Archive for the ‘Hammer Film Productions’ Tag

The Snorkel (1958)   1 comment

Clad in street clothes and a snorkel, Paul Decker (Peter van Eyck) seals the windows and doors of a fashionably furnished living room. Then, he blows out the gas lanterns and cranks them up, filling the room with gas. He and his snorkel hide under the floor boards, safe from the noxious fumes. The unconscious woman on the sofa is not so lucky.

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“I thought we were all wearing snorkels.”

Soon, police arrive at the Italian villa and rule the death a suicide. How else could a woman die in a locked room? Candy Brown (Mandy Miller), the woman’s daughter, disagrees and accuses Paul, Mom’s husband, of the deaths of her mother and of her father three years earlier in a diving accident. Diving-snorkel, get it? She can’t prove a thing and the local police don’t bother to investigate. No one believes her. She’s just a teenaged girl, after all.


Very subtle, Candy.

She’s also wealthy and Paul wants that cash. The death of his wife leaves Mom’s fortune to Paul, but this pesky kid keeps complicating matters by telling police and anyone who’ll listen that he’s a murderer.

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“He’s a murderer.”

Despite successfully convincing everyone else that Candy’s just a bratty, delusional kid, Paul finds her constant reminders of his recent murder off-putting. Candy’s accusations also interfere with his attempts to romance her caretaker, Jean (Betta St. John). In other words, the kid has to go. Can Paul pull off a third murder? Will the Italian police finally look more deeply into why a healthy, happily married mother would kill herself? Why, when renovating their lovely Italian villa in the late 1950s did Paul insist on keeping the gas lamps?


“Why not electricity?”

Directed by Guy Green and written for the screen by Jimmy Sangster and Peter Myers, The Snorkel boasts a creative plot and lovely black and white cinematography by Jack Asher. Anthony Dawson, the tall, long-faced criminal Ray Milland hires to kill Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder, wrote the original story for The Snorkel. An atypical Hammer film, The Snorkel is one of the zippy thrillers like Maniac and Scream of Fear Hammer made alongside their usual Gothic horrors like Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein.

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This is not Frankenstein.

The Snorkel is an entertaining, fast-paced thriller with an unusual plot and good acting. Peter van Eyck, who usually plays Nazis, does a terrific job as the homicidal stepfather and Mandy Miller convinces as the wronged daughter. Despite our knowing the identity of the killer from the beginning of the film, we’re still intrigued by Paul’s meticulous murder plot and we wonder to what lengths he’ll go to hide his crimes and get what he wants. The film doesn’t delve too deeply into background or motive, but who cares? We’re more interested in Paul’s sly machinations and Candy’s methods of stopping him to look for plot holes. Also, The Snorkel has a dynamite ending. What a fun way to spend ninety minutes!

iconsofsuspense002
“What do you mean we’re twenty feet short?”

The Gorgon (1964)   5 comments

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Things look rocky in the small German village of Vandorf.  A slew of mysterious deaths in the woods surrounding Castle Borski have the villagers scared and the police baffled.

woods
It looks friendly enough.

When they discover a young woman dead in the woods and her fiancé conveniently hanging from a nearby tree, authorities have their scapegoat.  It beats the locals blaming Megaera (Medusa’s sister), after all.  Unsatisfied with the law’s conclusions, the young man’s father, Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe) questions local physician, Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing).  Namaroff won’t let Heitz near the body of the young girl and Heitz knows something’s up.  Later, in the woods near the empty castle, he discovers what.  It doesn’t go well.

stoned
“Man, am I stoned.”

Heitz’s son, Paul (Richard Pasco) arrives in Vandorf to bury his father and brother and investigate their deaths.  Paul will have to contend with local resistance including Dr. Namaroff and his lovely nurse, Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley), and some pesky mythological creatures, if he wants the truth.

knows
“Do you think he knows I switched his coffee to decaf?”

Paul is sure the simple local folk have simply got the wrong end of the stick because there can’t possibly be a snake-haired killer lurking around an abandoned fortress.  I mean, it’s 1910!  Oh Paul, when will you ever learn?  Paul’s father left detailed notes on all he saw before fully Gorgonizing.  Is that like Martinizing?  Now his son knows how it feels to turn to stone years before ELO would sing about it.

lynne
“Don’t look at me, man.”

