Wicked Witches: The Wicker Man (1973)
by Steve Habrat
As horror moved into the 1970s, the genre was becoming extremely savage, bloodthirsty, and unforgiving. Exploitation horror was gaining momentum and even the arty offerings didn’t hesitate to get right in your face with bludgeoning images of sex and violence. Subtlety was slowly getting buried six feet under, but one British horror film chose to take a different approach to creeping you out big time. That film would be director Robin Hardy’s 1973 Pagan musical-horror film The Wicker Man, an unsettling look at religion that slowly works up to a fiery climax that has become one of the most well known finishes in movie history. At first glance, most probably wouldn’t be quick to label The Wicker Man a horror film. It’s got a folky atmosphere with a number of strumming musical breaks, several of which feature free-spirited ladies dancing around in the nude. Once called “the Citizen Kane of horror films” by the film magazine Cinefantastique, The Wicker Man slowly grows on the viewer before fully revealing an ugly side. Undoubtedly, it will take the viewer a moment to adjust to it, especially when a pub breaks out into song in the first ten minutes and Hardy presents a slow-motion sex scene. But as Hardy lures us deeper into this island and allows us to mingle with the inhabitants, you’ll start to feel a churning sense of dread as Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle seals Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Neil Howie’s fate.
The Wicker Man begins with devout Christian Sgt. Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward) arriving at Summerisle Island, where he is sent to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. As he opens his investigation, the straight-laced Neil meets with locals who claim never to have heard of Rowan. As Neil explores the island, he witnesses several couples having sex in the open air of a park, observes the island’s doctor attempting to rid a young girl of a sore throat by putting a frog in the girl’s mouth, wards off the seduction of the innkeepers beautiful daughter, Willow (played by Britt Ekland), and bursts in on a graphic school lesson. To Neil’s horror, he is wandering around on an island full of Pagans. After finding Rowan’s grave and discovering that buried in her place is a hare, Neil meets with island’s leader, Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee), who explains the history of the island, which is known for its fruits and vegetables. Enraged by his meeting with Lord Summerisle, Neil launches his own investigation of the island’s May Day festivals and in the process, he makes a shocking discovering that puts him in mortal danger.
What makes The Wicker Man such an uneasy experience is the exploration of religious extremity. We are asked to identify with a devout Christian, a virgin who trembles at the very idea of polytheism worship and open sexuality. While in front of the chuckling islanders, Neil wears an authoritative mask and a rigid stance, although it is easy to see that he is repulsed by what those around him claim to believe. Behind closed doors, he kneels beside his bed and prays furiously to his one true God. On the other side of he room lays the nude Willow, knocking on the wall and singing a hypnotic folk song in the hopes of luring the uptight Neil into her bed. She dances and sways around her room, seeming to cast a spell through her motions as Neil fights furiously to repel her advances. He sweats and stumbles, clinging to the wall as if an unseen hands were trying to drag him from the room. Early on, Hardy lets us know that Neil suffers from his religious beliefs, but he slowly allows us to glimpse the insanity of the islanders as they march in their animal masks and unveil their true intentions with our God-fearing protagonist. It’s horrifying what they will do for a successful crop season, a stomach-churning plot that reeks of lunacy and blind devotion. Even scarier is the way they smile proudly as they look upon their work, singing proudly and loudly up to their glowing sun god.
The two men caught in the center of this religious exploration are Christopher Lee’s shock-haired Lord Summerisle and Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Neil Howie, both who give drastically different but equally exquisite performances. Woodward is sensational as a man who just can’t open his mind up to the possibility that others do not believe what he believes. He is constantly irritated by the practices of the islanders and he even attempts to intervene when he catches an earful of what is being taught to the children in school. In a sense, we do feel bad for him when we see him struggle to stay pure, but it’s tough when he is basically a victim of his own faith and repression. However uptight he may be, you can’t help but feel for him when he is sacrificed at the hands of madness during the climax. On the other side of the spectrum is Lee’s Lord Summerisle, the island’s unhinged leader that smiles sarcastically as Neil accuses him of sacrificing the girl he is there to find in a Pagan ritual. By the end of the film, as the island wind ruffles up his hair and he explains that they have lured Neil into a trap, you’ll truly be convinced that Lee has never been more terrifying. He’s a realistic villain—a bonafide cult leader convinced that bloodshed is the answer to the island’s recent misfortunes. Lee is completely engulfed by the performance as Hardy zooms in on his euphoric signing with his faithful band of followers.
