Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'The Creeping Flesh' is a neat gothic horror flick

The Creeping Flesh (1973)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Lorna Heilbron, Christopher Lee, George Benson and Hedger Wallace
Director: Freddie Francis
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A 19th century paleontologist (Cushing) uncovers what he first believes is the missing evolutionary link between apes and men, but later finds it to be the skeleton of a demon, a skeleton that flesh appears on when it becomes wet. He devises what he believes is a inoculation against evil, injects his innocent daugther with it... and that's when the nightmare begins.

"The Creeping Flesh" is a decent chiller that is a bit slow in getting started, but once it gets going, it's a riveting experience. It's got Peter Cushing giving one of his best performances as a mentally unstable scientist, Christopher Lee at his most effective as a monstrous villain hiding behind a veneer of respectability, and the unique-looking Lorna Heilbron as a gorgeous and completely deranged young woman.

Out of all the films that uses Victorian-style fantasy, horror, and pseudo-science, this is perhaps the film that captures the sexual repression and misogynism that was at the heart of so much of Victorian thought. And Cushing and Heilbron capture this mindset to a tee.

It may not be the best horror film ever made, but "The Creeping Flesh" definitely captures the mood of "gothic horror" that I was shooting for back when I worked on the Ravenloft line. It's also a film that fans of both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee will be happy for seeking out.

(It might be a bit hard to find, though... near as I can tell, the film is officially out of print. still has some copies for sale, and I suspect it might be rented from various outlets as well.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

'Scream and Scream Again' is a movie as pointless as Cushing's appearance in it

Scream and Scream Again (1970)
Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Marshall Jones, Peter Cushing and Christopher Matthews
Director: Gordon Hessler
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

One day, during the Swingin' Sixties, three clerks collided in the hall of American International Productions. Each and been carrying a film script--one was a supernatural/political thriller set within a fictitious East bloc country, the other was a modern-day psycho-vampire flick set in London, and the third was a mad doctor/Frankenstein flick--and the pages went everywhere. They tried their best to sort them out properly, but in the end the three scripts were hopelessly jumbled together. In the hopes of covering their sloppiness, they simply put the three mish-mash "scripts" in for review. One ended up being gree-lighted by an indifferent executive. A shooting script was then approved by a drunk producer. Directors went about finding actors, and soon principle photography on "Scream and Scream Again" was underway.

I don't know if that story accurately describes how "Scream and Scream Again" came to be produced, but it's a more generous explanation than one that assumes this incoherent and disjointed movie was intended to be this way.

For more than 3/4ths of the picture there is barely a connection between the various plots, except for a single actor who crosses over between the two. And when they do come together, it's only barely and it's not in any way that seems terribly well thought out. (A sign of the complete confusion that reins in this film is even evident in the theatrical preview where the actor who is identified as Peter Cushing is actually Marshall Jones.)

The story, such as it is, starts with a series of "vampire murders" in London. It turns out that these are being perpetrated by the creation of a mad scientist (Vincent Price) who is working as part of a global secret scientific society to create a superior human race through surgery. When the police refuse to investigate due to political pressure a young coroner (Christopher Matthews) starts doing his own investigation. He is soon in over his head and that's when things get really stupid.

Although Cushing, Lee, and Price get top billing, Cushing is only in one scene (and it's a pointless one at that) and Lee's presence isn't much more than Cushing's. Price's role is larger and very important to the story, but his screen time is still very limited and he doesn't have much to do. His presence is almost as big a waste as that of Cushing and Lee.

And the score, the easy-listening rock/jazz fusion score, is almost too painful for words!

All in all, this film should go on the "must-miss" list, except for those who might be looking for the worst "day-for-night" shots since Ed Wood stopped making Z-grade thrillers and turned to Z-grade pornos. It makes the worst of the Hammer Film efforts look like the work of Orson Wells. What's even more embarrassing for this film is that it looks like it probably had a bigger budget than several Hammer Films combined, based on the number of locations and aerial shots featured.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mile-stone first Kung Fu vampire movie

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1973)
Peter Cushing, Julie Ege, David Chiang, and Robin Stewart
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The year is 1904. Decades have passed since Dr. Van Helsing first took up arms against the cult of vampires, and his struggle has brought him to China. While guest-lecturing at a university, Van Helsing is approached by His Ching (Chiang), who, together with his brothers and sister, have dedicated themselves to ridding his native village of the Seven Golden Vampires which have terrorized it for centuries; they require Van Helsing’s expertise in vampire-killing to augment their own considerable martial arts skills, however. Van Helsing and his son Leyland immediately offer their expert services. After wealthy Swedish adventuress Vanessa Buren provides funding, they embark upon the long and dangerous trek to the isolated village of Ping Kuei, facing both bandit lords and vampire minions before the final apocalyptic showdown between the vampiric army of the Seven Golden Vampires and Van Helsing’s band of heroes. Then, as the smoke is clearing, and heroes and villains alike are taking stock of their dead, Van Helsing’s arch-nemesis Dracula makes his presence known—and only one of them will walk away from this final confrontation.

When it was released, “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” was something new and spectacular. It was the first serious effort to mix the horror film genre with the martial arts genre. With everything from “The Bride With White Hair” to “Blade” to “Vampire Effect” on our shelves, this movie may not seem like a big deal, but when Hammer and the Hong Kong-based Shaw Bros. production company teamed up, they were blazing new territory.

“The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” is a film with great potential and an even greater premise, but in the final analysis it fails to live up to both. While there are some great touches in the film surrounding Chinese vampire lore—the lesser vampire minions of the Seven Golden Vampires are “hopping vampires” and shrines to Buddha repulse the evil undead, not just the typical cross—and Cushing and the rest of the cast deliver fine acting performances, the martial arts side of the film is quite lackluster, even by the standards of Shaw Bros. movies of the 1970s. The big battle between the vampire army and the vampire-busting martial artists might have been more exciting if the martial arts displays had been. Certainly, that climactic battle had plenty of horror—with some quite unexpected twists and deaths as it unfolds—but its Kung Fu is weak.

On the upside, Cushing is a joy to watch as always (despite the fact that the actor was dealing with health issues and severe depression following the death of his wife), and his Van Helsing is again a fun mix of scholarly dedication and grim, determined action. He has great on-screen chemistry with everyone in the supporting cast—particularly Ege and Stewart. The addition of Leyland Van Helsing, the son of the great vampire hunter, is a nice addition to the mythos, and it’s too bad that nothing more came of that. (Hammer was always throwing in great characters in the Dracula films that never developed into anything—such as Father Sandor from “Dracula: Prince of Darkness.” But in the case of the younger Van Helsing, primed to take over the vampire-busting franchise, if the character was added simply because the film was deemed to need a vibe younger than the ailing Cushing, or if there were ideas of plans for a new Dracula/Van Helsing direction, “Legend” was destined to be among Hammer Films’ final productions.

Speaking of Dracula, readers have probably noticed that he’s only been mentioned in passing during this discussion. That’s because when Baker and the actors and the rest of the crew were all done with “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires,” Dracula was nowhere to be found in the story. In fact, it was Hammer executives who insisted that Dracula be added to the film, so Cushing was called back for an additional scene. An opening sequence featuring Dracula (played by John Forbes-Robinson) was hastily thrown together, along with a denouement that had Van Helsing dispatch Dracula without even being missed by his companions who stepped outside a moment before the Prince of Darkness revealed himself. I really can’t imagine what the people at Hammer were thinking; I think the pointless presence of Dracula in “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” weakens the film rather than strengthens it.

By the way, I recommend you get the version of “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” that Anchor Bay released as part of their Hammer Collection. Both the DVD and the VHS versions contain the US release of the movie that was titled “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula.” The bit of film butchery is an example of how editing can make or break a film—and in the case of this movie, the editing definitely broke it. They took an entertaining, straightforward vampire/kung-fu hybrid adventure film and turned it into a confusing mess. When the Americans were done transforming “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” into “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula,” they had a movie that even Ed Wood and Uwe Boll would be ashamed to be associated with.

(Trivia: This was the fifth and final time Peter Cushing would play Van Helsing.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

'The Gorgon' is a Hammer Films masterpiece

The Gorgon (1964)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Barbara Shelley, Christopher Lee and Richard Pasco
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When the spirit of the sole surviving Gorgon sisters of Greek legend rises again to plague a Balkan village, The doctor in a small Balkan village (Cushing) attempts to cover up the fact that citizens are being turned to stone under the full moon, even as a visiting scholar (Lee) attempts to determine the fate of a colleague.

"The Gorgon" is a curious mixture of elements, being part ghost movie, part romance movie, part fantasy epic--but all the elements congeal into a fabulous horror film.

With the usual lush sets that marked Hammer Films of this period, and the usual topnotch direction from Terence Fisher, we have a film that is gorgeous to look at. Add a great script being performed by a fantastic cast, some of whom are in parts we don't typically see them in (Christopher Lee is the monster-busting scholar here, while Peter Cushing is the antagonist who may or may not be in league with the monster) but all of whom are at the top of their game.

"The Gorgan" contains a number of truly chilling moments and the script features a couple of twists and turns, so that the viewer is kept guessing as to who is actually host to the gorgon's spirit until it is revealed. Even better, the final confrontation between the heroes and the Gorgon is one of the most dramatic endings to a Hammer film, period! (The film loses a bit of steam as it heads toward the climax, but the finale more than makes up for the slight drag.)

"The Gorgon" is one of the most underrated horror flicks from Hammer Films. For years it was unavailable even on VHS, but last year Sony finally released four Columbia-distributed Hammer Films in a multi-movie set as part of their "Icons of Horror" series. Get it. All four films in the set are excellent, with the "The Gorgon" being the very best.