Sunday, 30 November 2014

Bloody Homage: The Hammer of Dr Valentine, Terrors of the Théâtre Diabolique and the Enduring Appeal of Hammer and Amicus

The golden age of British horror movies continues to exert a fascination over successive generations of fans. The films of the late 50s through to the mid-70s belong to a distinct period of post-war popular culture, a pre-corporate era in which small companies could produce and market movies which were relatively small in scale but highly distinguished in quality. It was also a time in which maverick Soho producers at the lower end of the market could knock off cheap exploitation pictures which occasionally (very occasionally) resulted in the revelation of a fresh and exciting new talent, creating something which transcended the formula its backers were flagrantly trying to copy. The horror cinema of this era bears so little relation to contemporary manifestations of the genre, with their emphasis on prolonged physical pain and the dogged pursuit of new extremes, that they seem to come from a far more distant time, beyond living memory. Their values can seem impossibly outmoded, but in this marked difference lies part of their charm. The best of the pictures from this time offer a great deal more than the nostalgic appeal of period quaintness, however. They were made with great care and craftsmanship, featured actors of real class (the oft-twinned names of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee being the stellar examples) and a wonderful array of character performers, and were often possessed of a full-blooded romanticism which formed a continuation of British traditions both cinematic (Powell and Pressburger and Gainsborough), literary and artistic. The Hammer and Amicus studios were the most notable homes from which they emerged. And they were homes, with a family feel to what they produced, a house style which you could depend upon. It’s a seemingly contradictory thing to say about the productions of a genre intended to inspire terror, but a real warmth and affection for their films and those involved in the making of them has developed over the years. Two new books pay homage to them in the form of reference-steeped fiction, and serve as testament to this enduring appeal.

The Hammer of Dr Valentine by John Llewellyn Probert, published by Spectral Press, is a sequel to The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine, which won the British Fantasy Award for best novella at the 2013 World Fantasy Convention. That first encounter with the diabolically resourceful physician, bent on avenging the death of his daughter, drew very consciously on the films of Vincent Price. The models for the absurdly elaborate deaths meted out to the medical staff deemed responsible for allowing his daughter to die are lifted from Price’s films, Valentine adapting them according to circumstance. The narrative structure and blackly comic tone is lifted from Theatre of Blood and the Dr Phibes movies in particular. They were distinguished by lusciously contrived camp, the horror (and they were surprisingly vicious at times) alleviated by knowingly exaggerated and patently ridiculous excess. Dr Valentine emulates ham thesp Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood in his adoption of role-playing disguises, his propensity for gloating moral lectures and his relish for bad puns and mordant quips as agonising at the torments he inflicts upon his victims. These victims are invariably loathsome and wholly undeserving of sympathy, thus allowing us to enjoy the spectacle of their exquisitely plotted and executed demises.

The Hammer of Dr Valentine shifts the focus from Vincent Price and onto the extensive output of the Hammer studios. The Doctor is back and this time choosing as the subjects for his art of death the tabloid sleazemongers and hack bestseller writers who distorted the true nature of his previous escapades. As an aesthete of decadent derangement, this distortion of his carefully constructed narrative or revenge is unforgivable. Thus they are picked off one by one, eliminated by the monster they helped to foster and becoming fodder for more of their kind. Still sticking assiduously with the template of Theatre of Blood and Dr Phibes, even though nominally now on Hammer territory, the Doctor is provided with a young and loyal female assistant, his co-star and siren in the deadly skits he contrives. Also following the pattern, the forces of the law always plod a few paces behind. The returning DCI Jeffrey Longdon is left cursing impotently at his minions, the morbid chorus of DIs Martinus, Graves and Wentworth, as he comes across the latest implausible murder scene. He’s less the stoical Peter Jeffries of the Phibes movies, more the irascible, cynical and petulant Donald Pleasance in Death Line. There’s a less morally compromised character on the roster of potential victims, John Spalding, the equivalent of Joseph Cotton in The Abominable Dr Phibes or Ian Hendry in Theatre of Blood. If anyone is likely to survive and bring the Doctor’s murderous mystery play to a close it will be him. He is also effectively the ‘savant’ of the scenario, the character with the specialised knowledge necessary to defeat the monster. He is no Van Helsing, but his knowledge of the variety of Van Helsings on screen may prove of use. As a film critic he is acquainted with the whole range of Hammer films and thereby with the modus operandi of the supervillain he and the police force face. But will this cinephile learning arm them sufficiently to defeat such a mercurial, elusive foe.

