Archive | June, 2011

The Dracula Movies #3: ‘Horror of Dracula’ (1958)

19 Jun

DRACULA (aka HORROR OF DRACULA) (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Hammer studios are often said to have re-made all the horror classics that Universal had such success with in the 1930s and ‘40s. While this is true to an extent, the treatment of the material is far different. This, of course, is what gave Hammer Horror its appeal and was arguably its raison d’etre. Everything was in colour, and the horror was bloodier and gaudier, at least by the standards of the time; but what of Hammer’s Dracula in particular?

Finally, a Dracula you can be really scared of.

Well, I have to say Terence Fisher’s Hammer version of Dracula is a very economical one, running at less than 80 minutes. Jimmy Sangster’s faster paced and ‘punchier’ adaptation of the Stoker novel necessitates the loss of much of the original story’s material, most notably Renfield, the Carfax estate and Dracula’s actual journey to and from Romania. While it’s always good to see these events (as they are an integral part of the story), Hammer’s version allows for this by re-editing the story to manage without them. Whether it should is another argument to be had I suppose. One of the first changes I noticed, for example, was Harker’s journey to Castle Dracula was to work as a librarian (a pretence to hide the fact that he is actually there to destroy Dracula; something which doesn’t happen until the end of the film, of course.)

Sex, fangs and blood. A winning combination every time.

It’s also more sexual and (as mentioned) bloodier than previous versions, although the amount of blood on show is paltry compared to the litres even Hammer studios would throw at us throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.

One especially pleasing difference with this version are the performances. The cast are generally very good, and there are few of the mannered, wooden performances seen in Todd Browning’s 1931 version, which was still very much seen as the definitive version when this film was released. Peter Cushing is wonderfully sincere and engaging as Van Helsing and Michael Gough offers a stoic cynicism, melting to humble purveyor of justice. Carol Marsh was also very good, and her turn as the vampiric version of Lucy is perhaps a turning point for the Dracula adaptations, for at last we get to see fangs! Hisssssssss!!!

Not quite the Van Helsing from the novel, but Peter Cushing made the part his own.

Speaking of which, Christopher Lee is a magnetic presence throughout the film, despite his lesser screen time. I’m not convinced this is his strongest outing as the Count (seven more were to follow, including another version of the novel, which we’ll come to in time). He certainly presents a strong template for future performers though, and his initial appearance is quite suave with a disturbing animalistic side emerging soon afterwards. Lee doesn’t get many lines in this film, and I do think that was a shame, but despite my reservations about that, the performance does work very well for this version.

I don't think it'll go an extra round.

There’s also a nice atmosphere throughout, although not quite as oppressive as the 1931 version, and the production design is pleasing. Dracula’s castle is a case in point, looking rather cleaner and more style conscious than most of Dracula’s homes! The whole film is perhaps more accessible for a modern audience in comparison to Browning’s adaptation, and particularly Murnau’s. There is some nice original dialogue and some pleasing attempts at a scientific angle to the ‘vampire problem’ in Van Helsing’s discussions, which a savvier modern viewer will perhaps appreciate. The whole production is, as I said, quite economical and takes some huge liberties with the source material, to the extent where it often borders on being a completely original story. However, despite this (and perhaps because of its original take on the tale) it is quite engaging and does its best to entertain, even if it is not particularly scary. Hammer would present more thrilling spectacles than this, but it’s still a very worthy addition to the Dracula canon and while not my favourite Hammer, I do hold it in high esteem.

The Dracula Movies- The Universal sequels

19 Jun

I couldn’t talk about Todd Browning’s 1931 film of Dracula without touching on the successful horror franchise it spawned (along with James Whale’s version of Frankenstein). There is nothing here to compare with the Frankenstein sequels (Bride of Frankenstein especially) but there are some notable Dracula films from Universal. I’ll come to the 1979 Universal film in due course, but that (and 2004’s Van Helsing) were made so long after the original run of films that they are not really part of the same series.

Also, although technically not a sequel, the Spanish version of Dracula was produced at the same time Browning’s 1931 movie. I’ve not seen it yet, so I shall have to reserve judgement, all though I am aware that it is well regarded.

The best of the Universal series…

Dracula’s Daughter (1936).

An informal sequel to Dracula, which sees Edward Van Sloan return as Van Helsing to encounter Dracula’s daughter, (played by Gloria Holden) who goes by the name of Countess Marya Zaleska.
In this film the Countess treats her vampirism as a hereditary disease; she spends most the movie seeking to get rid of the family curse, from turning up to claim her father’s body, which she ritually burns, through to even seeking medical help in an effort to cure her lust for blood.
Gloria Holden is quite good in the part. She brings a certain hypnotic, on-screen presence to the role and successfully manages to maintain a slightly sinister undertone, despite the film’s overall leaning towards ambiguity. The film seems intent on reminding the viewer that there’s no concrete evidence for her vampirism and implying that she’s simply a troubled (and possibly mad) woman. Whilst this gives the film a certain air of mystery, it does rather dampen down the ‘horror’ film effect. It does make up for this somewhat with a few very evocative scenes where the Countess shows her mesmeric powers to great effect, and also a return to Castle Dracula towards the end of the film, where the Countess is seen rising from her coffin.
It’s not the best of vampire movies and it’s probably a tad on the slow side. But nevertheless, it’s still deeply atmospheric, and I found it even more watchable than the 1931 film which spawned it, which was helped by this film actually having a half decent score, and slightly better performances.