While I must confess that The Wicker Man didn’t entirely win me over at the beginning, the film grows on you with each passing second. I feared that I would never warm to the way Hardy works in some folky musical numbers, but they possess a pull that becomes hard to resist. The final chant around the burning wicker man is unforgettably scary, especially when complimented by Neil’s terrified pleas to God. The film also looks gorgeous, boasting breathtaking cinematography that makes great use of its picturesque Scottish locations. Overall, as far as the “Citizen Kane of horror films” praise is concerned, I don’t particularly believe that the film is scary enough to really earn that title. Sure, it is thought provoking and it certainly is a one of a kind, but it doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you. It disturbs more often than it terrifies. However, this isn’t to say that The Wicker Man isn’t a really good film. It’s handsomely made, sharply acted, cleverly written, and it features one of the most powerful climaxes in horror movie history. You will undoubtedly be playing it back in your mind the next day, but it won’t have you switching on a nightlight for weeks after.
The Wicker Man is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
TRAILER TUESDAY! Halloween Edition
TRAILER TUESDAY! Halloween Edition
Hammer Horror Series: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
by Steve Habrat
Despite how awesome the final sequence of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave was, Hammer Studios just couldn’t allow Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula to remain dead and bloody for very long. In 1970, the studio unleashed director Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula, another satisfying but flawed entry in the delightfully gory vampire series. Picking up just a few moments after Dracula Has Risen from the Grave ended, Taste the Blood of Dracula is a bit racier than its predecessor and also a little bit more bizarre but that actually adds to its blood-chugging demonic charm. There is no doubt that Taste the Blood of Dracula is suffering from a weaker plot than what we have seen before and the scares are certainly not as spooky as they once were but its Lee’s presence and that welcome gothic chill that elevates the overall quality of this installment. If you can believe it, the film was originally not going to feature Lee’s legendary bloodsucker but at the last second, he joined the project and the filmmakers figured out a way to work him into the story. At times Lee seems unsure what to do with Dracula but his commanding presence is enough to make his fans go wild. While the film may lack the flirty romance and playful humor of the last film, Sasdy spices things up with exotic sights and sounds that certainly make Taste the Blood of Dracula a sexy slice of vampire pandemonium.
Taste the Blood of Dracula introduces us to three wealthy gentlemen, William Hargood (Played by Geoffrey Keen), Sam Paxton (Played by Peter Saccis), and Jonathan Secker (Played by John Carson), who get together once a month to indulge in sleazy debauchery in a back alley brothel. One evening, the three men are approached by the mysterious Lord Courtley (Played by Ralph Bates), who offers the trio a chance to participate in a satanic ritual that would bring Count Dracula (Played by Christopher Lee) back from the dead. The men accept the offer but when the ritual begins, they get cold feet when they learn that they have to drink goblets of Dracula’s blood. Courtley is the only one who drinks the blood and he promptly dies. As his body deteriorates away, Dracula emerges from the ashes and vows to track down Hargood, Paxton, and Secker for allowing his servant to perish. Dracula soon sets his sights on Hargood’s beautiful daughter Alice (Played by Cinda Hayden) and her boyfriend Paul (Played by Anthony Corlan). As Alice falls under Dracula’s spell, Paul races to figure out a way to save Alice from the clutches of evil.
The opening sequence of Taste the Blood of Dracula is certainly a fascinating set up as a husky businessman named Weller (Played by Roy Kinnear) stumbles upon Dracula impaled on the massive cross, the image we saw at the end of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. As Dracula withers away and finally melts into a red sludge that quickly turns to reddish sand, Weller collects Dracula’s cape, blood, rings, and more. It certainly is a nifty way to connect both films and it is neat to see the sequence revisited as it is a chilling vision. It’s almost like Sasdy knew the climax of the previous film was such a keeper that he wanted to figure out a way to work it into his Dracula installment. Sasdy then works overtime to cook up something just as visually enticing as what we saw at the end of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. What he comes up with is a smoky trip into a neon lit brothel where the men drool over an exotic lap dance that involves snakes and brief flashes of bare breasts. It certainly is a steamy and seductive sequence and finds Hammer embracing some of the sleaze of the 1970s. The rest of the film is all blood drenched confrontations that I’m sure pleased fans of the gritty hardcore horror that was becoming more and more popular at the time. The satanic ritual is certainly eerie enough but you get the feeling that this has all been done before and much creepier at that. Overflowing goblets of gore do make things just unpleasant enough but they just don’t make the heart pound like they should.
