It’s Hammer time

 

From www.horrorpedia.com

 

When I was seventeen years old, I worked for a while as a volunteer assistant teacher and houseparent at a residential school in Lincolnshire, one for teenaged boys who in those un-politically correct times were deemed ‘maladjusted’.  I suppose in the less brutal terminology of today, they’d be described as having ‘behavioural issues’.  One day I was sitting in the deputy headmaster’s office, chatting to him about something or other, when the school secretary stomped in.  She carried in her hand – one corner of it pinched delicately between a thumb and finger, as if it was something filthy and potentially infectious – a magazine that sported on its cover the face of a savage, hairy, fanged monster.

 

Actually, the monstrous face belonged to Oliver Reed – no surprises there.  This was how he’d appeared in the 1961 British horror movie Curse of the Werewolf.  I knew this because I recognised the magazine immediately.  It was issue ten of a horror-film magazine called House of Hammer.  I remembered buying the same issue six years earlier, when I’d been eleven.  The secretary had caught a couple of pupils leafing through a tatty old copy of this magazine and she’d promptly confiscated it.

 

I was about to interject – on the principle that you should be free to read whatever you want to read – with a humorous but pointed comment: “Well, that looks like the sort of magazine I used to read when I was their age!”  But then the secretary wrenched open House of Hammer, issue ten, at a certain page and screeched, “Look at that!  Disgusting!”

 

The page contained a still from another British horror movie called Satan’s Slave, which’d been released around the time of the magazine’s publication in 1977.  The still showed a gruesome close-up of an actor called Martin Potter moments after someone had stuck a metal nail-file into one of his eyeballs.

 

The deputy headmaster gasped, “Oh my God!”  And I decided that to preserve my professional reputation among the school’s staff, I’d better keep my mouth shut about my familiarity with issue ten of House of Hammer.

 

House of Hammer was the brainchild of magazine and comic editor Dez Skinn.  In 1976, Skinn was asked by Warner Brothers Entertainment’s publishing division to come up with a new monthly magazine dedicated to horror films.  While trying to think of a selling point for the new publication, it occurred to him that whilst walking to work every day he passed Hammer House, headquarters for the legendary British horror-movie studio Hammer Films, on London’s Wardour Street.  So he contacted the studio, which was then headed by Michael Carreras, and got it to agree to the publication of a Hammer-themed magazine.  The magazine would deal with all horror films, but part of it would be devoted to Hammer’s output.  Each issue would feature a comic-strip adaptation of a Hammer horror movie and its title would reflect the connection too: House of Hammer.

 

Actually, I suspect that Skinn, who was primarily a comics man, had his own agenda.  Although he’d worked on British children’s comics like Buster and Whizzer and Chips, it must have irked him that Britain – unlike, say, the USA and Japan – regarded comics as being strictly for children.  According to the British view, anyone who read them beyond the age of twelve or thirteen must be a bit soft in the head.  Skinn possibly saw House of Hammer, with its comic-strip adaptations of films that were still regarded in the 1970s as adult viewing, as a Trojan horse – a vehicle by which he could smuggle more adult-orientated comic strips into the British publishing world.

 

From www.dezskinn.com

 

Indeed, he also persuaded Hammer to give him access to two of the more comic-book-like characters in its canon: Captain Kronos, hero of the 1974 horror-swashbuckler, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter; and Father Shandor, the gruff, bearded, rifle toting (and thanks to his being played by Caledonian actor Andrew Keir, Scottish-accented) Transylvanian monk who’d battled Christopher Lee in 1966’s Dracula Prince of Darkness.  Skinn created spin-off comic-strip adventures for Kronos and Shandor and inserted those in the magazine too.

 

Finally, he rounded off each issue with a three-page strip called Van Helsing’s Terror Tales.  Here, Count Dracula’s arch-enemy Professor Van Helsing, as played by Peter Cushing in the original 1958 Hammer adaptation of Dracula, would narrate a blood-curdling story that was clearly inspired by those in the old American EC Comics of the 1950s like Tales from the Crypt and Haunt of Fear.

 

Though I started buying House of Hammer for its film coverage, the magazine soon opened my eyes to the fact that comics were much more than a juvenile medium.  In their multi-panelled, visually fast-moving way, they could be an art form.  In particular, House of Hammer showcased the work of two superb artists: John Bolton, whose work was beautifully shaded and conjured up oodles of gothic atmosphere; and Brian Lewis, whose work was simpler and more delineated but equally gorgeous.  No wonder Carreras told Skinn that the artwork in the magazine exceeded anything the studio had commissioned for its posters.

