The Hound of the Baskervilles 1959 ****

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Any vaguely annoying dog still gets referred to as the Hound of the Baskervilles to this day; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel is a cultural touch-stone as popular as Sherlock Holmes himself. Film and tv version of this celebrated story are rarely up to snuff; this Hammer production, directed by Terence Fisher, plays down the hound itself in favour of a meticulous attempt to nail the original narrative; with strong atmosphere and a perfect cast, it’s a welcome addition to the Holmesian canon.

Who better to play the great detective that Peter Cushing? The length of Cushing’s career, and the number of films he made in old age, might blind us to what a vigorous and dashing figure he cuts here, quite literally bouncing of the scenery at some points. But there’s also method in his madness; Cushing nails the mood-changes in his first dialogue scene as he considers the request of Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley), seeming to dismiss, then engage with his client. Holmes is a spikey wit here, while Watson (Andre Morell) is anything but a buffoon. Fisher even keeps with the source by having Holmes off-stage at key moments, but with Christopher Lee a saturnine Henry Baskerville, and John Le Mesurier as the butler, there’s no lack of good manners on show.

What really works here is the deductions; what Holmes sees, and how he puts it all together, perhaps because for once, this is not pastiche Conan Doyle, but a fair reworking of his actual plot-lines. Flickering lights on the moor, strange paintings, ravenous devil dogs; all the elements are in place, and although the final masked pooch effect is rather underwhelming, the conclusion still packs a punch.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps too violent to be a tv staple, and yet too cerebral to appeal to horror fans; either way, it’s a real genre classic that deserves to be exhumed and enjoyed. Cushing and Lee are both in strident form here, and Fisher displays the kind of barn-storming style that made him the pick of the Hammer House of directorial excellence.

 

Star Wars 1978 *****

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Of course, once upon a time in Hollywood, there was no A New Hope about it. George Lucas may have had a number of trilogies planned in his Starkiller sequence, but it was unusual to have a sequel at all in those days, so Star Wars was the title, short and to the point. With a glut of product that shows no sign of slowing down, it’s worth taking a moment to remember why, for a generation, seeing the original film in 1978 was like getting hit by lightning.

A number of things went right in Star Wars, mostly deliberate, some have to go down as the best of luck. Some of the personable young cast went on to remarkable careers, notably Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. For the older cast, British stars like Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness added RADA gravity to the fight between good and evil. John Dykstra was the special effects lead, inspired by footage of WWII fighter planes to create ‘dirty space’, with dynamic designs for X-Wing and TIE-fighters, all dwarfed by massive Star Cruisers and the Death Star against a background of inky black space. Considerable imagination was at work in all aspects; from tiny Jawa merchants and vicious Sand-people, to the collection of misfits in the Mos Eisley cantina, where a grotesque jazz band played and the clientele were a little rough around the edges. And who, or what was Darth Vader? You never even saw behind his mask! What was that tentacle creature that lived in the bin-chute? And that ‘walking carpet’ Wookie, you know, he’s actually a thousand years old! And wrapped around it all, a joyful, dramatic John Williams score that made your heart soar and your knees weak as you stumbled out of your local flea-pit, squinting in the bleak light of the real world.

If there was one element that Star Wars wouldn’t work without, it would be the casting of Harrison Ford as Han Solo. It’s not unusual for central characters to be blandly underwritten, a blank surface that the audience can project themselves onto, and wholesome farm-boy Luke Skywalker worked just fine in that respect. But what a friend he had in Han, an intergalactic smuggler who CNGAFF about the rebels, the plot, or even the film; Ford famously wasn’t confident about George Lucas’ writing, and, like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, gives the impression he’d rather be somewhere else, which is perfect for a character who acts like he doesn’t care, but secretly does. Han is more like something from Sergio Leone than Luke’s goody-two-shoes, he’s got no time for the force and light-sabers, just give him a good old-fashioned blaster. Han shoots first and doesn’t have time to ask questions later.

Both director and actor may well have been running out of patience when Ford improvised his comic response over the intercom to a stuffy Death Star operator, which ends abruptly when Hans uses his blaster to shoot the console and remarks ‘It was a boring conversation anyway.’ Back in 1978, it was a line that caused uproar in the cinema, drinks and sweets thrown in the air, cheers, applause, drumming on the backs of seats. Star Wars was not about boring conversations, it was about anarchy, taking it to the man, beating the system against incredible odds.

Fast forward to 2019, and everything has changed. Star Wars isn’t about beating the system, it is the system, the template for which most big films take a lead, including the Star Wars films themselves. British actors are still villains, the cream of young talent are the heroes, the effects are more amazing than ever, and yes, there’s still humour left in the films. But the sense of fun, the lack of responsibility, the carefree sense of adventure seem long gone; both the actors and the characters had tragedies ahead of them, and Star Wars catches them, like the audience, in a moment of blissful adolescence, a simultaneous sunrise and sunset of the heart.