Then there is the acting, which is surprisingly forgettable for a Hammer horror offering. Lee is certainly enjoying himself as he slinks around the cobwebbed castle and bares his fangs. He doesn’t add anything new to the character but by this point, he really doesn’t need to. There are a few points where Lee’s vampire does seem a bit out of place and unsure what to do, especially in the final moments of the film. Bates also has a bit of devilish fun as Lord Courtley as he flashes his devil-may-care smirk at anyone who dares look at him. We don’t get much of him but what little we get is pretty entertaining. Then we have Keen, Saccis, and Carson, who all fly under the radar. We mostly see the action from Keen’s point of view but we have a hard time sympathizing with him because he is such a miserable old fart. There is also the disappointing Hayden and Corlan who don’t come close to matching the young couple in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. It isn’t easy to see their young love wedged apart by the nasty old William but the two lovers have a hard time finding the spark between them. It is especially hard to buy Corlan’s heroics at the end of the film but you won’t notice because you will be too drawn to Lee.
The plotline of Taste the Blood of Dracula is fairly up and down with plenty of slinky insanity thrown in for fun. The climax is a mixed bag next to what we saw in the last film but you could never expect Sasdy to live up to those expectations. At this point in the Dracula series, it doesn’t take much to realize that the series was starting to run out of ideas and fast. However, it can be said that the film is fairly entertaining despite a choppy plotline and dry performances. I am still trying to figure out how Dracula never notices that he is hiding out in a desecrated church the entire time. I am still marveling at the fact that these three morons would decide to partake in such an outrageous ritual with a man they barely know. No matter, just marvel the thrilling vampire attacks and gothic cathedrals that that jut into the overcast sky. Dare to tremble when Dracula awakens from his deathly slumber and reveals deep red peepers that look like vats of blood (it is by far the most striking image in the film). Overall, it may not be the strongest film in the series and it is far from the worst but Taste the Blood of Dracula is trying to elaborate on a story that ended long ago. Somebody close the coffin lid already!
Taste the Blood of Dracula is available on DVD.
Hammer Horror Series: Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
by Steve Habrat
After Hammer’s success with Horror of Dracula, the British studio began whipping up multiple sequels that found Christopher Lee’s snarling Count Dracula rising from the grave in some way, shape, or form. One of the better sequels is 1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, a snappy horror outing with plenty of blood dripping from Lee’s fangs and as much cleavage as you can handle. Hey, this is Hammer! With Hammer’s favored son Terence Fisher out of the director’s chair and director Freddie Francis taking control, there seems to be a reignited spark of enthusiasm throughout Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Lee seems just a little more devilish than usual and the bloodletting is a tad more extreme than some of the previous offerings (the film is hilariously rated G but don’t be fooled). Francis injects a captivating storyline and mixes it with attention grabbing melodrama and likeable characters, all which give the film a morbid charm, much like the monster we all fear. Francis takes things to the next level with a number of iconic images and a climax that more than delivers. It’s a gothic image so startling that you will never be able to chase it from your mind. The only thing missing here is Peter Cushing, who is sorely missed!
Set after the events of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, a year has passed since Dracula’s (Played by Christopher Lee) death but the local villagers are still jumpy and whisper about vampirism. They are convinced that Dracula still watches them from his castle high in the mountains and that he still emerges at night to drink the blood of the living. Monsignor Ernst Mueller (Played by Rupert Davies) decides to perform an exorcism on Dracula’s castle to prove to the villagers that the evil is gone for good. The monsignor takes a local priest (Played by Ewan Hooper) with him up to Dracula’s castle but what he doesn’t know is that the priest is grappling with his faith. During the exorcism, the priest takes a nasty fall and cuts his head. The blood trickles down the rocks and finds its way through a crack in the ice. The blood flows into Dracula’s mouth and the evil one is revived from his chilly slumber. Unable to enter his castle due to a giant crucifix on the door, Dracula sets out to find the monsignor and make him pay for what he has done. He targets the priest and the monsignor’s beautiful niece, Maria (Played by Veronica Carlson), and her atheist boyfriend, Paul (Played by Barry Anderson).
Despite being a whole bunch of fun, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave does have one major gaffe near the end of the film. The scene finds atheist Paul attempting to drive a stake through old Drac’s heart but he refuses to pray so the attempt is useless and Dracula survives. It was news to this viewer that when one drives a stake through Dracula’s heart, you have to say a prayer or the vampire will survive. It may be goofy and completely out of place but the sequence does have tons of gore so that makes up for it. Other than this one flub, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave can be wonderfully funny, romantic, and terrifying. The opening sequence that finds a bloody dead body stuffed in the church’s bell tower is one to have you on the edge of your seat. The exorcism scene is also one that will give you chills as the winds pick up outside the gothic castle. Whenever Dracula’s presence is felt, Francis applies a filter that yellows the edge of the screen, an odd touch at first but as the film goes on, you may find yourself actually enjoying the effect as it suggests evil closing in around anyone who is near Dracula. And then there is the love story, a soft, melodramatic affair that will have the viewer rooting for young love.
