Netflix’ DRACULA (2020) – New Mini-Series’ Take On Stoker’s Novel Difficult to Digest

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Dracula - episode 2

DRACULA (2020), a three-part miniseries available now on Netflix, is brought to us by the same folks who brought us SHERLOCK (2010-2017), which starred Benedict Cumberbatch.

Their take on Bram Stokers’ iconic novel, one of the most revered horror novels in the English language, and one of my personal favorites, is one that pushes the envelope at every turn, so much so that for Dracula purists like myself, the end result is not easy to digest.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like DRACULA. I did. Or, at least parts of it.

But there were more parts that I didn’t like, aspects that made it clear that the series’ makers were sacrificing story and truth for ingenuity and chaos. In short, the goal here seems to have been to make as many dramatic and in-your-face changes as possible to make this a fresh and original take on the tale. The trouble is, at the end of the day, there’s not a whole heck of a lot left that resembles Stoker’s original novel.

This in itself I don’t have a problem with. I’m open to re-imaginings. The problem with this reboot is the bold changes get in the way of the story, and that’s never a good thing. It’s like being aware that an actor is acting. Here, it clearly seemed that changes were being made just for the sake of being different. In short, I think the filmmakers were simply trying too hard.

DRACULA opens with a very ill Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) at a convent being interviewed by Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells), who wants to know as much as possible about his experience at Castle Dracula. Now, in Stoker’s novel, Harker does convalesce in a convent after he escapes from his horrifying ordeal at Castle Dracula, so I thought this was a neat way to open the mini-series.

The events at Castle Dracula then unfold as Harker recounts his story, and it’s in this telling that we first meet Count Dracula (Claes Bang). This is all well and good until it’s revealed that Sister Agatha’s last name is Van Helsing, meaning that in this interpretation, Van Helsing is a nun.

Okay. Stop right here.

Van Helsing is a nun.

Let that sink in for a moment.

My first thought was, okay, a bit dramatic, but I can live with this. I’m on board. I’m ready for this interpretation. But it doesn’t stop there. Van Helsing in this DRACULA is hardly the Van Helsing we’ve seen before. Sure, she’s Dracula’s adversary, but barely, and like other aspects of this version, as the interpretation goes along, it becomes unrelatable, and that simply gets in the way of good storytelling.

So, Part I is mostly the tale of Jonathan Harker’s ordeal at Castle Dracula. Part 2 covers Dracula’s voyage on the ship the Demeter on his way to London, and then Part 3 gets wild and crazy. Without giving too much away, if you’re familiar with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) you know which direction the third episode takes.

There’s no doubt that Claes Bang’s interpretation of Dracula was meant to be fresh and original, and it is definitely unlike previous takes on the character. Bang’s Dracula has a wise-cracking quip about everything, and he seems to have walked off the set of a Marvel superhero movie. He’d be right at home exchanging barbs with Iron Man and Doctor Strange as he battled them for supremacy of the world. In short, I didn’t like this interpretation. For me, Dracula works best when he is flat-out evil, which is why I’ve always enjoyed every Christopher Lee performance. His Dracula is always evil.

That’s not to say that Bang plays Dracula as a nice guy. His Dracula is definitely a villain, but he’s just a little too colorful for my tastes. That being said, Bang does deliver a powerful performance which grew on me with each episode. So, for me, it’s a case where I thought the actor did a tremendous job but the writing tweaked the character too much for my liking.

Likewise, Dolly Wells does a nice job as Sister Agatha Van Helsing, but again, the writing took this character and did things with her that diminished her impact. For starters, Van Helsing simply isn’t as powerful a presence here as Dracula. That in itself is problematic.

I can’t say then that I was a fan of the teleplay by Mark Gatis and Steven Moffat, where changes seem to have been made solely for the purpose of being different without taking into consideration how it would affect the story. Still, it’s an incredibly ambitious screenplay. There is just so much thrown into this mini-series. That in itself is impressive. But sadly most of it didn’t work for me.

The rest of the cast is okay. The only other cast member who stood out for me was Lydia West as Lucy, who shows up in Part 3. When Dracula finally meets Lucy in Part 3, it makes for some of the most compelling moments in the entire miniseries. I loved this part, mostly because of West’s performance here, as she and Bang share some sensual chemistry, but sadly, this sequence doesn’t last all that long, so as good as it is, it’s far too brief.

Then there’s Mina, here played by Morfydd Clark. Mina is a central character in the novel, and she’s always been one of my favorite characters in the novel. Few movie versions have ever done her justice. In the novel, she’s probably the strongest character, but in the movies, she’s generally reduced to being a victim who needs to be saved by Van Helsing. In this version, she’s barely a blip on the proceedings, which is too bad.

I did like the way this one looked. A lot. Especially the look of Castle Dracula in Part 1. Evidently it’s the same castle exterior that was used in the original NOSFERATU (1922). How cool is that?

I also enjoyed the homages to other classic Draculas, especially to the Hammer Draculas. Early on in Part 1, Dracula is depicted as an old man, as he is in the novel, and the look here resembles Gary Oldman in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). Later Dracula’s guise resembles Christopher Lee, and then in Part 2, while he’s on the Demeter, his costume mirrors that of Bela Lugosi. I appreciated these touches.

