Horror of Dracula

Valerie Gaunt in Horror of Dracula (dir. Terence Fisher, 1958).

The first Christopher Lee Dracula film from Hammer, and one of three that Fisher would direct. A bloody travesty of Stoker's novel, and wildly effective. Lee was born to play Dracula--he is Dracula. Cushing is perfect as Van Helsing too. Everything works here: the pacing, the color, the awkward comic relief. There's not nearly this much energy in the following year's The Mummy, though that one is fun just for its high camp value and its tomb that looks like a slightly dusty Victorian drawing room.


The Mummy

Christopher Lee walks like an Egyptian in The Mummy (dir. Terence Fisher, 1959).

More Eastmancolor fun from Fisher and the Hammer folks. Best thing in this one: the tense encounter between Peter Cushing as a British archeologist and George Pastell as Mehemet Bey, a modern-day worshipper of Karnak, a "third-rate" pagan deity. From one perspective, it's imperialist nostalgia indulging in the fantasy of the dangerous Arab other, and from another, it's a witty indictment of "civilized" western complacency. But the scenes with Lee as an Egyptian high priest are just plain outrageous.


The Shanghai Gesture

Ona Munson and Maria Ouspenskaya in The Shanghai Gesture (dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1941).

I wish I could post a screen capture of almost every single shot in this gorgeous, incoherent, screwed-up, delirious film. Victor Mature as Dr. Omar the "Persian Poet"! And the dialogue: "Stop behaving like a disabled flamingo."


Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Slicing up eyeballs: Peter Cushing in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (dir. Terence Fisher, 1973).

The final Frankenstein film from Hammer. Cushing's wife had died shortly before it was made, and it's hard not to acknowledge that this lends a particular melancholy to his performance. He's terribly frail and gaunt--so much so that one senses he is near death himself (though he would live another twenty years). The ultra-low budget shows sorely in places: Dave Prowse looks just ridiculous as the monster, like a cross between Bigfoot and a Morlock. There are some fine supporting performances, though, and the whole production has a distinctive, dusty, gothic feel that is different from any of the previous films. The ending is either ineptly flat or chillingly open-ended--I'm not sure which.

Having now seen all the Hammer Frankensteins with Cushing (though not Jimmy Sangster's The Horror of Frankenstein, a 1970 prequel starring Ralph Bates that is currently unavailable on Netflix), I'm especially interested in one narrative element: the odd discontinuity of the series. The second film takes up exactly where the first left off, but from then on, the backstory gets erratic and almost contradictory. In addition, Cushing's personality is subtly different from movie to movie. At times, his evil amounts to mere self-absorption and a certain callousness, and at other times he's practically Hannibal Lecter. It's not a smooth progression, either; he wavers in and out. The cumulative character that emerges as a result is a moral patchwork. What's most frightening about Baron Frankenstein is that you can imagine yourself being drawn into his confidence over long stretches of time, like his various assistants who appear and disappear without explanation, but if some of his actions appear occasionally to reflect a complex sensibility that borders on humanity, these revelations do not resolve themselves into any sort of psychological or emotional growth. You're essentially starting over with each new movie, and what you saw last time is little indication of what you'll get this time. This instability of character is probably more the result of Hammer's (and Fisher's) erratic aesthetic integrity as it is of any deliberate artistry on anyone's part. And yet this very shoddiness of conception is part of what makes it psychologically compelling. Cushing's portrayal of Frankenstein is a fifteen-year-plus, time-lapse study in moral chaos. He is Nietzsche's superman satirically rendered as a chronic failure who doesn't learn from his mistakes. Shelley's original modern-day Prometheus looks too deeply into the abyss and is tragically humbled; Cushing's doctor likes what he sees and keeps looking, even though it continually brings disaster upon him and everyone around him.


Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

Holding out the key: Peter Cushing in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (dir. Terence Fisher, 1969).

Destroyed? Isn't that a bit harsh? Maybe not. Frankenstein takes his sociopathic malevolence to new levels in this, the fifth installment in the Hammer series. Among his crimes this time around: murder, robbery, blackmail, and rape. A strange tableau of relentless cruelty. It's hard to say what, if any, identification or sympathy Frankenstein is capable of inspiring, and yet, there's something fascinating about his continually botched pursuit of scientific enlightenment via mutilation and mayhem. The first time we see Frankenstein in the film, he is wearing a grotesque rubber mask. The immediate assumption that springs to mind is that we are seeing one of his experiment/victims, and when the mask comes off, it's a neat sleight of hand--Frankenstein is the monster, which, as I've said before, is Fisher's conceit throughout the series. But Fisher doesn't seem entirely sure how to pitch this idea. Cushing's charisma and urbanity seems somewhat at odds not only with the brutality of his character, but with his comically debased picaresque aspects. Or maybe this dissonance is the thing that makes these otherwise fairly stilted sado-dramas come close at times to brilliance.


Frankenstein Created Woman

Peter Cushing in Frankenstein Created Woman (dir. Terence Fisher, 1967).

