[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
I must confess to being one of those horror film addicts who occasionally even resort to the ozoners in search of the one sleeper that will justify all those wasted hours spent in the scurrilous company of Aztec mummies, moth-eaten werewolves, and green slime. Which is how I came to see Raw Meat—despite its title and the American-International imprimatur. Actually, the presence of Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee, not to mention obvious parallels—in what little I knew of the plot—to the notorious NightoftheLiving Dead, did nothing to shore up what little resistance I manage to maintain against a seemingly insatiable appetite for the usually tasteless additions to this genre.
Horror Classics: 4 Chilling Movies from Hammer Films(Warner, Blu-ray) presents the respective Blu-ray debuts of four films from Hammer Films, the British studio that revived the classic monster movies in gothic style and lurid color (to match the lurid atmosphere of sex and death).
The Mummy (1959) is the third of Hammer’s classic horror revivals and the fourth Hammer film to pair up its two marquee stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing stars as archeologist John Banning, whose dig for a lost tomb results in untold treasures but leaves his father a mumbling madman and marks the rest of the company for death. Lee is Kharis, a former high priest turned gauze-wrapped guardian of the tomb, a veritable Golem sent on a mission of vengeance by Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), a disciple of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris. “I’ve spent the better part of my life among the dead, but I’ve never worked in a place with such an aura of menace. There’s something evil in there.”
The scenes at the archeological dig and the flashbacks to the ancient burial are stagebound and frankly cheap looking, but Terence Fisher—Hammer’s top director—is back in familiar territory when the action relocates to the misty swamps and Victorian mansions of rural England. The towering, 6’3” Lee makes the most terrifying mummy to date. He covers ground in giant strides, smashes his way into rooms with heavy Frankenstein-like swipes of his arm, and takes shotgun blasts with barely a twitch, yet melts from rage to calm at the sight of Banning’s wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux), a dead ringer for his dead Queen. He’s haunted soul, rampaging juggernaut, and a hugely powerful monster all in one. In the classic Hammer tradition there’s a sadistic twist to the flashback when Lee’s transgressive priest has tongue removed. It’s not as gory as it sounds, but it still carries a shivering eeriness about it. Hammer’s Mummy sequels, like Universal’s before it, are a spotty lot but the original is quite good.
[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
The tiny German village lies quiet in the early morning sunlight as a young boy enters the church, genuflects, crosses himself, and walks to the bell rope. With appropriate reverence, yet with the casualness of one who has performed this ritual many times before, he gives the rope a pull. Only this time, nothing happens. Confused, the boy braces himself for a mightier tug on the rope; but suddenly he yanks his hands away as if they have been burned. On the back of his hand is a drop of blood, and as his eyes move upward, he sees a scarlet band trickling down the bell rope. With a silent scream, he runs to fetch the village priest (Ewan Hooper). Though he is a mute, the boy expresses his agitation as best he can, and the priest follows him hurriedly to the church. Ascending the stairs to the belfry, the priest approaches the bell and pushes on it. Out swings, head-first and suspended from the clapper, the freshly killed body of a young woman.
Thus begins the most uncompromisingly religious vampire film I have seen, DraculaHasRisenfromthe Grave. Despite the fact that Terence Fisher gets all the publicity, and many assignations of auteurship, this lively film by second-stringer Freddie Francis gets my vote as the best of the Hammer Dracula films (though two more recent vampire ventures, TastetheBloodofDracula, 1970, and ScarsofDracula, 1972, have received limited distribution in the United States and have thus far escaped my viewing).
Seven years after resurrecting Count Dracula for a new generation in Hammer Films’ The Horror of Dracula, Christopher Lee returned to role under the direction of Hammer’s defining director, Terence Fisher, for a direct sequel. In fact, Dracula: Prince of Darkness opens a recap of the Horror of Dracula finale, which is the first and last time we see Peter Cushing in the picture. But while the film is a genuine sequel with a new story (scripted by Jimmy Sangster from an idea by producer Anthony Hinds, both using pseudonyms in the credits) it reworks many details from the classic novel and Hammer’s adaptation on a smaller scale.
This time the innocents are a group of English tourists–brothers Charles (Francis Matthews, speaking with a Cary Grant lilt) and Alan (Charles Tingwell) and their wives Diana (Suzan Farmer) and Helen (Hammer regular Barbara Shelley)–vacationing in the Carpathian Mountains. Dumped in the woods by a terrified coachman just before darkness falls, they are taken to Dracula’s castle in a driverless carriage and take refuge in the seemingly empty yet oddly kept up place, despite the warnings of travelling priest Father Sandor (Andrew Keir in holy monk warrior garb) and the ominous arrival of the castle’s sole living occupant, Klove (Philip Latham), servant to long-dead master. Klove delivers the film’s best line to his guests, who enquire about the Dracula legacy: “My master died without issue, sir, in the accepted sense of the term.” (Curiously, Klove is nowhere to be seen in the original The Horror of Dracula). He’s enough to put you off the main course, and it does exactly that to Helen, the only member of the party with sense enough to want out of there.
There is nothing tasteful about a Fu Manchu movie. The stories of a ruthless, sadistic, depraved Mandarin crimelord, originally created in a series of lurid pulp thrillers by Sax Rohmer in the 1910s, traffic in a jingoistic fear of Asian assault on western culture (especially the empire-building Britania). Fu Manchu is a criminal genius with three doctorates, a passion for assassination by exotic poison, and an obsessive quest for world domination. And he has been, since the beginning, played by Caucasian actors in silk robes, long-mustaches, and what can only be called yellowface make-up.
Dr. Fu Manchu returned with a vengeance in the 1960 in a series of lurid British thrillers from Harry Alan Towers, a British writer/producer cashing in on the Hammer success with his own low-budget thrillers and horror films, and starring Christopher Lee as the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu.
In the 1965 The Face of Fu Manchu (Warner Archive), the first of five Fu Manchu features from Towers and Lee and the character’s first big official screen appearance since 1940, he kidnaps a brilliant scientist, forces him to turn over his latest, potentially destructive invention by means of torture (usually of a beautiful young daughter), and then holds the world ransom. That basic structure recurs in the sequels, just as it drove many a James Bond film and a couple of Pink Panther sequels and Austin Powers movies.
Not that anyone watched these films for their plots. The film opens on Fu Manchu’s own execution, a scene right out of Hammer Films’ The Revenge of Frankenstein. Clearly this is not the end of Fu Manchu, who returns for his revenge with a literal underground kingdom beneath the streets of London, a fanatically devoted cutthroat army in black pajamas and red sashes (part Viet Cong, part Playboy After Dark), and a small private zoo of poisonous spiders and deadly snakes.
The budget is low and the momentum is slow, but Towers (who also penned the screenplay under his pseudonym Peter Welbeck) and director Don Sharp deliver the lurid kinkiness and exotic sadism with a bare-bones spectacle. The approach is equal parts Hammer Films gothic style on the cheap (without the decadent atmosphere or vivid color) and German “krimi” thriller, with its exotic murders and deadly conspiracies. In one scene Fu Manchu ties up a female traitor for a lashing, only to change his mind and drown her in full view of his prisoners as a lesson in obedience. (His loyal and equally sadistic daughter Lin Tang, played by Tsai Chin, almost throws a tantrum when he stops her seconds before letting loose with the whip.) In the next, he murders the entire population of a small British town as an object lesson to the British government. In between there are more conventional gang brawls and shoot-outs, a little conventional spy/cop movie distraction in a 1930s-era thriller.
Lee never affects a Chinese accent and the even goes light on the eye lifts, suggesting a Eurasian mix, a British-educated multinational who has rejected the west and embraced the ancient criminal code of the Chinese underworld. It makes him, if nothing else, a little more rarified, a man of two cultures who reaches for the worst of both. Nigel Green is Fu Manchu’s nemesis, the dogged Scotland Yard agent Nayland Smith, and he brings a strength of conviction that makes him a fair match for Lee.
The same can’t be said for Douglas Wilmer, who takes over for Green in The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (Warner Archive), the third film in the series. The plot is the same, with the twin goal of ruling a global criminal empire and destroying Nayland Smith in a plot involving plastic surgery and a murder frame-up. The fake Smith walks around as if in a trance, unspeaking and for the most part unmoving, which frankly isn’t much of a contrast with Wilmer as the real Nayland Smith, who is kidnapped far too easily early in the film and never convinces us he ever had the strength to take on Fu Manchu.
While absurdly complicated and overflowing with supporting characters (including Horst Frank as an American crime ambassador who speaks as if he came out of the Vienna underworld), it certainly isn’t dull, and Towers produced much of it at the Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong, giving it a globetrotting scope. Just so don’t forget his motivation or the title of the film, Lee manages to work the word “vengeance” into his dialogue in practically every scene
For Fu Manchu completists, the second Christopher Lee Fu Manchu film, the 1966 The Brides of Fu Manchu, was released on the double-feature disc Chamber of Horrors/The Brides of Fu Manchu from Warner Home Entertainment (it’s now out of print), and the final Jess Franco-directed films, The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), are available from Blue Underground. Reaching back even farther, the 1932 Mask of Fu Manchu with Boris Karloff is available in the box set “Hollywood’s Legends of Horror.”
Speaking of Boris Karloff, he stars in The Sorcerers (Warner Archive), the second feature from cult director Michael Reeves, a promising young filmmaker of the sixties who died of a drug overdose after directing only three films. It’s really quite a strange mash-up of drug movie, counter-culture spectacle, thrill-kill drama, and addiction drama. Karloff is a hypnotist and inventor who uses mind-control not just to manipulate a young man but to experience his sensations and Catherine Lacey is his wife and assistant. Karloff was almost 80 when he made the film, frail and weak (he died only two years later), and it invests his character with a palpable hunger for the charge of youth this invention offers, but it’s Lacey’s character who becomes addicted to the rush of illicit thrills as she pushes their victim (played by Ian Ogilvy) to murder, and like a junkie she’s driven to do anything to get her fix.
Eugenio Martino’s Horror Express (Severin) is a one of those odd duck films: a Spanish horror for an international audience with Hammer stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and American actor Telly Savalas (something of an international character actor icon of the time thanks to such films as The Dirty Dozen, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Assassination Bureau) in a small but significant supporting role. Set on the Siberian Express, it’s a mix of murder mystery, supernatural horror, mummy movie, zombie film and alien attack at the turn of the century.
While it’s a minor horror film, it’s filled with incident, paced like a speeding train and flavored with hints of late Hammer horrors and Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead. The dangerous cargo is the frozen remains found in Northern China by archeologist Christopher Lee, a “missing link” that turns out to be even more unique and tenacious than anyone anticipates. Coming back to life with burning red eyes, it starts sucking the life and the knowledge out of bystanders and then jumping bodies in its instinct for survival. Peter Cushing is a rival gentleman scientist who uses his fortune to grease the wheels of foreign diplomacy, but shifts from enemy to colleague when the “fossil” escapes and the milky-eyed corpses start to stack up, and then come back to life. This train carries plenty of promising vessels, including a beautiful spy, a Rasputin-like monk and a pair of aristocrats in a private car.
I took particular pleasure in the indignant dignity maintained by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in all the ridiculousness of the filmmaking, sparring and sniping and sabotaging one another before finally teaming up as the body count builds. And then there is the blast of personality that Telly Savalas brings as a “Cossack” feudal lord from an rural posting. Just when you wonder when he’s going to make his appearance, he rolls out of the sack shared with some nameless woman and leads his troop onto a train by order of a government that’s not sure what’s going on but knows that something wicked this way comes.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
The Four Musketeers cannot be recommended to anyone who hasn’t seen The Three Musketeers. On the other hand, you haven’t seen The Three until you’ve seen The Four; and once you’ve seen The Four, The Three becomes a much better movie. They’re all one movie, really, and one of the most enjoyable prospects the near future holds out to us is the chance, eventually, to sit down in some suburban auditorium and put the whole four-hours-minus picture back together. There’ll also, for those of us who inveterately worry about such things, be the problem of sorting out whether this is a great film or just a splendiferous film with greatness in it.
Perhaps I can get at the nature of that unmonumental problem by indulging in a little film-critical housecleaning. Last year, in MTN 31, I delivered myself of an unadulteratedly positive appreciation of Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds, which marked the director’s return to feature filmmaking after almost five years’ silence. The comeback itself was good news, and it was easy to find complimentary things to say about the picture. I didn’t—and don’t—retract any of them; but I also didn’t record my uneasiness about the movie, most especially its failure to achieve an overall structural integrity. Nice things would happen, and then other nice things would happen—some of them beautiful-type nice things, others comic-type nice things—but they didn’t go anywhere. I don’t know how many people paused to tell me how great it was when Athos, last seen grotesquely pinioned on a waterwheel, reappeared in bandages, stewed to the gills, to tip backwards down a country well; it was hohoho to swashbuckling and all that, and bring on the clowns. If it wasn’t that easy for Dick Jameson to go along with that, neither was it all that easy for Dick Lester. If you read around among various reviews of the film, you might find one commentator sneering at Lester for venturing to tell an anachronistic adventure story straight, while another would see him playing the same thing for facile laughs, and a third might detect the Musketeers and d’Artagnan casting the shadows of the Watergate plumbers. There isn’t necessarily any significance in the phenomenon of various commentators finding different points-of-view to take on the same film; but in this particular case I do feel the conspicuously divergent readings were at least partially accountable-for in the unresolved quality of Lester’s half-of-a-film. There was material there to qualify The Queen’s Diamonds as a sumptuously romantic extravaganza to out-Curtiz Curtiz, and there was evidence that this movie was made by hip Richard Lester, director of the Beatles films and The Knack, and a sense of muckraking revisionism laced with absurdism could also be sustained. Leaving such questions of tone and intention aside, one had still to contend with the basic dichotomy of spectacular period piece vs. high, middle, and low comedy. My own experience of Part One was that, after an intricately graded first hour or so, the laughs ran away with the show; and while there continued to be such headily ambivalent punctuation marks as the Musketeers-against-the-setting-sun-ride-to-the-rescue shot, d’Artagnan’s protracted—and much too undangerous—attempt to enter the palace and return the queen’s jewels tended to linger in my mind as more typical of the film’s failure of perspective. Hence, come year-end toting-up, I found myself discreetly omitting The Three Musketeers from what might have seemed, on the basis of my April review, a guaranteed slot on my Ten Best List.
With that convoluted but by no means irrelevant self-account out of the way, I can return to saying that The Revenge of Milady not only makes good on the necessarily failed promise of The Queen’s Diamonds but even makes better. Part Two begins in media of rather bewildering res with Aramis, having summarized Part One in voiceover for the tardy arrival, announcing that the Musketeers have become involved in a war between the Catholics (the king’s forces) and the Protestants, that the latter hold the fortress of LaRochelle, and that the Musketeers’ old enemy Rochefort has been captured by the other side while spying. And so, since Musketeers rescue just about anybody, we find them preparing to foil Rochefort’s execution by firing squad—if they can just keep the fuses on their hand grenades lit, and if the firing squad doesn’t do such a thorough job of botching their own assignment that our heroes become superfluous. Once Rochefort is spirited away to make his apologies to the king and Cardinal Richelieu, we’re back where we left off last year: d’Artagnan stands in a marketplace with his hand up a goose’s ass.
Beside him is Constance Bonacieux, handmaiden to the queen and wife of d’Artagnan’s one-time innkeeper (Spike Milligan’s Bonacieux, alas, does not return). In Richelieu’s ever-shifting chess plan to retain control of the destiny of France, she, as the queen’s confidential emissary to her English lover, the Duke of Buckingham, has come to be a most strategic piece. Browsing in the market now, she pauses near a heap of melons. A hand reaches out from them and seizes her; another hand, gesturing from behind a cart across the street, directs the kidnapping; as a barrel is settled over Constance’s head, d’Artagnan leaps to her assistance. The hand behind the cart belongs to Rochefort, who moves to cross swords with the young Gascon—but slips in a pile of grapes, thereby running himself—his wrist, anyway—onto the blade of someone who has no business wounding the greatest swordsman in France. D’Artagnan’s advantage is momentary at best and he ends up buried by a hill of potatoes. In the twinkling of a splice he’s being uncovered by the devious Milady de Winter. Constance is nowhere to be seen.
The movie is changing on us already, although the seriocomic deftness of this sequence is not apparent until we’ve seen the next. Milady has taken d’Artagnan to her apartments. Under her soothing hand and four inches from her enticing and mostly unlaced bosom, he reminds himself that he really must be going—er, mustn’t he?—to find his sworn lady. Amid a cacophony of falling candelabra he departs, Milady waving a benediction that also directs her maid to see him safely out. Then, completing the untying of her robe, she turns her back to the camera and starts toward a waiting bathtub mere feet away from the couch where she almost seduced the new Musketeer. The lens, with Thirties quaintness, drops with her robe. A discreet closeup follows her foot into the bath. The water is red. In shock closeup, Milady gasps. In closeup equally large, Rochefort, concealed behind a screen the whole while, smiles. They embrace, murmuring of artful treason, as Lester cuts once again to the water reddened by Rochefort’s wounded hand.
That this shot dissolves into the surreally comic image of a l7th-century “submersible” breaking the surface of the English Channel does not alter the drift events—and filmstyle—are taking. Increasingly, and with the beauty of aesthetic and moral necessity, death begins to reclaim its own in this narrative by Lester out of Dumas. Characters formerly separated by the sprawl of history and Dumas’s teeming invention are drawn together in fatal compacts. Planchet, d’Artagnan’s servant, a terrified wheezing fat man ill-made for travel of any sort, heaves on horseback across a richly flowered field; moments later the man he is riding to meet and warn lies dead at his feet, sprinkled with well-wishers’ posies, his stomach showing through a gap in his fine clothes with boyish and unaccustomed gaucherie. Foppish Aramis, ever making flip references to his preparations for the priesthood, gratuitously slides his blade between the ribs of a winded and disarmed enemy, then closes the fellow’s eyes and makes the Sign of the Cross. The Musketeers occupy a shattered bastion in no-man’s-land at LaRochelle because they need to have a private chat and they’re safer in the middle of a battle where the Cardinal’s spies and Milady’s tricks can’t reach them; they play games with bombs and loaves of bread, and let the enemy obligingly shoot the necks off their champagne bottles, and playfully graze a cannoneer’s rear with a pistol shot; but when they finally retaliate in earnest against their attackers by pushing a masonry wall down on them, the victims don’t get up to roar in comic protest.
Where all this is building, finally, is toward one of the most harrowing and beautiful climaxes I’ve witnessed in films. The ending of “a story to cure a man of love”—and perhaps romance in a larger sense—honors romantic aspiration in fiction, in filmmaking, and in life, and exacts fair payment in audience pain. Comic exceptions are not permitted, though, even here, Lester’s film does not forswear humor: grim (an arquebusier is incinerated in a haywagon set afire by his own fuse), triumphant (Porthos saving Aramis’s life with a preposterous move Aramis had once ridiculed), grotesque (d’Artagnan screaming for Constance and a nun blithely admonishing sssssshh while in the next room a murder may be taking place). There are several devastating payoffs in the last moments of the film; one I can safely mention without giving too much away—for those to whom Dumas’s plot remains unfamiliar—is d’Artagnan’s cosmically enraged, lunging duel with Rochefort, and the moment when he loses his balance, stumbles, and gasps “Oh!—”, the syllable charged with hate, frustration, the fear of failure and a sense of the comic absurdity of taking a pratfall in the midst of the most crucial action of his life; almost four hours of film have prepared for the awesome complexity of that instant on the brink—the stylistic brink The Three Musketeers, in toto, exists to define.
THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, or: The Revenge of Milady Direction: Richard Lester. Screenplay: George Macdonald Fraser, after the novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Cinematography: David Watkin. Production design: Brian Eatwell. Costumes: Yvonne Blake. Fight direction: William Hobbs. Editing: John Victor Smith. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Executive Producer: llya Salkind.
The Players: Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Kinnear, Simon Ward, Michael Gothard, Raquel Welch, Angel del Pozo, Nicole Calfan
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
The Three Musketeers opens with an auspiciousness I haven’t experienced since the first image and chords of 2001: Against a dark, featureless background and in a light that seems to have seeped out of a pearl, a hand seizes the hilt of a heavy sword and slowly draws the blade from its scabbard. Metal rubs against metal with a sense of reawakening; the sound is bigger than it ought normally to be, reverberating in a vault of time. A man poises himself, then leaps to attack another. They play with their swords—not dancing or lunging as if spearing hors d’oeuvres, but swinging, hacking, beads of sweat flashing from them. Suddenly one man’s leap is traced in a dozen luminous outlines of himself. Richard Lester is making movies again.
It’s not immediately apparent what sort of film he’s making—which is, of course, one of the things that make Lester Lester. From such a hip contemporary artist one scarcely expects a straight retelling of the Dumas classic. Not that romanticism hasn’t been violated before: the Ritz Brothers, no less (and certainly no more), played the Musketeers in a 1939 Fox version. Lester’s Goon Show pixilation is frequently in evidence: a servant registering mute pique at Aramis’s incurable penchant for cutting off the candles in idle swordplay; a group of court midgets, each trying to one-up his fellows by having the king select one of his canapés, and all commenting sotto voce on the various court intrigues (“It i’n’t her, I tell ya—she got bigger feet!”); a branding iron and a potato nestling side-by-side in a bed of hot coals. We get an indication of what must be in store when D’Artagnan (Michael York), humiliated by Cardinal Richelieu’s chief henchman Rochefort (Christopher Lee), sets off to avenge his disgrace. Rochefort is riding leisurely away on horseback. Lester moves his camera back to take in the whole arena of D’Artagnan’s revenge, a sort of rural plaza with peasants and workmen browsing about, an intricate superstructure topping a well at left, and Rochefort describing an assured diagonal down through the center of the scene and shot. D’Artagnan runs ahead of his enemy, seizes a handy rope that should swing him right into Rochefort’s lap and send the bully sprawling, and swoops toward his man—and past him. D’Artagnan falls in the mud; Rochefort, without a backward or even a sidelong glance, continues on his way. All right then, Lester’s going to guy the whole business of making a swashbuckler. Who believes in heroes anyway, or possesses the grace of a Fairbanks, or even gives a damn? Bring on the yoks, Dick! And they come—very good ones, too—until, not long afterward, we find D’Artagnan rather accidentally in the company of the Musketeers and in the midst of a duel with more of the Cardinal’s men. One of them charges D’Artagnan; lacking a sword at the moment, our hero leaps up, grabs a clothesline, and starts looping loops as his assailant draws nearer. What’s going to happen: D’Artagnan gets tangled in a sheet? The line breaks? Well, as a matter of fact, the whole thing works out just fine, with D’Artagnan’s heels catching the fellow at just the right instant and knocking him for a loop of his own. Say, what is this?! But the movie makes no comment. And that’s the way it tends to go from there on out, some of the swashes buckling under the weight of their ingenuity and some of them coming off as though the ghosts of Fairbanks and Flynn were giving D’Artagnan a leg up.