And for Hammer Film fans, there’s an Easter Egg for DRACULA A.D. 1972, and for HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), specifically that film’s classic finale. So I give credit to directors Johnny Campbell, Paul McGuigan, and Damon Thomas for these moments.

But overall, DRACULA struggled to hold my attention. I found its dramatic revisions distracting and far less captivating than the story told in Stoker’s novel.

And while I can comfortably say it was not the version for me, I have a feeling that somewhere down the line I’ll watch it again.

Some day.

 

When I’m ready to once more entertain the notion that Van Helsing is a nun and Dracula a comic book villain.

—END—

 

Picture of the Day: Winter Monsters – HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

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The alien creature early on in HORROR EXPRESS (1972), one of Peter Cushing’s and Christopher Lee’s finest horror movies.

One of my favorite Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing movies is HORROR EXPRESS (1972), a Spanish/British production by director Eugenio Martin.

This horror tale about an alien creature loose on the wintry Trans Siberian Express in 1906 is one of the best movies Cushing and Lee ever made together, and one of the few where they play co-heroes, working together on the train to save the passengers from the murderous alien.

It also features Telly Savalas as a ruthless Russian Captain who shows up at the end with his Russian soldiers to torment both the passengers and the monster. It’s a wild ride, and the fact that it’s not a Hammer Film, and hence plays out like a Spanish horror movie, is all the more refreshing.

Besides Cushing and Lee, the other memorable part of this movie is the alien creature. At first, it shows up inside a monstrously-looking fossil of a possible missing link, in the photo above, and later it enters the bodies of various passengers on the train. But early on, the look of the monster is really cool, and has always been one of my favorite parts of this movie.

And pardon me for indulging in this fantasy, but although this film takes place in 1906, it was filmed in 1972 and retains a 1970s style of filmmaking, complete with zoom shots and a funky soundtrack. So, there’s just something about this one which has always made me imagine Darren McGavin’s Carl Kolchak as a passenger on this train doing his Night Stalker best to help solve the mystery. Kolchak would have been right at home on the HORROR EXPRESS.

Looking for a cool monster to watch this winter? Look no further than the creature in HORROR EXPRESS (1972), one of Peter Cushing’s and Christopher Lee’s best horror movies.

—END—

 

 

PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974)

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Who is this man with the golden mask?

King Midas?

Nope.

Thanos’ great uncle?

Try again.

It’s the Grand Vizier of Arabia, as played by Douglas Wilmer in the classic adventure/fantasy THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), featuring the spectacular stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen.

I don’t think there’s a movie out there which Ray Harryhausen put his name on that I don’t like. Harryhausen’s special effects are always top-notch, and the films in which they appeared nearly all classics of the genre.

In particular, I especially enjoy Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies. There were three of them: THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), and SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977). The first two are the best. As to which one is number one in the series, that’s a tough call. I’ve watched both these films a lot, and I have to concede that I find these two equally as good.

Sometimes I slightly prefer THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and other times it’s THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD. They’re both excellent movies and both feature fantastic effects by Ray Harryhausen.

The production design and costumes in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD are also phenomenal, which brings us to today’s photo, the man with the golden mask. But first a shout out to director Gordon Hessler who also directed THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a lurid and underrated horror flick starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. Here, Hessler keeps the pace quick and the action exciting. There’s also a strong sense of mystery and awe throughout.

I saw THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD at the drive-in movies when I was just 10 years-old, and I was instantly a fan. I was drawn into its fantasy world of magic and monsters, and I was particularly intrigued by the man in the golden mask, as pictured above, which I’ve always thought was a really cool look.

In the film, he hires Sinbad to help locate the Fountain of Destiny.

That’s actor Douglas Wilmer behind the mask. Wilmer made a ton of movies and appeared in everything from Hammer Films like THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), the Peter Sellers PINK PANTHER films, the James Bond flick OCTOPUSSY (1983), the Christopher Lee FU MANCHU movies, Ray Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), as well as playing Sherlock Holmes on British TV. Wilmer passed away in 2016 at the age of 96.

John Phillip Law makes for a heroic Sinbad, and the cast also includes Tom Baker as the villain Koura, and the very sexy Caroline Munro.

There’s a lot to like about THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, which is chock full of memorable Ray Harryhausen creations. But for me, the most memorable image from the film is Vizier with his mysterious golden mask.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

IN THE SHADOWS: FRANCIS MATTHEWS

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Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies.

Today our focus is on Francis Matthews. If you’re a Hammer Film fan, you’re familiar with Matthews’ work, because of two key performances in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

With his distinctive voice, which sounds an awful lot like Cary Grant’s, Matthews made a lasting impression in these Hammer sequels.

Here’s a very brief look at the career of Francis Matthews, focusing mainly on his genre credits:

BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956) – Ranjit Kasel- Matthews’ first big screen credit is in this drama about English/Indian relations directed by George Cukor.  Stars Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger.

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Francis Matthews and Peter Cushing in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958).

THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) – Doctor Hans Kleve-  Francis Matthews is memorable here as the new young assistant to Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, or as he is known in this movie since he’s supposed to be dead and is hiding from the authorities, Dr. Stein. Matthews and Cushing share a nice camaraderie in their scenes together, and it’s too bad the series didn’t continue with these two actors. The character of Hans is notable here because at the end of the movie he successfully transplants Dr. Stein’s brain into another body.

CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958) – Jonathan Bolton – co-stars with both Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee in this standard shocker featuring Karloff playing a doctor who becomes addicted to the powerful anesthesia he has created and as a result becomes involved in murder. Christopher Lee plays a grave robber named Resurrection Joe, and his supporting performance steals the show. The best part is Karloff and Lee’s climactic battle, pitting one “Frankenstein monster” vs. the other. Neat stuff! Matthews plays it straight as Karloff’s son and protegé.

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Francis Matthews and Christopher Lee in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) – Charles Kent – By far, my favorite Francis Matthews’ role. He plays Charles Kent, one of the four guests who find themselves spending the night in Dracula’s castle, and it’s Charles’ brother Alan (Charles Tingwell) who’s murdered by Dracula’s disciple Klove (Philip Latham) who then uses Alan’s blood to resurrect Dracula (Christopher Lee) in one of Hammer’s bloodiest and most gruesome scenes.

Charles then teams up with Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) to hunt down Dracula, but the vampire king complicates things by going after Charles’ wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) first.

This sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), arguably Hammer’s best shocker, is itself a really good movie, and its reputation has only gotten better over the years. Francis Matthews makes for a strong leading man, until that is, he has to face Dracula, which is as it should be. The later Hammer Draculas would stumble by having every random young hero best the vampire king when in all seriousness, that should have been something only the Van Helsings of the world could do.

Also, if you own the Blu-ray version of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, it includes a rare and very informative commentary by Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Suzan Farmer, and Francis Matthews. All four actors sat down together for a screening of the film, and for most of them it was the first time they had watched the movie in years. All four actors add really neat insights. For instance, during the film’s pre-credit sequence, which begins with the ending of HORROR OF DRACULA, Lee was quick to point out that the ending they were watching was cut from the original version, and this commentary was recorded long before the recent restored version by Hammer.

The Blu-ray also contains rare behind-the-scenes footage on the set of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS secretly filmed by Francis Matthews’ brother using an 8mm camera.

Sadly, of these four actors, only Barbara Shelley remains with us, as Lee, Matthews, and Suzan Farmer have all since passed away (Farmer in 2017).

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966) – Ivan – shot nearly simultaneously as DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the film uses the same sets and much of the same cast, including Christopher Lee, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley, and Suzan Farmer.

THE SAINT (1964-1967) – Andre/Paul Farley – “To Kill A Saint”/”The Noble Sportsman” – appeared in two episodes of the popular Roger Moore spy show.

THE AVENGERS (1966-1967) – Chivers/Collins – “Mission – Highly Improbable”/”The Thirteenth Hole”- appeared in two episodes of THE AVENGERS TV show.

RUN FOR YOUR WIFE (2012) – Francis Matthews’ final screen credit is in this British comedy.

Francis Matthews has 106 screen credits, and I’ll always remember him for his two noteworthy performances in two of Hammer’s better sequels, THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

Matthews was born on September 2, 1927. He died on June 14, 2014 at the age of 86.

Well, that’s all we have time for today. I hope you enjoyed reading about Francis Matthews, and please join me again next time on the next IN THE SHADOWS when we’ll look at the career at another great character actor in the movies, especially horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964)

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Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964).

I first saw CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964) in the early 1980s when I was in high school late on a Saturday night on my local UHF channel— Channel 56 in Boston— on their Creature Feature broadcast.  Channel 56 used to show the Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons, but then they would also show a solo horror flick usually after 11 pm on Saturday nights under the moniker Creature Feature.  Way back when, these films were a major highlight of my weekends.

I immediately noticed two things about CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD upon that first viewing all those years ago. One, although it starred Christopher Lee, it was clear that it was made on a much lower budget than the Hammer Films of the period, and two, there was something incredibly mesmerizing about it.

One of the major reasons it was so captivating then and remains so today is that it was shot on location at a real castle, the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Italy, and also at the rock garden in Bomarzo, Italy, which contains monstrous and weird statues, which are used to full effect in the movie. With the nonstop whistling wind in the background, there is an authenticity to this movie that remains its best attribute. You will truly feel as if you are right there with the characters spending a night at the Castle of the Living Dead.

The film also boasts a decent story.

A group of circus entertainers in 19th century France happen upon a strange castle occupied by the mysterious Count Drago (Christopher Lee) who invites them to spend the night. Nothing unusual here in terms of story, except that Count Drago is housing a terrible secret. No, he’s not a vampire, but he does have an unusual hobby that his guests are sure not to enjoy.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is also the beneficiary of some atmospheric direction by Warren Kiefer, an American filmmaker who went to Italy to pursue his film career. Kiefer also wrote the script. Some prints also list Herbert Wise as the director, a pseudonym for Kiefer’s assistant director Luciano Ricci. This was done because the film was a French-Italian co-production, and for tax reasons, the Italian version needed an Italian director.