 

From www.comicbookbrain.com

From www.kidr77.blogspot.co.uk

 

But the writers dealing with House of Hammer’s film material were impressive too.  They included the learned cinema historian Dennis Gifford, whose book A Pictorial History of Horror Films is regarded today as a milestone in written studies of horror cinema.  There was also John Brosnan, an Australian ex-patriate who was surely a busy man – he wrote several film-related tomes, namely James Bond in the Cinema, Movie Magic, The Horror People, Future Tense and The Primal Screen, and at the same time he penned horror novels under the pseudonym of Harry Adam Knight.  And there was David Pirie, now an acclaimed TV writer, who’d written another seminal cinema-book, A Heritage of Horror, the first critical work to say good things about the British horror films of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Plus Alan Frank, who’d written a lavishly illustrated volume called Horror Films and who later became a national newspaper critic.  (All right, the newspaper in question was the cheesy, tit-obsessed tabloid the Daily Star, but it still counts as a national newspaper.  Apparently.)  The shelves in my bedroom, needless to say, were soon groaning under the weight of Gifford’s, Brosnan’s, Pirie’s and Frank’s books.

 

One other House of Hammer writer whom I liked was a bloke called John Fleming.  In one of the first issues I bought, he penned a review of the 1974 Spanish zombie-horror film The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue – which despite being Spanish was set in England, and despite having ‘Manchester’ in its title was set in the Lake District.  The review made me uncomfortable because, as Fleming explained, the film’s plot involved a new agricultural machine that kills crop-pests by emitting low amounts of radiation: this has the unexpected side effect of bringing recently dead humans back to murderous life.  I was living on a farm at the time and employing a machine that destroys crop-damaging bugs, but that accidentally unleashes a plague of killer zombies too, sounded like something my Dad would do.  Fleming had a humorous writing style.  He wryly described the film’s many disembowelments, dismemberments and eye-gougings that, to my eleven-year-old self, didn’t sound like laughing matters.  He concluded with the memorable line: “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is no great horror film.  But you certainly won’t sleep through it.”

 

From www.britishcomicart.blogspot.com

 

I would furtively buy House of Hammer at my local newsagent’s and read it well away from the eyes of my parents.  I doubted if the magazine would receive adult approval – rightly, as my experience at the school in Lincolnshire demonstrated years later.  Hammer horror films nowadays are a cherished part of Britain’s film heritage.  People rank them alongside the Gainsborough romances and Ealing comedies and wax nostalgically about how fairy tale-like and relatively un-bloody they were.  But that certainly wasn’t how they were regarded in the past, even as late as the 1970s.  Back then, they had a reputation for being crude, sleazy and violent.  The really subtle and artful horror films, the establishment critics would tell you, were the monochrome ones made by Universal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s.

 

Another reason to keep shtum about reading House of Hammer was the magazine’s coverage of new – well, late-1970s – horror films.  It didn’t flinch from showing graphic scenes from those films.   (Though the pictures were at least in black and white.  The only part of House of Hammer that was in colour was its cover).  As well as the nail-file-in the-eye picture from Satan’s Slave, I remember grisly stills from the 1976 killer-worm film Squirm, including one where a bucketful of crazed worms start burrowing into someone’s face – these special effects were the work of a young make-up man called Rick Baker, who’d later win Oscars for his contributions to more reputable movies.  I was also haunted by pictures from 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man, in which actor Alex Rebar spends 84 minutes dissolving in a gloop of what looks like mouldy pizza topping.  Its special effects were also masterminded by Rick Baker.  Obviously, Rick was a busy lad in those days.

 

In fact, horror movies then were rapidly changing.  The gothic costume-drama horrors of Hammer Films – who managed just one release during House of Hammer’s run, 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter – were on their way out, along with the traditional monsters that they’d featured, like vampires, werewolves and mummies.  In their place appeared angrier, more brutal, contemporary-set horror films.  Whether it was conscious of this or not, the magazine in its later issues devoted increasing space to younger and more nihilistic horror filmmakers like George Romero, Dario Argento and Brian De Palma.

