Friday, 2 January 2015

Hammer's Film Legacy

This 408 page book by Wayne Kinsey covers every Hammer production made between The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955 and To the Devil a Daughter in 1976 (including the is-it-or-isn’t-it Hammer The Shadow of the Cat) in chronological sequence.

There’s thus next to nothing on Exclusive/Hammer in the periods immediately before and after the Second World War, nor on the likes of Terence Fisher’s Three Sided Triangle and Stolen Face from the early 1950s, nor on the present-day Hammer revival.

Each of the 106 films included is approached in the same way: An image of its title card; listings of the crew and cast; distribution details; discussions of pre-production; casting; production; post-production and release.

For the most part Hammer’s Gothic Horrors are given the longest and most detailed write-ups, their television sitcom adaptations the least.

Besides reflecting the likely interests of the assumed reader, this is often a consequence of the back-and-forth between the studio and the British Board of Film Censors over script content at the pre-production stage. Mindful of costs, Hammer’s management could see no point in shooting material deemed too horrific or otherwise censorable.

Discussions of these negotiations were also one of the major strengths of the author’s previous volumes on Hammer’s Bray and Elstree periods. This, in turn, raises the question of how necessary Hammer’s Film Legacy is for those who already own the two now out-of-print collections. Similarly, some of the details of the contributions of those behind the camera and behind the scenes may overlap with Kinsey’s more recent book on Hammer’s Unsung Heroes.

For those owning neither of the Bray and Elstree volumes this is undoubtedly a worthwhile purchase considering the information it contains and the prices its predecessors now fetch. For those with them I would also argue that it is a worthwhile purchase, whether as an investment (as I write this the limited hardback edition of 500 must be nearly gone, mine being #412), for the material that hasn’t hitherto appeared elsewhere, or just to keep Kinsey and his publishers doing more of this stuff.

In case my comments appear too gushing I’ll finish with a negative. There are some places where I wondered if what the author wrote was what he meant. Early on, for example, he characterises the purchase and establishment of Bray Studios as a “false economy”. While Bray was certainly an economic decision I don’t believe it was a false one, i.e. a decision that cost more than it returned. Similarly a reference to “sort solace” rather than “sought solace” seems a malapropism.

Overall, however, well worth getting.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Amicus Anthology

Compared to some of the subjects of author Bruce Hallenbeck's previous books, most notably The Hammer Vampire and The Hammer Frankenstein, The Amicus Anthology likely provided a greater challenge -- one that he thankfully rises to.

For the Hammer Frankenstein films, excepting the one-off spoof/parody Horror of Frankenstein, are unified by the constant presence of Peter Cushing in the title role and, barring The Evil of Frankenstein, Terence Fisher as director/auteur. The Amicus anthology films, by contrast, were directed by Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker in approximately equal numbers and had no recurring characters.

The history of Amicus is intrinsically linked to that of its rival. Milton Subotsky presented Hammer with a script for a Frankenstein film. Hammer's bosses didn't like it, but learned that Mary Shelley's characters were out of copyright and thus made their own treatment. This became the epochal Curse of Frankenstein.

Subotsky and other Amicus mainman Max Rosenberg responded to Hammer by employing Christopher Lee for the atmospheric City of the Dead. While not an official Amicus film its present-day setting would emerge as something differentiating Amicus and Hammer horror on aggregate.

There are, in my opinion, three key reasons why The Amicus Anthology works.

First, Hallenbeck provides historical context to the horror compendium film in his opening and closing chapters, which reference the likes of Waxworks, Dead of Night, and Creepshow.

Second, he contextualises Amicus's anthologies in relation to their single-story horrors, such as The Skull, and their non-horror films, such as the Amicus in all but name Dr Who adaptations with Cushing as (a) Who. (This Amicus/Who nexus is worth noting, with third and fourth Who's Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker both appearing in Amicus anthology horrors.)

Finally, Hallenbeck makes you think: Do you prefer to see Amicus's guest stars or Hammer's character actors? Do you prefer segments or wholes? Do you prefer humour as punchline or intermittently? Does a great segment outweigh a good film?

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Doc of the Dead

As an introduction to the zombie film this documentary is a disappointment. There are two major reasons for this.

