Black Flowers For the Bride (1971, Harold Prince)

angelalansbury

My contribution to the Adoring Angela Lansbury Blogathon hosted by Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews is Black Flowers for the Bride, a 1971 movie directed by Broadway legend Harold Prince and co-starring Michael York. It’s based on a 1965 novel by Harry Kressing called The Cook although it’s a very loose adaptation taking only the premise and becoming very much it’s own entity. Lansbury plays the glamorous matriarch of a once great family now fallen on hard times but who are still the custodians of a magnificent Bavarian style castle they can no longer afford to run.

cook

In Kressing’s novel a mysterious black clad stranger called Conrad arrives in a small town and inveigles his way into the position of chef for a rich family. Gradually increasing his power over his employers and the townsfolk through a combination of intimidation, flattery, and his considerable talents as a chef, he essentially becomes the ruler of the entire area leading them in a series of endless culinary orgiastic feasts. It’s like Kafka rewrote Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest after watching The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963). So I kind of prefer the UK title for this movie than the anodyne Something For Everyone. Black Flowers For the Bride sounds more like a giallo, more fitting of the fairytale aspects of Kressing’s novel and the approach director Harold Prince takes here although the movie is less Gothic, and more in tune with bright stylings of Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970).

Photo 28-01-2019, 13 14 42

“When I was a child my grandmother bought me a picture book. In it was a castle just like that.” 

Instead of a tall menacing figure in black, Konrad (now with a K) is peak period Michael York dressed in a red sleeveless shirt and a pair of khaki shorts like he’s one of the Famous Five on a cycling holiday. The first person he meets is a priest trying to catch a rare butterfly in a meadow below a beautiful castle. He’s been at this for thirty years but never got close to catching one. The castle belongs to an impoverished Countess (Lansbury) and is now lies empty. “These are new bad new days” he says. The butterfly lands on Konrad’s hand and he gently gives it over to the priest. We know immediately Konrad is a man who can make things happen for people and win them over with his easy charm and good looks. And he still has that picture book his grandmother gave him.

In town Konrad visits the local pub. “Never trust strangers” he tells the barmaid when she tells him he can pay when he leaves. Sometimes he does this, just tells people he’s dangerous straight away but they never notice. She likes him and gives away her star-sign, Capricorn. So now Konrad is a Capricorn, or maybe this time he’s telling the truth instead of what people want to hear. We never find out where Konrad is from or anything about him. We know what he wants though and by asking a few questions he finds Rudolph (Klaus Havenstein), footman to the Countess. Helping him by removing a splinter from his injured hand Rudolph gratefully offers to find Konrad work with the Countess.

photo-28-01-2019-13-38-16.png

“Nobody can sell that castle. It’s a birthright.”

The first time we see Lansbury she’s wearing a glamorous black and white dress with matching headscarf rounded off with dark sunglasses. It’s an outfit worthy of Joan Collins in Dynasty. Something they’d make her wear when she’s in a vengeful mood. In fact everybody is wearing dark colours and there’s a listlessness about the place. Like the end of a Fitzgerald novel where only the broken people are left and all the parties are long since past. Even the dogs belonging to the 16 year-old daughter Lotte (Jane Carr), two big powerful Great Danes, are colour co-ordinated to match.

The Countess is also reading a copy of Vogue magazine. This threw me in the same way a character suddenly using a mobile phone in Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016) caught me off guard. The traditional costumes and the way the Austrian/Bavarian setting is utilised makes it feel like a movie set in the pre-war 30s’ but the edition of Vogue is clearly a contemporary 1970s’ edition rather than one from that era. So the bad new days the priest referred to is a post-war period full of uncertainty. The old social order was destroyed by the war and nothing has replaced it. “Do I know your father, or any of you family?” which is how rich people say hello to young people. What they mean is “Do you belong?” Konrad has no papers or identification which makes head servant Klaus (Wolfred Lier) suspicious. So Konrad is sent on his way.

Photo 17-02-2019, 21 47 27

Lotte like Konrad is young and inquisitive and she follows him as he leaves. She talks about the family’s declining fortunes and watching her father die. She sees everything does Lotte. Her two big dogs seem to like Konrad. “They only approve of murderers and perverts. Which are you?” she asks Konrad as he leaves. “Both” he answers. She seems delighted. “I knew it!” 

While the novel’s Conrad is an otherworldly almost Satanic presence, Konrad is more of a Tom Ripley figure. A social climber determined to improve his own position by any means necessary. Only his smile, which turns cruel if the camera stays on it for too long gives him away. If there aren’t any vacancies available he’ll just make one. Konrad temporarily gets a job driving a rich family around after accidentally on purpose slamming a door on their chauffeur’s hand, then “kindly” offering to replace him for the day. He didn’t choose the family at random, spying their beautiful daughter Annaliese (Heidelinde Weiss) at the opera and catching her eye. With the money he earns from driving he takes Rudolph out for drinks then casually pushes him in front of a train on the way home. And out of nowhere the dogs appear by his side, because as their owner said earlier, they approve of murderers.

