Wednesday, 26 June 2013


In the 1960s, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster made a jump from Gothic horror to the realm of sting-in-the-tail suspense.  It was a move the writer craved, as the Gothic was never a milieu that much appealed to him.  He drew inspiration, instead, from the classic French thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), directed by Henri Georges Clouzot.  Clouzot’s reputation rivaled that of Alfred Hitchcock in his native France , though his name never became quite as prominent on an international level.

Hitchcock had reportedly attempted to buy the rights to the novel upon which the film was based himself, and when Clouzot beat him to the punch, he persuaded the authors, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, to write him a fresh piece of material; he would use this material as the backbone for his masterpiece Vertigo (1958).  Les Diaboliques may not seem as fresh and vital today, but this is easily explained by the fact that it was ripped off many times – and nobody drew more inspiration from it than Sangster himself.

Indeed, while many critics would label the thrillers Sangster wrote for Hammer as “mini Hitchcocks,” the screenwriter was always quick to point out that they were truly “mini Clouzots.”  The series got off to a winning start with Taste of Fear (1960), which was directed by the gifted Seth Holt.  The film adopts the Diaboliques formula: an innocent woman is driven to the brink of madness by callous conspirators.

Taste of Fear proved successful with critics and audiences alike, and Sangster would follow up with Paranoiac (1962), Nightmare and Maniac (both 1963), Hysteria (1964), and Crescendo (1969).  The Nanny (1965) and the Richard Matheson-penned Die Die My Darling! (1964) are also often lumped into this series, but the former isn’t really much of a twist-laden shocker, while the latter was done without Sangster’s involvement.

One script that Sangster wrote during this time frame was titled The Claw, and it dealt with a woman being terrorized by a man with a prosthetic arm.  For whatever reason, it never saw the light of day in the 60s, though it would later be dusted off in 1972, when it would emerge as Fear in the Night.

The story is a simple one: psychologically fragile Peggy (Judy Geeson) goes to live with her husband Robert (Ralph Bates) at the boys boarding school where he as just been hired to teach.  While there, she begins seeing and hearing many strange things.  Could the one-armed, reclusive school master, Michael (Peter Cushing), be responsible?

As a thriller, Fear in the Night is pretty much lacking in thrills.  And as a suspense film, it’s also very much lacking in suspense.  The issue is in the casting, though not in the acting.  Everybody is cast much too much to type, thus making it easy to figure out who is trying to get one over on whom.  If Geeson and Joan Collins (cast, something unbelievably, as Cushing’s wife) had swapped roles, for example, the twists and turns of the scenario would have been a little less glaringly obvious.  As it stands, though, Geeson is very much in victim mode throughout, while Collins is her usual bitchy self.  Cushing’s role is very much of the red herring variety, and while it worked well enough with Christopher Lee in Taste of Fear, there’s never very much doubt that the character of Michael is pretty much harmless.  That’s not to say that the actors do a poor job – it’s not exactly a tour de force for anybody involved, of course, but the four principal players (especially Geeson) are in good form.

Much of the blame can be leveled at Sangster, who in addition to writing (with some polish by Michael Dyson), also made another crack at directing with this picture.  The film followed on the heels of Lust for a Vampire and The Horror of Frankenstein (both 1970), neither of which had gone over very well.  To his credit, Sangster displays  a little more flair behind the camera this time around – there are a few nicely staged sequences, and a memorable credits sequence with the camera prowling about the deserted school grounds before settling on the unexpected intrusion of a pair of feet dangling from the air, indicating that something has gone awry.  Indeed, there is enough here to make one wonder if maybe he didn’t have a much better film in him down the road.  As it stands, however, this would mark Sangster’s last outing as a director; he would spend the remainder of his career as a “jobbing” writer and a mercifully pragmatic interview subject.

Fear in the Night failed to ignite much interest, and it would later be released to VHS under the title Dynasty of Fear in an obvious bid to capitalize on Collins’ renewed popularity as Queen Bitch on the popular American soap opera, Dynasty.  It would mark the end of Hammer’s run of psychological thrillers, with the company limping through the next few years attempting to trade on their most popular franchises of yore, principally Dracula and Frankenstein

Written by Troy Howarth
Images and design: Marcus Brooks

Monday, 24 June 2013


Simon Helder (Shane Briant) is arrested on charges of sorcery when it is discovered that he is following in the foosteps of the infamous Baron Frankenstein.  Upon being confined to a lunatic asylum, Helder is shocked to find that the doctor in charge is none other than Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) himself…

Although The Curse of Frankenstein was the film that put Hammer Studios and actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee “on the map,” as it were, as a series it never quite matched their Dracula franchise in terms of popularity.  Hindsight has demonstrated, however, that the Frankenstein series was far more consistent in quality.  Even so, while Warner Brothers reportedly balked at backing a Christopher Lee-less Dracula (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1969, had been designed to showcase Ralph Bates as a possible replacement for the vocally dissatisfied veteran), Hammer faced no such opposition when they decided to reboot the Frankenstein series with a younger Baron.  As such, Peter Cushing sat out on Horror of Frankenstein (1970), with none other than Bates taking over the role. The film was was a flop, and Hammer decided to go back to basics with their next entry. The film was a flop, and Hammer decided to go back to basics with their entry.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell would mark Hammer’s last true Gothic of the era, their last Frankenstein film to date, and Terence Fisher’s swansong as a director.  It is, in many respects, the end of an era.

The screenplay by Anthony Hinds (written under his usual nom de plume of John Elder) would also mark his final feature length script produced by the company, and it has been remarked upon that it bears some similarities to Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay for The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958).  A definite air of déjà vu does hang over the proceedings, but the film never seems stale or half hearted; if anything, it’s something of an elegy for a period of filmmaking that was inevitably drawing to a close.  Hinds and Fisher bring the film up to date by indulging in a number of memorably gory set pieces, but in every other respect it’s very much apiece with the classical style of Hammer horror.  The film doesn’t aim for the experimental, elliptical style of storytelling one will find in the films Christopher Wicking was writing for Hammer during this period, for example (including Demons of the Mind and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, 1971), not does it seek to amp up the “sleaze” quotient by tossing in some gratuitous nudity or lesbian lovemaking.

Some critics have attempted to argue that there is a specific continuity from entry to entry in the series, but close examination of the films doesn’t lend much credence to this.  Despite my admitted belief in the auteur theory, which places tremendous emphasis on the role of the director in the filmmaking process, the auteur of this particular series is not so much Terence Fisher as it is the various screenwriters.  Jimmy Sangster wrote both Curse and Revenge, and the two films link together clearly and coherently.  When Anthony Hinds took over screenwriting duties with Evil of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Created Woman, he essentially ignored everything that had come before and offered a kinder, gentler slant to the character.  Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, written by Bert Batt, most certainly was not consistent with Hinds’ conception – but it did link into the ruthless character devised by Sangster.

With Monster from Hell, Hinds resumed screenwriting chores – and sure enough, the story links into his earlier efforts far more comfortably than it does to the film that immediately preceded it.  (I am divorcing Horror of Frankenstein from this equation, as it was ultimately a tongue in cheek retread of Curse, and it remains an anomaly in the franchise.)  Thus, Evil of Frankenstein ends with the Baron fighting for his life in a fiery conflagration.  Created Woman establishes that his hands are burned.  And Monster from Hell refers back to the character having burned his hands in a fire, thus rendering him useless when it comes to performing intricate surgery.  The Baron’s disposition is also far more mellow and cheerful than the black hearted sadist and black mailer of Must Be Destroyed, though by this stage in the saga it’s quite apparent that Frankenstein is as insane as the patients he is treating at the asylum.

It's unlikely that anybody associated with the film knew that it represented "the end of the line," so to speak.  Chances are, if the film had been a big hit at the box office, Hammer would have put more Frankenstein films in the pipeline.  Indeed, around this time, Italian writer/director Dario Argento even approached the studio with a pre-packaged Frankenstein film of his own - albeit one quite disconnected from their saga, detailing the Baron's attempts to create a super human being in Nazi Germany, with Timothy Dalton attached to play the lead.  This failed to come to fruition, however, as Monster from Hell demonstrated yet again that what Hammer was offering the public simply wasn't in step with the times.  The film's attempts to appease current audience trends towards more graphic violence and gore put off some of the more traditional (ie., genteel) fans, while simultaneously failing to reel in new converts.  Even so, there is a definite sense of finality and melancholy that runs throughout the film.  Whether this was evident when the film was first released, or if it merely seems to be the case in hindsight is open to speculation.  Regardless, if Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the "angry" nihilistic entry in the franchise, then Monster from Hell is very much its elegy.

For his final directorial outing, Fisher was blessed with a superb ensemble.  Cushing is immaculate as usual as the Baron, tossing off lines in a distracted manner befitting the character's descent into madness.  Shane Briant is a fine addition to the franchise, evolving from wide eyed pupil to appalled antagonist.  Madeline Smith isn't given much to do as the mute assistant, Sarah, but she brings a delicate, doll like quality to the role.  David Prowse, previously cast as the monster in Horror of Frankenstein, does a nice job under the circumstances - he evokes ample sympathy, but the overdone makeup design is much too over the top to be taken seriously (I understand that the unwitting "donor" of the body was something of a "Neolithic throwback," but really?).

John Stratton steals many scenes as the lecherous director of the asylum, and familiar character faces like Patrick Troughton, Peter Madden and Bernard Lee (who must have really needed the cash - he has but one scene, with no dialogue) add flavor throughout.  Fisher handles the film with his customary economy and skill, adopting an almost detached, documentary-like quality to the various surgery setpieces.  James Bernard is also on hand to contribute a good score, one of his last ever for the studio.

Ultimately, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell deserves much more respect than it typically receives.  Many a film franchise has been known to go out on a sour note (Castle of Fu Manchu, anyone?), but Monster from Hell proves to be a happy exception.  It is in many respects one of the best films in the series; if you haven't seen it lately, do yourself a favor and take another look.  It's worth it.

Friday, 21 June 2013


The blu ray / dvd combo release of Hammer Films classic 1958 'DRACULA' is now reduced in price to just £9.25. The jewel in Hammer Films restoration project. Includes the lost footage and bumper package of extras. Starring Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula, it never got better than this. Highly recommended!


Tuesday, 18 June 2013


Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin as seen in 'Star Wars' Directed by George Lucas (1977)

Monday, 17 June 2013


NEWS: DOREEN HAWKINS DIES AT 94. (Telegraph Newspaper 17.06.2013)
Doreen Hawkins, the widow of the late actor Jack Hawkins, surprised her friends late in her life when she disclosed how she had very nearly married Peter Cushing. Mandrake is sorry to hear of the death of Doreen Hawkins, the widow of the late actor Jack Hawkins, by whom she had three children. She was 94.

Late in her life, the former actress startled her friends by disclosing how she had nearly married Peter Cushing. She broke off the engagement to the future horror film star because she didn’t care for the way he kept bursting into tears and arriving for dates accompanied by his parents.

Mrs Hawkins, who lived until the end of her life in a grand apartment in Pont Street, Knightsbridge, married Jack Hawkins in 1947. They were together until his death in 1973.

Sir Donald Sinden, a friend since he appeared in The Cruel Sea with her husband, said he would miss her. “She had a wonderfully dry sense of humour," Sir Donald recalled. "She and Jack had a famously ugly villa on Cap Ferrat, opposite where David Niven had a place, and we had magical family holidays with them.”

Sunday, 16 June 2013


NEWS: Personal items belonging to Peter Cushing sold for more than TEN TIMES their estimated value when they went under the hammer at Canterbury Auction Sales on Wednesday 12th June. Offered as a single lot they were sold to a local private collector for £1,700 and the money is being donated to the Pilgrim's Hospices by co-executor of Peter Cushing's estate, Bernard Broughton. Canterbury Auctions also waived it's commission fee for the sale of the items. They had been cataloged with an estimated value of £150. 

Mr Broughton helped care for Peter Cushing in his latter years, before he died at Pilgrims Hospice, Canterbury in August 1994. Mr Broughton has been generous in his support of the Pilgrims Hospices. Mr Broughton who attended the auction, said afterwards, 'I am pleased with the result and I know Peter would have been too. He was extremely well looked after by the hospice at the end of his life' Pictured Bernard Broughton with the sale items with his wife, Joy (right) and Pilgrims regional Fund Raiser, Deborah Kellond.

Saturday, 15 June 2013


If you're stuck for a Peter Cushing film to watch tonight, here's a 'interesting' outing Peter did for Hammer and Shaw Bros in 1974, as part of the 'Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires' package. ''Shatter' or 'Call Him, Mr Shatter' is quite dated now, but if you can get around the mucho kung fu action sequences, there is a very good scene with star Stuart Whitman and Peter. A relaxed performance from Cushing, but with an edge of menace. Here's the whole film on youtube.

Friday, 14 June 2013


Egomaniacal big game hunter Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) invites a disparate group of friends and associates to his rambling mansion for a weekend getaway; little do they realize that it’s a ploy engineered by Newclife, who believes that one of them is a werewolf… and he’s anxious to add just such a specimen to his trophy case…

By the mid-70s, cracks were beginning to appear in the foundation of the Amicus House of Horror.  Producers Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky had achieved success in the 60s with a string of low budget horror films with classy production values, but their run was bound to come to an end.  It wasn’t just Amicus who was suffering, either.  Hammer Films, the reigning Kings of British horror, were also on their way out.  The horror genre was changing, and the success of pictures like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) signaled that the old school of horror filmmaking was beginning to look a bit passé.

Subotsky and Rosenberg responded much as Hammer had done, by adding a bit more graphic gore and sex to pictures like And Now The Screaming Starts! (1973), but it proved to be a cynical move that did little to improve their box office favors.  When the time came to do The Beast Must Die, they decided to fall back on the William Castle school of gimmicky filmmaking by adding in a “werewolf break,” wherein the film literally freezes for half a minute just before the last act, thus giving audiences a chance to make one final guess on the identity of the werewolf… as if the identity was really all that hard to guess, anyway.  No matter – it was a silly gimmick, and it did little to improve the film’s box office takings.  The Beast Must Die, like the aforementioned And Now The Screaming Starts!, broke from the Amicus “formula” by sticking to a single-plot narrative structure.  And it, too, failed to garner much enthusiasm from audiences, thus helping to speed the company towards its inevitable oblivion.

The screenplay was adapted by screenwriter Michael Winder from a story called “There Shall Be No Darkness” by James Blish.  It is, in essence, a conflation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (aka, Ten Little Indians) and Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, with elements of the werewolf mythos stirred in for good measure.

In the hands of first time director Paul Annett (who would later go on to direct some good episodes of the Granada Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett), it rattles along at a pretty good clip – but sadly, it falls short where the werewolf itself is concerned.  Sooner than make up the actor playing the werewolf (no spoilers here, folks!), they elected to try and make a friendly looking pooch look intimidating with some extra fur and “creepy” lighting and camera angles.  It doesn’t work.  Thus, the finale doesn’t have quite the punch that it really should.

As usual for Amicus, there’s a good cast on display.  The lead role went to African-American Calvin Lockhart when the original choice, Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire), proved to be unavailable; much like Vincent Price, who had been forced to pass on The House That Dripped Blood, Quarry rankled when his boss at American International Pictures refused to release him to do a horror film for a “competitor” such as Amicus.  According to Annett’s commentary track on the DVD release of the film, Lockhart proved to be difficult to deal with, as he resented that the role was not conceived for a black actor and he believed that the producers were simply trying to cash in on the then-popular Blaxploitation movement.

In response to this, Lockhart played up the character’s wealth and culture, resisting the urge to fall into any kind of an ethnic stereotype.  It’s an enjoyably arch performance, but one can sense the actor struggling against the material, and one is left regretting that Quarry was not allowed to do the picture instead.  Amicus surrounded Lockhart with some wonderfully accomplished performers, including Charles Gray (Diamonds Are Forever), Anton Diffring (Where Eagles Dare) and, of course, Peter Cushing.  Cushing is cast in his usual savant role, but the whodunit nature of the material ensures that he, too, comes under suspicion of being a werewolf.

Cushing doesn’t have a great deal to do here, and he adopts a somewhat inconsistent Norwegian accent, but he’s still a welcome presence.  Diffring, often cast as icy villains, is enjoyable in a warmer-than-usual role, as Lockhart’s sardonic surveillance expert, while Gray is his usual acerbic and amusing self as one of the reluctant houseguests.

The film also contains an early appearance by Michael Gambon, later to achieve fame as the hero of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective and numerous films by Stephen Frears, Tim Burton, and others.  Beautiful Marlene Clark (Ganja and Hess) is the only other black actor in the production, and she gives arguably the film’s strongest performance, as Lockhart’s long-suffering wife.

Amicus’ classy production values are much in evidence, despite some unfortunate shortcuts here and there.  Jack Hildyard (an Oscar winner for films like Bridge on the River Kwai) handles the cinematography, which is slick if not especially memorable; some bad day for night photography betray the haste with which the film was shot, however.

Douglas Gamley contributes a funky score which has been derided in recent years as being dated… Films inevitably reflect the period in which they were made, however, and the music is no more distracting in this sense than the bell bottoms and butterfly collars which are evident throughout.  Annett handles the material with smooth efficiency, milking maximum impact from a few key suspense scenes.

The Beast Must Die would be Amicus’ one and only foray into the werewolf subgenre, and it would mark the first of only two films on the subject in which Cushing appeared (the second would emerge the following year, with Tyburn’s Legend of the Werewolf, itself a clumsy retread of Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf).  It may not rank among their finest achievements, but it remains a fun and well paced item on its own terms.

Written by Troy Howarth
with Images and artwork by Marcus Brooks    
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