Hammer fans will have a huge amount of fun spotting the films whose deaths Dr Valentine goes to such lengths to reproduce. They’re not necessarily the obvious ones, either. Probert digs deep into the Hammer back catalogue and comes up with some surprising and effective choices. He may just lead you to dust off films you’d put to one side as inessential. Fear In The Night or The Reptile, for instance. Valentine is in some ways a superfan himself, dressing the part and paying his own form of tribute with appropriate bucketloads of Kensington gore. Probert makes no bones about his own love of the studio’s output. Well, most of it anyway. He reserves a pronounced disdain for the 70s psycho Peter Pan drama Straight On ‘til Morning, with the new Hammer star of the time Shane Bryant and an uncomfortable Rita Tushingham (her unease palpable in the commentary she provides for the dvd release). His objects to what he perceives as its failed pretensions towards arthouse status. I find things of interest in it. It seems to be a swinging sixties film infected with the growing disillusionment of the seventies. The Knack or Smashing Time in which the bright pop art backdrops have faded to grey, the zany antics wound down into entropic stasis; the Peter Pan fantasy of carefree youth is no longer sustainable, and the attempt to prolong it induces psychotic breakdown. But no, it ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of such a scenario, and descends into another of Hammer’s tiresome psycho derivatives.

Prominent citation of sources during the opening credits for The House That Dripped Blood
In an extensive afterword, Probert provides a film by film key to the story’s cinematic reference points. There’s a lovely image in the book of the police incident room map, lines of red wool radiating out from the crime scenes to join with small reproductions of the relevant Hammer film posters. The afterword is Probert’s explanatory counterpart to this chart. It is charmingly autobiographical, and his remembrances of first encounters with various films will chime with many readers, prompting their own misty reminiscences. I particularly liked his recollection of watching Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed on HTV Cymru, unconvincingly dubbed into Welsh. Amicus gets a look in via the reference to Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen, the classic study of German expressionist horror. It is prominently placed on a desk and lingered over by the camera at the start of The House That Dripped Blood.

We also get to visit Dr Terror’s Haunted Cornish Funfair, which combines Dr Terror’s House of Horror’s with the fairground setting of Torture Garden. A new entertainment venture for Peter Cushing’s tarot reader, perhaps. The rides include Dr Blood’s Coffin and Crucible of Terror, references to two Cornish set films of surpassing dullness (Zennor standing in for ‘Porthcarron’ and Perranporth for any Cornish folk out there). ‘These local things were never up to much’, one character muses, ‘so they could give the Crucible of Terror a miss’. It’s an amusingly offhand critical dismissal. Probert’s story is full of such pleasing details and, like its illustrious sources, serves up shudders of fear and laughter in equal and well-balance measures. We also get to visit one of the ultimate locations for 60s and 70s British horror: Oakley Court, a neo-gothic mansion by the Thames in Berkshire (conveniently close to Hammer’s Bray Studios). It provided the backdrop to several Hammer films, transported to Cornwall for The Reptile and Plague of Zombies and middle Europe for Brides of Dracula. Amicus used it for one of their few all-out gothics, And Now The Screaming Starts, and it was put to atmospheric use in Vampyres. Intriguingly, a parting reference to Don’t Look Now suggests that the demented Dr V may yet return – but moving into the arthouse and using Nic Roeg films as his sick source material. We can only wait with fearful anticipation.

