Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Assembly Line: Part four - Hertz and Soul

Forget the previous films - again.  This time the Baron is not the villain, only a chilled cat in the mood for some soul.

In Frankenstein Created Woman, once again the idea of Hammer's Frankenstein films forming a coherent series is challenged. Cushing's Baron is an altogether less malevolent and ruthless figure here, apparently more concerned with the consequences of his experimentation. Not only that, but he seems to have gone a bit 'emo', now fixated upon metaphysics and the human soul rather then the charnal house raw material of his usual stock and trade.
And full marks to Hammer for trying something new.  The Frankenstein series may be far less consistent in over-arching narrative their Dracula sequence, but turn this to their advantage by telling a greater variety and style of stories.

The Baron also appears to have lost the use of his hands, which remain gloved throughout the whole film (and even while carrying Susan Denberg around in those iconic but mendacious publicity shots).  Frustratingly, a single line of dialogue could have explained this sudden disability, and the climax of the next film certainly does, but it's a major plot point simply left hanging.
The justification for it is clear enough, however: Frankenstein wouldn't need to rely on Thorley Walter's bumbling Dr Hertz if he was physically whole, and he certainly wouldn't need someone else's Hans.

The real surprise is the way that the production treats Polish-born Susan Denberg. Despite those bandage-bikini promotional images, Hammer had yet to hit it's early 70s exploitation period, and they actually give the August 1966 Playmate a challenging acting role - a dual role, no less. Not only that, but the supposed physical unattractiveness of her initial character is also intrinsic to the plot of the film - refreshingly unpredictable writing for a beautiful up-and-coming actress. As the disfigured Christina, Denberg is an extremely sympathetic figure and her relationship with Hans is touching but ultimately tragic.
The vile intercession of three proto-Clockwork Orange privileged thugs (one of them played by a young Derek Fowlds prior to Basil Brush) begins a series of events leading to the deaths of the two innocent lovers. It also provides the Baron with a fresh female cadaver, and access to the guillotined Han's soul.

Hans regards the three sadistic Toffs warily.  Basil Brush's friend Mr Derek is on the far left.
The Baron takes care of the tricky soul transmigration business, while Hertz is able to surgically cure Christina of her previous physical ailments (which quite naturally has the side-effect of turning the previously dark-haired girl blonde.)
The result is a revived and child-like woman who unfortunately shares her perfect body with the vengeful soul of her unjustly-executed boyfriend.
Seduction and gruesome murder soon follow ...

So, there is far more to this story than the simple 'Frankenstein creates a female monster' direction which the publicity encouraged us to expect. Of all the films in this series, this one sidelines the Baron the most, the major villains being the trio who earn Christina/Han's bloody revenge, but Cushing does get a brilliant entrance and then proceeds to enliven and enrich any scene he appears in, as usual.

The Baron finds himself having to depend upon Thorley Walter's Dr Hertz.
Famously, Martin Scorsese picked Frankenstein Created Woman as part of a 1987 National Film Theatre season of his favourite films, saying: 
"I like all Hammer films. If I singled this one out, it's not because I like it the best - it's a sadistic film, very difficult to watch - but because, here, they actually isolate the soul: a bright blue shining translucent ball. The implied metaphysics are close to something sublime". 
Quentin Tarantino is obviously also a fan, owning one of the only 16mm prints of Frankenstein Created Woman.

This was to be not only Susan Denberg's only role for Hammer, but her last film.  A victim of early show business success and late sixties drug culture, she suffered a major breakdown and was hospitalised shortly before she was to star in the film which made replacement Marianne Faithful famous: Girl on a Motorcycle.

Avoiding attention and publicity to this day, Susan Denberg's iconic association with this film has never-the-less given her lasting fame in the Hammer house of horror.

Susan Denberg with her co-star in happier times.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Peaking Man

A film currently bringing the soaring spectacle of the Himalayas and the panoramic flatness of the Kiwi vowel sound to the big screen also movingly evokes a tragic event in New Zealand history.

We saw Everest recently, and despite the fact that everyone knows the ending, and perhaps can even recall the very words of Rob Hall's final, heartbreaking message to his wife, it is a gripping and spectacular film. We have never set foot on Everest, but were fortunate enough to spend almost two months in Nepal, a year and a half before these tragic events.