Then we have the top-notch performances from Lee and the rest of the cast. Much like Horror of Dracula, we don’t see too much of Lee’s Dracula but when he does decide he is going to show up, he will have you trembling in your boots. When he sets his sights on a young gal he wishes to bite, his eyes turn that familiar shade of red and his lips curl in to a demonic sneer that spells death. When he approaches the crucifix that hangs from his castle doors, he commands one of his vampire slaves to get it out of his sight. The way he delivers the dialogue will send a chill, as he says it with heaping amounts of hate in his voice. Anderson is great as the honest and true Paul, who resists the seduction of a voluptuous bar maid named Xena (Played by Barbara Ewing). He just seems like such a good guy that you can’t help but root for him in his battle against Dracula. Carlson is easy on the eyes as Maria, a warm and innocent girl who sneaks out of her room at night and tip toes over the rooftops to check in on Paul. Then there is Davies as the stern monsignor who detests the fact that Paul is an atheist. Rounding out the cast is Hooper as the priest at odds with his faith. He is one of the first to fall under Dracula’s spell and he certainly is a sympathetic character. He can also seriously creep us out as he utters only snippets of dialogue and refuses to look anyone in the face.
The whole conflicted faith aspect of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is certainly an interesting touch to a Dracula film. It seems fitting but sometimes it seems slightly neglected as a plot point. However slack this plot point may be, Francis guides it smoothly into one hell of a finish that features a gothic image that has to be the king daddy of nightmarish visions. It’s epic, gruesome, terrifying, and strangely beautiful all at once as it rests against an overcast sky. There are a few moments where Dracula Has Risen from the Grave can be a bit cheesy, especially when a sped up Dracula zooms along in his carriage (I’ll wait while you chuckle). As the Dracula films began to slowly fall apart, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is a commanding Hammer vampire film that doesn’t hesitate to entertain us and then get right in our face so that we can smell the blood on its breath. And we can’t leave out Hammer’s famous gothic atmosphere, which is once running rampant right through the action. It certainly has a number of small flaws and one weird moment in the middle but Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is still a vampire film you will want to scare the living daylights out of you again and again. You may even crack a smile at a few points.
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is available on DVD.
Hammer Horror Series: The Mummy (1959)
by Steve Habrat
After Hammer Studios tackled such legendary monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein, the English horror factory then wrapped their claws around The Mummy. Borrowing heavily from the Universal’s rebooted series (The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse) and stitching the best parts together under the direction of Terence Fisher, The Mummy is another solid horror release from Hammer. Released in 1959 and in Technicolor, The Mummy is a bit grander than The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, daring to hop from Egypt to London and back again. Even if the film was made on elaborate sets with fancy lighting, The Mummy is much more exotic than the previous two offerings from Hammer but the lack of a fresh spin on the material is what keeps The Mummy from reaching the level of greatness found in The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. It’s the same old shuffle and strangle from our bandaged baddie but you can’t help but get chills from his appearance. Despite being bogged down by the familiar, The Mummy is still a creepy horror film that completes a stunning cycle of horror that reintroduced the world to supernatural terrors.
The Mummy begins in Egypt in 1865, where crippled archeologist John Banning (Played by Peter Cushing), his father Stephen (Played by Felix Aylmer), and his uncle Joseph Whemple (Played by Raymond Huntley) are digging for the long lost tomb of Princess Ananka. Despite bizarre warnings of curses from a local Egyptian man named Mehemet Bey (Played by George Pastell), the group discovers and enters the tomb of Ananka where they also discover the mysterious Scroll of Life, which Stephen proceeds to read from. Shortly after reading from the scroll, Stephen is spooked by an unseen figure and sent into a catatonic state. Three years pass and John has returned to London where he father stays in a nursing home. One day, Stephen snaps out of his catatonic state and reveals to John that when he read from the scrolls, he accidentally awakened the mummified high priests Kharis (Played by Christopher Lee). As John waves off the ramblings of his father, the mysterious Mehemet Bey arrives in London with the undead Kharis, looking for the members of the group that disturbed the tomb of Ananka. By night, Bey sends Kharis out into the countryside and commands him to kill those who were part of the expedition.
A tad longer than The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, The Mummy has a slow build that really hits its peak half way through the film. The terror really roars in a sequence featuring Bey commanding Kharis to emerge from a murky swamp and begin his rampage. The scene is effectively lit, with a muddy and moldy Kharis rising out of the murky water as those atmospheric mists seen in Hammer’s previous offering creep silently across the frame. It is easily the most memorable and horrific moment in The Mummy and it certainly has to rank up there as one of the most frightening movie moments ever. The rest of the film resorts to what we have seen before, Kharis shuffling through the woods and fields towards illuminated mansions. He does get a nifty jump scare when he heads to the nursing home to find Stephen and he crashes through a window. You will thrill as John riddles Kharis with bullets and even blasts him with a shotgun, leaving two gaping holes in his chest, which add to his macabre appearance. It should also be noted that for a low budget horror film, The Mummy certain has some incredible effects on Kharis, a rotting corpse caked with mud. He certainly is a creature to behold.
