Sunday, 23 August 2015

Assembly Line: Part Three - Universal Reversal

Universal Pictures were fully behind this installment, giving their blessing and their monster design , but did anyone really want, or need it?

Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

Colourful mittle-European villagers, a comedy burgomeister, immoral carnival hypnotist, a dogged chief of Police and a monster discovered preserved in ice - surely one of the Universal Frankenstein films?

Well, yes and no.  Evil of Frankenstein was distributed by Universal Pictures, but was actually the third  Frankenstein film made by Hammer .  I say third film and not second sequel because the presence of Peter Cushing is the only thing this has in common with the previous two closely-linked productions in this series.

The Baron discovers a site for thaw ice (sorry!)
So Evil is an anomaly for two reasons, it has no links with previous continuity (which is a shame as Revenge of Frankenstein set up a starting point for a following adventure very deftly) and secondly it doesn't really feel like a Hammer film, but more like a Universal film from the 1940s - somehow starring Peter Cushing, and in colour.

Chances are, this is exactly what the American distributor wanted, or at least what Hammer thought they wanted. Either way the result seems to fall between two lab stools, too Grand Guignol for Universal horror fans and a little too 'Old-school' for we Hammer-heads.

"Good on ya, Kiwi!"
One of the chief problems is from New Zealand, and he literally wears the blame. 
Very tall, gangling wrestler Ernest 'Kiwi' Kingston is cast as the monster, but sports an extremely problematic makeup, bearing an depressing resemblance to papier mache in many scenes.
Finally given the go-ahead to emulate Karloff's square-headed monster, Hammer made one of their rare missteps, perhaps trying too hard to update or put their own spin on the iconic look.

Cauliflower, anyone? 'Kiwi' Kingston (left)  in They came from Outer Space for Amicus Productions.

None of this, I hasten to add, is the fault of Mr Kingston, formerly of Banks Peninsular and a protégé of Wellington-based wrestling coach Anton Koolman.

Kingston had been a runner-up in the New Zealand Heavy weight boxing Championships in 1938 before turning to wrestling, but was also a top rugby player, equestrian and all-round sportsman. Although almost unknown in his own country, he became one of the greatest heavyweight wrestlers in Europe and Britain.

Apparently a gentlemen outside of the ring, his brief screen career included two films for Hammer and one for Amicus.  He passed away in 1992.

This will become a well-worn cliché by the time I finish looking at the Frankenstein series, but despite everything else, Peter Cushing holds this film together.  Even in a scene where he and assistant Hans don bizarre domino masks, making them look like a duo of period drama crime fighters. 

Zoltan the Mesmerist attempts to revive the comatose creature.

The opening credits, taking place over a continuous shot of Baron Frankenstein removing a heart from a corpse (Cushing was actually cutting into a cabbage, just out of frame) is both compelling and convincing.

 He even gets a couple of 'action-Cushing' sequences, including tossing a 'Roger Moore-like' aside over his shoulder before abseiling on knotted bed sheets out of a high bedroom window, towing a bed containing a grinning buxom actress across the floor as he does so.

The other scene, swinging on chains across the blazing lab at the fiery climax apparently gave Cushing third-degree burns, but seems to have done little to curb the actors fondness for throwing himself into the physicality of roles throughout the rest of his career.

"The next mad laboratory I build is going to have a fire extinguisher!" 

It seems difficult to reconcile this film, with a different background and first creature for the Baron with the two before it, and this could have been so easily fixed by altering or adding a couple of lines. The Baron himself seems to be a more sympathetic and mentally- stable character than before, hardly deserving the title of this film. 

Application of 'nerd logic' can easily overcome these inconsistencies, but perhaps getting too hung up on continuity is a modern syndrome. Having said that, Hammer's Dracula series, bar a couple of small exceptions, does seem to adhere more closely to a sequential narrative - so it will be interesting to see how well-stitched together the remaining Frankenstein films are with each other.

The end of the Baron?

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The OMG Factor

Everyone seems to have their own favourite half-remembered pre-runner to the X-Files.  This is mine, it's set in Edinburgh, and 'The truth is oot there...'

A red-headed female operative teaming up with an obsessive driven by the mysterious loss of a family member, working for a shadowy Government funded organisation which investigates the supernatural?

Inter-departmental conspiracies, a mysterious inner-circle informant and a title starting with 'The' then a letter of an alphabet, and finishing with a word starting with 'F'?

Now that the parallels with the adventures of agents Mulder and Scully have been well-and-truly stretched, laboured and over-egged, I'm going to forget all that.

