by Steve Habrat
Horror legend William Castle will be forever remembered as the king of gimmicks. He had a skeleton dangle over his audience in perhaps his most well known film, House on Haunted Hill, and he slapped buzzers on various seats and had Vincent Price encourage viewers to scream bloody murder during screenings of cult favorite The Tingler. Another one of Castle’s elaborate gimmicks came with Mr. Sardonicus, his chilling 1961 answer to the gothic horror offerings from Hammer Studios. Lacking the color cinematography Hammer was noted for but certainly not shorting the audience on macabre visuals, talk of ghouls, grave robbers, disfigurement, and leeches, Mr. Sardonicus is an atmospheric tale that cleverly allowed the audience to pick how they wanted to bring this underrated effort to a close. Mr. Sardonicus has sadly never enjoyed the success that some of Castle’s other work has, but don’t be fooled, this film is actually one of Castle’s better horror outings. The film features a solid build up, marvelous set design, eerie exterior shots that look like they were lifted right out of Hammer’s Horror of Dracula or The Curse of Frankenstein, and make-up effects that are guaranteed to have you fighting to keep down your lunch. And to think this movie is based around a short story by Ray Russell that appeared in Playboy!
Mr. Sardonicus begins in 1880, with renowned physician Sir Robert Cargrave (played by Ronald Lewis) being urgently summoned by his past lover, Maude (played by Audrey Dalton), to her secluded new castle that she shares with her mysterious husband, Baron Sardonicus (played by Guy Rolfe). Shortly after arriving, Robert is met by Baron Sardonicus’ fiercely loyal servant, Krull (played Oskar Homolka), who is in the process of torturing a terrified servant girl by sticking leeches on her face. Robert is reunited with Maude and is introduced to Sardonicus, who hides his face behind an expressionless mask. Despite Maude’s warnings of awful things taking place in the castle and muffled screams in the night, Robert stays to protect his lost love. The next morning, Sardonicus meets with Robert and reveals that he wears a mask to conceal a grotesque grimace that has been frozen to his face. Sardonicus explains that he has tried everything to attempt to fix his disfigurement but nothing seems to work. Robert agrees to try to help Sardonicus but after his efforts fail, Sardonicus demands that Robert resort to life threatening experimental procedures to try to fix his face and if Robert resists or fails again, he will torture Maude.
While there is plenty of lurid subject matter throughout Mr. Sardonicus, the film would be nothing without its sinister gothic atmosphere, something that makes the film a perfect fit for a chilly October evening. There are castles hidden by twisted trees, graveyards nestled inside dead gardens, heavy shadows cast over the characters, and thick sheets of fog that hang heavy in the air and coil around like ghostly specters. Castle’s finishing touch is the rotten corpse that leers out from its open grave, a visual jolt that hits the viewer like a strong cup of coffee. There is no doubt that the people over at Hammer Studios were most likely smiling over what Castle achieved here. This atmosphere gives Mr. Sardonicus plenty of personality and on its own, it is enough to give the viewer goosebumps, but the make-up effects really make this picture a macabre affair. The loyal servant Krull is missing an eye and Mr. Sardonicus’ mask is eerily blank for the rolling menace that booms from behind the pencil-thin lips. Then there are the effects on Mr. Sardonicus himself, which are hideous enough to cause one character to commit suicide after laying unsuspecting eyes on his hellish grin. The sight really is startling and grotesque, elaborate to the point that it was very difficult for Rolfe to keep the make-up on for a long period of time.
In addition to the strong atmosphere and chilling set design, Mr. Sardonicus also features some seriously noteworthy and graceful performances from its leads. Lewis is absolutely superb as the strong and whip-smart hero Robert, a man who isn’t shaken in the least by the horror unfolding around him. He’s levelheaded when forced to confront a nasty situation and calculated in the way he battles back against the menacing Sardonicus. Rolfe, meanwhile, plays Sardonicus as a surprisingly sympathetic monster with a tragic past. He certainly can back us up against the wall when he peels off that terrible mask to reveal an even more terrifying grimace, but there is an aura of sadness surrounding him, something that you would have seen in one of Universal’s early monster offerings. Much like Claude Rains’ performance in the 1933 film The Invisible Man, Rolfe is asked to bring heaping amounts of intimidation and emotion to a role that conceals his face and I must admit that he rises to the challenge. Dalton does get reduced to the whimpering damsel in distress during certain moments but the way she composes herself when her commanding husband slinks into the room is certainly something to admire. Homolka nearly steals the show as the disfigured servant Krull, a gravelly minion who assures Robert that he will do anything that Sardonicus orders him to do and he means ANYTHING. Just wait until you get a load of him sticking leeches to one poor girl’s face.
Considering that Mr. Sardonicus is a Castle product, the film naturally has a nifty little gimmick attached to it. This time around, Castle passed out glow-in-the-dark cards that had a thumbs up and thumbs down printed on it to the audience. Near the end of the film, Castle appears on the screen and speaks directly to the audience about picking the fate of the monster. He cheerfully encourages them to not be sheepish and to have absolutely no mercy for the nasty Sardonicus as he supposedly counts votes. It has been said that Castle shot two endings for Mr. Sardonicus, the one that we get to see and one that spares the grinning ghoul, but the softer ending has never been shown. What is interesting about Mr. Sardonicus is that its gimmick gets to live on and it wasn’t limited to a theater gag like The Tingler’s seat buzzers or House on Haunted Hill’s soaring skeleton. We actually get to a chance to experience the gimmick rather than having to simply hear about it from our parents or grandparents. Overall, ripe with a gothic atmosphere and brimming with Castle’s fiendish frights, Mr. Sardonicus is a patient and morbid horror story that deserves way more attention than it receives. Fans of Hammer Studios will be especially pleased with what Castle gives them, but all horror fans are guaranteed to walk away with a Sardonicus style grimace plastered on their mugs.
Mr. Sardonicus is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Below are a few little bonus items that I thought were cool to include in this review.
And here is the trailer for Mr. Sardonicus:
This review has been a part of…
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.
by Steve Habrat
That evil Baron Victor Frankenstein is back and more hellish than ever in director Terence Fisher’s 1969 Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the fifth entry in Hammer’s brutal and bloody Frankenstein series. Back with a vengeance, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed ushers in a pulverizing wave of emotion that will shatter your heart and a number of unbearably tense moments that Hammer’s Frankenstein series was noted for. A bit different than other Frankenstein films, this entry in the series lacks a grunting, groaning hulk of a monster and replaces him with a mad colleague who has undergone an icky brain transplant. Not as heavy on the horror and more of a thrill ride, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed finds Peter Cushing once again stepping in as the infamous mad scientist and playing him with such demented fury, it practically sends the viewer into shock. While the lack of a deformed corpse shuffling around the countryside may be a bit of a disappointment, the twisted story and the lack of a clean cut hero makes this installment one that really hits you right in the gut. And I dare you not to be downright mesmerized by the chilling opening sequence and that grim ending.
The monstrous Baron Victor Frankenstein (Played by Peter Cushing) has been prowling the streets in secret and gruesomely claiming victims for his terrifying experiments. After one of his victims survives and discovers the whereabouts of his secret lab, Frankenstein is forced to take shelter at a local boarding house that is run by young landlady named Anna (Played by Veronica Carlson). Under a new name, Frankenstein keeps largely to himself but after he discovers Anna’s fiancé, Karl (Played by Simon Ward), who happens to be a doctor at the local mental asylum, is stealing drugs and selling them, he blackmails the young couple into helping him with his macabre work. The couple soon learns that Frankenstein is attempting a brain transplant on a former colleague named Professor Richter (Played by Freddie Francis) who has been locked up in an insane asylum for many years. As the police close in on the trio, the experiment on Professor Richter doesn’t go according to Frankenstein’s plan and Richter sets out to make Frankenstein pay for his ungodly experiments.
Perhaps the strangest touch to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the fact that there isn’t the usual Frankenstein Monster that we are all familiar with. This creature is certainly sympathetic as everyone he stumbles across is terrified of him (he means them no harm) but he actually speaks and very intelligently at that. The only thing truly horrifying about his appearance is the slew of stitches that dot his forehead like a hellish crown. Later in the film, the Monster (or Professor Richter) goes to see his wife who is just sickened over what Frankenstein has done to her husband. It is emotionally intimate and touching as Professor Richter hides out of his wife’s sight and calmly tries to comfort her. Mind you, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed certainly asks for plenty of empathy but this isn’t all a pity party. Fisher opens the film with plenty of bloody, gore, and severed limbs to make us all a little queasy. The opening finds a masked Frankenstein prowling the shadows and lobbing off heads as blood splatters every which way. If that scene doesn’t get your heart pounding, surely the sequence that finds a water main suddenly bursting and a rotten corpses bubbling up from its muddy grave as Anna tries desperately to hide the body from onlookers will have you covering your eyes. It’s smartly conceived horror sequences like this that prove to the viewer that Fisher and Hammer may have been making a spin-off franchise film but they were determined to do it with plenty of style and fury.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed also gets a boost from the always-spectacular Cushing as the demented Frankenstein. If you think you’ve seen him at the height of his evil, wait until you see him here. He hilariously cuts down a group of over opinionated gentlemen who criticize his past experiments. As he overhears their conversation, the sullen Frankenstein turns to them and says, “I didn’t know you were all doctors!” They quickly explain that they are not doctors and Frankenstein hits them with, “Oh, I thought you knew what you were talking about.” When he is verbally ripping someone to shreds, Frankenstein commits other monstrous acts including a heartless murder and the stomach-churning assault of Anna. It is also terrifying the way he forces Karl into murder but what is even more chilling is that Karl doesn’t put up much of a fight, although he does squirm but mostly during the experiments. The climax of the film largely belongs to Francis, who really manages to get us on his side as Richter. Then we have Carlson and Ward as the young couple forced into terrible acts by their evil puppet master. It certainly isn’t easy to watch Karl get tangled in a web of death but there are points where he doesn’t seem to mind at all. Anna, meanwhile, is more of a prisoner than Karl, kept around only for Frankenstein to rape and make coffee.
In typical Frankenstein fashion, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed ends with a fiery confrontation between Richter and his creator. You will be cheering as Richter unleashes charred revenge on the sick and twisted Frankenstein. In a way, the film is disappointing because we are so naturally used to seeing a decaying corpse brought back to life through electricity that it does come as a bit of a shock when this “Monster” begins speaking in a polite manner. The positive is that it does add a fresh spin on the material and it doesn’t resort to rehashing what we have already seen in previous Frankenstein films. The other disappointment is that most of the scares are found at the beginning and then the film transitions into a more of a suspense thriller with lots of bright red blood. Overall, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is certainly a strong installment in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, one that isn’t afraid to embrace plenty of extremely unethical behavior and plenty of fiery doom and gloom when the curtains fall on the climax. This is a nasty movie with infinite amounts of madness burning in its blood red eyes. An essential film for Hammer fans.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is available on DVD.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is time for the Universal monsters to return to their coffins and allow the Hammer Studios ghouls to emerge from their graves. Tomorrow kicks off Hammer Horror Week and its going to be non-stop blood, fangs, cleavage, and walking corpses. Time to really get this monster party going.
-Theater Management (Steve)