Behind the Scenes: “The Blood Beast Terror” (1968)

Sherlock Holmes vs Sherlock Holmes was the initial tantalizing casting prospect. Basil Rathbone, the most venerated actor to don the distinctive deerstalker, and Peter Cushing, just signed up by the BBC for a new 16-episode series, the former signed to play the villain, the latter his nemesis in a film that started out with the title of The Death’s-head Vampire, the first film by a new production shingle Tigon Films.

While Tigon was new, with a distinctive logo, its driving force was well-known British producer Tony Tenser who with partner Mike Klinger had initially specialized in exploitation pictures with titles such as Naked as God Intended (1961) and London in the Raw (1964). The pair split after the artistic and commercial success of Roman Polanski’s Cul de Sac, Tenser initially setting up under his own name for Mini-Weekend/Tomcat (1966), mining the exploitation vein as before, and The Sorcerers (1967) a new venture into the horror market. Expanding the business with fresh capital and new partners, Tigon was born.

Supporting feature to “Witchfinder General” on ABC circuit release in Britain.

Explaining the new departure, Tenser said, “Films needs to be inexpensive. They need to sell, they need to appeal to an international audience, and one subject that always finds a market is horror.” Horror budgets were low, the genre did not require big stars, and the films had a surprisingly long shelf life.

First movie on the new company’s agenda was not The Death’s-head Vampire. Instead, Tenser had hooked Raquel Welch for a ghost story The Devil’s Discord to be produced by her husband Patrick Curtis, who had performed a similar task on The Sorcerers, and star Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965). When that fell through, he held onto Cushing for a proposed Horror of Frankenstein and when that also bit the dust turned to him for The Death’s-head Vampire on a budget of just £40,000 (about $100,000). Offered the choice of playing villain Dr. Mallinger or Detective Inspector Quennell, the actor plumped for the “goodie,” Basil Rathbone lined up for the other role. The concept of older man/younger woman with action concentrated on an isolated house and the surrounding countryside was a horror trope.

Vernon Sewell (Strictly for the Birds, 1964), entering his third decade as a director, had worked with Cushing on Some May Live (1965) and was primarily known for low-budget and B-movies, and more importantly from Tenser’s perspective, sticking to a budget without any artistic pretensions or improvisation. He didn’t waste time on anything that would not be captured by the lens. He was calm on set, “nothing fazed him.” Cushing was a kindred spirit, never complaining, except famously, on this picture, when he told Sewell it was the “worst picture” he had ever made. The pair, however, had a very good working relationship to the extent that Sewell never offered Cushing any advice on the role –“he didn’t need my input.”

The Sherlock Holmes connection is promoted in this poster.

Just over two weeks before the August 1967 start date, Basil Rathbone died of a heart attack. Robert Flemyng, the last-minute replacement, was Cushing’s opposite, complaining all the time. The cast was rounded out by 32-year-old Doctor Who star Wanda Ventham (mother of actor Benedict Cumberbatch) and 18-year-old Vanessa Howard whose career highpoint thus far had been a duet with Cliff Richard for a television presentation of Aladdin (1967).

Interiors were shot at Goldhawk Studios, a converted three-story building in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, with exteriors at Grims Dyke, the former home of W.S. Gilbert, in north-west London. The 19th century manor house had lain empty since 1963.

Roger Dickens, who had cut his teeth on Thunderbirds Are Go! (1966) and worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and would be later lionized for the mini-beast bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (1979) was responsible for creating the monster. The model for the giant larvae was a much simpler task than creating a believable female giant insect. He took a mold of Ventham’s face, giving the features a repellant slant,  using costume jewelry for the eyes, adding a furry cap and two-foot long antennae, a representation  that would only really work if you scarcely saw the creature. For art designer Wilfred Woods his woods set turned into a disaster when the trees wilted and lost their leaves.

Opinions differ as to whether Tenser interfered with production. He saw his role during the film process to ensure that the project followed the script. “Sometimes you can put something in a film which will hinder the selling, sometimes you need to put something in which will help the selling.”

Comedian Roy Hudd, playing the morgue attendant, thought the script so awful he was delighted to work with Cushing on improvements. 

When John Ford’s boast that he never shot an extra foot of film in order to prevent a producer turning in a different film has resulted in many a masterpiece, the same did not hold true for Sewell. Sticking so close to the script, not filming anything that was not absolutely necessary meant that the movie was too short. Editor Howard Lanning commented: “I put in everything that was available. Even with expanding the lecture scene and the amateur dramatics as long as possible, to the detriment of pace, the picture clocked in at just 81 minutes, not the length expected of a main feature.

To ensure the movie came in at the required length, Tenser added the African sequence at the beginning (an extra five minutes) and re-shot the morgue material (two more minutes), encouraging Cushing and Hudd to improvise. The final product was over-budget and a week late. The version shown to the censor was 87 minutes though the official running time was a minute longer.

Tenser now deemed the working title as insufficient, preferring “something catchy and something that told people what you were selling.” His first stab at a new title was Blood Beasts from Hell. But in the final analysis it was altered to The Blood Beast Terror. Hoping to sell it to a circuit as a main feature it was originally shown in a double bill with Castle of the Living Dead, but despite the supposedly attractive title, audiences were not interested. To cut his losses, the film was repackaged as the support to another Tigon production Witchfinder General (1967) which meant Tenser would not have to share receipts with another distributor.

The Blood Beast Terror did not prove so sellable overseas either. It was shelved in France until 1971, although, sold for a flat fee, it did well in South America. A.I.P. who had U.S. distribution rights to Witchfinder General – title altered to The Conqueror Worm – had no interest in The Blood Beast Terror but it was picked up by Pacemaker Pictures who were also in title-changing mood and released it in summer 1969 as Vampire Beast Craves Blood on a double bill with Curse of the Blood Ghouls (1964).

Tenser’s predictions of long shelf life were correct. In Britain, the movie was reissued on a late night double bill with The Secret of Blood Island (1961), and then was revived with The Devil’s Hand (1961) before being re-teamed with Witchfinder General on a Sunday’s-only screening. Although none of these would be circuit releases in the sense of a nationwide day-and-date opening, they were nonetheless likely to get reasonable bookings to fit specific engagement profiles. In the States where there was endless demand for horror triple- and quadruple bills and all-nighters, The Blood Beast Terror received ongoing bookings.

SOURCES: John Hamilton, “The Making of the The Blood Beast Terror,” Little Shoppe of Horror, Issue No 43, p67-91; John Hamilton, “Regretting Nothing: John Sewell, Little Shoppe of Horror, Issue No 43, p92-98.

The Blood Beast Terror (1968) ***

As the title suggests there’s a vampiric element, and there’s not a great deal unusual in that, Hammer having successfully revived interest in bloodsuckers. What is unusual, however, and a couple of years before that studio’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) is the idea of female empowerment. Previously, the sole purpose of a damsel in a horror picture was to lay bare a convenient bosom for a passing thirsty creature, or, have their clothing disarrayed and let out a scream when a monster pounced.

The twist here is that the vampire is a woman, Clare (Wanda Ventham), and men who are the victims except on the occasions when her father Dr Mallinger (Robert Flemyng) hypnotizes young women in order to give the creature a blood transplant. The beast exists as a creature and then morphs into Clare. For a time it looks as if Clare is merely possessed, but in reality appears much more as if she is enjoying being the beast, abandoning the enforced respectability of the times, luring men into the forest to have her rapacious way with them, the men naturally thinking they are in for a romantic tryst rather than being targeted by a predator.

Continuing the theme of misleading the audience, this poster cleverly suggests that it’s a man who is the beast and the woman who are the victims.

There’s a wonderful scene that gives an insight into her mindset. Her friends put on a little play. Her role is the monster, a part she seizes with relish.

It’s one of those films you have to work out backward. In standard horror fashion it leaves the twist till close to the end and it would have been far more interesting if we had discovered at the outset that Clare was the beast, leading the men for the most part a merry dance, outwitting Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing) and her adoring father Dr. Mallinger (Robert Flemyng).  

The inspector, faced with a growing pile of corpses drained of blood, is baffled throughout, no Sherlock Holmes clever deductions here, and it naturally would not occur to any of the males, beyond Dr Mallinger who is in on the secret, to imagine a woman capable of not just committing such crimes but of exerting such power over a man. The story glosses over the genetics, it’s a version of Frankenstein obviously, but the background to it is missing, and I can see why. There has to be some mystery.

Hitchcock could not have done a better job of misleading the audience. For a start the story is told entirely through the male perspective. And it’s set up as a murder mystery, Quennell our lead as he dances from one corpse to the other, helped along in his information accumulation by lugubrious mortuary attendant  (Roy Hudd), who is, ironically, as hungry as the beast, but for normal food rather than blood, always seen devouring something. Mallinger is not a mad professor either, but a distinguished one, celebrated in his field, giving lectures and attracting proteges like Britewell (William Wilde).

Initial British release double bill cleverly bringing together Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee –
though in separate pictures.

Although his daughter acts as laboratory assistant, Mallinger is hardly aware that his daughter is sizing up every male visitor as a potential victim.

The posters give away that the creature is a giant moth, and by and large the special effects (no CGI available of course) pull this off, the creature usually just glimpsed or seen from the distance, and the possibility that Mallinger is aware of what he is harbouring apparent when he enters a cellar wearing a leather hood and carrying a whip.

Tony Tenser’s production company Tygon has acquired cult status, in part for having the temerity to take on British horror giant Hammer at the height of its powers in the 1960s, and in part from the distinction of its output, making such films as The Sorcerers (1967) with Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing as Witchfinder General (1968) and Karloff, Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele in The Crimson Cult/ The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968). Tenser ploughed a different furrow to Hammer at a time when that studio was also expanding into bigger-budgeted movies such as One Million Years B.C. (1966).

Capably not to say cleverly director by veteran Vernon Sewell (The Crimson Cult) it is miles ahead of its time and generally delivers the goods. Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965) is excellent as usual, Robert Flemyng (The Deadly Affair, 1967) proves a more interesting scientist than usual, steering clear of any craziness.

Wanda Ventham in her first leading role provides a fascinating character study, but you have to work backwards as I said, to realize just how good she is, the way she has, for Victorian times, her father under her thumb, and the seductive glances she casts at men, not to mention the ease with which she assists her father in his diabolical experiments without him realizing why she is so enamored. Female monsters had evolved from creatures before – in Cat People (1942), Snake Woman (1961) and Hammer’s The Reptile (1966) – but this was a more rapacious example of the species. Vanessa Howard (Some Girls Do, 1969) has a small role and you can spot Scottish character actor Glynn Edwards (Zulu, 1963) and television comedian Roy Hudd in his movie debut.

Screenwriter Peter Bryan (The Brides of Dracula, 1960), something of an expert in the horror field, turns the whole genre on its head with the gender politics examined here.

Behind the Scenes: “The Biggest Bundle of Them All” (1968)

Films that reach the screen two years after filming was completed are generally stinkers. Ken Annakin caper movie The Biggest Bundle of Them All wrapped production in summer 1966 and was not released until January 1968. But the reason was not the usual.

The cause of the unseemly delay was a temper tantrum by Oscar-winning uber-producer Sam Spiegel (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962) who had been working on a similar project about incompetent amateurs kidnapping a gangster kingpin – The Happening (1967) starring Anthony Quinn (previously reviewed in the Blog). After bringing a charge of blatant plagiarism, Spiegel was mollified by being permitted to bring his movie out first, with an inbuilt eight-month gap  between both releases, the deal sweetened by a 15% cut of The Biggest Bundle’s profits and the right to vet the script.

Despite success with Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Battle of the Bulge (1965) British director Annakin was at a career impasse. The Fifth Coin written by Francis Ford Coppola and starring George Segal failed to get off the ground. He turned down western Texas Across the River (1966) at a time when Catherine Deneuve and Shirley Maclaine were slotted in for the female roles and was fired from The Perils of Pauline (1967). The Italian Caper as it was then known, recalled Annakin, “did not seem a world-shattering movie but I found the caper fascinating and the cast irresistible.” 

Let them eat cheesecake.

It marked the movie debut for producer Josef Shaftel of The Untouchables television fame and for screenwriter Rod Amateau (The Wilby Conspiracy, 1975), also then a television regular although the final script was attributed to another neophyte Sy Salkowitz. The film made the most of Italian locations, Naples and Rome, as well as the South of France and Provence. Annakin caught pneumonia just as shooting was to commence. Shaftel took over for five days only for his material to prove unusable.

Both veteran actors proved easy to direct. “Robinson was like putty in my hands, completely trusting.” And while Vittorio De Sica was every bit as amenable he was inclined to fall asleep on the set as the result of entertaining his mistress the night before. Di Sica was also a compulsive gambler and at one point lost half his salary in a casino.

Raquel Welch, in only her second picture after One Million Years B.C. (1966) – which contained minimal dialogue – was initially a handful. Primarily, this was due to inexperience and her desire to present herself in as alluring a fashion as possible, with impeccable hairstyles and make-up. After she had kept the crew waiting once too often Annakin threatened to eliminate her close-ups unless she respected the shooting schedule.

“On the whole I was quite pleased with the results because she really applied herself and so long as one broke up the scenes into a couple of lines at a time she became able to handle them quite adequately…I was getting along excellently with Raquel – even to the extent of trying to find another picture with her,” Annakin noted in his autobiography. Since this was written three decades after the movie was made, it would have given him ample time to get rid of any latent hostility to the actress. This reaction, it has to be said, is contrary to much of what has been written about Welch’s behavior on the picture. At the time of filming he reported that “she has a marvelous flair for comedy.”

But it appeared that Annakin was the only one who spotted her star potential. “The rest of the cast, especially Bob (Robert Wagner), regarded her as a pin-up girl on the make…none of them thought she was particularly sexy at this time.”

Otherwise, the only other trouble came from Godfrey Cambridge who “had a chip on his shoulder” and from Robert Wagner’s insistence on wearing false eyelashes. Problems arose over the cinematographer’s determination to employ powerful lights even at the height of a Mediterranean  summer and a massive dust storm interrupted filming of the final scenes.  Annakin also benefitted from the locations and using his experience was able to shift 35 pages of script from interiors to outdoors, completely altering the look of the picture. This made the $2 million movie “look like it cost three or four million,” according to Annakin. 

At this point Welch, best known for having been sued by her publicist, was in the process of turning herself into a star in demand. In 1966 Welch was something of a Hollywood secret. She had three pictures in the bank, was working on a fourth and had signed up for a fifth before any of her movies had been released. On the other hand, she was fast becoming one of the most famous faces (and bodies) in the world, on the cover of of hundreds of magazines in Europe, many for the fourth or fifth time.

Having set up a company, Curtwel, managed by husband Patrick Curtis, she would earn $15,570 a week on loan to MGM for a second film Italian movie Shoot, Loud…Louder, I Don’t Understand (1966), considerably more than through her contract with Twentieth Century Fox. A year later she collected £100,000 for two weeks on portmanteau picture The Oldest Profession (1967).

Curtwel was also moving into the production arena, in 1965 attempting to set up No Place for the Dead and the following year optioning the musical comedy The Opposite Sides of the Fence and taking a quarter share in the mooted The Devil’s Discord to star Peter Cushing and Edd Byrnes under the direction of Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General, 1968). None of these ventures materialzed.

As well as having to contend with audience disinterest in the clumsy crook scenario as witnessed by the flop of The Happening, the enforced time gap allowed a second picture featuring bungling criminals called Too Many Crooks (1967) to reach cinemas prior to The Biggest Bundle. However, by January 1968, Welch was a much bigger name on movie marquees, having appeared on 400 international magazine covers and selected by U.S. exhibitors for the International Star of the Year Award while The Biggest Bundle had been preceded by another seven pictures including hits One Million Years B.C. and Fantastic Voyage (1966).

SOURCES: Ken Annakin, So You Wanna Be a Director, (Tomahawk Press, Sheffield 2001), pages 187-194; “Raquel Welch and Manager Form Curtwel Co,” Box Office, May 3, 1965, pW3; “Raquel Welch, Pat Curtis Form Curtwel Prods,” Box Office, October 5, 1965, pSE6; “Toutmasters Sue for 5% of Raquel Welch,” Variety, October 6, 1965, p14; “Raquel Welch in Rome,” Box Office, April 25, 1966, page SE1; “MGM’s Bundle Wrapping at Nice, Orders On Set in 3 Languages,” Variety, July 6, 1966, p7; “8 Pix for 2 Unseen Actresses,” Variety, August 17, 1966, p5; “Businesswoman Side of Raquel Welch,” Variety, November 2, 1966, p20; “Oldest Profession Gets New Locale in West Berlin, Raquel Welch’s 100G Job,” Variety, January 18, 1967, p24; “Columbia-Spiegel Holds 25% Share of MGM’s Bundle,” Variety, December 6, 1967, p3.

Dr Who and The Daleks (1965) ***

The maiden voyage of the time-travelling Tardis is triggered by some unexpected pratfall comedy. On board are the venerable doctor (Peter Cushing), his intrepid great-granddaughter Susan (Roberta Tovey) and a fearful pair, granddaughter Barbara (Jennie Linden) and accident-prone Ian (Roy Castle). They land on a petrified planet ruled by robotic Daleks with menacing electronic voices.

The malfunctioning Tardis forces them to investigate an abandoned city but they are quickly imprisoned, the steel robots determined to discover why the earthlings should be immune to the radiation that has consumed the planet after nuclear war. Meanwhile, the planet’s remaining inhabitants, the Thals, are planning an uprising.

Studio One was one of the smallest cinemas in London’s West End and often used as the launch pad for Disney pictures. Limited capacity ensured that a hit film would run for months and the crowds queueing outside would attract the attention of other passersby.

Budget restrictions ensure that menace is limited, even as the characters endure a heap of traditional obstacles such as swamp and rocky outcrop. Adults who did not grow up in the 1960s when the BBC television series took Britain by storm and apt to come at this without the benefit of nostalgia will certainly look askance at the sets and costumes. And it doesn’t possess the so-bad-it’s-good quality of some 1950s sci-fi pictures. But since it was primarily made for children, then perhaps it’s better to watch it with a younger person and gauge their response – of course, that may be equally harsh from someone brought up on the modern version of the series or already immersed in superheroes.

On the plus side, it does move along at a clip. Roberta Tovey (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) charms rather than annoys as the plucky grand-daughter even if her grandfather has mutated from the sterner figure of the television series into an eccentric inventor. Peter Cushing (She, 1965) is only required to ground the production which he does adequately. The innate comic timing of Roy Castle, in his leading man debut, brings a light touch to proceedings as the bumbling boyfriend and generates some decent laughs. Jennie Linden (Women in Love, 1969) has little to do except look scared.

With no built-in audience, the U.S. distributors marketed it in typical fashion – “half men half-machine” – and possibly roped in a bigger adult audience unaware of its origins in children’s television.

Oddly enough, it was American Milton Subotsky who, in opportunistic fashion, brought the project to the big screen, although the BBC had a track record of providing product that might make such a leap, The Quatermass Experiment in the 1950s the leading example. He wrote the screenplay and acted as producer and had previously worked with Cushing on Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and was about to embark on horror masterpiece The Skull the same year. He has approached the material with some reverence and the fact that the budget allowed for hordes of daleks rather than being seen one or two at a time as on the television probably made some child’s day.

Scottish director Gordon Flemyng (The Split, 1968) would make the leap to Hollywood on the back of this picture and its sequel the following year and you can see what made studios have faith in his ability – he deals with multiple characters, works quickly on a low budget and delivers an attractive picture that was a box office hit.

I suspect that audiences will divide into those who watch the film with nostalgia-colored spectacles, those who think it only as good as a bad episode of Star Trek and those who adore any low-budget sci-fi movie.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

Book Into Film – “She” (1965)

Hammer made a substantial number of changes for its version of She. For a start, H. Rider Haggard’s novel was published in 1886, three decades before the time in which the film which took place at the end of World War One.  While the three main characters – Horace Holly (Peter Cushing in the film), his manservant Job (Bernard Cribbins) and the younger Leo (John Richardson)  – remain the same, their relationships are significantly different, in that in the book Holly is the legal guardian of Leo.

The book is far more Indiana Jones than sheer adventure, the journey into the unknown instigated by a piece of parchment and a translation of a potsherd from the fourth century B.C. In the film the spur towards the journey into the unknown is a vision. But in the book the adventurers already know before they set off that ancient Egyptian high priest Kallikrates found Ayesha and the sacred flame and was killed by her because he loved another.

Unlike the film the book has no trek through the desert either which renders them hungry, thirsty and exhausted and leads to visions of Ayesha for Leo. Instead, they are shipwrecked. And their peril comes from swamps and wild animals such as lions and crocodiles. In fact, the filmmakers clearly resisted the opportunity to include one of the tropes of jungle adventure, namely a wild animal battle, in this case crocodile vs. lion, which was a feature of the book.

While they shoot a water buck for food, nonetheless they do later face exhaustion, only rescued by the sudden appearance of an Arab, who mentions She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed and arranges for them to be transported in litters to a mysterious land in the heart of African darkness. This land is rich and fertile, with herds and plenty of food.

Two important elements introduced here shape the book but are ignored in the film. The first is that Leo, seriously ill at this point – and not capable of being strung up for the movie’s sacrifice –  remains ill  for the rest of the book so that it is Holly who enjoys most of the encounters with Ayesha. Secondly, and a rather advanced notion for the times, the women in this country are independent, neither considered chattels nor subordinate to men, and are free to choose their own lover. But it is only now that Leo meets Ustane (Rosenda Monteros) rather than in the film which brought them together almost immediately.  Here, they also meet Billali (Christopher Lee) whom Holly rescues from a swamp.

With Leo still ill, it is Holly who first encounters Ayesha, who dresses as she will in the film, in a gauzy white material. In the writer’s eyes her beauty lay in her “visible majesty” as well as more obvious physical features, which could not be dwelt on at such length in a Victorian novel. Holly falls in love with her on the spot, even though he is “too ugly” to be considered a potential suitor, and learns of the fate of the earlier Killikrates and also catches a glimpse of her bemoaning her fate, imprisoned in immortality for two thousand loveless years.

“It is hard for a woman to be merciful,” proclaims Ayesha as she puts to death the villagers. Throwing them down the pit was invented by the screenwriters. By this point Leo is nearly dead and only saved by a phial administered by Ayesha. She also decrees that Ustane must die because “she stands between me and my desire.” In the film it is Leo who intervenes to attempt to save Ustane. But in the book it is Holly. He blackmails Ayesha, threatening to reveal her secret, that she had killed Killikrates in the past. Ustane claims she has taken Leo as her common-law husband. Ayesha promises to spare Ustane if she will give up her claim to Leo and go away. But Ustane refuses. In the book, there is an astonishingly visual and terrifying scene where, in revenge, Ayesha claws at Ustane’s black hair, leaving there the imprint of three white fingers. 

It is the film that introduces the element of palace intrigue, with rebellious subjects and Billali believing he is entitled to immortality. That is not in the book.

When Leo finally wakes up, he is reunited with Ustane, but Ayesha catches them and kills Ustane, not by throwing her down the pit, but by her magic power. Despite being appalled, Leo cannot resist Ayesha. Even so, he is fully aware of his predicament, believing he has been “sold into bondage” and forced to love a murderess. But when she enters the sacred flame – naked, it has to be said, in the book, which was an exceptionally daring image for that era – she dies.

Holly in the book is more a narrator than a protagonist and shifting the emphasis more squarely back to Leo suits the film’s dramatic purpose. There was no real reason the film could not have followed the thrust of the book except that it would perhaps cost more costly to bring a jungle and swamps  to life than a desert and arid mountains. More importantly, perhaps, was the need to introduce the physical Ayesha more quickly than in the book.

It is worth pointing out that the concept of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed was not so alien to British readers. After all, when the book was published, the country was ruled by a woman, Queen Victoria. And although democracy had reduced elements of her absolute power, the people still had to bow down before her. In addition, the British celebrated the rule of a previous female monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, who had been an absolute ruler, in the days before there was any notion of democracy and Parliament, and in those days anyone who opposed such a figure was liable to meet as swift a death as that meted out by Ayesha.

She (1965) ****

Ursula Andress certainly knows how to make an entrance. Emerging out of the sea in a bikini in Dr No (1962) proved a Hollywood calling-card but failed to put her center stage. She fixed that with She and dominates this superior adventure hokum. Studio Hammer lucked into a solid piece of storytelling, a classic, and all it had to do – with the help of a bit more finance than was usual for their productions courtesy of MGM – was not muck it up.

Three soldiers are celebrating the end of the First World War in a Palestinian night club and while archaeologist Holly (Peter Cushing) and his bowler-hatted valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) are tripping the light fantastic with belly-dancers, blond-haired Leo (John Richardson) is seduced away by Ustane (Rosenda Monteros) because he bears a stunning resemblance to an ancient medallion. Encountering a vision of Ayesha (Andress) he is urged to embark on a dangerous journey to the lost city of Kuma where she awaits.  

Despite the theft of their camels and loss of water, the trio trek exhausted across desert and mountains, Leo sustained by his vision, by the fact that he seems to know the way and with the assistance of Ustane. But a savage tribe reckon Leo would make an ideal sacrifice to the gods. Just as the tribe are driving themselves into ritualistic frenzy, high priest Billali (Christopher Lee) comes to the rescue, escorting the explorers into Kuma.

The regal Ayesha is as beautiful in the flesh as in the vision, but more ruthless, condemning slaves to a terrible death for disobedience and, noting the attraction between Leo and Ustune, planning also to rid herself of her rival. Leo’s arrival will fulfil an ancient prophecy with the Englishman attaining immortality, and he seems to be able to “float through the sea of time” and remember events from two thousand years ago. However, Ayesha has a dubious past, providing one of several unexpected twists.

Most films of this sub-genre rely on improbable mumbo-jumbo and are loaded down with wearying amounts of exposition. But here is nothing but clarity, the ancient backstory tale told with minimum visuals and verbals and the intellectual sparring between Holly and Ayesha on the one hand and the archaeologist and the high priest on the other are intelligently-put, presenting opposing options for the development of civilisation, absolute monarchy vs. democracy and immutability vs. change.

But that takes place within a highly-charged drama, the enfolding romance between Ayesha and her chosen man both touching and perilous, while the battle for the life of Ustane is brilliantly presented. Lack of reliance on special effects and art direction  utilizing the MGM millions – the mountain-sized statue outside Kuma (prefiguring perhaps Game of Thrones) and the set for Ayesha’s room especially magnificent, as is her golden crown – prevents the picture falling into the camp camp. Instead, it emerges as an adventure classic.

Ursula Andress (4 for Texas, 1963) is stunning, every inch a goddess and yet believably mortal. Her looks tended to mask her abilities and while she rarely received credit for her acting she holds her own in some redoubtable company. John Richardson (Black Sunday, 1960) doesn’t quite step up and remains more a creature of adoration. But the supporting cast more than compensates. Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965) has had a persona transplant, replacing his normal grim demeanor with fun and enthusiasm, not lacking courage where required, and delivering a very fine performance. Bernard Cribbins (Crooks in Cloisters, 1964) provides the humor. And we still have Christopher Lee (The Gorgon, 1964), filled to bursting with self-entitlement, in malevolent form, Andre Morell (The Vengeance of She, 1968) and Rosenda Monteros, scandalously under-used in films since The Magnificent Seven (1960). It’s interesting to see Cushing and Lee, who dealt with immortality in the Dracula series, engage in conflict without coming to blows.

Director Robert Day (Tarzan’s Three Challenges, 1963) keeps up a brisk pace at the same time as focusing on character and provides Hammer with a marvelous adventure template for the future.  Five features and two shorts had already been adapted from the H. Rider Haggard classic, but the last was in 1935, starring future U.S. House of Representatives member Helen Gahagan. This version presents the best shot at visual interpretation of the classic.

Catch-Up: Ursula Andress was reviewed in the Blog for 4 for Texas (1963), The Blue Max (1966) and The Southern Star (1969). Christopher Lee pictures already reviewed are: The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), The Gorgon (1964), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967) and The Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult (1968).

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

The Skull (1965) *****

I have no idea why this masterpiece has not been acclaimed. For virtually half the picture, there is no dialogue, the entire focus on camerawork and reaction. Even Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980) gave in to grand guignol and The Exorcist (1973) was filled with over-the-top scenes but here the psychological impact of possession remains confined.

Initially, it appears we are in familiar Hammer territory, a grave-robber detaching a skull from a corpse only to meet an untimely end. There is another flashback to the gothic where the presence of the skull drives an ordinary man to murder. But this is an Amicus production and set in contemporary times with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing once again in opposition, but this time only in an auction house bidding for demonic artefacts. Exposition is straightforward. A dealer (Patrick Wymark) sells Cushing a book about De Sade bound in human skin. Wymark may be a con man. He claims to possess the skull of the Marquis de Sade but his attitude towards it, kissing its head, plucking its nose socket, and the fact that he willing to halve his asking price, suggest otherwise. Lee, who once owned the skull, warns Cushing against it.

The rest of the film covers Cushing’s possession of the skull and the skull’s possession of him. There is a notable Kafkaesque sequence where Cushing is arrested, taken before a judge and forced three times to play Russian roulette before ending up in the house of the dealer where he steals the skull. What is less often commented upon is that this nigh-on 15-minute sequence including a 90-second taxi ride conducted in virtual silence, the camera mostly on Cushing’s face, that silence only broken by the feeding of bullets into the barrel of the gun and the barrel being rolled round. It is not long before Cushing commits his first murder.

There is a famous scene in the Last Tycoon (1976) in which Robert De Niro explains to a truculent word-obsessed British writer why dialogue is redundant in the movies. All you need is camera and reaction. That sets up The Skull’s greatest scene, a 17-minute dialogue-free climax, where Cushing is effectively preyed upon and consumed. The skull itself appears to have a point-of-view, various shots of Cushing through the skull’s eyes. The actual special effects are limited to what is imminently achievable, the skulls glows, it moves through the air. The impact of its presence is shown on Cushing’s face and by his action. It is just hypnotic.

Various directors have been anointed for the way they move their camera – Antonioni’s 360-degree turn in The Passenger (1975) comes to mind, large chunks of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the long wait for sunrise in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the lengthy shots of James Stewart driving a car in Vertigo (1958). But I have never seen anything as innovative as the silent sequences in The Skull which would be a waste of innovation were the sequences not so effective, especially on the small screen. Freddie Francis directed from a story by Robert Bloch. Equally innovative is the jarring music by avant-garde composer Elizabeth Lutyens.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Sword of Sherwood Forest (1961) ***

The last swashbuckler to cut a genuine dash was The Crimson Pirate (1952) with an athletic Burt Lancaster romancing Virginia Mayo in a big-budget Hollywood spectacular. The chance of Hollywood ponying up for further offerings of this caliber was remote once television began to cut the swashbuckler genre down to small-screen size. Britain’s ITV network churned out series based on Sir Lancelot, William Tell and The Count of Monte Cristo and 30-minute episodes (143 in all) of The Adventures of Robin Hood. So when Hammer decided to rework the series as a movie, their first port-of-call was series star Richard Greene.

And to encourage television viewers to follow the adventures of their hero on the big screen, Hammer sensibly dumped the small screen’s black-and-white photography in favour of widescreen color and then lit up the canvas at the outset with aerial tracking shots of the glorious bucolic greenery of the English countryside (actually Ireland). Further temptation for staid television viewers came in the form of Maid Marian (Sarah Branch) bathing naked in a lake. Robin Hood is soon hooked.  

Sarah Branch was given the cover girl treatment in British fan magazine “Picture Show and TV Mirror” but this preceded “Sword of Sherwood Forest” and instead was for “Sands of the Desert” (1960), a Charlie Drake comedy in which she plays a travel agent kidnapped by a sheik. Branch only made four pictures, with Maid Marian her final film role.

Two main plots run side-by-side. The first is obvious. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing) is quietly defrauding people through legal means. The second takes a while to come to fruition. Robin Hood is hired by for his archery skills by the Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco) – he shoots a pumpkin through a spinning wheel, a moving bell and a bullseye through a slit – before it becomes apparent he is being recruited as an assassin. Oliver Reed and Derren Nesbitt put in uncredited appearances and the usual suspects are played by Niall MacGinnis (as Friar Tuck) and Nigel Green (as Little John).

There is sufficient swordfighting to satisfy. Director Terence Fisher, more at home with the Hammer horror portfolio, demonstrates a facility with action. Richard Greene makes a breezy hero and the picture is ideal matinee entertainment.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Gorgon (1964) ****

This impressive Hammer conspiracy-of-silence slow-burner, more thriller than horror, features the triumvirate of Christopher Lee (The Devil Ship Pirates, 1964), Peter Cushing (The Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) and Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, 1960) in untypical roles. Lee and Cushing, of course, had locked horns before, namely in Hammer’s reimagining of the classic Dracula, with the former the charismatic fiend and the latter his nemesis.

Here Cushing is a  doctor in a an unnamed European turn-of-the-twentieth-century police state who knows more than he is letting on about seven inexplicable deaths in five years and the possibility of a 2,000-year-old myth coming to life and taking on a human form. And with quite a human side, jealous when his assistant Steele falls for a younger man. Lee is a professor coming late in the day to investigate. Steele, a gentle beauty, initially introduced as merely the love interest, becomes central to the story but without sucking up all the available horror oxygen by over-acting.   

Director Terence Fisher, who had shepherded the studio’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and Dr Jekyll franchises through the starting gate, builds up the atmosphere with full moons, haunting voices, fog, sudden sounds, drifting leaves and an abandoned castle forever in shadow. The camera is often a weapon of stealth. Shock is kept to a minimum, fleeting ghostly apparitions and a finger falling off a corpse. Given the limitations of special effects in this era, that was a smart move. Far better to concentrate on fear of impending doom, a man knowing he is turning to stone, a woman living in terror of being taken over by the phantom. The title gives away the story somewhat – even if you didn’t know the Gorgon was a mythical monster with a headful of snakes and the ability to turn people to stone, that is soon explained. 

Death remains the trigger for action, the suicide of an artist after he has apparently murdered his pregnant girlfriend bringing his father onto the scene and then his brother accompanied by Lee. But all investigation hits a wall of silence after police chief (Patrick Troughton) refuses to instigate detection. At the heart of all the relationships is betrayal. The artist leading his girlfriend on, Cushing willing to endanger Steele, whom he professes to love, rather than revealing the truth. Even Steele spies on the brother, with whom she is falling in love, in order to gather information for Cushing. 

Forgive the pun, but Steele steals the picture. An amnesiac, a victim and finally the lure, she remains enigmatic, a whisper of a woman. It is a haunting portrayal far removed from Hammer’s traditional cleavage queens. This is a very human character who nonetheless must stand guard over herself. Cushing embroiders his character with little touches, smoking a cigarette in a holder, for example, but Steele’s character, her distrust of herself, shows in every move she makes.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

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