 

Indeed, it was John Fleming in House of Hammer who introduced me to the work of a young Canadian director called David Cronenberg.  He wrote a feature about Cronenberg’s first four movies, the mutation-obsessed, body-horror shockers Stereo (1969), Crimes of the Future (1970), Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977).  Noting that Rabid, which was about blood-crazed zombies in Montreal who had hypodermic spikes oozing in and out of their orifices, was just a remake of Shivers, which was about sex-crazed zombies in Montreal who had slug-like parasites oozing in and out of their orifices, Fleming expressed concern that Cronenberg might be a one-trick pony who’d spend his career repeating himself.  “In horror films,” wrote Fleming, “I prefer ad nauseum to mean something else.”  Well, John, you obviously didn’t see A History of Violence (2005) coming.  Or Eastern Promises (2007).  Or A Dangerous Method (2011).  Or…

 

House of Hammer folded after 23 issues.  I suppose its demise was inevitable.  By this point in the late 1970s the studio from which it’d taken its name was virtually dead in the water, as was the whole British film industry.

 

From www.alistasi.com

 

But over the past few years what’s been interesting, and gratifying, for me has been the realisation that I wasn’t the only kid in Britain who’d surreptitiously read the magazine.  No, some heavy-hitters of the future had read it too.  The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss made a documentary about British horror films for BBC4 a couple of years ago and it contained a scene where Gatiss sat down and pored over an old copy of House of Hammer.  Meanwhile, comic actor and writer Mathew Holness (of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place fame) was clearly a fan too, as this item on his twitter feed indicates:

 

https://twitter.com/mrholness/status/547550929982349313

 

Perhaps most significantly, I’ve read an interview with British filmmaker Julian Richards, whose 1997 movie Darklands is credited with kick-starting the modern boom in British horror movie-making – which has spawned films such as 28 Days Later (2003) and Kill List (2011) and is still going today.  In the interview Richards mentioned that his first attempt at movie-making, at the age of 13, involved filming a version of a Van Helsing’s Terror Tale from a House of Hammer issue.

 

http://mjsimpson-films.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/interview-julian-richards-1997.html

 

At one point I’d managed to amass all 23 issues of House of Hammer, which today, in mint condition, would probably raise a fortune on eBay.  Unfortunately, each issue had on its back cover the original poster for the Hammer film being told in comic-strip form inside it.  And in my unthinking juvenile enthusiasm, I’d immediately grab a pair of scissors, cut off that poster / back cover and stick it on my bedroom wall.  Oh well.  I still think the Vampire Circus (1972) poster is a thing of beauty that should be on everyone’s bedroom wall.

 

(c) Hammer Films

 

By the time of House of Hammer’s demise, Skinn had launched a sister magazine, Starburst.  This was inspired by the success of Star Wars (1977), dealt with science-fiction films and TV shows and used most of House of Hammer’s writing staff – including John Fleming, who’d get to interview heroes of mine such as Nigel Kneale, creator / writer of Quatermass, and Brian Clemens, key writer on The Avengers.  After about twenty issues Starburst widened its remit to include fantasy and horror films as well and it’s continued to be published, on and off, ever since – the last time I checked, it’d clocked up over 400 issues.

 

In the 1980s, Skinn also launched the influential comic – the influential adult comic – Warrior, which gave the world its first taste of the classic Alan Moore-written, David Lloyd-illustrated dystopian saga V for Vendetta.  At the risk of sounding uncultured, I have to say that what excited me when I read Warrior wasn’t so much V for Vendetta; but the fact that it contained more of the adventures of that demon-fighting Transylvanian / Scottish monk from Dracula Prince of Darkness, Father Shandor.

 

From www.tor.com

 

A while back, whilst Internet-surfing, I stumbled across a blog called So It Goes written by John Fleming, House of Hammer’s old Living Dead at Manchester Morgue reviewer and David Cronenberg expert.  Fleming has been busy since then.  Although he still does some journalism, he’s also been a producer of comedy shows and a consultant for theatres and entertainment companies; he organises the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards that are handed out every year at the Edinburgh Fringe; he sets up websites, usually for comedians; and he records podcasts with the Scottish comedy critic Kate Copstick.  His blog is mainly about comedy and comedians too.

