Saturday, 27 June 2015

Ranking Hammer's Dracula Films

Hammer Films really did redefine horror films during their heyday. Between the late ‘50s and the early ‘70s, the studio’s Gothic horrors reinvented the classic horror characters of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and others. As a vintage horror fan, I find nearly all of Hammer’s films a pleasure to watch, so I thought that today I would rank some of their movies: specifically their Dracula series which began in 1958’s Dracula and ended in 1974 with The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.

So, beginning with their final, and ninth entry in the series, and counting down to one, let us begin.

9. The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974)Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is one of those films which you know will fail even before you watch it. It is hardly Hammer’s finest hour and makes very little sense. When the film was in production, Hammer was in financial straits so a partnership with Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong seemed like a good idea, and to Hammer’s credit, a kung-fu/horror film is at least original. But, the film is a plotless mess only redeemed by the ever welcome Peter Cushing playing the role of Van Helsing for the last time. As to the vampire count, he’s not played by Christopher Lee but by the very unthreatening and campy John Forbes-Robertson. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is to be skipped except for the ardent Hammer or Peter Cushing fan.

8. Scars of Dracula (1970) – Trying to contend with the blood and gore of films such as George R. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Hammer injected some needless extreme violence into Scars of Dracula. A cheap-looking film, the untasteful violence does not prevent the viewer from seeing past the paper-thin plot and the mediocre acting. Christopher Lee is on hand to play the Count, and Doctor Who fans may take interest in Patrick Troughton’s turn as the Count’s slave, but Scars of Dracula is an uninteresting and forgettable installment in the series.

7. The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) – A direct sequel to the previous year’s Dracula A.D. 1972, this film once more found Dracula and Van Helsing matching wits in 1970s London. Unlike its predecessor, this film takes itself far more seriously; it’s plot revolving around Devil worship and strains of Bubonic plague. It’s not a bad film per se, but a certain oddity managing to combine Hammer’s traditional horror elements with the conventions of a spy thriller. Writers Alan Barnes and Marcus Hearn rather aptly likened The Satanic Rites of Dracula to an episode of the famed British spy series The Avengers.

6. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) – Without doubt the most atmospheric entry in Hammer’s Dracula series, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave has been described as “a minor triumph of style over content.” The simplistic plot is made up for by the film’s beautiful color scheme; director Freddie Francis bathing scenes in vibrant colored camera filters. Lee has seldom appeared as evil as he does in the film and he is supported by some of Hammer’s finest actors, including Veronica Carlson who was arguably Hammer’s finest leading leady. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is also boosted by some excellent, show-stopping set-pieces, most notably the failed staking of the vampire.

5. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) – Probably a bone of contention for many regarding this list, I am quite partial to Hammer’s first modern-day Dracula. It is campy and dated with characters quite calmly blurting out such cliché seventies lingo as “far out” and “dig the music kids,” but it’s a fun, entertaining romp – the sort of thing which Hammer did best. Christopher Lee looks great making the most of his limited screen-time and Peter Cushing is great as the modern-day Van Helsing who must come to grips with the evil which his family has fought for several generations. Be sure to look out for the, out-of-place but fun, musical score by Mike Vickers and the exciting prologue set in the Victorian Era.

4. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) – A moody and atmospheric film, Hammer’s first Dracula sequel to actually feature the Count, is a simplistic but bombastic horror film. Christopher Lee’s Dracula is at his creepiest, not uttering a single line of dialogue. The film has some of the series’ most memorable scenes such as Dracula’s resurrection (which employs a lot of blood) to the staking of the woman who has become a vampire at the count’s hands. Andrew Keir also turns in an excellent appearance as Father Sandor, the film’s make-shift Van Helsing and hero of the picture.

3. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) – Originally envisioned as yet another Dracula film which does not feature Dracula, the Count’s inclusion in the script is rather forced, but the story is without doubt the strongest of Hammer’s sequels. It is one of the few Hammer horrors to have something of a subtext which finds Dracula acting as something of an authority figure for the young people in the cast persuading the to rebel against their parents. Taste the Blood of Dracula also manages to combine the changing trends in horror films; there is an increased presence of violence and gore, but it never feels contrived and out-of-place. It’s a creepy, excellently executed film.

