A Lee-centennial

 

© British Lion Films

 

The British actor Sir Christopher Lee, who was born on this day exactly 100 years ago, was a man who embodied evil to generations of film-goers.  He played 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.  But up until his passing in 2015, I didn’t so much regard him as the embodiment of evil as one of the coolest people on the planet.

 

Lee did a lot during his 93 years and not just in terms of acting – though his movie resume was awesome, with some 275 titles to his name by the time he entered his tenth decade.

 

He was, incidentally, an incredibly literary actor too, because his massive film and television CV contained adaptations of stories by Lewis Carroll, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Roald Dahl, Alexandre Dumas, Rider Haggard, Washington Irving, H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, Edgar Allan Poe, Sax Rohmer, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Jules Verne.  In real life, 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 (1959), 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.  And 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 2000 he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.

 

Before getting into acting in the late 1940s, Lee did military service during World War II, which included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol , the forerunner to the SAS.  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.

 

His first years as an actor did not see much 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.  Incidentally, I love the fact that Lee could boast of being the only actor in history who’d conducted sword fights with Errol Flynn and Yoda.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer Films in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver 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.  (Lee 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 actually got the job; so that the man we know as Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on in that universe 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, in which for much of the time they did bad things to each other.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), Lee brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with terror, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him, as Dracula, through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently harmful to vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome (1977), 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 and had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs.  It was such an evil motherf***er that Lee and Cushing had to join forces, for once, to defeat it.

 

© Granada Films

 

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 when he passed away, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Christopher, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot (1975) says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.

 

As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Barbara Ewing, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marcia Hunt, Caroline Munro and Valerie Van Ost.  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 where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller (Charles Tingwell) being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut.  The sight and sound of the blood splattering noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes traumatised me.

 

© Warner Pathé / Hammer Films

 

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 memorable, often 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 snobbish senior-civil-servant type and tormented Donald Pleasance in Deathline (1972).

 

Lee was probably Britain’s most linguistic actor, speaking German, French, Italian and Spanish and also knowing a bit of Swedish, Russian and Greek.  Thus, he 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 in 1963’s The Whip and the Body and on several occasions 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 it wasn’t fashionable to do so.  Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has improved and art-house director Peter Strickland’s movie The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is a tribute, in part, to him.

 

Franco directed the later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s supervillain in un-PC Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  As well as retaining some of the racism that was prominent in Rohmer’s books, the series generally wasn’t up to much in terms of quality.  However, the film’s endings have always haunted me.  Invariably, Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters would blow up and then Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke, “The world will hear of me again!”

 

© Eon Productions

 

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 super-sleuth to the screen.

 

In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by the impeccable Patrick Macnee, whom decades earlier had been Lee’s schoolmate at Summer Fields School in Oxford.  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.

 

In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  Actually, next year is the film’s fiftieth anniversary.  I trust the Scottish Tourist Board will celebrate this fact on May 1st, 2023, by lighting lots of wicker men, with lots of sanctimonious, virginal, Free Presbyterian policemen inside them, along the coasts of Scotland.

 

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 rub shoulders with icons such as 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).  Amusingly, Lee usually explained this by arguing that these weren’t really horror films.  The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t a horror film?  Aye, right.

 

© New Line Cinema / WingNut Films

 

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, 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 the Lord of the Rings / Hobbit ones, plus five movies directed by Burton.

 

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.  The festive season 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.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

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.

 

So: singing heavy metal, speaking eight languages, being perhaps the 20th century’s greatest screen villain and, probably, bayoneting Nazis to death.  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 penned his autobiography in his mid-fifties, he reckoned he’d been killed onscreen more than any other actor in history – but kept coming back, it feels a bit odd to be writing about Christopher Lee in the past tense.

 

Actually, if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a blood-soaked ritual to resurrect the great man, I’m up for it.

 

From the Independent

Stop getting Bond wrong! (Part 1)

 

© Eon Productions

 

When I’m browsing through a newspaper or magazine website, or a website devoted to popular culture, no headline is more likely to fill me with despair than the one ALL THE JAMES BOND FILMS RANKED FROM WORST TO BEST.  (Well, maybe except for the headline FLEETWOOD MAC TO RELEASE NEW ALBUM.)  That’s because such articles invariably get Bond wrong.  And that’s because they’re written by young, acne-pocked dipshits with zero life experience and less-than-zero knowledge of James Bond in either his cinematic or literary incarnations.  Or, worse, they’re written by someone from the older end of the Generation X demographic, i.e., they were a kid during the 1970s and believe Roger Moore was the best actor who ever lived.