 

I wasn’t surprised that Fleming had turned out to be a comedy specialist.  Back at the beginning of the 1980s, I’d watched Tiswas, the famous ITV Saturday-morning kid’s show that was a glorious mixture of jokes, slapstick, anarchy, stupidity, custard pies, buckets of water and vats of gunge and that helped to launch the careers of Chris Tarrant and Lenny Henry; and I’d noticed the name ‘John Fleming’ among the show’s credits.  I’d always wondered if this was the same John Fleming who’d written for House of Hammer and Starburst.  (Answer: it was.)

 

I sent Fleming an email, in which I threw at him a couple of his old quotes from House of Hammer – God knows how I remembered them after nearly 40 years, but I did – and he responded with a request to interview me for his blog.  He’d had a look at my biography on Blood and Porridge and must’ve decided that I sounded weird enough to make an interesting interview subject.  So we did a half-hour interview via Skype.  The piece that resulted from the interview can be read here.

 

https://thejohnfleming.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/north-korea-manchesters-living-dead-and-the-influence-of-house-of-hammer/

 

I have to say that our half-hour chat was pretty rambling.  It veered from my time in North Korea to my experiences as a writer; from the cinematic oeuvre of Mr Cronenberg to the town of Norwich, where I’d studied for my MA; from my current life in Sri Lanka to the question of why an eleven-year-old kid, as I was in 1977, would want to subject himself to a magazine like House of Hammer, dealing with films that were supposedly the stuff of nightmares.  (Fleming had assumed that the magazine’s readership consisted of geeks in their late teens.)  I was dubious that he’d be able to shape our all-over-the-place conversation into a coherent article, at least one where I didn’t sound like a babbling madman whose brain had been disconnected into a dozen different pieces.

 

But I think he’s managed to do a decent job of it.  I only sound slightly babbling and mad and disconnected.  Cheers, John!

 

From www.tainted-archive.blogspot.com

 

Was there anything this man couldn’t do?

 

(c) WingNut Films

 

For a man who epitomised evil to generations of film-goers – he played, after all, Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself  – the passing of venerable actor Sir Christopher Lee has sparked a remarkable outpouring of love over the last few days, in online newspaper comment-threads, on Facebook and on Twitter.

 

The love has flowed both from ordinary punters and from the countless celebrities who knew and / or admired him.  And those celebrities have included some of the coolest people on the planet: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sir Iain McKellen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Bruce Campbell, Bryan Fuller, the Soska Sisters, the human movie-factory that is Roger Corman (who, in between tweeting to promote his new opus Sharktopus Vs Whalewolf, said of Lee, “Your talent, kindness and generosity will never be forgotten”) and Boris Johnson.  There was a deliberate mistake in that last sentence – did you spot it?

 

I don’t think the Queen has tweeted her condolences yet, but Joan Collins has, which is the next best thing.

 

From @joancollinsobe

 

Indeed, I’ve seen the adjective ‘awesome’ thrown around several times in description of the great man and his career.  But in my opinion, Lee wasn’t just awesome.  To me, he discovered the kingdom of Awesomeness and then journeyed in there and planted his flag (probably a skull and crossbones) on top of the highest peak of Awesomeness.  And to support this opinion, I’ll now remind you of a few of the things that Lee did during his 93 years on earth.

 

Until his death on June 7th, he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in the early noughties he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.  (Previously, Lee had attended Summer Fields School in Oxford, where one of his classmates was none other than the future John Steed-of-The Avengers Patrick Macnee.)

 

Incidentally, though in the late 1970s he penned an entertaining autobiography called Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee didn’t seem to go in for writing per se.  But he had literary connections aplenty.  He was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.

 

Talking of Wheatley and the occult, Lee reputedly owned a library of books about black magic.  As a kid I remember reading a film book called The Horror People by the critic John Brosnan, in which Lee told Brosnan that his occult books were for reading purposes only and he would never try to practice the dark arts because – yikes! – “It’s too dangerous.”

 

Lee’s military service during World War II included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol (which was the forerunner to the SAS), but he kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.

 

In the late 1940s he got into acting, although not with much initial success due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification (and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement).

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (He starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.

 

In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw did indeed get the job; so that the man who played Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.

 

Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together.  Such was Lee’s affection for Cushing that I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded the other day when the ever-reliable Fox News f***ed up the announcement of Lee’s death by mistakenly flashing up a photograph of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977).

 

(c) Fox News

 

Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula – an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him the other day, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Chris, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.

 

(c) Hammer Films

(c) Hammer Films

 

As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marsha Hunt and Caroline Munro.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness’s where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut, so that blood splatters noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes.  I suspect that exposure to that traumatic scene transformed me from the morbid, oddball kid I was then into the normal, well-balanced adult I am today.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.

