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DRACULA WEEK DAY 2: Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958)

Horror of DraculaDirector: Terence Fisher

Writer: Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt, Charles Lloyd Pack, Barbara Archer, Janina Faye

Plot: Librarian Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is called to Castle Dracula by its mysterious count (Christopher Lee). He encounters a strange woman (Valerie Gaunt) who begs him to help her escape, but she flees as Dracula makes his appearance. Dracula has summoned Harker to index his enormous collection of books, and encourages him to make the castle his home as he works. As Dracula leaves him, Harker pens a journal entry that reveals his true intention – to end the Count’s reign of terror forever. That night, he again encounters the strange woman from before, and she again begs his help, only to bite him on the neck. As she does so Dracula appears, blood on his mouth, and he attacks the woman. Harker grapples with the Count, but is defeated, and Dracula takes the woman away. Harker wakes up in his bedroom the next morning, a pair of fang-marks on his neck, and decides he must exterminate Dracula before sundown. He finds the crypt and drives a stake through the vampire woman’s heart, awakening Dracula just as the sun goes down. Dracula seals Harker in the tomb.

Some time later Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) stops at a tavern, seeking word of the missing Harker. A tavern girl gives the Doctor a book she found – Harker’s journal. He finds Castle Dracula and the bodies of both the vampire woman and Harker. Van Helsing returns to Harker’s bedridden fiancé, Lucy (Carol Marsh) to tell her of Harker’s death, but her brother Arthur (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) hide the truth from Lucy, unaware that she is already being visited by Dracula in the night. He is biting her, draining her slowly, preparing her to become his new thrall.

As Lucy is treated for what her doctors believe to be anemia, Van Helsing recognizes the symptoms of a vampire attack. He orders the windows in her room shut at night and the room filled with garlic cloves. At Lucy’s behest, though, her housekeeper (Olga Dickie) opens the windows and removes the garlic. In the morning, Lucy is found dead. Later, the housekeeper’s daughter Tania (Janina Faye) claims to have encountered her dead “Aunt Lucy.” Arthur goes to her tomb that night and finds it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, summons the child to her and they encounter Arthur. Van Helsing saves him and stakes Lucy, sending her to a true rest. Arthur gives Mina a cross to wear, but upon touching it she shouts and collapses, the cross burned into her flesh. She, too, has been touched by the vampire.

That night, Dracula comes for Mina again, draining her so completely Van Helsing has to give her a transfusion of blood from Arthur. Van Helsing finds Dracula’s coffin in the cellar, but the Count takes the moment of distraction to take Mina and flee. They chase him back to Castle Dracula, where Van Helsing exposes him to the light of the sun. Dracula shrivels and turns to dust, his reign of terror ending… until the sequel.

Thoughts: It is utterly unforgivable that I’ve been conducting these movie studies for three consecutive Octobers now, and this is the first time I’ve touched upon the storied Hammer Films catalogue of horror. While Hammer may not have the immediately recognizable icons of Universal (although they in no small way owe their fame to remaking the characters Universal made famous), it’s no less an important chapter in the universe of terror, and I should have delved into it a long time ago.

That said, I picked a great film to begin my Hammer Horror education. Horror of Dracula was Christopher Lee’s first time portraying Count Dracula, and he did a fantastic job in the role. Although largely absent from the middle section of the movie, his presence is compelling and powerful, a real menacing figure worthy of the Dracula name. In the final confrontation with Van Helsing, he momentarily devolves into a mad, snarling beast, and it’s a great moment. You’re terrified of him, you think he’ll rip Peter Cushing’s throat right out. He’s a monster in the best sense of the word.

He’s also the subject of some pretty impressive special effects. When the sunlight kills him at the end, the way he wilts away into nothing is really remarkable for a 1958 film. Hammer truly was on the top of its game.

As Van Helsing, Peter Cushing makes for a great hero. There’s an authoritative sense to him – he’s a man you want to trust in the middle of a terrible ordeal. He carries a gravity and a power that makes the situation seem just as serious as a horror film should seem. Even now, over 50 years later, this really works as a horror classic.