Terrors of the Théâtre Diabolique is an anthology edited by Dan Barratt and John Davies. It is graced with an urbane introduction by David Warner, who played an unfortunate character in the Amicus film From Beyond the Grave, a devilish cover by Simon A.Brett and illustrations by Paul Griffin. Profits from the sales of the book, whether in physical form or as a downloadable pdf, are going to MIND, a particularly worthy charity. Not least amongst the services it offers is enlightening the public about the nature of mental illness, thus dispelling the bogies summoned up in Amicus’ film Asylum; an absurdly melodramatic view of the ‘mad’ as devious and dangerously unpredictable which is still surprisingly prevalent. The inspiration here is the series of portmanteau horror films made by Amicus from the mid 60s through through to the mid 70s. Or the early 80s if you care to include The Monster Club, which I rather think I do, largely out of blurry nostalgia. Alright, so Amicus had folded by then, but it was produced by Milton Subotsky and is an Amicus film in all but name. It was the first horror film I saw in the cinema. I was thrilled at the prospect of watching an Amicus picture on the big screen, having become familiar with the likes of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, From Beyond the Grave and Asylum via Saturday night horror double bills on the BBC.

Dan Barratt shares my affection for the Amicus portmanteau films and has fashioned a contemporary version in the form of a short story collection. He supplies the framing narrative himself, inviting others to provide the creepy vignettes he sets up. The opening scenes are written with a cinematic sweep, taking the point of view of a swallow gliding down towards a seaside town. This affords us long and medium distance establishing shots, followed up by exterior close-ups of the Victorian gothic details of a crumbling theatre of dark varieties. Following a near escape from a local cat, the swallow conducts a swift (sic) aerial survey of the interior before coming to a rest at a high vantage point, from which it can watch events unfolding below. The choice of a swallow might be a little nod to Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. The swallow as symbol of selfless sacrifice provides an ironic contrast to the self-absorbed outlooks of the characters who people the stories in the collection.

You're all dead already - end of story
The protagonists in Amicus films are by and large unsympathetic: selfish, mean-spirited, venal, cold-hearted and frequently coldly murderous. They tend to find themselves gathered together in some unwelcoming venue (a crypt, a vault) or linked by a common locale they all visit (a strange shop, a house which changes hands with suspicious regularity). There is a guide or host who welcomes them, generally with a highly portentous, sepulchral air. He then proceeds to tell them their secret stories, reading their fates, which invariably involve a distinct element of finality. Having pronounced their collective doom, he then reveals the shocking truth, which brings the film to an end. This tends to be a reminder that they’re all dead already and will be, or have for some time been spending an eternity in hell.

Peter Cushing's mild-mannered shopkeeper in From Beyond the Grave - just don't shortchange him
There’s certainly a strong current of judgement contained within the stories of the Amicus portmanteaus. Poetic justice is meted out with cackling relish, often rounded off with a summary quip from our guide. I always loved Peter Cushing’s parting words to Ian Carmichael in From Beyond the Grave. Carmichael had just surreptitiously swapped price tags on two antique snuff boxes, buying the more expensive one for a considerably reduced price as a result. In this uncanny shop, hidden away in a forgotten city alleyway in which the Victorian era seems to live on, it is, however, extremely, indeed fatally unwise to cheat the proprietor. ‘I hope you enjoy snuffing it sir’, he says, a pitiless note underlying his amiable, mild-mannered demeanour. He clamps his pipe in his mouth, turns and shuffles off with a certain air of weary disappointment at being confronted yet again with human weakness and greed. The moral comeuppance visited upon richly deserving characters betrays the influence of the notorious EC comics of the 50s. These had a notably satirical undercurrent, drawing (and inking) a picture of contemporary America as a moral vacuum which belied the comfortable self-satisfaction of the Eisenhower era. Vengeance was often carried out at the clawed, earth-encrusted hands of rotting revenants, leering corpses returning from the grave to right wrongs with much rending and tearing of flesh. They were anti-superheroes of a sort, emerging from the earth rather than descending from the skies, draped in ragged shrouds rather than colourful capes. A suppurating Justice League of America for the downtrodden and betrayed. Needless to say, they failed to win the approval of the moral majority. The Amicus films didn’t really share the barbed satirical element of the EC comics, although there was a certain undermining of 70s consumerism and class divisions, the relentless pursuit of wealth and the idealisation of the spotless suburban household. There weren’t many rotting corpses clawing their way out of the grave either. One memorable exception was the tale of Arthur Grimsdyke, a highly effective episode featuring a performance of heartrending pathos from Peter Cushing. We cheer him on when he returns from the dead to make literal the figurative heartlessness of his proto-yuppie tormentor. That story was told in Tales from the Crypt, one of two films directly adapted from EC comics.

Grimsdyke returns in Tales From The Crypt
There’s definitely a strong element of moral comeuppance to the tales told in the Théâtre Diabolique as well. We have our guide here, too. A cowled figure who ushers his ‘guests’ through a tour of the dilapidated Victorian house of varieties, leading them into the subterranean vaults lying beneath the stage. There are conscious echoes of Amicus films throughout, as you would expect from a homage. The touring party pass various dusty objects in storage rooms which hint at stories untold, or perhaps ones we’ve seen before: an ‘ornate mirror’ reminds us of the possessed glass in From Beyond the Grave; ‘a child’s doll’ the toy which Christopher Lee snatches from the hand of the little girl he believes to be a witch in The House That Dripped Blood; ‘some scattered illustrated pages’ are perhaps drawn by Tom Baker’s artist in Vault of Horror, whose portrait subjects suffered damage commensurate with that inflicted upon their images. Others are less familiar, although ‘a large, ominous pendulum blade’ and ‘a human sized ape suit’ might have strayed in from the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe pictures The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death. Similarly, a ‘spiralling metal staircase’ which ‘groaned and swayed alarmingly’ may have been relocated from Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, as memorably visualised in Robert Wise’s The Haunting.

Ingrid Pitt in a publicity still for The House That Dripped Blood
As for the stories themselves, they fit the Amicus mould in that they share a contemporary setting. No moonlit gothic castles wreathed in mist here. Amicus briskly dispensed with the gothic staples in their first portmanteau picture, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, which featured werewolves, vampires, a crawling hand (the beast with five fingers), voodoo curses and, er, a swiftly spreading variety of intelligent, carnivorous weed (menacing poor old Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman). They turned up from time to time, but in a joky context. Vampires bared their teeth with an accompanying nod and wink in Vault of Horror (tucking into rare or medium clots in an exclusive restaurant) and in The House That Dripped Blood (supplying a splendid and much reproduced still of Ingrid Pitt hissing through elongated incisors if nothing else). They no doubt realised that they couldn’t beat Hammer at their own game, and so set their cruel tales in 70s living rooms, bedrooms and lounges (and basements). The horrors often extended to the décor.

JR Southall’s House Sitting is a variant of the malevolent house tale. A building which feeds off the fears and painful buried memories of those who stray into its field of baleful influence. Ghosts of the mind are awakened, personal hauntings set into spectral motion. Southall’s tale harks back to The House That Dripped Blood, with its desirable Victorian detached house from which tenants are despatched with disdainful frequency. It also echoes the evil architecture of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, with its uncanny feel for the hidden weaknesses of its inhabitants. The Day Martin Anderson Lost It is a latterday tale of Walter Mitty daydreaming. This is extreme Mitty, however, with fantasies of psychotic violence directed against a hated call-centre boss superceding the whimsical escapism of Thurber’s character. In railing against corporate workplaces with their empty managerial mantras, it voices frustrations which we can all identify with to some extent.

David Warner looking decidedly unwell in From Beyond the Grave
Tony Eccles’ The Finding is a haunted house tale whose supernatural manifestations centre upon a mirror with uncanny properties. It’s the kind of mirror whose depths contain a little more than a simple inverted reflection presented to those standing in front of it. It brings to mind the David Warner episode in From Beyond the Grave, one of the more disturbing of the Amicus stories, not least because of Warner’s quietly intense performance. It follows its protagonist into the depths of a psychotic breakdown, his murderous actions prompted and directed by a figure in the mirror he bought from Peter Cushing’s shadowy emporium. He didn’t pay enough cash, either. A haunted mirror also appears in the honourable ancestor of the Amicus portmanteaus, the 1945 Ealing picture Dead of Night. Eccles’ story also plays with the confusion of the real and the imaginary, the border between rational perception and emotionally clouded hallucination. This ambiguity provided the basis for a few Amicus stories. There was the ‘Dominick’ episode of The House That Dripped Blood, in which a murderous character from writer Denholm Elliott’s novel seems to have come to life. And in Asylum, Charlotte Rampling dreams up an imaginary friend (Britt Ekland) who indulges in all the wild things she is far too timid and anxious to do herself.