 

Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many cool and memorable, though evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a nasty, snobbish civil servant and tormented Donald Pleasence in Deathline (1972).

 

He did bad things to, and had bad things done to him in return by Peter Cushing.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), he brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with fear, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently not good for vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography, left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force, had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs, and was generally such an evil motherf***er that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had to join forces to defeat it!  Silly horror movies don’t get any better than this.

 

(c) Jack Morrisey / The New Yorker

 

Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, Lee also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava and with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.  (Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has begun to improve and art-house director Peter Strickland’s recent movie The Duke of Burgundy is a tribute, at least in part, to the man.)

 

Franco also directed later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s super-villain in rather unpolitically-correct Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  And when Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters got blown up at the end, Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke: “The world will hear of me again!”  A prediction that proved to be right.

 

(c) Compton Films

 

In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing sleuth to the screen.

 

In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft – the role that Mark Gatiss now plays in the popular BBC TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by his long-ago school chum Patrick Macnee.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.

 

(c) Hammer Films

 

In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  It’s sad to think that recent years have seen the deaths of nearly all the film’s main cast members – Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward and now Lee – leaving just Britt Ekland in the land of the living.  So take care of yourself, Britt.  Go easy when you’re dancing naked around your bedroom.

 

Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to hang out with icons like Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998), although Lee usually made the excuse that these films weren’t really horror ones.

 

The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t really a horror film?  Aye, right, Sir Chris.  At least you got to snog Sybil Danning in that one.

 

From @sybildanning

 

Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up and become major players in the film industry, and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings ones.  Burton, meanwhile, ended up casting him in five of his films, though I suspect the only reason he put him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004) was so that he could have a scene at the end where Lee and Johnny Depp give each other a hug.  Aw!

 

From zimbio.com

 

When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  Yuletide will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.

 

Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.  And the other evening, when Alice Cooper received the Legend Award at Kerrang magazine’s yearly awards, he dedicated his win to the just-departed Sir Chris.

 

(c) Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

So was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he was in his mid-fifties, he claimed in his autobiography that he’d been killed onscreen more times than any other actor in history – but who always returned to perpetrate more villainy, it feels odd to be writing now that Christopher Lee has finally and definitely passed away.

 

And if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man, by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/postscript-christopher-lee

http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/joe-dante-and-john-landis-remember-christopher-lee-20150612

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/alice-cooper-dedicates-his-legend-award-to-sir-christopher-lee/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ9se8i4ujs

 

(c) Seven Keys

 

Why Kate was great

 

From lbcolby.blogspot.co.uk

 

I was sad to hear about the death last week of actress Kate O’Mara.  The newspaper obituaries for her talked chiefly about her performance as Caress, little sister to Joan Collins’ über-bitch character Alexis Colby in that preposterous, glitzy and oh-so-1980s American soap opera Dynasty.  Because Collins had created such a buzz when she’d joined the show, Dynasty’s producers were soon on the phone to various other vampish British actresses, desperate to up the high-class-British-crumpet quota even more.  So O’Mara’s services were duly called upon, as were those of the impeccable Stephanie Beacham.  To be honest, the glorious, campy slinkiness of Kate and Stephers and, it must be said, old Joanie herself was about the only reason to watch the stupid programme.

 

The striking and slightly feline-looking O’Mara had previous form in soap operas, although American audiences could be forgiven for not knowing this.  She first made her mark in Britain starring in The Brothers, a BBC TV Sunday-night soap-drama that was extremely popular when it was broadcast but that seemed to vanish from public consciousness immediately afterwards.  The show, the saga of a middle-class family with working-class roots – in those days there was still such a thing in Britain as social mobility – struggling with control of a big haulage company, was very much of its time.  Indeed, when I think of it now, I find myself buffeted by a host of 1970s associations: dark, rainy and ultra-dull Sunday evenings, black and white TV sets, middle-aged men sporting wide shirt-lapels, loosely-knotted kipper ties, sideburns and oversized moustaches, boardrooms full of cigarette smoke and unprepossessing plastic and foam-filled furniture, whisky being endlessly poured out of chunky decanters and into chunky tumblers.  The one sliver of glamour that this dour show had was, of course, Kate O’Mara.