 

Now that the latest Bond epic No Time to Die is being released – after a zillion Covid-19-inspired delays, which had me worried that by the time it finally was released poor Daniel Craig would be turning up at the Royal Premiere with a Zimmer frame, hearing aid and dentures – there’s been another rash of these hopelessly ill-informed articles, in the likes of the Independent and Den of Geek.

 

So, to sort out this confusion, misinformation and stupidity once and for all, here is my – and hence the correct – ranking of all the James Bond films from best to worst.  Don’t even think about arguing with me.

 

© Eon Productions

 

24: Die Another Day (2002)

Winning the unenviable title of Worst Bond Film Ever is Pierce Brosnan’s final outing as 007.  Because it was released in the 40th anniversary year of the franchise, the makers of Die Another Day packed it with homages to the previous 19 films, such as bikini-ed heroine Halle Berry rising out of the sea like Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962) or villain Toby Stephens swooping into central London with a Union Jack-emblazoned parachute à la Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  But these homages, as well as seeming smug, highlight how inferior Die is in comparison.  And with the film’s stupid plot contrivances (an invisible car), its derivativeness (what, another killer satellite?), its Carry On-level, innuendo-ridden dialogue and Madonna’s horrible theme song, we’re talking greatly inferior.  What I hate most about it, though, is its use of Computer-Generated Imagery during the action sequences, an insult to the stuntmen in the old Bond films like Vic Armstrong, Terry Richards, Eddie Powell and Alf Joint, who did those stunts for real and made them so viscerally exciting.

 

23: Octopussy (1983)

I remember seriously not liking Octopussy when I saw it because it seemed desperate to cash in on the recent success of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and deposited Roger Moore in a version of India populated with palaces, turbaned swordsmen, fakirs and snake-charmers, which had only ever existed in the imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters and looked ridiculously corny by 1983.  Having worked in India several times since then, I suspect I would hate it even more now.  The film’s one saving grace is the sub-plot taking place in its other main setting, Germany, which has Steven Berkoff as a deranged Soviet general wanting to knock NATO for six by engineering an ‘accident’ with a nuclear warhead.  Opposing, and in part thwarting, Berkoff’s insane plan is General Gogol (Walter Gotell), who appeared in half-a-dozen Bond films as 007’s respectful adversary and occasional ally in the KGB.  Indeed, I’d say Octopussy marks Gogol’s finest hour.

 

22: Moonraker (1979)

Moonraker also attempted to cash in on a recent hit movie, in this case Star Wars (1977).  Thus, it has Roger Moore going into outer space in search of a stolen space shuttle.  It piles silliness upon silliness: not just the far-fetched science-fictional plot, but also sequences with gondolas turning into speedboats, speedboats turning into hovercraft, speedboats turning into hang gliders, steel-toothed villain Jaws (Richard Kiel) crashing through the top of a circus tent, Jaws finding a girlfriend, and so on.  Michael Lonsdale as the big villain Hugo Drax gives Moonraker some dignity it really doesn’t deserve.  Brace yourself for the inevitable “He’s attempting re-entry!” joke at the end.

 

© Eon Productions

 

21: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Another entry in the series where the only thing going for it is the villain, the impeccable Christopher Lee as the super-hitman Francisco Scaramanga.  Elsewhere, Lulu warbles the cheesy, innuendo-slathered theme song (“He’s got a powerful weapon / He charges a million a shot!”), Britt Ekland is barely contained by her bikini, and redneck comedy-relief American policeman Sheriff Pepper (Clifton James), who was so annoying in the previous film Live and Let Die, makes an unwelcome reappearance even though the film’s set in East Asia.  Pepper just happens to be holidaying in Thailand with his wife when he bumps into Bond again.  (He refuses to have his picture taken with a local elephant, telling Mrs Pepper: “We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”  Surely not.)

 

20: Live and Let Die (1973)

And that brings me to Live and Let Die, in which Roger Moore makes his debut as Bond.  From all accounts Moore was a lovely bloke and he kept the franchise massively popular during the 1970s and 1980s, but his lightweight acting style meant the character was far removed from the one imagined by Ian Fleming in the original novels.  Even by 1973’s standards, Live and Let Die’s plot about a villainous organisation of black drug-smugglers, headed by Yaphet Kotto’s Mr Big, dallies worryingly with racism, although Moore’s presence actually defuses some of that.  His portrayal of Bond as a posh, silly-assed Englishman gives the bad guys some gravitas in comparison.  I suspect modern audiences might feel more uncomfortable with Bond’s pursuit / stalking of love interest Jane Seymour – Seymour was only 22 years at the time while Moore, already in his mid-forties, was old enough to be her dad.  The film’s spectacular speedboat chase anchors the film in most people’s memories, though it’s spoilt somewhat by the involvement of the aforementioned Sheriff Pepper.  The theme song by Paul McCartney’s Wings is, of course, great.

