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

Detours into dystopia

 

© Polaris Productions / Hawk Films / Warner Bros.

 

The world is in a dystopian condition at the moment.  It’s being ravaged by a deadly virus that’s especially rampant in countries run by authoritarian, anti-science, right-wing clowns like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro (and not forgetting the UK’s own right-wing pipsqueak Boris Johnson).  Meanwhile, propelled by manmade climate change, temperatures continue their remorseless rise.  Much of Australia was in flames at the start of this year while the recent record-breaking heat in the Arctic Circle indicates that ecological catastrophe could be bearing down on us rather sooner than we’d expected.

 

I feel glad that I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction.  I’ve read so many books set in dystopian futures over the decades that now, when I actually find myself living in the dystopia of 2020, I don’t feel in the least bit surprised.  None of this came as a nasty shock for me.

 

I’ve also been thinking about dystopian fiction recently because I’m currently halfway through Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994), which as its title suggests takes place in an authoritarian society where memory itself is policed.  Gradually, everyday items like flowers, perfume and photographs are deleted physically, from people’s everyday existences, and mentally, from their memories.  As the world loses its precious details and becomes drabber and greyer, the body enforcing these deletions, the Memory Police of the title, becomes ever-more oppressive.  I don’t know if Ogawa will manage to keep this premise interesting for the novel’s full 274 pages, but so far I’ve been impressed.

 

I’ve thought about it too because of the death last month of French author Jean Raspail, known for his apocalyptic novel The Camp of the Saints (1973).  I haven’t read Camp and don’t intend to, because from all accounts it’s the nightmare fantasy of an ultra-right-wing, ultra-Catholic, ultra-privileged white French male and is a bucket of racist slime.  Let me quote from its synopsis on Wikipedia.  Camp depicts France being swamped by a tidal wave of immigrants from India, who have names like ‘the turd eater’, have ‘monstrously deformed’ children, indulge in public fornication, are ‘filthy’ and ‘brutish’ and ‘flout laws, do not produce and murder French citizens’.  They’re aided and abetted in their takeover of France by lefty aid workers, journalists, politicians, ‘charities, rock stars and major churches’.   Needless to say, the book is much admired by the likes of Steve Bannon and Marine Le Pen.  I only hope that, before he croaked, Raspail took a look at the rankings of the world’s strongest economies.  Because he would find that India, source of his racistly sub-human bogeymen in Camp, is now in fifth place, which is two places above his precious France.    Maybe one day an Indian author will write a reply to Camp, in which an affluent India is invaded by hordes of starving, third-world Frenchmen.

 

Anyway, all this has set me thinking.  If I had to name my favourite dystopian novels, what would they be?

 

© Penguin Books

 

I’d better start by defining my terms.  By dystopian fiction I mean a story set in a society that’s gone seriously off the rails, either because of hellish political oppression of some sort, or because of a natural or man-made cataclysm that’s turned life into a scramble for survival.  It has to be set at least a little way into the future, not in the present.  And there’s the issue of location.  The horribleness described in a proper dystopian story, for me, has to be widespread, if not global.  Therefore, books like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) or J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (1975), where the societal breakdown takes place respectively on an island and in a tower block, don’t qualify because they’re too localised in scale.

 

I will also disqualify novels where the setting for the story is pretty grim, but that’s all the dystopian element is – a setting, a backdrop against which the plot takes place.  We gets glimpses of bad stuff in the background, but we’re more interested in the narrative and in the psychology of the characters.  So for that reason I will exclude William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).  In a proper dystopian story, the world is in an awful state and that state has to be at the forefront, so vivid that it becomes an important character itself in the story, if not the most important character.

 

And I will leave out novels where, yes, present-day society has met its nemesis and collapsed, presumably bloodily and destructively, but where the narratives take place so far in the future that they feel like fantasy or fairy stories.  The settings are so distant and fantastical that there’s little or no link with our own world, and the reader isn’t disturbed by the thought of what happened to civilisation between now and then.  So that means H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962) are both out.

 

I’ve seen lists of dystopian novels that include ones set in alternative universes, like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005).  But I’m excluding them too because, for me, a properly effective dystopian novel has to take place in a universe that’s recognisably our own one.  The thought, “This could happen to me or to my children, grandchildren or descendants” has to be prominent in the reader’s mind.

 

Finally, I’ve left out Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) because, although it’s set in a future New York that’s largely underwater thanks to global warming, and although it impressed me with its scale and ambition, I found it a bit too hopeful to qualify.  To hit the required nerve, dystopian fiction has to be depressing and pessimistic.  There’s no room on my list for nice dystopian fiction.  Sorry, Kim.

 

© Vintage Books

 

Right.  I’ve just disqualified nine or ten commonly cited classics of dystopian fiction.  Is there anything left to go on my list?  Well, actually, there is.  I’d have liked to present an alliteration-friendly number of titles, such as a ‘top ten’ or a ‘dystopian dozen’ or a ‘first fifteen’, but I’ve ended up with sixteen.  These are:

 

Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood.

Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood.

The Drowned World by (1962) J.G. Ballard.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury.

A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess.

The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher.

Make Room!  Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison.

Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley.

Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) by Doris Lessing

The Iron Heel (1907) by Jack London.

I am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson.

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy.

1984 (1949) by George Orwell.

Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) by Christopher Priest.

Day of the Triffids by (1951) John Wyndham.

 

A few books that are regarded as classics of dystopian writing aren’t on the list because, simply, I haven’t read them yet.  They include P.D. James’s Children of Men (1992), about a near-future world where mass sterility means that no children are being born and society is destabilising as the population ages.  A similarly-themed book is on the list, though, Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard, which takes the scenario further and imagines a future England where nobody is under 50, nature is quickly wiping out traces of human civilisation and the oldsters are finding it increasingly hard to distinguish reality from senility-induced fantasy.  Actually, the sci-fi writer Adam Roberts, who wrote the introduction to my copy of Greybeard, reckons it’s a better novel than the more acclaimed Children of Men.

 

© Signet Books

 

Some of my inclusions are predictable – Orwell, Huxley, Burgess, McCarthy.  Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood is the only person on the list with two entries, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, so Madge is officially the Queen of Dystopian Literature as far as I’m concerned.  I was tempted to include a couple of J.G. Ballard’s other works like The Drought (1964) and The Crystal World (1966), but I opted for The Drowned World because it’s the first and most famous of his surreal, psychological and hallucinogenic novels set during or after a global catastrophe.  And irrespective of their individual merits, The Drought and The Crystal World do feel like variations on a Ballardian theme.  Whereas with Atwood, the nastily patriarchal and reactionary society envisioned in The Handmaid’s Tale and the ecological disaster zone described in Oryx and Crake are two very different creations.

 

Many people would argue that Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is actually a horror novel, a vampire one, but the apocalyptic plague Matheson describes is given a scientific rationale; so it could happen, just about.  It was also a massive influence on George A. Romero’s zombie movies, which in turn gave rise to the zombie-apocalypse trope that’s now a major sub-genre of dystopian fiction, TV and cinema.

 

Nowadays it’s fashionable to knock Day of the Triffids because of the middle-class cosiness of its characters.  Their personalities manage to remain decent, upstanding and Radio 4-ish even after 99% of the population have been blinded and giant, mobile, flesh-eating plants have invaded the streets.  And even some of Wyndham’s admirers might argue that The Chrysalids (1955) and The Kraken Wakes (1953), both of which feature dystopias of their own, are better books.  But I think Day of the Triffids deserves its place in the list because of its impact on popular culture.  The word ‘triffid’ has entered the English language.  I’ve heard it used to describe everything from a noxious-looking weed growing in somebody’s garden to the state of Helena Bonham Carter’s hair.

 

On the other hand, I’ve picked John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island because they offer an antidote to Wyndham’s cosiness.  Both books have characters who start out as respectable middle-class English types whose personalities undergo a breakdown as violent and frightening as the disasters – a plague that destroys cereal crops in Death, a refugee crisis caused by a limited nuclear war in Fugue – rocking the societies around them.

 

One novel I feel really deserves its place on the list is Harry Harrison’s disturbing meditation on the dangers of human overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room!  It just annoys me when people compare Make Room with its 1973 film version, Soylent Green, and pontificate that the book isn’t as good because it doesn’t have the film’s two big gimmicks.  These are a euthanasia clinic, to which the character Sol (Edward G. Robinson in the film) goes when he decides that he can’t handle any more of the world’s ghastliness, and the film’s twist ending when it’s revealed that the mysterious foodstuff Soylent Green, a major component of the future human diet, is… people!  (You have to shout it in Charlton Heston’s voice.)

 

© Penguin Books

 

However, as Harrison pointed out, and unbeknownst to the filmmakers, euthanasia clinics and suicide machines are a bit of a cliché in science fiction.  (Not so long ago, I read Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, published back in 1895, and it had something called a ‘government lethal chamber’ in it.)  And Harrison had researched Make Room meticulously to make its apocalypse seem as realistic as possible, so he knew that the idea of humanity relying on industrialised cannibalism to survive wasn’t feasible.  Human beings don’t fatten up quickly and require a lot of feeding and looking after, so as a form of livestock to meet the world’s dietary needs, they’re economically a bad idea.  And as this study shows, they’re not even that rich in calories.

 

On the other hand, one novel that nearly didn’t make my list was Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor because it feels rather dated now.  The problem is that the feral kids and gangs of violent youths that populate the novel seem a bit, well, hippy-ish.  Sorry, Doris, but when I try to imagine a Mad Max-style dystopia I don’t normally see crowds of hippies running at me with chainsaws.  Of course, Memoirs was written in the early 1970s when memories of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, flower power, etc., were still fresh.  It’s a pity Lessing didn’t write it a couple of years later, after the much more dystopia-friendly punk rockers had appeared.  Still, I like the novel for its psychological depth, with the narrator escaping from the claustrophobic confines of her apartment by concentrating on a wall until she’s able to ‘pass through’ it into an imaginary realm.  And considering that dystopian novels are frequently dominated by male characters, it’s good to see one where female characters are at the forefront.

 

Incidentally, my brother, who works in the building industry, once told me that while he was attending a health-and-safety seminar about the dangers of asbestos, the speaker mentioned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  He said that in 1953, as a publicity gimmick, the publisher Ballantine produced 200 numbered and signed copies of Fahrenheit 451 that were bound in asbestos.  The joke was that in a future society where are books had to be burned, these 200 copies of the novel couldn’t be burned.  Obviously, at the time, people were unaware of the links between asbestos and lung cancer.

 

Now that sounds like a truly dystopian book – one that tells a story about a totalitarian future society whilst having the power to induce a dystopian-style breakdown inside the reader’s body.

 

© Ballantine Books

 

This is an updated version of an entry that first appeared on this blog in July 2014.