2. Dracula (1958)Dracula is one of my favorite films and it is a fun, entertaining film. Christopher Lee has seldom been better as the Count and Peter Cushing is in rare form as Van Helsing. The movie is the perfect example of what Hammer did best with its grand set-pieces (the staking of Lucy, the final confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing), and performances which at times elevates the script. Dracula stands out as not only an example of Hammer at their best, but horror movie filmmaking at its best.

1. The Brides of Dracula (1960) – It’s rather odd that Hammer’s finest Dracula film doesn’t include Dracula at all. Nevertheless, Brides of Dracula is one of the most entertaining horror films the studio produced, and one of the most entertaining horror films of all time. Peter Cushing takes center stage as Van Helsing turning in one of his finest performances. Replacing the Count is Baron Meinster portrayed by David Peel whose screen presence is just as great as Lee’s and one must also mention both Martita Hunt as the Baron’s mother and Yvonne Monlaur as the young schoolteacher who Van Helsing swears to protect. Both women turn in fine performances in a film which is at once fun, bombastic, and at times quite creepy. Brides of Dracula is the Hammer film which I would invariably recommend to any Hammer novice. 

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Alfred Hitchcock's Greatest Film

Directors often do get the short end of the stick when it comes to fame. It seems like a director today must be extremely prolific or appeal to the masses in order to be remembered by audiences. Some of those prolific directors are honored as the greats; their work being both prolific and revolutionary in the history of filmmaking. One of those names, without doubt, is the great Alfred Hitchcock. In a list compiled by Entertainment Weekly, Hitchcock was named the best director of all time, his name appearing above such names as Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese.

Today, there aren’t many who dispute Hitchcock’s impact on modern film. If there is any director whose work is still analyzed in depth its Hitchcock’s. I am a huge Hitchcock fan, and have been ever since I stayed up late one night to watch Rear Window for the first time. Since then, I have come to not only appreciate Hitchcock’s work for its entertainment value, but its historical significance. The only problem – if you can even call it that – is that I simply like too much of his work. Aside from Saboteur (1942) and Lifeboat (1944), it’s not likely that I would pass up the opportunity to sit down and watch a Hitchcock movie.

Because I enjoy so much of his work, it becomes a lot harder to pick out his best movies. In fact, it seems to me to be a topic which is hotly debated among film fans in general: what is Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest film? In an effort to answer that question, I have narrowed down a list of my top five favorite Hitchcock films and from there hope to determine which of the five is my overall favorite. Now, this will be entirely subjective, so I’d like to just make two things clear from the start. First, picking my five favorite films does not mean that if it’s not on the list, I don’t like the movie. Picking just five was a difficult task, and I’d like to reiterate that I love almost all of Hitchcock’s movies. Second, the subjectivity of this post means that you may not agree with my pick. I am not claiming that my pick is Hitchcock’s best, it is just my opinion. So, without further ado, here are my top five favorite Hitchcock films (listed in chronological order based on release date).

First up is perhaps my most unorthodox pick, one which seldom crops up on lists of Hitchcock’s greatest movies: 1948’s Rope. Rope was Hitchcock’s first color film and there is something decidedly eerie about the movie’s washed-out color scheme. Based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, the movie is about two college students, who, poisoned by the ideals of their professor (James Stewart), murder one of their other classmates simply to see if they can do it. The murder is however only the beginning for they invite the victim’s family and friends to dine all the while hiding his body under their very noses.

Set entirely in one apartment, Rope betrays its stage-bound origins, but this never seems to hinder the film in any way. In fact, Hitchcock makes the most of the single setting and amps up the tension considerably. Rope is also well-known for being the film which appears to be shot entirely in one take, which also make the movie feel rather like a play. This too adds to the tension because there is no fancy camera trickery to distract the viewer from the plot and the performances. Rope is entirely driven forward by its actors and its story and is the perfect exemplification of the suspense of which Hitchcock was so clearly the master.

Speaking of performances, a word must be said about James Stewart, who cast against type here, is a pretty unlikable guy. Stewart, of course, specialized in American everyman characters like George Bailey or Elwood P. Dowd from It’s a Wonderful Life and Harvey respectively. Here, Stewart is a manipulator, his theories of superiority eventually leading to one of his student’s deaths. Stewart does manage to redeem himself by the end – he’s clearly learned the error of his ways – but he’s never the cuddly, ball of fun which I usually associate with Stewart on a whole.

