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     MEL NEUHAUS

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SHARP AS A STAKE

It’s hard to write about movies that have been written about to the nth degree.  I mean, there are only so many times one can use words like “classic,” “iconic,” “brilliant”…  Of course, it’s a double-edged sword when all of the above is true, and, the reason for this home-video resurrection is a quartet of Hammer Horror (here we go) classics, available for the first time in Blu-Ray.  So, wow!  Yeah, brilliant, classic, iconic.  Go for it!  One of the best B-R releases of the year.  And so it is with great gusto and joy that I announce the Halloween unveiling of Warner Bros. HORROR CLASSICS, VOLUME 1:  4 CHILLING MOVIES FROM HAMMER FILMS.

Please don’t think I’m not excited by this package.  Hell, I’m ecstatic.  Up to now I had not seen a Hammer title in the Blu-Ray format.  That alone is reason for celebration.  The selections themselves span the years 1959-70, covering several prime goth periods in the studio’s history.  Each movie features either Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee (one has both!), and in their quintessential roles – Dr. Frankenstein and Count Dracula, respectively.  Accent on the respect.  The titles in question are all crowd-pleasers:   THE MUMMY, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA.  Two are directed by the king of Hammer directors, Terence Fisher (the remaining pair by Freddie Francis and unsung hero Peter Sasdy).  Two feature gorgeous costar Veronica Carlson, brief lead appearances that nevertheless earned her Scream Queen Hall of Fame status.  All but one have the ubiquitous Hammer veteran Michael Ripper, plus turns by such thespian delights as Felix Aylmer, Rupert Davies, Freddie Jones, Geoffrey Keen, Anthony Higgins, Isla Blair, to name-drop but a few.  Then there is the Technicolor photography – the gold standard for the genre.  Ditto the art direction and set and costume design, music and a spectacular array of beauteous vics, vamps, scamps and tramps (Hammer job descriptions that occasionally encompass all four categories).

Why the two pictures that helped start it all (also both Warner Bros. titles), 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein and 1958’s Horror of Draculawere not included for the U.S. Blu-Ray debut is certainly curious, but a decision I reckon is due to some future special plans.  Don’t quote me, just trying to be logical.  I’ve heard rumors that there’s a European 3-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray of Dracula, containing that long-thought lost censored deterioration footage. Holy crap, holy water and Holy Grail!   And, like the label says, it’s VOLUME ONE.

Truth be told, these movies are so well-made and preserved that I’ve NEVER seen a bad copy on any of ’em, going back to laserdisc (on some) and even before that at Times Square grindhouse double and triple bills (scratched to hell, yeah – but never missing detail or sumptuous non-fading IB color quality).  So how much better can the Blu-Rays be?  In a nutshell:  much.  I was astounded by the upgrade.  While the old DVDs, for example, looked great, the Blu-Rays noticeably ascend several levels higher, providing salivating viewers with an experience just short of third dimension (particularly in THE MUMMY, shot by the terrific Jack Asher).  So grab your torches and harness up the carriage.  We’ve got some work to do!

1959’s THE MUMMY, directed by Terence Fisher, is an odd duck of a movie, to say the least.  After the rousing successes of Hammer’s Frankenstein and Dracula remakes, Universal finally gave the studio the carte blanche go-ahead and, like the grave-robbing archeologists in the movie, pilfer anything they deemed fit from the Hollywood horror factory’s vault.  Why they chose to avoid the plot of the original 1932 Karl Freund/Karloff pic and opted instead to refurbish the B-movie sequel narratives is a head-scratcher.  Suffice to say, it’s jaw-dropping to see Peter Cushing essaying a character created by Dick Foran (they even used the same family name, Banning).  Thank God they wisely kept the time-frame to the Victorian era, and didn’t go with a modern streamlined version.

Of course, THE MUMMY is a textbook example of a comic book plot elevated to a spectacular-looking series of exquisitely composed tableaus.  As is Fisher’s wont (and art), he takes sympathy away from the heroes (as indicated, basically posh grave-robbers) and bestows pathos on the “monster,” in this case a devoted, love-sick Egyptian determined to spend eternity with his deceased pharaoh queen.  The queen (literally an evocation of “drop-dead gorgeous”) is played by the enchanting Yvonne Furneaux, who also doubles as Cushing’s (possibly) reincarnated wife.  Lee, as the tongue-less title character, does a remarkable job, serving up a spinning wheel of emotions via his eyes.  His performance is all the more amazing when coupled with the fact that he was severely injured during the production and was in back-breaking agony under all that makeup and wrappings.  Maybe that explains the genuine look of pain in his expressions.

