“A Naked American Man Stole My Balloons…”

Possibly The Most Entertaining Horror Film Ever Made… 

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“I will not be threatened by a walking meatloaf!” – David Kessler. 

For me, there is no horror movie more shocking, more deliriously funny, more exhilarating than An American Werewolf In London. 

Having gained considerable success with the riotous comedy: Animal House (1978), John Landis unleashed “a different kind of animal” in 1981. People went into Landis’ next feature expecting something just as hilarious. Many walked out, clearly not prepared for the gory and grisly drama that would unfold.

The UK TV premiere came (very late at night, of course) in 1984. It was shown not long after we had bought our very first VCR. After much pleading, my father agreed to stay up and tape it for me. The morning after, watching it avidly, a strange, spine-tingling sensation soon gripped me and held my attention throughout all 97 minutes of it.

One thing for sure: there would be many repeat viewings.

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“I mean, look around. Isn’t this a fun place?”

The film’s opening shot features the Yorkshire moors at dawn. Over a montage of such serene vistas, the first of three versions of Blue Moon (by Bobby Vinton) is played. Actually, in his original script, Landis wanted Moonshadow by Cat Stevens, but Yusuf Islam wouldn’t budge. 

After hitching a ride in the back of a farmer’s truck, backpackers: David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) arrive at East Proctor, supposedly in Yorkshire, Northern England, but the location photography was done in Powys, Wales. Especially love the gentle piano score by Elmer Bernstein as they find a traditional little pub called: The Slaughtered Lamb. These exterior shots were taken outside a private house in Crickadarn, a village in Powys. 

“Those sheep shit on my pack…” 

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“‘Ere, Gladys! Tom! Did you hear the one about the crashing plane?”  

The “nice-looking group” inside the warm and cosy Slaughtered Lamb just happens to include some of the most recognisable character actors in the British film industry at that time.

That’s Brian Glover (the warden from Alien 3), the chess player telling that Alamo joke; his opponent is Rick Mayall, a well-loved TV comedy actor; David Schofield (a scheming senator in Gladiator), a disturbed darts player; and there’s even Pat Roach (who challenged Indiana Jones to a bare-knuckle fight in Raiders of the Lost Ark that very same year). These interior shots were filmed inside The Black Swan, at Martyr’s Green, in Surrey. 

“Excuse me, but what’s that star on the wall for?” 

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“You made me miss! I’ve never missed that board before…” 

This is certainly going to go down as the highlight of David Schofield’s career. No action, no gore: just a genuinely chilling moment. Still gets me three decades later. 

Taking drastic leave from The Slaughtered Lamb, after Jack dropped that bombshell, it’s back to the moors they (inexplicably) go.

As they trudge away, the heavens open. Love the way they’re bawling Italian opera without a care in the world…

“Then murder it is! It’s in God’s hands now…”

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“Ah shit! What is it?!” 

Feel the tension as we cut back to The Slaughtered Lamb and the frightened expressions on the locals’ faces as the distant cry of the werewolf is clearly audible.

“You hear that?” “I heard nothing!”

Of course, the two boys have to stop in the middle of the cold, dark and wet moorland to reassure themselves that there are no coyotes in England… 

With every viewing, the gradual loudness of the wolf’s howls is unsettling – fantastic sound effects and a skilful upsurge in suspense as the boys have nowhere to run.

And then! The howl comes (from offscreen) directly in front of them! In their panic, David slips, Jack leans in to help, and suddenly, the beast attacks. Jack is mauled to death; the wolf is shot down by the villagerswho arrived a minute too late. Before passing out, David turns to look at the beast, only to find a dead man lying beside him…

“Maybe that pentangle was for something supernatural…”

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“Mr. Kessler, try not to excite yourself!”

Here you go: yet another reason why An American Werewolf In London is well-cherished – especially among my generation.

Confused and disorientated in a London hospital, David receives a visit by a Mr. Collins from the American Embassy. As soon as you hear the voice you realise: yes! That’s Bert from Sesame Street! Miss Piggy (who actually has a cameo during a dream sequence – how freaky is that?) and of course: Yoda from the Star Wars saga. 

Up until then, Frank Oz had been an anonymous, yet amazing, puppeteer and voice artist, but to see him here:

one couldn’t help but get excited!