Further complicating matters regarding just who directed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is that Michael Reeves, the young British director who would go on to make a name for himself directing the well-regarded Vincent Price movie THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL) before dying unexpectedly a year later, was part of Kiefer’s crew, and rumors have spread over the years that it was Reeves who largely directed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.

But most of these rumors have since been debunked by others on the set, and so today by most accounts it’s believed that it was Warren Kiefer who directed this movie.

Again, the best part about CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is its atmosphere. With its grainy black and white photography, at times it looks raw and real, while at others it appears almost dreamlike, the whole thing more akin to Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) than a Hammer Film. It’s creaky and it’s creepy, which is a good thing, because in terms of action and horror, not a lot happens in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is a major reason why it’s not considered a classic of horror cinema.

Kiefer also does a nice job photographing Christopher Lee here, as with the deep dark circles under his eyes, he resembles someone with a serious drug addiction.  The way Lee is photographed in this move reminds me a lot of the way Bela Lugosi looked in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).

That being said, Count Drago is not of one Lee’s strongest performances.  Count Drago is not an evil character like Count Dracula. He’s more manipulative and neurotic a la Norman Bates. In fact, they share similar hobbies. Lee somewhat captures this about Drago, but he’s not altogether successful here. Indeed, it may not all be Lee’s fault. He said in interviews that during this movie in the post-sync stage, he had to dub his own lines without the benefit of having a script because no one had written down the movie’s dialogue on paper. Oops!

The other major star to appear in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is Donald Sutherland. In one of his first movie appearances, Sutherland actually plays three roles: a young soldier, an old man, and a witch. He’s most memorable as the creaky old witch.  The witch’s line, “Some will live. And some will die,” will stay with you long after you’ve seen this movie.

Sutherland got along so famously with director Warren Kiefer that he named his son after him, which is how actor Kiefer Sutherland got his name.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is not a classic of low-budget horror cinema. It doesn’t quite have enough going for it to reach that level. However, it is much better than critics have given it credit for.

It plays more like a drama— think the Charles Laughton version of Victor Hugo’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)— that evolves into a horror tale, with traces of PSYCHO (1960) and low-budget foreign cinema, evoking the same kind of flavor and deadly charm as films like MANEATER OF HYDRA (1967) but shot in black and white without any serious blood and gore.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is all about atmosphere, and as such, it does not disappoint.

In the dead of winter, when everything seems cold and lifeless, there comes a barren castle occupied by Count Drago, a castle where all who visit remain, because once its secrets are exposed, it’s revealed to be truly a CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.

—END—

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE OBLONG BOX (1969)

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This one is a reprint from September 2010, originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association:

 

IN THE SPOOKGLIGHT

By

Michael Arruda

 

Vincent Price made a career playing over-the-top hammy dramatic characters in colorful period pieces in the 1960s.  He’s at it again in THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a film in which he is paired with Christopher Lee.

THE OBLONG BOX is loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name—very loosely, as in just borrowing the title!

The story begins in Africa, with Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) tortured by natives, his face apparently scarred beyond recognition. Markham’s brother Sir Julian Markham (Vincent Price) arrives too late to save him.

They return to England, with Sir Edward now a crazed lunatic. Sir Julian is forced to keep his brother locked in chains in an upstairs bedroom of their mansion.  With the help of a family friend Samuel Trench (Peter Arne), Edward plans his escape.  They hire an African witch doctor to supply Edward with a drug to imitate death.  The plan is for Edward to be removed from the house as a “corpse” only to be revived and rescued later by Trench.

However, Julian immediately seals Edward’s lifeless body inside a coffin and unknowingly buries his brother alive. Trench decides rescuing Edward from a premature burial is too dangerous and out of the question, and so he leaves him for dead.

Meanwhile, Dr. Neuhartt (Christopher Lee) has been paying grave robbers to supply him with bodies for his research. As luck would have it, his grave robbers dig up Edward. When Neuhartt opens the coffin inside his laboratory, Edward attacks him but doesn’t kill him, deciding he could use the doctor as an accomplice.

Edward then dons a crimson hood and seeks revenge against both Trench and his brother, going on a bloody rampage through the countryside, slitting the throats of his victims. Eventually, Julian discovers his brother is still alive, setting the stage for the final confrontation between brothers, as well as the obligatory unmasking of Edward’s hideous face.

THE OBLONG BOX has long been considered too long, too slow, and too rambling by critics, but I’ve always liked its intricate plot with its many pathways.   It takes the viewer along a very creepy ride, with premature burials, African voodoo, a masked maniac, and bloody murders.

THE OBLONG BOX was supposed to have been directed by Michael Reeves, the talented young director who had just finished another Price movie, THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) [also known as THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL), a film that had been very well received. Sadly, Reeves died before he could direct THE OBLONG BOX, and so the directing duties went to Gordon Hessler.

A lot has been made of Hessler’s lackluster direction of this picture, and I would have to agree. In spite of its strong story, there really aren’t a lot of memorable scenes in THE OBLONG BOX.  On the contrary, there are a lot of weak scenes. The bloody killings are tepid and the blood obviously fake, and the final confrontation between Edward and Julian is also a disappointment, as well as the unmasking scene.  The make-up job on Edward’s face is embarrassingly routine. Still, Hessler can direct.  Five years later, he would be at the helm of THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), one of the best of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies.