 

© Eon Productions

 

19: A View to a Kill (1985)

A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s final film as Bond, is often ranked bottom in lists like this, but it at least has something most 1980s Bond movies lack – memorable villains, i.e., Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin and Grace Jones’s Mayday.  Also, Moore gets to form an agreeable double act, for a while, with Patrick Macnee and I like how General Gogol pops up at the end to give ‘Comrade Bond’ the Order of Lenin.  Still, the film contains much duff-ness.  Duran Duran do the theme song and one unkind critic once described Simon Le Bon’s vocal performance as ‘bellowing like a wounded elk.’

 

18: Quantum of Solace (2007)

Daniel Craig’s second appearance as James Bond, in which he comes up against a sinister, secret organisation called Quantum, was savaged by the critics.  When I watched the film, I remember thinking it didn’t seem as bad as everyone made out.  That said, I can hardly remember anything about it now.

 

17: The World is Not Enough (1999)

A frustrating film, The World is Not Enough has much going for it, including Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlyle as the baddies, Robbie Coltrane returning as ex-KGB man / lovable rogue Valentin Zukovsky, and a plot that anticipates Skyfall (2012) wherein Judie Dench’s M is threatened by a villain whose relationship with her is more complex than one of simple professional enmity.  And like Skyfall, it has scenes set in Scotland, the introduction of a new Q, and an explosion that rocks MI6’s London headquarters beside Vauxhall Bridge in London.  Plus, the theme song by Garbage is the best one in yonks.  But the quality stuff is cancelled out by some rubbish bits, including Denise Richards as Bond girl Christmas Jones – so-named, apparently, to allow Pierce Brosnan to crack a joke about ‘coming once a year’.  Particularly cringe-inducing is John Cleese’s debut as the replacement for Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, here making his 17th and final appearance in the franchise.  Not only does Cleese clown around to no comic effect whatever, but the scene where he’s introduced is also the one where Llewelyn bids farewell and Cleese’s slapstick robs the scene of its poignancy.

 

16: Diamonds are Forever (1971)

Diamonds are Forever features a beyond-caring Sean Connery, enticed back into 007’s shoes by a 1.25-million-pound paycheque after George Lazenby jumped ship, in a lazy film where the plot meanders nonsensically from one action set-piece to another and the visuals are packed with easy-on-the-eye spectacle and lavishness.  At least it’s pretty funny.  It depends on your tolerance level for sledgehammering 1970s political incorrectness whether or not you enjoy the banter between gay assassins Mr Kidd and Mr Wint.  (Sticking Connery into a coffin and feeding him into a crematorium furnace: “Heart-warming, Mr Kidd.”  “A glowing tribute, Mr Wint.”)  However, uber-Bond-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is very amusingly played by Charles Gray.  While he’s wreaking havoc with a deadly laser beam mounted on a satellite, he sneers: “The satellite is now over Kansas.   Well, if we destroy Kansas, the world may not hear about it for years.”

 

© Eon Productions

 

15: For Your Eyes Only (1987)

For Your Eyes Only makes a noble attempt to bring the franchise down to earth again following the excesses of Moonraker.  Mostly, it works nicely as an action / adventure piece, although the villain Krystatos, played by the normally reliable Julian Glover, is a bit drab. More effective is the excellent Michael Gothard as the taciturn Belgian assassin Locque.  Alas, it runs out of puff towards the end.  After some exciting mountaineering stunts while Roger Moore and the good guys ascend to a mountaintop monastery / villains’ lair, the climactic battle is a damp squib.  Also, there’s an excruciating ‘comic’ final scene where Margaret Thatcher (played by impressionist Janet Brown) phones Bond to congratulate him on a job well done and ends up speaking instead to a randy parrot: “Give us a kiss!”  “Oh, Mr Bond…”

 

14: Goldeneye (1995)

Pierce Brosnan’s debut as Bond, after the franchise had endured a six-year hiatus, won a lot of praise.  I find it slightly unsatisfying, though.  It tries a bit too hard.  There’s a bit too much packed into it, a few too many twists and turns, as it tries to prove to audiences that a Bond movie can still be relevant and with-it in the 1990s.  Also, its good intentions are undone by the occasional piece of Roger Moore-style silliness and a cobwebbed plot-MacGuffin – yes, it’s another killer satellite threatening the world, or in this case, the City of London.  Sean Bean and Famke Janssen are cool as the main villains, though it’s a pity that Alan Cumming and Joe Don Baker are both allowed to act with their brakes off.