Hitchcock himself wasn’t entirely fond of the finished product, agreeing with the overall negative reviews. Despite his belief that Stewart was miscast in the film, it didn’t prevent Hitchcock from using him again down the road – in a film called Rear Window.

As I noted above, Rear Window was my first exposure to Hitchcock and I have been a fan ever since. Once again starring James Stewart, here the actor stars as L.B. Jeffries, a wheelchair- bound photographer, who confined to his small apartment, takes to spying on his neighbors across the way and comes to believe that he has witnessed a murder. There honestly is not much I can say about Rear Window which hasn’t already been said (something which applies to most of Hitch’s films), and I’m not here to analyze it. But, what I love about Rear Window aside from its great premise and fine acting, are the characters. L.B. Jeffries is the perfect kind of character for the situation in which he finds himself and Jimmy Stewart was the perfect actor to play him. Far more comfortable in a down-to-earth role, Jeffries is instantly likable and identifiable. While she may not be as identifiable, Grace Kelly is perfectly cast as Jeffries’s girlfriend Lisa, and makes for a likable, sweet character.

But Rear Window also succeeds in building up its minor characters. Even without much dialogue or screen-time, Jeffries’s neighbors Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts, and others all become central and developed and we, the audience, become just as involved in the plight of Mrs. Lonelyheart as we are in Jeffries’s investigation.

Interestingly, James Stewart is the star of my next pick, Vertigo. Vertigo is perhaps the darkest and most brooding film on this list. In fact, it may be the darkest of all of Hitch’s movies. Stewart again plays an everyman, John “Scottie” Ferguson, a detective who is already fighting his conscious after a crippling bout of vertigo causes the death of a policeman. Following his recuperation, Scottie is hired to the tail the wife of an industrialist. He believes her to be possessed to a ghost.

Vertigo is a haunting film to watch; the elements coming together to create a disquieting air which is really indescribable. The beautiful San Francisco locations only heighten the sense of evil, mystery, and sadness which pervades the film. It’s an interesting juxtaposition which Hitchcock used in a number of films: that the strangest things (his greatest set pieces) can take place in the most recognizable locations, but it works perhaps its best herein. Despite all the ingredients coming together, Vertigo was a failure at the box office, Hitch unfairly blaming the failure on Stewart. It’s for that reason that Hitchcock chose his other famed leading man and collaborator for his next film.

When Hitchcock wasn’t making thrillers like Rear Window or Vertigo, he was helming “wrong man” films, and he showcased this subgenre best in North by Northwest. Starring Cary Grant, the film finds advertising mogul Roger Thornhill on the run after he’s mistaken for a spy by a group of enemy agents. Targeted by both the bad guys and the police, Thornhill crosses the country running into set-piece after set-piece. North by Northwest may just be Hitchcock’s most fun film. Sure, the characters are in constant peril, but the story is engaging and never without a touch of humor. The set-pieces are arguably the most famous in Hitch’s long career: from the assault by crop duster to the chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore.

Last, but certainly not least is the film which Hitchcock is without doubt known for today; the one which inevitably heads up the list of just about every “Best of Hitchcock List”: Psycho. It may be an unoriginal pick, but Psycho is one of those movies which changed film forever. It more-or-less gave birth to the slasher film sub-genre, but also pushed the envelope like no movie had done before that point.

The best thing about Psycho though is its longevity. Going into the movie knowing all the twists which were to come in no way inhibited my enjoyment. It is still an engaging movie, the performances are top-notch and the score by Bernard Herrmann is one of his finest.

So…the time has come. What is Hitchcock’s greatest film? Well, the obvious answer may be Psycho, but there is one thing about Psycho which a lot of people seem to overlook. Hitchcock always spoke of the importance of suspense in films and Psycho isn’t exactly known for its suspense. The film’s most memorable scene – the stabbing in the shower – is a shock not only as a scene, but also in the overall film. It was positively unheard of to kill off the central character so early in the film. As a bit of misdirection, it’s fantastic, but it sort of goes against Hitchcock’s mantra.

So, I’ll go the less obvious route with a film which is simply brimming with suspense and nominate Vertigo as the finest film from the master. Vertigo is a movie in which the viewer is, for most of the running time, kept in the dark as to what’s going on. It is probably the closest to a whodunit that Hitchcock ever directed, and just as craftily executes some slight-of-hand like the later Psycho.