“These dumbass kids, they never appreciate anything you do for ’em…” 

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“I’ll send someone in to keep you company…” 

Holy shit! 

Just as you are convinced that this is five-star fare, Landis (and Baker) crank it up to an even more awesome level. Having suffered a few dream sequences already, David drifts off into his most terrifying yet: at home, his siblings are watching The Muppet Show; there’s frantic knocking at the door… 

Get this: a band of Nazi ghouls wielding sub-machine guns shoot up and burn down his home, slaughter his family (even kicking Kermit – the fiends!) then kill him. Will never forget how exhilarating it was watching this scene for the first time all those years ago; reckon the tape was rewound twice to savour each delicious, unbelievable frame! 

At such a young age, this was by far the most mind-blowing sight these wide, disbelieving eyes had ever seen! It remains one of my all-time goosebump moments. As this sequence was sooo cool, it gets two pics. 

And – hey! – we haven’t even got to David’s transformation yet…

“That’s Punch and Judy – they’ve always been violent.”

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“Can I have a piece of toast?”  

With every viewing, the first view of the undead Goodman boy never fails to astound. The make-up applied to Griffin Dunne here by Rick Baker is sensational, but would this scene be outstanding if it did not begin with that absurd line?

This is a pivotal intervention as Jack explains how he died “an unnatural death and now walk the Earth in limbo until the werewolf curse is lifted.” 

“Shut up!”

“The wolf’s bloodline must be severed; the last remaining werewolf must be destroyed… It’s you, David!” 

This is my kinda drama!

It’s kinda creepy how Jack just carries on as he did before, talking about that girl he fancied, only this time complaining about the insipid company of the undead.

“You ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!” 

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“I didn’t mean to call you a meatloaf, Jack.” 

Amazing how Nurse Price takes David back to her place – which just happens to be:

64 Coleherne Road, 

South Kensington, 

Greater London. 

– where he receives even better treatment. You simply can’t get that kind of care on the NHS nowadays…

Actually, Dad pressed Pause when the shower scene came on. He let me sit through the gore, but Van Morrison was strictly off-limits… 

Another visit from Jackhe is decomposing rapidly; after taking a quick butcher’s at the nurse’s pad, he sits down to repeat much of what he said earlier, although more desperately this time.

This is where my deep admiration for Creedence Clearwater Revival came from. In that far-off pre-internet era it took years to find out who did that killer song: Bad Moon Rising.

“I’m still not hungry…” 

At last, the full moon; David burns up.

Naughton admitted later that the transformation scene took a whole week to accomplish, with approximately ten hours a day applying make-up, five hours on set, and three hours just to remove it! The Academy honoured Rick Baker’s stupendous contribution to this film, with the inaugural Award for Best Make-up.  

In any other werewolf movie, an ominous (and ultimately forgettable) score would have heralded the coming of the lycanthrope, but here, it’s the highly unexpected choice of Sam Cooke’s Blue Moon. This arrangement is not supposed to work, but somehow, surreally, it does. 

Could not proceed without putting up this scene. In addition to gasping at the ingenuity of the effects, listen to those bloodcurdling sound effects, enhancing what turns out to be a credible and undeniably excruciating transformation. 

Modern CGI be damned… 

Especially dig the nice touch at 2:04, just to remind you that –yes – this dramatic scene takes place in somebody else’s living room…

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“I can assure you I don’t find this the least bit amusing… I shall report this!”  

The first victims: the unfortunate couple – Harry and Judith – arrive at Sean’s place:

The Pryors

East Heath Road, 

Hampstead. 

Then there are the three tramps; Tower Bridge is clearly visible in the background.

The sixth and final murder: Gerald Bringsley in the London Underground holds a particular personal fascination. A regular user of the “Tube” whenever in the capital, it’s always a great thrill to follow the same route through Tottenham Court Road station where a horror legend was made. To see for yourself, take the Northbound Northern Line service (not the Central Line), disembark at Tottenham Court Road and make sure to take the middle Exit. 

Amusing how Gerald could buy chocolate from a confectionary machine on the platform – another privilege denied to us now.

“Oh, Good Lord!”

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“I’m genuinely pleased to see you…” 

David wakes up naked in London Zoo. 

How he manages to get back to Alex’s flat involves a string of hilarious set-pieces, including my all-time favourite line from any horror movie – why not make it the title of this Post?

When Alex tries to bring David back to the hospital, they hail a taxi (on Wilton Crescent, Belgravia).And yes, the driver is played by none other than Alan Ford (best-known as Brick Top from Snatch).

There then follows a very bizarre scene: Jack beckons David over to a porn cinema in Piccadilly to meet his victims. Fresh and still blood-spattered, they each offer ways on how David can take his own life, thus breaking them from the curse.

Jack – in another finely-detailed make-up job – is now a gruesome cadaver, but still keen to help.

“Do you mind? The man’s a friend of mine!” 

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“There’s been a disturbance in Piccadilly…”

The climax involves the chaos as David runs amok once more. The above behind-the-scenes pic could not be resisted. To perfect the sequence in which the police inspector gets his head bitten off, Rick Baker literally had to operate one of his model wolf heads himself.

The director’s cameo is very difficult to spot. Landis is the bearded man who is hit by a car and thrown through a plate glass window.

The end comes far too hurriedly. Always bewildering how Alex doesn’t get shot accidentally; there’s plenty of police marksmen in that dark alley, and she’s standing just yards in front of them…

“What do you mean: how did he look? I’m an orderly, not a bleeding psychiatrist; I push things around!”

Over thirty years later, An American Werewolf In London remains a unique and original feat of film-making – still scary and spellbinding, but has never failed to enthrall… and split my sides. 

The  current crop of horror directors – who consistently fail to create anything half as clever and creepy as this – should be forced to study the ways in which this masterpiece came to be, and succeeded on so many levels. 

How best to describe it?

Is it a zany outing with truly horrific moments:

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…or a horror movie with the most unexpected comedic moments?

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“Hello David!”

Final Thought: To think that studio execs wanted Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to play the two leads.

The Blues Brothers: as backpackers?! Come off it… 

A naked Aykroyd scampering around London Zoo?! That would have been truly horrific… 

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Happy Halloween!

Beware the moon… and stick to the road… 

Galaxies Of Terror: Where SF Collides With Horror

It’s Always Midnight In Space…  

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“The fundamental premise remains the same: What lies in wait in the darkness of space?” – Space.com

Often, the realm of science fiction delves into wondrous and inventive imagery, but when you consider the darkness and dread that lurks “in the coldest regions of space,” the potential to unleash the most unutterable terrors becomes boundless (budget-permitting of course).

With Halloween fast approaching like a relentless Imperial Star Destroyer, and elements of horror spliced into SF as long as motion pictures have existed, the results can turn out to be truly horrendous.

Instead of making contact, alien monsters would much rather feast on astronaut flesh; drain the lifeforce from living humans; or reanimate dead humans. Nudity is just as bountiful as gore; distress signals and fog machines are commonplace; and if you should ever stumble upon the work of Roger Corman, for pity’s sake, DO NOT HESITATE to make the jump to light-speed…  

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“I stole the giant skeleton from Planet of the Vampires… It struck me as evocative. It had this curious mixture that you can get in these Italian films of spectacularly good production design…” – Dan O’Bannon. 

In Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) original Italian title: Terrore Nello Spazio, two spaceships: the Argos and Galliot respond to a distress signal from a previously unchartered planet. On landing, for no apparent reason, the crew of the Argos attack each other. After overcoming this malevolent psychosis, they quickly find out that – oh no! – the same madness gripped the Galliot’s crew but nobody survived.

It’s not long before their buried bodies rise up and stalk the Argos crew. There then follows a tense and unsettling fight for survival. What Planet of the Vampires lacks in production values, it piles on skilfully eerie atmospherics, evoking a dark and lonely feel to its overall look.

The title is quite erroneous. The alien entities that rise from the newly-prepared graves are not vampires; they’re not bloodsuckers; and they certainly do not talk with Eastern European accents. Planet of the Strange Entities That Exist On A Different Vibratory Frequency And Possess Dead Bodies” would have made a more accurate title. On this godforsaken world, the fog-machine is working on spooky overdrive. 