Being a Hammer production, naturally Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are the ringleaders of the mayhem. Lee is almost unrecognizable under all the muck covering his body. He is forced to rely on the emotion pouring from his eyes, which dart around the face of Isobel Banning (Played by Yvonne Furneaux), who reminds him of his beloved Princess Ananka. We do sympathize more with this Lee creature than we did with his Frankenstein Monster, mostly because he is a monster because of his love and affection. We do get a chance to see Lee’s face in an extended flashback that reveals his back-story and even then, he is painted up with a fake tan and shrouded in robes. Cushing is given the heroic role and he does it admirably, especially as he drags a crippled leg around with him. There are times where Cushing looks a bit unintentionally hilarious as he flits around with a shotgun but he sells it pretty well. He gets a pretty nifty war of words with Pastell’s Bey, a secretly sinister man who wishes to punish all who dared disturb the tomb of Ananka. Eddie Byrne shows up as Inspector Mulrooney, who is skeptical of that a supernatural being could be responsible for all the madness that is taking place around him.
If you have seen Universal’s Kharis series, then you basically have an idea where Hammer’s interpretation is heading. The fact that the film is so predictable does knock it down a few pegs. After the sequence that has Kharis emerging from the swamp, the film has a hard time really topping that scene. The middle section of the film gets an extended look at how Kharis was transformed into the monstrous mummy that he is. While it is a very ornate and shiny sequence, it plays out a bit longer than it really needed to. It does, however, pack a seriously nasty gross out scare that will have you wincing. The climax of the film is appropriately grim and tragic to go along with the tragic feel of Kharis. The Mummy does find Hammer Studios showing some range outside of their gothic comfort zone but they still manage to sneak a few of those touches into the film. Overall, the film has two spectacular performances from Lee and Cushing and there are a number of moments to send your flying out of your seat, but The Mummy is never as atmospheric as The Curse of Frankenstein or Horror of Dracula. It may not stick with you like the other two films did but there is enough style and grace here to build The Mummy up into a film that will satisfy horror fans everywhere.
The Mummy is available on DVD.
Hammer Horror Series: Horror of Dracula (1958)
by Steve Habrat
Shortly after unleashing their bloody interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hammer Studios decided to tackle Frankenstein’s partner in crime—Dracula. While The Curse of Frankenstein is considered the film that introduced Hammer Studios to the world, Horror of Dracula is considered one of their finest films in their vault. Once again starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Horror of Dracula is a sexed up vision of the vampire, complete with plenty of cleavage to satisfy the male viewers. While adding a heavy layer of sexuality and allowing plenty of blood to flow in striking Technicolor, director Terence Fisher has been credited for laying the groundwork for the modern vampire film. It features a suave Lee as Dracula preying upon voluptuous women who all shriek in orgasmic terror as the legendary bloodsucker drains them of blood. There is plenty of seduction in Horror of Dracula, something that was only vaguely hinted upon in the Tod Browning’s Universal classic Dracula. Much like The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula is very low budget, taking place primarily on two or three sets, which may have been left over from their previous offering, but there is plenty of misty atmosphere that would make Universal jealous. And then there is Lee as Dracula, who some argue gives the definitive performance as the iconic vampire.
Horror of Dracula begins with Jonathan Harker (Played by John Van Eyssen) arriving at Count Dracula’s (Played by Christopher Lee) castle, posing as a librarian. As he is taken into the gothic walls, a beautiful woman who is begging for help approaches Jonathan but is scared off by Dracula as he welcomes his guest. Dracula takes Jonathan to his room where it is revealed that Jonathan isn’t a librarian at all, but there to put an end to Dracula’s reign of terror. The next day, Jonathan is attacked by the same woman and bitten on the neck. Just as the woman is about to kill Jonathan, Dracula interrupts the attack and fights the girl off. Jonathan passes out from the attack and awakens the next day with strange marks on his neck. He slips down to the dungeon where he discovers Dracula and the woman in their coffins. Jonathan quickly dispatches the woman but Dracula wakes up and kills him. Shortly after the confrontation, Professor Van Helsing (Played by Peter Cushing) arrives at the castle looking for Jonathan and as he searches, he finds both the body of Jonathan and his diary. Van Helsing then sets out to deliver news of Jonathan’s death to his fiancé, Lucy (Played by Carol Marsh) and her brother, Arthur (Played by Michael Gough). But just as Van Helsing arrives to deliver the news, Dracula begins tormenting Lucy and Arthur.