Vertigo is one of those classic movies which needs a re-evaluation. As noted above, Hitchcock himself was disappointed by the film’s failure and yanked the film from re-distribution. It is, however, one of Hitch’s finest movies – eerie, moody, and very suspenseful. It is the perfect example of what a Hitchcock movie is like.

So, do you agree with my choice? If not, what do you believe to be Hitchcock’s finest film? Feel free to leave a comment below. 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

I think that I can speak for a large majority of film fans when I say that we were shocked to hear of Sir Christopher Lee’s passing. Lee is one of those actors who everyone at some point in time has had a run-in with, even if they were unaware of the fact. A cursory glance at Lee’s filmography explains why. According to IMDb, Lee acted in 281 titles, whether he was on screen or lending his voice to an animated feature or video game. It’s because Lee had such an impact that cinema that he is missed so much today.

For me, I was introduced to Lee at a pretty young age. Being the enormous Sherlock Holmes fanatic I am, it’s not surprising that my introduction came from Lee’s performance as Sir Henry Baskerville in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Lee also helped develop my love of all the James Bond films. When I was first introduced to the secret agent in Dr. No, I admit that I was a little underwhelmed. For a while I didn’t quite know what to think of Bond films on a whole; that was until I decided to give The Man with the Golden Gun a whirl. Why did I choose that title: it was to see Lee’s turn as villain Francisco Scaramanga without doubt.

But for me, Lee will always be remembered for his horror film roles. The man himself insisted that he appeared in only one horror film – 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. However, I daresay that Lee will be remembered best for his multiple performances as Count Dracula for Hammer. Lee’s Dracula simply revolutionized the character. Until 1958 when he donned the vampire’s cape for the first time, the public still associated Bela Lugosi with the King of Vampires. Lugosi’s theatrical delivery of course set the precedent for vampires throughout all time, but Lee flipped that conception on its head. Lee’s Dracula was a true force to be reckoned with: he is the epitome of evil in the film, and even today when Hammer’s Dracula no longer manages to frighten us, Lee’s Dracula can still send shivers up and done one’s spine.

Lee was simply hypnotic as the count, but he was hypnotic in nearly everything he did. He made for fascinating viewing in all of his roles, even when he wasn’t playing a character endowed with hypnotic ability. Who could forget Lee’s Kharis the mummy whose sad eyes and brute force makes him a terrifying threat in Hammer’s The Mummy? Or what about his pompous Paul Allen in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll who all but oozes slime and is still incredibly watchable? Even late in Lee’s career, his fascinating characterizations did not cease. His cameo in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow sets the tone for the remainder of the film in only minutes. Similarly, Lee’s appearance as Dr. Wilbur Wonka in Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great character study, even if Lee is only on screen for a few minutes.

Lee will probably be remembered for his contribution to cinema as a cool, calculating villain, but he worked just as well in the role of the hero on the side of the angels. While it may be all but impossible to properly judge Lee’s turn as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes (Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace) after he was dubbed over by an unknown actor, it is hard not to like Lee’s curmudgeon of a detective in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls which came out three decades later. Lee also turned in great performances as a hero in Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, and in the entertaining romp Horror Express opposite Peter Cushing.

Responding to the news of Lee’s passing, Mark Gatiss tweeted out that Lee was “criminally underrated.” I’m inclined to agree. When an actor makes a name for himself primarily in horror films, the actor isn’t always highly regarded in certain circles. But, as Robbie Collin of The Telegraph wrote, “He could turn shlock into Shakespeare” and few horror actors can claim that distinction.

Christopher Lee, you shall be missed.

As a side note, did you know he could sing too? Click here to see

Monday, 15 June 2015

Hello and Welcome

Hello everyone and welcome to Sacred Celluloid, a blog devoted to film. I am excited to launch this blog devoted my musings and reviews of cinema in all forms. I am a huge film buff so in addition I hope that I may be able to lend some insight and history along the way.

With a name like Sacred Celluloid, you can easily assume that I have a love for classic films. It's quite true. I have loved old movies for as long as I can remember, so a great deal of the content on this blog will pertain to classic cinema. That's not to say that I will not be commenting on newer films as well. After all - as I said - I love all movies.

So, introductions have come to an end. All I can say now is that I hope you come back and visit this blog often. I have some interesting things up my sleeve.