Friday 31 May 2013

Little Shoppe of Horrors #29 - The Abominable Dr Phibes

Although it has been out for the last six months or so I had not got around to reading this issue of Richard Klemensen’s long running British horror magazine until now – a few days before the next issue, focusing on Hammer’s Vampire Circus, is released.

In reading this issue on the Dr Phibes films I had an epiphany of exactly what it is that I so like about Little Shoppe of Horrors. It is the polyphonic, kaleidoscopic, triangulated approach that Klemensen takes.

Triangulation is a concept that I first encountered in relation to map-reading and orienteering and then in relation to social sciences research. It means that when you have multiple takes or perspectives on something then you are better able to pinpoint exactly what that something is.

Or, to bring it back to a British horror subject of particular relevance this week, that of Peter Cushing’s centenary, it is the way in which just about everyone who ever worked with Cushing indicates how he was a gentleman, a consummate professional, and was heavily affected by the death of his wife Helen.

Or, in relation to the Phibes films, it is how the various authors’ contributions not only cumulatively tell you just about everything you could ever want to know but also give you a sense of where the truth likely lies on those occasions when there are multiple conflicting or mutually reinforcing accounts.

For instance, the tension between Vincent Price and Robert Quarry on the second Phibes film appears to have stemmed less from anything either actor did than certain third parties insinuations that the latter was being groomed as a replacement for the former. Additionally matters of sexual orientation may have played their part, with contributor David Del Valle noting that Quarry was openly gay and Price’s daughter that her father bisexual and closeted.

Away from the Phibes films specifically another thing that emerged from the issue is the importance of the TV series The Avengers for 1960s and 1970s British fantasy cinema. While this had earlier been argued for by Matthew Boot in his study of the British horror cinema Fragments of Fear, it is the detailed discussion of director Robert Fuest’s work as a designer on The Avengers that makes all the difference here.

Another point that several contributors make is how The Abominable Dr Phibes makes little sense when considered in terms of conventional narrative logic (who/what is his mute assistant Vulnavia, for instance), but nevertheless works despite – or indeed because of – this. This in turn leads on nicely to the Vampire Circus issue, insofar as that film is so atypical and fantastique in the Hammer canon.

Of Muscles and Men - Essays on the Sword and Sandal Film

When you are a fan of Italian filone cinema one thing which quickly becomes evident is how some filone have received far more attention than others, especially in the context of English-language scholarship. There’s most material on the Italian Western, followed by horror and the giallo, but considerably less when it comes to the peplum, sex comedy, mondo, spy film, war film etc.

As such this recent collection of academic essays on the peplum or sword and sandal film is especially welcome, even although only some of the authors investigate the Italian cycle of the late 50s-early 60s and there is certainly scope for further research.

Editor Michael Cornelius begins the collection with a overview of the genre and the areas which the individual essays explore.

Cornelius notes how the peplum, sword and sandal or strongman film is difficult to place within a generic taxonomy. Unlike comedy, romance, horror and thriller films there is not any obvious emotional state or mood associated with the peplum. In this it is like the Western. However, whereas the iconographic objects of the Western have symbolic value (white hats vs black hats, the horse vs the iron horse etc.), the sword, sandal and skirt are primarily functional.

A further area of difference (one likely shared with the Italian Western cycle) is around the dynamics of the gaze, or who looks at whom. Rather than men looking at women, the peplum is more likely to have men looking at other men. This, of course, raises issues around the homosocial and the homosexual.

Cornelius contends that four major periods of peplum filmmaking can be identified, the first two being associated with Italian cinema and the latter two with Hollywood. The filone/genre emerged in the 1910s, with the first colossal epics drawing on Ancient Rome and strongman Maciste’s shift from being a minor figure in Cabiria to the title character. The filone then reappeared in the late 1950s, beginning with the success of the Steve Reeves starring Hercules and would continue for another ten or so years. It then experienced a resurgence in the 1980s, with Conan the Barbarian, and in the 2000s, with Gladiator. (Regarding to the 1980s sword and sandal film it is worth noting that the likes of the Ator series, The Barbarians and Conquest are not mentioned.)

Maria Elena D’Amelio’s ‘Hercules, Politics and Movies’ proves one of the most rewarding chapters for the enthusiast and/or scholar of Italian popular cinema, both for the points she makes and where they might be taken.

D’Amelio identifies three key individuals or groups within the pepla of this period. First, the hero. Second, the tyrant. Third, the wider society. The role of the people is usually passive, the victims of an oppressive tyrant who has usurped power from a rightful ruler. Although the hero is sometimes responsible for overthrowing the tyrant, it is also frequently the case that the latter is undone by his own actions. Where he does overthrow the tyrant, the hero declines to take power himself, even if the people ask him to, instead returning power to the pre-tyrant ruler or their heir.

Though D’Amelio does not mention Will Wright’s structuralist study of the Hollywood Western, Sixguns and Society, the relationships she identifies seem much the same as those of the ‘classical’ Western there. In both cases the hero and the villain are strong and the society weak.

Beyond this Wright mentions a further three Western plots that presented different configurations of the relationship between these parties: the transitional plot, the revenge plot and the professional plot. Later Christopher Frayling and Bert Fridlund would explore how well these plots and the trajectory from the classical to the professional could be found in the Italian Western, with both proposing a number of alternative plots. In Frayling's case the factor that is especially important is his sense that the differences between American and Italian plots related to wider differences between the two societies.

Returning to D’Amelio, she likewise relates the particular configuration of the Italian peplum to politics and history, particularly Fascism and the post-war re-alignment into Western and Eastern blocs. Essentially the tyrant was Mussolini, the people the Italians, and the hero America. Establishing the rule of the tyrant as a deviation from the norm accorded with a post-war narrative that required ordinary Italians and Christian Democrat politicians to be excused from culpability with Fascism. Presenting the people as needing an external liberator downplayed the role of the left-dominated anti-Fascist resistance and the Communists in particular. Establishing the hero as someone who magnanimously defeated the tyrant but then chose not to himself take power suited the interests of the US, as the power behind the throne.

The next chapter is by Kristi M. Wilson and examines Pasolini’s Medea and the distinctive contributions of its director. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the piece, it does seem a reflection of a weakness of many studies dealing with popular cinema, namely giving greater attention to the auteur film than would strictly be warranted given its audience size.

Following this Jerry B. Pierce looks at Gladiator, Troy and 300 and how they respectively work to performatively establish the heterosexuality of their protagonists within their primarily homosocial context.

Andrew B. R. Elliot also looks at the contemporary peplum and how it typically features a group of heroes rather than an individual. This is again interesting in relation to the Western and Wright’s analysis of its different plots. The last of Wright’s plots, the professional plot, is likewise characterised by having multiple protagonists.

John Elia’s essay presents a defence of third and fourth generation pepla by seeking to draw a distinction between ‘reverent’ and ‘irreverent’ violence. This distinction is one that is situated as going back to ancient Greece and which potentially has uses elsewhere. In particular we might consider the subject of vengeance and the vendetta in Italian society; in Nietzsche’s notion of Christianity as a slave morality that inverted the values of earlier belief systems such that taking vengeance was wrong rather than right; and how revenge is treated in the Italian Western.

Subsequent chapters are of less obvious interest, in that they again exclusively address third and fourth generation pepla, but without less that can be drawn upon in relation to their second generation counterparts. Two essays that are worth singling out are those by Robert B. Pirro and Cornelius. Pirro brings out points where Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy departs from Homer’s source texts and relates these to the director’s personal history, as a German growing up post-WWII. Cornelius examines the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe franchise of the early 1980s and its affinities with the gay male clone subculture. (He-Man et al were literally clones, the action figures coming from a few basic moulds; whether He-Man and the others devoid of genitals ever got any 'action' is another matter...)

“Do you like gladiator movies?!”

Saturday 25 May 2013

The Hammer Frankenstein

This new book from Bruce Hallenbeck, published by the UK’s Hemlock, follows on from the same author’s The Hammer Vampire.

If the chronology and complexity of producing works on the two foremost Hammer franchises seems a bit back-to-front, given that the studio’s first vampire film followed its first Frankenstein film, and more challenging, in that there was greater variation amongst the vampire films, it perhaps made commercial sense as vampire films were more popular at the time and, if Underworld and Twilight are considered, more popular today.

The Hammer Frankenstein begins with a brief foreword by Veronica Carlson, who is distinguished by being the only female lead to appear in two of the studio’s Frankenstein productions – Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970).

Following this Hammer scholar Denis Meikle provides a general introduction to the Gothic as a literary genre and the place of Mary Shelley’s source novel within it.

The remaining chapters are all by Hallenbeck and take a chronological approach, with one chapter on each of Hammer’s seven Frankenstein films – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), the aforementioned Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Horror of Frankenstein (the odd one out in that it a re-imagining of the first film rather than continuing on from its predecessor) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973).

Prior to discussing Hammer’s Frankenstein, however, Hallenbeck first of all devotes a chapter to the story’s pre-Hammer film history, from the Edison Company’s 1910 short through to the Monster Rallies and inevitable encounter with Abbott and Costello in the 1940s. Here, as the author indicates, the Whale/Karloff films are the most important, establishing the definitive look of the monster and that he, rather than his creator, was given primacy. (Subsequently the author does the same with a chapter on the post-Hammer Frankenstein film.)

Both these points were to prove crucial when it came to The Curse of Frankenstein. For, as is well-known from more general histories of the studio, Hammer found themselves with a basic source that was now out of copyright alongside certain aspects which were Universal’s intellectual property, most notably the look of the monster. Hammer’s response, of course, was to both give the monster a new look and to shift the focus from the creation to his creation.

It is through this chapter that the strengths and, to a far lesser extent, the weaknesses of Hallenbeck’s approach come through. Taking the positives first he expertly draws together and selects from the existing and ever-expanding literature (the aforementioned Meikle, Richard Klemensen’s long-running Little Shoppe of Horrors fanzine, Dr Wayne Kinsey’s Bray and Elstree Years volumes, Marcus Hearn’s various ‘official’ studies; Jimmy Sangster’s autobiography, etc., etc.). Hallenbeck also skilfully addresses various facets of the film’s production, distribution, reception, and influence, placing each in their specific and general contexts. In so doing he also crucially manages to give his own critical perspective upon the film. I would argue that it is this that is so vital when dealing with something as well known as the Hammer Frankensteins. This in turn relates to the main failing of the book, if it can be called a failing, namely the extreme difficulty of bringing something new to bear without spending ever greater and less productive amounts of time in the archives or lazily invoking and applying capital-T type Theory.

Against the former – “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” to cite Walt Whitman – it should also be considered that the various reproductions of (often annotated or crossed out) key pages from scripts are a delight.

Hallenbeck’s next chapter, on the abortive US television series attempted in between Curse of Frankenstein and its sequel, is perhaps more interesting for the Hammer aficionado. This is partly because its subject is less familiar, partly because ideas first mooted here would be Frankensteined and given new life in some of the later films.

The third and fourth chapters, on The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Evil of Frankenstein, prove similarly strong. Hallenbeck adjudges Revenge superior to its predecessor as a sequel and steers a course between the Scylla and Charibdis of the US/pro-Universal and UK/pro-Hammer camps with regard to the latter, the only entry in the main cycle to be directed by someone other than Terence Fisher.

Turning to Frankenstein Created Woman, Hallenbeck usefully brings out how Fisher’s return was combined with stylistic and thematic innovations, in the director’s modish use of the hand held-camera and the hitherto scientific-materialist Frankenstein now experimenting with the transplantation of the soul. He also notes how the lab sets were less impressive than those of the preceding film, nicely illustrating how low-budget filmmaking is always a creative compromise.

This is also the case when it comes to the final Hammer Frankenstein, where the enclosed spaces of the insane asylum in which Frankenstein now lives and works help connote the sense of diminishing returns that, ironically, echoed the studio’s fortunes (or, rather, lack thereof) at the time.

Overall, a worthy addition to anyone’s Hammer library.

Amicus Horrors: Tales from the Filmmakers' Crypt

I bought this new volume from Midnight Marquee, via the UK’s Hemlock Books, after seeing it on Troy Howarth’s Facebook feed.

A book about Amicus would be very welcome, I thought, especially if it treated the company’s horror and non-horror output in a manner comparable to, say, John Hamilton’s book on Compton/Tigon/Tony Tenser.

Amicus Horrors certainly starts off promisingly, with a worthwhile discussion of the musical anthology films produced by Amicus partners Max Rosenberg (production, finances) and Milton Subotsky (writing, in this case of both screenplay and musical numbers) and how the approach taken in them would feed into Amicus’s better-known horror productions.

If the writing also seemed somewhat fan-boyish that could be excused on account of many of the recollections and quotations stemming from author Brian McFadden drawing upon his meeting Subotsky over 40 years ago.

It was also balanced out by the author’s explanation of the similarities between the narrative structure of Psycho and of Amicus to-be’s first foray into horror, City of the Living Dead/Horror Hotel: made after Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho but before Hitchcock’s film Psycho, it was highly probable that Subotsky, a voracious reader, would already have read the former.

Additionally, McFadden nicely brings out how Subotsky’s experience in television production; padding out or cutting down material to fit a certain length; and general knowledge of how to put the money on the screen proved (in)valuable to Amicus.

Unfortunately it is pretty much all downhill from this point.

Though entitled Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee at Amicus, the chapters on the three horror icons devote as much or more space to their careers elsewhere.

The chapter on the Amicus Stock company that follows makes little sense given the author had previously indicated, quite correctly, that a key feature of the Amicus approach was the casting of stars on a one-off, short-term basis to make the films look more expensive than they actually were.

For instance, Ingrid Pitt’s inclusion, despite appearing in only one segment of the anthology film The House that Screamed, is explicated in terms of the iconic qualities of one of the still taken off her in the production.

There is some valuable material in these chapters, as is also the case in McFadden’s discussions of Amicus at Shepperton and at Twickenham Studios, and of some of the composers who worked for the company, such as serialist Elizabeth Lutyens and jazzman Tubby Hayes. But, and it is a big but, it is very much a case of sifting through considerable quantities of less-than-gold material to find these nuggets.

In between the studio and music chapters a foray into Hammer territory also highlights the basic problem with the book. To wit, there is no doubting McFadden’s enthusiasm for his subject, but it isn’t always clear what this subject actually is.

Ultimately, we are still waiting for the book that will do Amicus justice. Until then the Little Shoppe of Horrors issue on the studio, #20, remains the reference of choice.

Friday 10 May 2013

Creative Destruction makes for depressing reading.

The authors of the site allege, and provide plenty of evidence, that the owner of Creation Books, James Williamson, has systematically ripped off authors for over a decade.

This helps make sense of the recent Glitter Books publications of collections of essays on Dario Argento, Jean Rollin and others, each edited or co-edited by Jack Hunter. For Hunter is apparently a Williamson pseudonym, and Glitter one of his various imprints. Moreover, the essays in the Argento collection (by Xavier Mendik, Ray Guins and Julian Hoxter) had earlier been published in Creation publications in the 1990s.