Friday, 30 March 2012
PETER CUSHING SAT ON THE SEA WALL IN WHITSTABLE NEAR HIS SEA FRONT HOME IN SEASALTER. THIS AREA WAS SOON TO BE NAMED, 'CUSHING'S VIEW'. PETER IS STILL WEARING HIS BEARD THAT HE GREW IN HOPE OF SOON MAKING 'THE ABBOT'S CRY' SHERLOCK HOLMES FILM FOR TYBURN FILMS. A PROJECT THAT SADLY NEVER CAME TO FRUITION.
Thursday, 29 March 2012
Many recordings of Peter's television work have been lost to us. The BBC's spring clean several years ago put pay to much of it. Thirty Eight years ago this EASTER, Sunday April 14th, 1974, Peter Cushing appeared in a Easter Holiday series of programmes on TV in the UK. Peter's programme was entitled, 'WHAT WAS HE LIKE'. Peter was invited to share his ideas about the life of Christ. The programme was broadcast and stored, the television company lost it's franchise and then like many others, lost it's archive. I've tried over the years to track down this programme, but haven't even come close. But, here is a photograph taken of the TV screen, during that programme's transmission. It is I think, all that remains of that particular entry in Peter's long list of television credits. My apologies for the quality of the photograph, this was before domestic video recording...but I thought you'd like to see it.
Wednesday, 28 March 2012
'THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA' HAMMER FILM PRODUCTIONS (1973)
FULL COLOUR TRANSPARENCY: 2080 X 1379
Peter Cushing (Lorrimer Van Helsing), Christopher Lee (Count Dracula/D.D. Denham), William Franklyn (Torrence), Michael Coles (Inspector Murray), Joanna Lumley (Jessica Van Helsing), Freddie Jones (Professor Julian Keeley), Barbara Yu Ling (Chin Yang), Valerie Ost (Jane), Richard Vernon (Colonel Matthews), Patrick Barr (Lord Carradine)
PRODUCTION CREW:Director – Alan Gibson, Screenplay – Don Houghton, Producer – Roy Skeggs, Photography – Brian Probyn, Music – John Cavacas, Special Effects – Les Bowie, Makeup – George Blackler, Art Direction – Lionel Couch. Production Company – Hammer/EMI.
A VERY NICE PIECE OF VINTAGE ASIAN PROMOTION BILL FOR AMICUS FILMS 'THE SKULL' BECAUSE THESE WERE JUST HANDED OUT IN THE STREETS, WRAPPED AROUND FOOD OR USED TO LINE THE CAT TRAY (!)...VERY FEW SURVIVE. A LITTLE PRECURSOR TO NEXT WEEKS FEATURE ON PETER CUSHING'S 'THE SKULL'...
Director: Robert Day, Screenplay: David T. Chantler, Based on the Novel by H. Rider Haggard, Producer: Michael Carreras, Photography: Harry Waxman, Music: James Bernard, Music Supervisor: Philip Martell, Special Processes: Bowie Films, Special Effects: George Blackwell, Makeup Effects: Roy Ashton, Art Direction: Robert Jones. Production Company: HammerFilms/Seven Arts.
John Richardson (Leo Vincey), Ursula Andress (Ayesha), Peter Cushing (Major Hollis L. Holly), Bernard Cribbins (Job), Rosenda Monteros (Ustane), Christopher Lee (Billali), Andre Morell (Haumeid)
By the middle 1960s England's Hammer films were working to diversify their product and maximize their gains. American investment in co-productions would continue in deals made with 20th-Fox, Warners and MGM. But Hammer's straight horror movies were their only real success story, as most of the company's psycho-thrillers and adventure movies didn't hit big on U.S. shores. Spreading out into other areas of fantasy, Hammer had two solid hits with 1967's One Million Years B.C., and, earlier, this action-oriented remake of H. Rider Haggard's She, first written in 1886. She, a fantastic adventure about an immortal white queen in a lost city, must have fired the imagination of the pulp fiction world; exotic adventure franchises from Tarzan to Lost Horizon owe it a great debt. Written over thirty years later, Pierre Benoit's highly popular tale L'atlantide was clobbered with a plagiarism suit over a number of striking similarities.
She was remade more than once as a silent film until Merian C. Cooper produced what's pretty much considered the definitive version at RKO in 1935. Despite qualities much appreciated now, it didn't fare well and was considered a failure. That Hammer Films undertook a remake wasn't unusual, as the company had made its name with film versions of radio and TV shows; its core gothic horror hits were licensed from Universal. Ursula Andress was first signed in 1963 but the show had to wait when Universal backed out of its distribution deal.
She is a showcase for sixties' beauty Andress, who had become an immediate international star after slinking out of a Jamaican lagoon in a white bikini in the first Bond film, Dr. No. Rarely showing any great acting skill, 1 Andress is optimum casting for the role of "Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed": most of her scenes require her to stand like a statue and purr sweet nothings to her lover, promising "everything you can imagine, Leo". That was more than enough to keep the attention of the male audience in 1965.
H. Rider Haggard's story is set in darkest Africa, while the '35 film locates the lost city of Kor to northern Siberia. Screenwriter David T. Chantler sets Hammer's "Kuma" somewhere in the deserts of the Middle East. We begin in Palestine right after the WW1 armistice; war buddies Leo Vincey, Holly and Job (John Richardson, Peter Cushing & Bernard Cribbins) are enjoying the night life in a cabaret when they're approached by the sultry Ustane (Rosenda Monteros of The Magnificent Seven). Ustane is acting as an agent for Ayesha (Andress), who instantly recognizes the blonde, handsome Leo as the reincarnation of her lover Kallikrates -- who she murdered for infidelity 2,000 years ago. On the evidence of a map and a ring, which Holly identifies as an authentic and priceless piece of antiquity, the trio crosses the desert and eventually joins up with Ustane, who has fallen in love with Leo. Ustane's father Haumeid (Andre Morell, voiced by George Pastell) rules a black tribe guarding the entrance to the Lost City of Kuma. The three adventurers become guests of the haughty Queen, who executes some of the natives and plans to do away with Ustane out of pure jealousy. But Leo is entranced, especially when Ayesha shows him the preserved remains of Kallikrates and inspires him with the promise of eternal youth in her arms. The Queen has a secret chamber where burns a sacred fire, and all Leo need do to become immortal is to step into the cold flame. Watching all of this is Billali (Christopher Lee), Ayesha's loyal high priest. After a few talks with Holly, Billali begins to consider breaking his vows and entering the flames as well.
She works because it's centered on the star aura of Ursula Andress. Considered by many to be an ideal of feminine beauty, Andress's ample charms encourage the males in the audience to weigh the proposition offered to Leo Vincey: if he gives up a little freedom (including his 20th-century identity) he'll become a demigod mated to the ultimate woman. That's an interesting idea to ponder, for the average guy who marries a girl and then wonders why all the dreams of pop songs and romantic movies fail to kick in. Although disparaged as an actor John Richardson must have made a big impression on casting directors; he became the (mostly forgotten) drone mate for three of the hottest femmes fantastiques of the 1960s: Andress, Barbara Steele and Raquel Welch. Richardson's face is the kind that might belong on an ancient coin. A careful listen will reveal that his entire vocal performance was post-dubbed. In the echo-y set in Palestine, Cushing and Cribbins' voices cut in with strong presence background noise from the set. Richardson's lines are crystal clean, having been recorded later in the studio. Ms. Andress's entire role was re-voiced as well, but the match is so good that we hardly notice -- the talented Monica Van Der Syl even mimicked the star's Swiss accent.
Peter Cushing and Bernard Cribbins seem to be tempering their performances, so as not to overpower the less arresting performers around them. Both are at ease with the expositional dialogue that ponders the seeming magic by which Leo seems to know the way to the legendary Kuma, and scoffs at the notion that Ayesha could really be thousands of years old. The overly literal script slows things down with unnecessary explanations for things we already understand quite well -- most of the narrative surprises are revealed back in Palestine, before the adventure proper gets underway.
Cushing's best scenes are with his old pal Christopher Lee, if only because neither is playing a monster. Lee's Billali looks disturbed when Holly makes light of the priest's ancestors, all rotted corpses lined up like Guanajuato mummies, with a pointedly empty alcove waiting to receive Billali when he dies. We're told that Christopher Lee was upset when his role was cut down; he and Ayesha were originally scripted to sing a chant to the assembled court. It's easy to imagine Billali's unhappy face as reflecting Lee's anger that he's yet again been given short shrift by the Hammer brass. Billali's eleventh-hour attempt to get in on the immortality hot-tub experience is thus one of the story's high points. The priest is a faithful admirer of Ayesha and the only one in the story who seems to deserve a reward.
Hammer-philes can point to She as sort of a reverse Dracula: Ayesha made a "deal" with supernatural forces long in the past, and never dies. Alternately known as "She Who Waits", the ageless queen takes out her frustration on luckless natives and whatever unlucky dame wanders into the picture -- as in a Joan Crawford movie, there's no room in Kuma for upstart competitors. And Ayesha's end (written before Bram Stoker needed a good play to spice up his theater season) is remarkably like Dracula's -- what them Gods done give, they gosh darn take away, and with a wicked sense of timing, too. Ursula Andress's appeal is all sex with little of the wispy ethereal romanticism of RKO's Helen Gahaghan, and thus less of a tragic figure. That quality gets passed along to Richardson's Leo, a rather nice twist for the audience to ponder on the way out.
Somewhat lost in this construction is Rosenda Monteros' Ustane, a character much reduced from the fine role played by Helen Mack in 1935. Ustane is never a serious choice for the vain Leo, and suffers considerably for it. A story of an uppity Queen who gets her just (dust?) desserts, She isn't as misogynistic as one might think. For every grand dame throwing her weight around, there's an innocent victimized by a hopeless commitment to Love.
She isn't the kind of Hammer film that could be filmed at their tiny Bray Studios; it's likely that the MGM connection provided more upscale facilities at the pricey stage rentals at ABPC Elstree. Although the production values can't touch the earlier RKO film the movie can boast attractive sets and good location filming in Israel's Negev desert for the trek sequences. Andress sports a number of killer gowns but the overall good costume work is undermined by the choice of off-the-rack Roman pieces for Ayesha's palace guard.
Director Robert Day (Corridors of Blood) handles the dramatic scenes while stunt arrangers seem to be in control of the battles with Arab nomads and the climactic revolt of Haumeid's native contingent. These fights are okay even when they betray the fact that Kuma is sketched with a fraction of the extras used in the cheapest Italian sword 'n' sandal pix of the time. The budget doesn't stretch much farther than the nice throne room set. The special effects are limited to a few ambitious matte paintings that don't work as well as those in the better-designed RKO show, even though the earlier work sometimes looked like charcoal drawings!
The Warner Archives Collection on-demand DVD-R of the 1965 She is a good encoding of a reasonably good enhanced transfer probably dating back ten years. As covered in Warners' disclaimers, dirt and speckling are more visible than one would expect from a mainstream DVD release. Colors are acceptable for a picture that has clearly not been re-mastered from original elements. Browns, golds and flesh tones sort of blend in with each other, leaving Ursula Andress's most impressive feathered gown and golden headdress looking a little drab. Other than that the picture is fine. Most of Harry Waxman's anamorphic cinematography is inexpressive high-key work that detracts from the story's air of mystery while making Andress look supremely attractive.
Some distorted shots gave rise to web snipers complaining that the entire transfer is a botch job, that it's a 1:85 transfer stretched out to fill the 2:35 aspect ratio, etc. The fact is that She, a CinemaScope film, 2 suffers from problems with the CinemaScope "mumps". The offending distorted shots are all close-ups of medallions and a few faces filmed at very close range; either the lens was poorly set-up or just couldn't be that close to the subject without squashing things out a bit. So the medallion looks slightly oval on the horizonal axis, as do some choker close-ups. Note that Ms. Andress's single shots never get too tight, probably because the cameramen gave them extra care. Oddly, one of the mattes of a giant statue looks kind of squashed out as well, but there are many reasons why that could occur -- maybe the optical printer operator had to adjust it to make the matte fit properly (?).
With the exception of one brief patch the audio track is clear, which is good news for fans of composer James Bernard. His score has a terrific theme for Ayesha that fills in the romance and mystery sometimes lacking in the film's visuals. Bernard's desert safari theme is excellent as well, suggesting the optimistic sense of classic adventure that She recaptured for new audiences.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, She rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Packaging: Keep case
2. Some sources say it was filmed in Megascope or Hammerscope, Hammer-specific terms used for various leased or rented anamorphic lens systems. One pan in the Kuma throne room shows how warped the visual field is in the main lens -- the room distorts in waves as it passes in front of the anamorphic lens element.
REVIEW: Glenn Erickson
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks
Sunday, 25 March 2012
Friday, 23 March 2012
Where was Peter Cushing at 2.37 pm on June 31st 1986? Answer: Here signing his autobiography at GEORGE'S Bookstore, Bristol, UK!
ENTER OUR COMPETITION TO WIN A FABULOUS COLOUR PHOTOGRAPH FROM PETER CUSHING'S 1964 'THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN'. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS SEND US YOUR ANSWER BEFORE MIDNIGHT FRIDAY MARCH 30TH 2012. GOOD LUCK!
Monday, 19 March 2012
PETER CUSHING: ' DR WHO AND THE DALEKS: CRITICS AND THE SUCCESS'
“I had played Winston Smith in ’1984′ on television, and the next thing I played ‘Doctor Who’. I was doing it in the cinema while Bill Hartnell was doing it on TV! That’s the way it goes. It was no surprise to me to learn that the first ‘Doctor Who’ film was in the top twenty box office hits of 1965, despite the panning the critics gave us. That’s why they made the sequel and why they spent twice as much money on it. Those films are among my favourites because they brought me popularity with younger children. They’d say their parents didn’t want to meet me in a dark alley but ‘Doctor Who’ changed that. After all, he is one of the most heroic and successful parts an actor can play. That’s one of the main reasons the series had such a long run on TV. I am very grateful for having been part of such a success story.”
PETER CUSHING: 'TELEVISION SERIES OPPORTUNITY'
In an interview from the late 1970's, Peter Cushing comes up with a novel idea for finding a place for the two 60′s movies in the ‘canon’.
What do you remember of the two ‘Dr. Who’ movies you made?
They were very enjoyable. A little frustrating, though, because they were not quite what we planned.
What do you mean by that?
I think I speak for everyone involved when I say that we intended to make them a little darker. But they turned out well, very good entertainments and a hit with the children.
How close did you come to making a third?
Very close. I thought we would, and possibly a fourth. Sadly it didn’t come to pass.
Were you a fan of the TV series?
I thought it was very good. Very well made. But I didn’t watch TV then, and I don’t much now.
The character you played in those two films was very different from the character on the TV show. Were those films a complete remake?
Well I’ll tell you something I thought once. I just said I didn’t watch TV, but one of the few episodes of the ‘Dr. Who’ series that I saw was one that involved a kind of mystical clown (‘The Celestial Toymaker’? ), and I realised that perhaps he kidnapped Dr Who and wiped his memory and made him relive some of his earlier adventures. When Bill Hartnell turned into Patrick Troughton, and changed his appearance, that idea seemed more likely. I think that’s what happened, so I think those films we did fit perfectly well into the TV series. That would not have been the case had I taken the role in the TV series.
Were you ever asked?
Twice, as it happens. When Bill Hartnell was forced to quit, I was asked if I would be interested in taking the lead in the new series. I turned it down, which I now regret a little. It would have been fun. But at the time, you know, I considered myself a serious film actor and stepping into a television series seemed like a step backwards. I don’t know how serious the producers were about hiring me. But perhaps if I’d said yes, they would have been pleased and you would have had me fighting Daleks and Cybermen week in, week out. But I’m glad I didn’t in some ways, because Patrick was so wonderful.
You said you were asked back twice.
Yes, another time was quite recently, with Tom Baker’s Dr. Who. I don’t know the part, but they wanted me and I was interested by scheduling conflicts scuppered it. But perhaps in the future I’ll be able to take a part. I’d be very keen on that.
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks
Sunday, 18 March 2012
First, let's dispel a common misunderstanding: Hammer Films did not solely produce horror films. Throughout the decades, Hammer regularly released comedies, adventure films, literary adaptations, science fiction, and a variety of tense, sometimes Hitchcockian, thrillers. CASH ON DEMAND is precisely one of said tense thrillers, though comparisons to the Master of Suspense might be best left to other Hammer thrillers like SCREAM OF FEAR (1961) or PARANOIAC (1963); instead, CASH ON DEMAND relies on the superlative performances of its two leading actors, Peter Cushing and Andre Morell.
CASH ON DEMAND concerns the fastidious taskmaster Mr. Fordyce, who runs a small but very successful bank outside London. Fordyce, played wonderfully by Cushing, makes for a bizarre protagonist; his casual cruelty and condescension aren't exactly the types of behavior you find yourself identifying with, especially when he butts heads with his second-in-command, Pearson (Richard Vernon), over a minute detail that coldly warrants Fordyce to threaten Pearson with termination.
Enter one Colonel Gore Hepburn (Morell, who you might recognize from other fine Hammer products like PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES from '66 or '59's HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, where he played Watson to Cushing's Holmes), a supposed representative from the bank's higher-ups. Once Hepburn and Fordyce are alone, however; we come to the real plot: Hepburn is an impersonator whose true purpose is to rob the bank, and to earn Fordyce's cooperation, Fordyce's beloved wife and son are captured and threatened. What unfolds has the elements of a heist film, parts of a police procedural, a dash of Hitchcock's tired and true "the wrong man," and, finally, an ironic ending worthy of EC Comics.
The core of this film is the interactions between Fordyce and Hepburn. The role of Hepburn was actually originated by Morell himself in an earlier television adaptation, and his mastery of the part certainly shows; Morell plays Hepburn with erudition, patience, and truckloads upon truckloads of charm, but occasionally drops those to demonstrate to Fordyce his deadly seriousness. Cushing, meanwhile, plays Fordyce as a nervous, stuffy, and traumatized victim who also happens to "learn a thing or two" from Hepburn, believe it or not.
You have to give credit for utilizing characters like Fordyce and Hepburn; while not uncommon to use rather unlikeable characters are protagonists (see Hammer's Frankenstein and Quatermass films, repectively), it is something of a rarity today, supplanted by the notion the audience should innately identify with the main character and can only do so if that character acts in a way audiences can or would like to picture themselves acting. With Fordyce and Hepburn, not only do we get richer characters, but it becomes a more layered film, instead asking us to question why we find Hepburn such a charming, likeable fellow - and for all intents should be our protagonist - when, in fact, Hepburn is a lying criminal who has spent a year with his circle of conspirators to map out the patterns and details of the bank's assets and has ensured Fordyce's abducted wife and son will be murdered unless he escapes with nearly £93,000. Fordyce, on the other hand, sops with perspiration as he attempts to stave off a complete breakdown, even telling Hepburn he has nothing - not even friends - apart from his family. This does, I suppose, make the film's ending that much more of a conundrum, but I'll keep from spoiling it so that you might get the most mileage as possible.
Overall, CASH ON DEMAND is a compelling and tense film, pitting the actions of two polar opposites against one another in the midst of a complicated bank robbery. The cinematography is crisp black and white with perhaps a hint of Expressionism, but plays second fiddle to the performance of the actors themselves. Cushing and Morell carry the film, keeping sharp dialogue as snappy as possible, and it is doubtful even the most cynical of modern film viewers will be unable to watch CASH ON DEMAND.
REVIEW: Ryan Baker
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks
Saturday, 17 March 2012
Michael Craig: Capt. Hugh Dallas. Peter Cushing: Capt. Clive Judd. Bernard Lee: Capt. George Gort Elizabeth Seal: Charlotte Gort .George Sanders: Sir Arnold Hobbes. Andre Morell: Capt. Edward Manningham. Gordon Jackson: Capt. Bateson. Charles Tingwell: Capt. Braddock. Noel Willman: Nigel Pickering. Delphi Lawrence: Joyce Mitchell. Marne Maitland: Mr. Robinson. William Abney: First Officer Jack Hedley: First Officer. Simon Lack: Navigator. Hedger Wallace: Navigator. Charles Mylne: Steward Howard Pays: Steward. Ballard Berkeley: Commissioner. Charles Lloyd Pack: Commissioner Homi Bode: Controller. Anthony Newlands: Controller.
Director: Charles Frend. Script: Robert Westerby, based on the novel Cone of Silence by David Beaty. Producer: Aubrey Baring. Cinematographer: Arthur Grant. Editor: Max Benedict. Art Direction: Wilfred Shingleton: Music Director: Gerard Schurmann: Make Up: Freddie Williamson.
COMMENTARY AND REVIEW:
After his unforgettable second turn as Van Helsing in Hammer’s BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), cinema icon Peter Cushing strayed from appearing in horror films for a period of a few years. This was on the suggestion of his wife, who feared that his further typecasting in these kinds of pictures was inevitable (he would of course return soon enough to his most famous role of The Baron in EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN), and ultimately it was. Rarely seen, TROUBLE IN THE SKY (aka CONE OF SILENCE) is one of the first of his non-genre efforts from this period, and its supporting cast plays like a “who’s who” of Hammer Films thespians.
Veteran British pilot Captain George Gort (Bernard Lee, several years before immortalization as “M” in the James Bond series) crashes his passenger jet on takeoff, and the blunder finds him in front of a court inquiry. As Gort’s previous flying record is immaculate, he is allowed to continue to pilot, but his peers make sure to keep a close eye on him. Gort’s daughter Charlotte (Elizabeth Seal, VAMPIRE CIRCUS) believes her father to be innocent and totally competent in his job, seeking the help of examiner Captain Dallas (Michael Craig, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, VAULT OF HORROR), who at first mistakes her as a reporter, starting a soon-to-be blossoming romance off on a wrong foot. As Gort continues to pilot aircrafts, a subsequent flight proves even more tragic, but perhaps there is more than human error getting in the way of this airline’s good name.
Somewhat talky with a lot of technical jargon thrown into the screenplay (based on actual events), TROUBLE IN THE SKY is a fairly straightforward drama aided by a top notch cast of familiar Brit character actors. There’s several court room scenes featuring a career-waning George Sanders (whose billing is fairly low on the totem pole) as a lawyer who uses a model airplane to recreate the initial accident and intimidate poor Gort, well played by Lee. Sanders must have shot all his scenes in a day, as they all take place on one set. There’s a bit of (and I mean a bit) of the disaster genre reflected here (a decade before Hollywood’s AIRPORT) when on one of the flights, a hail storm causes a cracking cockpit window to eventually burst, prompting our heroic pilots to isolate it with a cushion! Most of the picture deals with the plight of the aging Gort, and how his mostly stuffy co-workers deal with the controversy, as Captain Dallas puts the moves on his unmarried daughter.
Second-billed Cushing plays Captain Judd, who gets some dirt on Gort through a blonde airline hostess (Delphi Lawrence, THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH), and does his best to out him, as he obviously thinks he’s past it (as they say in Britain). Cushing looks cool in a captain’s uniform, playing the character as a chain smoker with his usual onscreen suaveness, but also an air of superiority that makes Judd somewhat villainous. Also in the very impressive cast is Andre Morrell (PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES), Noel Willman (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE), Charles Tingwell (DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Marne Maitland (THE REPTILE), Jack Hedley (THE ANNIVERSARY), Charles Lloyd Pack (HORROR OF DRACULA), Anthony Newlands (SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) and Hedger Wallace (TORTURE GARDEN). If that wasn’t enough, horror fans with keen eyes will spot Gerald Sim (DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN) and Geoffrey Bayldon (THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) in very brief bits.
When Universal Pictures released TROUBLE IN THE SKY theatrically in the U.S. in 1961, the picture was short some 16 minutes. Presented on DVD here as part of VCI’s “Best Of British Classics” series, the film is in its uncut 91-minute form. The only downfall is that its 2.35:1 aspect ratio has been reduced to full frame. Although beginning and end titles are widescreen, the rest of the picture has been cropped (with a slight letterboxing) with most of the picture information missing on the sides. Other than that, the black and white image fairs well, with minimal blemishes and surprisingly, not much in the way of grain. The mono English audio track is in fine shape, and there are no extras on the disc, except for a standard chapter menu.
REVIEW: George Reis
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks
Friday, 16 March 2012
After effectively revitalizing many of the classic Hollywood monsters, it’s not surprising that England’s Hammer Films would take on a folklore hero most famously played by Errol Flynn in 1938. Though this is not the first (1954’s MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST) or last (1967’s A CHALLENGE FOR ROBIN HOOD) time Hammer would depict the legendary character, 1960’s SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST is certainly the best known of their Robin Hood features. As part of a grand promotion of classic adventure and excitement, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing the film on DVD along with THE BANDIT OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1946), PRINCE OF THIEVES (1948) and ROGUES OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1950).
A loner riding on horseback (Desmond Llewelyn, soon to be “Q” in the “James Bond” series) is shot with an arrow in the back by the henchmen of the Sheriff of Nottingham. The man barely escapes with his life, falling in the hands of Robin Hood (Richard Greene) and his men, all notorious outlaws. The fair Marian (Sarah Branch, HELL IS A CITY), witness to the well-meaning abduction becomes an acquaintance of Robin, soon setting up a meeting between him and the Sheriff (Peter Cushing), but our hero does not want to hand over the injured man, even with the large monetary offer on the table. Soon, the Sheriff and his henchmen are on the track of Robin and his camp, even killing one of their rogues in cold blood. A wanted man, Robin disguises his identity to come into the attention of Edward, Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco, THE GORGON) who competes with him in various archery competitions in the hopes of exploiting him as a paid assassin. But as Robin is lead to believe it’s the Sheriff he wants slayed, a plot to kill the incoming Archbishop Hubert Walter (Jack Gwillim, THE MONSTER SQUAD) becomes our do-gooder’s top concern, and he’ll do anything in is power to prevent harm's way.
SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST is one of many Hammer big-screen projects adapted from a popular television series (a practice they would continue successfully well into the 1970s), in this case "The Adventures of Robin Hood" which was produced in England from 1955 through 1960, and also featured Greene in the title role (he co-produced the movie in association with Yeoman Films). Terence Fisher – at the time Hammer’s ingenious darling for resurrecting Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy to worldwide revenue – had directed some episodes of the series, so he was a natural to helm this larger-scale theatrical production. None of the other major players from the TV series (where Alan Wheatley portrayed the Sheriff of Nottingham for five years) would be cast in the film, instead Hammer used a lot of their stock players and a number of other familiar thesps.
SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST is never going to top any Hammer fan’s “best of” list, and although it’s far from a perfect film, you should still give it a try. Beautifully shot in widescreen on location in Ireland as well as the impressive confines of Bray Studios, director Terence Fisher injects the film with sorted horse chases, sword fights, and the expected comic book violence in which characters are hit with arrows left and right. But the screenplay is one dimensional, many of the action sequences fail to make a memorable impact, and even though the cast is of top caliber, nobody really stands out with Greene being a passable Robin and Sarah Branch a beautiful but forgettable Marian. With a number of elaborate costume changes, Peter Cushing makes a great Sheriff of Nottingham; you only wish his character was allowed to be more evil, or at least more villainous. Ultimately, he’s upstaged by Richard Pasco who actually shares more scenes with Greene.
The players also include a well-cast but underused Nigel Green (THE FACE OF FU MANCHU, COUNTESS DRACULA) as Little John, Dennis Lotis (CITY OF THE DEAD/HORROR HOTEL) as Alan A'Dale, Derren Nesbitt (BURKE AND HARE) as the doomed Martin of Eastwood and Niall MacGinnis (NIGHT OF THE DEMON) as the rotund Friar Tuck, who is played mostly for giggles. In one of his numerous early 1960s appearances for Hammer, a young Oliver Reed plays Lord Melton, one of Edward’s (Richard Pasco’s) bratty cronies. Introduced by harassing Robin and then having his pet falcon pierced by his mighty arrow, Reed’s Melton sports a ridiculously exaggerated lispy accent, and the actor has very little screen time, but is instrumental in one of the key death scenes.
Never before available on home video in the United States, SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST makes its DVD debut courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as part of their “Robin Hood Collection”. Continuing a high standard of quality attributed to all their recent Hammer/Columbia DVD releases, the film is presented in its original 2.35:1 MegaScope aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, and needless to say, it looks terrific. It’s a perfect blemish-free transfer with scrumptious colors and excellent detail, and the mono audio track is crystal clear. Optional English subtitles are included on the disc. Extras include the original theatrical trailer (matted to 1.85:1, as we assume it was too when projected in theaters), a promotional trailer for Columbia Pictures classics available on DVD and a trailer for A KNIGHT'S TALE starring the late Heath Ledger.
REVIEW: George Reis
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks
Tuesday, 13 March 2012
HAMMER FILM PRODUCTIONS CLASSIC 'THE MUMMY': PETER CUSHING AND CHRISTOPHER LEE FULL REVIEW AND GALLERY!
CAST: Peter Cushing: (John Banning) Christopher Lee: (Kharis) Yvonne Furneaux: (Isobel Banning/ Princess Ananka) Eddie Bryne: (Inspector Mulrooney) Felix Aylmer: (Stephen Banning) Raymond Huntley: (Joseph Whemple) George Pastell: (Mehemet Bey) George Woodbridge: (P.C. Blake) Micheal Ripper: (Poacher)
CREW: Director: Terence Fisher. Producer: Michael Carrreras. Script Writer: Jimmy Sangster. Music: Franz Reizenstein. Cinematograhpy: Jack Asher. Editors: Alfred Cox James Needs. UK Release September 25th 1959 / US Release 16th December 1959. Running Time: 88mins. Distributor: Universal.
When you get right down to it, most mummy movies are more or less the same. Guy becomes mummy, mummy is awakened, mummy discovers reincarnated princess that he loved back in good ol' Egypt and mummy deals with unrequited love and undead emo. So, when it comes to mummy movies, it generally not the story that makes it a good one. Instead, they have to rely on actors, themes, sets and cinematography. Luckily, The Mummy (1959) has all of this in spades, making Hammer's renowned contribution to the genre not only a good mummy movie, but a damned good film overall.
Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster actually appropriated most of the story from the earlier Universal Mummy films. He claims this was completely accidental, but the fact remains that the main storyline mirrors such classics as The Mummy's Hand and The Mummy's Tomb, right down to the names of the characters and the made-up Egyptian god. John Banning (Peter Cushing) is in Egypt with his father, Stephen, on the verge of discovering the lost tomb of Princess Ananka. During the course of the expedition, he has badly injured his leg, but, rather than going back to base to have it properly set, he stays at the dig site so his father can live his archaeological dream.
Unfortunately, after opening the tomb, the senior Banning discovered the Scroll of Life, a document secret to the Egyptian god Karnak. And he does what they always do in the mummy moves - he reads the darn thing. And, ever predictable, the mummy (Christopher Lee) comes to life. Fast-forward three years. John Banning is a respectable gentleman, Stephen Banning is in the crazy house, and a weird Egyptian guy has just come to town with a very large box. Soon, there's an ancient priest turned mummy named Kharis on the loose, and people start dying. And, of course, John Banning's wife looks frighteningly like the deceased Princess Ananka.
Now, I realize how cliché that sounds. Who in their right mind would want to watch that? Me, that's who. Despite the overwhelmingly cliché story, it is so well told that you never realize you're watching something familiar. The pacing is fantastic, never too slow, never too fast. The story begins in the past, offering a brief backstory and explaining both John Banning's limp and the motivations of the mummy. Once in the present, the story jumps right in with a crazy old man's stories of living mummies, a mysterious box falling into the bog, and the mummy arising from the mud and murk into turn-of-the-century England. The instant you start to get bored, the story changes yet again, moving into a flashback sequence that explains how the mummy came to be, creating not just a monster, but a character we can sympathize with. Before you know it, the film is half over. And then the fun really begins – the last sequences being filled mostly with mummy attacks and anti-mummy stratagem. By the time the film concludes, it's hard to believe that 88 minutes have actually elapsed. I say bravo.
This pacing is complimented by some very competent direction on the part of Terence Fisher. Most notable, I think, is Fisher’s ability to create menace without gore. The film rarely descends into visceral thrills, instead depending on the viewer's imagination to fill in the gaps left by the filming. During Ananka's burial scene, in which a whole slew of people are set to be executed, we never actually see anyone die. Right as the guards align themselves behind the Nubian slaves, who are to accompany Ananka into the afterlife, the scene changes, showing only the unmoving face of Kharis, high priest of Karnak. Then, second later, we see the same guards behind the doomed maidens, their swords newly soaked in blood. Each maiden is visited by the camera in turn, blessed by Kharis, and then bows her head. The camera moves on, leaving her to her death. The effect is grisly, without being gory. Aside from a few moments spend strangling John, the Mummy actually perpetrates very little personal violence in the film. This does not, however, diminish his menace. In fact, given that two people are dead because of the mummy, but murdered in ways we are not privvy to, makes Kharis seemingly more dangerous.
Fisher plays up Kharis’s overpowering presence using perspective to make the mummy look bigger when he's determined to a purpose. When Mehemet, the aforementioned weird Egyptian guy, instructs Kharis to kill those who have invaded his beloved's tomb, the Mummy practically towers, appearing to be almost two heads taller than his supposed master. Now, Christopher Lee may be a tall man, but he's not that tall, and, after a few seconds of looking at the screen, it's obvious that it's just an optical illusion. But it doesn't matter. The image of the Mummy looming dangerously over Mehemet and resolved to his mission is one that sticks with you, and, no matter how obvious the trick, the sense of foreboding radiating from that scene pervades the rest of the film.
The clever direction is complimented by production designer Bernard Robinson’s equally clever sets. What makes the sets clever is that they are everything we imagine. The tomb of Ananka is cluttered with ancient relics in impeccable condition, apparently untouched by time. It's exactly what I imagined King Tut's tomb to look like when I was 10. There's nothing realistic about the Egyptian sets, and we don't notice. Instead, the beautiful layout and colors and glittering golden artifacts transport us back to the Egypt of our childhood, the fantastical, magical one where tombs are cursed and mummies really do come to life. The sets of turn-of-the-century England are equally opulent, if somewhat more subdued. We've left the exotic world of Egypt for the more civilized English countryside, but we haven't left the sweeping, fantastical atmosphere behind. Instead, we're given a lush, cultured, romantic vision of what England might have been like, what we would like it to be like, and we continue in our imaginary world, one in which walking mummies, while slightly out of place, remain plausible.
And everything I've mentioned thus far pales in comparison to the acting, particularly the performances of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Cushing's performance is probably the easiest of the two to discuss, since he's front and center for the entire film, rather than being buried under a mound of make-up and costuming. Cushing's Banning is the perfect English gentlemen – intelligent, collected, and oh-so-refined. When he talks in that cool, detached voice, telling the town inspector without blinking that he saw a walking mummy or coldly instructing his wife to go upstairs, we feel like we could drown in the Englishness of it all. Normally, a performance like this could become monotonous, so unfeeling as to be disengaging to the viewer, but Cushing offsets this with an uncharacteristic intensity, a passion that lies just below the surface of Banning's collected exterior. It's a passion that is almost reminiscent of the hot, unpredictable desert from which he unearthed Ananka's tomb. Because of this carefully constructed performance, when Cushing's performance becomes more emotional, more panicked, and, frankly, more human at the end of the film, the transformation is unsurprising. The sudden shift of characterization could have devolved into unbelief, but in Cushing's hands, it seems a natural evolution, a final result that was an entire film in the making.
Lee's equally brilliant performance is impossible to discuss without first talking about the make-up. Roy Ashton did a fantastic job outfitting Lee for the Mummy. He's swathed in bandages, with bits of them almost falling off, resulting in the entire get-up just oozing age. The Mummy, through costuming alone, becomes an ancient, almost decrepit, force of destruction, so obviously out of its element in turn-of-the-century England. But where Ashton’s really shines is when it comes to the Mummy's face. The Mummy's face is entirely encased in bandages, leaving only the eyes exposed. The genius, however, is in the eyes themselves. Rather than leaving them be, Ashton actually constructed fake eyelids for Lee, so that his eyes matched the rest of the make-up. The effect is that Lee's eyes blend, the only visible part of him becoming part of the costume. Because of this one, particular decision, Lee becomes the Mummy visually, rather than just being a guy looking out through a well-constructed Mummy suit.
It's amazing, really, given how little of Lee's features are exposed, how wonderful the performance really is. The man's gaze is smoldering, his eyes brightening and widening when the Mummy is given purpose, and then dimming, becoming droopy and dull when his purpose is fulfilled. One scene in particular, when Kharis is being originally entombed, the camera gives us a close-up of Lee's face. If you've never seen a Mummy with an “Oh s**t” look, you should check this out. Lee's expressive eyes are complimented by poise and gesture. The Mummy's posture changes depending on his mood. He appears menacing and angry when attacking those who desecrated his beloved's tomb, and then, with the appearance of Mrs. Banning, he emanates sadness and longing – without once uttering a single syllable.
The final scene of the film, when Kharis releases Mrs. Banning into the bog and faces the armed vigilantes is downright heartbreaking. His reluctance to let go of the woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his beloved is evident in every moment, ever hesitation. His eyes are sad, almost as if saying goodbye one last time. Thanks to Christopher Lee, Kharis isn't just a monster; he's a sympathetic character in an already complex film.
It could be said that almost every mummy movie ever made is about the arrogance of western, modern society in regards to ancient and foreign cultures. The Mummy is no exception. Stephen Banning breaks into Ananka's tomb, with no regard for the dead of another's culture. Further, he dismisses a native, our aforementioned Mehemet, who warns him not to desecrate the remains. This act, if done in, say, an English monastery, would be unfathomable, but, because the tomb is ancient Egyptian, it's just science to Banning. Unfortunately, the ancient world of magic and superstition is not as silly as Stephen Banning thinks, and it comes back to bite him. The mummy rampages and terrorizes the modern world, which is ill-equipped to handle it. The undead can't be explained by science, and so the modern archaeologists (both Stephen and his friend, Joseph) not only receive their comeuppance, but are effectively emasculated by the ancient world. Arrogance and ignorance, under the mask of science, is what really destroys the archaeological team that desecrates Ananka's tomb. The mummy is only the instrument.
Interestingly, John Banning is the only member of that original team that is not destroyed by Kharis. Superficially, it could be said that he was just lucky, that his wife resembled Ananka, and that fact saved his life. But it's really more than that. Ignorance and arrogance – his father's to be exact – cripples John during that fateful expedition. He has a limp throughout the entire film. However, his handicap is more than physical. His father's arrogance has also crippled him emotionally and mentally. He is shackled by his father's blind unconcern and constrained by the same flawed Western thinking.
Thus, The Mummy is also about how the son, John, transforms himself and breaks free of his father's curse. At the beginning of the film, John Banning is cold. He dismisses his father's stories of a living mummy as a crazy man's rambling, and, towards a woman who is passionately in love with him, behaves indifferently and dismissively. However, as the film progresses, John Banning's eyes begin to open. He begins to believe in the possibility of magic and the undead – a very non-scientific supposition – and, when Kharis begins to threaten his wife, he becomes concerned and compassionate, deeply fearing for his safety. This transformation, which frees him from the influence of his father's thinking, is complete when Kharis steals his wife away, taking her back to the bog. Not only does John react emotionally, obviously frightened for the woman he loves, he is willing to sacrifice the Mummy, an intellectual curiosity and important archeological find. He destroys the Mummy for the safety of someone he loves, giving up knowledge for emotion. He makes the sacrifice his father didn't three years ago.
The Mummy wins at filmmaking on all counts. If it sounds like I'm gushing a bit, I am. Few films have really impressed me as much as this one, and it's one I look forward to seeing again. It is not only wonderfully effective on all levels, it has a maturity and depth that are easily overlooked in the genre. Mummy movies may be a dime a dozen, but Hammer's The Mummy is worth a whole lot more.
Review: JULIA MERRIAM
Images: MARCUS BROOKS