The acting is just OK. With Vincent Price, you get exactly what you would expect, an over-the-top hammy performance. As always, he’s fun to watch.  Christopher Lee is cast against type as the decent Dr. Neuhartt, but sadly, there’s not a lot for him to do with this role.

Alister Williamson is a disappointment as Sir Edward Markham.  As the main villain, Edward should dominate this movie. He doesn’t. Had Christopher Lee played Edward, THE OBLONG BOX would have been a much better movie. Of course, I can understand Lee not always wanting to play the bad guy. Trouble is, he’s just so damned good at it! I wish he had played the role.

Speaking of bad guys, probably the most memorable performance in THE OBLONG BOX belongs to Peter Arne as Samuel Trench. Trench is the slimiest character in this movie, and Arne plays him to the hilt.

But the most disappointing part of this movie is that in spite of the pairing of the two horror superstars, Price and Lee only share one brief scene together. Rip-off!

And the final nail in the coffin— heh, heh— regarding THE OBLONG BOX is that its ending doesn’t make any sense. It’s one of those endings where you see it and you know it was shot just to have a shocking last scene, even though based upon what has happened before, it makes little or no sense.

But even with all these flaws, I still like THE OBLONG BOX, for the simple reason that I love its plot, an exciting roller coaster ride of frights and thrills.  The screenplay was written by Lawrence Huntington, with additional dialogue by Christopher Wicking.

THE OBLONG BOX is an example of a movie that succeeds because of the strength of its writing. The direction is fair and the acting okay, but it’s the writing that lifts this one to memorable status, which is a rare thing in movies, a medium dominated by directors and actors.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKULL (1965)

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Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in THE SKULL (1965).

 

Amicus Productions, the other horror film company from Great Britain that competed with Hammer Films in the 1960s-70s, is famous for their anthology horror movies, but one of their all time best horror films is not an anthology flick but one that tells a single story.

It’s THE SKULL (1965), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and it’s one of the better horror films to come out of the 1960s, if not for anything else, for its original story.

Of course, it helps to have superior source material.  THE SKULL is based on the story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” by Robert Bloch.

THE SKULL (1965) tells the story of Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), a collector of all things macabre, who is offered the skull of the Marquis de Sade by the shady buyer and seller Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark). Not sure if he wants to add it to his collection or not, Maitland visits his friend Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) to seek advice on the item’s authenticity and is shocked when Sir Matthew tells him it is the real deal because Marco stole it from him. When Maitland offers to help Sir Matthew get it back, Sir Matthew tells him he wants no part of it and warns Maitland against purchasing it, citing the skull’s dangerous supernatural powers. Maitland scoffs at his friend’s warning and even calls him a coward, saying he’d welcome the full force of the skull’s powers if they existed so he could write about them.

Maitland goes ahead and adds the skull to his collection.

You should have listened to your friend’s advice.

Because it turns out that the skull is indeed evil, and it leads to the death and destruction of everyone who comes in contact with it.

THE SKULL has a lot of things going for it, and it’s one of those movies that has aged well and holds up better today than when it first came out.

For starters, it’s one of the first Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee horror movies not to be a period piece. It’s set in modern times, and as such, as much as I enjoy all the period piece Hammer Films, THE SKULL plays like a breath of fresh air.

THE SKULL also gives Cushing and Lee a chance to appear in the same scenes together and actually hold some intriguing conversations. Prior to THE SKULL, most of their movie scenes together involved them dueling to the death, with Cushing’s hero usually gaining the upper hand over Lee’s monster. Here, they share some noteworthy scenes together. My favorite is their conversation over a game of pool where they argue over the power of the skull. With a little imagination it’s easy to perceive this scene as a dialogue between Baron Frankenstein and Scaramanga. It kinda has that feel.

There’s also a neat dream sequence— or is it?— where Cushing’s Maitland is whisked away by some weird gangster thugs and taken to a secret court where he’s forced to play russian roulette with a loaded pistol. It’s a bizarre sequence, but it really works.

The special effects here for a 1965 movie aren’t half bad.  The skull looks pretty cool, and the scenes shot from inside the skull, an idea conceived by director Freddie Francis, also work.

But what works against the movie, and in the past, used to prevent me from truly loving it, is it has pacing issues, especially towards the end, where there are long scenes of Peter Cushing sitting and staring at the skull, which are hardly all that thrilling.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

One, according to director Freddie Francis, the script by producer Milton Subotsky was largely unfinished and resembled more of an outline than a full-fledged screenplay. According to Francis, he had to add quite a bit to the film’s story to make it reach feature-length.

Also, while Freddie Francis directed a lot of movies, he’s more known for his cinematography, for films in the 1950s, and later, on such classics as THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and GLORY (1989). He’s not one of my favorite horror movie directors, although I did enjoy his work on DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) which I think is his best horror movie.

But as I said, THE SKULL has aged well, and I regard it much more highly than I did say thirty years ago.