The structure of this film is odd. It’s based on the original Dracula novel, at least in part, but both the plot and the characters presume a great deal of familiarity with the Dracula concept even before the film begins. Harker knows who and what Dracula is and has a plan to destroy him from the very outset, although Dracula seems at least initially fooled by his façade of being a simple librarian. It’s almost as if the film’s heroes had read the novel and decided they wanted to cut off the monster at the pass. Of course, that sort of genre awareness seems to evaporate when Harker reaches Dracula’s crypt and stakes the woman first. Seriously, man? You always kill the boss first, if you’ve got the chance. It’s like this 19th century character from a 1950s movie had never played a video game or something.

Although clearly inspired by Bram Stoker, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster took some unusual and rather inexplicable liberties – changing Harker’s love interest from Mina to Lucy, making the two sisters-in-law, making Arthur Mina’s husband and so on. All in all, the film succeeds in telling a perfectly coherent story, but it’s not exactly the same story as the book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it is a… thing. That happened. And I find it curious enough to point it out. The film also attempts to distance itself from the novel, accepting the by-then common conceit that the vampire cannot venture out in the daylight (absent from the novel) and dismissing the idea of the vampire changing its shape as “pure fallacy” (this idea was present in the Stoker original). I’m truly not sure what to make of it. The writer really seems to be struggling to buy in to the existing Dracula mythology, while picking and choosing the parts he likes and bringing in other elements pretty much at will. I don’t know how a storyteller reconciles those two impulses, but Sangster at least manages to turn out an entertaining story in the mix.

If nothing else, the movie is plenty of fun and a great film to throw on during your Halloween party… or any other time you’re looking to have a creepy good time.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 3: Robert Stephens in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Private Life of Sherlock HolmesDirector: Billy Wilder

Writer: I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder, based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, Tamara Toumanova, Clive Revill, Irene Handl, Mollie Maureen, Stanley Holloway

Plot: Many years after the death of Dr. John Watson (Colin Blakely), a lockbox is opened containing previously unrevealed tales of his adventures with the great Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) – tales too sensitive, or perhaps too personal, to share with the general public as he published their adventures during Holmes’s life. This film presents us with two such tales.

In the first, Holmes berates Watson for the romantic nature of his published tales – making him out to seem taller, more quirky and more capable than he really is (the last charge Watson vehemently disagrees with). What’s more, he’s growing bored – the criminal class has become too unimaginative for his tastes.  Holmes is turning more and more to a cocaine solution to distract himself. Concerned, Watson convinces Holmes to accompany him to a performance of Swan Lake. Holmes is invited backstage to meet the show’s star, Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova), who has a proposal – she wishes to conceive a child with him, hoping to combine her physical perfection with Holmes’s flawless mind. Unwilling to participate, Holmes tries to find a delicate way out of the situation, claiming to be a hemophiliac, claiming that English men are terrible lovers… Petrova is not swayed until Holmes implies that he and Watson are more “involved” than the Doctor’s published stories reveal.  Although Holmes slips from the ballerina’s grasp, Watson is enraged when he discovers the rumor. Holmes convinces Watson his reputation as a ladies’ man will protect him, but Watson is stunned when he realizes Holmes has no such protection – he has virtually no track record with women at all.

As Watson ponders his friend, a cabbie arrives with a Belgian woman named Gabrielle (Genevieve Page). Watson puts her to bed, diagnosing her with temporary amnesia, and is determined to help her. Holmes agrees, but only to get rid of her as soon as possible. The woman awakes, mistaking Holmes for her missing husband, Emil. He plays along, hoping to uncover clues. In the morning, she has regained her senses and begs the detective for help finding her husband. The investigation leads them to a message from Holmes’s brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), who asks them to abandon their search for Gabrielle, in the name of national security. Instead, Holmes takes her to Scotland, where he believes the solution to the mystery lies.

