Monday, 27 July 2009

Dr Blood's Coffin

Or another film this month to link to Konga.

The first, and most obvious, point of connection is that we have yet another arrogant mad, bad and dangerous to know scientist meddling in things really best left alone, in this case the unfortunately named Dr Blood (Kieran Moore).

The second, and less obvious, is that the other monster – or the monster-as-victim rather than the real monster – in each film is played by Paul Stockman, who filled the ape suit there and is here buried beneath a layer of zombie-type.

The story begins with Dr Peter Blood getting thrown out of the prestigious Vienna medical school after he caught carrying out some organ transplantation experiments, of the sort that definitely wouldn’t pass an ethics board by his mentor, Professor Luckman (Paul Hardtmuth).

Returning home to the sleepy Cornish village of Port Carron, where his father, Dr Ian Blood, is the local GP, Dr Blood junior secretly sets up a laboratory in some abandoned mines nearby and starts looking for new experimental subjects and material amongst the local populace; in Peter’s eyes anyone inferior to himself and other geniuses is fair game.

He also finds time to start romancing the pretty and recently widowed Nurse Linda Parker (Hazel Court), [spoiler alert] who doesn’t realize that Peter has been experimenting with her deceased husband and would like to eventually re-introduce them to one another… [/spoiler alert]

Obviously inspired by Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein, in which actors Hardtmuth and Court appeared as brain donor and love interest respectively, Dr Blood’s Coffin is nevertheless distinctive enough in various ways to be of interest for the British horror fan.

Baron Frankenstein is someone whose experiments are usually sound but are compromised by the uncomprehending, traditional 19th century society around him.

Dr Blood is someone who talks a good game, whose experiments failing because of his own inadequacies, with modern society comprehending his experiments and their Nazi heritage all too well.

Related to such distinctions, one of the more unusual aspects of the film is its use of colour. As a number of commentators have argued, British horror films of the late 1950s and early 1960s often exhibited a divide here that could not be explained purely on budgetary or aesthetic grounds.

Contemporary-set films often used black and white whereas their historically set counterparts used colour. It's been argued that the combination of colour and the contemporary was too close to home, or the lived reality of the audience and that this helps explain, for example, the acceptance of Hammer's early psycho thrillers compared to the rejection of Peeping Tom.

While there's probably more to it than this, insofar as this period saw a profound change in the semiotics of colour and black and white film, with the previously established fantasy / spectacle and reality / documentary connotations undergoing something of a reversal, it is a useful starting point for a more developed year-by-year analysis of the contemporary critical responses to individual texts.

Another intertextual point is the setting, with its affinities with the later Hammer Plague of the Zombies. Ironically, however, Peter's use of curare to induce a coma state indistinguisable from death, perhaps comes closer to the origins of the voodoo zombie than the black magic using Squire Hamilton. Both, however, clearly point to a return of the (colonial or foreign) repressed, of bad things being brought back to England from abroad.

Nic Roeg was camera operator, while Hammer men Les Bowie, Scott MacGregor and Philip Martell performed FX, production design and conductor duties respectively; the score itself, by Buxton Orr, is pretty good.

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