Cushing, of course, is wonderful – his blue peepers never more azure than in Blu-Ray.  The top-notch supporting cast includes Felix Aylmer, Raymond Huntley, George Woodbridge, Eddie Byrne and Michael Ripper.  Even George Pascal as a sinister high priest gives off a sympathy vibe, obsessed psycho bastard that he is.

The star for me of THE MUMMY is d.p. Jack Asher.  His lavish Technicolor lighting and cinematography defined what became known as the Hammer look, and, here, on Blu-Ray, each frame becomes an ebullient oil painting.  Ironically, Asher’s tenure at Hammer would soon end, as, reportedly the time-is-money front office was pissed by how long he took to light a scene.  Whether this translated to that much loss in revenue is a question I can’t answer; artistically, it was a disastrous decision (although subsequent speedier d.p.’s weren’t exactly cheapjack).  The ancient Egypt music riffs are provided by Franz Reiszenstein, who only composed a handful of film scores, his other genre effort being Sidney Hayer’s excellent 1960 shocker Circus of Horrors.

FYI, the steamy English countryside bog was originally constructed for Hammer’s award-winning black-and-white war drama, Yesterday’s Enemy, starring Stanley Baker.  It’s cool to see it in Technicolor.

1968’s DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was the third Dracula outing with Christopher Lee and, I believe, remains the most successful pic in the studio’s history.  Freddie Francis (who replaced Terence Fisher) does a nice job in telling the grisly tale of how the vengeful vampire extracts payback from the righteous Monsignor (Rupert Davies) who barred the Count from his own castle via a humongous cross.  Sumptuous Veronica Carlson makes her Hammer debut and personifies loveliness as Davies’ niece (and, natch, Drac’s designated victim).  There are some nifty storylines, including Carlson’s likable goofy boyfriend, whose undead destruction instructions fail to work because he’s an atheist.  Some cool support from the usual suspects, comprising of a trampy barmaid-turned-disciple (Barbara Ewing), surly landlord George Cooper, S.Z. Sakall-y innkeeper (Michael Ripper), and others. The unfortunate Ewan Hooper appears as a weak priest, corrupted by Lee.  Unfortunate, as, during its 1968 run at the RKO Coliseum, when early-on the top-dome bald Hooper discovers a bloodied woman’s body shoved up into the interior of a giant church bell, some wisenheimer in the audience, doing a perfect Larry Fine impression, muttered “It was an accident, Moe.”  That ruined his every subsequent appearance for us snarky, sanguinary fans (and, no, it wasn’t me).

On the other hand, the sequence where Lee “initiates” Carlson is about as close to a graphic sex scene as we tweenies had ever witnessed.  We didn’t know why, but afterward we all wanted to smoke cigarettes.

Former cinematographer Francis effectively uses color filters to convey virginity, losing it and abusing it via excellent Technicolor photography from Arthur Grant.  This is all accentuated by a fine James Bernard score.

An unforeseen horror for us American Hammer Boomers was GRAVE’s co-feature, a Christopher Jones youth flick entitled Chubasco.  Apparently everyone who went to this double-feature (and millions did) was exposed and tortured by this low-rent Summer Place pastiche, which, by every surviving viewer’s accounts (including mine), clocked in at around nineteen hours.  A lot of seat squirming, and moans of “Is there no end to this purgatory?” segued into wild cheering and applause once the Hammer main credits for GRAVE dripped down the screen.  I once told Veronica Carlson this story, and the actress had the audacity to burst into laughter, evil siren that she is.  The goth female once-you’ve-had-Drac-there’s-no-going-back fantasy aspect was extended to the U.S. posters featuring a bosomy top-half of a negligée-draped blonde, sporting a band-aid across her jugular:  DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE the one-sheets announced, and then, in lower letters, “Obviously.” Those were the days.

1969’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is perhaps my favorite of the series; it’s certainly the nastiest (which, I guess, says something about me).  Forget the kinder, gentler Cushing you saw evolving in the previous three entries.  The movie opens with him calmly chopping the head off an innocent fellow medical practitioner (well, as innocent as a doctor can be) from out of the doorway of a dark, foggy street.  Of course, this perfectly concurs with director Fisher’s view that the “monsters” in his movies are rarely the actual creatures, but their exploiters and (in this case) creator.  Cushing is on the verge of revolutionary brain surgery, but his revered associate has gone mad.  So he kidnaps the screwy sawbones from a mental institution to repair the “insanity.”  But there’s an accident, and the formerly brilliant, now crazed inmate is killed.  Cushing must find another body pronto, so he simply murders another doctor, transplants the brain and then really starts to operate.  Pure cold, analytical science; no remorse, but plenty of waspish anger and impatience.  How incredible that one still cares about this loathsome character at all – a nod to the infinite acting abilities of Peter Cushing.

The only thing worse than the uncaring apathy of Dr. Frankenstein are the fools who represented the medical profession during that period (hey, how ‘bout that thing called anesthesia?).  Worse, the evil doctor has blackmailed a drug-dealing med student (Simon Ward) and his fiancée (another stunning turn by Carlson), coincidentally Frankenstein’s landlady, into helping him.  Freddie Jones almost steals the show from Cushing, as the pathetic victim of his contemporary’s whacked experiments.  Kudos, too, to Thorley Walters and Geoffrey Bayldon as a befuddled police chief and his M.E., Maxine Audley as the suffering wife of the reanimated cerebellum and George Pravda as its original host.  Fisher’s direction is superb, as is the cinematography by Arthur Grant and James Bernard music.  The script by Bert Batt (from an original story by Batt and Anthony Nelson-Keys) is quite literate and often witty, with barbs sharp enough to make Cushing’s incisions.

There’s of course the notoriety about the picture concerning the infamous rape sequence.  Supposedly, it was added to the script while the movie was already in production (a sign of the lax censorship times).  As unscrupulous as Frankenstein had become, both Cushing and Carlson had reservations, and were quite uncomfortable about it.  Nevertheless it was shot and promptly snipped out for the U.S. release by Warner Bros., who knew it might mean a new “R” rating, thereby squelching a huge portion of their intended youth market (it is intact on this Blu-Ray).

The movie is rightly considered a classic by horror fans, especially the Hammer contingent.  Ironic that bat-shit-raving brain surgeons had to once spout their lunacy in secrecy to avoid detection; today they run for President.

1970’s TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA is one of the best of the studio’s later titles.  No accident that it was directed by Peter Sasdy, who certainly deserves mucho praise.  Sasdy helmed one of my favorite twilight Hammers, 1971’s Hands of the Ripper, and many of the inventive cinematic flourishes that made that picture a superior horror entry are evident in TASTE.

The picture begins with a bang…well, a thud.  Portly loudmouth traveling salesman (a bravura turn by Roy Kinnear) is so offensive that he’s tossed out of the coach by an obviously mentally challenged fellow passenger.  Lost in a Bavarian forest, he stumbles upon the last scene of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, and, in true Mr. Haney fashion, hurriedly runs off with the undead Count’s remains (mercifully before the next showing of Chubasco).

Forward to Victorian England, and a trio of uptight, pious fake Christian businessmen (Geoffrey Keen, Peter Sallis, John Carson) who treat their families with the compassion of Mr. Murdstone, particularly the females of the household.  No surprise that their “helping the poor” outings in the East End comprise frequenting a kinky bordello, catering to the super rich.  It is there that they meet disgraced Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates, in his first Hammer appearance).  Among other things, Courtley was disinherited for turning the family chapel into a Black Mass retreat.  Impoverished, but living off the debauched whores who are thrilled by his “knowledge,” the arrogant nobleman offers the triad of wankers the ecstasy kick of a lifetime if they purchase some trinkets from Kinnear’s private stock.

The narrative, according to various sources, was to be wholly concentrated on Bates’ character until Warners demanded another Lee/Dracula.  So Bates’ resurrection of the Count isn’t mere possession, but total reanimation (but not before the perverted Victorians kill Courtley out of fear).  This naturally upsets Vlad, who vows revenge – the most satisfying route via the corruption of their children, especially the gorgeous daughters.  Keen, the most evil of the bunch, has sired no less than the Jungle Red nail polish on The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Linda Hayden.  Her virginal innocence is a preamble to the one of the sweetest demon woman transformations since Bad Maria in Metropolis.  Reveling in post-vampiric euphoria, Hayden entraps her BFF and, justifiably, her sadistic pater. Gosh, she’s swell!  It’s all served up in lush Technicolor photography by Arthur Grant and beautiful James Bernard music (some of his finest themes, in fact).

For those who relish a vintage sup o’horror, one is hard-pressed to find a better repast than this Blu-Ray collection. If ya can’t “treat” it in time for Halloween, keep the set mind for the year’s remaining upcoming holidays.

HORROR CLASSICS, VOLUME 1:  FOUR CHILLING MOVIES FROM HAMMER FILMS.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1 on “The Mummy,” 1.85:1 on the rest]; 1080p High Definition].  DTS-HD MA 1.0.  Warner Home Video/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.  CAT# 1000543129.  SRP:  $54.95.


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IN HOLLYWOOD

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