Son of Dracula (1943)

Although the Universal star Lon Chaney is most associated with his role as The Wolfman, he did infact play The Mummy several times, and also Frankenstein’s monster in Ghost of Frankenstein, before appearing here as a version of Dracula. Unlike the previous film, no attempt is made to establish a link to the actual Dracula that appears in Universal’s 1931 classic, except via a very loose mention in passing. I don’t know quite why this film is called Son of Dracula. Perhaps Universal didn’t want to bother thinking up a way of resurrecting the original Count, or perhaps they felt that Lugosi, being the only person to play Dracula up to this point, was too closely identified with the character by audiences to accept a portrayal by a different actor.
Anyway, although the film does score points on a number of other levels, it’s my opinion that Chaney wasn’t anything other than average as an actor and I think his performance here reflects that.
In this film, Dracula, who is travelling ‘incognito’ as Count Alacard, (an idea later re-used in Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972) turns up in America on a southern plantation, & subsequently ends up in cohorts with a young heiress called Katherine Caldwell, who has a rather dark fascination with supernatural and occult matters.
The interesting slant with this movie is that Katherine isn’t mesmerized by Dracula at all in the way that most of his female victims are. In fact, she has a plan to gain eternal life through being vampirised by Dracula and for her fiancée to then destroy Dracula, leaving her to pass on the gift of immortality to him, so that they can spend eternity together.
It’s a quite a busy little movie that sets into motion a fairly complex chain of events involving the various characters, which include a ‘Professor Laslo’, who is a ‘Van Helsing’ by proxy, who’s very knowledgeable about Dracula and vampires in general, played by J.Edward Bromberg, who in my opinion gives a much more effective portrayal than his predecessor Edward Van Sloan did as Van Helsing. Robert Paige gives a largely convincing performance as Katherine’s fiancée and Louise Allbritton further augments the generally good performances in this film with an evocative performance as Katherine.
The movie also benefits from some nice visual set pieces, such as the highly eerie scene where Dracula first materializes from his coffin at in the swamp, and floats across the water to make his first contact with Katherine. The film utilizes several times the idea of Dracula transforming into and from a misty vapour, something which the later Hammer films would use to great effect.
In fact to be honest, there’s not too much to fault this movie on, aside from Chaney’s Dracula, who for me is the weakest link. The large framed Chaney looks like an older, slightly overweight Vincent Price, and although he looks visually imposing in at least one scene, where he throws Katherine’s fiancée through a door, in a display of inhuman strength, he generally doesn’t exude the malevolent demeanour that comes through in the best Dracula portrayals at certain times. His voice doesn’t sound right somehow and his acting unfortunately errs towards the side of wooden, for the most part.
As a film it has quite a lot going for it, and I’d rate it higher were it not for the fact that the most important character of the film is overshadowed by the rest of the cast.

House of Dracula (1945)

The poster pretty much sums it up- it's a bit of fun, but not likely to be very scary!

A year after Son of Dracula, Universal made the first of its ‘monster fests’ in 1943, with Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Their classic period was coming to an end and they followed up in 1944 with House of Frankenstein, which incorporated not only Frankenstein and the Wolfman, but also Count Dracula, played by John Carradine.
Carradine’s Dracula returned one more time along with Frankenstein and the Wolfman in 1945’s House of Dracula, which is the final film included on the Universal box set of Dracula movies.
Personally, I don’t really class this as a proper Dracula movie, any more than House of Frankenstein. It’s merely a vehicle for Universal to bring their classic monsters together (with the conspicuous exception of The Mummy) in one last outing before they’re consigned to the humiliating fate of meeting with Abbot & Costello a couple of years later (Poor Bela Lugosi in his second ever on screen Dracula appearance).
As a Dracula movie it’s by far the poorest outing on this blog, but as a mildly entertaining, no-brainer romp, it’s ok for a lazy Sunday afternoon’s viewing, but it adds nothing to the Dracula mythos. John Carradine’s performances as Dracula probably rounds out as slightly inferior to even Chaney’s. The voice and overall acting is a bit better, but unfortunately Carradine’s wildly staring eyes, which are supposed to be hypnotic, are pure comedy gold that will have you rolling in your seat. Carradine’s Dracula exudes no real menace, and even wooden Lon Chaney managed a bit of that. So, with Abbot and Costello waiting just around the corner, Universal’s conception of Dracula finished up on a sadly farcical note that I’m sure Bram Stoker wouldn’t have appreciated. Hard to rate this movie in context, but even viewing it as the Universal monster run-around that it is, it’s not a great picture.

Lugosi gets to play Drac again in the last of the Universal series. Sadly, it's an Abbot and Costello comedy, and leaves Dracula looking like a bit of joke. An ignoble end for Lugosi's interpretation.

“Haha, you amuse me, Mister Bond”; The James Bond blogs: ‘A View to a Kill’ (1985)

18 Jun

I’m more liable to give A View to a Kill a more positive opinion these days than I once did, but it’s still one of the weaker Bond films. It wasn’t quite the high point at which Roger Moore should have left the series, but I still think it’s a better film than most people would have you believe. Both this film and Octopussy have long had quite poor reputations, but they are far from without merit. If it wasn’t for the inappropriate humour, I’d marginally consider Octopussy to be the better film, because in A View to a Kill there are some moments were Bond’s adventures start to resemble an uninspired TV movie.

But despite any positive points, Octopussy was seriously marred by Moore’s fatuous portrayal of 007 and his performance here is an improvement. While he’s not as good here as he was in For your eyes only, he still displays more of his wit and sly charm than his silly side. In this film he leaves all we loved (or loathed) about his Bond to posterity. I still think he was a great James Bond, but very much a Bond of the 1970s and early ‘80s. His tenure is a right mixed bag of the sublime (The spy who loved me) and the ridiculous (the worst parts of Moonraker and Octopussy) with lots of shades in-between. He played the role with his tongue firmly in his cheek, but there were moments where you could tell he was capable of playing Bond with a bit of gravitas. But, as his View to a Kill co-star Patrick Macnee commented, Moore was great at light comedy. Sadly, this could often degenerate into a whimsical portrayal that seemed at odds with the character created by Fleming and later brought to life by Connery and Lazenby (or even early pre-cinema Bond actors Bob Holness and Barry Nelson). Fleming purists might resent Moore for that, but he certainly made the role his own for 12 years.

Up the Eiffel Tower in a tuxedo. Like you do.