Photo 13-02-2019, 23 15 19

“I was not intended to be left behind. I have no talent for it. One day, another day, without an echo of how it used to be. When your world has gone you’re your own ghost.” 

The Countess spends most of her time alone surrounded by heirlooms of her late husband. She’s given up and withdrawn from any involvement with the village instead hiding away and saying things like “there are no men anymore, only facsimiles.” Once there were lavish parties and events but now she won’t even open a new municipal building. Konrad has the impertinence to approach her after Rudolph’s funeral and offers his condolences. She does not remember him. The priest however greets him warmly as a friend and persuades the Countess to hire Konrad as Rudolph’s replacement.

So Konrad takes up his duties as a footman. Eyes are on him though. Firstly the son Helmuth (Anthony Higgins) has taken to gazing longingly from the verandah as Konrad goes swimming in the lake. Secondly Klaus is suspicious. Nazis were very fond of asking for people’s papers too and when Konrad sees him flinch during a dinner party where the local Mayor launches into a passionate anti-fascist speech he knows he’s got him. When Klaus demands Konrad leave after discovering him with Helmuth he simply goes to the Mayor and reports him as a Nazi. Klaus’s room is filled with Third Reich memorabilia including his own father’s SS uniform and he agrees to leave quietly to avoid any bad press for the Countess. Konrad now has control of the household and sets about to finance the reopening of the castle.

photo-28-01-2019-18-51-16.png

“Pour me a drink, a tremendous drink, and pour yourself one.” 

Having seduced Annaliese and Helmuth Konrad now plans to marry them by persuading the Countess to host a lavish garden party and posit the idea to her rich family. They’re new money and love the idea of being aristocrats. The Countess is appalled, “shameless, outrageous, utterly immoral,” but quite likes the idea. Konrad’s attentions awaken the Countess from her melancholy and she destroys the shrine to her husband. “You are the new man, forcing us to come into the world. A new world, a savage world.”  Helmuth’s homosexuality and Annaliese’s mad love for him pose a problem but nothing driving her and her family over the side of a mountain road can’t solve. Helmuth becomes a very rich widower. Konrad recovers from his injuries and intends to marry the Countess but he’s underestimated somebody.

photo-17-02-2019-22-40-01.png

“I wrote the memorandum this morning, I wanted to seal it with my own blood but I settled for sealing wax…”

Lotte may have seemed like a charming little nuisance, but she knows everything and as I mentioned earlier she sees everything. “Murder for Rudolph, something or other for Annaliese, sodomy with a minor for Helmuth, and of course poor Herr Pleschke.” Conrad in the novel became the overseer of his own kingdom, Konrad in the film is undone by a letter from a teenage girl. “What are you going to do?” “Go to the police I suppose. That’s what you’re meant to do.” Then adding “Isn’t it?” to let him know she’s offering him another way out and holding out a handkerchief to see if he’ll clean her shoes as commanded. Like most fairytales the film ends with a wedding albeit one that feels more like a funeral for everybody except the bride.

I wondered while I was watching Black Flowers for the Bride if this was intended as a reactionary work? Does Konrad, even in the well-bred form of Michael York, represent the young working-class people who were able to better themselves and move beyond the limitations of their social class? In the end the Establishment rights itself and relegates Konrad to a subservient position so maybe it’s a warning for young rebels. They’ll always get you in the end. Fairy tales usually layered with hidden meanings.  In that respect Black Flowers For the Bride would make a great double-bill with another Lansbury movie, Angela Carter and Neil Jordan’s collaboration The Company of Wolves (1984), which also ends with a young woman taming and forming a union with a wolfish outsider.

Advertisements

Regaling Richard Burton – The Fall Guy

burton3

Thanks to Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews for hosting this Blogathon.

“Reluctant Travelling Companion” is one of Burton’s last screen appearances made just a couple of years before his early death at the age of 58. While it might be a footnote in Burton’s career there’s something quite moving about seeing an acclaimed actor best known for playing embittered drunken failures cutting loose in a silly 80s’ action show. Especially when Robert Earll’s script takes the time to have fun with Burton’s movie star persona. Burton’s high seriousness, his reputation as a hellraiser, and his solitary nature, all fit nicely into a plot which sees the legendary movie star travelling across country on a train and getting caught up in an assassination attempt.

The Fall Guy was created by Glen A. Larsen, the man behind Battlestar Galactica, Magnum P.I., Knight Rider, and my own personal favourite Cover Up with its ridiculous premise of a fashion house being used as a front for a team of secret agents. The Fall Guy was a vehicle for former Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors who even sang the show’s irritatingly catchy theme tune. Majors played Colt Seavers, a Hollywood stuntman moonlighting as a bounty hunter with the aid of his handsome but dippy cousin Howie (Douglas Barr) and fellow stunt performer Jodie (Heather Thomas). As the show was set in the movie business there would be occasional cameos from erstwhile movie stars playing themselves. James Coburn, Tab Hunter, Roy Rogers, and Britt Ekland all made appearances.