 

A decade later she added a much-needed sliver of glamour to another British soap opera, the cheap, tacky and much-mocked TriangleTriangle was a soap with a nautical setting.  Probably the original idea had been for it to be about the adventures of the crew and passengers on board a luxury cruise liner while they shunted from exotic location to exotic location, but thanks to BBC budgetary restrictions it ended up being about the crew and passengers on that dankest, rustiest and most seasickness-inducing of vessels, a North Sea ferryboat.  O’Mara played a sultry and mysterious passenger who spent the first episode of Triangle being ogled by the ferryboat’s leery crewmen.  Then at the end of that episode she revealed herself as a millionaire-ess who’d just bought the whole ferry company.  Ha!

 

But never mind the soap operas.  O’Mara had cult-movie and cult-TV status too.  Like just about every other showbiz glamour-puss who came to prominence in 1970s Britain, she served a stint with the much-loved studio Hammer Films, appearing in the period gothic horror movies that they churned out when the country still had a functioning film industry.  She turned up, for instance, in 1970’s The Horror of Frankenstein, directed by Jimmy Sangster, who’d written scripts for many of the studio’s best-regarded films 10 or 15 years earlier.  By 1970, however, Sangster was bored with the gothic formula and he decided to turn The Horror of Frankenstein into a spoof of the genre.  It is not a good film, though.  About the kindest thing that can be said about it is that, as spoofs go, it isn’t in the same league as Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein – it’s nowhere near it.

 

O’Mara plays Baron Frankenstein’s girlfriend.  Apparently, just before shooting, she’d had a spectacular boob-job done, which was disconcerting for actor and muscle-man (and the future Darth Vader) Dave Prowse, who played the monster.  Prowse spent most of his scenes with her lumbering towards her with arms outstretched and hands grasping hungrily.

 

(c) Hammer Films

 

O’Mara’s bust was also a distraction in her other Hammer film, The Vampire Lovers, made the same year but a hell of a lot better than The Horror of FrankensteinLovers is an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous 19th-century short story Camilla, the title character of which is a mysterious young woman who worms her way into the affections of a wealthy family.  She proves to be a vampire and, even more unspeakably for Le Fanu’s genteel 19th-century readers, a lesbian, and she has designs on the family’s daughter.  The Vampire Lovers is surprisingly faithful to its source material but, predictably for a 1970s Hammer movie, the lesbian aspect, hinted at in the original story, is ramped up to explicit extremes.  The late, great horror-movie actress and raconteur Ingrid Pitt played Camilla and she liked to entertain people with the story of how, whilst shooting a sensuous neck-biting scene with O’Mara, her plastic Hammer fangs dropped out of her mouth and disappeared down O’Mara’s cleavage.

 

Like everybody else with an Equity card in 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Britain, O’Mara also got around to making a guest appearance in the BBC’s long-running science-fiction show Doctor Who.  She played the Rani, a renegade, sultry and evil member of the Doctor’s own species, the Time Lords.  As such, she was basically Professor Moriarty, with a gender twist, to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes.  O’Mara was good in the role, although unfortunately she joined the show in the mid-1980s when it was on its last legs.  By then the Doctor was played by Colin Baker and the show was lumbered with a producer (John Nathan-Turner) who seemed happy to make terrible decisions so long as they earned the show some short-term publicity – for example, he made Baker wear an awesomely ugly coat-of-many-colours as part of his costume.  When O’Mara returned as the Rani a couple of seasons later, the Doctor had regenerated into Sylvester McCoy, his travelling companion was played by the shrilly awful Bonnie Langford and the show wasn’t so much as on its last legs as on its knees.  O’Mara reprised the role a third time in 1993 for a cheap-and-hasty 30th anniversary special called Dimensions in Time, and all one can say about it was that it was beyond shit.

 

Despite the issues with the show’s quality during the period, Doctor Who fans remember O’Mara’s Rani character fondly.  Indeed, a while back, a rumour circulated that a new regeneration of the Rani was going to appear in the revived show, pitted against Matt Smith’s Doctor and played by Gillian Anderson from The X-Files.  It was just a rumour, alas, but a delicious one.

 

I think my last sighting of Kate O’Mara came in the 1990s, when I saw her guest-starring in the celebrated Jennifer Saunders-scripted sitcom Absolutely Fabulous.  Riffing on her persona in Dynasty, she again played a detestable über-bitch’s sister – this time the sister of Patsy, the ridiculous, ageing but determinedly 18-until-I-die character played by Joanna Lumley.  Now getting a little long on the tooth, O’Mara gives Lumley an unwelcome reality check when she turns down her sister’s invitation to join her in some debauched hell-raising.  “Pats,” she pleads, “I’m 72.”