The fourth of the Hammer Frankenstein films with Peter Cushing, and the third directed by Fisher. This one has more nonsensicalities and outrageous anachronisms than all the previous ones put together, but it's also a lot of fun. When Baron Frankenstein transplants the soul of his executed assistant into the disfigured and crippled body of the assistant's girlfriend's body (she's committed suicide because of her boyfriend's death), he not only performs world-class plastic surgery to make her beautiful and completely sound of limb, but he apparently decides she would look better as a blonde (with a built-in Carnaby Street sixties hairstyle).


Night Creatures

Peter Cushing in Night Creatures (dir. Peter Graham Scott, 1962).

Another Hammer film starring Cushing: it's on the same disk as The Evil of Frankenstein, as part of the Hammer Horror series. UK title: Captain Clegg. Not really a horror film; more of a semi-swashbuckling (in a gloomy way) graveyard pirate yarn. Pleasantly moldy historical fantasy.

Lanny Quarles offers the best description of the Hammer aesthetic I can imagine: "For me Hammer is all about the color saturation and the horsefacedness of it all. Velvet long tooth cardboard gothness."


The Evil of Frankenstein

Kiwi Kingston (or possibly a dummy wearing his costume and makeup) and Peter Cushing in The Evil of Frankenstein (dir. Freddie Francis, 1964).

The third installment in the Hammer Frankenstein series is the only one that Terence Fisher didn't direct. Cinematographer Freddie Francis does a pretty good job of carrying on his style, right down to the cleavage fetish (when I think about it, that was probably more of a general Hammer thing than a Fisher thing per se). The monster in this one is terribly dull and lumpish: his head looks like a shoebox coated in papier-mâché. Cushing, as usual, is the reason to watch, although he doesn't really live up to the evil of the title: in fact, compared to his murderous demeanor in the first two films, here he's an affable, misunderstood guy. Katy Wild plays a sweet-natured deaf-mute village girl whose face, for some reason, is as pasty and seasick-looking as the creature's. Honestly, beyond some attractive matte paintings and such, there's not much to recommend this, but now I'm committed to finishing out the series.


Four Sided Triangle

"An empty mind ... and a new beginning": Barbara Payton in Four Sided Triangle (dir. Terence Fisher, 1953).

Along with Stolen Face, this early Hammer film is one of Fisher's signs of predisposition toward the Frankenstein story. Two boys (Bill and Robin) and a girl (Lena) grow up together. Bill and Robin both love Lena, but Lena only loves Robin, and she marries him. Bill and Robin just happen to have invented a machine that can reproduce matter (poetically named "The Reproducer" by Bill, though Robin helpfully points out that it might just as easily be called a "Duplicator"), so unbeknownst to Robin, Bill uses it to make a copy of Lena (with her willing cooperation, and the assistance of his very responsible adoptive father, who's a doctor and decides the risks are not that severe). Since the new Lena (now named "Helen") is an exact duplicate, however, she still loves Robin. What to do? Wipe her brain free of all memories, of course, so they can start from scratch. Guess how good an idea that turns out to be. There's a Lacanian allegory of something in all this. Probably the Hollywood star and genre system as filtered through the low-budget British knockoff industry. Or dumb blonde jokes. Maybe both.


The Revenge of Frankenstein

Peter Cushing and Francis Matthews in The Revenge of Frankenstein (dir. Terence Fisher, 1958).

The second movie in the series makes it click for me: Fisher not only thinks the real monster is Baron Frankenstein; he thinks this makes him the most interesting character. The creature functions in Revenge, as in Curse, only as a symptom. In order to stress the point, this creature (Michael Gwynn) even starts out as handsome, in a gangly English way at least, and when he does turn ugly, it's with a minimum of makeup. The small killing rampage he goes on serves mainly to emphasize Frankenstein's sociopathically callous irresponsibility for creating him. Although he is more sympathetic than Christoper Lee's zombie boogeyman in Curse, he's still a far cry from Shelley's original philosopher creature or Boris Karloff's tragic idiot. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is a suave, determined fiend. By the end of the film, Cushing has fully refined his trademark aura of ironic Nietzschean anti-villainy.


The Curse of Frankenstein

Peter Cushing in The Curse of Frankenstein (dir. Terence Fisher, 1957).

The first in Hammer's Frankenstein series. After seeing some of Fisher's early crime films, with their distinctive, not unappealing, British drawing-room dullness, I have a whole new perspective on his and writer Jimmy Sangster's Shelley adaptation (Sangster, by the way, was assistant director on all the Hammer noirs I've seen so far). What makes Fisher interesting, in an anthropological case-study kind of way, is the same thing that makes him minor: he has no idea how to handle the sensationalistic material he is drawn to. Or he has an idea that flickers to life from time to time, but it is always damped by his obsessive urge to present scenes of basically polite--albeit sometimes homicidal--people engaging in long, repeated bouts of mildly heated disagreement. This is only offset in Curse by Christopher Lee's lurid creature makeup: he looks like he has moldy birthday cake all over his face. That and Fisher's ongoing professional interest in cleavage, which he indulges in this case with both Helen Court as Elizabeth and Valerie Gaunt as the maid Justine. Somehow Fisher's lack of natural feeling for the conventions of the crime and horror genres translates into a queasily repressive formalism that results in a distinctive style after all. And as I write this, it occurs to me ... couldn't the same thing be said, on a much larger scale, about Hitchcock?