Louise Jameson as Anne Reynolds and Jamres Hazeldine as Tom Crane, on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
Instead I'm going to try to remember what The Omega Factor, a forgotten 1979 BBC Scotland gem was like when I was 14 and staying up very late to watch what Louise Jameson did after Doctor Who, when everyone else had gone to bed. Of course I remember the actress formerly known as Leela in fetching roll neck sweaters, but to be honest everything else is a little vague. I recall some genuinely unnerving moments in the earlier episodes, but a feeling that it all meandered a little as the series progressed. And ultimately the final episode seemed to have too many revelations about which side everyone was actually on to really deliver a satisfying or credible ending.
 This was the very beginning of ridiculously distant 1981, and combined with the fact that I felt as if I was the only person in the entire country who stayed up to watch, this odd little programme really should have completely slid from even my televisual total recall.

Surely the only spin-off this series would ever see?

But towards the end of that year I happened across a book in a second hand shop which purported to be a tie-in to The Omega Factor series. To be honest I didn't expect much from this tatty paperback, and was very surprised to find that it was actually brilliant. Written by series creator Jack Gerson it followed the events of his opening episode, but them diverged completely from the rest of the programme (mainly the work of other writers), to deliver instead a taut and scary supernatural thriller (I recall thinking at the time that t was a little like a contemporary Dennis Wheatley tale, but better). I imagined it was what the television serial was meant to be like - if it had been afforded the budget it so clearly lacked.

What I remember most about the novel, though, was the writing. I was about to sit School Certificate English, (in fact, I wrote a book review of The Omega Factor as part of my exam), so knew next to nothing about good prose, but Gerson's storytelling spoke to me. Particularly his evocation of the relationship between main character Tom Crane and his wife, Julia. A chapter describing an idyllic Sunday morning, rising late to lounge around together surrounded by Sunday papers and the smell of freshly brewed coffee is made to sound like heaven. So much so that I think I might have decided way back then that this was the kind of relationship I wanted to aspire to, to be part of a marriage where just being together was the best possible way to spend time.

I might have re-read the book once in preceding years, and it eventually joined a stack of volumes relegated from the bookshelf to a cupboard, left be forgotten. Except that's not quite true: passages from it would still pop into my mind sometimes: Crane's well-drawn, coarse but loveable contacts and associates, his long grieving after he loses Julia in a supernaturally instigated road accident and the final confrontation when somehow she reaches from beyond to help Crane prevail.

Tom Crane confronts Edward Drexel, played by Cyril Luckham.   Drexel's  mute acolyte
 Morag in the background was played by the series creator's daughter, Natasha Gerson,
who reprises her role in the Big Finish audio production.
I hadn't realised just how much of this story had stuck with me until Big Finish released a talking book adaptation last year, read by none other than original star Louise Jameson.

The shockingly familiar passages recounted in her equally recognisable voice brought it flooding back - of all the books to have subconsciously memorised it had to be this one?

This adaptation was the 'pilot' of a new audio range of full cast dramas from this prolific company, and I had the chance to listen to the first series of new Omega Factor stories last weekend.

The Omega Factor audio release teams Anne Reynolds with Tom Crane's son, Adam, and it is sublime.
(I just wish they'd kept the original logo).
I had half expected it to be a direct continuation, set in the late '70s and following up on James Hazeldine's Tom Crane and Jameson's Ann Reynolds straight after the events of the television series. However, this box set of stories is set solidly in 2015 and the revelation that many of the original characters had since passed away, including Tom Crane (and alas, actor James Hazeldine) hit me like a frost-coated brick. Although I have a very special birthday next year it isn't often that I feel old, but this was one of those moments where I really understood that the definition of nostalgia is being hurt by the past. We've all become accustomed to some extent to real people dying of old age, but when it starts happening to fictional characters we knew from childhood then time really has passed!

I won't attempt to review the box set here, as that isn't the purpose of this already over-long post, but I will say that The Omega Factor sets a new height in Big Finish's already lofty standards of production, writing and performance. Thoroughly entertaining and scary, it's everything a continuation of this obscure little series should be - and much more.
The Greek letter Omega doesn't quite describe a full circle, and hopefully that will also hold true for 'PSI: Edinburgh' - that this is just the beginning, an 'Alpha', of many new adventures.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Assembly Line: Part Two - Changing his Mind

Freed from the shackles of Shelley's original tale, Hammer's Frankenstein comes into its own with... a cannibalistic chimpanzee called Otto and a 'monster' which looks like Michael Palin?

Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

This film is not just a sequel, but really 'the' sequel, establishing Hammer's tradition of continuing franchises. 
And unlike the original Universal Frankenstein series which followed the adventures of the monster, the Baron himself is our main character in this and the following films from Hammer.
Made back to back with Dracula and sharing some of that film's sets, Revenge reunites almost all of the production staff from the first Frankenstein film. Narratively, it dovetails perfectly, literally continuing from the last scene of Curse of Frankenstein in a superb pre-credits sequence.
As much as I love lobby cards , this hand-coloured example is an affront to the careful and striking colour used in the actual cinematography.  Cushing certainly doesn't wear a purple one-sie, for a start.
The Baron's escape from the guillotine isn't spelt out, but gradually revealed through the first part of the film and is in fact crucial to the plot of this film.  Amazingly for a script which was apparently stitched together with undue haste, Revenge of Frankenstein is one of the best written and most tightly plotted Hammer films I've so far seen.
Cushing is in brilliant form, posing as a certain Doctor Stein and running a very successful practice, stealing patients from established GPs and body parts from the poor he purports to be helping. All the while urbanely disdaining the jealous establishment and focusing on his sole obsession of creating life.
His skills certainly appear to have developed, instead of Christopher Lee's 'walking road- kill' the 'creature' this time does appear to be physically perfect, barring some careful suturing and an uncanny resemblance to a young Michael Palin. It is also an empty vessel, awaiting hunchbacked, malformed assistant Karl's brain - allowing him a new life in an healthy body. All goes well, until it is noticed that the previous test subject, Otto the chimpanzee, has developed cannibalistic tendencies since his own transplant...

Lucy the Chimpanzee with co-star Peter Cushing
Michael Gwynne's portrayal of the tragic Karl 2.0, deteriorating not only physically, but mentally, is very affecting and makes up for the absence of a more recognisably monstrous creation. In fact, on a psychological level, he is a far more frightening figure.
"Thwow him to the gwound, Centuwion - vewy woughwy!"
Apart from a depressing, but thankfully brief, veer into sadism, this film is a surprisingly classy production, dependent more on exquisite performances and well-woven drama than the gore this series is more readily associated with.
And the twist ending is a master-stroke.  If anyone was to wonder what becomes of that arm adornment in future films, I'm sure the Baron's skills are more than equal to the challenge of tattoo removal.  I hope the next films are at least half as good as this one. 
Doctor Stein and Doctor Franck - no relation.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Drawing on the Classics

Nothing could be more boring then talking about work, but the truth is, I've had some fun stuff to do recently.

Auckland Journalist Siena Yates ran a two part feature in Fairfax's Your Weekend magazine cover the last two weeks, taking a look at the perceived New Zealand ideal for men and women.

This was quite rightly deemed cover material and I snatched up the opportunity to produce the illustrations, although I was also aware this topic could be somewhat contentious. As we all know, humour is the often best approach in these situations, and Sarah the editor seemed to agree.  The Male cover was up first, and she listed these unearthed attributes, athletic, financially independent, good with a barbeque, adept with DIY, a beer drinker and, surprising no-one, an All Black with a farming background.  As I wondered how on earth I was going to combine all of these elements into a single image, she contributed the final element which suddenly made it all click together: "perhaps something like an anatomical drawing..."

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci
Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man might have been used in popular culture to the point of cliché, but he does have the advantage of having four hands to hold some tokens of the elements required (a beer can, hammer, barbeque fork and credit card).  Gumboots and an All Black jersey were easy to add and it almost drew itself.  I was keen to keep it in the style of the original drawing, rather than try to 'update' it, because why wouldn't you preserve the essence of this timeless image as much as possible?
Vitruvian Man was drawn by da Vinci around 1490, based on the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius.  He believed that the human figure was the principal source of proportion among the Classical orders of architecture, and da Vinci's figure describes geometric forms, surrounded by notes on human proportions written in his reversed 'mirror writing.

The following week's female version was arrived at very quickly with an equally well-referenced classical artwork, actually painted within ten years of Vitruvian Man, by Sandro Botticelli in Florence.
The Birth of Venus is long held as an ideal of feminine beauty, but unlike da Vinci's work is not routed in real anatomy or even physics. (As well as being improbably proportioned, Venus would not only topple over but also take the scallop shell with her).

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
The curiously linear and unfashionably 2-D approach which Botticelli takes also suited me because of the even quicker turn-around time for this cover.
Elongated neck or not, Venus proved well-suited for adaptation to a kiwi ideal, her hand positions easily able to brandish symbols of casual sophistication (a glass of New Zealand Pinot Noir) and can-do independence (a power drill). Track suit bottoms and jandals conveyed the findings that New Zealand women appear to simply care less about embodying a feminine ideal, while turning the scallop into a paua shell was as inevitable as the All Black jersey on the previous week's cover.

As I mentioned, this series of articles and covers could have been rife with difficulties, attracting the outcry which media generalisations so often do.  The fact that the subject was treated with some degree of humour appears to have distracted from this, perhaps reinforcing the conclusion that New Zealanders appear to take body image a little less seriously than some cultures do. 'On ya!

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Assembly Line: Part One - Patient Zero

No-one would associate Peter Cushing with body building, and yet that is exactly what he did over a space of twenty years in Hammer's other great film series.

Last year I finished covering the Hammer Dracula series, a mammoth nine film run which not only chronicled the misadventures of Christopher Lee's Count, but the on-going crusade of various generations of Van Helsings who all looked exactly like Peter Cushing.
Cushing carried a Dracula film twice without Lee's satanic presence and similarly, in the Hammer Frankenstein cycle, it is his Baron Frankenstein who is the lead character in each film, not the misbegotten creature.

I've always been a bigger fan of the Dracula films, preferring their sensuality and atmosphere to what essentially amounts to the gory 'body horror' of the Baron's medical malpractices, but in hearing these films praises sung by everyone from Podcasters to Martin Scorsese,  I suspect that I've probably been missing the point.

Naturally, I enjoy anything Hammer, especially if it stars Peter Cushing, and have probably seen most of these films in the distant past, but feel it's only fair to give them the same respect as the Dracula series, and evaluate them properly through fresh, newly transplanted eyes.
After all, it is this first film which not only paired Cushing and Lee for the first time, but established Hammer as the house of Horror for decades to come.

The Baron and his life-long mentor Paul Krempe in the world's first colour Frankenstein laboratory.

Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Although hated by contemporary critics, this film made 70 times it's budget on original release and its significance to not only Hammer but all modern horror cinema can't be over-stated. So I will try not to go on about it and focus on the film itself.

With severe limitations placed upon Hammer by Universal studios over any encroachment on their 1931 version (including the iconic Boris Karloff make-up) this is a perfect case of restrictive circumstances nuturing greater creativity. It was quickly recognised that the Monster (even that word had to be replaced by creature) would never replace the Karloff version in the public's acceptance, so the emphasis had to be shifted elsewhere - to Baron Frankenstein himself.  This was an extremely risky premise, the classic Monster had made such an impression on popular culture that he had achieved that rare trick of evolving from a figure of terror to a comforting icon, even in the children's toy market.  How could a mere physician rival this?  You cast Peter Cushing, of course.

The definitive Baron Frankenstein, disposing of a spare part.  In an acid bath.
Directly beneath a skylight. Note: this architectural feature may be significant later on.
I'm hopelessly biased, but even the most derisive film commentators never fail to note that he was a meticulous actor possessing skill and range which was usually superior to the productions he appeared in.  The fact that he succeeded in not only carrying this film but the ensuing half dozen sequels only confirms this.

Cushing's Baron Victor Frankenstein is charming, but ice cold in his ruthless pursuit of science.  Taking life quickly becomes merely the next practical step in his plans (involving a headfirst plunge of one victim from a balcony which still makes me wonder how the stuntman didn't break his neck - and how Frankenstein ever thought this was the best approach to obtain an undamaged brain). The Baron seems in complete control of himself, so the charge of insanity can't help him at the film's conclusion.  I strongly suspect this won't be the case as these films progress, however.

The Bloody red Baron: he wouldn't let it lie...
This productions other major departure from what had gone before was the fact that it was in colour, and the hue used mostly appears to be red, as this is as close to a splatter film as anyone would have seen at the close of the 1950s.  Severed hands and eyeballs are liberally handled, and Cushing picks glass shards from a disembodied brain which is later further damaged when the poor creature takes a shotgun blast to the head.  It's difficult to imagine the effect that all this grue had on an audience of the day, as some of it still raises eyebrows over sixty years later.

The lovely Hazel Court. Did we mention this film is in colour?
I have to be honest and say that I admire rather than love this film. It is beautifully crafted and performed and somehow seems to have dated little, truly earning the much-overused title 'classic'.  But personally, the surgical horror and violence of the whole Frankenstein sub-genre seems too exploitative for my own tastes, relying too much on revulsion and suffering.

As much as I enjoy many elements of this production I also suspect that I'm just too familiar with the basic Frankenstein story, which makes me look forward more to the many sequels, where Hammer will be forced to innovate further and flex their creative muscles.

"In my next film for Hammer, I will be utterly irresistible to women."
I'll finish by praising Christopher Lee's patchwork creature.  Cast for his height and mostly only able to act with a single eye and his body language, Lee already shows the ability to project enormous depth of characterisation and completely convince despite having very little to work with. Literally, Frankenstein 'made him'.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Listening Post

The best things in life are free

I imagine I was pretty late in discovering podcasts: regular, largely non-professional downloadable audio episodes in a themed series.
 Thanks to the generosity of of friends, I've been listening to audio books and dramas for many years but was suspicious the first time I was offered a podcast episode.  Why would I want to listen to the opinions of some fan with a microphone, who did he think he was packaging his own views up into an episode and apparently expect the same attention as a professional product?

In this case that fan with a microphone was Jim Moon of the Hypnogoria (formerly Hypnobobs) podcast, and I was extremely fortunate to have had the chance to begin with one of the very best available.  His in-depth analysis and sheer love of the two Doctor Phibes films hooked me straight away and I've listened to a huge part of his output since.  Moon has a perfect voice for radio, a bottomless knowledge of genre fiction of every kind and, best of all, seems to always strive to take as positive a view as possible of the material he's looking at.
One thing Hypnogoria has done for me is re-ignite my love of all things Hammer, and that was how I stumbled upon another first-class podcast, pretty much by mistake.  Searching under the name of that studio, I came across Hammered Horror, a show consisting of the two British hosts discussing a more obscure and perhaps unloved genre film - usually in a pub, (hence the 'hammered').  This podcast is a delight, ranging from comprehensive analysis to gleefully immature (and always hilarious) commentary which conjures many happy memories for me watching similar (and sometimes the same) films with friends.
In terms of another life-long interest of mine, I enjoy the Verity podcast, a revolving round-table discussion about Doctor Who by a group of women (who'd ever have imagined?) from Canada, the US, Australia and Scotland. Verity unsurprisingly has a feminist approach to its analysis which I generally enjoy, and works best when agent provocateur Liz Barr from Kirkcudbrightshire is onboard. Verity is smart, positive and creative, but the multiple contributor format can result in an uneven airing of views at times, despite Deborah Stanish's excellent moderating.

Hearing that one of the Verity contributors also hosted a Babylon 5 podcast, I went looking for it. I failed to find hers but did stumble across the Babylon Podcast, one of the earlier ventures into this internet medium and surely the definitive cast about the legendary mid-nineties programme.  This is due to one of the co-hosts having been a regular character on the series itself, and able to get all of the Babylon 5 cast and crew members as guests in lengthy, entertaining and very candid interviews. On top of this co-host Summer Brookes has one of the loveliest voices online.

For more mainstream science fiction cinema, the Science Fiction Film Podcast has been a delight.  It is irreverent, and borderline tourettes-syndrome in its language at times, but co-host Dean has an astonishing talent for mimickry. Effortlessly able to impersonate the entire cast of The Wrath of Khan, for example, his gift immeasureably enhances enjoyment of this cast which mixes well-researched commentary with exuberant enthusiasm for the subject.
Not every punt on a new podcast has paid off, unfortunately.  One particular cast which is an adjunct to a magazine I loved in my younger years proved to be a huge disappointment. Venal, vulgar and sanctimonious, it was a waste of data useage which I will not be repeating.

I'm happy to be able to end on a happy note though. In terms of Hammer films I have finally achieved Nirvana with 1951 Downplace. Perhaps surprisingly, it is hosted by three Americans, but their depth of knowledge and love for this most British of institutions is peerless. This podcast has covered a Hammer production each month since, and doesn't just confine itself to their horror films, but the studio's entire output. This cast is painstakingly edited, themes of any other film touched upon swimming up in the background, along with the running gag of the Captain Kronos theme sting blaring every time that production is mentioned in passing. A hilarious discussion proprosing a title sequence for the 'Hammer A-Team' of Professors Van Helsing and Quatermass, Captain Kronos and Father Sandor with the entire A-Team theme playing in the background had me gasping for breath with laughter when I listened to it while out for a run.
Say what you like about genre film and TV fans, their boundless creativity does at least allow them to share enthusiasm in lovingly crafted, skilfully produced and entertaining ways, which the rest of us can enjoy, for free!