Simon A Brett’s The Artist’s Medium concerns a very special pen which, when mixed with bodily fluids (their specific provenance doesn’t seem overly important) becomes imbued with the power to alter in reality that which it draws on the blank page. Used unwittingly in a state of post-coital reflection or in a fit of drunken rage in the wake of a bitter break-up, the results prove grimly ironic. They are punning deaths in the Amicus mould, figures of speech or symbolic representations rendered literal, with liberal splashes of gore to bring it up to date. The Vault of Horror story with Tom Baker as an artist who discovers his power to affect reality through his painted representations is a classic reference point here. Tom misuses his powers, but comes a cropper when a workman knocks over a bottle of white spirit onto his self-portrait, causing features to blur and run – a Francis Bacon meat face for real.

Lee Rawlings’ By Rook or By Crook (the agonising Amicus pun contained in the title) is kitchen sink psycho horror combined with the Freudian supernatural of The Birds. The dynastic rivalry between father and son is also a clash between the pragmatic Yorkshireman’s bluntly fiscal worldview and the more aesthetic outlook of his adopted offspring. The age old imperative to displace the father, enshrined in the modern age by Freud, is given a nicely ritualistic air by the stark, ancient landscape in which the story takes place. Jon Arnold’s The Golden Ghouls (another painful pun) draws on the new extreme strands of cinema, and on the body horror which has been a significant generic strand since the 80s. His story is simplicity itself. Two lively old ladies in an old people’s home who still entertain libidinous thoughts are charmed into drinking an elixir of youth. It’s a homeopathic remedy whose sub-microscopic elements are demons from hell. They are duly possessed and their puppeteered bodies are made to dance to the devil’s tune in a strict modern tempo. Arnold takes the satire of the EC comics and some of the Amicus stories to delirious new levels (or depths). His story seems driven by a pervasive disgust at and cynicism about the modern world, and exhibits a visceral horror of old age. The wholesale assault on venality, consumerism and the empty, possessive carnality which accompanies it is unbalanced and more than a little hysterical. Arnold certainly holds nothing back in his detailing of the ladies’ orgiastic rampage. It’s like a mini-Salo, portraying contemporary society in terms of readymade circles of hell. The in your face unpleasantness could almost be construed as rude riposte to the relatively refined horrors of Amicus and Hammer, a mark of how far we have come (or fallen). Milton Subotsky, an old school horror aficionado (as witness the books displayed at the start of The House That Dripped Blood, borrowed from his own collection) would not have countenanced its like. I certainly don’t have the stomach for it, which is why I tend to avoid most modern manifestations of horror. A matter of taste (and age), I suppose.

Who's next? Could it be YOU?
The finale, bringing us out of the theatre once more, creates an explosive eruption of Lovecraftian delirium which Amicus could never have dreamed of staging on their meagre budgets. They tried consigning a soul to a fiery pit of damnation at the end of Vault of Horror, but their ambition outstripped their means, and the effect was frankly embarrassing. Dan Barratt gives a grandiose climax which encompasses and then surpasses the default Hammer way of ending things by bringing the house down, and usually burning it the ground as well. A quiet coda offers a version of the typical Amicus ending in which the guide or proprietor turns to the new visitors, customers or lost souls. Who will be next to enter my domain – could it be you? Here we are introduced to a modern incarnation of the popularly loathed social type, the sort who many would gladly see receiving their just dues. For our age, it is a banker. It rounds things of with a pleasing circularity, ending on the kind of wryly humorous note which characterised the Amicus films. A reminder not to take any of it too seriously. The curtain falls. But which side are you left on? Who is that cackling dryly in the shadows? Why has it all gone so dark? Where has everybody gone? Hallo?

No comments: