevolent dictator, still oozing a great deal of vampire charm. We see Dracula’s cruelty from the very start, when he is revived by his bat servant and immediately preys upon a local girl. The townspeople, led by Hammer regular Michael Ripper, storm the castle and try to burn it down while Dracula sleeps. The dark lord’s revenge is stunning: while the peasants brandish torches, the sleeping vampire sends an army of bats to gruesomely murder the women and children of the village. This is a Dracula not to be trifled with, and one far more interesting than the foppish bore Gary Oldman essayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s ’90s pastiche.

The story picks up again ten years after the clash, with the search for a charming rogue named Paul who found his way to Dracula’s castle while on the run from the law. Searching for Paul are brother Simon and Sarah, the woman both brothers love. Dracula plays host to them, displaying the same noble charm with which he greeted Paul, who has disappeared. Simon and Sarah find allies in the parish priest, who alone has the will to oppose the tyrant, and Klove, Dracula’s servant, who has finally decided to rise up against his master.

The pace is brisk and the sets nice and smoky, and the rethinking of Dracula’s castle as seen here is impressive. Dracula sleeps, for instance, in a chamber that can be entered only through a small window high above a cliff, and a nice bit of suspense comes from the trouble of getting in there to try to stake the vampire lord.

This is a very different vampire than the ones seen in BRIDES OF DRACULA and KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, where vampirism was almost trifling in its “sinfulness” and one wanted to fall in with the put-upon vampires. Dracula is above sexiness, except as it serves him. He is above anything that does not involve power.

SCARS OF DRACULA is a very worthy vehicle for Christopher Lee’s Dracula. How could this not be a Dracula story? More than ever before, Dracula represents the cruelty of a completely unstoppable totalitarian noble. The Dracula seen here is a cruel man who terrorizes those around him and is driven by the need to exert power and terror. A great deal of time is spent showing Dracula using his highly advanced mental abilities, reading people’s minds, even protecting himself by overcoming the will of those around him while he sleeps.

This is a Dracula who deserves to be destroyed, and who apparently, the film suggests, cannot be, except perhaps by God himself. I like SCARS OF DRACULA because I like seeing Dracula portrayed this way—as a man who really might have once been Vlad the Impaler, a dangerous, fuming force to be reckoned with, not a victim, not a romantic, and certainly not a fool.

The Anchor Bay DVD is light on extras, with little in the way of subtitles or foreign language tracks. The commentary, however, is one of the best I’ve heard, kept clear of most of the idiotic rambling that attends so many DVD commentaries. Here, Director Roy Ward Baker and star Lee are kept in check and on point by film historian Marcus Hearn, who periodically asks them questions about the movie. Smart. I wish all commentaries had a moderator; it’s too much to ask the talent to stay on track for the duration of a feature and not get precious. Lee, of course, is a treat, absolutely full of himself and every bit deserving of it, and full of tidbits about his long battles with the studio that made him a star, or vice versa, depending on whose side you’re on.

Also included is an extra DVD that features a program called “The Many Faces of Christopher Lee,” which is a collection of Lee’s remembrances of his entire resume. Shockingly enough, this DVD also includes two— count’em, two— very strange music videos featuring Lee and cheesy London singer Gary Curtis. Both are duets; one has Lee singing “O Sole Mio” in Italian admirably well while Curtis sings “It’s Now or Never.” The other is an embarrassing country tune called “She’ll Fall for Me”—the less said about that the better.

The Reptile

Review: The Reptile

Hammer, 1966

Anchor Bay- Special Edition Video

Producer: Anthony Nelson-Keys

Director: John Gilling

Screenplay: Anthony Hinds (as "John Elder")


Dr. Franklyn- Noel Willman
Valerie Spalding- Jennifer Daniel
Harry Spalsing- Ray Barrett
Anna Franklyn- Jacqueline Pearce
Tom Bailey- Michael Ripper
Mad Peter- John Laurie
Ourang Sancto- Marne Maitland
Vicar- Charles Lloyd-Pack

"Things are not as simple nor as straightforward as they seem."

When Hammer does it right, it does it like The Reptile. Filmed back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies in 1966, The Reptile is better than Zombies; indeed it's a chilling little masterpiece of mood from open to close, never diverting from its thesis of familial shame, threatening and succeeding in bursting through the surface of society. The Reptile is one of the finest films Hammer made, and certainly the finest Hammer to involve neither Frankenstein nor vampires.

The Reptile, like its sister Plague of the Zombies, takes place in Cornwall, where a series of unsettling deaths have taken place and, just as in the sister film, the locals are fearful and hushed about the whole business. Victims are being found with their faces turned a sickly green and foaming at the mouth. After a local landowner named Spalding dies, his cottage falls to army officer Harry Spalding and his wife Valerie, who immediately move to Cornwall to take up residence.

The moment Valerie and Harry arrive, they are unwelcome. Harry's entrance at the pub prompts everyone to leave, and the only person who will talk to Harry is bartender Tom, a former Navy man who tells Harry that "they don't like strangers around here." Tom is played by Michael Ripper, a character actor who seems to turn up in about every Hammer movie (he was the police sergeant in Plague of the Zombies.

Soon the young couple meet the local lunatic, who goes wandering the streets crying, "This is an evil place! Corrupt and evil!" They also meet the mysterious Dr. Franklyn and his daughter, Anna.

Dr. Franklyn is a tight-lipped scholar of theology who spends his time looking for his daughter and telling her to stay in her room. He seems intent on remaining polite, as if something wretched and terrible were going on but he'll die before he lets anyone know. Anna, his daughter, is a sweet and lonely young woman who seems to regard Valerie as a much-needed friend, but her father keeps her on a short leash, and she, too, seems to be hiding something. Lurking in the background is a silent and imposing Indian man, ostensibly the servant of the two, but who is the only one among the three who doesn't appear trapped in some way.

As more people die and the mystery unfolds, we become aware that nothing is as it seems. Anna may not be as innocent as she appears, her father may not be as cruel, and that Indian guy is certainly not very subservient. I won't spoil the secret, although God knows it's not hard to figure out. I just think you should allow the film to play itself out. Director John Gilling has taken a simple little monster tale and made a haunting allegory for family secrets and abuse of all manner, common Hammer themes played masterfully here. Like Plague of the Zombies, we are faced with violations within the family and the community, and watch as people try to grasp and grapple with the details coming in- in Zombies, the young hero watches as his wife's grave is desecrated and her body mutilated, in this film, a brother's grave is opened on a rainy night, his body examined because it must be. In both, the heroes are left soiled by their involvement. No-one gets away clean, in Hammer.

At the heart of The Reptile is the sin of a father, and a great punishment visited upon his own daughter. Father and daughter deal with this great weight every day, closed away in their house, but the secret looms and threatens society itself. And in their eyes are terror and shame, especially when dealing with innocents like Valerie and Harry, a couple so young and sweet that Dr. Franklyn seems to feel constricted even talking to them. Dr. Franklyn is essayed by a curiously uptight actor name Noel Willman, who was the bizarre Vampire Prince in Kiss of the Vampire (which also starred The Reptile's Valerie, Jennifer Daniel. Isn't fun to see them crop up again and again? It's like watching the skits on The Carol Burnett Show. Who will Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence be this time?) He is expert at expressing, I know I am being rude. I wish it were not so. Leave us alone. Turn and run.

Anna, the daughter with one half or more of the family secret, is played by Jacqueline Pearce, a woman with a haunting face who sf audiences will remember as Servalan on Blakes 7. Here she is a pale, thin creature, the type that everyone has met at least once- a quiet, sweet person just aching to scream. Pearce also played the young bride in Plague of the Zombies.

So much of Hammer is about secrets- the theme of Family secrets, parents visiting punishment upon children, or hiding their "infected" children from the public, is struck again and again in Hammer, notably in Brides of Dracula and Kiss of the Vampire. In the nineties it is hard to imagine a world where every fiber of one's being might be wrapped up in protecting the world from the horror of what goes on behind closed doors. In The Reptile, there's a sense of inevitability to the whole proceedings; this is a hot night in a Tennessee Williams play, and our heroes have just wandered in to bring the facades crashing down. The tension is palpable and exciting, and Gilling makes certain that every scene moves the thesis of shame and hiding along, constantly contrasting light and shadow, allowing no-one to remain comfortable for long. Even the reptile itself, the monster in question, is hidden for a long time. It's a makeup effect, of course, and not particularly realistic in the sense that one might expect today, but not at all embarrassing. By the time you see the reptile, you feel so sad for it that it doesn't matter.

Many of these Hammer movies I write about are "retro treasures," good as studies of film or ideas. The Reptile is more- it's an unsung classic, good for any day against any other title you may feel like watching. Anchor Bay's Special Edition is remastered and presented in letterbox format, so here's an opportunity to discover a charming- and then chilling- classic for yourself.

Kiss of the Vampire

Kiss of the Vampire

Hammer, 1963 Video Available from MCA/Universal Hammer Horror Collection

Producer: Anthony Hinds
Director: Don Sharp
Screenplay: Anthony Hinds (as "John Elder")

Cast: Professor Zimmer: Clifford Evans
Dr. Ravna: Noel Willman
Gerald Harcourt: Edward de Souza
Marianne Harcourt: Jennifer Daniel
Carl Ravna: Barry Warren
Sabena Ravna: Jacquie Wallis
Tania: Isobel Black
Bruno:Peter Madden
Anna: Vera Cook
Between 1958's Dracula and Christopher Lee's return to the vampire role in the 1965 film Dracula-Prince of Darkness, Hammer turned out a pair of films that served to fill out the rules of vampirism in the Hammerscape and more fully laid out the themes that would be essayed over and over for the rest of Hammer's run. These two films were Brides Of Dracula (1960) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963), both of which have been released to video by MCA and make for an entertaining double-feature.

Kiss of the Vampire is distilled Hammer, and almost benefits from the lack of Hammer's two chief stars Cushing and Lee: a heretical thought to some, perhaps, but true, I feel. With Kiss of the Vampire one sees that Van Helsing and Dracula were borne of this strange Hammerscape, and not vice-versa. Sometimes Hammer was so overwhelmed by having to decide what to do with mammoth talent like Cushing and Lee that they missed the smaller touches that really drive these film; Kiss of the Vamp; is all small touches, like the slightly better (for Cushing's presence, of course) Brides of Dracula. And what touches they are.

The plot, in brief, almost.

There's a lot of story here, probably more than a 90-minute affair can handle, but let me gloss the plot as briefly as possible while hitting the salient points, for those who haven't seen it (if you have, then just skip on down to the next section):

Young honeymooners Gerald and Marianne Harcourt run out of gas in a vaguely eastern-European corner of the Hammerscape. After being spied upon by a mysterious nobleman from a high chateau, the pair find refuge in the poorly named Grand Hotel, a deserted inn with one other patron- a sad and drunken professor named Zimmer. Bruno, the innkeeper, and his wife Anna, are an eager but sad pair with a Terrible Secret. Soon, Dr. Ravna, the noble who spied upon them earlier, sends a letter asking that the young couple join him for dinner. Urged by the innkeeper to do so, the Harcourts comply, and are met at the chateau by Dr. Ravna and his children, dashing Carl and exquisitely lovely Sabena.

Meanwhile, lurking in the background is a dusky and sensual woman named Tania who sneaks out to a fresh grave, hoping to raise another vampire. She is interrupted by Professor Zimmer, the lodger, who chases her away but receives a nasty bite on the hand, which he immediately treats. Back at the chateau, the Harcourts are treated to Carl Ravna's lovely piano playing, and as he plays, Marianne is swayed to the point of fainting by the music. When the Harcourts call it a night, the Ravnas invite them back for a masquerade ball.

The pair attend the ball, an elaborate affair in which every single masked member is in fact a member of Ravna's vampire cult. Marianne and Carl dance while Gerald is led off by Sabena, who promptly drugs him and tosses him aside. Marianne is led upstairs by Carl and seduced (vampirized) by Dr. Ravna. When Gerald rises the following morning his wife is denied him, and everyone from the Ravnas to the innkeepers insist that he has always been alone; there was no Marianne. Luckily, Professor Zimmer is onto the plot, having lost his own daughter to the Ravnas' cult. He leads and assault on the chateau, and once they whisk Marianne back, the good men trap the vampires inside the chateau. While Gerald tries to keep Marianne from running back to Dr. Ravna, Professor Zimmer uses a diabolical spell on the cult, sending the minions of evil- vampire bats- to destroy the vampire cult. (Whew.)

There. Now lets all pretend we've seen it so we can get to...

Hammer Themes from Kiss of the Vampire

Vampirism as Sexual Decadence:

# In Kiss of the Vampire, vampirism is directly related to sexual depravity, decadence and disease. Professor Zimmer opens the movie by plunging a shovel through his own departed daughter's coffin, severing her head in a shocking pre-credit teaser. We find out later why he has been reduced to this: Zimmer's daughter ran off to the big city, where she fell in with "the so-called smart set.... When she returned, she was riddled with disease: and she was a vampire." But Zimmer goes on to explain his theory of what's going on in vampirism: the vampire, once afflicted, can either turn to God and confess her sins, or she will "convince herself" that she has discovered a new way of life, and will try to win others over to her "perversion."

# In Horror of Dracula, Christopher Lee was a predator charged with victim-fantasy eroticism; Kiss of the Vampire contains a different, competing theory of vampire eroticism. Here, vampirism is a tempting fruit that will distance the convert from her home and God -- not due to the hypnotic attack of a powerful vampire lord like Dracul -- but through the cool, sensual embrace of a convincing vampire proselytizer.

# Consider this: Noel Willman's Dr. Ravna is a bit of a snob, but he's also the leader of a vampire cult, the acolytes of which are descending for what seems to be some sort of conference (very like the one seen in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, by the way.) He and his children spot Marianne and immediately want her to join them. The result is really a sort of argument between our cult and theirs: vampirism in this movie doesn't really do anything to you except seduce you and turn you against your previous non-vampire friends. (I recognize, by the way, that it does kill you, but that doesn't seem to bother the vampires, after all, so who are we to judge?) As it is, the only reason we as the audience know to root for Dr. Zimmer's destruction of the cult is because the film follows him.

# But consider even more: the scene in which Carl Ravna plays piano for Marianne is an amazing and perverse piece of work. Marianne is seated by the piano as Carl plays. Her husband lingers by the window, not paying attention; Carl's sister stands beside him and Dr. Ravna lingers over the lot of them. All eyes are on Marianne as she heaves her breasts and flushes deeply, captivated by the music to the point of fainting. Husband Harcourt notices this and immediately rushes to her aid, at which Carl stops playing, and Marianne breathlessly urges, "don't stop!" At this point everyone says goodnight. Harcourt ushers his wife to the cab, and we are now completely aware that this buttoned-up woman is stuck in a marriage to a man who wouldn't know sexual arousal from a case of the mumps.

# Later, when Marianne spits in Harcourt's face, we are horrified by the betrayal. But Kiss of the Vampire makes a careful case for the vampires before deciding against them, and nothing is simple. Harcourt kidnaps Marianne back and basically deprograms her, but we never do learn if she would have been happier with the vampires. Noone asks.

# It's interesting to contrast Kiss of the Vampire with later Hammers like Lust for a Vampire. The lovely Jennifer Daniel must convey a charged eroticism by flushing her cheeks, and she does so with maddening effectiveness. I have no objection to nudity in eroticism (I have no objection to anything if it effectively helps the story), but its worth watching a director and actress rely on acting and imagination.

# I love the confusion of this movie. Evil in Kiss of the Vampiremust be punished, but there's a lot to indicate that at least we acknowledge that evil is tempting and often attractive. My comments above suggest a relativist approach, but it's no secret that the movie is on the side of the loser asexual husband and the vampire-hating drunk professor, who want their woman back.

All of this is to point up the distinction between the confusion of the sixties and the lush vacuum of Interview with the Vampire, a sort of vampire noir where anyone who doesn't think vampirism is the greatest, like vampire Louis, is basically a weenie. Anne Rice's vampires finally said, why beat around the bush? The vampires aren't evil, so why pretend we think they are: why not just make it sexy and go all the way? In Rice, the vampires are the heroes, and we follow them as they learn to embrace their immortal coolness.

Frankly, though, it was more interesting when we seemed torn about it all. It's more interesting in a world where choosing between Van Helsing and the vampire (as is the choice to be made in Brides of Dracula) is a real dilemma, rather than one where Van Helsing is regarded as silly. Stack the odds, open with a conclusion, and there's really nowhere to go. A little confusion can go along way (perhaps the reason for our continued love affair with the 1960s).

A final note: fans of the Hammerscape will be thrilled to see all the usual standbys, especially the "safe place," here represented by the hotel and bar around which much of the plot centers. In the Hammerscape there will always be a tavern that almost every character makes his or her way through sooner or later.

Horror of Dracula

Hammer, 1958
Video from Warner Video

Producer: Anthony Hinds
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster

Van Helsing- Peter Cushing
Dracula- Christopher Lee
Arthur Holmwood- Michael Gough
Mina Holmwood- Melissa Stribling
Lucy Holmwood- Carol Marsh

I've found it relatively easy to find things to say about the other Hammer films I've discussed here. But now we turn to the first Hammer Dracula, HORROR OF DRACULA, and I have found myself stumped. It's a classic, and it deserves to be.

HORROR OF DRACULA is perhaps the only Hammer film to be what we might call "culturally significant," as much for what it ushered in as for what it is. The film, coming in on the heels of Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein, put Hammer on the map as a horror company, and more, put horror back on the map as a genre.

Screening HORROR OF DRACULA I am compelled to imagine it's 1958 and I'm sitting in a theater, opening night. I know I'm going to go see Dracula, but what does that mean? Primarily, especially for an American, it means Hungarian Expatriate Bela Lugosi as the vampire count-- a strange, black-and-white charmer who speaks unintelligible English and uses his hands as gnarled, hypnotic weapons. I think of cobwebs and Hollywood sets, and the sort of chisel-jawed heroes and fluffy-cheeked ingenues of the 1930's-- and these images are fresh, because after a long death at the box office, the old horrors have begun to resurface on television. Along that way the image has become a joke, too, a vaudeville farce and home to Bud and Lou and soap commercials. Lugosi is both sacred and the object of constant profanity. Lugosi and the black-and-white castles are it. That's where we are, 1958, about to see Dracula and thinking of an indelible impression created on Americans nearly thirty years before.

And the film opens, and the first thing that jolts me is *color,* bright, garish color, as the camera lingers on the battlements of the Castle Dracula and heavy, ominous red letters hang on the screen. Color! In a horror movie! The camera moves into the castle, down into the crypt, and finally lingers on a steel-gray tomb, and the name is there, carved in stone, as if we've never heard it before: DRACULA. As if to say, we're not just re-introducing, we're introducing, period. This is it. Director Fisher saw no need to view the American version, and here I am, 1958, Lugosi burned into my brain, and look, I'm forgetting already. Blood falls on the stone and we fade to black.

There's so much here I'll be brief because I could just as well be overlong, hitting the best things to look for in HORROR OF DRACULA:


This is, I think, the most amazing thing about the picture, for those of you who've seen it but may have forgotten the details. Nearly every movie that purports to be an adaptation of the story of the novel begins the same, with Jonathan Harker visiting Dracula because Dracula wants to buy a house in London, after which Dracula sort of invades England.

HORROR OF DRACULA turns this plot completely on its ear by having Harker come to Dracula posing as a librarian. It takes several scenes before we discover that Harker is an undercover vampire slayer, out to dispatch Dracula himself or die trying. Before Harker fails, he slays Dracula's vampire bride. Dracula goes to England to get revenge.

This is a big deal. Dracula is a predator and a vampire in HORROR OF DRACULA, but the plot rises to the level of fable when you recognize that Dracula is like a lion in the forest, which a foolish hunter has lured out into the village.


My single favorite character in all Hammer is Peter Cushing's athletic and brilliant Abraham Van Helsing. The good doctor is introduced here and will, like Dracula, return over the series, so it's worthwhile to see him in what seems to be his early vampire-slaying career. In HORROR OF DRACULA, Van Helsing is still learning, apparently. He is clever and quick, but he doesn't know everything there is to know about vampires yet-- he comes across as a man who thinks he knows everything, hopes he's right, and turns out to be, more or less.

Also interesting is Van Helsing as Harker's partner- presumably they drew straws to choose who would get to go to Dracula's castle, and Harker lost. What did these two men do? Why did they become vampire slayers? I don't mind not knowing.

Cushing is a marvel, stylish and authoritative and sympathetic. He's a wonderful, wonderful character.


Of course, this is the movie that introduced Christopher Lee as Dracula and turned him into an international star. And boy, should it have: Lee is a tall drink of blood, all right, with a voice deeper than the pits of Hell and a strange knack for looking charming when he's at his most dangerous. Just imagine being there, 1958, Lugosi on the brain, and we are introduced to Lee as Dracula.

Lee's Dracula first appears at the top of a staircase, and you expect something odd, really, some sort of attack or flight-- but instead he walks down the stairs, moving into frame and smiling, a charming host of impeccable manners. He seems... serene, this Dracula, the best poster-child for landed nobility you ever saw. And he charmingly, quietly locks Harker in his room.

When Dracula appears again, he roars and snarls and leaps in a vampire rage, his face smeared in blood. The effect is that of having caught the charming noble doing something nasty, and he's turned on you. Amazing. Christopher Lee accomplishes so much with his face and body that you forget that he's not actually in the film that much.

And make no mistake, this is very much the Dracula of SCARS OF DRACULA-- that demanding megalomaniac sexual predator. HORROR OF DRACULA was the first Dracula film to play up the sex, but it's complicated, of course: Dracula sets the Victorian women free, turns them on, but only before doing them great violence. There seems to be real tenderness in his face-kisses to the married and swooning Mina, and truly, both of his victims seem to be locked in their desire to be, um, predated, by Dracula. But this is not the charming bourgeois vampirism of KISS OF THE VAMPIRE; this is evil. He's a bad, bad, dangerous, attractive man.


Actually introduced in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the Hammerscape is still a fresh enough creation as of HORROR OF DRACULA that it's worth mentioning. See! English Germans! Cockney tavern keepers and busty hausfraus with London accents calling people *Herr.* See! English trees passing for eastern European mountains.

See the wondrous colors, the magnificent set decorations of Bernard Robinson, who used chalk on paper to create a breathtaking marble mosaic, who defined the curious red-and-blue palette that would drive the Hammers for the rest of their days. See the sets for the first time, which you'll come to know the way you know the Enterprise.


Lastly, the final moments are still a grabber even forty years later- Cushing pursuing Lee through the Count's house, finally cornering him for duel of brawn and brains in a massive dining hall. Cushing here is a man born to fight the vampire count, a man brought alive by a good opponent. It's a wonder to see Cushing jump on the table, spring from the edge and rip the curtains from the windows as the morning light pours in, then drive the vampire into dust, clutch two candlesticks in his hands in the form of a cross. It's a visceral, breathtaking scene, and an eternal favorite.

Enough. See it.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Producer: Roy Skeggs
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Anthony Hinds (writing as "John Elder")

# Baron Frankenstein: Peter Cushing
# Doctor Helder: Shane Briant
# Sarah, the Angel: Madeline Smith
# The Monster: David Prowse
# Asylum Director: John Stratton
# Professor Durendel: Charles Lloyd Pack
# Tarmut: Bernard Lee
# Graverobber: Patrick Troughton

Boy, what a title.

Titles make a big difference in how one views a movie. A bad title can throw you off completely; a good one can let you know what to expect. These assumptions we make generally follow custom that develops over time; thus, if a movie shows up called "The Delicate Color of Lilacs," or some such Merchant Ivoryism, I know that a trip down *that* path will yield much soft focus and introspection, and probably a pinafore or two. Most likely I'll run screaming for a movie with a title like Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, a title that sounds like a drive-in extravaganza, the sort of title that gets thought up (with accompanying poster) long before a script is written.

And of course, I'd still miss my mark, because Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is not a godawful drive-in exploitation movie at all. It's not even the usual Hammer gothfest. Rather, it's a cold, dark, claustrophobic take on Hammer themes, so pensive and neurotic that it should have been called "Marat/Frankenstein."

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is the final chapter in the Hammer Frankenstein cycle, and one can sense the passing of something great. And as in life, that passing is not necessarily pretty or expected.

For those entering the Frankenstein cycle backwards, Peter Cushing first played the titular Baron in the first Hammer triumph (which I have yet to review), Curse of Frankenstein. Cushing's Frankenstein is a careful, stalwart sort of mad scientist -- ruthless but dedicated to his plans of overcoming death and aiding mankind. He is very much of a type with the Cushing's heroic Van Helsing, except that Victor Frankenstein is both hero and villain of his own movie, invariably creating a monster which becomes his own greatest foe, leaving him to clean up as best he can and start over. Along the way he acts in ways that veer from the merely disconnected to the violently antisocial -- he steals bodies, he lies, he kills, he even rapes. He seems to be sane, and yet he'll suddenly do something that lets you see that the synapses inside might not all be firing just right. And each of the films Frankenstein cut a swath through were firmly ensconced in the Hammerscape, with the Burgomasters and the bar wenches and big mugs, and of course, lots of burgundy.

So we find Victor Frankenstein, in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, in an asylum. We find him because we have spent the first ten minutes or so following the hard luck of a young mad scientist in the making, Doctor Simon Helder, who manages to get arrested for putting bodies together in his lab and banished to an asylum for the criminally insane. Immediately the arrogant young doctor is abused by the guards, whereupon he is rescued by the cadaverous but firm Victor Frankenstein himself, the boy's hero. Peter Cushing has come a long way since he first sharpened his scalpel. Here is a wraith of a man, so gaunt that he seems to move by some internal force unknown to us. He is sad, and a little dotty, dangerously lucid and charming and then inexplicably cruel and thoughtless.

Ever the Victorian politico, Frankenstein has worked out an arrangement with the Director: "Victor Frankenstein" has been declared dead, but he remains within the asylum walls, acting as house doctor under an assumed name (Doctor *Victor*) and carrying on his experiments in an environment where no-one would think to look for him.

Frankenstein rules the asylum just as the Marquis de Sade did in his final years, a highly intelligent man carrying on his life surrounded by the mad-- possibly the maddest of them all, and then, maybe not. Frankenstein takes Helder under his wing as he works to build yet another monster, combining the body of a dead bruiser of a man, the brain of a brilliant mathematician and musician, and the hands of a sculptor. The result is a hulking brute with a tortured soul.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell takes some odd chances and they all pay off. The action remains in the asylum, and the asylum becomes the world. In here, Frankenstein begins to make sense, which becomes more horrifying when those frayed wires pop out. We finally see Frankenstein as a failed scientist -- driven to try the same thing, over and over again, always meeting defeat -- and more, after all this time, a desperate, failed man. He cannot appreciate music, for he is tone deaf. He cannot appreciate sculpture, except to appreciate the usefulness of "such good hands." Indeed, the hand motif crops up throughout- Frankenstein, the craftsman of new men, has useless hands, having burnt them in the previous chapter. Helder must be his new hands. The final act of misunderstood violence is done at the hands of the inmates.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is a dark, dank look at a fallen craftsman, in league with Requiem for a Heavyweight in its sad examination of a man who might have been great, might not have but at least expected more from himself. When we leave Frankenstein he is deluded as ever, and we must turn away, away from the gothic horrors of the sixties, away from the once-handsome, now skeletal Cushing, into the dangerous and unfamiliar world of post-gothic horror.

This film is not the last gothic. It is the first post-gothic, and it is worth seeing.

Dracula- Prince of Darkness

Dracula- Prince of Darkness

Producer: Anthony Nelson-Keys
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster (as John Samson) and Anthony Hinds

Dracula- Christopher Lee
Helen Kent- Barbara Shelley
Father Sandor- Andrew Keir
Charles Kent- Francis Matthews
Diana Kent- Suzan Farmer
Alan Kent- Charles Tingwell
Klove- Philip Latham
Ludwig- Thorley Walters

"Count Dracula died without issue ... in the accepted sense of the term."

The meeting must have been a doozy, or at least it unfolds nicely in my imagination: it's 1964, and after a self-imposed flight from the part, Christopher Lee has agreed to return to the role he last played in 1958's Dracula. Except, of course, that the testy, six-four thespian has a problem: he will play Dracula again, but he simply refuses to speak the lines. And so rather than lose him or keep rewriting to please him, you agree, and off you go.

Christopher Lee, who possesses one of the deepest, richest voices in film history, utters not a single word in Dracula- Prince of Darkness. Lee claims that the screenplay called for him to deliver lines he thought beneath his character (and his voice, I suppose.) And here is the truth: only Christopher Lee's mammoth screen presence manages to keep the muteness of Dracula from seeming ridiculous- Lee's Dracula looks powerful enough that one presumes he is not speaking because he long ago gave up on the crudities of speech, preferring to communicate with his mind instead. Or something. The trick is, Lee's so good you really want it to make sense.

The plot of the film is simple enough: we open in Hammerscape: Transylvania, that strange eurobrit territory where the vampires creep and cockney innkeepers use German pronouns. Dracula has been dead for ten years, as evidenced by the opening credits, which replay the well-worth-reusing final battle from (Horror of) Dracula. Along come four crisply English travelers: two brothers, one a young gallant, the other older and mellow, and their wives, one a smiling, pleasantly vacant sex-kitten type, the other a chilly, high-collared woman who thinks that the whole world fails for being unlike London. They meet Father Sandor, a delightfully sensuous and wise rifle-bearing monk from a nearby monastery, who tells them to stay the Hell away from the castle. No-one knows the castle to which he refers, it's not on any map, etc. Suffice it to say that the four end up at the castle ("Hey- isn't that the castle everyone either warned us about or pretends doesn't exist? Maybe they'll put us up for the night!") Very soon they're beset by Dracula, who sort of picks them off, one by one, until Father Sandor comes along and saves the day. A blow-by-blow would serve little; that's the basic idea.

There are two especially memorable bits here:

# The first is the revival of Dracula by a gruesome bloodletting and a fine effect of a corpse putting itself back together.
# Second is the appearance of Dracula upstairs while Barbara Shelley tries to seduce her former sister-in-law. Dracula hisses and pounces down the staircase like an animal. This is a vibrant, lusty Dracula, reminiscent of the scene in Stoker in which the always-possessive Count cries, "Back! This man belongs to me!"
# Finally is the very, very erotic scene in which Dracula, never uttering a word, calms a panicked Suzan Farmer. Next he opens his shirt, slitting his skin with his fingernail, and pulls her lips toward the trail of blood running down his chest. The heroes manage to interrupt this scene, and boy, is Dracula annoyed.

Bruce Wright's Nightwalkers, in all respects a wonderful discussion of Gothic Horror Films, heartily slams this movie, citing some pretty formidable flaws, among them Lee's unfortunate silence throughout, and the curious way in which the characters manage to do everything they can to worsen their situation. Wright tallies the good and the bad parts and finds the whole wanting; personally, Prince of Darkness works for me. What Wright finds to be flaws are often, in my humble estimation, part of the charm.

In fact, many of my favorite Hammer themes are present in this movie, so I'll just list them, addressed to the characters of this and just abut every Hammer movie.

The Rules of the Hammer Road: In the Hammerscape, there are a few rules to live by. Most likely if you're traveling there, you're probably English, so you're out of your own territory. Nevertheless it will behoove you to act as if everyone around you really should act more like you, and less like the numbskulled superstitious locals you perceive them to be. In fact, go ahead and treat them like mildly amusing children. If they warn you about something, laugh. Hell, you're from London.

Transylvanian Mind-clouding: It's not really your fault that you're acting so stupidly, of course. The moment you stepped into the Hammerscape a clouding spell fell across your terribly proper British brain. From here on out some dastardly presence, probably the one wanting your blood to bring it back to life, has wrapped itself around your brain and blocked out all possibility of sizing up your situation adequately. You will be tempted to do the correct thing, and somehow you will fail, time and again, moving blithely along like a lamb to the slaughter.

Special Vision for the Pure: There are those seers, however, who dot the Hammerscape and will be of tremendous help to you. These men and women are generally clergy or grief-forged, learned warriors who are immune to the clouding spell. The seers remember what they are supposed to, including the obvious things, because the clouding works on the locals, too, when it comes to normally large and easily-detected items like gigantic bite-marks on a victim's neck. The clouding spell works to remove all evidence of the evil from the local mind, but the Seers will inevitably appear in time to point out the obvious ("I say! There's a vampire about!") and remind the other befuddled fools of how to dispatch the evil. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing's recurrent role, sadly missing from Dracula- Prince of Darkness) was the greatest of these. Keep in mind, though, if you're inclined to be a seer, Dracula will find you extremely attractive prey.

Vampire Mind Tricks: In the Hammerscape, anybody on the side of the evil possesses the ability to wave a hand and get a person to believe the most ridiculous of suggestions. ("No, you really should come back to Dracula's castle. You don't want to be out here where it's safe... move along... move along.")

Expectations of nobility: Nobles exist for no other reason than to entertain English guests. Accept their hospitality unquestioningly and pooh-pooh any less clouded compatriot who thinks it likely that you're being led into a trap. Take it for granted that rich nobles want to put you up for the night because you're so delightfully charming, even if, in the case of Count Dracula, the noble happens to be dead.

Victorian Feminine Upheaval: There you are, you heavily wrapped upper-class London girl, with your high collar and Victorian meekness. The evil smelled you the moment you entered the Hammerscape, and you're done for now- but it's a freedom he offers. Dracula will set you free, dispatch your asexual, lumpy husband, and render you a flushed and panting predator like himself. And worst of all, you'll like it. Isn't that just horrible? Oh, sure, the movie will have you destroyed for your transgressions, but make no mistake: the dowdy Victorian men you brought with you aren't horrified by you because you're a vampire. They're horrified because you're turned on. And that's way worse than death.

Evenings of Horror: The East

The Bride with White Hair (1993)
The Bride with White Hair 2 (1993)
Mr. Vampire (1985)
Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974)

From the sublime to the truly exotic…

This was one of the truly oddest evenings of horror I've ever experienced. No cliché here: you ain't seen nothing until you've seen the horror movies our brothers to the east cook up. We're talking ghosts to make your heart stop, witches whose heads come off and fly around the room-dangerously-and vampires with kung-fu grip. I'm not sure, but I think Chinese food is just the first of many excellent substances to watch these movies with.

I've picked four films of high quality horror to introduce you to Chinese horror. There are lots more to be found at your more discerning video shops and on-line at places like www.reel.com and www.moviesunlimited.com if you're interested, but you can't go wrong with these.

First off, we watch THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR. Subtitled and letterboxed, this is an epic film about a young man, Cho, born and bred to become a chief of state in medieval China. Early in his life Cho is saved from a pack of wolves by a strange girl who stands on a hill, playing a pipe and soothing the wolves with her music. He remembers her his whole life, and when the dynasty is at war with an evil clan of magic-users, she reappears.

She reappears as the wolf girl, a self-described killing machine who was rescued by the evil clan and trained to be their linchpin assassin. She's right out of the X-Men, using her extraordinarily long hair as a whip with which she-no kidding-tears soldiers limb from limb while swords and horses move around her. All of this is shot in a fast-paced editing style resembling MTV and John Woo far more than those old chop-socky movies of the 70's.

But Cho loves the wolf girl, and she's ready to quit the evil clan, and naturally their love affair makes no one happy. What happens? If I told you, I'd ruin it, but along the way there are battle scenes that rattle past you like break-neck kung fu ballet, nicely erotic love intervals, betrayal, and even a pair of psionic-powered Siamese twins. I called BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR an epic because it has that feel- there's a whole world of history to these characters, and everyone knows there's more at stake than just their own happiness. Comic fans will fall in love with this movie.

BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR 2 continues the story, and since I didn't ruin the end of the last, all I can say about this one is that the epic continues beautifully. The long-frustrated love of Cho and the wolf girl, now a grief-stricken and deadly super-villain called the White Witch, has brought a generation of chaos to the Ching dynasty. The movie is a match for the original (these had to have been shot back to back) in style, tension, and hyper-violent Marvel-style kung fu. When these guys jump, they fly. Much of the story involves the city of women ruled by the White Witch, where Chinese women fed up with society come to effect their ruler's revolution. Their motto: "Men. See one, kill one." The White Witch now uses her hair like some enormous retractable cat-o-nine-tails, slicing in a hundred directions at once with her razor sharp (split, presumably) ends. I can't say enough about these other than they'll blow your mind. If you're bored with horror, go east.

The next movie I watched isn't an epic, but it's the first of a long-running series: MR. VAMPIRE. Made in 1985, MR. VAMPIRE forsakes the serious action of BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR for farce, and watching it makes you aware of Tarantino and Rodriguez' source for most of the action in their Asian-influenced FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. What we've got here is an undertaker/vampire consultant, Ching-Ying, in China who has more trouble looking after his wacky young hirelings than he does with the various creatures that plague them. The vampires are hilarious, but fast and deadly. They hop, for one thing, an odd Asian convention meant to suggest flying. They hop very fast, until they grab you and kill you. The attractive kid who works for Ching-Ying falls for a ghost-witch whose appetites are a bit too much to satiate, and at when annoyed her head comes off, meaning Ching-Ying has two people to fight at once, rather like the Starship Enterprise separating its sections. The coolest bit is the detail that the vampires are blind and maneuver by smell, meaning you can stand right next to them if you hold your breath (and don't for God's sake, sweat.) Oh, and you can freeze a vampire if you can get close enough to him to stick a piece of holy parchment on his forehead. Except it's really easy for the parchment to fall off.

Um, wow.

The last movie of the evening, (and admittedly, for normal mortals this should be two evenings), is THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, which Anchor Bay just released in a letterboxed and restored edition. It's the perfect film to either bring you back out of Chinese horror, or to introduce it all, if you prefer; just move it to the top of the list. SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES came out back in 1974, co-produced by England's Hammer Studios, makes of gothic brilliance, and Hong Kong's immortal Shaw Bros. It was meant to be the first of a series of movies in which vampire slayer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) went around the globe killing the vampires of the world. Didn't happen. But this one did, and what a wacky thing it must have seemed to audiences who had never seen Chinese Horror.

Dracula, according to this movie, went to China to found a vampire cult of seven hopping vampires who wear golden masks. Van Helsing is lecturing in the east and is recruited by kung fu star David Chiang to help him and his six siblings to go take back the night. Cushing is great, as always, but who needs him in this movie? The real stars are David Chiang and his six brothers and one sister, each of who specialize in a different martial arts weapon. Sister is my favorite playing knick-knack on fast-moving kung-fu zombies with her sparkling silver sai. Second favorite is the brother with the silver battle-axes. Would Hollywood ever make a movie like this? Are you kidding? The new tape, by the way, comes with a bonus, if you care to call it that: the entire SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA, the really awful American cut of the film, cut down to eliminate plot and even, for some reason, some of the kung fu. Skim it for enlightenment as to how not to release a picture, but watch LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES for a look at a truly bizarre melding of eastern and western horror.

Welcome to the Hammerscape- A word about Hammer Movies

Welcome to the Hammerscape- A word about Hammer

Some films have settings, and some settings have films.

There are worlds in film that succeed so brilliantly that they must surely continue once the film is over- landscapes and backgrounds so powerful that we get the impression that the films we see taking place in these worlds are just windows allowing us to visit for a few hours. We can count these cohesive worlds on our hands- In science fiction films, there's Star Wars universe and the Star Trek universe, to name the most cohesive. The Mad Max pictures created such a world, one that has been imitated so many times you might forget that once, it was original.

In Horror, there's one world that holds together like that: a landscape slightly European and slightly British, slightly historical and modern, adaptable to many plots and characters and yet always recognizable. In Horror, there is the Hammerscape.

What is the Hammerscape? You have to see it to truly get it, but it is a cohesive horror universe reflected in curiously stagy and yet convincing sets, oddly lurid and sumptuous and yet stunningly classy colors (Ah, burgundy! Burgundy everywhere!), and not a single element that doesn't fit into the Hammer Ideal.

The history of Hammer Studios is prosaic and better told in detail elsewhere; it's the stuff that fanboy triviaphilia is made of. In the late 1950's, horror was dead. The Universal Revolution of the thirties and forties had defined horror and set up its own recognizable horror landscape; a black-and-white world in every sense, full of expressionist technique and suffused with a distinctly modern, old-europe-as-seen-through-the-eyes-of-the-American-GI viewpoint. Occasional earlier attempts notwithstanding, Hollywood's Universal Studios gave us the stars of classic horror: Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy, effectively providing a starting vocabulary for future artists in the genre. By the fifties, modern sensibilities in a gothic landscape had given way to science fiction and cold war hysteria, and horror was a thing of the past.

Then, in 1956, Hammer Studios in Britain started all over again, and they moved horror forward by looking back. Brazenly choosing to tackle the giants of the genre first, Hammer made its presence known by releasing The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, followed shortly by 1958's Dracula. Both starred the two men who would forever be the faces of Hammer, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

What made these films special? The conventional article on Hammer will suggest that the trick was to make Dracula and Frankenstein more "modern." They used color, after all. They explored sexual themes. All of this is true, it's a first-glance thesis that misses a lot. Hammer was not more "modern" than Universal- in fact, Hammer was quite the opposite. Hammer used modern tools to throw its films body and soul into a crushing and complicated love affair with antiquity. Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula came from a time when science had conquered the world and could conquer monsters, too. Hammer came from a time when we'd grown out of that ideal and found ourselves fearing the unseen once again.

Hammer's horror was, in a word, Gothic. By Gothic, I mean that curious idealization of the past, and not necessarily any real, actual past, but an idealized, antiquated past. Gothic is the love of antiquity, and in many respects, the love of death. (And I highly recommend Bruce Wright's Nightwalkers: Gothic Horror Movies for a more adequate discussion of the phenomenon than I have time for here.) Universal's Dracula was sensual, but his victims never seriously would have joined him. He was a monster. Christopher Lee was even scarier, because he was attractive, he was brazenly sexy and sinful and dangerous and evil, and his victims not only had to combat him but themselves, and the evil in themselves. This was a darker world than Universal ever gave us. And armed with this philosophy guaranteed to curdle the blood, Hammer carefully (and sometimes less carefully) crafted a series of films that reflect that mindset in every nook and cranny, in every costume and set.

Part of the conceit, of course, was in re-use: Hammer knew how to stretch a pound and make it look like they wanted it that way. Like a modern television series, Hammer Studios employed the same key players and crew over and over again, until they invariably retired, having trained the younger set. Bernard Robinson, the brilliant set-designer who horror chronicler Dick Klemensen calls the "backbone and heart of the Hammer success story," created castles and marble floors and battlements out of plaster and chalk and not only made it look great, it looked right, and could look right over and over again. Cinematographer Jack Asher designed the well-contrasted and distinct color palette. And so on.

I write all of this, and yet it's not enough. The Hammerscape is magic, and describing it doesn't really cut it.

So that's what Letters from the Hammerscape is about. Mind you, it's a rag-tag fleet of films, sometimes, and I'll be sure to note when a movie comes close to the Hammer Ideal, when it doesn't and when it just plum fails. (But even when Hammer fails, it fails with charm.)

Gather round, now, and let's talk horror. More to the point, let's talk horror films, and while we're at it, let's talk the best horror films going.

Let's talk Hammer.

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

by Jason Henderson

Released in the UK Titled Kronos
Hammer, 1973
Video available from Paramount

Producer: Albert Fennel and Brian Clemens
Director: Brian Clemens
Captain Kronos: Horst Janson
Dr. Marcus: John Carson
Professor Grost: John Carter
Carla: Caroline Munro
Paul Durward: Shane Briant
Sara Durward: Lois Daine
Kerro: Ian Hendry
Lady Durward: Wanda Ventham
Hagen Durward: William Hobbs
George Sorrell: Brian Tully

By now we all know the Hammerscape. We've ridden carriages across it with maddening speed, watching mists swirl out of the path of Van Helsing and Frankenstein, Dracula and the creature. We've seen that the towns flow into an odd British/German/Eastern European fusion, conveying that this clearly is an entire other planet, some of which looks a lot more like our own than others.

In Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, we learn that some parts of the Hammerscape look an awful lot like, and are populated by people fresh from, Gunsmoke.

This must have seemed a radical idea in 1972, when the picture was made. Director Brian Clemens said he felt the way to revive flagging interest in Hammer would be to shift the focus from the vampires onto the hero. In the process he created a new hero, somewhat in line with Peter Cushing's Van Helsing. Van Helsing, of course, was the dashing, stalwart vampire hunter best seen in Brides of Dracula: athletic and relentless, a symbol of goodness. Kronos is a vampire hunter as well, but of a slightly advanced sort. He's the sort of vampire hunter Buffy seems to be patterned after, and of which there really aren't that many in film: he has a whole regimen of activities, access to great lore, and a variety of weapons. Kronos comes looking for trouble, like Harker in Dracula, but there's a big difference between city boys Harker and Van Helsing and the one-man A-Team represented by Kronos.

Kronos comes to the vampire-besieged village of Durward after receiving a letter from his old friend Doctor Marcus. Kronos is played by Klaus Janson, a flaxen-haired, chisel-jawed Swede who wears an Imperial Guardsman's coat and carries both a rapier and a katana. He smokes little cigars and tries to speak as little as possible, so the effect is that of an overly Aryan version of the Man with No Name. He was a captain who returned from the wars to find his family vampirized, and he slew them himself. His sword, we learn, is faster than the eye. Women just adore him. And so on.

My favorite aspect of Kronos is the movie's delight in giving you details about vampire-hunting. There are different kinds of vampires, we find out: the local vampire seems to be sucking youth rather than blood, for instance, which means once they have caught one, they have to experiment to figure out how to kill him. Professor Grost, Kronos' very own hunchbacked Alfred, lays out a rather impressive "vampire-detecting" system that relies on the fact that the passing of a vampire will revive a dead toad. Grost also fashions Kronos a blade from the steel of a great cross, once it's determined that that's the stuff they need. While the forging happens, Kronos purifies himself by meditating in a corner, his head covered.

So this is a weird Hammer movie. The vampires themselves are a fairly well-executed mystery for the bulk of the film, keeping you guessing how the culprit can't be who it seems to be. The solution even ties this movie in to the Hammer Karnstein Trilogy (proving once and for all that it's the same universe.) But it seems odd that in a movie designed to launch Kronos as a repeat performer (this was meant to be the first of a series), Hammer would choose such exotic vampires. It would have been preferable to at least start Kronos out chasing someone like Dracula.

The style wavers maddeningly. Director Clemens does the occasional neat trick, suggesting the stopping of a heart by the stopping of the clouds in the sky, or framing multi-layered shots of people behind statues seen through windows, etc. But as Bruce Wright points out in Nightwalkers, this film is "way "too light, containing almost no night shots at all. Scene for scene, this film has the atmosphere of a Barnaby Jones episode.

Historically, Kronos occupies a place in the fitful last years of Hammer, when few of the old crew remained. Just as Hammer had changed the face of horror in 1958, by the early seventies a new wave had come, leaving Hammer as the old school. With the advent of modern, glib horrors like The Omen and The Exorcist, sexy gothics like the Hammer films began to look quaint and out-dated. Which I suppose they were. Everything comes around. But it was in this time that Hammer entered a period of experimentation, some better than others, giving us wonderfully wacky pieces like the kung-fu vampire movie, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and my god, my god, the exquisitely sexy, atmospheric, avant-garde and positively wonderful Vampire Circus. And oh yes, there's Kronos, the blond-headed stepchild.

So should you see it? On a lark, sure. This is one of the few films that dared to stretch the vampire mythos within the Hammerscape concept, and it's a neat idea. Had Kronos fared better in the US, we might have seen better episodes, more stylishly delivered. As a pilot, it's not bad. Fans of super-heroes, or especially of Buffy, will want to see this seminal vampire-hunter tale. But honestly, what makes me fall ultimately on the negative side is this: after I watched this film again, I happened to catch Brides of Dracula on the Sci-Fi channel. (Mind you, Brides is the absolute "finest" Hammer of all.) But there was all the rich color, the exciting photography, masterful direction and riveting suspense of Hammer at its best. And Kronos is a very, very long way from that.