Hammer completists: look no further. Oliver Reed enthusiasts: welcome. Fans of obscure 60s British films: salut!
I’ve recently tracked down a copy of Paranoiac, a 1963 film directed by Freddie Francis, scripted by Jimmy Sangster and starring a young Oliver Reed. The film is part of Hammer’s series of psychological thrillers, that followed the success of Scream of Fear in 1961. Different from the usual Hammer output at the time, the films were in black and white and concentrated on non-supernatural plots in modern settings. They were also usually quite melodramatic. The general theme of Paranoiac is madness. Of the stark raving variety.
Oliver Reed plays Simon Ashby, a belligerent young man who is fond of a drink or two. He’s part of an odd family still reeling from the death of his parents in a plane crash and the apparent suicide of his elder brother Tony that followed the tragedy (apparent because – you’ve guessed it – the body was never found). Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) and sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) share the Ashby country pile with difficult Simon. I say difficult because he’s portrayed by Reed at his drunken best. Although only receiving second billing to Scott he is the key actor in Paranoiac – reeling through the film in an inebriated rage, veering between leaning on family lawyer John Kossett (Maurice Denham) for cash handouts and racing home in his sports car to empty the brandy decanters and scream abuse at the servants. He’s a nasty young fellow and Reed plays him magnificently.
Things get off to an immediately creepy start in Paranoiac with Eleanor seeing glimpses of Tony hanging around, and this rather fragile young girl is pushed rather quickly to leaping off a cliff. Fortunately, Tony (Alexander Davion) seems benign as he saves her and is shockingly reintroduced into the family circle. Simon almost runs him over and then roars off in his car after ruining a flowerbed, whilst a suspicious Harriet turns him over to a grilling from Kossett. It’s all rather convenient you see, as Tony’s reappearance will grant him the Ashby fortune, otherwise due to Simon in a few weeks. Although something of a bugger for him, Simon doesn’t seem too bothered, his main concern being generally drunken and beastly. However Kossett subjects “Tony” to a “series of questions” (along the lines of “what did I buy you for your ninth birthday?”) to ensure that he really is the heir to the Ashby fortune.
Of course he isn’t, although they’re mostly fooled. “Tony”, it turns out, is in the services of Kossett’s crooked son (John Bonney), and matters aren’t helped by the still fragile Eleanor falling for him (together they escape the old trick of somebody tampering with the brakes on the car whilst they’re on a cliff edge picnic, Eleanor being saved from plunging to her doom yet again. Why do so many characters in so many films choose to have a picnic on a cliff edge?) Matters race towards an increasingly insane conclusion, with Reed pulling out all of the magnificent stops including wild eyed organ playing, masked knife-wielders, skeletons bricked up in basements and a concluding house fire.
Apart from Reed and Denham, the acting in the film is unmemorable. Lillian Brousse walks in and out as a French maid but is only irritating (as is Scott to be honest). Reed made several films for Hammer in the early 60s starting with small roles in the Two Faces of Dr Jekyll and Sword of Sherwood Forest in 1960. His first substantial part for them was in the more memorable The Curse of the Werewolf in 1961. Strangely, he was then moved from the horror genre to appear in more offbeat offerings over the next two years including Captain Clegg, The Scarlet Blade and The Damned. Most of these are now forgotten, although Joseph Losey’s The Damned turns up on television fairly regularly and is worth catching. In my view the 60s were Reed’s best decade as an actor by far.
Paranoiac is very low budget and very daft, although Oliver Reed does what he could do best – deliver an over the top although very entertaining performance. In his mid twenties, he looks trim and rather dashing. Some may even say that he was handsome at the time. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Released in 1967, Hammer’s Frankenstein Created Woman is arguably the best of the films starring Peter Cushing as the deranged baron. Two years later there followed Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, the next in the series that was a dark and disjointed piece that may qualify as one of Hammer’s strangest horrors.
Frankenstein Must be Destroyed has possibly the strongest cast ever assembled by Hammer. Cushing is supported by Simon Ward, Veronica Carlson and Maxine Audley. Freddie Jones makes the best of the post-Lee monsters, whilst Thorley Walters, Geoffrey Bayldon, George Pravda, Robert Gillespie and Windsor Davies are all excellent in supporting roles. As usual it is Cushing’s film, but here he portrays Baron Frankenstein with the nastiest of edges and resorts to the most unsavoury means to get what he wants. At times it’s uncomfortable viewing, with the image of the urbane Mr Cushing repeatedly crushed as he resorts to blackmail, rape and murder. Indeed, the scene in this film where he attacks a young woman in one of Hammer’s most disturbing, and unnecessary, scenes.
In following Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must be Destroyed has a difficult task in standing up to the preceding classic. Where the previous film depicted the Baron pulling off the feat of tranferring a soul from one body to another, this shows him returning to more familiar pastimes of cutting and pasting body parts, in this case brains. This at least gives Hammer the chance to make this instalment the more blood curdling, and although we see much of squidgy brains being plopped into jars, there are still some marvellous moments that are purely suggestive – notably the scenes where Frankenstein asks his assistant to hold things tightly as he embarks on some noisy sawing through skulls.
Frankenstein Must be Destroyed begins by introducing the Baron at his most terrifying, Cushing apprehending an unwise burgler and garbed in a skull mask; a bizarre opening scene not properly explained but nevertheless effective. Frankenstein blackmails a young man (Simon Ward) into assisting him with his latest scheme, springing his former associate Dr Brandt (Pravda) from the local asylum and repairing his damaged brain by transplanting it into Professor Richter (Freddie Jones). Along the way mysterious events are followed by the local hapless police (Thorley Walters and Geoffrey Bayldon). The film doesn’t really kick in properly until the last act, where the new creature (Jones) escapes and attempts to return to his wife (Maxine Audley).
Both Freddie Jones and Maxine Audley are excellent, the former giving one of the most sympathetic portrayals of The Monster. Thorley Walters is also good, although it’s a shame Hammer chose not to pursue the Cushing/Wallters memorable double act from Frankenstein Created Woman. In 1969 Frankenstein Must be Destroyed ended the decade with something still recognisable from their greatest success a decade earlier. However the 70s would prove difficult times for them, with Frankenstein left to skulk in the shadows as they churned out more unmemorable Dracula vehicles, and eventually turned away from the classic monsters altogether.
In the early 70s Hammer Films attempted to expand their horizons, deciding that the usual formula of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee Frankenstein and Dracula vehicles was becoming somewhat tired. One of the solutions was to produce features set in the present day and to introduce younger stars. In 1972 the double bill of Fear in the Night and Straight on Till Morning was released. The latter film starred Rita Tushingham and newcomer Shane Briant, who despite going on to star in several Hammer features is now sadly little remembered. The move to replace Cushing and Lee mostly failed, with Hammer becoming increasingly directionless. The studio lost their appeal as the 70s trudged on, with Straight on Till Morning being one of only a few artistic triumphs.
Along with Ralph Bates, Shane Briant was groomed as Hammer’s new leading man at the time, and although leading rather well in Captain Cronos – Vampire Hunter he is possibly most effective in Straight on Till Morning. Here he plays a rather deranged young man (Peter) who is slowly revealed as a very dangerous killer. Both Briant and Tushingham are excellent in this film.
Brenda (Tushingham) is a northern girl who tells her mother she is pregnant (although she isn’t) and leaves Liverpool for London intent on finding a partner to father a child. An odd decision, but she’s an odd character and let’s be frank here; this is a weird film. Brenda decides to engineer an encounter with Peter by the impulsive means of stealing his dog one evening and then returning it to him the next day. It works. The two embark on a rather offbeat relationship, based partly on some kind of homage to Peter and Wendy in Peter Pan, although this is never explored thoroughly.
Peter Collinson (The Italian Job) directs his only film for Hammer, and the approach comes across at times as an attempt to emulate the Roeg/Cammell partnership of Performance in the film’s erratic and jarring editing technique. Attempts at being art cinema largely fail, although Collinson proves himself as the most versatile of directors. Along with Fear in the Night, Straight on Till Morning was first considered as a tv movie and it does pre-empt the later Hammer House of Horror series for ITV which also effectively used a modern setting for its small screen chillers.
Striaght on Till Morning also reminds of both the films of Pete Walker and of Alfred Hitchcock’s London set Frenzy. But unlike Walker (and even the 1972 Hitchcock) Collinson doesn’t rely on the permissiveness of 70s cinema to sneak in an extra does of sex and violence. Straight on Till Morning plays by the rulebook of suggestion – there is next to no blood spilt on camera although this still results in one of the most shocking films of that decade. This is partly due to the excellent acting and the dark ending, which is one of the tensest on camera.
James Bolam and Tom Bell appear in supporting roles, but their presence is so slight it seems their careers were at a low ebb at the time. It’s Briant and Tushingham’s film. Indeed, Hammer appear to be deliberately avoiding the inclusion of the recognisable supporting cast that usually kept their features bouyant. But never mind, the leads are enough to keep this one afloat. Rita Tushingham is a performer I’ve always felt uncomfortable with but in this film she is superb, almost parodying her ugly duckling persona of the previous decade. I last saw her in the Joe Meek biopic Telstar. Shane Briant still works consistently, although its tricky to name anything notable he’s done in recent years. Peter Collinson didn’t really direct anything more of worth and died in 1980. Straight on Till Morning is glaringly 70s British cinema, and the disturbingly frank shock factor of this film has undoubtedly kept it from television showings and let it sink into undeserved obscurity. A pity.
As well as the essential M.R. James reading and viewing, Christmas is also a suitable time for a Hammer Horror. Hammer’s immensely successful 1957 film The Curse of Frankenstein spawned six sequels; The Revenge of Frankenstein (1959), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969), The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974). Although the law of diminishing returns usually applies with film sequels, Hammer hit gold around the halfway mark. Frankenstein Created Woman is the best in the series, a classic chiller directed by Terence Fisher and featuring one of Peter Cushing’s best performances.
Frankenstein Created Woman is textbook Hammer, inviting the viewer to snuggle in front of the television under a cosy blanket. Unthreatening and warming, a well made film with recognisable settings, costumes, music and archetypal characters – all the familiar trademarks of the studio. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t look low budget by today’s standards. Its charm aside, the sets do look like they are ready to be folded away ready for the next production, and the costumes belong to the wardrobe that clothed the entire oeuvre of the studio. Even the rosé wine featured throughout this film that wasn’t drunk or spilt was probably carefully rebottled.
Nevertheless this is a horror film that has worn well over the decades. Frankenstein Created Woman is quite methodical in setting up its plot, reminding of The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) which has a similarly long preamble to the main story. It works very well here, and those who might find the early part plodding will be rewarded when things begin to fit together rather neatly towards the end. The film begins with a raving man being led to the guillotine. A small boy revealed to be the condemned man’s son is seen watching the execution, and when events jump ahead several years we see him again as Hans (Robert Morris), a young man in love with a disfigured girl called Christina (Susan Denburg). Hans works for Baron Frankenstein, who sends him out one night for a bottle of champagne following a particularly successful experiment (he has managed to be revived after freezing himself for exactly one hour. Yes, Baron Frankenstein always was a little weird).
As usual, Peter Cushing is superb as Baron Frankenstein, portraying the usual sharp wit and driven ambition that doesn’t quite tip him over into insanity. He is joined by Thorley Walters as his bumbling associate Dr Hertz. Walters plays a very baffled Watson to Cushing’s particularly sharp Holmes, and the two complement eachother quite perfectly throughout the film. Indeed, it’s a shame Hammer chose not to continue their partnership in the later films (Walters does turn up in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed but plays a different role). However it’s Cushing’s film and without his sublime acting it’s difficult to see how Hammer would have been so enduring and successful.
The quest for the Baron’s champagne sets things moving as Christina’s father happens to run the nearby inn. Three top-hatted scoundrels call in, the sort who are generally disagreeable in how they put their feet up on the tables and light smelly cheroots. Even worse, the type who demand their wine (to be put on credit) served by the innkeeper’s daughter. Their bullying turns nasty when Hans gets into a brawl with them and later, when the drunken trio return for some after hours drinking, Christina’s father disturbs them and they beat him to death. Hans is convicted of the murder and sent to the guillotine. Christina drowns herself. All a bit grim, but perfect for the Baron, whose latest experiment just happens to involve raising the dead. Together with Dr Hertz, he repairs Christina’s crippled body and, for good measure, implants the soul of Hans into it.
Susan Denburg is excellent as Christina in, surprisingly, the last of only a handful of film roles. This film does indeed create the type of starlet Hammer later used as a selling point for their films, the buxom young ladies employed for such titles as Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. Resurrected by the Baron, Christina sets out on murdering the three top-hatted scoundrels who set the horrible ball rolling in the first place and this is all executed (pardon the pun) rather satisfyingly. And look out for Yes Minister’s Derek Fowlds as one of the above mentioned top-hatted victims.
The horror critic Alan Frank rated Frankenstein Created Woman quite highly in his 1982 Horror Film Handbook:
The last Hammer film to be made at Bray reworks Bride of Frankenstein to good effect. Fisher’s direction, impressive settings and a neat performance from Cushing make it a first-rate addition to the genre.
Frank also quotes a review from The Times:
Scriptwriter John Elder and director Terence Fisher have a nice sense of the balance between horror and absurdity and the film has the courage of its own lunatic convictions.
Surprisingly, other than mentioning that the film formed part of a double X double-bill with The Mummy’s Shroud in summer 1967, Hammer’s own celebratory 1973 The House of Horror has little else to say about the film. But perhaps it is time that has set Frankenstein Created Woman apart, where in a world now saturated with so many in your face explicit horror films we can recognise real quality.
There’s been talk of a new Hammer horror film for some time. Almost a year ago I heard wind of something from the BBC but I didn’t get too excited about it. Now it’s official, but you won’t be seeing anything in the cinemas, or even on television or DVD, just yet. Hammer’s latest official production, their first for nearly a quarter of a century, is exclusive to Myspace. Beyond the Rave can be enjoyed in episodic form and the first few instalments (of twenty) are already available to watch.
However. My expectations were quite low for this, but I found myself pleasantly impressed with what I’ve seen so far of Beyond the Rave. Those expecting the innocent charm of the Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee era will be disappointed, possibly offended. The new Hammer offering has a modern day setting and resembles (at least in spirit) the Hammer House of Horror tv series from 1980. But that was almost 30 years ago, and the web-only platform for Beyond the Rave means they can do pretty much as they like in terms of language, violence and sheer nastiness, although it still feels weirdly dated (do people still go to raves?). But don’t watch this clip if you’re easily shocked (of course you will, that’s like saying “don’t go down into the cellar” to an eager character in a horror movie).
The plot is quite dense and confusing, which suits the episodic format, but in summary it features a very youthful and potentially doomed cast in rural England, although they are a little more street wise than Hammer’s previous attempts at portraying realistic teenagers (look no further than Dracula A.D. 1972). The early episodes are well paced, although it doesn’t look like it will be long before it descends into the mayhem promised in the trailer above.
Personally it would have been much less frustrating for me if they’d stuck the whole of it on YouTube. But I see the reasoning in the Myspace approach – Hammer doesn’t want to have an immediate flop on their hands after waiting nearly thirty years. Although I imagine that Christopher Lee will absolutely hate this, and Peter Cushing will be turning in his grave.