In “Reluctant Travelling Companion”  Colt Seavers travels to Philadelphia to escort Christina (Mary-Margaret Humes), a prisoner accused of embezzling money from a bank. She claims she did so in revenge for them ruining her father’s life. The bank’s owner wants her dead and has hired a pair of hitmen to kill her because when she hacked into their computer system she may have seen evidence of illegal financial dealings. Colt has no idea and assumes this will be a routine assignment. He doesn’t even handcuff her. She refuses to fly so Colt is forced to take her back to L.A. by train. Christina makes a break for it at the station and both end up being questioned by security after Colt mistakenly punches out a plain clothes police officer.

Onboard the train a distinctive well-spoken Welsh accent enquires about the commotion earlier at the station. We hear the voice before we see the face and  immediately know who’s speaking. Burton wants peace and quiet to study the screenplay for his next movie. The guard Jackson (Michael D. Roberts) gives Burton his word there will be no more distractions. Burton gets a magnificently portentous response. “You’re a rare man Jackson. You understand a man’s need for solitude.”  Everything is set up nicely within the first ten minutes. Burton’s desire for a quiet journey will be repeatedly ruined by Colt and his inability to handle Christina.

“Richard Burton!?” Nice double take from Majors here when he realises who’s in the next cabin and his incredulous line delivery is just shy from being over the top. Colt then does what anybody who works in media does when they meet somebody who is higher up the food chain. They pitch themselves and try to get a job. Colt mentions they worked together on The Desert Rats (1953, Robert Wise). “You drove over my head with your staff car.” Claiming his shouting match with Christina is a rehearsal for a scene in a forthcoming movie Colt manages to placate Burton who returns to reading his screenplay. Not before turning down the offer of a drink with a line which neatly undercuts his reputation as a booze hound. “I only drink when I’m working.”

Christina doesn’t believe for a moment Richard Burton is in the next cabin, but whoever is there she’s going to annoy them by loudly simulating intercourse. Jackson arrives to investigate the noise and is less than impressed to see a young woman handcuffed to the bed. “I used to be a pretty decent middle-weight so make it good.” Colt should really mention the whole bounty hunter thing at this point but he’s worried Burton might find out he needs a second job to pay his bills. So Colt repeats the lie about them both rehearsing a scene for a movie. Burton is called upon to back up Colt’s story which he reluctantly does. Burtons’s fruity line delivery here would be suitable for a Carry On film. “Rehearsals?…yes,” drawing out the pronunciation of “yes” so it lasts longer than the first word.

“Now why didn’t you show me these right off?” Jackson has a point. This whole misunderstanding could have been avoided if Colt had shown him his Bounty Hunter’s license and the letter proving he has been hired by the state to escort Christina back to L.A. Instead he has to stay in the bar until Jackson gets confirmation from the authorities leaving Christina alone. To be fair she also should have mentioned there were a couple of hitmen tailing them.

“Oh no, not Mr Burton!” When an exasperated Burton goes to investigate yet more screaming he ends up getting knocked out by Christina. Earll’s script gives Burton some more flowery language to play with when he awakens. “There is a time and a place for such maniacal idiocy but it is I repeat, I repeat not in a public convenience.” Burton is still convinced at this point that Colt and Christina are nothing more than a couple of noisy kinksters.

Back in his compartment nursing a sore head Burton sees Colt fighting one of the hitmen outside his window. Burton wants to know how what he assumes to be a stunt was performed. Finally it dawns on him there’s trouble onboard when Colt tells him bluntly, “well. I threw him off the train.” It’s enough to get Burton on the drink. He orders from room service a “tall Scotch, at least as old as I am..” then when it arrives drinks straight from the bottle.

Every 80s’ action/thriller show has an episode in which the protagonist arrives in a small town and ends up in a jail overseen by a corrupt sheriff. With Christina going AWOL from the train Colt is forced to give chase and finds her in a cafe. Cue another unwritten rule of 80s’ television. Any scene in a diner has to end in a mass brawl with unfriendly locals. The sheriff fancies himself as a cowboy and wants a part in a movie, preferably a Western. Not so funny now when somebody starts hassling you for movie work is it Colt? After bribing the sheriff with false promises and the silver belt buckle he’d taken a fancy to, Colt gets a free helicopter ride. Eventually catching up with Christina in Chicago, and this time with Howie in tow, they return to the train.

Burton was clearly not in the best of health when filming this and looks much older and frailer than his 56 years. They get round this by having Burton assist Colt during a fight sequence by nonchalantly opening a window so the hitman flies off the train. Having had his entire journey disrupted Burton gets his revenge on Colt by offering him a chance to rehearse a love scene with the stuntman playing the part of a young lady.  I bought Burton’s diaries in which he’s never shy in offering caustic views on his profession but there are no entries between 1980-83 so sadly I’ve no idea what he thought of his appearance on The Fall Guy. It’s a lovely self-deprecating turn though with Burton gamely playing along with all the silliness.

There’s only a handful of Burton performances to come after this. A televised version of an Alice in Wonderland Broadway musical, the second series of a TV show about Richard Wagner, and his final movie 1984 (1984, Michael Radford). The last thing he did is a big glossy 80s’ mini-series called Ellis Island about immigrants trying to make a new life in America which saw him playing a rich politician. In his last scene he smiles at Faye Dunaway, takes her hand, and disappears into a mansion. Not a bad way to make an exit.

Universal Soldier (1971, Cy Endfield) – Rule Britannia Blogathon

Photo 15-07-2018, 20 21 22This post is part of the Rule Britannia Blogathon run by Terence Towles Canote at his site A Shroud of Thoughts. My contribution is about a film co-written by two men who are both really only known for having one big famous movie on their CV’s. Leading man George Lazenby of course replaced Sean Connery as James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, Peter Hunt) before quitting the franchise shortly after the film’s release. Cy Endfield directed Sunday afternoon favourite Zulu (1964). Both of these films present a positive image of Britishness. Bond as the ultimate male fantasy, and Stanley Baker and Michael Caine’s army officers maintaining their stiff upper lips in the face of insurmountable odds.

Universal Soldier undercuts this view of violent heroism with a meandering tale of a mercenary who gets involved with the anti-war movement in London. Taking it’s title from the Buffy Marie Sainte protest song Universal Soldier is clearly semi-improvised with the thematic concern driving the narrative. Photo 09-07-2018, 15 28 14The film however flopped. Universal Soldier didn’t come out until a year after it was made and Lazenby claims to have only seen it once. It might be a mess but it feels more pertinent than ever due to parallels with post-60s’ Britain and where we are now. It’s engagement with the emerging counter-culture makes it an interesting snapshot of a particular time and place and in that respect it’s one of the great London as location movies. It’s also clearly a work of autobiography. This is a film about a man walking away from everything people expected of him and trying to find his own identity.Photo 09-07-2018, 15 35 56This departure from the Bondian image is emphasised in the opening scene which shows the former 007 walking through Heathrow arrivals now sporting long hair, a 70s’ porntache, and dressed in a full-length black leather jacket. It’s quite the look and it suits him. While Bond films make travel seem glamorous Universal Soldier presents the unfriendliness of the British customs official. Racially profiling a black man, pulling a hippy aside for a cavity search, and dealing brusquely with visitors from Commonwealth countries. The whole film develops this theme. This isn’t the London of the Singing Sixties but a dull grey place with miserable people protecting their drab little island from outsiders.Photo 09-07-2018, 15 42 59Lazenby plays Ryker, a world weary mercenary involved in a Mark Thatcher style plot to overthrow an African regime. There is an absurd sequence where the group watch a promotional video made by an arms manufacturer set to the music of the Monty Python theme.Then the group meet in the countryside to test weapons and plan their campaign.  There’s a food hamper and flasks of tea. It’s like a picnic with guns. They test that most ingenious and silliest looking of British inventions, the hovercraft as a potential sea and land attack vehicle. Yet Ryker’s having these wee flashbacks to campaigns he’s been involved in. Something’s not right with him and these feelings are exacerbated when his friend’s dog playfully chases after a target thrown into the air and jumps directly into the line of fire. 

 

Ryker begins to drift away from the cause, a break that’s emphasised in a scene directly referencing Bond and Lazenby’s own social activities. In a scene cut from the original release of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but eventually restored for DVD Bond reads a copy of Playboy while breaking into an office. Lazenby’s own regular hangout in London was the Playboy Club and maybe this is him saying goodbye to the trappings his brief moment in the spotlight brought him.

There’s a low-rent comedy version of the car chase often found in Bond movies where an unwitting minor member of law enforcement gives pursuit without realising they’re after a secret agent. Here two hapless policemen pull Ryker and his partner over for a minor traffic offence only for them to speed off through the countryside because they have no papers and can’t risk being identified. “We’re chasing a mad bastard…” 

Lazenby and Endfield meant the film to be a series of moments and wrote a shadow script about gunrunners to fool the producers into backing the film. Really the film is about Lazenby, observing him as he eats in a dodgy looking cafe in the West End or wandering through Soho at night to a prog-rock soundtrack. After an encounter with a cab driver in which he accidentally offends the Little Englander’s sense of national pride he’s dropped off in Portobello Road because the driver assumes he’s a hippy.

London really gets under Ryker’s skin. He breaks off all contact with his fellow mercenaries and starts hanging out with a bunch of student revolutionaries (including Germaine Greer). Their ideas begin to rub off on him and he double-crosses his accomplices by disposing of the guns. But mercenaries don’t forget any more than Hollywood producers do if you piss them off and Lazenby’s only hiding in a wee flat in Kensington with a Marianne Faithful lookalike.

Lazenby claims he quit Bond on the advice of his then manager Rohan O’Reilly (who appears in the film as an anti-apartheid campaigner). The days of Establishment figures like Bond and conventional forms of cinema were on the way out and the counter-culture would go mainstream. In retrospect this seems like bad advice but at the time it seemed plausible. This was the era of the Angry Brigade and other left-wing anarchist groups in Europe beginning to make their presence known. Same with movies. In the US there was Easy Rider (1969, Dennis Hopper) while in Italy directors like Bertolucci and Francesco Rosi were making left-leaning political thrillers. Lazenby & O’Reilly just didn’t figure out that the Establishment absorbs new ideas and always reasserts itself in the end. Photo 06-08-2018, 17 28 21You can tell they went into Universal Soldier without an ending because the big finale is a fight sequence on a motorway lay-by. The antithesis of Bond in every way especially as Ryker repeatedly tries to walk away from the fight. There’s a sense of finality about the film. It was Cy Endfield’s last movie and effectively ended any hopes Lazenby had of maintaining an A-list career. The thriller aspects feel incidental. They’re clearly not interested in making an action film but trying to do a European style art movie. It doesn’t quite hang together, but it’s an effective mood piece that seems to channel the restlessness of its leading man.

 

 

 

Hammer Blogathon – Horror of Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher)

This post is part of the Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget and Cinematic Catharsis.

Hammer-Amicus Blogathon_Lee1

“I did not sleep well, though my bed was comfortable enough, for I had all sort of queer dreams.” 

p8 Harker’s Diary, Dracula 

Hammer and Amicus films were regular fixtures on late night television when I was growing up in the 80s’ and early 90s’. Dracula: Prince of Darkness stood out as being the best of Hammer’s Dracula movies but I honestly can’t remember much about the others. They have all merged into the landscape of my childhood TV memories, a place where Steed and Mrs Peel are forever visiting small  countryside villages only to find there’s something wrong with the locals, and Sid James is getting endless bollockings from Joan Sims in a caravan. I can’t tell you which Frankenstein movie scared me so much as a child  I couldn’t sleep because I thought the monster was roaming the countryside looking for me, but I still feel that way if I’m sober and awake at 3 in the morning.

Bram Stoker’s novel I’ve read a few times. Once as a child and several times at university while studying a course on Scottish/Irish novels as part of an English degree. Thematically it’s fascinating because there’s so much going on in there and I found these elements (fear of female sexuality, immigration, drug addiction, sickness, mental illness, and death) far more interesting than the story itself. Stoker’s overly moralistic approach is undercut by his clearly erotic fascination with the idea of vampirism especially during a sequence in which middle-class lawyer Jonathan Harker is fed on by three of Dracula’s brides. It’s meant to horrify, but Stoker gets carried away and ends up writing four pages of Victorian erotica. Like Dracula’s victims Stoker’s drawn to the darkness without quite knowing why.

Horror of Dracula is a pared down adaptation of the novel. Hammer would have the backing of Warner Bros for later films but here resources are obviously limited. Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay removes the ship’s journey to Whitby, Renfield’s treatment at the asylum, and some of the supporting characters. Hammer did bring a more explicitly sexual approach to the horror film but we’re not quite there yet. There’s a 50s’ era strain of conservatism running through this and any eroticism in the movie is seen as a threat. An act decent people must be protected from by the stern patrician Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Despite these drawbacks Horror of Dracula has Terence Fisher’s flair for the Gothic. It looks wonderful and the opening image of bright red blood dripping on Dracula’s tombstone sets the tone. Unlike Universal’s monster movies there’s colour and gore here. 

Photo 24-03-2018, 03 27 42

The opening section of the book is written in diary form and is essentially a travelogue. Harker recounting his journey through the Carpathian mountains and the sights he sees, the food he eats (“get the recipe for Mina”), and the people he encounters. Most of all Harker is struck by the superstitions of the locals which to an urbane Londoner seem archaic and absurd. This is always my favourite part of any adaptation. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu does it best I think but the Hammer films are good at this too albeit in a much campier way. There is no “don’t go up to the castle” moment until the beginning of the second act when Van Helsing irritates the owner of a tavern by asking for directions. Instead we meet Harker as he arrives at the castle by coach in broad daylight. There’s no real suspense at this point despite their being nobody there to greet him. There’s a gracious note from his host and food left on the table as well as a description of the amenities available to him. Harker looks like a tourist checking into an Airbnb and being pleasantly surprised by the size of the apartment he’s rented.

Stoker’s Harker is an innocent abroad, a young legal clerk sent out on his first big work trip to help facilitate the purchase of property in London by Count Dracula. The Count is an old man, a bit eccentric, overly proud, but seemingly nothing out of the ordinary. He’s polite, articulate, and afflicted by melancholy. 

“I am no longer young; and my heart, through many years of mourning over the dead, is not attuned to mirth. Moreover the walls of my castle are broken, the shadows are many, and the wind breathes cold through the broken battlements and casements. I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may.”

It’s only gradually Harker begins to realise he’s trapped in the castle with something inhuman. Little tell tale signs like a woman crying for her lost child outside the castle, or the Count casting no reflection, or being more than a little freaked out when Harker accidentally cuts himself shaving and blood drips from the wound.

In Horror of Dracula Harker is played by John Van Essen as being officer class. This Harker is older, more assured, and has a reason for being there. Rather than being an innocent abroad he knows all about Dracula and vampires and intends to kill the Count. In the book he represents the corruption of innocence, but here he’s an onward Christian soldier type of guy.

“It only remains for me now to await the daylight hours, when with God’s help I will forever end this man’s reign of terror”

The good guys in Stoker’s novel are thinly drawn representations of various archetypes of Victorian society. They represent order. Doctors, professors, lawyers, ladies. Because they are all perfect none of them are that interesting and Van Helsing apart (mostly thanks to Cushing) it’s the same in the movie. Dracula holds the attention right from the moment the 6’5″ Lee appears at the top of a staircase, his profile hidden in shadow. Harker feels his presence before he sees him and Fisher holds the close-up on Van Essyen  for long enough to build suspense.

Then Lee bounds down the stairs (he was light on his feet for such a big man) and greets Harker like an English gentleman meeting another belonging to the same social class. Their exchange of pleasantries is the only time there’s any sense Dracula is anything other than a monster in the movie. In the novel Dracula attempts to manoeuvre his way into British society by purchasing property and using his aristocratic heritage to move among them. Here Harker has been employed to work in Dracula’s library (I want to see how that job was advertised) but quickly finds himself being locked in his room at night. This turns out to be partly for his own safety as there is another vampire roaming the castle. A young lady who suckers Harker into thinking she needs his help to escape then sinks her fangs into his neck.

The make-up is interesting here. The marks are swollen, more like insect bites than lacerations made by fangs. I can’t work out if there’s only one bride due to budgetary constraints or 1950s’ mores which meant even Count Dracula had to be monogamous. Either way Harker is undone by his own sense of chivalry. Then his own foolishness when given a chance to destroy Dracula as he sleeps in his coffin he inexplicably decides to kill the bride first. That goes on my list of top 5 moments in horror films where I’ve shouted what are you doing at the protagonist as they’ve  unwittingly brought about their own demise.

Van Helsing then takes over as the film’s protagonist and we get what for me is the most important scene in a Dracula movie. The passive-aggressive behaviour of the peasantry towards some rich fool who wants directions to Dracula’s castle. Or in this case a second rich fool who’s searching for the first rich fool who went up to the castle and for some reason never came back. Van Helsing enters the tavern and the clientele immediately goes quiet, as if this is were a western and a stranger in town has just pushed open the swing doors to a saloon. The innkeeper claims to have no knowledge of Harker’s stopping there, but his good work is ruined by the waitress who’s clearly new and hasn’t learnt the house rules about treating tourists with suspicion.

Van Helsing does find his way to Castle Dracula, but he’s too late. Harker has turned into one of the undead and Dracula has moved out. Seeing a picture of Lucy (Carol Marsh) Van Helsing realises she’s his next target and returns to England to meet Lucy and her brother Arthur (Michael Gough). Sangster has rejigged the the relationships from the book. In the novel Harker and Mina are together, while Lucy has three suitors, Holmwood, Dr Seward (here an ageing doctor treating Lucy), and tough-talking Yank Quincy Morris who’s been written out completely.

 

But it turns out Lucy is sick and nobody knows why. Arthur and his fiancé Mina (Melissa Stribling) are furious at Van Helsing for his refusal to elaborate further on the cause of Harker’s death and the whereabouts of the body so they can give some peace of mind to Lucy. They’re a tiresome pair. Arthur’s wound tighter than his wife’s corset, and we’re stuck with them for the rest of the movie.

I generally find Fisher’s work a little staid, particularly in dramatic scenes, but his use of imagery is always effective. The most evocative scenes in the movie involve Lucy who is of course under Dracula’s spell. After receiving treatment from a Dr Seward her family bid her good night and she pretends to go to sleep. As soon as they’re out of the room Marsh gives a look so raunchy I’m amazed the censors allowed it back in 1958 and sprints out of the bed to fling open the doors wide and invite her new master in. After she succumbs to Dracula’s attentions she haunts the forest near the graveyard trying to lure her niece back to her tomb until Van Helsing convinces Arthur to hep him hunt her down in an effort to prove vampirism is real.

 

Horror of Dracula breezes through the novel in 80 minutes. Dracula turns his attention to Mina but Van Helsing is able to break the spell and pursue the Count back to his castle leading to one of the most memorable confrontations in cinema. At 45 Cushing still has a touch of athleticism about him which is handy because Christopher Lee throws him about like a rag doll. It ends with the gory sequence promised in the opening titles with Dracula melting in sunlight, which doesn’t quite have the same effect today but must have shocked audiences back in 58′.

 

It was interesting watching Horror of Dracula again after all these years.  As a straightforward retelling of the novel it’s fine. I personally prefer versions that take the source material and do something new as with Penny Dreadful. I watched some of the other Hammer sequels after this and thought Lee’s striking presence was wasted in them. I can see why he preferred his work in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula which gave him more screen time and a character to play rather than a monster. I just wish he’d done Roy Ward Baker’s kung-fu Dracula movie Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires though. That film badly needed a decent antagonist.

 

Favourite Films of 2017

10. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson)

Photo 12-01-2018, 00 05 22

Besson’s spaced-out adaptation of a cult French comic strip couldn’t find an audience in the US but it’s an imaginative and beautifully realised sci-fi movie. The film is hamstrung slightly by the casting of Valerian. Dane DeHaan is nobody’s idea of a swashbuckling hero. Cara Delevigne though has the kind of otherworldly presence that suits Besson’s love for beautiful outsiders. Cult status surely beckons.

9. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson)

Photo 12-01-2018, 22 54 44

Jenkins film can’t quite break free from biopic conventions but this is a fascinating look at the kink BDSM origins of the Wonder Woman comic strip and the polyamorous relationship that helped inspire it. Better suited to a double-bill with Mary Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page or Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method than Patty Jenkins Wonder Woman.

8. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)

Photo 12-01-2018, 00 11 14

People seemed genuinely surprised by Vince Vaughn’s turn here but he’s always been a charismatic performer and Zahler’s bruising prison movie makes great use of his imposing physicality. As with Bone Tomahawk the dialogue is artfully constructed and gives Vaughn, and his veteran co-stars Udo Kier and Don Johnson plenty to get their teeth into.

7. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)

Photo 12-01-2018, 00 17 55

Nolan’s tribute to the greatest generation is the kind of old fashioned war movie that used to air on Sunday afternoons in the 70s’ and 80s’. Understated and moving with fine performances from a mixture of well known faces and newcomers Dunkirk is easily Nolan’s best film since The Prestige.

6. Beyond the Gates (Jackson Stewart)

Photo 12-01-2018, 00 14 13

Inventive low-budget horror film with two estranged brothers inheriting their father’s video store only to find his disappearance might have something to do with a board game and accompanying VHS tape presented by 80s’ horror star Barbara Crampton. It’s witty and fun although it can’t quite deliver on making the other world seem like either an alluring place to visit or somewhere to fear. It did however make me miss the old independently run video stores you used to get back in the day and making some bizarre new cinematic discovery.

5. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)

Photo 12-01-2018, 00 22 27

Did not love this as much as Guadagnino’s earlier movies but it seems to have helped bring about a reevaluation of James Ivory (who provided the screenplay here) after years of his work being mocked by 90s’ Tarantino-loving critics so I’m all for it.

4. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska)

Photo 12-01-2018, 00 25 04

Smoczynska’s wonderful debut is a fairytale musical about two beautiful vampiric mermaids who are lured onto dry land by a handsome bass player who wisely ignores their song (“we won’t eat you”). Instead they become backing singers and strippers at a dodgy nightclub but while one sister longs to return to the sea the other is falling in love. Mixing 80s’ music with a cautionary tale common in fairytale mythology it really is one of a kind.

3. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

Photo 12-01-2018, 00 43 22

Understated and moving coming-of-age story worthy of comparison with the work of Wong Kar-Wai and Clare Denis. So pleased and surprised to see something this good win an Oscar especially as something terrible (Three Billboards) will probably win this year.

2. Alien Covenant (Ridley Scott)

Photo 12-01-2018, 00 45 43

Ridley Scott continues with the grand philosophical themes of Prometheus and sidelines the Xenomorph in favour of Fassbender’s dual android roles as the innocent Walter and the worldly sophisticated David who fancies himself a creator. It’s a work of Romanticism,  open about it’s literary influences (David quotes Percy Bysshe Shelley while both androids are versions of Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein) and I really want to see where Scott takes this franchise if he’s allowed to continue.

1. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

Photo 12-01-2018, 00 50 11

Focusing on the direct aftermath of JFK’s assassination and Jackie Kennedy’s attempts to deal with the public rituals required after the death of a President while also trying to cope with her own grief. Larrain’s biopic deconstructs the mythology of Camelot by showing how much spin was behind its creation but also gives a feeling that something was lost when JFK died. Most of all it’s about the shock of bereavement, of the isolation it brings, which here is accentuated by Kennedy’s fame, and the feeling the world is moving on without you.

The Vault (2017, Dan Bush)

Vault_CB_05292016_00234

The Dillon sisters, Leah (Francesca Eastwood) and ex-con Vee (Taryn Manning), stage a bank robbery to help their troubled brother Michael (Scott Haze) get enough money to pay off the gangsters threatening to kill him. Their plan is to hit the place fast and be gone before the local authorities can react but things quickly get out of hand when the manager refuses to co-operate and they find the safe is too sophisticated to crack. The situation escalates when a female bank employee is badly injured trying to escape and the police surround the building.

However one of the employees, Ed Maas (James Franco), seems strangely calm and offers to help the robbers in return for 5% of their take. There is it seems another vault in the basement, much older and easier to break into which he insists contains six million dollars and another way out. The Dillons are so desperate they don’t notice Ed seems a little too keen for them to open the vault.

Dan Bush co-directed The Signal (2007), an intriguing little horror about society collapsing through a message sent through television screens which turned the viewer into a raging psychotic. There’s a similar theme here of people turning into savages here though this is a much more conventional film, a mixture of heist movie and supernatural horror which doesn’t really move far beyond genre tropes. It’s atmospheric enough in the early sequences with Franco’s quiet stillness a counterpoint to all the aggression going on around him but once access is gained to the vault what lies within proves to be something of a let down.

Vault_CB_05302016_00005

Bush’s direction in his segment of The Signal  is spare and haunting but the goriness present in The Vault  recalls the worst excesses of the torture porn era diminishing his good work in the opening first act. The earlier film was violent but at least had something to say about contemporary life. The Vault is efficient and the final revelatory sequence does send a chill down the spine before The Vault reverts to the familiar with one of the most overly used horror movie endings.

What is clear from The Vault though is that Hollywood studio bosses who are trying to promote Scott Eastwood as a movie star are backing the wrong sibling because with her charismatic turn here and her equally fierce performances on television in Fargo and the Twin Peaks finale it’s clear Francesca Eastwood is the one to watch.

Credits

Content Media

A Dan Bush Film

The Vault 

In Cinemas & On Demand on September the 8th

 

DVD Review – Revolution : New Art for a New World (2016, Margy Kinmonth)

 

unspecified-1
Kustodiev – Demonstration in Uritsky Square (image courtesy of Foxtrot Films)

Mary Kinmonth’s visually striking documentary examines the avant-garde art movement in Russia which emerged alongside the Revolution. Both shared similar aims, to sweep away the old order and create something new. Many of these young artists supported the Revolution and allowed their work to be co-opted for political means. However in the years afterwards as Stalin came to power and began the purges they would become enemies of the state and their work would be hidden away or in some cases destroyed.

The avant-garde movement was already underway before the Czarist regime fell but the Revolution gave it impetus. Young visual artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Kazamir Malevich rejected the traditional European influences on Russian art and embraced the extremities of the avant-garde. They found an ally in Lenin who recognised the power of the image in country where most of the population was illiterate. “Art is the most powerful means of propaganda available to the socialist cause” said Lenin who allowed a certain amount of freedom as long as they obeyed the party line and did not belittle the Revolution.

There are ground-breaking advancements in photography through the work of Alexander Rodchenko and in film two of the most influential directors of the 20th century emerge, Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera) and Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin). Indeed, Kinmonth’s interest in making Revolution: New Art for a New World came from seeing the storming of the Winter Palace sequence in Eisenstein’s October 17: Ten Days that Shook the World and finding out it was a myth designed to please the Bolshevik regime. Eisenstein in effect was doing what John Ford would later do with the Western. Printing the legend.

Having worked in Russia directing a film for the South Bank Show about the origins of The Nutcracker ballet Kinmonth has used her contacts in the arts world to gain access to paintings long unavailable for public viewing. These artworks appear alongside archive footage, photographs, interviews with art historians, and readings by actors (including among others Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, and Daisy Bevan). Location filming gives us a sense of time and place as well as the social conditions under which this work was done. An amusing role playing sequence performed by young art students recreates the arguments over Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ paintings, literally paintings of black squares to which the viewer is invited to find their own meaning.

unspecified
‘Black Square’ by Kazamir Malevich (image courtesy of Foxtrot Films)

Kinmonth also speaks to descendants of the artists, some of whom have devastating stories to tell about the effects of Stalin’s purges on their family. Some fled the country, others survived by amending their art to suit the demands of the state, while others faced the gulag or execution. Sergei Eisenstien’s assistant-editor on October 1917 was a certain Josef Stalin who personally oversaw the movie’s final cut and made sure there was nobody resembling in any way shape or form his political rival Leon Trotsky. Film director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train, Tango & Cash) talks about his grandfather, the painter Pyotr Konchalovsky, who turned away from the avant-garde and focused on more traditional forms of painting in his later years.

Revolution: New Art for a New World is fascinating to watch during our own current period of political uncertainty, especially with new media and technology clearly being used for propaganda purposes. Great artworks may well outlast the society in which they are created, but this illuminating documentary suggests they are better understood together.

Credits 

A Foxtrot Films Production

Revolution: New Art for a New World

On DVD from 3rd April

Directed by Mary Kinmonth

Running time 85 minutes