Incense for the Damned 1970 ***

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Aka Bloodsuckers aka Freedom Seekers. Another titling disaster, Robert Hartford-Davis’s obscure horror film doesn’t seem to know how to describe itself; none of these titles work better than the name of the book that provided the inspiration here, Simon Raven’s Doctors Wear Scarlet. That’s not a great title either, although it does slip in as a line of dialogue here, as Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) prepares to address an Oxford college dinner. There is some kind of critique going on of establishment corruption, but Incense for the Damned is so scrambled, it’s a constant battle to get a handle on what’s happening.

Raven’s substantial body of work seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but his narrative here seems to have borrowed heavily from the adventure stories of Dennis Wheatley. Fountain is a talented young man who has gone off the rails with drugs while ‘searching for his manhood’ in Greece; a group of friends enlist the help of a resourceful British consul (Patrick Mcnee) to rescue him, only to find that dark forces are at work. It’s a haggard structure that recalls The Devil Rides Out, but retooled with 1970’s hippy trappings.

It’s understood that the film has been re-edited and re-worked to the point the director disowned it; there’s plenty of evidence of two different films happening here, and neither of them working. Fortunately Edward Woodward turns up to deliver a half-time pep-talk about how ‘vampirism is a sexual perversion’ in a desperate attempt to connect the two separate narratives. Woodward’s character also jabbers on about men who can only make love with statues, which he says is called Pygmalion Syndrome, so it’s hard to know if he can be trusted or not.

The perennially august Peter Cushing turns up for a few scenes, but he’s literally in the wrong movie here; if Cushing thought the Blood Beast Terror was his worst movie, then one presumes he didn’t see this one because it’s absolutely awful, one that gets it’s seven-minute psychedelic orgy scene in early to fend of unwary viewers. And yet the influences (John Fowles’ The Magus), the photography of the Greek island of Hydra, and the subversive intent are all in place; there’s a decent film buried somewhere in there for genre specialists to exhume.

 

 

 

The Blood Beast Terror 1968 ***

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Also known as The Vampire Beast Craves Blood, Blood Beast From Hell and Deathshead Vampire, Vernon Sewell’s horror/thriller really couldn’t find the right title for this novel twist on traditional themes. But any film that features both Peter Cushing and special effects by a pre-Alien Roger Dicken deserves a fresh appraisal, and there’s quite a lot to suggest that Sewell’s film is a neglected genre piece.

This is a Tony Tenser/Tigon production, made during the peak of Hammer’s success, and it’s clear that they hoped to find a few franchise-friendly monsters to rival the other studio. So what is the blood beast? Well, it’s a kind of moth, or perhaps a were-moth might be more accurate, since it can take human form; Curse of the Were-Moth presumably tested badly, so Blood Beast Terror it was.

Tigon also took cues from Hammer in terms of casting and approach. Peter Cushing is a name that will always draw genre fans. He was a distinguished and gentle soul who seems to glide around in these films, always polite, even when playing madmen; during the heat-wave scenes here, he never loosens his cravat. He’s ideally suited to Sewell’s production, which is big on drawing room conversations, entomology lectures and the details of coach and horse travel; the setting is the 19th century, but it could easily be the 14th. Cushing plays Detective Inspector Quennell of Scotland Yard, who is trying to solve the murders of several young men. Could Carl Mallinger (Robert Flemyng) and his daughter hold the secret?

There’s some British comedy stalwarts in supporting roles, including Minder’s Glynn Edwards as a cop and Roy Hudd re-invigorating the cliché of the post-mortem medic who loves to eat on the job. An additional point of interest in the female were-moth, played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother, Wanda Ventham. It’s not easy for an actress playing a were-moth, but she gives it a good shot.

Cushing reputedly wasn’t wowed by the result, but there’s quite a lot of fun here, notably the beast in a chrysalis form thanks to Dicken. And there’s also an extended theatre-play within a film that features medical students performing a version of Burke and Hare. It seems pointedly aimed at making fun of the Hammer brand, and stops the action in its tracks for a good ten minutes. But the cardboard set, unconscious humour and stilted acting are all on-message with The Blood Beast Terror’s playful genre reconstruction; its another nice find on the impressive Flick Vault channel.

One More Time 1970 ***

One More Time‘We know what turns you on’ says the opening song in One More Time, but if stars Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Junior actually do know what turns us on, there’s little evidence of it in this slapdash comedy. Writer by the brother of Dr Who’s Jon Pertwee, Bill, and directed by Jerry Lewis, it’s a sequel of sorts to 1968’s Salt and Pepper, but is mainly designed as a showcase of the talents, resistible as displayed here, of Davis Junior.

Davis and Lawford are Charles Salt and Chris Pepper, two hipster nightclub owners who fall foul of the law in some kind of Merrie England as featured in Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. Lawford plays a double role, Pepper and his twin brother Sydney, who is murdered with a deadly dart and replaced by his brother, swapping the dead body for his living one to investigate the crime. Although the two are supposedly best buds and partners in crime, Chris Pepper doesn’t tell Charles Salt, and allows his friend to think that he’d dead.

This means a good hour or so of Sammy Davis Junior wandering around an English country house vaguely synching to some incredibly maudlin tunes; a sequence in which Davis descends a staircase singing Where Do I Go Now? seems to last for weeks. The personable Lawford is stranded with some character comedy, which isn’t his strongest suit; Lawford can barely be bothered playing a thinly veiled version of himself, so playing another variation on the same person is something of a strain to watch. Meanwhile Lewis indulges himself with some strange set-pieces, including snorting snuff and a lengthy parody of the final scenes of Kubrick’s 2001 as Davis reacts to a country-house bedroom with the same awe that Kier Dullea reacts to the Monolith. It’s an odd, vaguely racist scene which fits with the general indignities that Davis goes through here, having drinks thrown over him, called a ‘chocolate dandy’ and generally side-lined in a way that constantly has him breaking the fourth wall to complain.

One More Time is probably best remembered for one single scene, seemingly improvised without reason, in which Salt finds a hidden doorway that leads to a cellar where Dracula (Christopher Lee) and Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) are working; the gag seems to be that Gothic horror lies beneath traditional British values. Otherwise, when the words ‘that’s it’ appear instead of “the end’, One More Time must have had even the most hipster-cat audiences begging for it to stop; with Lewis directing Davis Junior well beyond excess, it’s the audience who must truly have felt mugged. As a side-note, One More Time offers a good argument against smoking; everyone quaffs fags like their lives depend on it, and there’s even huge close-ups of full ashtrays to present bona-fide testimony to the performers’ enthusiasm for cigarettes.

 

Legend of the Werewolf *** 1975

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Why has Legend of the Werewolf been so hard to locate since it flopped in 1975? One’s gratitude in seeing Freddie Francis’ 1975 horror film pop up on Amazon Prime is muted by the dismal condition of the print; with other Cushing films like Horror Express and Scream and Scream Again so wonderfully restored, it’s a shame that Legend of the Werewolf is presented in Awful-o-vision. That said, there’s lots to enjoy here in this rare Tyburn production.

The setting is Paris, presented in a laughably cheap way by a couple of street-signs and a zoo entrance. It’s within this zoo that Etoile (David Rintoul) forges a bond with some wolves. Etoile was raised by feral wolves after they killed his parents at midnight on Christmas Eve; there’s a vaguely blasphemous nativity vibe to these early scenes. Etoile is drawn to the local brothel, a popular venue which the characters wander freely in and out of as if it was a rural fast-food outlet. Etoile’s master, a zookeeper named Zookeeper, is played with paint-stripping bluster by a post-Fagin Ron Moody; he fancies the local girls, and Etoile shares his passion, but this raised interest leads him to murderous rampages. Professor Paul Cantaflanque (Peter Cushing) is supposedly charged with disposing of the corpses, but in a pre-The Alienist move, launches his own investigation as to who, or indeed what, is responsible.

Shot at Pinewood Studios, but with little in the way of spectacle, Legend of the Werewolf sees a number of Hammer staff jumping ship into a sinking life-boat. John Elder aka Anthony Hinds provides the script, while Roy Castle turns up as a photographer and Hugh Griffith as Etoile’s first mentor, an eccentric circus-owner. All are substantial pluses; the debit sheet is marked by the awful red filter that supposedly represent wolf-o-vision, the strange silver-fox make-up of the wolf, and Amazon’s laughable English-as-she-is-spoke subtitles, ranging from ‘He’s saving up his Sioux’ when the word required is sous, or such infelicities as “Exhausted?’ Yes, I must be getting (g)old!”

Other critics have pointed out that, despite the familiar presence of the likes of Michael Ripper, Legend of the Werewolf doesn’t feel like classic Hammer, and they’re right; the Tyburn experiment didn’t last long, with The Ghoul the only other major genre offering. But Cushing is a perfect centre, genial, serious, an unable to give a dull line-reading; he makes something special from a well-written character. Horror was already leaving such genteel stylings behind by 1975, but Francis’s film is something of a last gasp. Cushing presumably banked his cheque, thumbed through his Star Wars script and wondered what was coming next…

The Skull 2019 ****

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‘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…