First, while the inaugural zombie film, White Zombie (1932) is referenced, the history presented is very much from Night of the Living Dead (1968) onwards. Certainly, George A. Romero’s film inaugurated a paradigm shift in the nature of the zombie, from labourer-producer to flesh eater consumer, but this point could have been made clearer by referencing, for example, Plague of the Zombies (1966) as a point of contrast.

Second, all the films mentioned – others include Return of the Living Dead (1985), Shaun of the Dead (2003), and 28 Days Later (2002) – are Anglo-American. The contributions of continental European film-makers are entirely absent. This is a problem when you remember that Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) was a co-production with Dario Argento and that the film’s success at the Italian box-office led to several tribute productions. Two of particular note here are Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), for its fusion of old school voodoo zombie and new school flesh-eater, and Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980), for featuring running zombies more than 20 years before 28 Days Later or the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004).

With the film running only 82 minutes and feeling padded out even these these omissions are all the more striking.

And, finally, if you are going to feature Joanna Angel talking about her zombie-porn crossover shouldn’t you also mention that Joe D’Amato, was there first?

Friday, 30 May 2014

Offbeat

With Headpress's Offbeat editor Julian Upton presents 400+ pages on what the book's subtitle identifies as "British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems." Other than mentioning the films encompassed within this remit only cover a thirty year period from c. 1955-85 (so no Tod Slaughter or 30s Edgar Wallace adaptations, for instance; though there are certainly other places you can read up on these) it is a fair enough description of the films surveyed and reviewed within.


So, for example, if we’re talking Hammer then it is emphatically not the Gothics for which they are best known, rather their swashbucklers and adventure romps like Captain Clegg and Pirates of Blood River, or the brilliant Cash on Demand where Peter Cushing is for once outperformed by another, Andre Morell; admittedly Morell had played his role on TV and so had the advantage. Or, if it’s Hammer’s most famous house director, Terence Fisher, then it is one of the three sci-fi films he made for another studio, Planet, namely The Earth Dies Screaming.

I’d like to think that I’m somewhat close to the ideal reader for the book, arrogant though you may judge me: I’ve seen about half of the films reviewed within and would say that I concur with the authors most of the time on these. Two things help here. One, the reviewers resist the urge to proclaim each and every film as a forgotten mini-masterpiece or suchlike. Rather they accept the films on their own merits, or lack thereof. Two, they provide their working rather than just their correct answer. That is they explain why they feel the way they do about a film. As such even if I do not agree with the reviewer of No Blade of Grass’s opinion I can understand that he is paying attention to the source novel, whereas I was not considering the film in terms of adaptation.

Even more important, however, is that Offbeat provided further encouragement to seek out those titles I had heard of but not seen, and introduced me to others which I had not, or which I might have grokked at some point but since forgotten.

In addition to the reviews Offbeat also presents several overviews of a time period, sub-genre, cycle or trend. These are informative as an orientation and also point out topics of further consideration. For example, the essay on the pop/rock musical posits a significant difference between the Elvis films from the US and the Cliff Richard and British Invasion films from the UK that followed them. The Elvis films were entrusted to older, established directors who worked to make Elvis a safer property, whereas the British films often took chances on younger filmmakers closer in age to their subjects, this resulting in a less predictable fare. The reviews generally run two or three pages, begin with production, cast and crew details, followed by a one-paragraph summary of the plot, followed by a more substantial discussion of the individual film’s merits (or lack thereof) and place in British cinema history.

So, to sum up, if you read this you would probably like Offbeat.

Monday, 24 February 2014

A brief survey

It's been a while since I last posted, having been busy with other things. On this occasion, however, there's a bit of crossover.

I'm doing a pilot study for a bit of research on horror film audiences. There are basically four questions:

1. Do you like US and UK horror films? The answers here are yes, no and it depends on the film.

2. What do you especially like and/or dislike about US and UK horror films?

3. Do you like continental European horror films. Again, the answers here are yes, no and it depends upon the film.

4. What do you especially like and/or dislike about US and UK horror films?

Either leave your answers as a comment or email me at hennesseybrown@gmail.com

Thanks in advance 

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Hard to Swallow

Just started reading Hard to Swallow: Hard-Core Pornography on Screen, edited by Gail Dines and Darren Kerr.

The introductory chapter includes this howler, on Paul Schrader's Hardcore:

"In this film, starring Rod Steiger, a morally upright evangelical preacher pursues his daughter when she runs away to the decadent west coast of the US, only to turn up in a porn movie. The plot takes us on a journey through the LA porn industry, in which all those he encounters are either damaged, or despicable, and wholly deserving of the beatings Steiger’s character dishes out."

But it's not Steiger, rather George C. Scott.

How can academics get away with such basic factual errors?

Then, in discussing the biases of a documentary, Porn Shutdown, about the impact of a HIV outbreak on the LA porn industry:

"That Porn Shutdown, in contrast, simply sidesteps James suggests once more that there is no complexity to men’s involvement in porn, nothing enigmatic – or, for that matter, visually interesting – about the male porn-performer."

Female performer Jessica Dee, one of those who contracted HIV, was not a major figure in this documentary,  So was there nothing interesting about the European porn-performer either?

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Eurohorror


Olney begins by this academic study by demonstrating that European horror cinema of the 60s through 80s has a surprisingly high profile amongst contemporary horror audiences. As evidence of this he cites the successful re-releases of Eurohorror by Grindhouse Releasing along with lavish DVD releases of both acknowledged genre classics such as Lucio Fulci's The Beyond and decidedly lesser entries such as Bruno Mattei's Hell of the Living Dead.

Following this Olney indicates that fan interest in Eurohorror has thus far not been paralleled with equivalent attention amongst academics, with the exception of some hybrid fan-academics. Olney posits that this paucity is partly explicated by the generally marginal position of European popular and genre cinema as a whole. It is also a reflection of the inherently problematic nature of many Eurohorror texts as far as progressive-minded critics are concerned, given not only their apparent sexism, racism, misogyny, and homophobia, but also their tendency to present transgressive combinations of sex and violence.

Olney then introduces his theoretical route out of this impasse, namely the concept of peformative spectatorship. Drawing upon the work of Judith Butler in particular, he posits that the distinctive challenge and opportunity posed by Eurohorror films is their uneasy dynamics. Whereas the Anglophone horror film invites our identification with the hero-protagonist, the Eurohorror film allows us to identify now with the hero-protagonist and now with the monster-antagonist. Paralleling this they allow us to take the roles of both sadist and of masochist.

It is a strong thesis and one which Olney then goes on to demonstrate via detailed textual analyses of a range of Eurohorror films, including films by Dario Argento (Suspiria, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Mario Bava (The Whip and the Body), Jesus Franco (Eugenie de Sade, Eugenie.. the Story of her Journey into Perversion, Fulci (The House by the Cemetery, The New York Ripper), Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), and AntonioMargheriti (Cannibal Apocalypse) amongst others.

There were two aspects of Olney’s analysis which I found slightly disappointing. First, there is little French or German Eurohorror cinema mentioned, with a strong bias towards Italian product. Second, why he looked at women and prison and nunsploitation films in the context of their sadistic-masochistic dynamic while omitting a third strand of women in total institution exhibiting similar dynamics, namely the Nazi sadism film. I would speculate that this is because it is relatively harder to get the typical viewer to temporarily align themselves with the Nazi. This is doubly so when it comes to the continental Europeans of the 1970s who would have been the original audiences for these films.

The challenge now is perhaps one of operationalising the concept of performative spectatorship and seeing how useful it is with actual audiences  - i.e. bridging the theory/practice divide.

As it is, Olney’s ideas would appear applicable to many other European horror films that he does not discuss. Two that they made me think of were Terence Fisher’s Dracula and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre and their respective treatments of the Jonathan Harker character. In Fisher’s film Harker is a vampire hunter intent on destroying Count Dracula, but falls prey to Dracula’s bride and thus himself turns into one of the undead. At this point his fellow vampire hunter Van Helsing becomes the narrative focus and destroys Harker. In Herzog’s film the destruction of Dracula leads to Harker, here just a lawyer, becoming the reincarnation of Dracula. Put another way, Fisher’s Anglo horror film retains the boundaries that Herzog’s Eurohorror film transgresses.