The pacing remains slow, but that seems to matter less now, because its scenes of horror have only gotten better. It opens with an extremely atmospheric graveyard scene which takes place in the 1800s, and so even though this one isn’t a period piece, it begins that way, which makes its switch to modern-day later all the more effective.

There’s something very intelligent and artistic about the entire production, and that’s the part that seems to have gotten better with age. The other notable thing about THE SKULL is it’s not a movie where the good guys win. The forces of darkness are the victors here. In fact, the entire movie seems to be seeped in an aura of evil. It really resonates.

And the film has a very strong cast.  Of course, you have Cushing and Lee, but they’re supported by folks like Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Peter Woodthorpe, and Michael Gough.

Peter Cushing always delivers a top-notch performance, although his best work is when he plays the hero or the villain. Here, as Christopher Maitland, he’s a flawed character who isn’t strong enough to fend off the powers of the skull, but as such, it’s rather refreshing to see him play this kind of role.

Christopher Lee’s Sir Matthew Phillips is largely a supporting role, but it is an excellent performance nonetheless. As many of Lee’s early performances so often were, it went largely unnoticed by critics, but he is quite good here as the man who, unlike Maitland, realizes just how dangerous the skull is and tries to tell his friend to walk away from the supernatural object.  Lee does a terrific job creating a character who shows both strength and fear.

Producer and writer Milton Subotsky had a vision for this film to be a feature-length horror movie with very little dialogue. He once said in an interview, “It’s a fantastic film and I think, will someday be considered a horror classic.”

It may have taken over 50 years, but I think Subotsky was right.

We’ve reached the point where we can safely call THE SKULL a classic horror movie from the 1960s.

–END—

 

 

LEADING LADIES: BARBARA SHELLEY

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barbara shelley - dracula prince of darkness

Barbara Shelley in DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at lead actresses in horror movies.

Up today it’s Barbara Shelley, a woman whose talent and beauty adorned some of Hammer Films’ best shockers.  Of course, Shelley starred in more than just Hammer horror movies, appearing in all sorts of movies and TV shows as well.  Here’s a partial look at her long and successful career, focusing mostly on her horror films:

MAN IN HIDING (1953) – Barbara Shelley’s first screen credit, under her real name, as Barbara Kowin, in this British whodunit murder mystery starring Paul Henreid and Lois Maxwell.

BALLATA TRAGICA (1954) – Betty Mason- Shelley’s first credit as Barbara Shelley in this Italian crime drama.

CAT GIRL (1957) – Leonora Johnson- Shelley’s first horror movie, a variation of the more famous CAT PEOPLE (1942), where she plays a young woman affected by a family curse that warns she will turn into a murderous leopard when angered.  Some girls have all the fun.

BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1958) – Madeleine –  One of my favorite Barbara Shelley movies, this atmospheric horror movie about a mad scientist named Dr. Callistratus (Donald Wolfit) conducting strange blood experiments in a creepy prison is a subtle exercise in “thinking man’s horror.”  It looks and plays like a Hammer Film, but it’s not, but it was written by Jimmy Sangster, who wrote some of Hammer’s best shockers.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) – Anthea Zellaby – Probably my favorite Barbara Shelley movie, this science fiction classic about the strange children with the glowing eyes is one of the best science fiction horror movies ever made.  Also stars George Sanders, Michael Gwynn, and Laurence Naismith.

THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961) – Beth Venable – Shelley’s first Hammer Film, another cat tale involving murder and the supernatural. Also starring Andre Morrell and Freda Jackson.

THE SAINT (1962) – Valerie North – appeared in the episode “The Covetous Headsman” of this classic TV show starring Roger Moore.

THE GORGON (1964) – Carla Hoffman- co-stars with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in this Hammer shocker that is topnotch throughout except for an ending that exposes some very weak special effects when the titlular monster is finally shown on screen. Major role for Shelley, as her character is integral to the plot. Directed by Hammer’s best director, Terence Fisher.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (1965) – Bryn Watson – starred in the episode “The Odd Man Affair” of this classic secret agent TV show starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

DRACULA- PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) – Helen Kent – Becomes Dracula’s victim in this excellent Hammer Dracula movie, the first direct sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) with Christopher Lee reprising his role as Dracula once again. Also starring Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Thorley Walters, and Philip Latham. Directed by Terence Fisher.

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966) – Sonia – Reunited with DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS co-stars Christopher Lee, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer in this Hammer Film which also used the same sets from that DRACULA sequel.

THE AVENGERS (1961-1967) – Venus/Susan Summers – “From Venus With Love” (1967)/ “Dragonsfield” (1961)- Two appearances on the spy TV series starring Patrick Macnee.

FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967)- Barbara Judd – Classic Hammer science fiction movie, part of their Quatermass series, originally titled QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. Stars Andrew Keir as Professor Quatermass.  This one’s got an impressive mystery and tells a neat story.  Also starring James Donald and Julian Glover.

GHOST STORY (1974) – Matron – Haunted house tale not to be confused with Peter Straub’s novel or the 1981 film based on Straub’s novel. Shelley’s final performance in a theatrical release.

DOCTOR WHO (1984) – Sorasta – appeared in the four part episode “Planet of Fire” of this classic science fiction TV show.  Peter Davison played the Doctor.

UNCLE SILAS (1989) – Cousin Monica – Barbara Shelley’s final screen credit to date in this horror TV mini-series starring Peter O’Toole as the mysterioius Uncle Silas.

Barbara Shelley was born on February 13, 1932.  She is currently retired from acting.

 

I hope you enjoyed this partial look at the career of actress Barbara Shelley, one of the more influential actresses from 1950s-1960s British horror cinema.

Join me again next time when we look at the career of another actress in horror cinema in the next edition of LEADING LADIES.

Thanks for reading!

—-Michael

 

 

Movie Lists: The STAR WARS movies

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Empire Strikes Back poster

Welcome back to the MOVIE LIST column, where we look at lists pertaining to the movies.

Up today, the STAR WARS franchise.  Yep, with the latest STAR WARS film STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) set to hit theaters today, December 14, 2017, here’s a look at how the previous films in the series rank:

  1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

For my money, this first STAR WARS sequel is the best of the lot.  Following upon the heels of the original, EMPIRE is darker, bolder, and more innovative and exciting than its predecessor. All three leads- Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher grew into their roles here, and much more is revealed about one of the screen’s greatest villains, Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones providing the voice).  John Williams’ iconic Darth Vader theme, the Imperial March, is introduced here, making it hard to believe it didn’t exist in the first movie.

In a brilliant stroke, to keep things fresh, George Lucas stepped out of the director’s chair in favor of Irvin Kershner, something Lucas would stumble over in the second trilogy with his ill-fated decision to direct all three films.  EMPIRE also has the best script in the series, written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.  Before ROGUE ONE came along, EMPIRE had the darkest ending in the series, with its now infamous reveal about the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Also the film that introduced Yoda.

Star Wars poster

2. STAR WARS (1977)

The movie that started it all.  I still remember when this one first hit the theaters, back in the summer of 1977.  When I saw this on the big screen that summer at the age of 13, I was blown away. Having grown up watching STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE on TV, I had never seen such amazing special effects before.

Instantly drawn into the story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, I was along for the ride from the get-go, and I still haven’t forgotten the awe and wonder I felt entering the strange alien worlds and spaceship of this ultra imaginative movie.  Also featured my all-time favorite actor, Peter Cushing, playing the villain, Grand Moff Tarkin, which gave me the second opportunity to see Cushing on the big screen, the first being the inferior Amicus adventure AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976).

Rousing iconic score by John Williams, and brilliant directing by George Lucas make this one a classic for the ages.  It’s now called STAR WARS: EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE to fit in with the entire trilogy, but back in the day when it first came out, it was just STAR WARS, and rightly so.

3. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

After a sub par and inferior second trilogy, STAR WARS returned to the top with this energetic and exciting new entry by writer/director J.J. Abrams, who earlier achieved similar success with his excellent STAR TREK reboots.  The spirit of STAR WARS seemed to be missing in the previous trilogy, but it’s back and stronger than ever here.

With the return of familiar characters like Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Princess Leia, and newcomers like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), this sequel which takes place thirty years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, completely recaptures the magic of the original STAR WARS movies.  My only gripe is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) doesn’t appear until the very end.

rogue one poster

4. ROGUE ONE – A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

The first stand-alone STAR WARS movie was a mixed bag for me the first time around.  I thought the film did a poor job with character development which was a major deal here since the film contains nearly all new characters.  But I liked this one much better upon a second viewing.  Its story, the tale of how the rebels stole the Death Star plans used by Luke Skywalker and the rebels in the original STAR WARS film, is a good one, and it even addresses the long-standing joke of how inept the Empire must have been to have built the Death Star with a glaring weakness that the rebels could expose so easily.  ROGUE ONE makes it clear that this supposed weakness was not by accident.

Excellent storytelling gets better as the movie goes along as it moves towards its powerhouse finale, the darkest by far in the entire series.  Also notable for its sometimes impressive CGI re-creation of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin.  On the big screen, I thought he looked cartoonish, but at home on my TV screen he looked a bit more genuine.

 

5. STAR WARS: EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

I am really not a fan of this second series, but I do like the third and final film in which we learn how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.  Part of the problem with this series is it’s a prequel. Another part is that it simply takes too long to tell its story.  The three movie arc was unnecessary.  Had REVENGE OF THE SITH been a standalone film, it would have been better received.

Other problems with this series: a lack of imagination and fun.  They are about as cold and lifeless as one can get in a supposed adventurous science fiction fantasy tale.  They also feature a stoic unimaginative actor in the lead as young Anakin, Hayden Christensen.

But I do like this third film, mostly because it succeeds in convincingly telling its tale of just why Anakin Skywalker chose the Dark Side in the first place.  In short, the Jedi were jerks to him, while the Emperor filled his head with flattery.  Most of the film is uneven, but the final reel is the best part and well worth the wait.

 

6. STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

Completely unnecessary movie in the STAR WARS canon, notable mostly for Christopher Lee’s presence as Count Dooku, and Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the increasingly tragic Padme.