Holmes follows the clues to a cemetery, an anonymous man found in the river is being buried. They search the coffin to find Gabrielle’s husband, Emil, while Watson makes a very different discovery – the Loch Ness Monster. On the lake they see the creature and set out to find it, instead encountering Mycroft in an experimental submarine, its periscope disguised with a monster head. Mycroft reveals that the real Gabrielle Valladon is dead and the woman they travel with is a German spy, sent to use Holmes’s keen mind to help hunt down the missing Emil and steal the submersible from the British government. Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) arrives to inspect the submersible. Initially impressed, when she realizes it is intended as a warship, she declares it “unsportsmanlike” and orders it destroyed.

Holmes returns to Gabrielle – really Ilsa Von Hoffmanstal, and uses her to send a signal to her German friends to lure them into a trap. Mycroft will obey the Queen’s command to destroy the ship, but takes the German spies with it. Holmes, meanwhile, arranges for Ilsa to be sent back to Germany, traded for a captured British spy, instead of being sent to jail.

Some time later, Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft with painful news – Ilsa was captured spying in Japan and executed. Holmes is struck silent for a moment before asking Watson for his cocaine for the first time in months. The great detective locks himself away, while Watson picks up his pen and begins to write.

Thoughts: This film has a rather odd pedigree. Originally conceived and shot as a 165-minute “road show” picture intended to tour the country and play special engagements, United Artists suffered a series of flops that led to them forcing Billy Wilder to cut it down to 125 minutes for a standard theatrical run. Fortunately, the series of short stories in the film made it easy to cut, but there are two whole episodes and a framing sequence that were excised completely. Some chunks have been restored on the film’s DVD release, but to date a complete original print has never been discovered.

I fear my synopsis doesn’t quite get across the tone of this movie. Although it deals with some serious ideas, such as Holmes’s cocaine addiction, the script itself is actually quite funny. An early scene during the ballet, for example, contains a perfectly-written and timed scene in which Watson relates the number of men who have committed suicide out of love for the prima ballerina. (I swear, that’s funnier than it sounds.) Watson’s delight at being left alone with a set of Russian-speaking ballerinas is also really amusing. Unlike the first two films in this project, this is a Watson I can get behind. He’s lighthearted, he’s unrelentingly male in his behavior, but he never comes across as goofy or incompetent, and that makes him my favorite Watson to date.

Robert Stephens’s Holmes isn’t quite as iconic as Basil Rathbone (who gets a bit of a nod in this film, as Stephens laments the fact that he has to wear a seersucker hat and matching coat because the public now expects it thanks to the illustrations published with Watson’s stories). His performance, nevertheless, is exemplary. He comes across as very clever, but a trifle less eccentric than Rathbone or Lee, which well befits the conceit that Watson has always exaggerated Holmes in his writing.

I’m not sure what the missing segments of this film are about, but the ones we get here fit together nicely, with an undercurrent of doubt regarding Holmes’s sexuality being the connecting thread. There could be no doubt that Billy Wilder, creator of classics like Some Like it Hot, would be perfect for this material. Although in the canon Holmes fiction the detective never has any real romantic connections, it always seems clear that this stems from a distrust of women. This movie brings that up at the beginning, but allows it to dangle as a sort of question mark. Is that the real reason Holmes has remained alone for so long? Gabrielle complicates things in a very pleasant way, giving us hints that Holmes’s interest in her case (despite the fact that he believes her to be a married woman) is more than simply professional without ever knocking us over the head with his attraction to the point where there can be no doubt.

By the end, the ambiguity is somewhat sponged away. It seems clear that Holmes allows his affection for the woman he called Gabrielle to arrange the freedom of a dangerous enemy spy. It’s a small but very humanizing gesture on Holmes’s part. The look on Stephens’s face as she rides away, signaling “auf Wiedersehen” with her umbrella, truly sells the storyline – there’s a bit of satisfaction mingled in with just a hint of regret.  When he reads Mycroft’s letter, the face shifts again to severe – but contained – agony.

For a while on Loch Ness the film seems like it’s going to veer a bit too far into silly territory, particularly with Watson’s determination to hunt down the Loch Ness Monster and the cheesy way the legendary beast manifests itself. When we discover the truth, though, those qualms are sponged away – the idea of Mycroft using the legend of the creature as a distraction is really quite brilliant and builds the character well. In fact, Christopher Lee acquits himself very well as Holmes in this movie, far better than he comes off as the detective himself in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace.

Without a doubt, this is my favorite of the Holmes movies I’ve taken in this week so far. It will be interesting to see how future adventures with the detective really measure up.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 2: Christopher Lee in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962)

Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace 1962Director: Terence Fisher

Writer: Curt Siodmak, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Christopher Lee, Hans Söhnker, Hans Nielsen, Senta Berger, Ivan Desny, Wolfgang Lukschy, Leon Askin, Edith Schultze-Westrum, Thorley Walters

Plot: A new case has come to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Christopher Lee and Thorley Walters, respectively): the return of arch-nemesis Professor Moriarity (Hans Söhnker). The battle begins when a man turns up murdered on Holmes’s doorstep, causing a clash with Scotland Yard’s Inspector Cooper (Hans Nielsen), who is unconvinced that Moriarity is in fact the criminal genius Holmes claims him to be. If that wasn’t bad enough, Moriarity is scheduled to be knighted. Holmes deduces the dying man was directing them to a local pub, where they overhear Moriarity plotting with a henchman. Watson accidentally alerts Moriarity to their presence, and the two leave quickly. Holmes has heard enough though – Moriarity has as good as confessed to a pair of murders related to his current scheme, but Holmes still doesn’t know what the Professor is plotting.

Going through the newspaper, Holmes believes Moriarity’s next target will involve a necklace of Cleopatra owned by one Peter Blackburn (Wolfgang Lukschy). They arrive at Blackburn’s home to find him murdered, his face destroyed by a shotgun blast and his wedding ring now missing. As they investigate, trying to avoid Inspector Cooper, Holmes finds a patch of freshly turned earth. Cooper suspects Blackburn’s wife Ellen (Senta Berger) and her lover, Paul King (Ivan Desny), a theory he grows more certain of when he finds clothes buried in the fresh Earth. Ellen confesses that, earlier, Peter himself killed a prowler, then switched his clothes with the intruder to fake his own death. She leads him to the real Blackburn, hiding in the cellar, but instead find the man’s corpse, having scratched “M-O-R” into a crate before he died.

Holmes disguises himself to sneak into Moriarity’s home, finding the necklace amongst a series of deadly traps. Moriarity turns up to visit Cooper just moments after Holmes presents the necklace as evidence. Moriarity, of course, has an alibi, claiming the necklace was stolen years ago and he’s pleased to see it being returned to its rightful owner. Despite this, Holmes is convinced the Professor will make another attempt on the necklace. Moriarity, however, approaches Holmes alone and tries to offer him a partnership, which Holmes turns down flat. Moriarity instead plans to take action as the necklace is auctioned off – he is summoned as an “archeological expert” to verify the authenticity of the necklace. As he leaves, Holmes informs Moriarity that several of the thieves involved in the cast have been captured… and he expects the professor will join them soon.

Thoughts: Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace was a German film, but filmed in English. Why the filmmakers felt the need to come in and re-dub the English speaking actors with a separate English audio track is beyond me, but the sort of Godzilla quality it gives to the voices is only the first problem with this bizarre attempt at adapting one of Doyle’s later stories. The writing feels very off here. An early scene in which Holmes and Watson discuss the relative merits of the London Times newspaper feels half like an advertisement for the paper and half like a practice for the sort of bizarre logical leaps that would be a trademark of the Adam West Batman television series a few years later. Holmes, in fact, talks so much about how trustworthy the Times is that I wound up checking on Wikipedia to see if they helped subsidize the production of the film. (As far as I can tell, they didn’t.)

Christopher Lee is our star, which makes it even more perplexing why they would bother to re-dub the voices in this film. Lee’s voice is absolutely phenomenal, and he seems to be putting in a valiant effort as Holmes. The occasions where he disguises himself are great – even as we watch him putting on a fake mustache and makeup, it would be very easy to forget we’re looking at Holmes in disguise. If anything, the real tragedy of this film is that Lee could make a fine Holmes (he would play the great Detective two more times, both in the 90s, in films I haven’t seen but now dearly wish to), if only he were given something good to play with. As it is, even the scene where he’s searching Moriarity’s home, rummaging around a mummy and nearly being bitten by a (presumably) deadly snake is head-shakingly boring. And honestly, there are few worse things for a movie to be… even a bad film can be memorable and fun in certain ways, but if a movie is boring there’s really nothing that can be done for it.

While Lee seems to be trying to play Holmes straight (at least as far as I can tell with the poor voice dubbing), Thorley Walters’s Watson is a different story. The scene where he hangs around in the pub while Holmes investigates is positively disturbing. We see him approached by a barmaid (the film never outright says she’s a prostitute, but it may as well give her a sign) who starts feeding him a sob story about her sick mother. Watson, of course, being a doctor, starts to offer to perform an operation on the woman free of charge. At this point, it’s like watching one of your buddies talking to a girl who you can tell is only interested in him because he’s got an expensive-looking car and she clearly is hoping she’ll shower him with gifts – you’re stuck burying your head in your face and gritting your teeth because you know warning your buddy won’t do any good. What’s worse, this goes nowhere. It never comes back up, we never see the woman again, we just get a couple of minutes of Watson as an addlepated horndog presumably because the director couldn’t think of any other way to pass the time for the 100 seconds Christopher Lee was off-camera looking for a way to eavesdrop on Moriarity.

Hans Söhnker as Moriarity seems to be in a similar predicament as Lee. His performance seems perfectly adequate, and he’s certainly got the right look for an aging mastermind of evil. (If Mr. Söhnker or anyone from his estate happens to be reading this, I mean it as a compliment.) He is betrayed not by the actor, but by a script that has him posture and preen but never actually do much that seems particularly menacing. The end is particularly disappointing. After Holmes turns down Moriarity’s offer of partnership, it’s easy to get excited. “All right, the die has been cast, the gauntlet has been thrown, time for a face off!” But no, instead we get a civil conversation at the auction during which the two adversaries might as well be winking at each other, each saying, “Ah, I’ll get you next time, you old rascal, you.”

Hans Nielsen as Inspector Cooper, again like Lee’s Holmes, isn’t given much to work with here. While there’s nothing technically wrong with the performance, the character itself seems completely absurd in the context of this world. The story is (extremely) loosely based on the final full-length Holmes novel by Doyle, The Valley of Fear, and as such it is main very clear this is not Holmes’s first time working with Scotland Yard. The relationship seems to be solid and based on a lot of backstory and mutual respect. That said, it is patently ridiculous to imagine a police inspector who doesn’t listen to Sherlock Freaking Holmes when he shows up and points out an arch-criminal. Cooper’s skepticism seems completely irrational, like Scully constantly refusing to believe in the supernatural despite nine seasons of X-Files cases that prove it exists.

Adding to the bizarre choices that make up this movie is a weird jazz score. No doubt we’re listening to the very sort of music that was popular in 1962, but it feels grossly out of place in this period mystery. Instead of creating atmosphere, it wrenches you out of the film and you start looking around for a saxophone quartet. Admittedly, this may just be a pet peeve of mine – I never really like movies where they use anachronistic music in the soundtrack. To be frank, the only director I’ve ever seen pull off contemporary music in a period piece is Quentin Tarantino, and that’s mainly because his films go so far into the realm of the absurd that it doesn’t really seem that out of place after all.

I wish there were more to recommend this movie, but there simply isn’t. It’s a weak, weak attempt at telling a Holmes story. The story is weak, the villain is weak, the mystery is practically nonexistent. (Instead of being the deductive genius we know he is it basically boils down to “I know Moriarity is behind this because he’s Moriarity and currently alive, so who else could it be?”) The best thing about any of this is that there’s so much Holmes out there it will be easy to find something better and cleanse my mental palette.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!