 

13: Spectre (2015)

Another Daniel Craig Bond that got a critical kicking, I think Spectre deserves a little more love.  The film brings back Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played here by Christoph Waltz as a Euro-trash scumbag who commits crimes against fashion by not wearing socks under his loafers.  Also back is Blofeld’s insidious criminal organisation SPECTRE.  (After decades of legal wrangling, the Bond producers had by 2015 won the right to use Blofeld and SPECTRE again in the franchise.)  However, Spectre’s Bond / Blofeld backstory earned hoots of derision.  Blofeld, it transpires, is the son of Hannes Oberhauser, the man who looked after the young James Bond after his parents were killed in a climbing accident.  Oberhauser much preferred little James to little Ernst, leaving his biological son with some serious personality issues.  Yes, it sounds contrived, but I didn’t have a big problem with this, since the adoptive father-figure of Hannes Oberhauser existed in the original, literary Bond universe created by Ian Fleming and Bond referred to him in the short story Octopussy, published in 1966.  The opening sequence in Mexico City, filmed by director Sam Mendes in one long, supposedly continuous take, is brilliant, but the film’s attempts to incorporate / retcon the previous Daniel Craig Bond films into its plot are clunky.  For example, we learn that the Quantum organisation in Quantum of Solace is only a subsidiary of SPECTRE.  Another negative is the comatose theme song performed by Sam Smith.

 

© Eon Productions

 

And my next blog-post will rank the remaining Bond movies from number twelve to number one.

Cinematic heroines 1: Barbara Shelley

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Warner-Pathé Distributors

 

During the previous incarnation of this blog, before it had to be rebooted due to hacking issues, I published a series of posts under the title Cinematic heroes.  This was about actors whom I admired, ranging from craggy action men like Rutger Hauer and James Cosmo to beloved old-school character actors like Terry-Thomas and James Robertson-Justice.  Aware of a gender imbalance, I’d also intended to launch a parallel series of posts called Cinematic heroines, dedicated to my favourite actresses.  But I never got around to it.

 

Anyhow, a week ago saw the death of the actress Barbara Shelley following a Covid-19 diagnosis.  When I was a lad of 11 of 12 and a nascent film buff, Shelley was perhaps the first actress I developed a crush on.  Thus, sadly and belatedly, here’s Cinematic heroines 1: Barbara Shelley.

 

As well as being my first movie crush, Shelly starred in the first horror movie I saw that properly horrified me, 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  Before I watched it, and before I reached my second decade, I’d seen some quaint old black-and-white horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, including a couple that featured John Carradine as Count Dracula.  Carradine played Dracula as a gentlemanly, well-spoken figure who could change from bat-form into dandified human-form complete with a top hat.  This hardly prepared me for Dracula, Prince of Darkness, made two decades later in colour by Hammer Films.  It was a decidedly more visceral experience…  Almost traumatically so for my young sensibilities.

 

Cloaked in an atmosphere of dread from the word ‘go’, it has four English travellers getting lost whilst holidaying in Transylvania and spending the night at the seemingly empty Castle Dracula.  There, an acolyte of Dracula strings one of them up over a tomb containing the dead vampire’s ashes, slashes his throat and sends blood splashing noisily onto those ashes to bring the monster back to life.  And monster he certainly is.  Played by the great Christopher Lee, Dracula lurches around, hisses and spits, and glowers through red contact lenses like a literal bat out of hell.

 

Barbara Shelley is the second-billed actress in the movie, after Suzan Farmer, but she’s as memorable as Lee is.  She plays Helen Kent, a stereotypically repressed and prudish Victorian housewife who, the traveller least enamoured with the apparent comforts of Castle Dracula, comes out with the prophetic line: “There’ll be no morning for us!”  Later, bitten by the Count, she transforms from Victorian housewife into voluptuous sexpot, tries to seduce the surviving members of the group and bares her fangs animalistically at the sight of their naked throats.  However, Helen’s sexual awakening is shockingly punished near the film’s end when another memorable actor, Lanarkshire-born Andrew Keir, playing a very Scottish Transylvanian monk, re-asserts the puritanical and patriarchal status quo.  He and his fellow monks tie her down and bang a metal stake through her heart in a scene that evokes the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition.

