Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Belated Farewell to Jimmy Sangster

If director Terence Fisher was the eye of Hammer, and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were the horror studio's faces, then Jimmy Sangster was its voice. The Welsh screenwriter composed the mass of Hammer's greatest films, taking fresh liberties with war horses such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy, and conjuring first-rate original material such as Brides of Dracula, Scream of Fear, and The Nanny. His directorial efforts (The Horror of Frankenstein, Lust for a Vampire, Fear in the Night) were fewer and less successful, arriving after Hammer had passed from its golden age to a new era of sensationalistic sex and gore. Sangster remained active in film until 2000 when he co-wrote the German thriller Mörderische Ferien. At the same time, he was turning his writing to more personal matters, publishing his autobiography Do You Want It Good or Tuesday? in 1997 and Screenwriting Techniques for Success in 2003. Sangster died on August 19 at the age of 83.

Jimmy Sangster is also of the most well-represented writers in this site's on-going series "Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies." Here's what I had to say about some of his finest work:

36. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957- dir. Terence Fisher)

The Quatermass Xperiment was successful, but it wasn’t the film that made Hammer synonymous with horror. Almost two years of non-horror fare passed before that landmark film arrived. Like Quatermass, Hammer’s reimagining of Frankenstein put more bloody flesh on the screen than audiences were used to at the time, but it did so without masquerading as science fiction and in shocking full color. The Curse of Frankenstein is capital-H Horror. It also fully established the conventions fans would soon associate with Hammer: excessive blood, sleazy sex, and source material with roots in Universal horror. Terence Fisher’s remake arrived just a few months shy of the 25th anniversary of Whale’s original, but the new film could hardly be called a respectful homage. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster makes his film great by jettisoning much of what made Whale’s great. Frankenstein was a poetic, deeply humane portrait of a monstrous innocent driven to horrendous acts after being abandoned by his equally sympathetic creator. The Curse of Frankenstein is a portrait of cruelty. Focus shifts away from the Monster and onto the doctor, who is more villainous than any horror character since Mamoulian’s Hyde, and like Hyde, he is not without his charms because he is played with electrifying gusto. Peter Cushing is great in the title role, magnetic even as he murders a kindly house guest, launches into megalomaniacal rants, or torments the maid with whom he’s having an affair. Christopher Lee makes a lesser impact as the Monster because Fisher gives him a minimum of screen time and doesn’t bother imbuing him with any of the complexities Whale and Karloff gave theirs. Humanity and complexity are not on the agenda here. Its utter cynicism, undiluted by an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style disclaimer, can be felt in many horror films to follow. Typical of a Hammer Horror, critics loathed The Curse of Frankenstein but audiences loved it, and its international success confirmed the studio as the new generation’s Universal and Cushing and Lee as its Karloff and Lugosi.

38. Dracula (1958- dir. Terence Fisher)

The suits at Hammer must have taken all of three seconds to decide upon the follow up to 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. Just as Universal knew Dracula was the natural follow up to their Frankenstein, Hammer recognized the reverse would work equally well. One can recognize Dracula as a Terence Fisher/Hammer production even before the opening credits are complete: we zoom into a crypt and focus on a casket dripped with vivid red-paint blood. As was the case with Curse, subtlety was not much concern in Dracula. Unlike that film, we are presented with a hero of the highest moral character. Deliciously, Van Helsing is played by the actor who brought such immoral menace to the earlier film. Peter Cushing proves he is just as affecting as the good guy as he was as the bad, bringing much zest and charm and heroic confidence to Van Helsing. Once again, Christopher Lee is somewhat underused as the monster, although his commanding presence and rich baritone are put to much better use as Count Dracula then they were as Frankenstein’s wobbly creature. His greatest scenes are reserved for the beginning of the film. About halfway though, he is reduced to the speechless, leering thing he’d reprise in countless Dracula sequels. Fisher’s film also differs from Stoker and Browning by jumbling character relationships, having Jonathan Harker turn into a vampire and get staked early in the picture, and—most egregious of all—losing Renfield. Yet, Dracula (or Horror of Dracula, as it was titled in the U.S. so not to be mistaken for Tod Browning’s film) is the jewel in Hammer’s crown because of the sumptuous visuals Fisher lays out like a decadent, aristocratic banquet: the costumes, the colors, the castles, the wind-blown leaves, the creepy woods— what an invitingly Gothic landscape! Significantly, Hammer’s two big monster movies contributed to a burgeoning monster revival sweeping kid culture in the late ‘50s. The films coincided with the launch of the syndicated “Shock Theater” package that gave a new generation of TV viewers its first taste of Universal’s classic horror. Forrest J. Ackerman capitalized on the craze and fueled it further with his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Like The Mummy, the iconic monsters had laid dormant for a long spell, but a few conjuring words from Forry, horror hosts such as Zacherley and Vampira, and Hammer’s chief screenwriter Jimmy Sangster were enough to bring them back from the dead. Their young legion of followers, known affectionately as “Monster Kids,” guaranteed these creeps would never be out of the pop cultural floodlights again.

41. The Mummy (1959- dir. Terence Fisher)

Hammer stuck close to formula with its final horror of the ‘50s by remaking Universal’s successor to Dracula and Frankenstein. Cushing, Lee, Sangster, and Fisher all return for The Mummy, which actually has more in common with the mediocre sequel The Mummy’s Tomb than the 1932 Karloff vehicle. This is not one of Sangster’s cleverest scripts, but Lee gets to upstage costar Cushing for the first time. Spending much of the movie wrapped in dirty bandages, his face caked in Egyptian mud, Lee is still more sympathetic as lovelorn Kharis than he was in his earlier monster roles. He also gets some quality face time and dialogue during a lavish, 13-minute sequence reimagining the mummification scene from the original Mummy, though without reaching similar heights of claustrophobia-inducing terror. The greatest triumph of The Mummy is that of Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, and their brilliant art department. The team’s use of colored lights, painted backdrops, spectacular costumes and props, and sets cluttered with detail make the whole picture look like a canvass thick with rich oils. The Mummy was Hammer’s first horror film to receive some positive critical notices, but its appeal was certainly most obvious to young monster enthusiasts. The horror genre, however, was about to grow up during a decade of near constant upheaval and violence.

44. The Brides of Dracula (1960- dir. Terence Fisher)

There was no way its sequel would fully recapture the power of Hammer’s Dracula, because Christopher Lee refused to revisit the count for fear of being typecast (his stance would crumble soon enough). Still there’s a lot of what made Dracula great in The Brides of Dracula. Not suffering any of his costar’s reservations, Peter Cushing happily returns as Van Helsing, and he gets more opportunities to display undeath-defying heroism than in the previous film. His showdown with a dashing non-Dracula vampire is likely Terence Fisher’s most thrilling sequence, climaxing with Cushing getting chomped and taking some rather extreme measures to ward off his own vampirism. Marita Hunt is nearly as arresting in the role of the eccentric Baroness Meinster, while Fisher’s trademark mastery of color and artificial environments provides further distraction from Lee’s absence. The screenwriting team, led by Hammer Stalwart Jimmy Sangster, also came up with an intriguing mystery (why is the Baroness Meinster keeping a young man prisoner in her sprawling castle?) that arguably makes the film more engaging than Hammer’s previous horrors to those already well familiar with how Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy pan out. But as is the case with most Hammer pictures, the main allure of The Brides of Dracula is that it provides yet another opportunity to gawk at marvelous sets and costumes rendered in glorious Technicolor and indelible images of vampire brides rising from the grave.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pete Townshend "Before I Get Old" series on BBC

Pete Townshend pores over his life and music in a new two-part series for BBC Radio 2. "Before I Get Old: Episode 1" debuted last night and is now online here. Skip ahead to 03:35 for the Townshend portion of the program.

Episode 2 airs next Tuesday night (22:00- August 30, 2011).

Review: 'The Hollies: Look Through Any Window (1963-1975)'

The Hollies never influenced their peers or created L.P.s on the level of The Beatles or The Stones or any of the other top-tier British bands of the ‘60s. They just made one great pop single after another, amassing a trove of top-forty wonders on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. “Bus Stop”, “Stop! Stop! Stop!”, “Carrie Anne”, “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress”—all smashes and all as fresh sounding today as they were 40-plus years ago. Singles-oriented bands don’t tend to get the respect that groups with a Revolver or Beggars Banquet under their belts do, so The Hollies: Look Through Any Window (1963-1975) is a particularly pleasurable surprise. This over two-hour-long documentary tells the group’s story via brand new interviews with core members—Graham Nash, Alan Clarke, Tony Hicks, and Bobby Elliott—and pristinely presented archival footage. Nearly all of the group’s hits are here, and they sound and look spectacular. Color excerpts of The Hollies performing “Baby That’s All” and “Here I Go Again” in the fairly obscure 1964 film U.K. Swings Again look like they were shot last week (that Hicks looks about 12 in them is a tell-tale sign they weren’t). Because there are no promo films or live clips of “King Midas in Reverse”, director David Peck cut together a montage of home movies shot by tour manager Rod Shields to serve as backdrop for the pivotal track.

Despite their past conflicts, the guys are respectful of each other in the new interviews. In retrospect, it’s pretty amazing to think they clashed over “Midas” and considered it such a departure from their hit-making formula when it’s really just as catchy and accessible as anything else they did (and quite a bit more substantial than, say, “Jennifer Eccles” or “Sorry Suzanne”). Or that Nash parted ways with The Hollies to hook up with Stephen Stills and David Crosby, whose music was only moderately edgier than that of his former band. And let’s not forget how unusual the chiming “Bus Stop”, the steel-drum-speckled “Carrie Anne”, or “Stop! Stop! Stop!”— with its balalaika-simulating banjo and wacky tale of a horny spectator’s ejection from a belly-dancer show (based on a true story, as funnily recounted by Nash)—were. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Hollies: Look Through Any Window (1963-1975) is how it puts such subtle innovations and the band’s abilities into perspective. Seeing Hicks recreate that tricky “Stop! Stop! Stop!” riff on his electric banjo today may inspire you to head back to your old Hollies records to truly appreciate his playing for the first time.

The Hollies: Look Through Any Window (1963-1975) will be screened at the American Cinemateque’s Aero Theater in Santa Monica, California, this September 22. After the screening, Nash, Clarke, and the film’s producers will take part in a panel discussion. Reelin’ in the Years Productions’ DVD release follows on October 4.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: ‘After School Session’ / ‘Chuck Berry Is on Top’

Coupling Chuck Berry’s first studio album and his first compilation on a single CD is a cheeky move on the part of British label BGO, but hearing After School Session back-to-back with Chuck Berry Is on Top just highlights how great of an artist he was at 33 1/3 and 45 rpms. Cut at a time when Rock & Roll LPs were still outside the ordinary, After School Session is interesting for housing only two hits (“School Day” and “Too Much Monkey Business”) and standing up so well atop its lesser known numbers. There isn’t much filler here. The vocal cuts are uniformly terrific, and on occasion (“Havana Moon”, “Downbound Train”, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”), monumental. The instrumentals are slight but charming: “Deep Feeling” provides the rare opportunity to hear Berry’s primitive but evocative slide playing; “Berry Pickin’” twists from a saucy Latin two-step to a hard Rock & Roll swing. But we all want to hear Chuck work his velvet pipes, and he recaptures some of the eeriness of Elvis’s Sun Sessions on the magical calypso “Havana Moon” and “Downbound Train”. His over-enunciated croon is unintentionally comical on “Together We Will Always Be”, but the track provides more evidence of his willingness to stretch himself without losing his bluesy edge. The lilting “Drifting Heart” is a more convincing and intoxicating endeavor in the traditional ballad vein. Gorgeous.

Anyone with a dime’s worth of interest in Rock & Roll requires no introduction to the mass of Chuck Berry Is on Top. “Almost Grown”, “Carol”, “Maybellene”, “Sweet Little Rock & Roller”, “Roll over Beethoven”, “Johnny B. Goode”, and so many others are as fundamental to a musical education as the ABCs and 123s are to an academic one. Their humor, energy, vivid characterizations, and joyful musicianship inspired generations of musicians to pick up their Gibsons and Fenders for the first time. There’s only one otherwise unavailable cut on this singles collection, though “Blues for Hawaiians”, a retread of “Deep Feeling”, is the most disposable thing here.

The quartet of bonus tracks is a random assortment of the obscure (“Time Was”, “Little Marie”—a rerecording of “Memphis, Tennessee”) and the essential (“Come On”, “Promised Land”) mostly recorded well outside the timeframe of the two LPs they follow. Why are they here? When you start swinging along to them, such questions will grow trivial and evaporate real fast. If you don’t already own After School Session and Chuck Berry Is on Top, your homework is to pick up BGO’s new twofer. Your schooling ain’t complete without them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Psychobabble’s 200 Essential Horror Movies Part 6: The 1970s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through 100 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 200 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

(Updated in September 2021)

93. Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970- dir. Freddie Francis)

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Best Shot: Revolver’s Legacy

The Beatles kept up a grueling schedule during their first few years as recording artists. Along with their countless concert, television, radio, and personal commitments, they recorded six albums, ten singles, and an E.P. in little over three years. It had all caught up with them by 1966, the year that saw naïve Beatlemania weathered by its first scandals: Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” comment and its subsequent backlash, and an unintentional snub against the Marcos family that turned a trip to the Philippians volatile and dangerous. The guys’ decreased enthusiasm for live performance and increased fascination with studio work put them off the road for good. A full nine months lapsed between the release of Rubber Soul in December ’65 and Revolver the following August—the longest span between new Beatles records yet. Certainly the band’s schedule and fatigue factored into the delay, but the amount of work The Beatles put into their sixth album was also significant. Proof of that is in the grooves.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Early Hitchcock Film Unearthed!

According to Seattle pi.com, the National Film Preservation Foundation and the New Zealand Film Archive recently dived into a lost trove of unmarked film prints donated by NZ projectionist Jack Murtagh and reemerged holding 30 minutes of The White Shadow. This 1923 evil-twin flick starring Betty Compson (The Docks of New York, The Great Gabbo) may be the first written, edited, and designed by Alfred Hitchcock. 24-year-old Hitch also served as assistant director under Graham Cutts. National Film Preservation Foundation director Annette Melville told Seattle pi that the film boasts "a totally crazy, zany plot with soul migration back and forth and all these improbable meetings." The opening three reels of The White Shadow will have its big screen revival at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on September 22.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Return of 'Tales from the Crypt'

You know how you've always wished you had a deeper understanding of brow-beaten men who gasp "Good lord!" when their murdered wives return from the grave for gruesome revenge? No? Me neither! That's not stopping original "Tales from the Crypt"-producer Lou Adler from partnering with Andrew Cosby (co-creator of the goofy Syfy series "Eureka") to create an hour-long show based on the influential horror comic. The producers have completed an all-new "Tales from the Crypt" bible and will soon start shopping their show to networks and cable channels. According to Deadline.com, Adler and Cosby's "Crypt" will do away with the anthology format of the HBO show in favor of a serial with recurring characters pulled from the comic... but in a more "modern context." Good lord.

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