Anyway, Paul manages to get himself partially Gorgonized which leaves him a bit stiff and makes his hair go prematurely gray.  Carla digs the salt and pepper look and the two hit it off.  Then they all ride off into the sunset.  Not so fast, bub!  Things happen and Paul wants answers and Paul’s teacher, Professor Meister (Christopher Lee!) shows up and hassles the constabulary, but we still don’t know who’s killing everyone.

leecush
“I’m here now.  You can all relax.”

Will Paul and Carla pair off?  Will Dr. Namaroff tell Paul the truth…ever?  Will the real Gorgon please stand up?

Hammer Film stalwart Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula) directs THE GORGON as a horror/mystery.  He keeps the audience guessing and shows his creature sparingly.  Sydney Pearson and Ray Caple do a terrific job on Megaera and Fisher teases us with short glimpses of the mythical beast.  James Bernard’s score, played on an early synthesizer, the Novachord, is appropriately spooky and John Gilling’s adaptation is fun.

gorgonwild
Tonight on Gorgon wild…

THE GORGON is an entertaining film that blends an ancient myth with a quasi-modern setting.  The actors, all Hammer veterans, are talented and I love anything with Cushing and Lee.

haunty

 

Scream of Fear (1961)   3 comments

poster scream

When a film starts out with a crew of locals dredging a lake, you know you’re in for a treat.

Penny Appleby (yes, really) anyway, Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) arrives by chauffeured limousine to the home of her estranged father in Nice, but is disappointed to learn that he’s away on business.  Sure.  He hasn’t seen his daughter in ten years and he chooses this exact time to leave town.  Wheelchair-bound Penny immediately starts seeing her out-of-town dad sitting in chairs, slumped over in the pool house, and generally, dead.

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“Hi, honey.”

Oddly, these sightings prey on her mind.  Soon Penny’s stepmother, Jane (Ann Todd) begins to suggest that Penny might need psychological help.  This idea is approved by the omnipresent Dr. Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee with a French accent!).

lee
“Oui!  Oui!”

Penny’s not alone though.  Robert, the chauffeur (Ronald Lewis) is drawn to Penny.  At first, he feels sorry for the lonely girl, but as more suspicious things happen, Robert becomes Penny’s ally.  The two amateur sleuths launch a clandestine investigation into the possible disappearance and probable death of her father.  They also theorize on the reasons (money) that his death might work out well for certain people.

cutie
“I’m hot, therefore good.”

Director, Seth Holt (The Nanny) builds tension and the script by Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula) is spare and intelligent.  Cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe (The Servant), makes good use of darkness and candlelight and also does one of my favorite things…he waits.  He and Holt let the actors do their thing and allow Sangster’s twisty story to unfurl.  My one critique is Susan Strasberg.  Yes, I know her dad is Hyman Roth and taught generations how to act.  I just think he forgot to teach her.  She’s shrill and you never really connect with her and that’s her fault.  She’s the weak link in an otherwise superb thriller.  Hammer Films made a number of thriller/mysteries along with the numerous horror films the studio is famous for.  They’re not as well known as the gothic horrors, but they’re worth checking out.  This is a good one.

acting
“Stand back!  I’m acting!”

The Crimson Cult or Barbara Steele Is Green with Envy (1968)   2 comments

cult poster

British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s have a certain macabre look to them. The lighting is dim and Gothic architecture and misty moors abound. The films also look similar because they often cast a veritable repertory company of actors. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Barbara Steele, Ingrid Pitt, Patrick Magee, and American actors like Vincent Price, Burgess Meredith, and Jack Palance often appeared in low-budget films made by Hammer or Amicus Productions.