 

7. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

I know, a lot of people love this one, but I’ve disliked it since I first saw it at the theater.  Following the masterful EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, JEDI is clunky in its story telling, struggles with pacing, and doesn’t come close to capturing the awe and magic of the first two movies.  When the film should have been reaching new heights in its tale of light vs. dark, it instead reverts to cutesiness, introducing us to huggable Ewoks, who do nothing but take away valuable screen time from Luke and Darth Vader.

star-wars-phantom-menace-darth maul

Darth Maul, one of the few good things about THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999).

8. STAR WARS: EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

My least favorite of the series.  Did we really need an entire movie about Anakin Skywalker’s life as a little boy?  In a word, no.

Notable for Liam Neeson’s presence as Qui-Gon Jinn, and the very cool villain Darth Maul.  Yep, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul are by far the two best characters in this movie, and they are both promptly killed off.  Shows you how good this movie is.

And there you have it.  A quick take on the STAR WARS movies.  I’ll be sure to update this list shortly to include the latest movie, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017).

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)

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man with the golden gun poster

Welcome back to another MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES column, where we look at some memorable quotes from some pretty nifty movies.

We return today to the world of James Bond as we look at THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), the second film in which Roger Moore played secret agent 007.  The other neat thing about this movie, especially for horror fans, is that Christopher Lee played the villain, the man with the golden gun, the million dollar hitman, Scaramanga, who in this film has his sights on James Bond.  Scaramanga is one of Christopher Lee’s better film performances.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN did not perform all that well at the box office upon its initial release in 1974.  Audiences back then were still struggling with the transition to Roger Moore as Bond and were still craving a return by Sean Connery, but the film has aged well, and today it ranks as one of the better Bond movies.  It also has a memorable music score by John Barry.

And like most Bond movies, it’s chock-full of neat quotes.  Let’s have a listen to some of these quotes from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz.

Christopher Lee gets some of the better lines in the film as the villainous Scaramanga, especially when he spars verbally with James Bond, like in this scene where he suggests to Bond that they engage in a gun duel to the death:

SCARAMANGA: A duel between titans. My golden gun against your Walther PPK. Each of us with a 50-50 chance.

JAMES BOND:  Six bullets to your one?

SCARAMANGA: I only need one.

bond_scaramanga

Scaramanga vs. Bond

 

And in this scene where he explains to Bond how he first became interested in killing:

SCARAMANGA: When I was a boy I was brought up in a circus. My only real friend was a huge, magnificent African bull elephant. One day, his handler mistreated him and he went berserk. Bleeding, dying, he came and found me, stood on one leg, his best trick, picked me up and put me on his back. The drunken handler came along and emptied his gun into his eye… I emptied my stage pistol into his!

JAMES BOND:  An eye for an eye.

SCARAMANGA: You see, Mr. Bond, I always thought I loved animals. Then I discovered that I enjoyed killing people even more.

 

Of course, eventually, Bond gets to respond in kind:

JAMES BOND: You live well, Scaramanga.

SCARAMANGA: At a million dollars a contract I can afford to, Mr Bond. You work for peanuts, a hearty well done from her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension. Apart from that we are the same. To us, Mr Bond, we are the best.

JAMES BOND: There’s a useful four letter word, and you’re full of it.

 

Scaramanga is as cool as he is deadly, as in this scene where he calmly kills the powerful Mr. Fat and politely addresses Fat’s subordinates moments later:

SCARAMANGA: Mr. Fat has just resigned. I am the new Chairman of the Board.

Fat always did like that mausoleum. Put him in it.

scaramanga

Christopher Lee takes aim as Scaramanga in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974).

 

Of course, Roger Moore gets plenty of zingers as James Bond.  Let’s listen to a few:

SAIDA:  Ah! I’ve lost my charm!

JAMES BOND: Not from where I’m standing.

 

And:

JAMES BOND:  Did you see who shot him?

SAIDA: No, I was in his arms. My eyes were closed.

JAMES BOND: Well, at least he died happy.

 

And what would a James Bond movie be without the double entendre names?

JAMES BOND (approaches woman in swimming pool):  Good morning. How’s the water?

WOMAN: Why don’t you come in and find out?

JAMES BOND:  Sounds very tempting, Miss…?

WOMAN:  Chew Mee.

 

Even M (Bernard Lee) and Q (Desmond Llewelyn) get in on the act with this lively exchange:

JAMES BOND: And that is really all there is to report, sir.

M:  So if I heard correctly, Scaramanga got away – in a car that sprouted wings!

Q: Oh, that’s perfectly feasible, sir. As a matter of fact, we’re working on one now.

M:  Oh, Q, shut up!

 

 

But my all time favorite line from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN is spoken by Roger Moore, and it’s also one of my favorite lines in the entire series.  As Bond tries to extract information from a gun manufacturer, he points a gun at the man’s groin area, and he says:

LAZAR:  Mr. Bond, bullets do not kill. It is the finger that pulls the trigger.

JAMES BOND: Exactly. I am now aiming precisely at your groin. So speak or forever hold your piece.

 

Gotta love it!

Well, that’s all we have time for today.  I hope you enjoyed this look at quotes from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN.  Join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from other cool movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael