Horror Brought to Life: Horrors of The Black Museum (1959) at The CUT!

My exploration of the Horrors of the Black Museum is now posted at Horror Hothouse, Be careful what you open Mwahahahaha

The Horror Hothouse

Each month, as regular as a werewolf howling at a full moon, I emerge from the subterranean bowels of London’s Russell Square tube station to join London horror fans gathering in Bloomsbury’s Herbrand Street. At the opposite end to the sparkling white Art Deco splendour of the Daimler Hire Company building, on the corner of a narrow mews known as the Colonnade stands our destination the Horse Hospital.Excited chatter breaks the silence as we wait in eager anticipation for the door to open and be beckoned us down into the depths of the only unspoilt example of a purpose built 18th century stable accessible to the public. Now part of a multi-discipline arts centre, our basement cinema retains the channels etched into its floor to carry away the blood from the veterinary surgeon’s knife.

Since August 2010 this has been the venue of CUT!. As our host, Mr Billy…

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Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell

I went to a screening of the restored print of Hammer’s Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell at the British Film Institute  last night. This was the first Hammer Horror that I ever saw on the big screen when I snuck into the Odeon Wood Green at the tender age of 14 back in 1975. It was also the last Hammer Frankenstein and marked the final time that Peter Cushing would wield a scalpel and bone saw as the Baron. It was also the final film of director Terence Fisher, the director who had done more to define Hammer horror than any other having helmed all three of Hammer’s monster reboots in the 1950s with The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy.

The film was introduced by a panel featuring Cushing’s former secretary , Dave Prowse who played the Monster (and of course was also Darth Vader and the Green Cross Man) and female lead Madeline Smith, who all spoke about what a nice man Peter Cushing was. This was especially relevant as Cushing was born 100 years ago this month on 26 May and has recently been featured on a stamp to mark the occasion.

Hammer made the film on the cheap, by confining all the action within the confines of a lunatic asylum, where the Baron had assumed the role of the asylum doctor. Well it wasn’t long before he was knocking up a creature out bits of dead inmates with the aid of his disciple Dr Helder (Shane Bryant) and the mute Sarah (Madeline Smith). I won’t spoil this for anyone by giving away the plot, but the lunatic asylum set makes this the most intensely claustrophobic Frankenstein movie that Hammer ever made. Still reeling from the recent death of his beloved wife Helen, Cushing gave the film one of the most intense performances of his career and this combined with the atmospheric music score by James Bernard and a John Elder script that wasn’t afraid to throw in the odd self mocking gag, make this film a pure British Gothic delight.

Once the panel had finished the introduction they joined us in the audience. Imagine the thrill when I realised that Dave Prowse was going to take the empty seat next to mine. As the film ended I thanked him and shook his hand. I have been truly touched by the Dark Side Young Jedi

Is This the End of the Konga Line?

Sorry but it was too good a gag not to use when I rolled up at London’s Russell Square Horse Hospital arts centre for the Cut‘s screening of the 1961 British giant gorilla movie Konga.

Producer Herman Cohen had by 1961 already established a reputation for cheapy horror movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Horrors of the Black Museum. It won’t coma as any surprise that Konga concerns a giant ape, however thanks to what must have been a tiny budget similarities to King Kong are surprisingly few until the final reel where Konga goes apeshit and tramples through some model houses.

Michael Gough (the economy Peter Cushing) plays Dr Decker who discovers the secret of how to stimulate growth in animals with extracts of tropical carnivorous plants and experiments on Konga the baby chimp he has brought back from Uganda. Of course all this experimenting gets in the way of his teaching at Essex University, but Decker soon sorts that out by getting the by now gorilla sized Konga to murder anyone who gets in the way. Naturally it all goes horribly wrong when Margaret (Margo Johns), Deckers’ mistress catches him trying it on with student Sandra (Claire Gordon) and she gives Konga a walloping great dose of the growth serum with predictable consequences.

Somehow, despite having grown up in the 1960s and being mad for this kind of film I had never seen it before and it is a delightful mix of rubbish special effects (Konga is a bloke in a gorilla suit that isn’t even the same colour as the chimp who plays baby Konga, although it does allow for some spectacular eye rolling) and some of the campest dialogue I have ever heard, with which the cast battle valiantly. I think my favourite line was uttered by the Scotland Yard Inspector as Konga goes on the rampage.

“There’s a huge monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose on the streets”

Thank heaven we had lots of National Service men ready to jump into the backs of trucks and take the menace of Konga down and let’s face it with all the aliens and other monsters that turned up post-war British cinema we’d have been sunk without a huge conscript army!

The Cut is a film club dedicated to previewing DVD releases of the weird. Curator Billy Chainsaw had arranged for 1960s teen idol Jess Conrad who played student Bob (Konga’s third murder victim and probably the only member of the cast still living) to introduce the movie. He did such a nice line in self deprecatory humour that he’s almost forgiven for This Pullover.

Konga is released on DVD on 13 May

Lord Of Tears

As anyone who has read my about post will know I am a big fan of horror movies, maybe growing up in the 1960s and 70s when Hammer, Tigon and Amicus film horrors were a regular fixture on late night telly is something to do with this. However there are few post 1975 horrors that I have really enjoyed. I think this is largely because of a shift of focus away from traditional supernatural monsters like vampires, werewolves and ghosts to serial killers, torture porn and the ubiquitous bloody zombies (which technically are not even zombies) and the consequent replacement of that shivering anticipation of something nasty that is about to happen with gratuitously graphic gruesomeness . There are some notable exceptions like the gloriously deranged Dog Soldiers or Reanimator, but I guess I’m kind of an old school horror fan.

So imagine my delight when I came upon Lord of Tears, a new Scottish movie that Lawrie Brewster, the director/producer, claims is influenced by such British classics as The Innocents, The Haunting and The Wicker Man. I’m quite excited about a filmaker with these influences, as I remember The Innocents, with the lovely Deborah Kerr as the governess haunted by the spirit of evil valet Peter Quint through those awful children, as one of the most frightening films that I have ever seen. One of the reasons that The Innocents worked as a scary movie was the haunting cinematography by Freddie Francis and from what I have seen in the trailer Lord of Tears also employs some stunningly brilliant camera work too.

So over to the movie press release: The film tells the chilling story of James Findlay (Euan Douglas), a school teacher plagued by recurring nightmares of a mysterious and unsettling entity. Suspecting that his visions are linked to a dark incident in his past, James returns to his childhood home, a notorious mansion in the Scottish Highlands. There, he finds love in the form of aspiring dancer Evie Turner (Lexy Hulme) who helps him to unravel the dark history of the house. But, when James finally uncovers the disturbing truth behind his dreams, he must fight to survive the brutal consequences of his curiosity…

The Owl Man cometh

The Owl Man cometh

What’s even more encouraging about this movie is that it has been made outside of the traditional studio system and is therefore more of a product of love and enthusiasm than the commercial imperative. The film is shot and edited, but Lawrie is looking for support with the marketing costs through Kickstater, if you want to pledge a few quid you can here.

Certainly the quality of the footage in the trailer looks very impressive and there is a memorable monster in the owl man. I can’t wait to see the whole film when it is released.

My Top Ten Horror Movies – No 8 The Thing From Another World

Back in the dim and distant past, when we only had three TV channels, the highlight of BBC2’s Saturday night programming wasn’t a repeat of Dad’s Army, but the Midnight Movie. Nine times out of ten it would be a 1950’s gangster or war film but occasionally a little gem like this would turn up.

We didn’t get much science fiction on the telly back in the 1970s aside from Dr Who and other wobbly setted and woodenly acted home-grown shows like Blake’s 7, so seeing a proper Hollywood Sci-fi movie like The Thing that had what seemed like, quite sophisticated effects, even if it was made in 1951, was really quite exciting. Mind you I was only eleven at the time! I won’t bother describing the plot but here is a little summary that I found on You Tube.

The film owes a lot to producer Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo only with a bunch of US Airman and scientists holed up in the Arctic station replacing John Wayne and Ricky Nelson holed up in a western jail and a blood sucking alien trying to get in instead of a bunch of hoodlums. Curious that, because John Carpenter’s Assault on Precint 13 was inspired by Rio Bravo and he went on to remake The Thing too.  It also owes a lot to American paranoia about the Communist Russians, but then it was a product of the Cold War.

I still love this film today; it’s a tautly paced thriller pitting men against not just a rampaging alien vampire plant, but also their environment. Added to that the atmospheric cinematography and Dimitri Tiomkin’s score construct a sense of imminent menace whenever the alien threatens to make an appearance. And yes it has a hopeful if not exactly happy ending

My Horror Movie Top 10 – No.9 Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde

No Horror Top Ten would be complete without at least one glorious Technicolor Hammer Horror. In my opinion forget about kitchen sink drama and the odd worthy epic, Hammer Horrors and Carry Ons were the British films that put bums on seats in your local Odeon or ABC throughout the late 50s, 60s and early 70s. Hammer even got a Queen’s Award For Industry!

As the permissive era of the 1960s morphed into the 1970s, Hammer ramped up the sex and nudity content of films like The Vampire Lovers (1970).

Although pretty mild by contemporary standards these films hit the late night cinema circuit as I hit puberty and an early growth spurt that got me safely past cinema ushers. Roy Ward Baker directed The Vampire Lovers and the following year he returned with a Dr Jekyll remake with a twist. Rumour has it that screen writer Brian Clemans, who cut his teeth writing for quirky but stylish TV shows like The Avengers and Adam Adamant Lives! in the 1960s, conceived the title Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde as a joke, but given the new-found sexual ambiguity of a decade when homosexuality was at last legal and glam-rock musicians were experimenting with make up it was soon in production.

Clemens screenplay sees Jekyll (Ralph Bates) discovering that his hoped for elixir of life has the effect of turning a male fly into a female. Well it isn’t long before dear old Henry tries it on himself and turns into his “sister” Mrs Edwina Hyde (Martine Beswick, whose previous film credits include one of the scrapping gypsy girls in From Russia with Love). Naturally there are a few problems; it isn’t long before Hyde becomes the dominant of the two personalities, the elixir just happens to be made from the reproductive organs of female cadavers, the supply of cadavers pretty quickly runs out and Jekyll is forced to harvest his own by murdering Whitechapel’s prostitutes as Jack the Ripper.

The uncanny resemblance of Martine Beswick to Ralph Bates certainly aids the transformation scenes beautifully shot by Norman Warwick, with David Whitaker’s wonderful musical score.

Aside from the Ripper (who was busy in 1880s London) we also get a couple of James Bond movie style gags thrown in, a comedy turn by the brilliant Philip Madoc as the mortuary attendant and the grave robbing duo of Burke and Hare (who in reality never robbed a grave preferring to take the easy option of murder) somehow transplanted from 1820s Edinburgh. In fact the London of Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a Dickensian theme park complete with pea-soupers, gin palaces, ‘cockernee rossers’,  knife grinders and town criers. In fact about the only things missing are Sherlock Holmes and the Artful Dodger! However to anyone quibbling about historical accuracy, it’s worth remembering that you can’t actually change gender overnight by drinking a potion.

My Horror Movie Top Ten – The Abominable Dr Phibes

Anyone who has read my ‘About’ page will know that I love Horror movies of a certain vintage. These ten are probably my favourite ten Horror movies of all time. Yes they were all made between 1930 and 1971 and I am not for one moment going to apologise for that. These films are all part of my own personal cultural heritage as much as Black Sabbath, Van der Graaf Generator or Hawkwind, and in their own way these films have a certain fantastical innocence that I feel the horror movie lost with The Exorcist in the mid 70s, much as music did with punk at around the same time.

Choosing my Top Ten was quite difficult, but I think I have the right mixture of monsters, actors and directors; Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll, the Mummy, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Terence Fisher, James Whale, Jacques Tourneur, are all there along with hopefully one or two surprises.

,As a teenager in the 1970s, so I suppose it was inevitable that I should love the stylish British made Horror movies of companies like Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and American International. They were as much a part of the period as T.Rex, Loon Pants and Ziggy Stardust. Released in 1971  The Abominable Dr Phibes starred Vincent Price as the disfigured car crash survivor who bumps off the medical team he holds responsible for his wife’s death. For an added dash of macabre fun the murders are themed upon the Plagues of Egypt  (even if some like the Plague of Lice are replaced by a Plague of Bats because bats just work better than lice) . An idea that recurs in the later Price chiller Theatre of Blood when the much mocked actor Edward Lionheart (Price) murders his critics according to William Shakespeare.

Set in 1925 the film was noted for it’s very stylish art deco set design, which is perfectly complemented by Basil Kirchin’s musical score. The director, Robert Fuest, had in the 1960s worked as a production designer on TV shows like The Avengers and his love of visual styling was clearly evident in the way he lovingly shot production designer Brian Eatwell’s sumptuous colour coordinated sets.

Aside from the stunning visual imagery what I like about the film is Price’s exuberantly camp performance as the murdering concert organist, which he pulls off without having to talk to camera. There is also a fine support cast of familiar British faces like Terry Thomas, Hugh Griffiths, Peter Gilmore and an uncredited Caroline Munro as Phibes’s embalmed wife Victoria. Phibes is part Bond villain and part Phantom of the Opera, I can’t help but think what fun could be had pitting him against David Suchet’s Poirot.

MR James – Night of the Demon

I have been reading the Collected Ghost Stories of MR James this week, as research for a feature I’m writing about the old boys 150th birthday this year. I have read many of these stories before in those paperback collections of Horror stories from the 1970s like Christopher Lee’s Archive of Evil, that I used to scour charity shops for, while others are familiar from those TV adaptations that used to turn up every Christmas.

Despite the predictability of hindsight, in print these stories can still do the business, every now and then there is a little twist, say where Dr Haynes’s hand idly touches the carving of the cat on the archdeacon’s stall in The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral only to discover instead of polished wood, living breathing fur, that has the power to shock and surprise. The power of James’s writing is in the ability to suggest and let the reader’s imagination do the rest, for my money a skill far greater than that of churning out gruesome violence and mutilation.

One of the things that did surprise me was how much of MR James’s material had been plundered by HP Lovecraft. I know Lovecraft admired James, he confessed as much in his essay on supernatural literature, but some of Lovecraft’s short stories have borrowed quite extensively from James tales like Lost Hearts and despite Lovecraft’s phenomenally fertile pantheon of horrors he is not the technician that James is when it comes down to atmosphere and plot.

Surprisingly few of James’s works have been filmed for the big screen, but in 1957 the French-American director Jacques Tourneur (him of the very stylish RKO B features Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie) crossed the Atlantic to film the story Casting the Runes. Moving the story on from 1911 to the 1950s Night of the Demon was remarkably faithful to the orignal story.

OK the fight with the stuffed cat looks a bit lame but the movie scared the pants off me when I first saw it on late night TV in the 1960s. It’s still one of my favourite horror films to this day. (Curse of the Demon was the US release title)