L: Lust for a Vampire (1971)

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I had a friend who was one of those grey market vendors, who made his living selling VHS dupes of out-of-print movies (he’s out of the biz now, ditching the whole enterprise a couple of years before torrenting made it superfluous). For years, though, this movie was his best seller; given a VHS release once, and then vanishing from sight. So I was glad to finally watch the damn thing, and find out what the shouting was all about.

Spoiler alert: boobies.

In the opening scene, a peasant girl is kidnapped by the usual evil black carriage and taken to Castle Karnstein. Her blood is used to resurrect the dried-out corpse of what we will come to know as the infamous Carmilla (Yutte Stensgaard). The guy doing the officiating is Count Karnstein, played by Mike Raven, with a cameo of Christopher Lee’s eyes.

But never mind that, wandering nobleman and author Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnson) has arrived in the village, doing research for his next book on witchcraft, vampires and black magic. Told of the Karnstein legacy, LeStrange visits the seemingly abandoned castle, only to find himself stalked by three be-caped ladies. Ho ho, though, it’s only three girls from the nearby Miss Simpson’s Finishing School, on a field trip led by their headmaster, Giles Barton (Ralph Bates). LeStrange is introduced to Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) and the rest of the girls, just as a new student arrives – Carmilla, once again using the Mircalla alias. LeStrange is instantly smitten.

(LeStrange isn’t the only one, as we are treated to some lesbian-tinged toplessness and skinny-dipping that night at the school)

Things rapidly get complicated from there. A serving girl at the inn is found dead, two bite marks on her throat. LeStrange meets the new English instructor for Simpson’s school, tricks him into going to Vienna instead, and gets his job just to be near Mircalla. Mircalla’s skinny-dipping girlfriend Susan Pelley (Pippa Steele) vanishes (we know she’s been exsanguinated and dropped down the well). Giles Barton, knowing Mircalla’s true identity (the study of local noble families is his personal obsession), offers himself to her, hoping to become a vampire and worshipping her forever. Mircalla, though, only likes girls and turns him down. His dead body is found on the outskirts of the school the next day.

Miss Simpson has gone into full cover-up mode, refusing to call in the authorities about the missing girl, and grateful that Mircalla’s personal doctor (whom we recognize as the driver of that black coach) certifies that Barton died of a heart attack. LeStrange goes through Barton’s library, and discovers Mircalla’s secret. He, too, confesses his love to Mircalla, and begins to put that only-likes-girls thing to the test (he wins). Meantime, the school’s dance teacher (Suzanna Leigh) has notified the cops and Susan’s father (David Healy), who is American and having none of this shit.

It ends as all such gothic romances must, in a burning castle with Carmilla dead again, and LeStrange’s heart broken. The end.

After the success of The Vampire Lovers, Hammer felt they’d finally found a new vein to tap with Ireland’s other favorite author of vampire stories, Sheridan Le Fanu. The Karnsteins would crop up again in Twins of Evil and the next year’s Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, but never really recaptured the popularity of their Dracula series. It didn’t help that Lust for a Vampire had a troubled production.

Jimmy Sangster replaced Terrence Fisher in the director’s chair at very short notice. Also rushed into his role was Ralph Bates – Peter Cushing was to play Giles Barton, but bowed out due to the serious illness of his wife. Bates hates this role and this movie, and most people hate him for not being Peter Cushing, but really – he’s fine. There was a reason he was Hammer’s utility player at this point. What really kills the movie is the lack of Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla – she turned it down because she thought the script was lousy (she ain’t wrong). (also, there’s no Michael Ripper, so I don’t feel it can rightly be called a Hammer film) Overall, it’s pretty emblematic of Hammer’s rudderless direction in the 70s, when they found that everybody was doing the voluptuous horror bit, and the obvious thing to do was free those bosoms from their constricting bustiers and peasant blouses. A prime example, I think, of scarcity giving a movie a panache of quality it did not warrant (see also The Incubus).

P: Plague of the Zombies (1966)

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posterI had seriously meant to watch Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession for this position in the Hubrisween. It’s a movie I’ve been meaning to get to for years. But it has a reputation for being challenging, and between personal setbacks and an ongoing horrorshow of an Election Cycle, I really did not feel the desire to voluntarily challenge myself on another level. Looking over my list of movies, one popped up that was another movie I had meant to see for years, and one which was unlikely to poke any bruised places on my psyche: Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies.

Then I found out that fellow Hubrisweener Chad Plambeck at Microbrewed Reviews (formerly 3-B Theater, for all my fellow old-timers) had already staked it out weeks before. Well, go over and read his, if for some reason you got here first. (As I type this out, I say a silent prayer that I remember to come back here and link to it) Double-dipping is a time-honored tradition in Alphabet Challenges, and I’m a bit surprised we actually made it three-quarters of the way without doing it.

plague_4Circa 1860 or so, posh London medical professor Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) is convinced by his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) and a troubling letter from his former star pupil Peter (Brook Williams) to spend his holiday in the Cornish village where his student has taken up practice. Peter has a problem: a slow-motion epidemic of “marsh fever” has killed a person a month since his arrival, and the superstitious villagers won’t allow him to perform an autopsy.

As there was a funeral for the latest victim during his arrival, Sir James convinces Peter to join him in a bit of resurrectionism in the dead of night (it is amusing to speculate that Sir James had some experience with this in his younger days). They find the freshly-buried coffin empty.

plagueThe Plague of the Zombies is constructed like a mystery, as Sir James puzzles out exactly what is happening, and why the graveyard is full of empty coffins. As an audience, we have an idea of how but not the why. The local Squire Hamilton had a lucrative tin mine that had to be shut down over safety concerns, and when the young Squire (John Carson) returned from lengthy time spent in the Carribean (particularly “Hy-eight-tee”, we are told), he brought with him the power of voodoo. He – and the band of rich young ne’er-do-wells which are a staple in Hammer films – are killing people with curses and then reviving them as zombies to work in the mine.

theplagueofthezombiesThis is a good Evil Plan (I’m sure many capitalists are wishing there was such a thing as Zombie Labor), even though parts of it are quite suspect, such as why Hamilton decides to do away with Peter’s wife Alice (Jacquelin Pierce), and then Sylvia (except, you know, for the whole Being Evil thing). The scene involving Alice’s resurrection, though, is one of the movie’s most chilling sequences, brilliantly evoking one of the best parts in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula – the confrontation with the undead Lucy in a graveyard. That’s a brilliant piece of writing perfectly transferred here.

Plague of the Zombies was shot back-to-back with The Reptile, another Hammer movie which is unjustly relegated to the second tier in most fans’ estimation. Both, like 1964’s The Gorgon, are attempts to diversify the studio’s output from what had become its stock-in-trade, vampires and mad scientists. Like a comedian attempting to perform a serious, dramatic role: people do not like having to face the unfamiliar in their entertainment. I realize that’s an absurd critique given how I came to be watching Plague instead of Possession, but here I am, Exhibit A.

plaguezombieAlso working against it is its lack of star power: there is no Lee or Cushing here, but the cast is outstanding and solid. Morell has an impressive resume, but his major previous work for Hammer was as Dr. Watson in the 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles, and that detective work aids him greatly in this role. Diane Clare is going to be instantly recognizable from The Haunting, and that most essential Hammer actor, Michael Ripper, is on hand as a constable who is as helpful as he can be under trying circumstances.

The zombies here are genuinely chilling, the story engaging, production values high. This is not second-tier Hammer, at all. It is first-rate entertainment (if entirely suspect in its colonialism and misrepresentation of another culture’s religion) and should be treated as such.

Buy The Plague of the Zombies on Amazon (good luck!)


Q: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

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The Quatermass Xperiment _aka Shock_ aka The Creeping Unknown_ _1955_ UK_We’ll get a commonly-known piece of trivia out of the way: the missing initial “E” in “Xperiment” was a clever little nod to the British film classification’s “X” rating – no one under 16 allowed. That wouldn’t have flown for us Yanks, though, who needed none of those fancy-pants classifications, we just relied on good ol’ censorship to make our movie-going safe. So over here we called it The Creeping Unknown, which is much more butch.

So a rocketship crash lands just outside a British farmhouse, and among the folks flocking to the crash site are Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) and Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) of the British-American Rocket Group. Quatermass, ever the pushy American, sent out the rocket and its three-man crew without waiting for official sanction, much to the dismay of the man from the Home Office (the always welcome Lionel Jeffries). And now this! Jeffries sputters. Shut up, Quatermass explains.

