Monday, 20 April 2009

J. G. Ballard 1930 - 2009

Ballard was a major writer for me, a huge influence. The news of his death is a huge shock. Early novels such as The Crystal World to later works such as Crash, High Rise and The Kindness Of Women, as well as his many short stories, were stunning works. One of those deaths where I can't help but think someone important has died.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Hammer Part 2

While I have blogged already regarding Hammer, I have been watching more films from this brilliant b-movie studio.

The Kiss Of The Vampire - Directed by Don Sharp, this is by far the greatest of the films in this grouping. Starts with the obvious cliches, a couple stranded by fate in a village near a castle, invited by strange people while horrified villagers look on. But save a slightly stiff leading man, this one is a stunner. The film starts with a funeral that is interrupted by the dead young woman’s father drunkenly putting a shovel through the heart of his vampire daughter, making people run like hell away. The strange people who turn out to be vampires are fleshed out as an interesting, complicated family who seduce the family for days before kidnapping the wife at a masked ball, having everyone say that the husband came alone. Its full of great atmosphere, the masked sequence and the strange look at a repressed marriage in many ways foreshadowing Eyes Wide Shut. I don’t say that lightly. Both films have odd, intimate atmospheres that get under your skin. This is a brilliant film of odd details, sequence upon sequence of wonderful atmospherics, leading to a conclusion that is brilliant but with a sense of humour (similar to but shot at the same time to the Birds. This is the superior film of the two.) This is the best of the Hammer vampire films, along with The Horror Of Dracula.

Brides Of Dracula & The Curse Of The Werewolf - Two Terrence Fisher gothics, both having flaws narratively made up for by stunning images and sequences. Brides Of Dracula stars peter Cushing, even though he really has a supporting part. Dracula doesn’t appear. Instead a disciple of Dracula is the dreaded vampire. We follow a school mistress, abandoned by her coachman at a village, invited to a nearby castle to stay the night by an old woman. She goes, is seduced by, and frees the woman’s vampire son, who is loose. The school mistress escapes, is found by Cushing’s Van Helsing, is sent out of danger while Cushing hunts the vampire. The vampire follows the school mistress, creates his own vampire disciples as he goes. The film is of two great sequences. The first half hour, of abandonment and going to the castle, up to the freeing of the vampire, is a terrific build, matched by the finale section, of the vampire and his brides focused on the school mistress, being hunted by Van Helsing, leading to a great windmill finale. These are terrific as they a visual sequences where there is story but plotting doesn’t get in the way of visual splendour. The bit inbetween, joining these two great sequences, is solid but has plotting concerns amidst some great mainly silent moments, but needed another pass. The film is still in the top rank, at the level of Dracula Prince Of Darkness. The Curse Of the Werewolf isn’t as solid, has a very clunky, suspense less script, but has amazing sequences and moments, scene by scene, which makes up for an obvious story and lack of momentum. It also has Oliver Reed as a werewolf. The first half hour covers the creation of the werewolf curse, telling the story of an imprisoned beggar, a cruel lord and a mute serving lady, leading to a cursed child without parents, taken in by a kindly academic. This is the best part of the film, is its own little story on life’s cruelties. Then we get into the werewolf section, of the child becoming a man, which is solid but is achingly unoriginal compared to what came before. But the film does always build great moments, and does place a great reason for the worse, not based out of being bitten by someone but more of being the victim of sin, weakness, and cruelty. The end section, where Reed becomes a werewolf (the bit you want to see for the entire film) is top class. Reed makes a great monster, is the best under the make-up.