At first glance, it looks so different from its ’60s contemporaries, but then you realise what an obvious influence on numerous subsequent sci-fi/horrors it is. Possibly the most (in)famous of all such outings: Ridley Scott’s second-best film: Alien shares so many similarities in both tone and imagery. The “space jockey” – one of this 1979 classic’s most iconic images – was lifted from what Bava portrayed originally.

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“Forget the story, ’cause there isn’t one, but see it for the gory bits and marvelous gutsy make-up. Yech!” – Time Out.   

Galaxy of Terror (1981) aka Mindwarp also appears to be a rehash of Planet of the Vampires with its premise of the crew of one spacecraft haunted – oh no! – by projections of their own deepest fears materialized by an ancient alien pyramid. This, by the way, is the one featuring a young, pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund, and Erin Moran (Joanie from Happy Days). 

Honestly, it is difficult to tell the difference between this and the following year’s Forbidden World. James Cameron is credited as a production assistant; the less said about its notorious worm-rape scene the better… 

Nothing could prepare you for Mutant aka Forbidden World (1982) – another bargain basement bomber from Roger Corman. In a research lab on the remote planet of Xarbia, a genetic experiment is developed which – oh no! – goes berserk and hunts the scientists down one by one.

Talk about cheap…

Within a few minutes, you realise that the same set from Galaxy of Terror is being (re)used, and – presumably to immediately catch the viewer’s attention – an unnecessary laser battle is inserted… using effects footage directly pilfered from Corman’s cult space opera: Battle Beyond the Stars.

Incredibly, this lab boasts not one, but two, “ridiculously hot” scientists who spend much of their screentime scantily clad or completely starkers. As this is 1982, the soundtrack consists of shrill synths; and the sheer tackiness of the mutant itself is offset by filming it mostly in semi-darkness.

Still, on the plus-side, it does feature SAM-104, the android pilot who is one of the more distinctive characters of ’80s cult SF.

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“Lifeforce is a pretty curious specimen in its own right. Its sci-fi/horror concept is epic in scale and metaphysical reach, but the casting is catchpenny…” – Parallax View.  

Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985) – based on the novel: The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson – turned out to be a really infuriating watch. The opening is actually quite impressive: a rousing score by Henry Mancini sets the scene for some rather spectacular imagery: the HMS Churchill shuttle, on a mission to study Halley’s Comet – traditionally considered to be a harbinger of doom – detects, in the coma of the comet, a derelict, artificial structure: 150 miles long. Inside, a search party discover dozens of desiccated giant bats and three naked humanoids: two male and one female. 

But – oh no! – they have to take the bodies back to Earth. As this is a British sci-fi/horror movie, the terrible trio “awake” in the European Space Research Centre in London. The males are obliterated, but the female wanders off into the night. The capital is quickly reduced into one bat-shit bonkers zombiefest. Preposterous!

Talk about amateurish effects: those lifeforceless “corpses” could have done with a tad more convincing animation. And the “actors” appear to have graduated from the Mindwarp School of Acting… 

“Approach with caution.”

So, best not to splice these two genres together – results can invariably turn out to be… disastrous. 

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And, if that wasn’t scary enough, try this on Saturday night… if you dare!

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NIGHT OF THE DAMON!

CHILLS! He can’t remember who he is!

SPILLS! He beats up anybody and everybody who gets in his way!

THRILLS! He absolutely will not stop until he’s got whatever he wants… whatever that is…

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Only joking. 

For Halloween this year, my favourite horror movie will be dusted down, replayed and reviewed on Saturday.

Can you guess what it is? 

Here’s a couple of clues: it was not made in the last thirty years (obviously!)

And it doesn’t feature any fog machines… 

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Sweet dreams!

Horrormeister: Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

Sir Christopher Lee died last Sunday aged 93. 

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“When you toy with the dark side of the soul, imagination comes into the forefront. You can enjoy it more and communicate that joy to the audience. And I really do love what I do” – Christopher Lee.

The actor best known for creating the definitive Count Dracula in cinema passed away on Sunday. He was 93. A monolithic figure – at 6 ft 5 in – with a deep yet majestic voice and a killer scowl, Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was made to play villains of the highest order.

After the end of the Second World War, a diplomatic career seemed to be in order, but it wasn’t to be; instead, he turned to acting. In a career spanning 70 years, he put in a formidable 250 roles. 

So it is rather perplexing to learn that he made an uninspiring debut in the Gothic romance: Corridor of Mirrors (1947) followed by a decade of minor roles…

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“Christopher is an extraordinarily clever man, who possesses enormous talents… A dear, charming man with a great sense of humour…” – Peter Cushing.

It turned out to be Hammer Studios which gave him his big break. In The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) he played the mute, shambling creation of Dr. Victor Frankenstein who was played malevolently by Peter Cushing. It would be the third time that the two thesps would share the screen.

Across 35 years, Lee and Cushing appeared in 22 phenomenal movies together, mostly horror, although both icons preferred their unbeatable portfolio to be described as macabre. Not surprisingly, they forged a strong and enduring friendship.

While Lee had been unhappy with the limited possibilities to express his talents as Frankenstein’s Monster, he needn’t have worried for too long. Their next movie together the following year turned out to be one of the top British horror classics of all time: Dracula (1958).

They also worked on Amicus (another British horror movie studio) productions together, of which Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) (see above) was particularly good. 

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“I have always admired his talents. He has done some magnificent work in the gothic genre. His Dracula has never been surpassed – and I doubt if it ever will be. He is a great raconteur… He is also a very fine singer… He is what he is, and that is what makes him Christopher Lee” – Michael Carreras. 

 

In 20 years with Hammer Studios, Lee created a fiendish gallery of infamous characters, ranging from the Mummy, Rasputin and Fu Manchu. 

One of the most engrossing – not to mention exciting – films in Lee’s substantial macabre repertoire was The Devil Rides Out (1968), in which he played the Duc de Richleau, who must call on his esoteric knowledge of the occult to prevent the son of an old friend from joining a satanic cult. This British horror classic stands as one of his finest performances as he portrayed – in a welcome change – one of the good guys.

He was the only actor to have played both Sherlock Holmes and his wiser brother Mycroft (in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1971), as well as Sir Henry Baskerville in Hammer’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

In later years, he would cite Lord Summerisle, the chieftain of a Pagan community on an isolated Hebridean island in the classic: The Wicker Man (1973) as his personal favourite performance.

His turn as the triple-nippled assassin-for-hire: Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) was inspired casting – despite the fact that he was related to 007 creator Ian Fleming (who had considered Lee to originally play Bond!) – as he brought a sophisticated touch to a franchise that had begun to lose its way somewhat. 

We could be here all night trying to select one, or a few, clips best representing what Lee could do. No doubt you have uploaded your own exceptional Hammer scenes, but here, instead, this subtle yet menacing scene – one of my personal faves – perfectly demonstrates one of the best villains. Ever. 

 

“It’s terribly sad when you lose an old friend, and Christopher Lee was one of my oldest. We first met in 1948” – Sir Roger Moore. 

In recent years, Lee’s career went through a stunning renaissance. First, he was cast as the duplicitous wizard of Isengard: Saruman in The Lord of The Rings. The only member of the cast to have met JRR Tolkien, he was tipped by the author to play Gandalf! Originally to have appeared in all instalments of the trilogy, he was astonished to discover that all his scenes had been cut from the concluding epic: The Return of the King.

Bizarrely, he was cast as Count Dooku, a Sith Lord in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones, reprising the role for Episode III only to meet an early demise.

In October 2009, Lee was knighted “for his services to drama and charity.” “I don’t know if any other actor of my age has received one…” he said, standing outside Buckingham Palace. “Perhaps they thought it best to give it to me before it’s too late.”

 

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Christopher Frank Carandini Lee

27 May 1922 – 7 June 2015.

Halloween: The Beginning of Modern Horror

Trick… or treat?

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“Single-minded shocker with virtually no plot, just a succession of bloody attacks in semi-darkness. Very well done if you like that kind of thing” – Leslie Halliwell.

What better movie to celebrate the night of pumpkins, dodgy costumes and candy than Halloween? Made on a shoestring budget during one month in 1978, it became a huge commercial success, spawning a bag of sequels, a remake and scores of inferior copycats.

Once upon a time, horror movies consisted of vampires or werewolves; enjoyed a limited audience (if at all); and received even less (if any) critical attention. The astonishing success of The Exorcist (1973) awoke other filmmakers to the terrific popular and lucrative potential that the horror genre could bring.

Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left (1974), Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1975) and Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) were all landmark features, unleashing a new breed of horror movies on an unsuspecting mainstream audience. Fortunately produced outside the Hollywood system, they excelled as low-budget but visionary frighteners, introducing a more confrontationaland ultimately more horrifying – style of filmmaking.  

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“[Jamie Lee Curtis] was just one of several girls auditioning for Halloween. She came in to read. She had a tremendous quality… Different! Very tomboyish in a way… And I never knew she was related to Janet Leigh at all!” – John Carpenter.

Directed by John Carpenter – who had received moderate success with Assault on Precinct 13 – and produced by then-partner Debra Hill, Halloween showed how real horror is unexpected and unfathomable, and can occur in the most mundane places. It showed the escaped killer: Michael Myers stalking a group of girls on a seemingly ordnary October 31st. By concentrating the suspense on a quiet and leafy neighbourhood in (fictional) Haddonfield, Illinois, it brought the horror – the dark side of suburbiacloser to home.

Halloween (1978) introduced a more gritty type of cinematic frightIt is distinctive in its use of hand-held camera shots, but the fear is arguably heightened immensely through Carpenter’s own eerie synthesizer score. He was heavily influenced by The Thing From Another World (1951) – the film which just happens to be showing on TV that night.

“I’m not the Godfather of Gore!” Carpenter protested, as a slew of unwelcome slasher movies flooded the market during the 80s; it is unfair that he has been blamed for their proliferation. Yes, he made a really creepy film in 1978, but no, he cannot be held responsible for a subgenre which relegated young girls to mere murder objects… in the name of movie entertainment!

Donald Pleasance played Dr. Loomis (a nod to one of the main characters of Psycho), but it is interesting to learn that Carpenter had sought both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to play this role, but they turned him down! No offence to Pleasance (who puts in a reasonable performance) but either of the two first choices would certainly have enhanced proceedings considerably.

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“People were diappointed because they were expecting to see Jamie Lee Curtis and the Shape… we kept saying: “Look guys, it’s let’s just call it Season of the Witch, it’ll do better,” but they wouldn’t listen…” – Debra Hill.

Despite the lacklustre outing of Halloween 2 (1981) – a sequel so inconsequential it has sunk without trace – the powers-that-be sought a Halloween 3. This time, there was a problem: John Carpenter was preoccupied with other projects, and Jamie Lee Curtis had baulked at the prospect of returning once more to play the babysitter-in-danger. Joe (Gremlins) Dante had suggested dropping Michael Myers and trying something more macabre. In 1982, he was fighting a losing battle to develop a Creature From The Black Lagoon remake, so would have been available to handle a third Halloween movie. Luckily, Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale was called in to work on a prospective script.

However, the end product proved too bizarre and so far removed from the original killer-in-a-mask premise that potential audiences boycotted it; Dante had left ages ago, and having seen his script rehashed beyond recognition, Kneale requested to have his name dropped from the credits. The result was a true oddity: reviled then and now looking embarrassingly incongruous amidst an otherwise well-regarded cult franchise.

This is a pity, for Halloween 3: Season of The Witch (1982) started so well: a frightened man pursued through a dark and stormy night by a band of mysterious smartly-dressed henchmen, accompanied by one-helluva-moody soundtrack (again supplied by John Carpenter, and probably superior to the score of the original movie) before descending into a mediocre and unwatchable mess.

During the 90s, further sequels brought back Michael Myers; there was even H20 (1998). To celebrate the original film’s 20th Anniversary, Jamie Lee Curtis returned to face her nemesis one last time.

In conclusion then, the impact that Carpenter and his fellow directors had on the genre was best summed up by master horror writer, Stephen King:

They never had nightmares – they just gave them to us.”

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Peter Cushing: “The Gentle Man of Horror”

Actor. Gentleman. Scientist. Vampire Hunter. Time Lord. Detective. Imperial Badass.

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“The most professional actor I have ever worked with. He’s highly regarded all over the world as a brilliant actor, and deservedly so. If they knew what we got up to on the set in every film we’ve made… the imitations that I used to do, the dances that he used to do… ” – Christopher Lee.  

There is one reason why horror movies no longer appeal to me. They are certainly a barren and soulless place without the late great Peter Cushing (1913-1994). Best remembered for producing the definitive versions of Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing for Hammer horror films, he was an actor of exceptional range and skill.

Before he made his indelible mark on the horror genre, he had appeared in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, and had leading roles in a string of TV adaptations including Pride and Prejudice, The Winslow Boy, and most notably in the live dramatisation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is the latter production which inspired the producer Michael Carreras to invite him to to star in the film destined to change his life forever…

In 1957, he appeared in Curse of Frankenstein, playing the notorious scientist totally different to the pained and remorseful character envisaged by Mary Shelley. Cushing’s Baron Frank was a cruel and cunning piece of work, who is prepared to push a visiting professor to his death just to get a head. The monster was played by fellow horror maestro: Christopher Lee. It not only marked the establishment of a formidable partnership, but a lifelong friendship.

Its stupendous success led to another interpretation of an infamous gothic character the following year. Dracula (1958) certainly gave the opportunity for Lee to create a career-defining performance, but in Van Helsing, Cushing was calm and collected, sensitive yet determined, and ultimately presented an admirable adversary. It’s amazing to consider now how energetic both roles were: the gripping climax in which Van Helsing runs the length of a banqueting table, tears down the curtains and lunges at a sunstruck Dracula with two silver candlesticks pressed together to form a crucifix is said to have deen devised by Cushing himself!

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“When he did Sherlock Holmes, he went to a very famous teacher of the violin so that he knew how to hold it… When he was making The Mummy, he went to the hospital and and sat in with operations. He was very meticulous…” – Joyce Broughton (his secretary).

Peter Cushing could adapt to any role. In 1959, he played Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Directed by Terence Fisher, many Holmes afficianados consider Cushing’s detective as the definitive article.

In 1965, the success of BBC’s Doctor Who led perhaps inevitably to the big screen. In order to maximise transatlantic appeal, Cushing was cast in place of William Hartnell, playing the Time Lord as an endearing grandfatherly figure in Dr Who and the Daleks. Its phenomenal success led to a sequel: Daleks’ Invasion of Earth: 2150 AD. (1966).

Other distinctive roles included: The Mummy (1959), and H. Rider Haggard’s She (1965). In an attempt to emulate hammer’s success, Amicus Productions joined the horror bandwagon, involving Cushing’s invaluable services. Some of the most notable films included: Dr Terror’s House 0f Horrors (1964) in which he dealt tarot cards foretelling the fate of passengers on a train; and The Creeping Flesh (1972) whereby a horrific skeleton from the jungles of Borneo “will be resurrected when the gods shall weep.”

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“The boots they gave me [to wear as Grand Moff Tarkin] were far too small. I said to George: ‘…whenever possible, could you please shoot me from the waist up?’ He very kindly agreed… I was really wearing carpet slippers. That is why Moff Tarkin was so hostile… his feet were killing him” – Peter Cushing.

The passing of his beloved wife Helen in 1971 devastated him. In subsequent years, he made movies of a distinctly lesser quality; this was a concerted attempt to keep his mind occupied as he adjusted awkwardly to a crushing existence of loneliness.  

In one of his more entertaining roles, he appeared as a delightfully daffy professer in At The Earth’s Core (1976), alongside trusty fantasy stalwarts: Doug McClure (“a very dear chap”) and Caroline Munro (“so sweet”). Absolutely hilarious, he was gifted with such dialogue as: “A rhamphorynchus! In this day in age! How extraordinary!”

Maybe George Lucas was a Hammer fan? This would help explain Cushing’s appearance in the original Star Wars (1977) as Grand Moff Tarkin: a brief, yet deliciously malevolent turn. No other actor could lace the phrase: “You may fire when ready” with such bloodcurdling doom!

Nevertheless, in real life, Peter Cushing was a kind and gentle fellow, always approachable, and never said a harsh word about anyone. Although honoured with an OBE in 1989, Peter Cushing never won any movie accolades; yet surely he has topped most horrorfans’ and movie-goers’ polls and – as new generations discover the various gems of his amazing career – he will continue to do so.

Perhaps the last words should be left to the maestro himself:

“The tremendous affection that people shower upon me, and the interest they take in my work, touches me so deeply…

“To think that young people are still interested enough in me to write about me and see my pictures is pretty marvellous!”

 

 

Dracula Unwanted: NO Vlad For Brad!

Vampires are make-believe, just like elves and gremlins and eskimoes.

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“It is time for our culture to abandon Dracula and pass beyond him” – Robin Wood.

With Halloween just a week away, it seemed appropriate to select a topic on fear and dread and all things undead. What better subject than vampires to concentrate on? 

Hey, not so fast!

Unfortunately, any movie featuring fangs, long capes, dodgy Eastern European accents or Robert Pattinson has become strictly off-limits. It has come to the pathetic point that any mention of vampires invokes connotations of mediocrity and monotony, while the very mention of the name: Dracula is likely to send me into fits of boundless irritation.

So, here we go again: the release of Dracula Untold has – not surprisingly – been met with a critical mauling, and less-than-encouraging cinema attendances. At least it concentrates on the origin story of Vlad the Impaler. Let’s face it: this is the only direction with which Stoker’s tired and moribund story could still be tolerated by an equally tired and indifferent cinema-going public.

In the publicity material, Vlad’s suit of armour looks mightily impressive, but then – sign of the times – conceptual art tends to look more impressive than the completed movie these days. Nonetheless, the film still sucks (ha!). You could publish a book just collecting all the reviewers’ vitriol and sarcasm brimming over at rottentomatoes.com  

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“Our very first encounter began with me storming into [Peter Cushing’s] dressing room and announcing in petulant tones: ‘I haven’t got any lines!” …and he said drily: You’re lucky. I’ve read the script'” – Christopher Lee.

Had to rush home the other night to watch the 1958 Dracula on TV – it still proves to be a rare absolute joy; it deserves to be regarded as the greatest vampire movie ever – the pinnacle to which lesser bloodsucking bios strive but always seem to fail spectacularly.

Christopher Lee produced a fabulous (not to mention frenetic) performance to become the definitive Prince of Darkness. Yet it is Peter Cushing as his nemesis: Van Helsing who really enhanced the material, helping to turn it into a compelling drama. It could be argued that without these two icons – at the height of their powers – it seems unfeasible that Hammer Studios could have flourished for as long and successfully as it did. 

Doesn’t matter that Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968) warned that “you can’t keep a good man down,” poor conceptions of Transylvania’s most notorious individual failed to impress in later Hammer vehicles. Even Lee himself was becoming seriously dischuffed about having fewer consequential things to do as the sequels became more silly and superfluous… 

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“Dracula remains dead and well (or dead and loving it); other monsters merely endure. After Bram Stoker’s Dracula, their revival became obligatory” – Kim Newman.

It seems somewhat inevitable that this struggling post would twitch and stagger to the ubiquitous subject of vampires. For a brief period during the 80s we could enjoy an original and enjoyable revival of the fanged ones, with Fright Night (1985 – yay, Roddy!), cult classic Near Dark (1987) and the real “children of the night” The Lost Boys (1987).

Yet somehow, as Francis Ford Coppola’s bold and lavish “faithful” adaptation of the the novel: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) failed to attract my interest. For all its grandeur, it made for turgid viewing. The only true scare to be gleaned from this whole wasted effort was being subjected to Keanu (“severe drop in cinema attendances”) Reeves as Jonathon Harker. Oh, The horror, the horror!

Since then, what undead undoings have we been subjected to? Alas, more than a few unfortunate instances entailing the regrettable loss of 90-120 minutes have befallen me, and – guess what! – movies involving vampires were always to blame…  

By far the worst offender came in that feckless dire heap known as Van Helsing (2004), wherein Hugh Jackman showed that he just could not step into the substantial and hallowed shoes of the late, great Peter Cushing. When Kate Beckinsale co-stars in figure-hugging black, you realise how desperate the film-makers really are! Naturally, this led to more unbearable tosh in the wretched form of Underworld and its unwanted stream of vacuous sequelsand now the reboot has just been announced!…? 

And – ye gods! you lucky mortals! – you’ve been spared my rant against Twilight!

No matter how many silver crucifixes you stow away, or how much garlic you secrete about your person, there will always seem to be an unending supply of intolerable vampire movies ready to give horror movies a bad name.  

(Must sign off here before typing that dodgy remark about them being a pain in the neck…)