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In Britain during that era, Hammer Productions was the largest and best known of the horror houses. Hammer Productions kept the legends of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy going long after Universal Studios had forgotten them. Hammer’s horror films often starred Lee and Cushing and that alone induced people to buy tickets. At the same time Hammer was running Van Helsing ragged, Amicus Productions was also making horror films. Though Amicus made full-length films like THE DEADLY BEES and THE SKULL, portmanteau horror movies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT gained that studio the most attention.

amicus

Competing with Hammer and Amicus and sharing office space at Hammer House in London, Tigon British Film Productions made fewer films, but often used the same actors, sets, and props as the other studios. That means you can see Lee and Cushing in Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, Amicus’ VAULT OF HORROR, or Tigon’s THE CREEPING FLESH. Often directors like Freddie Francis, Peter Sasdy, Terence Fisher, and Roy Ward Baker shuttled back and forth between studios as well. All three studios showed a little gore and a little skin and all three were popular with audiences.

tigon

Tigon cast its actors for 1968’s THE CRIMSON CULT or CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR from the Hammer/Amicus horror repertory company. Most of the actors had worked together in earlier films. THE CRIMSON CULT leads Christopher Lee and Michael Gough appeared in films together including HORROR OF DRACULA for Hammer in 1958 and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORROR for Amicus in 1965. Lee and Boris Karloff starred in CORRIDORS OF BLOOD for MGM in 1958. Familiarity breeds comfort.   The fact that these seasoned actors had already worked together allowed them to converse naturally on camera. The best scenes in the film feature the leads sharing a drink and a few barbs before a fire.

lee brandy
“An then the Prime Minister said, Chris…he calls me Chris.”

After his brother goes missing, Robert Manning (Mark Eden), antiques dealer and bon vivant, travels to Craxted Lodge in fictional Greymarsh to find him. The lodge’s owner, Morley (Christopher Lee) and his niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell) invite Manning to stay at the lodge while he searches for his brother. There he meets friendly torture-device expert, Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff) and crabby Elder (Michael Gough). Naturally, Manning’s arrival coincides with the annual bacchanal commemorating the burning of an infamous witch in the village. Manning gets on well with Morley and even better with Eve. Wink wink nudge nudge. He has fun while he’s awake, but at night Manning has hallucinogenic nightmares involving ritual sacrifice and document-signing. In his dreams, Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), an ancient witch sporting green makeup and horns, and her animal mask wearing cohorts try to force Manning to sign an ancient agreement. In his dreams, he fears signing the contract will mean losing his soul.

sign here
“You sure you don’t want that TrueCoat?”

Later Manning stumbles upon secret passageways and an altar room, both of which figure prominently in Hammer films and his frightening dreams. With all the talk of contract signing, I couldn’t help thinking of other films in which the characters are coerced to ‘just sign here’. Manning’s dreams remind me of a psychedelic version of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, but with less coffee and more blood rituals.

moody
“Pentagrams are for closers.”

The interplay between Morley, Marsh, and Manning is my favorite part of the film. The screenplay by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln has enough witty banter for actors like Lee and Karloff to have fun with.  As usual, Lee plays an erudite aristocrat who tells only enough to make you suspect him of something. The looks and asides between him and Karloff are priceless. What about Marsh? Is he the crazed occultist invading Manning’s dreams? He does have a mysterious air and a weird hobby.

karloff
“Cindy-Lou who?”

Manning and Eve have real chemistry too and their mature love affair is a far cry from most of the American films released in 1968. Vernon Sewell directed THE CRIMSON CULT and it looks as if he had a blast. The party scene, the witch-burning festival, and even the costumes suggest the film-makers were enjoying themselves. Still, a few questions remain. Will Manning find his wayward brother? Will he be able to resist the beautifully verdant, but evil Lavinia Morley? Will Manning stop chugging Professor Marsh’s fifty-year-old cognac like a teenager at a keg party? And finally, who will win the mellifluous voice contest, Karloff or Lee?

 

THE CRIMSON CULT bears only a slight resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s story, THE DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE. In that, a college student who studies math and folklore begins to have dreams of witches and child sacrifice while living in an accursed house in Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, Massachusetts.   The hero also dreams of traveling to other dimensions and meeting intelligent shapes. The filmmakers decided to stick with the more corporeal aspects of the story.

dear
“He’s too old for that hood.”

THE CRIMSON CULT’s distance from Miskatonic University matters less than the presence of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff in one of his last roles, Barbara Steele with horns, and a weird party featuring guests drinking champagne off a woman’s body years before Salma Hayek did it in that Mexican vampire bar. Despite the absence of Cthulhu or even Yog-Sothoth, THE CRIMSON CULT has enough secret doorways, plot twists, and Christopher Lee to make it fun to watch.

bsteele
Understated.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared earlier in the Brattle Film Notes blog.  Here’s a link.  Brattle Theatre

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