In a way, the programming for this “Night Terrors” Double Feature was done FOR me – not BY me. In a fortuitous turn of events, our national television network decided to have a Christopher Lee-themed evening last Saturday. And what was even better was that they managed to pick two films that I hadn’t seen before. Perfect. So here goes…
Christopher Lee played the role of Dracula for Hammer Films a total of seven times from this 1958 film to 1973’s “The Satanic Rites of Dracula“. It’s fair to say that it is Lee’s most iconic role, I think. At least, until he played Saruman in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”-films. Before those, you could bet that if someone said “Christopher Lee”, the first thought on everybody’s minds was “Dracula” (unless they were really cool and thought “Scaramanga”, but that’s just me thinking out loud again). From Lee’s Dracula-films, I had previously seen “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” (1966), “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” (1968), “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1970) and “Dracula A.D. 1972” (1972), but I had never seen the one that started it all – until now. A short synopsis first:
“On a search for his missing friend Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) – who he has sent on a secret mission – vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is led to Count Dracula’s (Christopher Lee) castle. Upon arriving, Van Helsing finds an undead Harker in Dracula’s crypt and discovers that the count’s next target is Harker’s ailing fiancée, Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh). With the help of her brother, Arthur (Michael Gough), Van Helsing struggles to protect Lucy and put an end to Count Dracula’s parasitic reign of terror…”
Well – the first thing that becomes pretty obvious even from that short synopsis is that the original Bram Stoker novel’s plot has been pretty much discarded – save for the names of the characters. But that’s actually all right, because if everybody adapted the original novel just exactly as is, the audience would know all the story twists beforehand. Although some story aspects have clearly been changed to save money(the budget was just £81,000 pounds says the Internet): such as the whole story seemingly taking place in mainland Europe(Dracula’s Castle is in Klausenburg, the main events seem to take place in Karlstadt, Germany) – so they wouldn’t have to film any ships crossing over to London, I presume. I guess that’s actually my main gripe with the film, really; it all looks like it’s been filmed inside the area of one city block – even Dracula’s Castle looks pretty much just like an old church filmed from the appropriate angle.
But then again – this is VERY early Hammer Studios-production here. They were not yet into their so-called “golden age” (which depending on opinions was pretty much the sixties), so the learning wheels are on a little bit. And for the film following this, “The Brides of Dracula” (1960), they didn’t even bring Lee back! Another thing that shows that this is a very early Hammer production is the surprisingly demure way the female characters are portrayed and dressed. We’re a loooong way from the overtly ample cleavages of the late sixties/early seventies still. One Hammer standard is already here though: the insanely bright red(almost orange) blood – although there’s not that much of it here (All the stakings actually happen off-screen – but the SOUND effects are pretty violent). The scene of Dracula’s disintegration(SPOILER!) to ash is an almost laughable series of quick, clunky dissolves – although I read from the internet that a recent restoration of the film actually has more footage of this scene(and a few others), so I might have to find that.
What mostly works is the acting – especially from Cushing and Lee. Their characters(which they would repeat several times after this) are pretty much set from the start; Lee’s Dracula is in his human form very charming, almost hypnotically charismatic – but in his vampire form he’s something of a feral beast – and he really wouldn’t need a massive orchestral stings every time he appears on screen – as they do here – he’s plenty scary even without it, with his red, bloodshot eyes, large fangs and blood dripping from his mouth. And he already has his “pulls the cape in front of the victim”-gag here. Meanwhile Cushing’s Van Helsing is knowledgeable, professional and efficient but ultimately very tortured because he knows and has seen things he really can’t share with anyone because they would think he’s insane. What surprised me was that Michael Gough – who I’ve usually depended on being very good in everything he is, even “Batman & Robin” – is just overacting like hell here. I just didn’t buy his character’s reactions to almost anything. The female characters have very little to do here, except fall under Dracula’s spell.
Overall, the first Hammer Films’ “Dracula” is still the studio – and the filmmakers – still finding their voice. The main characters are already there, but the plotting and filming-aspects are still sort of getting there. In the next Lee-starring film, “Dracula: Prince of Darkness“, I’d say they finally perfected the formula. But this was an interesting watch nevertheless.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Dir: Robin Hardy
Scr: Anthony Schaffer
I’ve been almost embarrassed to admit that I had never seen “The Wicker Man“. I have seen the Nicholas Cage-starring remake – which has it’s very own cult status nowadays, mostly due to BEES – NOT THE BEES!!!!!! BUUAAAAARRGHLAAGHHAAH!!!!