 

Happy 100th, Mr Cushing

 

From petercushing.co.uk

 

The actor Peter Cushing, who was born a century ago today, is remembered as a fixture of British horror movies, but for me it’s a role he played in a non-horror film – a swashbuckler set in the 18th century – that best sums up his unique persona.  In 1962’s Captain Clegg, he plays a prim village vicar, given to gently chiding his congregation during church services when their hymn-singing isn’t as energetic as it should be.  However, it transpires that being vicar is just a front for his real activities — for after dark he reveals himself as the titular Captain Clegg, a fearsome former pirate who now, ruthlessly, runs a smuggling operation that his parishioners are all part of.

 

(c) Hammer

 

In his private life, Cushing would have made a perfect village vicar.  He spent his free time in the quiet town of Whitstable on the Kent coast and was a birdwatcher, model-maker and painter of watercolours (as well as being patron of the Vegetarian Society).  Famed for his gentlemanliness, the critic John Brosnan remarked that in the 1970s you could go through the entire British film industry and find nobody with a bad word to find about him.  Indeed, Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in 1976’s Star Wars, said the hardest part of her role was summoning the hatred that, onscreen, she had to show Cushing’s villainous, planet-destroying Governor Moff Tarkin — so charming was Cushing towards her off-screen.

 

Saintly though the real Cushing was, many of his film characters had definitely gone to the dark side.  Several were cold-blooded and fanatical scientists who assumed that the ends justified the means, no matter how unspeakable the means might be — including Baron Frankenstein, whom he played in the series of horror films that Hammer Films based on Mary Shelley’s novel, very loosely, between the late 1950s and early 1970s; and in 1958’s The Flesh and the Fiends, Doctor Robert Knox, who was the real-life Edinburgh medical lecturer that Burke and Hare supplied with freshly-murdered corpses.  Later in his life, as Cushing’s gaunt features grew even gaunter, he got increasingly cast as Nazis, of which Moff Tarkin was one variation.

 

Such was the strange dichotomy of Cushing the person and Cushing the movie villain that it’s a pity he never got around to playing Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  (He did, though, appear as the lawyer Utterson in a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated horror story, 1970’s I, Monster, where the main role was taken by his very good friend and frequent co-star Christopher Lee.)

 

But he played good guys too – most notably Van Helsing in five of Hammer’s Dracula movies; and Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s 1958 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, in a sixteen-episode BBC television series in the 1960s and finally in a television movie in the mid-1980s.  His BBC performances as Holmes are much admired, although Cushing, a perfectionist, felt that the show’s hectic shooting schedule didn’t allow him to give the role his best.  With uncharacteristic causticity, he told the actor Douglas Wilmer (who’d played Holmes in a previous series) that he’d “rather sweep Paddington Station for a living than go through the experience again”.

 

(c) Hammer

 

He also played Winston Smith, the doomed hero of George Orwell’s 1984, in a television version in 1954, scripted by Nigel Kneale and performed live before the cameras as TV plays invariably were in those days.  By then in his forties, Cushing was as thin, gaunt and haunted-looking as you’d expect a citizen in a cruelly totalitarian society to be, so he gave Smith a physical as well as emotional believability.  (You can now watch the play in its entirety on youtube — though you’ll probably wince at the fact that it was posted there by the Glenn Beck Book List.)

 

Cushing’s popularity in 1950s British television prompted Hammer Films to hire him for the first of their colour-shot horror movies – The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Dracula in 1958 and The Mummy in 1959 – which began a long tradition of British horror filmmaking, still in existence today thanks to movies such as Ben Wheatley’s Kill List.  Cushing didn’t particularly like horror films but was philosophical about being typecast in them.  If cinema audiences wanted to watch him in them, he thought, fair enough.

 

Conventional wisdom has it that Cushing saw his career flourish while British Gothic cinema itself flourished, in the late 1950s and during the 1960s.  However, his career declined in the 1970s when British horror films, and British films generally, lost their popularity.  I wouldn’t agree with this idea, however.  Maybe it’s because his 1970s movies, which began to appear on TV when I was in my early teens, were the first Cushing movies I was exposed to and so they occupy a special place in my heart.  Or maybe it’s because Cushing’s performances became even more intense and powerful after his wife Helen, whom he adored, died in 1971.  Anyway, I feel it’s in those 1970s films that you get his best work.

 

(c) Tigon

 

In 1972’s Twins of Evil, for example, he plays Gustav Weil, the leader of a band of Nathaniel Hawthorne-style puritans who come into conflict with a vampire cult.  Weil is so sanctimonious and zealous, obviously tormented by psychological demons as well as by the bloodsucking ones around him, that he tips over into villainy and the viewer’s sympathies end up more on the side of the vampires.  Meanwhile, I remember being genuinely upset by the nihilism of the same year’s The Creeping Flesh.  Cushing’s character here is a kindly archaeologist who digs up a skeleton that might just belong to a mythological creature called the Evil One — the devil, basically.  Flesh reconstitutes itself on the skeleton and the Evil One comes back to life.  The film ends with it stalking the world again while Cushing, whose warnings about the thing are dismissed by everyone as a madman’s ravings, is imprisoned in an asylum run by a villainous rival (played as usual by Christopher Lee — he and Cushing made 22 films together).

 

(c) Amicus

 

I wasn’t a big fan of the horror-anthology movies made by Hammer’s rival studio, Amicus, but in the midst of the stories in their schlocky 1972 compendium Tales from the Crypt, Cushing gives a performance that’s rather heart-rending.  In Tales‘ third story, he plays a kindly, melancholy old widower, tormented by snobby neighbours who believe his presence is lowering their neighbourhood’s tone and lowering their property prices.  They wage an escalating hate campaign against him, spreading lies and rumours that deprive him of everything he holds dear – including his pet dogs and the friendship of the local children – until he is driven to suicide.  (This being a horror film, he doesn’t stay dead for long, of course.)  The story is genuinely upsetting because Cushing’s acting conveys the tragic consequences of a real-life horror – the spitefulness that human beings are capable of.

 

To be fair, Cushing appeared in his share of duff movies, but his acting skills could make any film seem about 50% better in terms of quality than it actually was.  A case in point is Freddie Francis’s ropey 1975 film, Legend of the Werewolf, where Cushing is a joy as an amiable Parisian pathologist who has to work out why so many cadavers are suddenly appearing on his slabs with fang-marks and claw-marks.  He was also good in the barmy 1972 British-Spanish co-production Horror Express, which puts him and Christopher Lee together on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906.  Cushing and Lee are on the same side for once and play their roles like bemused horror-movie versions of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in an old Road movie.  Also on the train is a freshly dug-up, alien-possessed and reanimated prehistoric ape that has the power to suck its victims’ brains out through their eyeballs.  “Is Professor Saxton’s fossil still at large?” inquires Cushing at one point with appropriate dryness.

 

(c) Granada

 

With his appearance in Star Wars, Cushing entered the era of the modern cinematic blockbuster, but because of ill-health and because by the late 1970s the British film industry had come close to extinction, it was his last high-profile role.  (It’s a pity that he turned down John Carpenter, who offered him the role of Doctor Loomis in the first Halloween movie.  Carpenter wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Loomis and eventually recruited Cushing’s fellow old British horror guy, Donald Pleasance.)

 

Cushing spent his final years in his beloved Whitstable, where he became a local legend.  Not only does the town have a pub named after him, but his residency there inspired local punk band the Jellybottys to write their most famous song, titled with admirable directness Peter Cushing Lives in Whitstable.  And this year, to mark the centenary of his birth, horror writer Stephen Volk penned a novella called Whitstable, set in the town in 1971 during the months following Helen Cushing’s death.  The novella sees a grieving Cushing approached by a youngster who, confusing him with the vampire-hunting Van Helsing he’s seen in horror films, begs him to protect him from his abusive stepfather, whom he believes is a vampire.

 

 

Many film actors of Cushing’s generation plied their trade in the staid, black-and-white British dramas, romances and comedies of the post-war period, aimed at domestic audiences, and they have faded from the public’s memory now.  But Cushing bestrode a more dynamic strand of British film-making — the British Gothic, which presented its blood and grue in lush Technicolour red and which appealed to international as well as home audiences with its sensationalism and sensuality.  As a result, he remains fondly remembered.  At times icily villainous, at other times a font of avuncular charm, he’s as iconic as ever.