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Watching Brief; Don’t Go ‘Round Tonight… October 30, 2009

Posted by John Hodson in : Horror, Film & DVD Reviews, British Film, Watching Brief , 2 comments

For Hallowe’en, Watching Brief scorns the accusations of being a corny old hack, and serves up a smörgåsbord of seasonal horror film recommendations…

The Wolf Man (R1 DVD); Suspending belief in the existence of werewolves is small beer to imagining the towering Lon Chaney Jr. as the son of the diminutive Claude Rains, not to mention Universal’s all-purpose ‘mittel yurpean’ set of what is allegedly a picturesque Welsh village. We won’t even go into the variety of mid-Atlantic accents, the absence of anyone sounding remotely like Max Boyce replaced by a veritable Cook’s Tour of the English regions, or the fact that Larry Talbot’s 18 year stay in the Land of the Free has rubbed off all the traces of his ‘little Lord Fauntleboyo’ upbringing.

The Wolf Man

Nevertheless, this Curt Siodmak scripted telling of the werewolf legend makes Talbot’s lycanthrope into the ultimate tragic horror figure, and perhaps the most interesting of Universal’s unholy three; cursed to became half man, half wolf ‘when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright’, and to kill those that are nearest and dearest to him. Well, those nearest to him are certainly in big trouble.

The Wolf Man is a thinly veiled allegory on the beast that lurks within man; Talbot is hunky dory until he’s smitten by a gal, takes her into the woods (for a, ah, walk y’know) and gets bitten by Bela the gipsy (Bela Lugosi), who isn’t, puzzlingly, half man half wolf at the time, but all wolf. Thereafter, he’s in the grip of unimaginable forces, and driven to do heavens knows what to Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). Gasp.

There’s more than one way to skin a Hays Code…

Tightly written, and neatly directed by George Waggner, with iconic makeup by the real star of The Wolf Man, the great Jack Pierce. From this distance it’s also important to underline that the special effects added a real wow factor. The transfer from Universal, is excellent; they intend to do it all over again with a new special edition DVD set, they’re just waiting on the remake to get to our cinemas early next year. A toothsome prospect. I used to be a werewolf, but (altogether now), I’m alright nooooooow-ow-ow-ooowwwwww!

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (R1 DVD); Four years on from the incidents in The Wolf Man (only two years in filming terms), we discard the Great Big Book of Lycanthropic Legend, to bring poor, dead, hirsute Larry Talbot back to life. Open the casket, out with the wolfbane, a shaft of moonlight and pretty soon we’re all humming a snatch of the Creedence.

‘I see a bad moon risin’…

All semblance of anything that passes for logic goes out the window, as Larry seeks out Maleva (the always delightful Maria Ouspenskaya), and she has a solution to Mr Talbot’s problem. He wants to die, so let’s hit the high road to ‘Vasaria’ to find Baron Frankenstein, as he holds the secrets of life and death; who better? I mean, honestly.

‘I see trouble on the way…’

Slight impediment. Larry finds the Baron is now dead (obviously, not that much of a master of life and death), but needs to find his ‘Secret Diaries’, for within he’ll get the answers. As you would; ‘Dear Secret Diary, created a monster today, also found a way to kill werewolves, better than those rotten silver bullets (must nip down the patent office…)’

Before he does, Larry wakes the monster (Bela Lugosi), and, well, all hell breaks loose. Doctor Mannering (don’t ask) is mouthing the words of Frankenstein’s diaries like some remedial pupil in ‘Special School’, and mind bogglingly gasps: “I must see Frankenstein’s creation AT FULL POWER!” Uh, oh…

‘…don’t go ’round tonight, it’s bound to take your life…’

Poor Bela has no dialogue (ironically, the reason Lugosi turned down the James Whale original); preview audiences laughed at his Hungarian accent and all his lines were cut. Worse, the scene where the monster explains he’s nearly blind is excised, so his arms outstretched stagger looks plain daft, though it’s now the lazy, de rigueur method of impersonating said creature at fancy dress parties.

It’s deliriously loopy, but all the more lovable for it; you can imagine a young Mel Brooks watching, and taking notes. Universal’s transfer is, like many of their films from this era, quite super.

The Quatermass Xperiment (R2 DVD); seminal Hammer horror/sci-fi, from Nigel Kneale’s 1953 hit TV series, condensed for the big screen by Richard Landau and director Val Guest. It was Guest’s cunning plan to give the whole a kind of docu-drama feel, and weighing in at a lean 82 minutes (as opposed to the three hour TV production), the narrative fair gallops along. There isn’t a moment of wasted footage.

Hammer’s decision to place Americans as both the male and female leads (Margia Dean as ‘Judith Carroon’ and Brian Donlevy as ‘Professor Bernard Quatermass’) was purely commercial. Dean, it seems obvious, was post-dubbed for some reason, and as a result her performance suffers. But it’s Donlevy, slyly adding copious draughts of brandy to his flask of coffee during shooting, who usually comes in for most opprobrium - ‘over the hill’ and ‘wooden’ are two of more common, and more charitable, accusations. ‘Tom’ Kneale, it’s well known, was unhappy his quintessential English scientist had been replaced by an American tough (and usually bad) guy actor. In truth, as Guest opines on the DVD commentary track, he’s more than adequate, with his Quatermass driven, determined and no-nonsense - frankly, there’s not much screen time for anything else. Besides; I do like Donlevy, sober…or drunk. Allegedly.

The Quatermass Xperiment

While most other sci-fi (Kneale hated the term) films of the period of this kind - i.e. alien invasion - particularly Hollywood product, were simple allegories of the Cold War, Kneale’s piece could be read similarly, though the hugely influential British writer was far too complex for such a simplistic interpretation. Kneale was warning of hubris; when an arrogant, immature mankind reaches out into the unknown, he risks getting his fingers badly burnt.

It’s Richard Wordsworth’s doomed ‘Victor Carroon’ who commands the screen, the actor wordlessly conveying the nascent spaceman’s agony and sheer bloody terror as he transmogrifies into a planet threatening combination of species and lifeforms, with obvious comparisons to, and just as deadly as, the carrot from outer space that was The Thing From Another World. By the by, in his remake of the latter, John Carpenter, a huge Kneale fan, had his ‘Thing’ share a few more characteristics with Carroon than carrot…

The amiable Guest, who made his name with a series of easy going comedies, adapts to a genre that would set Hammer down a profitable path for two decades with effortless ease. He handles the screening of the spine-tingling mute cabin footage beautifully, the scene still oozing a squirming, chilly, menace half a century and more later. Much of the credit here must also go to composer James Bernard, making his film debut and the man whose scores would become Hammer signatures; here, as it does throughout the film, Bernard’s subtle yet ligature tight cue winds the tension.

Wonderful stuff, and the first in a trilogy of Hammer Quatermass (the ‘Xperiment’ of the title was to capitalise on the BBFC certification) films all of which, I simply could not resist watching again.

Incidentally, IMDB lists the OAR for The Quatermass Xperiment as 1.66:1, but also says:

“…This film was originally slated to be released in the United States by 20th Century Fox. However, to convince more exhibitors to install Cinemascope equipment, studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, pledged that all future 20th Century Fox releases would be in Cinemascope or a compatible anamorphic process. Since this Hammer production was shot in standard Academy, it had to be passed over. It was picked up and released through United Artists…”

The BFI can’t even confirm the AR; filmed during 1954 when the world was becoming wide, it’s more than possible that Guest had it shot in 1.66:1 but protected for 1.33:1. I gave it go for the first time at a ratio as close to 1.66:1 as I could. The credits are very tight, but thereafter it looks reasonable with no cut-off heads; However, I reverted to 1.33:1 the moment Dr. Brisco spots the slime trail at the zoo; wide, Brisco looks alarmed, but the trail, at the bottom of the screen, is out of shot.

On the whole, I think I prefer my ‘Xperiment’ in 1.33:1; I don’t think there’s any doubting it was framed thus (EDIT; since writing this, I’ve learned that I’m wrong, wrong, wrong - not only is the DVD badly cropped, but Exclusive Films switched to 1.66:1 in 1953. Never too old to learn…). DDHE’s video transfer is quite good, nice and sharp with decent contrast. There’s a constant background hiss to the soundtrack, and sound levels vary, but it’s not unduly distracting. I hear MGM have prepped a HD version in the US and a Blu-ray presentation would be more than welcome, though the way catalogue releases are shaping up Stateside, I’m not about to hold my breath.

The Quatermass Experiment (R2 DVD); The 1953 television broadcast, or at least what remains of it. The first two parts are all that remain of the BBC’s gripping six-parter. Broadcast live, the initial brace of episodes were thankfully also captured on film; as you might expect, with three hours to play with, Kneale’s horrifying tale of the possible consequences of exploring the unknown has time to breathe. Thus, there are more characters (including a surprisingly sympathetic journalist) and greater characterisation (Quatermass comes across as far more conflicted, indeed desperate, about the havoc his British Rocket Group may have unwittingly wrought), it’s tremendously frustrating we have to leave the BBC dramatisation only a third of the way in.

It’s understandable Kneale was unhappy with Donlevy; his Quatermass is hardly as he envisaged and Reginald Tate plays him most effectively, but then again, he has time to characterise - watching the later Hammer production unfold, how the Manxman must have agonised over all that lost exposition.

The TV production seems to have the budget of half an episode of The Flowerpot Men, as we switch - live don’t forget - from a tiny sparse set to an even tinier and sparser part of the same studio. ‘So the comic strips were right’ says an awestruck onlooker at one point ‘they do wear those kinds of suits.’ Within eight years, the truth would out - spacemen did not in fact wear an odd mix of items fashioned after vintage diving gear, the lot bought wholesale by the Beeb costumers from the Portobello Road Army & Navy Storesvery disappointing!

Despite that, these tantalising snippets of The Quatermass Experiment transcend any problems; you can see why it left a nation spellbound, and Hammer films eager to get their chequebook out. Quatermass would not only provide a template for successive generations of film-makers, but would also enter the language to become a convenient shorthand for hyperbole prone hacks in search of a sensation seeking headline. Kneale’s creation entered the public consciousness to the extent that even those that have never seen the good professor in action have some idea what the dropping of his name entails. Bad things. Very bad things.

Picture quality is exactly as you would expect for 55-years-old TV, and some of the bugbears are part and parcel of the original production; no time to set things up ‘just so’, so the lighting sometimes causes unwanted lens flares, cues are missed and so on. Given all that, it’s not bad but it’s hardly the best example of vintage television preserved digitally, though probably it doesn’t differ much in this respect from the day it was first transmitted. Live TV folks, ’50s style. And it emptied pubs and churches the length and breadth of the land.

The mono sound is actually pretty good, Holst’s Mars hammered out effectively over those stylish main titles. The 2|entertain box set from which it hails, containing all three BBC productions - with the quite fabulous Quatermass And The Pit easily the stand-out - comes very highly recommended

Quatermass II (R1 DVD); Three years after the release of the first film, and Hammer again follows the Beeb’s lead. This time Kneale combines sci-fi and horror with a deep-seated paranoia. In The Quatermass Xperiment, Kneale warned of alien invasion from outer space. Here, it’s an enemy that’s already established and it’s happened even before the opening credits roll; the invaders have infiltrated society at the very highest echelons, both Government and the Police. The population isn’t aware that they are becoming zombie slave workers or, in one instance, being prepped as the main ingredient in a rather nasty inter-galactic bouillabaisse.

Quatermass II

The original BBC script is adapted for the screen this time by Kneale himself with director Val Guest, and once again, the pace is relentless (even if the geography is suspect; Carlisle being a short ride, apparently, from Parliament Square). It feeds Cold War angst of an enemy within, the fears that enemy invasion could be insidious and covert, rather than the wholly overt threat of the first story. Of course, it also reads that you can’t trust anyone, even - or especially - our political masters. The alien landscape of the Shell Haven refinery in Essex proves the ideal location for the supposed manufacturing base for a ’synthetic food’; perhaps the most startling image in the whole film is of the bluff northern MP ‘Broadhead’ (Tom Chatto) covered in a skin-stripping slime, staggering, his smoking flesh boiling, down the ladder of one of the refinery’s huge, unearthly, domes.

This time, there is no doubt about the original aspect ratio; Anchor Bay’s R1 DVD is transferred open-matte, and zooms to 1.66:1 beautifully. The transfer is excellent and the sound mostly nigh on perfect, the chatter of the machine guns given a satisfying thud, and the screams of the ‘thing’ suitably vast and otherworldly. As he does on the DVD of the first film, Val Guest again features on an interesting commentary track, his age at the time of recording no impediment to recalling incidents on and off the set.

Quatermass & The Pit (R1 DVD); the last of the triumvirate of Hammer Quatermass films, and it takes a Scot to get closer to the heart of the English Prof. Bernard Quatermass. 12 years after their last stab at Nigel Keale’s creation, and nine after the Beeb broadcast the TV version of the same story, once again director Roy Ward Baker has to tell the story condensed from a three-hour original at a fair lick.

Kneale eschews the paranoia of the his ‘Q X’ and ‘Q II’ for a mix of ghosties, ghoulies, the paranormal and science - aliens not a million miles from those unseen propagators of planets in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001; A Space Odessey. Good to see James Donald and Barbara Shelley (who is weirdly erotic even here; it’s not just me surely?), but Julian Glover is a little young for the blustering warrior Colonel Breen I feel.

The story builds but, unlike the TV presentation, the genuine chills are few; it sorely misses a James Bernard score, Tristram Cary’s cues a little workaday. However the sound department - taking their cue from the broadcast series - works overtime to cover in this respect with aural effects that help to build tension. If I appear to be a little harsh on the film, I temper that by saying it’s a favourite. Honest. But simply, having now seen the original BBC presentation with André Morell, that towers above it. Yes; it really is that good.

Quatermass & The Pit

The climax is exciting, and nicely achieved, though what the hell was James Donald thinking of? Madness… Anchor Bay’s R1 transfer is non-anamorphic, but hails from a clean print.

The Black Cat (R1 DVD); Not the Edward G. Ulmar horror, but the cornball 1941 version with Bela Lugosi lurking about in the shadows, while folks are bumped off in ‘the old dark house’ - Broderick Crawford and Anne Gwynne play the roles Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard did with far more aplomb over at Paramount, while Gale Sondergaard is, well, Gale Sondergaard. Crawford asks of Basil Rathbone at one point: ‘Who do you think you are - Sherlock Holmes?’

Lots of running around, secret passages and amusing business by Hugh Herbert; the kind of thing Universal chucked off in five minutes during the war years to keep folks minds off the fact that the world was going to hell in a handcart. Alan Ladd is bottom of the cast list, but was bumped higher on the posters as audiences were wowed by the simultaneous release of This Gun For Hire.

Perfect late night viewing from Universal (and another nice transfer) that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Man Made Monster (R1 DVD); Take one mad scientist (Lionel Atwill), add an unlikely premise (’electro-biology’), stir in a big, daft affable dupe (Lon Chaney Jr.), season with stock characters (the blonde, the investigative reporter), leave to simmer for about an hour - et voila! A typical Universal horror cheapie, and one that it notable for setting Chaney’s career down a path that both carved his name in movie history, and cursed him to a life on the undercard. It was off the back of Man Made Monster that Chaney got the part of Larry Talbot, another unwitting, doomed monster, one that simply refused to die.

Man Made Monster has Chaney’s ‘Dan McCormick’ able to absorb huge amounts of electricity, and doing so for some unexplained reason, it gives him superhuman strength and makes him the willing slave to Atwill’s ‘Dr Paul Rigas’, a man who is clearly several shillings short of a full leccy meter.

McCormick kills ‘Dr. John Lawrence’ (Samuel S. Hinds - oh no, not that nice Peter Bailey!), he’s then hoicked off to die in the electric chair. Not a good idea. Duly energised by being zapped, and zapped again and again (and again), a glowing McCormick goes on a rampage, carries away ‘June Lawrence’ (Anne Nagel) in true monster stylee, then meets his nemesis - barbed wire. Oh, watch it yourself…

Universal’s transfer is just pristine, with excellent contrast, there’s nary a mark and the mono soundtrack is spot on. There are English (HoH) and French subtitles.

Plague of The Zombies (R1 DVD); Following on from watching the Beeb’s excellent Quatermass & The Pit, I was in the mood for more André Morell. It was Mike Parkinson and Granada’s Cinema that first had me hiding behind the sofa at clips of this as a 10-year-old, and it’s always had a special place in my heart. Plague of The ZombiesI still think the nightmare sequence is one of the most chilling to be found in any Hammer film, indeed - even in a genre now dominated by tawdry horror pornography - any horror. And it is the reason, if I take a short cut through the cemetery, I scurry, occasionally glancing nervously over my shoulder, watching the newly dug earth for signs of movement. My flesh creeps just to think about it.

It’s neatly directed by John Gilling, who also helmed a number of other Hammers, notably The Pirates of Blood River, as well as the effective The Flesh & The Fiends and The Night Caller (not to mention a slew of Department S episodes). Morell’s ‘Good’ is nicely matched by John Carson’s ‘Evil’ squire, and full marks to Roy Ashton’s makeup, Les Bowie’s effects which combine with James Bernard’s score (there really is no substitute when it comes to Hammer) to culminate in a notable chiller. Even if the pay-off proves to be ever so slightly bananas.

Anchor Bay’s transfer is quite good; there’s some evident print damage in the first reel, but’s pretty strong thereafter and the mono soundtrack is more than adequate.

Cue maniacal Vincent Price laugh, a creaky coffin lid closing, end titles; happy All Hallows’ Eve…

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