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Warner-Pathé Distributors

 

After all that, my eleven-year-old self was shaken – but also stirred, into a lifelong fascination with horror movies.  And thanks to Barbara Shelley’s performance as a saucy vampire, I was probably stirred in more ways than one.

 

Born in London in 1932 as Barbara Kowin, Shelley took up modelling in the early 1950s and by 1953 had appeared in her first film, Mantrap, made by Hammer Films, the studio that’d later become her most important employer.  However, she subsequently spent several years in Italy, making films there.  It wasn’t until 1957 that she got a leading role in the genre that’d make her famous.  This was the British-American cheapie Cat Girl, an ‘unofficial remake’ of Val Lewton’s supernatural masterpiece Cat People (1942).  Cat Girl’s director was Alfred Shaughnessy, who’d later develop, write for and serve as script editor on the British television show Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75), essential TV viewing during the 1970s and the Downtown Abbey (2010-15) of its day.

 

Slightly better remembered is 1958’s Blood of the Vampire, a cash-in by Tempean Films on the success that Hammer Films had recently enjoyed with gothic horror movies shot in colour.  Indeed, Hammer’s main scribe Jimmy Sangster moonlighted from the company to write the script for this one.  Shelley isn’t in Blood long enough to make much impact, although her character is allowed to be proactive.  Hired as a servant, she infiltrates the household of the mysterious Dr Callistratus (played by legendary if hammy Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit), who runs the prison in which her lover (Vincent Ball) has been incarcerated.  Callistratus, it transpires, is harvesting the prisoners’ blood to sustain and perhaps find a cure for his secret medical condition – for he’s actually a vampire.  An uncomfortable blend of mad-doctor movie and vampire movie, Blood at least gets a certain, pulpy energy from its lurid storyline and Wolfit’s OTT performance.

 

The same year, Shelley got her first substantial role in a Hammer movie, although this was a war rather than a horror one, The Camp on Blood Island (1958).  A half-dozen years later, she’d appear in its prequel, The Secret of Blood Island (1964), a film whose policy of casting British character actors like Patrick Wymark and Michael Ripper as Japanese prison-camp guards prompted the critic Kim Newman to write recently: “Even by the standards of yellowface casting – common at the time – these are offensive caricatures, but they’re also so absurd that they break up the prevailing grim tone of the whole thing.”

 

Before making her first Hammer horror film, Shelley appeared in 1960’s sci-fi horror classic Village of the Damned, based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos.  She plays Anthea Zellaby, while the impeccable George Sanders plays her husband George.  Like all the inhabitants of the village of Midwich, Anthea becomes unconscious when the district is stricken by some inexplicable cosmic phenomenon.  And like every woman of childbearing age there, she discovers that she’s pregnant after she wakes up again.  The result is a tribe of sinister little children with blonde hair, pale skins, plummy accents, super-high IQs, glowing eyes and telepathic powers who resemble a horde of mini-Boris Johnsons (well, without the IQ, eyes or powers).

 

These are cinema’s first truly creepy horror-movie kids.  Child-actor Martin Stephens is particularly creepy as David Zellaby, Anthea’s son and the children’s leader.  Still effective today, the original Village knocks spots off the remake that John Carpenter directed in 1995.  It was also amusingly sent up as The Bloodening (“You’re thinking about hurting us…  Now you’re thinking, how did they know what I was thinking…?  Now you’re thinking, I hope that’s shepherd’s pie in my knickers….”) in a 1999 episode of The Simpsons.

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Columbia

 

After making a horror-thriller called Shadow of the Cat (1961) for Hammer, about the murder of a wealthy old lady (Catherine Lacey), a conspiracy by inheritance-hungry relatives and servants, and a supernaturally vengeful pet cat, Shelley got her meatiest role yet in the same studio’s 1963 horror film The Gorgon.  This was directed by the man who’d make Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Terence Fisher, and also featured that film’s star, Christopher Lee.  In addition, it featured Hammer’s other horror legend, Peter Cushing.  Atypically, Lee plays the good guy here rather than the bad one, and Cushing plays the bad guy rather than the good one.  The Gorgon is about a mid-European village terrorised by an unknown person who’s possessed by the spirit of Megaera, one of the three monstrous Gorgons from Greek mythology.  (In fact, in proper Greek mythology, Megaera was one of the Furies.)  Her victims are regularly found transformed into stone.

 

Since the Gorgon’s female, and since Shelley plays the only prominent female character, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that she turns out to be the possessed villager.  Oddly, Shelley doesn’t get to play the character in Gorgon form.  That honour goes to actress Prudence Hyman, sporting a headful of very unconvincing rubber snakes.  While the monster is a big disappointment, and isn’t a patch on cinema’s scariest representation of a Gorgon, the Ray Harryhausen-animated Medusa in 1981’s Clash of the Titans, The Gorgon makes partial amends by having some wonderfully atmospheric moments.

 

In 1966, besides appearing in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Shelley appeared in Rasputin, the Mad Monk, which was shot back-to-back with the Dracula film and used many of the same sets and cast, including Christopher Lee as the titular character.  Despite some good performances, I find this film a confused, half-baked affair.  Happily, two years later, Shelley’s final movie for Hammer was also her best one.  This was 1968’s sci-fi horror film Quatermass and the Pit, based on an original 1958 BBC TV serial of the same name.  Both the film and serial were written by the same man, Nigel Kneale.

 

Pit has an ingenious premise.  Workers on a London Underground extension project dig up some skeletons of prehistoric ape-men and what proves to be an alien spacecraft full of dead, horned insect-like creatures.  The insects are identified by the film’s scientist hero Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir again) as inhabitants of the now-lifeless planet Mars.  Five million years ago, they came to earth and staged an invasion by proxy.  Unable to survive themselves in the earth’s atmosphere, the insect-Martians programmed the apes they encountered to become mental Martians.  Since these apes were the ancestors of modern human beings, Quatermass memorably exclaims, “We are the Martians!”

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Seven Arts Productions

 

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Martians, in both insect and surrogate-ape form, conducted occasional culls whereby those with pure Martian genes / programming destroyed their fellows who’d developed mutations and lost their genetic / programmed purity.  When the spacecraft is reactivated by a power surge from the cables of some TV news crews, it triggers a new cull.  London becomes an apocalyptic hellscape where the human inhabitants who retain their Martian conditioning roam around, zombie-like, and use newly awoken telekinetic powers to kill those who no longer have that conditioning.

 

Shelley plays an anthropologist called Barbara Judd, a member of a team headed by Dr Roney (James Donald) studying the apes’ remains.  They join forces with Andrew Keir’s Quatermass – sartorially striking in a beard, bowtie, tweed suit and trilby – who’s a rocket scientist come to examine the spacecraft.  Shelley, Donald and Keir are endearing in their roles.  It’s refreshing to see a film where the scientists aren’t cold-blooded, delusional, self-serving or plain weird.  Instead, they’re decent human beings, working with an eager curiosity, a sense of duty and a very relatable sense of humour.  Indeed, the film has a poignant climax, when the member of the trio who’s least affected by the influence emanating from the spacecraft makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to stop it.

 

Thereafter, Barbara Shelley made only a few more film appearances, most notably with a supporting role in Stephen Weeks’ Ghost Story (1974), a film with an unsettling atmosphere – perhaps because although it’s supposed to be set in the English countryside, it was actually filmed in India.  It’s also interesting because it offered a rare screen credit for Vivian MacKerrell, the actor who was the real-life inspiration for the title character of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987).  However, she kept busy with appearances on stage, courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and on television.  Fans of British TV science fiction of a certain vintage will know her for her appearances in the final season of Blake’s Seven (1981) and in Peter Davison-era Doctor Who (1983).

 

Barbara Shelley’s death on January 4th led to her being described in the media as a ‘scream queen’ and ‘Hammer horror starlet’, but both labels don’t do her justice.  For one thing, her characters rarely screamed – the impressive scream she produced in Dracula, Prince of Darkness was actually dubbed in by her co-star Suzan Farmer.  Also, the ‘Hammer starlet’ moniker implies she found fame due to her looks and physical attributes rather than her acting abilities.  The moniker is frequently applied to actresses like Ingrid Pitt, Yutte Stensgaard, Madeline Smith and Kate O’Mara who worked with the studio in the 1970s, when relaxed censorship rules allowed more bare flesh to be shown onscreen.  But working in a less permissive time, Shelley projected sexuality when she had to, as in the Dracula film, the same way she projected everything else – through sheer acting talent.  It was a talent that fans of the classic era of British gothic filmmaking, like myself, have much to be thankful for.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer