The decline and fall of Ken Russell would make a film in itself; once the enfant terrible of British cinema, he ended up making films in his nursing home. The Lair of the White Worm is a very strange late entry from the end of his peak; the 80’s saw him venture across the pond of the excellent Altered States and the oddball Crimes of Passion; returning to Blighty saw him head back to the literary path with Frankenstein creation story Gothic and this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm. Both film have enough baroque imagery to qualify as horror films, although the sight of Peter Capaldi pacifying the giant worm with his bagpipes is likely to create sleepless nights with mirth. Capaldi’s Angus Flint is one of a ground of excavators who come across a giant skull on an archaeological dig; could the mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), who seduces boy scouts in her spare time, know anything about the giant worm it suggests? And does Lord James D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) realise that his family have a history of slaying giant beasts? Russell’s use of chroma-key effects to create weird hallucinogenic montages of Bacchanalian tableau is hit or miss, but the cast all seem game for a ludicrous adventure that’s part Dr Who, part Nigel Kneale, and mainly Ken Russell, having fun with the production design by finding worms, snakes and all kinds of visual motifs for his story. The Lair of the White Worm was less than popular on release, but it’s gained a deserved cult following; the star names involved should draw a crowd to streaming services, and even if they don’t want to remember this film, it’s use of classic British mythology gives it a unique, decadent tone.
Also known as Horror Hotel, The City of the Dead is a rather staid but also rather unnerving black and white horror that makes up for in atmosphere what it lacks in pizazz. Christopher Lee is top billed in John Moxey’s chiller, but he’s a minor player here. He plays university professor Alan Driscol, who directs a young witchcraft student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) to the Massachusetts town of Whitewood, where she stays in an inn recommended by Driscol, The Raven’s Inn. Whitewood offers more fog that a Carl Dreyer smoke machine testing, and the local minister has long gone without a congregation. The reason is witchcraft; a prologue establishes that the town is cursed, and a witch is amongst the residents who wish Nan ill-fortune…The City of the Dead is often mentioned alongside Carnival of Souls or Night of the Eagle; it’s got a similar low-fi evocation of witchcraft, and a strange mood; the sombre nightly dances at The Raven’s Inn seem beyond improbable. There’s also a plot-twist that predates Psycho and some very crisp photography; Desmond Dickinson’s lensing comes up sharply in a new print which does the film justice. If there’s a lack of surprises here, there’s also a British restraint that, despite the rather fancifully realised US setting, creates a genuinely eerie atmosphere that few genre films can match.
Having won an Oscar for his previous period piece Tom Jones, expectations were high for Tony Richardson’s take on the famous British military catastrophe; so much so that it was the most expensive British film ever made when released in 1968. It’s clear where the cheques were cashed; there’s an all-star cast including David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, plus notable cameo roles for Peter Bowles and even Donald Wolfit in a walk-on as Macbeth. The battle-scenes are also striking in that the use of special effects to create large armies had yet to be invented back in 1968; the action involves large groups of extras, and somehow their plainness is more suggestive of the drabness of failure than the more vivid pictures which might created today. The script, written by John Osborne and Charles Wood, plays fast and loose with history, but it does relate to real incidents, like the infamous black bottle affair. The mood changes once the action moves oversees, although it was apparently the result of budget restrictions that Richard Williams was pressed into service to create animated bridges to inform the action; using political cartoons of the time, Williams creates wonderfully vivid tableaux that say just as much about the vain-glorious mind-set of those involved that rest of the the film itself. Made at a time when the Vietnam war was raging, this version of The Charge of the Light Brigade is a politically astute look at failure and blame, and deserves better than a rather musty reputation suggests.
1970 saw two movies in competition; not competing submarine dramas, not even competing competing magician dramas, but competing ‘search for a penis’ comedies. David Niven’s The Statue has already been covered in this blog; this entry deals with the rather more successful Percy, which was eighth in Britain’s top ten box office attractions. A quick cross-check with 2018’s top ten suggests that, in like for like terms, a cool £35 million would be the kind of sum earned. This Ralph Thomas film makes some fuss about being the first to deal with the presumably hot topic of penis transplants; the eternally put-upon Hywel Bennett plays Percy, an antique dealer who receives another man’s member after an accident and sets out on a quest to find out who it belonged to; a ‘genital mystery tour’ as Percy wryly suggests. This quest involves meeting a number of comely women, including Britt Ekland, Elke Sommer, Adrianna Posta and Sheila Steafel, and a surprising amount of introspective soul-searching, accompanied by a soundtrack by Ray Davies and The Kinks. Despite a couple of brief lewd moments, including a striptease to a xylophone instrumental of Lola, this isn’t a typical British sex-comedy, but seems to be leaning into some kind of existential angst. Things get a bit lost in the second half, but the cameos keep things moving, with Denholm Elliot on top for as Percy’s doctor, Are You Being Served? star Arthur English doing a comic routine in a pub, and Patrick Mower makes a personable playboy. Percy is best seen as a repository of dated fashions and dialogue; Percy’s Mini-Moke is something to behold, as are his garish outfits. Meanwhile various actresses try their best to set pulses racing with such unwieldy chat-up lines as ‘If I want to discuss dogs, I call a vet’ and ‘What do you think of my reproduction Welsh dresser?’
They didn’t have Comic-Con in 1970, but if they did, they might have been speculating on the franchises and multiverses of the day; would George Lazenby top Sean Connery’s five James Bond films? Would Alan Arkin’s Inspector Clouseau eclipse Peter Sellers? And would Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy launch a horror franchise to dwarf their popular Dracula and Frankenstein revivals? (Bringing back Terrence Fisher and Peter Cushing, plus red hot vampire lesbianism would surely be a draw). The answers to each of these propositions were no, no and no, and miscalculation of audience demands were the cause in each case, but Hammer’s Karnstein films are well overdue a reassessment. Ireland’s J Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla was the jumping off point for 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, but with Fisher and Cushing dropping out for this loose sequel, Jimmy Sangster crafted an unusually restrained treatment of vampire lore. Large dumps of exposition establish that Styria, Austria is a supernatural place where the locals grumble about the influence of the vampire family Karnstein. Writer Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnston) is warned off visiting, but stumbles across a luxurious girls school where the ‘girls’ all appear to be models of about 25 and all wear the kind of diaphanous nighties that suggest auditions for The New Seekers are in progress. The girls are prone to going missing, but owner Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) manages to cover things up by mailing their families death certificates provided by a tame doctor (Radio 1 DJ Mike Raven, voiced by Valentine Dyall). Miss Simpson turns out to be in thrall to vampire Countess Heritzen (Barbara Jefford), but star pupil Mircalla aka Carmilla Karnstein (Yutte Stensgard) seems to be falling for LeStrange via dream sequnces and strange anachronistic bursts of pop-music…Co-star Ralph Bates, who hams it up in the school-teacher role intended for Cushing, reckons Lust for a Vampire was one of the worst films ever made, but in comparison with his 1974 horror stinker Persecution, it’s a masterpiece. The script is literate; as the scrupulous DVD extras carefully point out, if a few scenes from Tudor Gates’s script could be re-instated, would offer an original story in a clever, meta way. Perhaps there’s one crash-zoom into neck-bites too many; there’s an exploitative sequence with the camera cycling through three separate female disrobings that may have quickened pulses at the time but might potentially tax the modern viewer’s patience. Sangster’s energetic direction, however, plus the unfamiliar cast and premise, make Lust for a Vampire a prospect to make the blood rush to the extremities of even the most jaded horror connoisseurs.
Everyone’s a critic, or at least, that’s how it seems to veteran actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) in Douglas Hickox’s celebrated slice of Grand Guiginol. Lionheart is angry at the kind of reviews he gets, and decides to take revenge on the Theatre Critics Guild with the aid of his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), who seemingly disguises herself as Jeff Lynne from the Electric Light Orchestra to do his bidding. The critics themselves are a wonderfully cast bunch, all destined to be offed in a bloody fashion determined by the works of Shakespeare. Dennis Price, Arthur Lowe, Jack Hawkins, Robert Morley, Harry Andrews and Ian Hendry are amongst the victims, and there’s also time for such diversions as a sword-fight on trampolines. The neat idea is something of a precursor of both Paddington 2 and Se7en, although David Fincher probably wouldn’t have much time for a comic detective duo of Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes. Michael J Lewis contributes beautiful, lush music that underscores the melancholy of the conceit; Theatre of Blood is a fun romp that proves that black comedy can work with the right, light touch.
‘This isn’t just any skull…’ says seller Marco (Patrick Wymark) to potential buyer Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing); it’s not even a Marks and Spencer skull, it’s the actual noggin of the Marquis de Sade himself, and no good can come of it being hawked around occult dealers in this Freddie Francis horror/thriller. With a script by Amicus regular Milton Subotsky and based on a short story by Robert ‘Psycho’ Bloch, The Skull is a cut above the usual fare, with an unusual straight role for Christopher Lee, plus a perfect supporting cast including Patrick Mcgee, Michael Gough and Nigel Green. It’s quite tame by modern standards, but the quaintness is charming, and Francis whips things up to quite a frenzy by the end. The art of this kind of gentleman’s horror film is long gone; The Skull popping up on mainstream streaming services is a nice reminder of the genre’s charms. And according to Wikipedia, the actual skull of the Marquis is still unaccounted for, so in the light of what happens to the esteemed gentlemen here, best avoid any rash ebay purchases…