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed & Evil Of Frankenstein - One of these Frankenstein was directed by Terrence Fisher, the other by legendary cinematographer Freddie Francis. Fisher’s Frankenstein Must be Destroyed is a late entry in the cycle and suffers from the same stop-script weaknesses as the other films mentioned above. The first twenty minutes are slow but eventually the film finds its feet, its theme being of moving a brain from one body to another. There are two distinctive areas in the film. First is the treatment of the monster. This monster looks human, has the brain of an intelligent man and can reason yet finds the world an unworkable place. But he can reason and articulate. it’s a wonderfully moving performance, giving the last third real resonance. The other area of interest is that the real monster is Frankenstein, who blackmails a young couple, essentially ruining their lives throughout the film. He rapes the woman and later kills her brutally, ruins the man professionally, is deserving of his grisly fate. Its very interesting to see a character so unlikable at the centre of a film. On the pulp site the film does have its fare share of insane asylum’s body parts, all the pulpy fun stuff. Francis’ The Evil Of Frankenstein is pulp. The film opens with a little girl witnessing her father’s body being stolen, to be used by Frankenstein, who attacks a man of the cloth within the first five minutes) We have a fairs, hypnotists, a hunchbacked mute woman, a brutally murdered burgermaster. You couldn’t accuse of it of having ideas but it is very enjoyable and atmospheric, and has a creepy, very dead-looking monster at its centre. Its kind of a freak show of a film, which is no bad thing, held together by Cushing.

The Vampire Lovers & The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires - These are two insane Roy Ward Baker films (director of A Night To Remember and Scars Of Dracula). The Vampire Lovers is the Hammer going for the lets get cash with a lesbian (but not dyke-looking) vampire, who seduces young women and confuses their fathers. Its stupid, badly scripted, doesn’t have any real pacing nor narrative momentum, made by a director who is not very interested. What it does have is lesbian vampires so all is forgiven. The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires is tosh. It doesn’t try to hide that and is oddly lovable for that. Van Helsing goes to China to fight vampires (who can do karate), has his own karate group, ends up in a Seven Samaria plot. Its dumber than Vampire lovers but made with more energy. What the film does have OTT colours, some odd looking zombie vampires, kung fu and a general weirdness. Even Dracula shows up for no real plot reason. Basically, I want a sequel. Its a film, like Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, that you can’t help but love in some way.

Night Creatures - A film about ex-pirates becoming smugglers on the English coast, directed by Peter Graham Scott, who I’ve never heard of. This is one of those likable solid films. Its not going to stun anyone with originality, has moments where the plotting could have progressed in a manner that is a tad more inventive but it has Peter Cushing as a pirate disguised as a priest, a fat nutcase whose tongue Cushing tore out and left for dead for raping Cushing’s wife, a troop of soldiers trying to shut down smugglers, a scarecrow who warns smugglers, skeleton soldiers, Michael Ripper in a larger role than normal, and Oliver Reed as the romantic lead, who attempts to marry Cushing’s daughter. So it has lots of good elements that cover the duller parts and is well worth a look.

Non-Hammer Gothic

Fearless Vampire Killers - Roman Polanksi’s Hammer homage is a fun film on its own, and is visually brilliant, but comparing the film to the source of its mockery, Hammer films, shows up the film’s lack of imagination. An old fool and a half-wit assistant arrive in a small village near a castle in winter, to find it under the threat of vampires from the castle. After a few hijacks they travel to the castle, verbally spar with the vampires, escape and accidentally cause the spread of vampirism around the world. The problem with this film is that its got a thirty minute plot with no sub-plots. The good thing about this film is Polanski the director is great at atmosphere so the pace is careful and you don’t really notice, except at the end, where you kind of wonder, is that it? Its never actually scary nor hilarious, even though it always stays amusing. Its one of those decent films where you wish they spent more time being inventive in the script to make a film worthy of its director, as well as creating incidents that would allow Polanski the range to make some proper horror sequences, and give the film some kick. It doesn’t even manage to compete with the solid to best hammer on the odd fairy story feel that they could create. If it weren’t directed by Polanski it would be seen as a good solid effort but seems slight in comparison to Knife In The Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and his brilliant early shorts.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher & The Pit And The Pendulum - Two Roger Corman films starring Vincent Price. Best get the worst out of the way first. Some of the acting around Vincent Price is stunningly bad. You get used to it and shut it out, incorporate it into the style. What’s great about these two films, apart from Price, who was born to play romantic, mad, incestuous, nutters with a tragic family past, is the writing and atmosphere. Richard Matheson wrote the scripts and they are very good, with premature burials, strange family pasts that destroy any chance of happiness, doomed romances. They are pacy, stay to be point so that even when you get ahead of the story in places, there’s always something dark and twisted coming in a few minutes. The atmosphere feels doomed, the buildings old, full of ancient chambers, family tombs, torture chambers and crumbling houses. Its terrific and a potent alternative to the Hammer films.