Fisher’s Horror of Dracula doesn’t hesitate to jump right in to the action. There is no extended sequence of Jonathan traveling to Dracula’s gothic castle or whispers from the terrified villagers about the undead claiming the night. Right from the beginning, we learn that this Dracula is nastier and bloodier than anything we have seen before. Lee’s Dracula can be a gentleman one minute and the next; he is a red-eyed beast looking to tear the throat out of anyone who dares cross him. The first glimpse we get of the snarling Dracula certainly does shake the viewer up and it could very well be the most frightening scene of the entire film. The second half of the film finds Dracula largely absent from all the action and the main characters debating how to keep Dracula away from Lucy and Arthur’s wife, Mina (Played by Melissa Stribling). Many may deem this boring, especially since the middle section finds the characters pacing ornate dens while discussing vampire lore rather than tending to spurting arties. But it is these scenes that build the anticipation for Dracula’s return and in a way, make us fear him all the more. He could be anywhere, at any time, and we have no idea when he will choose to strike next.
Then there is the fantastic Cushing as Van Helsing, a mere mortal who resorts to tricks to fight the relentless vampire. It is difficult not to admire the way Cushing approaches each terrifying situation he encounters, as he is always cool, calm, and collected. Cushing has great chemistry with Gough, who is probably best remembered for his work as Alfred in Tim Burton’s 1989 gothic superhero film Batman. Cushing and Gough team up for a final showdown with Dracula that I promise will satisfy in every way imaginable. It is morbid and action packed but forced to remain restrained due to Hammer’s limited budget. We also can’t forget about the ladies, who also get their chance to really spook us throughout the course of the film. Marsh is the standout as Lucy, who nabs another one of the film’s more effective spooks. As a young girl wanders the woods, she is coaxed further in by the terrifying apparition of Lucy, who reveals a full set of razor sharp fangs to the young girl. It is another one of those scenes that catapult Horror of Dracula to the top of the list of horror movies perfect for Halloween night. Stribling gets a hair-raising encounter with the king vampire as he enters her bedroom and slowly makes his way in for the bite.
While Horror of Dracula may have plenty of terrifying moments to go around, the film has some surprising moments of humor, which does alleviate some of the tension. Yet when Fischer wants to scare the living hell out of you, he does it with a vengeance. Behold the scene where Gough and Cushing wander a misty tomb and come face to face with the undead Lucy. The final showdown in Dracula’s castle is also pretty gripping as a rattled Van Helsing starts to loose control against the demonic force he is facing. The film ends with some rickety special effects that have not aged well but are still appropriately disturbing. Incredibly influential and scary, Horror of Dracula is certainly one of the finest examples of vampires at their most sinister. The film deserves to stand alongside classics like 1922 silent German Expressionist nightmare Nosferatu, the legendary 1931 Universal/Lugosi offering, and Werner Herzog’s surreal 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre. Overall, Horror of Dracula is a small but scrappy homerun for Hammer Studios. You may find yourself hanging garlic on your door and sleeping with a stake and crucifix next to your bed. Make it a double feature with The Curse of Frankenstein.
Horror of Dracula is available on DVD.
Hammer Horror Series: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
by Steve Habrat
In the mid to late 40s, the supernatural gothic horror film that Universal Studios pioneered began to fade away. In its place, Hollywood embraced atomic age creature features and paranoid science fiction, all of which became wildly successful. In the late 50s, when this new form of horror was reaching its peak, British film company Hammer Studios took a chance and revived the gothic horror film, giving Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the Mummy a Technicolor makeover. The first film from Hammer was 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, a soft-focused melodramatic horror film that was dripping in blood and sexuality. While The Curse of Frankenstein can’t compete with the Boris Karloff/James Whale classic, the film takes more of a psychological approach to Mary Shelley’s material and boy is this one spooky vision. Certainly a film that is Halloween appropriate, The Curse of Frankenstein doesn’t hope to milk most of its horror from Frankenstein’s ghoul but from Baron Frankenstein himself, a monstrous man of science who will stop at nothing to complete the ultimate experiment. Still, the Frankenstein Monster is one that will haunt your dreams, a horrible scarred freak that wanders the woods and kills anyone that dares cross its path.
Our story begins in a dank prison where a gaunt Baron Victor Frankenstein (Played by Peter Cushing) is awaiting execution for a grisly murder. A kindly priest visits the imprisoned Victor, who then listens to his bizarre confessions. The story then flashes back to when Victor was just a young wealthy orphan and he meets his mentor, Paul Krempe (Played by Robert Urquhart). The two bond instantly and as Victor grows up, the two work side by side on a groundbreaking experiment that can restore life to the dead. The two manage to bring a small dog back to life, a success that sparks a horrifying determination in Victor to restore life to a human corpse. Ignoring Krempe’s pleas to continue their research before trying to raise a human corpse, Victor begins grave robbing and putting together a hellish creation. As the construction continues, Victor even resorts to murder to obtain the brain of a genius for his monster. Despite the brain being damaged, Victor manages to restore life to the corpse and creates a creature (Played by Christopher Lee) that isn’t the genius he hoped, but a bloodthirsty murderer with little emotion. After the creature escapes from Victor’s lab, it wanders into the woods where it stumbles upon local villagers, all who are horrifically slaughtered.
While the addition of color allows us to get a clear glimpse of Frankenstein’s grotesque creation, the film also repulses us with plenty of detached limbs, rotting eyeballs, severed heads, and oozing wounds. More grotesque than the Karloff monster, Lee’s abomination isn’t nearly as sympathetic as what Universal came up with, something that makes him less memorable than Karloff. You still have to give Lee’s monster credit, he does have a startling appearance and his blank stare kills certainly do make your skin crawl. A confrontation between him and a terrified blind man is certainly a sequence that will have even the most hardened horror viewer holding their breath. The monster is only given a small amount of screen time, something else that hurts the growth of his character, and Lee is forced to just swing his arms around in a fury and look confused for a good portion of the film. He is creepy as he wanders the autumn landscape and surveys the gothic architecture around him. Yet most of the fear is tapped in Frankenstein himself, an even more terrifying force that makes the monster look tame by comparison.
The cold-hearted scientist is certainly the true monster of The Curse of Frankenstein, one that holds you in suspense for a good duration of the runtime. While Colin Clive played Frankenstein as a man who has bitten off more than he can chew, Cushing’s Frankenstein is a man filled with hellish determination. He is sweet as sugar to his fiancé, Elizabeth (Played by Hazel Court), who is oblivious to his steamy encounters with his maid, Justine (Played by Valerie Gaunt). We get the feeling that this affair will not end on civil terms and it does take a turn for the nasty, especially when Justine reveals serious news to Victor and pleads for marriage. It is also difficult to watch the friendship between Frankenstein and Krempe deteriorate into a bitter relationship with Krempe constantly pleading with Frankenstein to end this madness. While Clive’s Frankenstein is celebrated more than Cushing’s, the better of the two will always be Cushing. At times, he can be incredibly charismatic and even charming but in the blink of an eye, his gentlemanly charm is undercut by a sinister meeting with a mortician for a pair of eyeballs. Krempe is ultimately the subtle hero of The Curse of Frankenstein, the voice of reason who puts the monster down once and then frustratingly disappears from the terrifying climax.
Made on the cheap, The Curse of Frankenstein doesn’t have the grand fiery ending that Universal’s Frankenstein has. The film has a bit more of a personal climax, one that, yes, does end with flames and a vat of acid (in place of a windmill), but with hints that this may all have been in Victor’s head. Could it be that the monster never existed at all? Quite the creative spin on the legendary material! The miniscule budget does force director Terence Fisher to really focus on character development to really take center stage and luckily, amazing talent surrounds him. He also does a fantastic job creating a spooky atmosphere with very little. The most detailed set is certainly Frankenstein’s boiling and bubbling lab, cramped and confined when viewed next to the stone structure seen in Universal’s Frankenstein. While it certainly isn’t perfect and there is just too little of Lee, The Curse of Frankenstein belongs to Cushing and that inauspicious gothic mood. The ending is certainly grim with madness running amok (just get a load of that final image). It does send the viewer off shaken and that is all that many can ask of a good horror movie. Overall, if you’re not really in the mood to revisit Universal’s legendary classic for the 50th time, seek out this Technicolor nightmare on Halloween night. It may have you switching on a nightlight or two.
The Curse of Frankenstein is available on DVD.
To the Devil a Daughter (1976)
by Steve Habrat
If you took Reagan from The Exorcist, the demon children from Earserhead, Rosemary’s Baby and It’s Alive, and the chanting score from The Omen, mixed all of them up with Christopher Lee, you’d have 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, Hammer Film Productions’ last venture into the realm of supernatural terror. Probably best known for dialogue clips that were used on heavy metal band White Zombie’s Astro Creep: 2000 album and for a sequence where then 17-year-old star Nastassja Kinski treats us all to the most awkward full frontal nude scene ever put on screen, To the Devil a Daughter isn’t one of the best productions that Hammer ever delivered to horror gurus but it certainly isn’t the worst from the British horror company. Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley, director Peter Sykes thinks his film is a high art offering within the demonic horror realm but what he doesn’t seem to pick up on is the fact that he is basically making a veiled exploitation film knock off of The Exorcist with only a small handful of effective scares. The film is pretty gross, delusional, convoluted, and, at times, borderline pornographic but it still manages to paint a number of jarring images to make it worthwhile for anyone who fancies a bloody horror flick. Just make sure you go in with a notebook so you can jot notes down because the plotline here is an absolute mess.
To the Devil a Daughter introduces us to Catherine Beddows (Played by Nastassja Kinski), who believes she has been raised in a Christian convent called “The Children of the Lord.” It turns out that this convent is actually a satanic coven, which is led by the sinister Fr. Michael Rayner (Played by Christopher Lee), created for the worship of Astaroth. On the day that Catherine was born, her father, Henry (Played by Denholm Elliott), made a deal with Rayner that would allow him to give Catherine over to Astaroth on her eighteenth birthday. Now filled with fear and regret, Henry seeks out the help of occult writer John Verney (Played by Richard Widmark), who may be the only one who knows who to protect Catherine from Rayner and his associates. As Catherine’s behavior grows more and more bizarre, Verney begins to suspect that he is dealing with some very dangerous and determined people. Soon, the bizarre events turn into grisly murder and horrific hallucinations, leading Verney to brush up on his knowledge of Astaroth and prepare himself for a battle with Rayner.
Vaguely creepy and ever so slightly off-putting, To the Devil a Daughter never really flat out terrifies you like say Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist but it does have a fair share of impressive moments. Still, the film is thrown off by some poor pacing and a head scratching final showdown between Rayner and Verney, a scene that you expect to be more of a nail biter than it actually is. Throughout the film, Catherine suffers hallucinations of a strange, Eraserhead/It’s Alive-like fetus that is covered in red slime and looks sort of like an alien, another creepy addition but one that is never fully developed so we understand just what the hell it’s supposed to be. The film also suffers from some unintentional humor in certain spots, especially a scene where an ally of Verney’s is killed and Verney’s only response is “DAMN YOU” before passing out. To make things even worse, the film has one of the messiest scripts that you will ever come across, half the film making zero sense at all. It is frustrating because when the film shows some coherency, it is actually a pretty eerie demonic horror offering, one that could have edged its way to the front of the demonic horror pack. There is also the random orgy thrown in to the middle of the movie, another strange flashback/hallucination/repressed memory that has Christopher Lee stripping down his birthday suit while frantic editing shows us graphic sex scenes. Well, The Exorcist never had the balls to throw that at us!
I can say that despite the number of flaws to be found in To the Devil a Daughter, the acting is outstanding, a shocker considering this material. Christopher Lee is just the right amount of wicked as Rayner, a gentleman with a razor-sharp edge of evil. Lee was always game to do whatever was asked of him in the Hammer horror films and in this offering, it is no different. Lee’s Rayner is pitted against Widmark’s Verney, a sly and informed hero who needs to be one step ahead of his demonic enemy. It has been said that Widmark was difficult to work with on set and that he loathed this production but you would never guess by his performance. He is always top notch and nothing less, even when he has to battle a demonic windstorm with nothing but a rock. Then there is Kinski as Catherine, an innocent but erratic force in the middle of the film. One moment, she is a whispery and naïve child but the next moment, she is a howling banshee who is a witness to pure evil. Denholm Elliott is superb as a wounded father who has no one else to turn to. The end of the film frames him as a withering soul seeking shelter in a chalk pentagram. Anthony Valentine and Honor Blackman also nab honorable mentions as David and Anna, friends of Verney who end up aiding him in his quest to stop Rayner.
While I have sounded like I really disliked To the Devil a Daughter, there are several scenes that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention. A scene where a rope is dangled over a phone to get a character to hallucinate a snake coiled around their hand was pretty effective and the film also has one hell of an unnerving suicide scene. The most shocking comes when a woman, who is about to give birth, has her legs bound together so the demon seed can claw its way through her belly (yes, you read that correctly). It was easily the most intense sequence of the film and without question the most unforgettable. Another creepy moment comes when Catherine, who is caught in a murderous trance, wanders the streets of London as people who pass look on in bewilderment at her bizarre behavior. The film also has some wonderful gothic structures to marvel at and compliment the supernatural events. Still, the messy screenplay, convoluted plot, and the trippy end battle leave quite a bit to be desired. As far as the climax is concerned, I still have a hard to believing that the forces of evil could be vanquished with a rock. Overall, if you are a Hammer horror enthusiast or one who really gets the willies from demonic horror films (I know there are those of you who really fear this stuff), To the Devil a Daughter is a horror film that you shouldn’t miss. The rest of us will be re-watching The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen and when we get sick of those, maybe we will join you.
To the Devil a Daughter is available on DVD.