Anyway – as I was saying… the movie has been on almost every list for “the best films of the seventies”, “the best horror films”, “the best British films” or just “all-time best films” for ever, and still I had not seen it – until now. And yet, I STILL quite haven’t seen it – but I’ll get to that later. A short synopsis at first:
“Police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on the small Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the report of a missing child after the department received an anonymous letter. An uptight, repressed, conservative Christian, Howie observes the residents’ frivolous sexual displays and strange pagan rituals, particularly the temptations of Willow (Britt Ekland), daughter of the island magistrate, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). The more Sergeant Howie learns about the islanders’ strange practices, the closer he gets to tracking down the missing child…”
Well – I was damn impressed. “The Wicker Man” almost plays like a comedy at first; with this uptight policeman trying to deal with the…should we say “eccentric” islanders (who are very clearly modeled after the hippie movement of the 70’s), really getting nowhere at first as nobody either claims to know nothing, or is downright lying. I like how director Robin Hardy ever so slowly begins to tighten the screws as the events turn more into the sinister(and surreal) and the film sort of becomes dreamlike(or nightmare-like, if you wish). Another aspect that made this very different of the standard horror movies is that it’s very much a musical. If I were to sum up it in one sentence that would be printed as a blurb to the DVD cover, it would be: “plays like a hippie nightmare version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’“.
The acting is top-notch. Woodward seems like he was born to play the role of Howie. His downright disgust over the eccentricities of the islanders feels very real. In the scene where he’s called by Ekland’s Willow, siren-like, from the adjacent hotel room and he resorts to praying and whatnot to resist “earthly” urges is nothing short of brilliant. And Lee – who has in many interviews called this “the best film he was ever in” – is incredibly charismatic as the Lord of the island. In a scene where he downplays all of Howie’s concerns in a very polite, witty but extremely blunt manner(with some razor-sharp dialogue by writer Anthony Schaffer) is extremely entertaining; his response to Howie’s outrage over naked women dancing near a fire being “Naturally! It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!” or Howie’s question of “what about god?”: “He’s dead. Can’t complain, had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.” Absolutely brilliant. And as this is a musical, Lee gets a chance to show his marvellous singing voice as well. Another interesting connection to Hammer films is the casting of Ingrid Pitt as the island’s librarian.
And the way all of the Rubik’s Cube-like plotting slowly unravels to the extremely bleak (but if you think about it, the only correct) ending, with enough clues dropped to the viewer in the way, with Howie slowly starting to learn the true nature of the island, just kept me on the edge of my seat all the way. I jokingly called it a “typical 70’s feelgood horror movie ending”, but it really is quite profound. The way I see it is that the movie manages (not so subtly) to criticise the base-level insanity of ALL religions there. A horror movie that’s also a musical AND also has something of a message. That’s rare. They sure don’t make ’em like they used to. It’s actually sad that when people nowadays hear someone mention “Wicker Man“, more often than not they think “BEES!!!“. Fucking remakes. Sheesh…
Now, regarding that “I still quite haven’t seen it“-line in the beginning; it’s mostly because the film had a very troubled production history. The financiers, British Lion Films, pretty much hated the movie since they saw the first cut of it. They proceeded to re-edit the movie into bits, cutting close to 20 minutes from the film and putting it as a double-bill with Nicholas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” (THERE’S a double feature I’d like to have seen on the big screen!). Fortunately, Roger Corman had been sent a longer print in hopes of him handling the U.S. distribution and with his help the longer Director’s Cut was later created and re-released. All the original film elements were apparently dumped as foundation of the M4 motorway, but over the years several different prints have been discovered and there has been several versions of the movie now: the Theatrical Cut, the “Director’s Cut”, something called “the Middle version” and the most recent “The Wicker Man: The Final Cut” which premiered in theaters and on Blu-Ray in 2013. The version I saw on the television last weekend was the Theatrical Cut, and while I am probably in the minority, I’m just gonna say it: I didn’t really have any problems with that version. I thought it rolled ahead pretty efficiently. It didn’t feel rushed and I didn’t feel like there was anything important missing from there.
That being said: I’m pretty sure this is not the last of it, between me and “The Wicker Man“.
All in all, this was a good Double Feature. It shows Lee’s range very well and I have to give the network’s programmer high points for this.