So that’s Hammer and their cousins. This is unlikely to be the last of the old-school horror films covered here as I have that kind of taste.

Friday, 3 April 2009

The Father of Dalton Trebeck

While researching the life of dead movie star Dalton Trebeck, I never felt the need to go into the life of his father, Gustav Trebeck (1901-1957). After all, they never met, the father marrying a nineteen year old who had been released from an insane asylum for imagining she was being stalked, before knocking her up and dying in mysterious circumstances. But the more you look into it, the more fascinating this man becomes.

By the end of world war 2, this contract player of dubious indie studios z-level films, making fifty in all within a decade and a half, mostly thankfully rotted, was in career trouble. He was a frequent co-star of a failing Bela Lugosi, viewed as a fat yet low-rent Clifton Webb, was hitting drug addiction and the blacklist. He was in fact brought to the attention of the McCarthy scum by his attempt to bugger Trotsky in Mexico not long before his death. This got the McCarthy people interested, as did a commendation for his acting ability by Stalin. It wasn't long before Gustav was on the run from the US then forgotten, because is a bad actor really of any interest to anyone.

Finding himself in London, and failing to get himself any work, even in theatre, he went into the quota quickies, always leeching onto any new black-listed actor or director than came his way (Joseph Losey kicked him in the nuts more than once, also threatening to knife him). He always hoped these people would show loyalty to a fellow lefty but all saw him as a fake. Not even Orson Welles would hire him as an extra.

With every insult he returned to the quota quickies, working as back-up to many a staple of two-days film runs backed by American studios trying to get their product into British cinemas. Working from a Yorkshire studio mostly, he supported the tawdry comedy of the Dalry Sisters (later convicted of cannibalism, their victims young newlyweds), Mick McDick (an old man who liked very short women off-stage, which somehow, due to his manner, made people feel uncomfortable), more often than not in some rambling thriller/horrors where he would be the sex-addicted killer. His most notable credit during this time was a never released film version of James Bond, made in 1953. He played M with a very Russian accent, and as a flaming homosexual. Bond was also played in a very camp way, by alcoholic forties acting legend Michael Deer, who looking down upon playing "such an appalling scallywag". The fights were laughable, the dialogue worse. It was written by Warwick Jehane the second (Grandfather of Dalton Trebeck's future master director, also on the blacklist, before returning to American television, after all that nonsense subsided.)

So he stayed in Yorkshire for a few years, on these terrible films, his girth expanding by the film, alcoholism and rumours of bisexuality out of control, before finally giving up altogether and not bothering to learn lines. In the modern era this is called doing a Brando but in that time it was called who cares, who will see this film. His acting improved a lot during this era, when he was just making things up and ignoring the story. Apparently the studios here were haunted, had aliens, had many suicides, but this might simply have been viewed as a respectable way out of a failing career.

His final role was that of a fat Dracula in a quite terrible, amazingly tacky low-budget rip-off of Christopher Lee's Hammer film. This was his only film in colour, he at one point vomiting blood on a young virgin. Gustav died halfway through the film, replaced by a dwarf-like actor. It was set in the modern-day, a bald fat Dracula hitting on hookers in Soho, slashing them to death at times also, a la Tod Slaughter. While some writers say its may have influenced Peeping Tom, can anyone really imagine Michael Powell watching a dubious Gustav Trebeck vehicle (assuming he knew who Gustav Trebeck actually was) named Dracula's Soho Virgin Bride. I think not.

As you can see, this was a man forgotten in his own time. Dalton never talked about this man, never acknowledged this man's staggering failures. Its sad but true.