A View to a Kill starts promisingly with Bond on a mission in Siberia. Those pesky Russians are soon pursuing him, and the time is right for some ski action. Sadly, just when you think this film might be a triumphant return to form we get a blatant example of the kind of unwelcome cheesy humour that marred Octopussy. As he shoots down the slope on one ski, a blast of The Beach boys replaces John Barry’s music just in time for Bond skirting across an expanse of water. We’re meant to be laughing, but most of us will be groaning. Then we have a ludicrous looking mini-sub, disguised as an iceberg. Or at least ice bergs that look like plastic resin. In side, Bond’s colleague sets a course while James pours her some champagne. Why the inside of an MI6 issued sub is fitted out like Hugh Hefner’s bedroom is beyond me, but this is a Bond film after all. What rescues the film at this point, and grabs my attention, is Duran Duran’s energetic theme song. It’s a nice return to the more ‘rockier’ style of song, as opposed to the ‘easy listening’ direction of most themes. The title sequence is a bit of a mess though. As if to compliment the music, the titles look like an early Duran video- all day-glo paint and dated electronic effects. Not Maurice Binder’s finest moment. But, whatever you think of the first part of the movie, it’ll probably grab your attention and you’ll probably be keen to see where Roger Moore’s swansong will take him. However, there are times in A View to a Kill where Moore looks like he’d be quite happy having a sit down and a cup of tea. He doesn’t always cut a dashing figure in this outing, and he was wise to call it a day. Saying that, he looks in his element earlier in the film. This is when he infiltrates the villain’s horse auction. He’s charming, witty and cunning. Roger at his best.

Zorin and May Day- both definitely two currants short of a fruit cake.

We also meet Tanya Roberts’ character, Stacey Sutton, whose father had been one of the villain’s financial victims. She’s a Bond girl who looks like a slip of a girl next to Moore’s more mature 007. Not the greatest piece of casting, although Roberts does her best. She’s not the most interesting Bond girl, though, and reminds me a bit of the worst ‘70s ‘bimbo’ Bond girls. The pairing also throws into relief how much better Maud Adams and Moore looked together in Octopussy. The Bond villain this time is Christopher Walken, who I’ll happily watch in anything. He’s also the only actor to previously win an Oscar, who went on to play a villain in a Bond film, if that counts for anything. Like Christopher Lee’s turn as Scaramanga, over a decade before, Walken is the villain in a below-par Bond adventure and is actually one of the best things about it. At times Walken’s performance actually lifts the film, and it would have been far worse off without him. His character, Max Zorin, is a rich industrialist who carries on the tradition of wealthy lunatics, which were a hallmark of the Roger Moore years. Zorin is also a touch psychotic, and the scene where he guns down his dispensable employees pretty much sums up the character. He’s charming and likable as well, and never seems to get angry. If things take a turn for the worse he either gets more ruthless or seems to find the situation utterly amusing. It’s this flippancy that makes him dangerous, and Walken plays him very well (not that this kind of role is a big stretch for him). The role of the villain’s henchman is redefined quite originally for this one. The statuesque presence of Grace Jones adds a touch of novelty, and Grace is actually very good. She’s as hard as nails, but there is some depth to the character. Later in the film, Zorin (her lover) double-crosses her and her reaction is an understandable one of anger and hurt. Still, the idea of Grace Jones and Roger Moore in bed doesn’t quite gel in my mind. Luckily such relations aren’t dwelt upon for long!

Another breath of fresh air in this film is Patrick Macnee, who adds a touch of class to many a dog-eared production. I still smile at my Dad’s appraisal of the film one time, when he exclaimed “They’re all in this one!” By “all” he was referring to those icons of ‘60s spy cool, Simon Templar from The Saint and John Steed from The Avengers, the other roles Moore and Macnee played respectively. The two are old friends and work colleagues, and the on screen chemistry is very warm. Macnee plays Sir Godfrey Tibbit, who helps Bond out on the mission. The scenes where they both go undercover, and Tibbit poses as Bond’s butler, are very amusing. Apparently a lot of the dialogue was adlibbed by Moore, who has far more talent that we usually give him credit for. Sadly, time was no longer on Moore’s side, as there was a distinct feeling that the times were changing. The pairing of Moore and Macnee reminds us of the kind of stylish screen heroism that had been eclipsed by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan, Mel Gibson’s Mad Max or Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo. As if to drive the point home, Macnee’s character is swiftly disposed of by Grace Jones’ May Day, less than half way into the film. Yet, the film bottles out here as well. By giving us a strong female (physically and mentally) in May Day, we are almost promised a showdown between Bond and Day. This never really happens, and May Day meets her fate by teaming up with Bond and letting herself be blown up to save the day. It’s almost as if having Bond get his backside kicked by a woman was never going to be acceptable. On the other hand, a ‘heavy’ like Jaws would probably live to make another appearance. It speaks volumes about the gender roles, for better or worse, in a Bond picture.

The story involves Zorin’s plan to flood ‘Silicon valley’ in California, by setting off a gargantuan earthquake. The plot has several points in common with Goldfinger. Goldfinger wanted to ‘destroy’ Fort Knox so the value of his own gold would increase; Zorin wants to destroy Silicon Valley so that he can corner the world market in microchips. Bond is also working alongside the CIA, as in Goldfinger, and there is a Communist presence lurking in the shadows (Goldfinger was backed by Red China, Zorin is ex-KGB). However, the presentation is nowhere near as inspired or lavish. The chase through San Francisco in a fire truck, with lots of police cars getting smashed up, somehow feels too pedestrian (no pun intended). It’s here, and when Bond escapes from a burning lift shaft, that A View to a Kill doesn’t feel much like a Bond film at all. As I said before, the impression is of a well-funded TV movie. Fortunately, this impression doesn’t last too long.

The scenes that form the film’s climax are nothing short of breathtaking and vertigo sufferers should be warned. High above the Golden gate bridge, Zorin’s air ship ends up tethered to one of the beams. A lot of the fight scene was done on a 3’ high replica of the bridge top in Pinewood studios. You would never know. Apart from one instance of not quite convincing back projection, the whole segment looks like it was filmed above the real bridge. Some scenes were, admittedly, and they are the majority of the ones including the air ship’s arrival. John Glen is rightly very proud of the work done here, and it’s one of the film’s high points (no pun intended again!)

I’ve started to quite like A View to a Kill in recent years, despite its below-average reputation. It’s a tighter story and easier to follow film than Octopussy, and the humour never gets quite as silly. Some fans do actually consider Octopussy to be Moore’s best film, believe it or not. I’m sure this is mainly down to the interesting story. A View to a Kill also gets given a very positive assessment from some quarters, but I would never say it’s one of the best Bond films. It does feel a bit uninspired in places, but a good villain and an audacious scheme give it a bit of worth. But if the film’s promotional posters asked “Has James Bond finally met his match?”, the answer seems to be ‘no’ in the context of the film, but in the real world the series may have met its match in the form of audience apathy. Within little more than 18 months, both Connery and Moore had said their last goodbyes to the role of James Bond, and the hunt was on for a new actor to play the part. As predicted by the media at the time, A View to a Kill was not as sizable a hit as other Bonds, the previous four films having all been bigger box office draws. Re-invention was the only way forward, if the series was to survive.

The franchise was going to have the living daylights scared out of it.

Talking about vampires….and The Dracula movies- #2: ‘Dracula’ (1931)

17 Jun

So, onto the second Dracula film….the famous Universal production of 1931. There was a Hungarian film that predates it, but this no longer exists and was not a true adaptation of the novel, so we’ll skirt over that one.

Firstly though, let’s continue to talk vampires.

I got into mythology and folklore in my teens and the vampire fascinated me. A potent time to gain an interest as one’s sexuality begins to awaken and I imagine for women especially the idea of blood gains new significance. I saw Hammer’s series some time in the ’80s on late night re-runs, with Christopher Lee. They were extremely gaudy and colourful to my teen eyes, and not particularly scary; although I did find them mildly erotic and wonderfully stylish. Not sure which one would have been my first Hammer. I’m thinking it was Dracula- Prince of Darkness, but the memory cheats a little. I certainly didn’t see the 1958 Hammer version of the book until a couple of years ago, although I was familiar with the showdown scene between Cushing and Lee involving the curtain. Not sure where I would have seen that, but I only saw the full film recently, and intend to watch it again for this thread. I was a bit underwhelmed by it, to be honest, due to the high expectation I had- but more of that later.
Elsewhere I’ve seen other vampire films. I do like the other Hammers, and Countess Dracula, with the late Ingrid Pitt, is a favourite. I also loved Vampyros Lesbos, which, quite frankly, was a bit of European vampire soft porn (let’s not pretend it’s anything else!) Underworld and Blade entertained to a degree, but I prefer things more traditionally gothic. Blade, incidentally, was a spin-off from Marvel comics’ much lauded ‘70s title Tomb of Dracula, in which The Count is resurrected in the present day and Stoker’s book is treated as if it was a document of real events. The modern ascendants of Van Helsing, Harker, et al, team together with some new characters to over-throw the Vampire Lord’s evil schemes. Plus Dracula gets to fight Spider-Man and The Silver Surfer, which is either especially cool or a travesty of classic literature, depending on how you view things. Overall, Tomb of Dracula introduced the character to a whole new generation that was too young for Hammer (who’s style the Marvel comic emulated). Buffy was also a good series in many ways, but I feel it failed miserably as a vampire series. By turning the vampire into part of a teen high school drama, the series forgot to treat the dark fable with any reverence in my view. The vampire should be erotic and scary, and Buffy and Angel were neither.

A floating dead baby over a grave....not your usual kind of Marvel cover then.

My experience of vampire literature has been surprisingly limited actually. I haven’t touched Anne Rice’s novels yet, for example. But I have read Stoker’s great novel, and also class Stephen King’s second novel ‘Salem’s lot as a brilliant book. As King says, all these years later, it’s still one of his good ones; one of the scary ones…

So the vampire fascinates me. Occasionally (very occasionally, mind) I’ll consider if such a horror could exist, and what an eternity of hunger and flawless alabaster flash would be like…but some things are better off left to the world of fiction. God may have put eternity into the heart of every man, but what happens when your heart stops beating? It’s a frightening idea. No matter what worlds and other possible lives may await us, an eternity on Earth in constant blood lust, never able to see a sunrise again, is surely a tragic kind of hell.

So let’s dim the lights and slide the DVD in your player, or turn the page of your book. Somewhere in your psyche is a dark part that will believe in the fiction, and we’ll be scared together.

Was that your door creaking, or mine? Or was it….something else…..

 

 

 

Dracula (Todd Browning, 1931)

Todd Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula is a classic for many reasons, but especially for the way it came to define the character of the Count in the popular imagination. Such was the visual impact of Universal studio’s horror output in the ‘30s and ‘40s. As with Boris Karloff as the monster in Universal’s version of Frankenstein, released the same year, Lugosi’s interpretation of Dracula is considered by many to be definitive. They are not as Shelley or Stoker originally envisioned their characters, but they have become what most people imagine them to look like. Lugosi’s performance as Dracula has influenced most of the performances made later, by other actors. Add to that the rather creepy atmosphere pervading much of the film, and you have a horror picture that has endured. To a modern audience it isn’t all that scary, but it leaves much to the imagination, which is no bad thing.

The long periods of silence in the film also help give a far more eerie atmosphere in my opinion. There is actually a version with a different soundtrack, and a score created in 1999 which apparently doesn’t do justice to the film (matter of opinion again, of course). The production design (especially Castle Dracula) is generally sumptuous. The sets look a little stagy (like the acting) but this is to be expected for the time (and particularly here, in an adaptation of a stage play version). Sadly, I have to say once we pass the very impressive and suitably cinematic opening in Transylvania and the castle, we then return to the London home of Mina (Helen Chandler) and Jonathan Harker (David Manners), and everything becomes far less visually exciting and (again) rather too stagy.

Also on the downside, I do find it too slow in places and the theatrical style presentation I mentioned can undo much of the possible conviction of the performances. Many of the performances here are far too mannered and as wooden as the dressing, although there are exceptions. Universal horror regular Edward Van Sloan is very engaging as Van Helsing, and Dwight Frye almost upstages Lugosi as a very loopy Renfield (given a larger role here than in more faithful versions of the novel). Chandler and Manners fill their roles well enough, but are often too affected for my taste.

Bela Lugosi’s performance, however, is the key to the film’s success. Easy now to mock his theatrical gestures and accent, but as far as this is from the Bram Stoker original, this is a captivating central performance from a true Eastern European. Lugosi, never topped his success here, and only played Dracula twice on screen, but his interpretation is the version of Dracula that most readily springs to mind, accent, gestures, cape and all. His take on Dracula is no where near as horrific as Max Shreck in “Nosferatu” (and the film he’s in is no where near as impressive) but it’s a very captivating performance nevertheless.

Ultimately Dracula is all too apparently a film version of a stage play, made at the beginning of the sound era. This gives the whole production many of the qualities of a stage production, thereby wasting much of the potential of the film medium. Perhaps outside of Hollywood the film would have been more experimental and subversive, perhaps with blood and death on display and less action talked about and not shown (although much of that is to do with what was then acceptable). The film also has a very abrupt ending that may leave a modern audience feeling a bit cheated. But despite its dated qualities and flawed presentation, Dracula remains an atmospheric and highly influential version of the story, and one that started the great tradition of 1930s horror film-making from Universal pictures. It’s an old classic, its silver images lulling us into a comfortable nostalgic viewing experience, while retaining some of the eerie menace the 1931 audience would have felt.

The Dracula Movies…#1 ‘Nosferatu’ (1922)

14 Jun

First edition of "Dracula" (1897)

The myth of the vampire is a powerful one which has survived the ages, and is as potent and as relevant to our modern age as it ever was, perhaps due to the themes of sexuality and death, which like the vampire, never grow old. Key to the modern vision of the vampire legend is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, a remarkably readable tale of ancient horror entering a modern world. Along with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla, Dracula ressurected the vampire myth for the modern age. The impact of Stoker’s novel on the continued success of the blood drinking undead in fiction cannot be under estimated.

In 2007, with the help of a certain Carol Baynes, I wrote several reviews for “The Dracula Movies” for a cult TV and film website, monitored by Wayne Jefferies. I now proudly present revisions of those original reviews for this blog. I watched and wrote about every adaptation of Bram Stoker’s influential novel (with notable mentions for some of the many sequels and spin-offs along the way). Dracula is a potent story which has never been brought to the screen in the same way twice, and some purists would argue that it has never been faithfully adapted at all. All the same, Stoker’s tale of horror continues to enthral, and enough of it is in these adaptations to entice fans of the book. While I will not give an in depth study of the novel, we will discuss it along the way as we go through the many macabre celluloid representations of the Lord of the vampires- Count Dracula!

Penguin edition, 1990s

Before we look at the first film, a product of the 1920s, the first thing I really have to say is that silent films do not generally deserve their reputation amongst many modern viewers who hold a silly (but understandable) prejudice based no doubt on seeing jerky footage from history programmes and the inconceivable idea that a film could truly work without sound (or the sound of an actor’s voice to be precise). If that is the case you could not be further from the reality.

Many of the techniques and principles of motion picture photography found their genesis and arguably greatest evolution and experimentation during the silent era. It was a vastly important time that produced some genuine masterpieces of cinema; not just from the United States either. If anything, the pre-sound era found a world where Hollywood was in its infancy and world cinema had a chance to breathe and evolve. Many of the greatest pictures came from Europe actually (although that again is more a matter of opinion).
Anyway, without going off on too much of a silent film tangent, I do recommend you all take a fresh look at films pre-1930, if this is not already of interest. With an open mind you will surprised, entertained and perhaps stunned in some cases. I just lament the fact that many films have perished (the original Cleopatra springs to mind), but of the hundreds still around only a handful are on DVD and they are not always easy to obtain.

As for the first film from the Dracula crypt- Nosferatu , it is a classic of it’s time in my opinion. Not particularly a mainstream film, even in 1922, but a very important one, particularly in the horror genre.

 

 

Nosferatu ( F.W. Marnau, 1922).

F.W. Murnau’s silent film is the right place for us to start this exploration of cinematic Draculas, because it laid down many of the storytelling conventions adhered to in later adaptations. Elsewhere though, Nosferatu is radically different, and despite its vintage and archaic quality, could have good argument for being one of the scariest adaptations as death has legs and his name is Max Shreck. His performance, equal to the film making talent on show, is integral to the impact of this picture.


This expressionistic presentation is very much a German product of its day, and the whole film is far more of a visual experience than some versions. Some have gone as far as to decipher some perceived analogy in the way various scenes are presented. As often mentioned much German art probably proved an influence, and Max Shreck himself is the visual dark side of the vampire presented in Stoker’s novel- almost a leeching corpse. Some scenes apparently pay homage to the German expressionistic landscape painter Casper Fiedrich, and the film does have his surreal nightmarish quality, most particularly in the scenes set in Transylvania. Elsewhere Fuseli’s art is also referenced as Shreck’s blood sucking incubus lurks at the side of the lady’s bed.

So Nosferatu is a film that offers style and substance by making us think about the symbolism of what we’re seeing- a rarity with later versions. Some of that is open to interpretation, and perhaps we can dwell on those later.
What is clear is that Max Shreck’s Count Orlock is a fantastically creepy presence throughout the whole film (although his screen time is effectively slight). The contemporary audience would have probably feared him even more; bringing the plague to each town he visits (in a substantial change to Bram Stoker’s novel). Eastern Europe would have known the aftermath of WW1 and the influenza epidemic, and the presentation of death in the film could well have struck a chilling chord.

Overall, Nosferatu is looking its age (which is probably more down to the shoddy treatment the film had in the 1920s and ’30s with Stoker’s widow filing law suits to have all copies of the film destroyed. A long story we can take up later perhaps. The film effectively disappeared after the ’30s, before its ‘revival’ and reappraisal some 30 years later.) But despite it’s rough quality it still holds a magnetic appeal. It presents very strong images which stay in the mind long after. Witness Shreck’s uncanny and almost metaphysical rise from his grave, the arrival of the ghost ship into the harbour and the ascent of the vampire up the stairs to its prey, in arguably one of the most famous single scenes in all vampire films; shadowy claws several steps ahead of its form.
There is beautiful direction in all these scenes; beautiful, and also un-nerving. For a picture like this, a perfect emotion to incite.

The film presents an alternative re-telling of Stoker’s book it must be said, with a degree of simplification. This was maybe to cut down on the need for non-visual narrative, but Stoker’s novel is still followed quite faithfully. While the structure was setting a precedent for future productions, this film remains the only one I have seen so far to include the letters and manuscripts so integral to the structure of the original novel. Also worth mentioning is that this is the first film in which a vampire is seen to be vulnerable to sunlight (it actually destroys him). This idea was not in Stoker’s novel or in general vampire lore, but is now an integral part of the modern vampire myth, and this film is where it had its basis.


Elsewhere, there are a few scenes that don’t work. The fast motion effect in several parts looks odd to my modern eyes, and almost comical. The expressionistic acting can also be (slightly) over the top as well. The scene where Hutter announces his intention to visit the count is quite amusing. The reaction following the caption “I have to go onto Count Orlock’s castle” was followed by a group of expressions so vivid that I swear I could hear the gasp!
If I suppressed a laugh, it was understandable I suppose, but be clear on this- in a dark room nearly 90 years after the film’s release, I wasn’t laughing for long. This film can still command your respect and attention.

We will re-watch some great movies over the next few months, all based on Stoker’s great novel of an ancient evil in a more modern time. But one movie in, be assured, I have already seen the most important. Whether it translates as well to a modern audience is debatable, but its innovation and influence are undimmed.
I believe there is one true masterpiece in the collection of Dracula films that I will look at here, and this is it.

“I hope we’re going to see some gratuitous sex and violence in this one!”; The James Bond blogs: ‘Never say never again’ (1983)

11 Jun

Some things probably seem a very good idea at the time, just because one element of the plan is potentially sublime. If, however, the rest of the plan is ill conceived and shoddily executed the sublime element isn’t going to help much. The possibly sublime element here is the return of Sean Connery, arguably the most favourite screen James Bond and the star of at least four of the greatest films in the series. Needless to say, his comeback film isn’t one of them. The whole thing comes across as a cheap and cynical exercise, but on closer inspection there are a few things to recommend the film; but only a few.

1983 was touted as the year of the battling Bonds, with Cubby Broccoli’s Octopussy being the official release; a sixth outing for Roger Moore. Meanwhile Connery was ready for his seventh (and last) appearance as 007, in what was essentially a re-make of Thunderball. In the event, Never say never again was released later in the year and was still running in cinemas into 1984, sometime after Octopussy had seen it’s general release, so the head to head contest never really happened. But, if you compare box office takings, Octopussy was the slightly bigger hit. Either way, both films were duds.

Never steal another man's Kindle

Sean Connery is reasonably good as the older 007, and his rugged charm makes the film just about watchable. The story involves Bond’s retirement from the secret service (apparently he has become a teacher). In that sense it is still the only Bond film to realistically portray the character over a long period of time. This really could be the same man who faced Dr. No; although where the events in Thunderball fit in I’m not sure. But when we meet him in this film, he has been out of the secret service for some time. However, the new ‘M’ reactivates the 007 section and Bond is back with a more action filled job. But when the film really needs him, Connery fails to ignite this adventure with the spark present in most of his earlier films. There are occasions where he genuinely shines, but there are also moments where he looks bored with the material.

A slippery, dangerous adversary....and Fatima Blush.

The genesis of Never say never again has been discussed before, but to fill you in with the details, it all goes back to producer and writer Kevin McClory. He wrote the screenplay for Thunderball in 1961, with Ian Fleming. Fleming went on to write the book of the same name, based on the original story he’d created with McClory. In the end, McClory teamed up with Broccoli and Saltzman on the ‘official’ series to produce Thunderball in 1965. There was also a clause where McClory agreed not to produce another Bond film for 10 years, if it was his wish to do so. As he only held the rights to Thunderball, there was only so much he could do. This worked the other way as well, as Eon productions could no longer use the characters of Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation in the series as they had been created for Thunderball. When Fleming’s novel was first published, he was unimpressed by what he saw as Fleming taking credit for his ideas. The fact that Fleming made Blofeld and SPECTRE his own more than McClory ever did, simply through the creative effort of four Bond novels featuring them, never seems to have been considered. Whatever the reasons behind the film, it has a lot to live up to given the high standards of the Eon series. If Eon really is an acronym for “Everything or nothing”, and their films usually live up to that promise, Never say never again couldn’t be more different.

A well groomed, enigmatic and cunning adversary...and Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

The story is almost identical to Thunderball, with SPECTRE stealing some nuclear weapons, with the intention of using them to extort huge sums of money from wealthier countries. Luckily for Bond he discovers their plot while at a health farm that seems to be the front for SPECTRE’s activities. The villains in this one are Klaus Brandauer as Emilio Largo (the same name as in Thunderball) and femme fatale Fatima Blush, deliciously played by Barbara Carrera. She really was a rent-a-villain in the mid eighties, and livened up a season of Dallas at one point, with a bitchiness as noticeable as her shoulder pads.

The opening sequence is intriguing, but not a patch on the official series. The new ‘007’ logo feels like a poor compromise given that the gun barrel intro couldn’t be used. There’s no innovative title sequence or teaser section either. Still, it’s good to see Connery looking fitter than he did in Diamonds are forever, but the film soon nosedives into cheapness. For starters, the music is terrible; the kind of clichéd TV movie drivel that shouldn’t be within hearing distance of a Bond movie, even if it’s an unofficial one. Throughout the film, the music actually prevents me from enjoying it as much as I might. Unfortunately it just throws into relief the other things that are badly wrong with the film. Michel Legrand is the man responsible, and he is certainly no replacement for John Barry.

21 years after "Dr. No" and Sean could still pull a young hottie like Kim Basinger.

There are usually several amazing stunt scenes in a Bond film. Never say never again only has the one- a half hearted bike chase, which does have a pleasing climax with Bond being knocked off his bike and forced to endure the wrath of Fatima Blush. Its times like that you think the film might actually improve for more than just one or two scenes. Also, the fight scene in the health farm is violent and energetic, and Connery has never looked harder. If the film proves one thing, it shows how much more convincing Connery was in the fight scenes than Roger Moore, even after so long away from the role.

Rowan Atkinson also turns up at one point, as Bond’s bumbling contact in the field. He’s actually quite amusing and I get a strange delight from seeing Connery and Atkinson in the same film together. The main Bond girl is actually Kim Basinger as Domino, who is quite good, conveying the right amount of fear (and eventual hatred) of Largo. Edward Fox is vaguely amusing as ‘M’, and the fact the character is a bumbling oaf can be excused (as he is meant to be a different character than the one Bernard Lee played). Pamela Salem is wasted as Moneypenny, as she’s only in it briefly. Why Moneypenny looks so much younger than the matured Bond is never explained either. If this is meant to be a film realistically depicting Bond’s retirement from the secret service, they could of have at least seen the idea through properly. The presence of a new ‘Q’ (Alec McCowen) is not welcome at all, and adds nothing to the picture. On the positive side, the new Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey) is quite interesting, if only because he’s the first black actor to have played the role, and he’s far better than some of the ‘official’ Leiters. He also comes at a time when the character had been absent from the official series for ten years. Carrera is highly amusing as Blush, and really enters the spirit of a Bond film. Sadly this isn’t the Bond film she deserved. 12 years later there would be a similar female of nasty proportions with Famke Jenssen’s role in Goldeneye. It wouldn’t surprise me if Carrera was an influence. She isn’t the main protagonist, however. Sadly Klaus Brandauer isn’t the most engaging villain, and comes across as petty and unthreatening. Where the film does get it right is in the casting of Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld. In the characters last screen appearance to date, the role is played by Max Von Sydow, an actor of considerable talent. Sydow lends Blofeld a gentlemanly air, whilst remaining very sinister and calculating. Even in this unofficial outing, he still has a white Persian cat (a creation of the Eon series). It’s a pity Blofeld and Bond don’t meet in this film, and that Sydow isn’t in the film more. It’s also a pity that Sydow’s excellent Blofeld happens to appear in such an awful Bond film. So the one perplexing thing about Never say never again is how it manages to have such an impressive cast, but wastes them on below average material. But as some of the performances are decent enough, it might well keep you watching.

A bike chase. It doesn't get more exciting than this...no, really, it doesn't!

Elsewhere there is storytelling of the sloppiest kind. The problem is that the story is full of ridiculous oversights. Blush and Largo try their best to kill Bond, and later he gets captured on Largo’s yacht. So then what does Largo do? Let’s Bond wander free on his ship, and then looks surprised when all hell breaks loose. Also, why the marines show up later on, to help out, is never explained either. Saying that, I still find Connery lifts the film to a higher level, normally when you’re just about sick of the film and ready to switch over to the other channel. “I can’t stand that shitty music any longer”, I think to myself, “and Barbara Carerra’s dress sense is bloody awful, even if it was 1983”. But then you get a great Bond scene, like the end of the bike chase or with Sean making a doorman hold a cigarette case (which he thinks is a movement sensitive bomb). And the game of “Domination” that Bond and Largo play is quite novel, even if the game voice sounds like it’s one of the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. For brief moments the film looks set to give the original series a run for its money, but it never keeps up the momentum.

The fifth series of "Blackadder" wasn't quite as funny.

Never say, never again has two saving graces in the form of its hero (Connery) and one of its villains (Sydow) as well as a few good lines and the odd decent performance. The rest is either just unappealing or seriously misjudged. The formula for creating a Bond film is not as simple as adding the requisite components together and hoping for the best. Never say never again feels like it was made with just that kind of judgement in mind. And for a man fresh from successes like The Empire strikes back, Irvin Kershner’s direction lacks a substantial amount of panache or style.

This really is the most disappointing film of the many Bond titles reviewed in this blog. It’s an unworthy swansong for Sean Connery, although it can’t really be called part of his “era” as it comes so long after his supposed finale in Diamonds are forever. It is a bland and insipid excuse for a James Bond film, and while there are several scenes that do the character justice and offer some decent level of entertainment the film is ultimately an anomaly amongst Bond films, more so than On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Ironic that OHMSS could perhaps have been a faultless Bond adventure, if Connery had been present. As it is, some of us still give George Lazenby his dues and although in Never say never again Connery is present, the film is far from faultless.

Don't you dare wink at me, Connery, after I've sat through two hours of that bad excuse for a Bond film.

And yet McClory, a man who just couldn’t let his chance go and admit defeat, apparently wanted to launch another Bond film for the 21st century, before his recent death. Presumably, as before, this would have been another re-hash of Thunderball. It seems the audience’s rightful expectation of a good film came further down his list than proving he can upstage Eon productions. On the strength of this outing, it’s perhaps as well McClory will now never again produce another Bond film.

And always never again!

“Spend the money quickly, Mister Bond”; The James Bond blogs: ‘Octopussy’ (1983)

10 Jun

Octopussy has one of the very best titles to a Bond film (or story). It’s intriguing, unique and vaguely rude. It promises much, and with another famous one word title in mind (Goldfinger) you might be excused for expecting a classic. Incidentally,Octopussy is, like Goldfinger, the only other Bond film named after its title character. The difference between the two films is that Octopussy is far from a great James Bond film, and lets us down just when it’s doing things so well. In fact, like the negative aspects of its title, the film itself is innuendo ridden, a bit silly and borders on parody.

The major deficiency in Octopussy is in the presentation of the lead character. Roger Moore is as likeable as ever, and is generally quite good, but his penchant for light comedy sometimes degenerates into farce. In the Q laboratory Bond uses a new digital camera to zoom in on a girl’s breasts. In another scene, after winning at backgammon, he hands over some cash to an Indian, saying “that’ll keep you in curry for a few weeks”. It’s almost like Roger Moore has suddenly turned into your embarrassing uncle at some Christmas party, ogling the women and making ill advised remarks about other nationalities. A suave super spy he is not. There is also a jungle scene where Bond tells a tiger to “sit!” (in a Barbra Woodhouse style) and then swings through the trees bellowing like Tarzan. Not only is this silly, it’s completely unnecessary. Bond is always meant to have an element of fantasy about him, that’s the nature of the beast, but here he is fatuous and unconvincing and that is the last thing you want to see in James Bond.

Blofeld and Goldfinger never had legs like that.

To be honest, there may have been a feeling in 1983 that Bond had had his day. Octopussy is often an unremarkable Bond film for me, which is odd considering its exotic locations. But being a good travelogue isn’t enough for a Bond film. This is even more ironic when you consider what a great story Octopussy has. Incidentally, the early part of the plot is taken from the superior Fleming short story “The property of a lady”, with the actual story “Octopussy” offering little more than its title. The story has Bond investigating the murder of fellow agent 009, and the mystery of why the spy had a replica of a priceless Faberge egg in his possession. It’s all a question of counterfeit, and Bond gets involved in a bidding war for the real Faberge egg, swapping the real egg for the fake before he loses. He follows the winner, Kamal Khan, to India where he discovers the man has an alliance with the deranged Russian General Orlov. Then enter Maud Adams as Octopussy (a stage name surely!), a mysterious circus acrobat turned jewel smuggler.

The clowns at Octopussy’s circus weren’t making much of an effort.

So Octopussy actually has a fairly interesting plot but it is often let down by its presentation. There’s no denying the impact of Peter Lamont’s lavish set design or the better moments of John Glen’s direction, but the whole thing fails to reach the heights of previous entries due to the lapses into daftness or (even worse) blandness. Despite being set in a country as exotic as India, sometimes I think Octopussy is about as glamorous as Carry on up the Khyber (and with similar humour). I can just about put up with a snake charmer playing the James Bond theme (“Catchy tune”, quips 007) but as mentioned I couldn’t really accept the jungle antics. There is a vaguely amusing scene where Bond has escaped Khans’ castle in a body bag, before freaking out two guards with his re-animated corpse routine. It’s incredibly silly, but I laughed. But, with this being Octopussy, I wasn’t laughing for long.


But despite all this negative criticism, Octopussy is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests. Like I said, the story is a good one, Octopussy herself is an interesting character and there are some rather engrossing scenes, especially early on in the movie. The auction scenes, with the Faberge egg being switched for the fake, are quite novel and I do like the pre-titles sequence with the missile on the tail of Bond’s jet. The backgammon gambling has a degree of suspense and Kabir Bedi plays a menacing enough lackey called Gobinda. General Orlov is somewhat overplayed by Steven Berkoff as a complete nutter, but at least Louis Jordan convinces as the charming and dangerous Kamal Khan. Maud Adams is captivating as Octopussy, but she’s just not in it enough. A pity really, since she is quite a fascinating character, and complements Moore’s more mature 007 far better than the more juvenile Bond women. Also in the cast is a new ‘M’.  Robert Brown makes his debut as Bond’s boss, after the sad passing of Bernard Lee (the character was absent from For Your Eyes only). I don’t think Brown is anywhere near as good in the role, as Lee had made it his own by then.

The film also has a wonderful theme song in Rita Coolidge’s “All time high”. It’s a well-written and romantic piece of Bond accompaniment, and is possibly one of the better ‘80s themes. Once again, John Barry is the man behind the music, although, the song aside, his Octopussy score never sticks in my memory for long.

Kinder had gone upmarket.

There are some great chase scenes as well, through the streets of Delhi (some of it recreated at Pinewood studios, although you’d never guess!) India is presented in a fairly uninspiring clichéd way in this film, which is a shame, but at least the cinematography is up to scratch. Octopussy’s palace is quite a marvellous location and her ‘girls’ call to mind memories of Pussy Galore’s fighter pilots as they all have matching red jumpsuits. The final assault on Kamal Khan’s castle is very well realised too, with Moore’s Bond putting in one of his last great fight scenes. I love the bit where he slides down the stair banister, shooting off the end piece before he loses his own end piece.

Compared to the silliest parts of Diamonds are Forever or The Man with the Golden Gun, Octopussy is a much more grounded adventure. But a continuation of the grittier espionage style promised by For your eyes only is never fulfilled, although Octopussy doesn’t go too far into fantasy as some earlier Moore films. Maybe that’s part of the problem, as Octopussy treads an odd middle ground, never quite getting too outrageous, but still giving us loony comedy (usually where it isn’t welcome). Ironically, the scene where Bond disguises himself as a clown to infiltrate Octopussy’s circus, is not one of the unwelcome aspects. Here the humour is quite black, and Bond isn’t being fatuous, he’s a desperate man in disguise. Roger is at his best when he races to get to the bomb and deactivate it.

Get in there Son!

I’m well aware that some people consider Octopussy to be the very worst of the series. I think this is unfair, as there is still a lot of fun to be had watching the film. It’s no great example of the Eon series as a whole, but it’s not unwatchable. Most definitely not Bond’s all time high, but still better than your average action flick.