3582619_s1_i2It turns out only one crewman is in there – Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth). All that remains of the other two are empty pressure suits. Caroon is in shock and can say nothing.

Quatermass has Carroon taken to their base so Briscoe can try to puzzle out the man’s condition while his wife, Judith (Margia Dean) fusses about. Carroon’s body is undergoing strange changes, and he seems to rouse from his catatonic state only when Judith brings flowers into his room…

Cartel+1955+The+Quatermass+Xperiment+7-1024x751Eventually Carroon deteriorates to the point that Briscoe overrules Quatermass and has him taken to a hospital – where Judith, having had enough, hires a detective to smuggle her husband out. During this escape attempt, Carroon can’t hold out anymore and punches a decorative cactus in his room. The investigator notices that Carroon’s hand is now changing into cactus, and Carroon kills him, “absorbing his essence” -ie., sucking all the blood and water out of his body – and escaping into the night.

quatermass-hammer-1955-monsters-armQuatermass, reluctantly joining forces with Inspector Lomax of the London Police (Jack Warner), now must track down the metamorphosing Carroon as he lurches about London, trying not to kill people but failing as the alien thing inside him grows and grows. A piece – or something of a seed pod – falls off, and examining it while it eats mice (offscreen, luckily), Briscoe deduces that once Carroon fully transforms, he will release spores, and then there will be millions of the creatures.

This is, of course, the first of the highly successful Quatermass movies, based on a character created for a popular BBC TV serial, which was, for 1955, “Event TV”. It was written by Nigel Kneale, a name which would become synonymous with intelligent science fiction. Many film companies were interested in turning it into a movie, but they all balked at making something that would surely be rated “X”. Except for this one upstart company, known up to that point for only making “second features” – what we call “B movies” over here. A little studio called Hammer Films.

image4Director Val Guest, heretofore known primarily for comedies, claims that he was the only person in England who didn’t watch “The Quatermass Experiment” when it was first broadcast – he didn’t like science fiction. He intended to put off Producer Anthony Hinds by going on vacation and only grudgingly taking the script with him. His wife, actress Yolande Donlan, teased him about it until he read the script in one afternoon on the beach and fell in love with it.

Kneale’s original serial ran three hours, I believe, and was heavily edited for the movie. What he resented even more, however, was the casting of Donlevy as Quatermass, a necessity for selling the picture to an American market. In the serial, Quatermass is a thoughtful Oxford Don type. It has to be admitted that Donlevy’s brusque, no-nonsense approach to the character propels the movie forward like a barking dog shepherding its flock. Kneale had his contract with the BBC re-negotiated so he would have more control over his intellectual property in the future (though Donlevy is still playing Quatermass in the sequel film Quatermass II – in America, Enemy From Space).

brian-donlevy-bernard-quatermass-hammer-1955Val Guest’s equally no-nonsense direction is what gives Quatermass most of its power – he decided that such a fantastic story – this is still two years before Sputnik, remember – needed a realistic delivery, and tried, as much as possible, to shoot the movie in a documentary fashion, to great effect. And no discussion of Xperiment can be complete without at least a mention of Richard Wordsworth’s performance as the doomed, tortured Carroon. Never speaking, everything the character is experiencing – the horror, the struggle – is delivered only through facial expression and body language. Best known as a theatrical actor with occasional TV roles, this is Wordsworth’s first movie role. Certainly not his last.

2590xper4The Quatermass Xperiment was a tremendous success for Hammer (although the reviews from the local press are amusingly disdainful), and in the next couple of years they would produce Quatermass II and the faux Quatermass movie X the Unknown (Kneale wouldn’t let them use his character), before finally hitting the cash cow they would ride for a decade and more, gothic horror with Dracula. (Horror of Dracula hereabouts, just to distinguish it from all those other Dracula flicks)

This is a ground zero movie, folks. This is the progenitor of its own sub-genre; from this descends First Man Into Space, Monster-A-Go-Go and others. As the first, it demands some respect, and that respect is quite honestly deserved.

And now for a spoiler-iffic trailer!

Buy The Quatermass Xperiment on Amazon