Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Hammer Studios

This is the ninth in my series called Getting Acquainted, in which I watch three movies per month featuring a particular aspect of cinema -- usually a person, but this month, not so much -- with which I have been previously unfamiliar.

For me, Hammer Studios was always one of those cinematic properties you hear mentioned here and there, almost as though it were a genre unto itself rather than a movie studio. Calling something a "Hammer horror" meant it had a very particular set of defining traits -- but what exactly those defining traits were, I had only a general idea.

And what better month to familiarize myself with a horror studio than the same month as Halloween?

I knew that the studio's heyday was decades ago and that it worked primarily in monster movies. And not just any monsters, but the classic monsters, the Batman and Superman of monsters -- Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Mummy. (Maybe I should say "mummies," because I'm not sure if there is one particular mummy that stands above all other mummies, so as to deserve a capital M. And since I ended up not watching a Hammer mummy movie in October, I am left only to speculate.)

I had the definite idea that they were B movies, but I'd say they actually ended up being less B movies than I thought they'd be. In fact, I'm experiencing an odd disconnect between the definite B or C movie nature of the posters I'm digging up for this post, and the actual content of the films.

Shall we explore that actual content?

The Curse of F
rankenstein (1957, Terence Fisher). Watched: Sunday, October 9th

In doing a quick bit of research on Hammer, I discovered that The Curse of Frankenstein was pretty much the movie that launched the company -- at least, made it the horror factory we know today. What better place to start?

It was while watching my first Hammer movie that I realized: George Lucas must have been a big fan of Hammer Studios. Two of the stars of The Curse of Frankenstein would become indelible parts of the Star Wars universe: Peter Cushing (Dr. Frankenstein here, Gran Moff Tarkan in Star Wars) and Christopher Lee (Frankenstein's monster here, Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels).

Actually, his casting choice could have also just been the same reason Lucas cast Alec Guinness: Cushing can act. In fact, I haven't seen a lot of Cushing's films, but I can easily see him being considered part of that old guard of British thespians that included the likes of Guinness, John Gielgud and Peter O'Toole. (I saw another Cushing film recently, but he makes too brief of an appearance to gauge his acting prowess -- he appeared in the 1948 Hamlet, which I watched during Laurence Olivier month. I meant to mention it in my write-up, but forgot.)

Whether Lee can act or not remains to be seen after this film ... he really just staggers around. That's Frankenstein's monster for you.

But it was in the monster that I noticed the Hammer version of Mary Shelley's famous novel trying to be different than previous Hollywood incarnations, where Boris Karloff played the monster with green skin and a square head. Lee's skin has only an almost indiscernible tint of green, and he looks much more like the slapdash surgical creation you might get if you pasted together a man from the parts of many men, than the distinct holistic Frankenstein we see in shops that sell Halloween costumes. He's also got this kind of constant confusion going on, rather than distinct emotions.

The Hammer production is pretty stately, which was not what I was expecting. Score one against the theory that these were cheesy, B-grade horror films. The budget for this movie is not particularly high, but it doesn't show -- the internal shots are all very credible, and the film doesn't try to do too much externally, making it all compact and under budget. In fact, Cushing and Robert Urquhart as his mentor, Paul, really do lend the film a sense of class that surely helped in launching the Hammer brand that would become so famous in years to follow.

The movie is not particularly deep, I guess. There's some lip service paid to the moral ramifications of what Dr. Frankenstein is doing, but it would seem they could have gone further exploring those consequences. More than anything this film is interested in documenting the increased madness of Frankenstein as he slips further down his ethical slope and becomes more fixated on achieving the desired outcomes of his experimentation. Director Fisher makes the intriguing decision to have the monster mirror Frankenstein and vice versa. The monster's preferred method of attacking a perceived threat is to choke it, and we see Dr. Frankenstein do the same thing several times during this film.

Horror of Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher). Watched: Saturday, October 15th

You can imagine my surprise -- or rather, my increasing understanding of just how tightly knit an organization Hammer was/is -- when I noted that the same three principle talents had reunited for Hammer's first Dracula movie. Director Terence Fisher was back directing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in The Horror of Dracula. In fact, part of the reason I wanted to make The Horror of Dracula my next film was because I knew Lee was supposed to be one of only a handful of iconic Draculas in film history, along with of course Bela Lugosi (who I got plenty of last month when watching Ed Wood movies).

I wonder if it seemed like a big deal at the time that Lee played both Frankenstein's monster and the role that would make him famous, Count Dracula. To continue the superhero analogy I mentioned earlier, that would be like the same actor playing Batman and Superman in different movies. Then again, that tells you something about the monogamy that existed between actors and studios back in the days of the studio system. (Whether the "studio system" as such was still in place in the late 1950s, I'm not so sure -- I tend to think of that as more of a 30s and 40s thing.)

However, I can't say that I had the same pleasurable experience watching The Horror of Dracula as I had watching The Curse of Frankenstein. In fact, I was down on it right from the start, and that indubitably had something to do with my expectations for a movie about Bram Stoker's most famous character.

See, my primary understanding/appreciation of the character comes from a much later film, Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, which came out in 1992. I understand liberties were taken with that story as well -- even though it bears the author's name right there in the title, which would seem to suggest an absolutely faithful adaptation. Regardless, this is the Dracula story I know and, yes, love. There are cheesy parts, but I do love Coppola's film. I'd be lying if I said I didn't.

So Fisher's version seemed like downright blasphemy. A number of things happened very early on that I immediately objected to. For starters, Jonathan Harker is killed almost immediately, like in the first 15 minutes. In Coppola's version, he survives the whole movie. Then both of the other female characters we know -- Lucy and Mina -- are dead by about the 30-minute mark. The remaining 50 minutes of the movie become an extended showdown between Cushing's Abraham Van Helsing and Lee's Dracula, although Dracula is seen only briefly, and has almost no personality. This of course is very different from Gary Oldman's Dracula in Coppola's production, who is a tortured romantic soul, burning with love for Winona Ryder's Mina (who also survives the movie).

I don't want to know which is right, really. I just care about which choice I like better. And this tells you why I was quickly impatient with The Horror of Dracula.

I found the quality of the production to be weaker as well. Whereas I got the sense that the interior shots of Frankenstein were rich and were not merely trying to disguise the fact that the film was not shot on location, here I felt they acted like more of a blatant crutch, and felt that the exterior shots were few and intentionally brief. What's more, I felt there should have been a grandeur to Dracula's castle that was undoubtedly missing. The middle part of the movie, in England, is just an interchangeable series of parlor scenes featuring characters who are not known to me from other versions of the story. I just felt adrift in the midst of a story I thought I was supposed to know somewhat well.

The real disappointment, however, was Lee. I expected him to possess the same overwhelming charisma of both Lugosi before him and Oldman after him. But no. In fact, when he first came on screen, I wasn't sure whether it was Dracula or maybe Dracula's footman, so little of an impression did he make. But what I thought was curious was how little of Dracula we actually see, almost as though they were trying to hide deficiencies in Lee's acting. Why, then, even cast him in the first place? There is absolutely nothing seductive about this Dracula, nothing that would make it plausible that he lures in victims with charm or clever wordplay. You'd almost describe him as gruff, just an animal eager to find his next meal with a minimum of pretense or art. While describing him this way, though, I should say that neither is he "horrifying" -- which really calls into question the word choice of the title.

Oh, and there were also some moments of pure camp. On the one hand I sort of enjoyed that, because that's what I had expected from Hammer movies before coming in. On the other hand, I thought The Curse of Frankenstein contained fairly little camp. So my expectations of Hammer films had already adjusted enough that I found the camp here distracting, and ultimately worthy of scorn.

The Vampire Lovers (1970, Roy Ward Baker). Watched: Saturday, November 5th

You may notice that for the second time during this series, I failed to watch all my targeted movies within the allotted month. Last time, in August, when I did not watch my third Laurence Olivier movie quickly enough, it was due to legitimate logistical problems. This time, however, it was mere indifference.

I think The Horror of Dracula left a worse taste in my mouth than I'm even letting on here, because I had more than two weeks to watch The Vampire Lovers before the clock struck November, and I just didn't get to it. To make matters all the more embarrassing, it was available on Netflix streaming, so there were not even any logistics to work out. In my own defense, I did start watching it once, but I started too late at night and had to go to sleep before the 15-minute mark. And those 15 minutes did not really knock my socks off, surely contributing to the delay in me continuing to watch. I had a perfect opportunity to watch it last weekend, in the final weekend before Halloween. In fact, I could have easily watched it on Saturday night after my wife went to bed. But I was suddenly possessed of the certainty that it would not scare me, and I wanted to be scared on Halloween weekend. So I watched Altered States instead, and was happy about that particular decision.

Then again, I guess I didn't choose The Vampire Lovers to scare me in the first place. When researching prominent Hammer films to consider, I came across this title, the first in the so-called Karnstein Trilogy (based loosely on J. Sheridan Le Fanu's early vampire novella Carmilla), and became interested in it for its role as one of the earliest mainstream films to explore lesbian themes somewhat explicitly. I'm always intrigued when films come along and address taboos head on, and I have to be honest and say that I probably thought I'd be a bit titillated by it. Plus, I thought that if I did watch The Mummy, which was made in 1959, I'd be seeing only a three-year sample of a studio that had several decades of history even before it came to specialize in horror. If I were planning to stick to Hammer's horror films for my Halloween theme, the least I could do was skip ahead some years to 1970, to see what (if anything) had changed.

The biggest change was the introduction of nudity. Ingrid Pitt, the lead vampire in The Vampire Lovers (alternately referred to as Carmilla and Marcilla, depending on whom she's deceiving at what point in the story), appears topless on several occasions and frontally nude on at least one other. Several of her victims also disrobe. And yeah, it's actually sort of hot. The actual sexual interactions are limited mostly to kissing, but there's an undeniable heat created between her and her victims. So it kind of builds on the taboo of being interested in someone who's dangerous, who intends to suck your blood -- that's a taboo intrinsic to the vampire mythos. Then there's the additional forbidden lure of same-sex carnal curiosity -- appropriate for the era in which it was made, but still pretty bold.

I actually sort of got into the story, too. It's essentially not all that different from the Dracula story, both in terms of the era it takes place, and the episodic structure, where victims steadily fall to the vampire, as vampire hunters steadily make progress revealing her identity. But one thing I really liked about this movie that was noticeably lacking in The Horror of Dracula was the sense that the vampire had a soul. Pitt's Carmilla/Marcilla actually seems to have an emotional connection to the several victims she gets close to -- she doesn't want them just to snack on, but as some kind of eternal undead soulmate. She even gets emotional on several occasions. It's important to sympathize with a vampire on some level, I think. The grandiose drama of Bram Stoker's Dracula is something that undoubtedly attracts me to that film, and there was some of that in supply here too.

A dozen years has also seen significant technological improvements. Director Roy Ward Baker uses some techniques to try to frighten us, although they ultimately don't rise above the level of eerie. He captures a couple dream sequences in black-and-white, with a couple interesting camera tricks, and there's an unnerving passage at the beginning when one of the Karnstein vampires moves under a shroud, quite ethereal. There were even decent effects used on the beheadings and other vampire-related violence. I got a real sense of the gothic mood the movie was trying to create, and yes, all the contributing elements made me care about the characters and the story more. (Interesting detail -- when the vampire takes animal form, it's in the form of a feline in this case. Nice twist from the bat we're usually expecting.)

Lastly, I thought it was worth noting that Peter Cushing appears in this film too -- now only seven years younger than he was when he appeared in Star Wars. He plays a vengeful uncle of one of the victims.

Whew! Another one of these down.

But before I move on, let me address that issue I've teased a couple times, about the posters. They're great posters, but I still don't think they truly reflect what we're seeing on screen in these movies. I'd expect these to be posters for Ed Wood movies more than for the stately productions we're seeing here, that have reasonably good costumes, sets and acting, resembling costume dramas as much as they resemble horror movies. I suppose studio marketing departments distrusted audiences as much then as they do now, knowing that we were more likely to turn out for something salacious than for something that has actual aspirations toward art.

Next moth: More schlock that will more clearly resemble schlock.

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