We elected not to visit base camp, which is (as the film suggests) something of a rubbish tip out-of-season, but instead aimed for a prominence on the east side of Pumori (the peak facing Everest which Guy Cotter is shown leading a commercial expedition on) called Kala Patthar (Hindi for 'black rock'). This would take us as high as we can ascend without a climbing permit, and also give a spectacular view of the Great Mother Goddess of the Himalayas.

I kept a diary of our entire time in Nepal and dug out the entry covering the 'summiting' of our trek. My writing is far from stellar but surprises me with it's frankness, particularly the opening which made me believe that I was experiencing a true enactment of Jon Pertwee's famous line about why Earth-bound Doctor Who stories are more frightening - "There's nothing more alarming... than finding a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec"

We were far from London, of course, and the other reason for the sleepless nights was the scarcity of high-altitude oxygen: sudden whooping gasps for air often shocking us awake as sleep's shallow breathing starved our depleted lungs even further.

Despite such tribulations, and the fact that my constantly upset digestive system eventually led to kidney failure on our way home, this day remains one of the best experiences of our lives.

8/12/94 - Lobuche (4940m): Day 13 of Himalaya trek

Star trekker - Rose enroute to Lobuche the previous day

It's another bloody sleepless night. The snoring, the cold, and to top it all off, my stomach decides it would be great for a game of soldiers to start playing up again. During one of my undeniable nocturnal visits to the out-house, I push the door open to find it partially blocked by a copious amount of the substance which is usually meant to fall through the hole in the floor.

I'm still trying to recover from the shock of this when I realise that the tiny hut is also occupied, but not by anything human. A huge, shaggy, heavy-breathing figure starts stamping on the wooden floor and shoving the door closed again. What scant control I still had over my bowels almost completely disappeared - and I still don't know how or why there was a Yak in the toilet. Needless to say, I took my custom elsewhere.

Anyway, today is the big day - we reach the final and highest point of our trek - Kala Patthar at 5,644.5 m (18,519 ft). The view of Everest is apparently the best available for non-climbers.

Dawn finally arrives, and with it comes cryogenic temperatures. Mainly because of this, we hit the track as soon as possible, not wanting to risk hypothermia by sitting around inside.

Eventually the sun reaches us and our extremities thaw. It is yet another gorgeous day and we're enormously relieved that we are going to have the best views of the entire trek under a clear blue sky.

After a long and exhausting walk over moraines (the high altitude is really telling and breathing is difficult) we finally arrive at Gorak Shep around 10.00am. (This tiny settlement at the foot of Pumori is at the outer edge of human habitation, perched at 5164m and apparently the original Everest Base Camp)

There is usually a lake here, but in these drier months it now resembles a small desert plain. Not having to worry about getting our feet wet, we walk across it to the base of Kala Patthar, and to our dismay feel completely knackered already.

Walking across a 'lake' at Gorak Shep. Kala Patthar stands at the far shore,
and Pumori looms beyond it.

The final 500m of the climb itself is probably the most prolonged, strenuous effort we have ever made. Muscles and lungs cry out for oxygen which just isn't there, legs feel as if they're wading through thigh-deep mud, and, in Rose's case, a headache (the very first, but not critical in itself, sign of altitude sickness) also joins the party.

We begin by taking a brief stop after every 25 paces or so, but the strain of having to start again leads us to discover that it's actually easier to keep going with deep, rhythmic breathing and very short, mechanical steps.  Any interruption in our breathing cycle sends us straight back to square one.

The final part of the climb is a gigantic pile of rock slabs which lie across each other like enormous collapsed dominoes. This rock climb at least allows us to use our arms as well as our legs and - very out-of-breath, we finally reach the top.

The view is also breath-taking, in fact it's the most incredible thing I've ever seen.

The view across the Khumbu valley to Everest (left-most peak)

Everest is easily identified as it has an aura of wind-blown snow behind its peak - the only mountain high enough to have this 'halo'  We also hear and see various small avalanches, tumbling from the flanks of nearer mountains.

Was the view worth the literally heart-stopping climb? Absolutely, definitely, positively! A fitting climax to our trek.

We share some of my Islay single malt - a miniature kept for just this occasion, gorge ourselves on food, collect various candidates for Dad's rock collection, and then head back down. The rest of the day is spent back-tracking and is quite insignificant in comparison.

(And that's it - obviously I was suffering from complete clueless-ness as to how to sum up or bring the account of such an incredible day to a fitting close. As with almost everything, I'm going to blame the thin oxygen - but will say that I recall we managed to sleep relatively well that night!)

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Rocketry in the UK

A British-based titular scientist hero starring in several science fiction television serials, also adapted for the big screen by a British horror film studio, and played by a procession of different actors. Who?

A new series of Doctor Who has just begun, which I hope to see eventually.  But I've decided to mark the occasion by looking at the BBC's original scientific adventurer to whom the Doctor owes a considerable debt: Professor Bernard Quatermass. 

Reginald Tate
Preceding Doctor Who by ten years, creator Nigel Kneale introduced his character to the world in a live six-part television series which screened in 1953 called The Quatermass Experiment. Played by Reginald Tate, this serial gripped the imagination of a Britain which was still experiencing post war rationing and eager for escapism which also played to the growing unease of nuclear science. The tragedy of astronaut Victor Caroon and his eventual fate in the rafters of Westminster Abbey became an instant classic of the genre. 

John Robinson
The sequel, inevitably called Quatermass 2 screened two years later in 1955. This time taking cues from McCarthy-ist hysteria against the perceived communist threat.  In the first of many re-castings John Robinson took the title role this time, (at very short notice after Reginald Tate's sudden death), and the Professor's struggle against an insidious extraterrestrial incursion once again captured the imagination of the British public. A third series was soon commissioned.

Andre Morell
Quatermass and the Pit (1958) was written by Kneale as a response to the shocking appearance of race riots in Notting Hill, London. Quatermass is this time portrayed by Andre Morell (first choice for the role since 1953 and justifying this preference with what many regard as the definitive portrayal), takes less of a lead role this time. The story itself is perennially praised - an eerie and prescient examination of otherworldly genetic engineering, race memory and Lovecraftian manipulation of humanity. 

It was to be twenty years before Quatermass returned to television. Having tried to sell the BBC on a fourth Quatermass serial since the early 70s, Kneale finally took his most successful creation to Thames television.  The result was a four part mini-series simply called Quatermass (although it was also edited together as a 100 minute film titled The Quatermass Conclusion, intended for overseas cinema release).
John Mills
I have very fond memories of this production (which I seem to recall was somehow broadcast over two nights here - perhaps it was the 100 minute version?) and the dying Professor's climactic sacrifice, aided by his long-sought granddaughter, was one of the most moving sequences I had ever seen.  Although averaging eleven million viewers in Britain, the production was deemed a disappointment and Kneale himself was dissatisfied with John Mill's performance. Personally, I enjoyed him very much, and visually, can draw a straight line to Andre Morell's depiction two decades prior. 

Jason Flemyng
In 2005 BBC four undertook what was to be the second remake (see 'under the Hammer') of The Quatermass Experiment as a live 2 hour production. It actually under-ran by 20 minutes due to nervous adrenaline speeding up the actors' performances, but was well-received due to the quality cast.  An upcoming actor called David Tennant (Dr John Briscoe) accepted the lead in Doctor Who during filming, causing Jason Flemyng (the fifth TV Quatermass) to change a line and greet him as "Doctor" instead of "John". Flemyng himself is the son of Director Gordon Flemyng who helmed the Amicus Dalek films in the early 1960s, the second one co-starring Andrew Keir who would go onto play Quatermass himself (also see below).
I thought this live production was an entertaining 'experiment', but missed the presence of the monster which they elected not to attempt. (I'm shallow that way). 

Under The Hammer

Having originally created a niche adapting beloved radio serials like Dick Barton, Hammer moved on to doing the same for popular television productions.  Nigel Kneale's teleplay The Creature, starring a well-known television actor called Peter Cushing, was successfully remade for cinema as The Abominable Snowman, and soon eyes turned to Kneale's most famous creation...

Brian Donlevy
The 1955 big screen adaptation of The Quatermass Experiment highlighted the horror aspects of the script (the first E in experiment is deliberately dropped from the title) and is a very memorable production, if not always for the right reasons. An American actor was deemed necessary for overseas appeal, so Brian Donlevy was cast in the title role.  Playing the Professor as a spectacularly rude and single-minded US steer in an English china shop, his bullying portrayal repelled Kneale but has won fans due to it's sheer audacity. As one character ruefully remarks after a fiery confrontation with the famous space program pioneer: "I think we've just been given the rocket!" 
The film was successful enough to encourage Hammer to write their own Quatermass script. Kneale refused the rights to use his character however, so X the Unknown went ahead the following year with Dean Jagger playing a Dr Adam Royston.

In 1957, Donlevy was back - making him the only actor to have played Quatermass more than once on-screen, in a tense and atmospheric retelling of the second television serial.

Andrew Keir
It took ten years for Hammer to adapt the third Quatermass serial, but it was worth the wait. Quatermass and the Pit (1967) was the character's first appearance in colour, and the result is a tight, exciting and genuinely scary realisation of what is probably the best Quatermass story. It is also regarded by many as one of the very best Hammer films, and even Kneale was happy, finding Andrew Keir to be a far more acceptable leading man.

Hammer made the 'Pit's' mummified Martians more Gargoyle-like (right),
but the original TV version remains the more iconic (left)

Radio times

Having killed off the character, Kneale saw no reason to revisit Quatermass, until the BBC approached him in 1995 with the idea of a one-off radio play as part of series looking back at the 1950s.

This grabbed the writers attention and the result is a fascinating docu-drama, The Quatermass Memoirs, which inspired me to write this post.  Andrew Keir plays Quatermass for the second time, in retirement but reluctantly consenting to an interview where he recalls his first three encounters with the unknown, interspersed with audio clips from the original television serials. At the same time, Nigel Kneale himself talks about the concerns and fears prevalent in the 1950s which inspired him to write the serials: the atom bomb, cold war conspiracies, racial tension and general mistrust of the advancement of science are all touched upon, also punctuated with contemporary news recordings.
It is a brilliant and compelling piece of writing: a master story-teller utilising the audio medium to it's fullest to summarise and farewell his best-known character.

The Quatermass Memoirs concludes on a poignant note, with the ageing Professor preparing to leave his cottage in the Highlands to return to London, precipitating the events which we know will soon lead to his death.
Kneale himself was to pass away in 1996, the same year The Quatermass Memoirs was broadcast.  In an obituary, the Guardian wrote:

"(Kneale's) place is secure, alongside Wells, Arthur C Clarke, John Wyndham and Brian Aldiss, as one of the best, most exciting and most compassionate English science fiction writers of his century."

Nidel Kneale: 1922 - 2006

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Assembly line: Cutaway - The Drac Pack

What does the sinister aristocracy of Hammer Film's two most enduring film characters have to do with the glitzy celebrity of Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis jnr?

Poster by Mad magazine maestro Jack Davis.
In 1969 Sammy Davis Jn and Peter Lawford filmed a sequel to their 1968 collaboration Salt and Pepper, called One More Time. Marking the directorial debut of fellow Rat Packer Jerry Lewis, this unremarkable film was written by non other than Jon Pertwee's brother, playwrite and screenwriter Michael Pertwee.
In a brief interlude from the knockabout plot involving  Lawford inheriting an English castle when his titled twin brother is murdered, Sammy Davis jnr discovers a hidden passageway behind a bookcase. Following it to the castle dungeon he is shocked to encounter Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein and Christopher Lee's Count Dracula.

"Aha, we have a visitor."

"Won't you join our little party?"
Hammer's Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula, directed by, umm, Jerry Lewis
His character Charles Salt might flee in terror, but Davis jnr himself would have been in heaven.  He was a passionate fan of Hammer Films and adored the two iconic actors who gave these brief, uncredited appearances.  Peter Cushing takes up the story in his autobiography, Past Forgetting:
"The indefatiguable and extraordinarily talented Sammy Davis Junior, asked me if I would do him a favour by appearing for a few seconds in his 1969 production of One More Time, which would only involve a morning's work. He had already shown such kindness and hospitality to Helen and me: first night tickets for his shows at the Paladium, dinner afterwards at the White Elephant club, and endless appreciation for the enjoyment my performances had given him.  I happily agreed, and he took us both out to lunch when my stint was finished.  A fortnight later, twelve bottles of the finest champagne and a colour television set were delivered to our house in Whitstable, with a note of thanks from Sammy, and his director Jerry Lewis.
Moreover, when Helen was so ill, he sent her a large bouquet of flowers, with a little message: 'get well soon, love Sammy'."
The Candy Man Fan 
In The Christopher Lee filmography, by Tom Johnson, Mark A. Miller, Lee recalled: 

"Sammy was a tremendous fan of Hammer films. He'd seen every one of them and knew every part I had played. We became pretty close friends; and when he did One More Time he did ask me and Peter if we would do this as a favour for him, just for the fun of it and we did. Sammy was one of the great personalities of show business, and one of the most talented ... I always got the impression that Jerry Lewis really thought that this [cameo] was gilding the lily a bit...  but he gave in because Sammy said , 'This is what I want, and I am insisting."

"Marvelous actors and real gentlemen. It was a pleasure to work with those fine men."
Jerry Lewis
Sammy Davis jnr employed Lee a few years later to play Lucifer (who else) in a 1973 television pilot called Poor Devil. The 'Candy Man' himself played a lowly demon charged with winning the soul of Jack Klugman. 
Adam West also appeared. 
No, I'm not making any of this post up. How could anyone claim that Hammer Films, The Rat Pack, Doctor Who and Batman were ever connected unless it was actually true?
As for One More Time itself, I haven't seen it and am yet to even find a remotely positive review. Fortunately, almost the entirety of Cushing and Lee's appearances can be seen at the beginning of this trailer, so I won't ever need to.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Under the Influenz

What doesn't kill you makes you... wish it would?

It's been  a long time - much longer than I ever promised myself I'd allow to pass between blog posts. It's also been a very trying couple of weeks but the result has been that I now realise I've probably never had the 'flu' in my life before.  It is not a cold, it is not a nice couple of days tucked up in bed, it is not a joke.
In  late 1918 New Zealand lost almost half as many people to influenza in two months as it had in the entire first World War.  The name comes the Italian word for 'influence', meaning that their astrologers believed this most unpleasant of viral blights was a direct result of some malign cosmological affect.

I'd best not dwell on having to miss a school friend's long looked forward to 50th birthday celebration, or a running event I'd trained for months for (perfect weather on the day, incidentally). And I certainly won't linger on the fact that I undoubtedly gave it to my lovely wife who only now is beginning to eat again and return to work.

Good things have happened too, not the least of them being finally recovering, but also successfully test-piloting a night shift from home (the result of months of careful diplomacy and fumblingly cobbling together an entirely different way of working which can still satisfy a barrage of impatient deadlines).

An exciting writing opportunity may be about to coalesce (or not) and a chance to sponsor (in a tiny way) an independent creator whose podcasts have given me much joy over the past few years has left me feeling unaccountably happy, particularly as the general response to his invitation to help has been extremely encouraging.

Despite feeling like a very worn insole bearing the weight of someone sweatily enjoying life a hell of a lot more than me, I managed to do a little creating as well.

I don't tweet and probably never will, but this illustration (knocked up in record time between coughing fits) accompanies a story about the potential mass destructiveness of twitter, when a predatory tweeting flock can round on a target and become a stinging swarm of social media wasps.  Ostracisation, job loss and worse can ensue.

Woefully un-Rugby minded, I now possibly understand more than most after having been given the apparent privilege of creating a Rugby World Cup wall chart.  Dates, times, stadium names, national flags and daylight saving adjustments in two hemispheres were scrupulously fretted over and constantly altered.  Most papers and on-line ran it throughout the country last weekend, so I guess that means it was worthwhile.

In an alternative universe, Hammer is packing out the multiplexes,
while Marvel is still making Saturday morning cartoon series for television

More personally fulfilling was this little number.  Having been invited to join a Facebook Hammer discussion Group, I fast-tracked this dubiously photoshopped pastiche to share. In some cases, these figures are composed of elements from over a dozen different pitifully-low resolution sources, and it certainly looks like it.  (Brian Donlevy's Quatermass wasn't even represented in colour anywhere!)  But hopefully it is as much fun for a Hammer fan to look at as it was for me to put together. (38 'likes' seems to indicate this might be the case).

Spot the difference
With the return of my appetite comes the return for a taste for life as well.  Good health, everyone!