I am perhaps a little biased, having grown up with these movies on television – they were among my first introduction to the world of horror, something tacitly tolerated by my mother, who remembers seeing some of the Hammer movies at the cinema when they came out. While not including any of the “true classic” Hammer movies – and, in fact, Christopher Lee is conspicuous by his complete absence – this is still a worthy purchase. There’s a good variety of titles present here, touching most of the bases which made the studio one of the linch-pins of British cinema in the sixties: if not perhaps the most critically-acclaimed at the time, commercially successful to the point that the studio would win a Queen’s Award for Industy in 1968. These titles are from somewhat earlier, covering the period from 1960 (Brides of Dracula) through 1964 (The Evil of Frankenstein and Nightmare), with the directors including the two names most associated with the studio, Freddie Francis and Terence Fisher.
While the complete lack of extras on these movies is disappointing, there can be no complaints about the quality of the prints used, or the transfers, both of which are excellent: aspect ratio and colors are both spot-on, and as a result, even when the films are a little tedious, you can admire the cinematography, which is never less than luscious. As we head towards the fiftieth anniversary of their original releases, the majority of them stand the test of time pretty well. The one thing which stands out here is how good most of the performances were, anchored by the ever-reliable Peter Cushing, who takes concepts which could easily be described as ridiculous, and sells them through sheer acting chops. But the likes of Oliver Reed, regular Michael Ripper and Patrick Allen all step up to the mark, and it’s easy to see why, even now, Hammer is among the most venerated names in the genre. Despite a dud or two, this box-set is highly-recommended for lovers of classic horror.
Brides of Dracula (1960)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Star: Yvonne Monlaur, Peter Cushing, David Peel, Freda Jackson
Turns out, I’d already reviewed this one a decade ago. Fortunately, it looks like it ended up receiveing the same grade as I was going to give it here, so I’m clearly being consistent! Let’s start off with that review, and we’ll then expand things a bit, with some contemporary thoughts.
[July 2010 review] Christopher Lee was not involved in making the sequel to Dracula, but Hammer wasn’t willing to let such a profitable property go to its rest, so brought the cheaper Peel in to play a blood-sucker instead. His Baron Meinster is kept chained up by his mother, until inadvertently released by Marianne Danielle (Monlaur). She’s a teacher on her way to a new position, who doesn’t realize the evil that lurks within his elegant frame. He follows Marianne to the ladies’ school where she works, which has the potential to provide an all-you-can-eat buffet for the Baron. Fortunately, Doctor Van Helsing (Cushing) is in the area, ready to martial the forces of light, as the dead bodies start to pile up around the village, and the local girls start developing unpleasant habits – such as hissing loudly and an aversion to crosses.
Peel is the George Lazenby of Dracula movies – this was his only appearance, and it’s easy to see why he was dumped, possessing none of the screen presence Lee brought to the role, instead coming more from the Robert Pattinson school of performances. There are also some totally cringeworthy bat effects, which completely derail the movie’s atmosphere whenever they are used: the IMDB says, “The prop department put a lot of effort into making a realistic model bat. It got lost and had to be replaced on short notice.” No kidding. The script plays terribly fast and loose with vampire lore and has some gaping holes, apparently due to multiple writers – for instance, the fate of the titular brides is conspicuous by its complete absence.
Fortunately, the other aspects of the movie are good to excellent, led by a surprisingly-actiony Cushing, who also brings his usual gravitas to things, selling effectively what is often a fairly ludicrous concept. The scene where he wakes from unconsciousness, realizes he has been infected, and what he must do as a result, is great, and surprisingly hardcore for its time. Monlaur provides attractive window-dressing, and the whole thing is just beautifully shot by Jack Asher. These qualities certainly overpower the flaws, and this is an enjoyable slice of nonsense, with Cushing’s typically marvellous performance at its core.
[Also starring: Mona Washbourne, who plays Frau Lang, the wife of the school-owner, portrayed Henry Higgins’ housekeeper in My Fair Lady.]
I’m quite surprised it took Hammer two and a half years to get round to releasing a sequel, considering what a smash the original film was. For comparison, The Revenge of Frankenstein came out barely a year after its predecessor, despite similarly having to make do without Christopher Lee. It appears he was unwilling to reprise the role of Dracula for fear of becoming typecast: probably justifiable, given what happened subsequently, though his career is not short of other memorable parts. His absence is certainly felt here, in particular when Baron Meinster bares his fangs. Lee was able to do so, while remaining both threatening and classy. Peel looks as if he’s auditioning for a role as a demonstrator in a joke-shop.
It takes more than half an hour before Van Helsing shows up. Until then, the film focuses on Marianne, and in general the film does live up its title. Between her, the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), the Baron’s “familiar” Greta (Freda Jackson) and Andree Melly as another bride, it’s impressive gynocentric for a horror film from the beginning of the sixties. Admittedly, they are still defined in the title as spouses of a guy who isn’t even in the film. Of course, Hammer would make further entries about female vampires in a decade or so – even recycling the girls’ school setting. This, however, is considerably more chaste, and without lesbian canoodling. Indeed, the Baron nibbling on Van Helsing’s neck arguably is one of the more homoerotic moments in the company’s filmography. Their female vampires regularly snacked down on the same sex; their men did so, very rarely.
I’m not quite so sure about the finale, in which Van Helsing leaps onto the vanes of a windmill, making them form a shadow that incinerates the Baron. In previous films, and indeed, earlier in this one, while a brandished crucifix is capable of repelling vampires, there’s no indication of them being fatal. As Chris noted, there’s also something a little Ku Klux Klan-esque about the triumphant display of a burning cross with which the film finishes. Perhaps it’s a result of this ending not being the initial one. The original plan to destroy the Baron with a swarm of bats was discarded for reasons of cost (seeing how dreadful their one bat was, thank heavens!). And Cushing also vetoed the part where Van Helsing used black magic, declaring that not in keeping with the character. Save that kind of stuff for the Duke de Richelieu.
All told, this isn’t quite as good as the first, yet stands on its own more than adequately. I understand why Hammer opted to include the D word in the title, yet doing so inevitably means it can’t be considered “on its own”, and suffers in the comparison. Lee has become such an icon and archetype, it’s hard to watch someone else attempt to fill his cloak in the studio’s output, whether as a vampire by any other name. And if the Baron’s castle exterior looks oddly familiar, that’ll probably be because it’s Hammer staple location, Oakley Court. Even if you haven’t seen any of their films, you may still recognize it as Frank’s castle from The Rocky Horror Picture Show!
This review is part of Hammer Time, our series covering Hammer Films from 1955-1979.
Captain Clegg (1962)
Dir: Peter Graham Scott
Star: Peter Cushing, Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain
a.k.a. Night Creatures
This is one which I had previously reviewed, so let’s start with what I thought about the film a decade ago.
In 1776, notorious smuggler Captain Clegg is eluding the British Navy. After one of the crew attacks his wife, the mulatto perpetrator has his tongue cut out and is dumped on a deserted island to die. However, the Navy, under Captain Collier (Allen), rescue him and he joins them. 16 years later, Collier is investigating smugglers based in the coastal village of Dymchurch, where Clegg’s grave lies. The mulatto leaps at Dr. Blyss (Cushing), the local parson, apparently enraged – but the illiterate mute is unable to explain his actions to Collier. It hardly counts as a spoiler to reveal that Blyss is actually Clegg, who faked his death at the hangman’s hands, to start a new life doing good [Well, if you discount his position as the head of the local smugglers, I suppose]. To add spice, the local squire’s son, Harry (Reed), has set his cap at Imogene (Romain), Clegg’s “orphan” daughter. That is not to the tastes of her guardian, who is also at odds with Blyss over the running of the gang.
Though Hammer were best known for their Dracula and Frankenstein horror movies, this is a lesser-known item in their collection, Cushing and Allen giving first-class performances as the adversaries. Blyss/Clegg is an ambiguous character, somewhat like Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein. We also enjoyed the luminescent skeletal costumes worn by the smugglers, even if this felt like something from Scooby-Doo. [Did they really have glow-in-the-dark paint in 1792? I doubt it.] Director Scott wasn’t a Hammer regular, but then, this is more of a swashbuckler than their usual fare, and he acquits himself well enough. While I can’t say the romance between Harry and Imogene sets the screen on fire, it’s there mostly to show Clegg’s humanity as the film heads towards its climax. The moral ambiguity here is quite startling given its time, and the production values are good enough to pull off the period atmosphere. If slightly out of the norm for the studio, it’s a solid piece of action-drama.
[Also starring: Allen also did the voice-over work for the UK government’s Protect and Survive films, which brought him fresh renown in the 1980’s as the voice-over on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes: “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear…”]
Technically, this is a remake of the 1937 film Doctor Syn, though no such character exists by that name here. This is because its predecessor was adapted from the series of books by Russell Thorndike, the first of which, Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, was published in 1915. At about the same time Hammer bought the rights to remake the movie, a rather larger studio bought the film rights to the books. As they say, you don’t fuck with the mouse, and after “discussions”, it was Disney who got to proceed with the character. The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, starring Patrick McGoohan, became part of their Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color TV series, and was released theatrically in Britain as Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow. Meanwhile, Hammer were allowed to go on, under the condition they had to alter the name of their lead character.
I probably wasn’t as impressed this time round, though not enough to merit adjusting the grade above. Some of the day-for-night work here is flat-out terrible, with scenes taking place in what looks like bright sunshine, when it is supposed to be the depths of darkness. Between the phosphorescent paint and the marshes, it feels too much like Hound of the Baskervilles, though we don’t get as much of the “falling into a bog” thing as I expected. The romance between Harry and Imogene also felt bolted on and serving no particular purpose, particularly since they get shuffled quickly out of the movie shortly before the climax. And the less said about Cushing’s unfortunate hairstyle, the better.
If you watch the opening, you would be forgiven be expecting a pirate movie, but the film then jumps forward sixteen years, and becomes closer in tone and content to something like Jamaica Inn, pitting smugglers, largely supported by the locals, against the authorities [Later the same year, Hammer would deliver a more traditional genre entry, with The Pirates of Blood River, again starring Reed] It does feel it works best when it is directly pitting the two sides against each other. I certainly found on this viewing, it had too much wandering around the Romney Marshes, hardly a picturesque setting.
On the other hand, it was nice to see Hammer regular Michael Ripper getting a bit more to do than usual. He plays the village undertaker, and makes a particularly jovial mortician, even though he sleeps in one of his own coffins. The conflict between Dr. Blyss and Capt. Collier is nicely handled, with Blyss’s over-politeness to his adversary effectively shaking him warmly with one hand, while slapping him across the face with the other. Despite my qualms above, the glow-in-the-dark stuff – one of the elements added by Hammer for their adaptation – is effective, and so is the use of the human scarecrow.
Despite the star presence of Cushing, this was released in June 1962 on the lower half of a Hammer double-bill, a supporting feature to their Phantom of the Opera adaptation, and with the title changed to Night Creatures in the United States. Still, it seems the lead actor enjoyed playing the character, to such an extent that some sources claim he made his one and only foray into the script-writing field on behalf of Dr. Blyss, penning a sequel. It would certainly have been interesting to see, though given his fate at the end, I am curious how it might have worked. Other sources say what Cushing did, was work on a version of a script for this film, with his wife Helen, and even drew some concept watercolour art for the look of the character. That would appear to be more plausible.
This review is part of Hammer Time, our series covering Hammer Films from 1955-1979.
The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Star: Clifford Evans, Oliver Reed, Catherine Feller, Warren Mitchell
Probably inevitable that Hammer would eventually go down the road of lycanthropy, though it doesn’t appear this was a commercial success. I imagine they were hoping to launch another horror franchise, but instead, it was one and done: Hammer would never make another werewolf film. Perhaps the cost of licensing put them off, for rather than going the public domain route, as with Dracula and Frankenstein, the studio actually paid for the rights to Guy Endore’s 1933 novel, The Werewolf of Paris. Producer Anthony Hinds wrote the adaptation under his John Elder pseudonym, though there were some hefty changes from the source material.
The most obvious of these is a wholesale shift in time and place, from 1870’s Paris, to the Spain of about a century earlier. This was a business decision by Hammer. They had been working on sets for The Rape of Sabena, a film set during the Spanish Inquisition which was intended to become a double-feature partner for Curse. However, the plug was yanked on that production: reports blame various entities for this, including the British censors, their American distribution partners Columbia, or even the Catholic League of Decency. Regardless, the sets were there, and rather than just tear them down, it was decided by Hammer to relocate their hirsute hero to the southern side of the Pyrenees and make use of the work already carried out.
Much of the political content from the novel also went; the book was set in the Paris Commune, the radical socialist government which briefly ruled France’s capital. However, it has to be said, the portrayal of the ruling classes in Hinds’s adaptation is almost universally harsh, as we’ll see. What also survives from the novel to the movie, is that both protagonist are the product of rape, and as they grow up, experience increasingly violent dreams, which are actually memories of experiences and crimes committed while in their lupine form. Love – whether in the form of a family or a good woman – can repress the blood-lust. However, neither book nor film have this leading to a happy ending; the former has the hero commit suicide, while the movie has an equally tragic conclusion.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, by quite a long way. Before Olly Reed even shows up, which doesn’t happen until around 48 minutes in, the film features not one but two extended prologues. The first of these depicts the conceptual sexual assault. A beggar shows up at the court of Marques Siniestro on the latter’s wedding day, and an off-colour remark gets him tossed into a dungeon. You may recognize the footman who lets the beggar in. He’s played by Desmond Llewellyn, shortly to achieve fame as Q in the Bond movies. Amusingly, Anthony Dawson, who portrays the Marques, would appear alongside Llewellyn as Blofeld, in From Russia With Love and Thunderball. So here, you basically have Q being Blofeld’s flunky…
A bit of HispanoTotty who subsequently refuses the Marquis’s advances, gets thrown in beside the beggar, and unpleasantness ensues. She escapes and is found by the kindly Don Alfredo Corledo (Evans), but dies in childbirth on Christmas Day – the last makes for a “cursed” child, according to the Don’s helpful housekeeper, Señora Wikipedia. I may have made that name up, though judging by the way the water in the baptismal font boils, she’s not wrong. This takes us to the half-hour mark, and into the second prologue. Something (or someone) is tearing out throats of the local livestock, and it turns out to be the young Leon Corledo (Justin Walters, who does look impressively like a pre-pubescent version of Reed). For an incident on a hunting trip has awakened his inner animal, and given the boy a taste for blood.
Local inn-keeper come huntsman Pepe Valiente (Mitchell. who’d later play Alf Garnett – for American readers, that’s the original, British version of Archie Bunker) is convinced he shot the “wolf”. Eventually, not least due to little Leon’s hairy palms, Don Alfredo puts two and two together. However, the local priest tells him, “Whatever weakens the spirit of the beast – warmth, fellowship, love – raise the human soul,” and give it a chance to exorcise the unwanted elements. And, for a decade or so, a good family environment keeps the wolf from Leon’s door. Though Pepe never forgets, wearing a silver bullet crafted from his wife’s crucifix around his neck.
Finally, well into the second half, we reach the main plot. Leon (Reed) has grown up, and is moving out to work in the wine cellar of Don Fernando Gomez. There is quickly a mutual attraction with Don Fernando’s daughter, Christina (Feller), though she is betrothed to another unflattering portrayal of the upper classes, chinless wonder Rico Gomez. After apparently losing her, Leon goes to drown his sorrows with a workmate art a local brothel on the night of the full moon. Again, quoting the priest: “Whatever weakens the human soul – vice, greed, hatred, solitude – these bring the spirit of the wolf to the fore.” Leon, in wolf form, kills his colleague and a prostitute (though the scene depicted in the publicity still, top, never comes to pass), and despite intervention by both Don Alfredo and Christina, is jailed for the murders.
Mere iron bars are not enough to keep him inside, and he breaks out, rampaging up and down the town’s buildings like a parkour lycanthrope, pursued by the traditional mob with torches. With no way out, Don Alfredo uses Pepe’s bullet to slay Leon. It’s a sad ending, the film’s sympathies having been entirely with the werewolf, who is depicted as a victim of circumstance, his fate likely sealed at conception. Reed is excellent in the role, but the structure is a real problem, with things simply taking too long to reach the meat of the situation. What takes more than 45 minutes to tell, could have been done in ten, with the movie expanding instead on Leon’s adult struggles.
In some ways, you can see why Hammer decided not to revisit this particular monster: it’s not one which renders itself to much variation. If you look at cinema history, werewolf films tend largely to be much of a muchness, in contrast to a much broader swathe of vampire movies, covering everything from Nosferatu to The Lost Boys. The transformation scene poses another problem, one to which special effects would not be able to do justice, until the early eighties, after Hammer had ceased to be. But given these constraints, this is by no means bad, and does tragic justice to its protagonist in a way most other entries in the werewolf genre can’t match.
This review is part of Hammer Time, our series covering Hammer Films from 1955-1979.
The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
Dir: Freddie Francis
Star: Peter Cushing, Sandor Eles, Peter Woodthorpe, Katy Wild
“He has a good brain and excellent eyes. I won’t tell you where I got them, but I assure you they are perfect.” Only Peter Cushing could manage to deliver that line – which appears to have strayed in from Young Frankenstein – with perfect comic timing, yet also make work the Baron’s mournful plea, “Why can’t they leave me alone? Why can’t they ever leave me alone?” Despite this evidence of Cushing’s immaculate range, the film itself is a disappointment. Most of it takes place in and around Karlstaad, a town from where the Baron was driven previously. He returns there, having also being dispatched from another town, because he hopes to sell his possessions and regroup, only to find they were “confiscated” by local authorities. Although he locates his creation, frozen in a nearby glacier and opts to set up shop again, the brain remains inanimate. He recruits hypnotist Professor Zoltan (Woodthorpe), to re-activate the monster’s brain, but his new accomplice decides to use it for his own, less academic purposes, of robbery and revenge.
While Cushing is, as noted, his usual fine self, the rest of the film isn’t up to the same standard. There’s too much concentration during the first-half on the mechanics of the re-animation, Frankenstein and his sidekick (Eles) running about their laboratory, flipping switches. Then, it diverts later into the hijacking of the monster by Zoltan, which is not really very interesting either. The script basically throws out the window all the events of the previous Frankenstein Hammers, and the make-up job looks like Boris Karloff undergoing a poorly-executed facial [not the only aspect so borrowed, which may be connected to the then-close ties between Hammer and Universal]. Truth be told, there is precious little “evil of Frankenstein” to be seen here – it’s clearly Zoltan who is the bad guy, and he’s not an adequate focus. Frankenstein is largely relegated to the sidelines until the ending, which must have disappointed the torch-wielding mob as much as it disappointed me. Possibly the weakest of Hammer’s Frankenstein efforts.
[Also starring: Woodthorpe provided the voice of Gollum, both in Ralph Bakshi’s animated film and the BBC radio version of Lord of the Rings.]
Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
Dir: Don Sharp
Star: Edward de Souza, Jennifer Daniel, Clifford Evans, Noel Willman
In the introduction, I wrote a bit about how much Hammer relied on getting good performances from stalwarts like Peter Cushing. Well, here’s a prime example, because rarely has he been so greatly missed. Clifford Evans’ Professor Zimmer, an alcoholic vampire-hunter who bears a strong resemblance to Coffin Joe, icon of the Brazillian horror genre, starts strongly by drunkenly gatecrashing a funeral to impale the vampiric corpse with a shovel. But it’s all downhill from there, with Evans proving incapable of selling the basic concept. Similarly, Dr. Ravna (Willman), leader of the vampire cult, lacks the screen presence and feral intensity of Christopher Lee. Newly-married couple Gerald and Marianne (De Souza and Daniel), who fall into his clutches after their car runs out of gas and they are forced to take shelter at a nearby inn, are basically entirely forgettable.
There are some interestingly paranoid scenes after Marianne is kidnapped by Dr. Ravna for induction into his clan, and Gerald is met with stonewalled denials of her entire existence. Everyone claims he arrived alone, until the Professor confirms what’s happened, to Gerald’s huge relief. But that kind of psychological cat-and-mouse play isn’t why you watch Hammer movies, and this is just too well-mannered, with dinner parties and masked balls instead of bodice-ripping and throat-draining. And what’s up with another dreadfully-executed bat-attack sequence? Here, there’s a whole flock of the things which tear into the vamps, as a massive chiroptera ex machina. It was originally supposed to have formed the climax of Brides of Dracula, until Cushing objected. On seeing them here, in all their rubbery glory, I can see why, and am fully behind him…
[Also starring: Well, this one’s pretty thin on the ground, in people who’d go on to anything else – it was less a stepping-stone than a millstone, I think. Evans had a regular role in late sixties’ boardroom drama, The Power Game, as building tycoon Caswell Bligh. Nope, I’ve never really heard of it either.]
Dir: Freddie Francis
Star: David Knight, Jennie Linden, Moira Redmond, Brenda Bruce
There are some things that aren’t actually much fun to watch on-screen, but it’s a lesson film-makers have difficulty learning. Taking drugs would be top of the list, but based on this one, “going mad” can surely not be far behind. Highly-strung teenager Janet (Linden) is sent home from school, as her nightmares are disturbing the other pupils. Turns out her mother went mad, stabbed her father and had to be locked up in a local asylum: Janet is concerned she inherited whatever caused the insanity. Things don’t get much better at home, despite the presence of nurse Grace Maddox (Redmond). Janet continues to see things, culminating in her fatally stabbing the wife of family lawyer Henry Baxter (Knight) at a birthday party – which results in the girl being consigned to the same asylum as her mother. However, it turns out this was all a plan by Baxter to get rid of his wife, so he can marry Grace. But when they move into the family home, Grace starts to suspect her new husband might have similar plans for her…
The main aspect of interest is the abrupt shift in focus in the middle of the film, clearly inspired by the similar change from Marion Crane to Norman Bates in Psycho, as the movie swings from Janet to Henry. It’s this middle section that contains most potential, with Francis pulling off the change with some aplomb. Unfortunately, the front and final portions are a good deal less interesting, Janet and Grace staggering around the house, looking disturbed and frequently shrieking at the top of their lungs – Chris was in the office, commenting afterwards, “What were you watching? There was an awful lot of screaming…” and it’s probably fair comment. The necessary plot-points are established with enough efficiency that by the time the third or fourth titular sequence comes into play, you have to suppress an urge to yell, “Enough, already!” at the screen. With all respect to Francis, Hitchcock he ain’t, and any efforts to prove otherwise, such as this, are doomed to fail.
[Also starring: George Cooper, who portays chauffeur John, also played caretaker Mr Griffiths for many years in Grange Hill.]
Dir: Freddie Francis
Star: Janette Scott, Oliver Reed, Alexander Davion, Sheila Burrell
After the economic failure of Phantom of the Opera, Hammer switched back to smaller projects, with long-time scribe Jimmy Sangster writing a series of psychological horrors, without the expensive period trappings. This one centers on the dysfunctional Ashby family: the parents died in an accident, and teenage son Tony took his life a few years later. Now there’s mentally-troubled Eleanor (Scott) and drunken rake Simon (Reed), who is looking forward to getting his inheritance, instead of relying on the disapproving family lawyer who administers the trust fund. It’s be even nicer if he could get Eleanor committed as insane… However, that hope is derailed when Tony apparently returns from the dead, after eight years – just in time to take over the family. But it is the “real” Tony or an impostor? And if it’s the latter, at whose behest has the cuckoo been inserted into the nest?
It’s ironic to see Reed playing an alcoholic asshole, given that’s basically what he became for the majority of his later life. Sangster’s script pulls off a number of twists that I didn’t see coming, though the ending appears to abandon all semblance of sanity and heads into Gothic loopiness. While not all bad – it gives Reed the chance to engage in some excellent, manic face-pulling – it doesn’t really fit with the tone set in the opening 70 minutes, which are much more prosaic and down-to-earth. Indeed, you could say that Reed doesn’t really fit with the rest of the performances, which are a good deal more laid-back by comparison. Interesting that Hammer also went back to black-and-white for this one: whether as a cost-cutting measure, or to invoke comparisons with Psycho is hard to say, but it’s quite effectively used. Even though I watched this at the end of a really long day, it kept me awake and adequately interested, when a lesser film would have failed to stave off unconsciousness.
[Also starring: Maurice Denham, who plays family lawyer Mr. Kossett, had a long career as a character actor. His voice, from Night of the Demon, is heard on the opening of the Kate Bush song, “Hounds of Love”: “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!”]
The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Dir: Terence Fisher
Star: Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Edward de Souza, Michael Gough
[Original review] What? No songs? Yeah, we kept breaking into Music of the Night through this one, but it’s not really the film’s fault that I’m listening to the Lloyd-Webber soundtrack as I write this. The story shouldn’t need much description, but there are some interesting differences from other versions. Here, the Phantom (Lom) is actually a disgruntled composer, who sold the publishing rights for his work to Lord D’Arcy (Gough), only to have him claim the compositions as his own and publish them. An accident involving nitric acid at the printers leads to the Phantom’s disfigurement and seclusion in the opera house, from where he sabotages D’Arcy’s attempts to stage the opera. But he is seduced by the voice of Christine (Sears), and kidnaps her to teach her the proper delivery of his work. For obvious reasons, that disturbs her boyfriend, theatrical producer Harry Hunter (de Souza), who heads off into the sewers beneath the theatre in search of his missing beloved.
There’s not much threat to this Phantom, who comes over as an almost entirely sympathetic figure, especially at the end, where his behaviour is positively heroic. If there’s a villain in the piece, it’s D’Arcy, who oozes with slime as he tries to convince Christine to go back to his apartment for a little late-night “singing practice.” The film seems to be building towards a confrontation between him and the Phantom, particularly given their previous history, but this angle is never fully-developed. The other aspect I was surprised to see omitted is that there is absolutely no romantic chemistry between the Phantom and Christine: he is just her teacher, and appears to be from the Jack Bauer school of music tuition. He slaps her about, makes her sing scales until she falls into unconsciousness, then pours sewer water on her to revive her – he makes Simon Cowell seem gentle in comparison. Like the rest of the film, it’s a different approach from every other adaptation, but the various pieces never quite come together in the way that they should, and the result is a good deal less than the sum of the parts.
[Also starring: The rat-catcher who gets stabbed in the eye is Patrick Troughton, the second incarnation of Doctor Who]
At one point, Universal had intended to do a version of Gaston Leroux’s novel in-house, but after seeing the success of Dracula, turned the project over to Hammer. They took their time: originally announced in February 1959, this took more than three years to reach the screen. At one point, Cary Grant, who had expressed interest in working for Hammer, was linked to the project. He’d certainly have made an interesting Phantom: I imagine the romantic aspects might well have been played up if that had come to pass. Instead, the role went to the future Chief Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther films. Lom said of his role, “The Phantom wasn’t given enough to do, but at least I wasn’t the villain.”
That was played by Gough, who looks a bit like Benedict Cumberbatch. He makes for a decent, and very hissable, bad guy though never receives the comeuppance which he deserves. Towards the end, Lord D’Arcy is confronted by the Phantom, and rips off his mask, only to run off like a little aristocratic bitch at the sight of the acid-scarred face beneath. That’s it. The film largely limps to a conclusion thereafter, with far too much operatic faffing about for the climax of a horror film. However, Sears does a good job of faking her singing, lip-syncing to the track provided by soprano Patricia Clark.
As well as a B-literary horror villain in the Phantom, the rest of the cast are largely Hammer’s B-roster too, with any number of faces you’ll vaguely recognize from elsewhere. Marne Maitland, Thorley Walters and the ever-present Michael Ripper (as a cabby) are among the regulars in supporting or cameo roles here. Apart from the man who’d become Doctor Who as noted above, perhaps the most notable presence is one of the opera house cleaning ladies. She is played by Miriam Karlin: a decade later, she’d be the cat lady killed by Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
It’s nice that the Phantom is not entirely alone in his lair beneath the venue. Perhaps in a hangover from the Cary Grant plans, he has a dwarf minion who gets to do all the bad stuff, while his master maintains distance and plausible deniability. This henchman was the one who saved the Phantom, after his unfortunate encounter with nitric acid led to him leaping into the Thames and being flushed into the sewers. It’s a bit of a weird relationship, about which I’d have liked to know more.
Fisher brings his usual lush eye to proceedings, and it feels as is Hammer pushed the boat out a bit further than usual, with regard to expenses. Some of their period pieces feel obviously limited, but that seems less so here. Having an actual opera house – no longer apparently in Paris – probably helps there. That part went to Wimbledon Theatre; in 1999, I saw Leslie Grantham and Bonnie Langford (another Who connection) in Peter Pan there. In hindsight, I’m a bit disappointed that performance did not conclude with anyone being crushed beneath a chandelier.
If the production values and performances are fine, it’s the story which drops the ball, with no real sense of conflict and mixed messages as to who the antagonist is supposed to be. Additionally, it has one of the most abrupt endings in Hammer history. Oh, they rarely hung around, to be sure, but this one goes from full-steam ahead to end credits rolling in less than 30 seconds, in a particularly jarring way. Combined with a lack of resolution for D’Arcy, it is an unsatisfactory way to leave your audience. While not irredeemable, the film’s lack of success at the time is completely understandable.
This review is part of Hammer Time, our series covering Hammer Films from 1955-1979.