I can’t think of many leading actors who have died on-screen as often as Christopher Lee. Over his long and successful career, Lee was staked several times as Dracula, destroyed by daylight, eradicated by fresh running water (Dracula Prince of Darkness), staked then set alight by lightning (Scars of Dracula), impaled on a cartwheel (Dracula AD 1972), snared by a hawthorn bush (The Satanic Rites of Dracula), dissolved in an acid bath (The Curse of Frankenstein), killed by James Bond, stabbed by his treacherous servant (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), and decapitated by Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader) in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, to name but a few of his most memorable exits. If Lee was in a film, you could usually bet he’d be dead by the last reel. Even so, Lee was a major box office draw and his name above a title ensured a couple of hours of thrilling entertainment.
Despite the fact Lee had a tendency to be bumped-off in his films, he was the kind of guy you’d want on your team when battling monsters, demons, and Satanic creeps. He was debonair and presented himself as a man of knowledge and experience. He had an impressive war record where he was attached to the SAS and by his own admission had an incredible knowledge of the occult. He was introduced to this esoteric subject by his friend author Dennis Wheatley and it became a bit of an obsession after he read the works of Aleister Crowley.
In 2011, Lee was asked at a Q&A session at the University College in Dublin, if it was true that he had “a huge collection of occultism-related literature that amounted to 20,000 books?” Lee replied:
“If I had such a collection, I’d be living in a bathroom.”
Lee as a Satanic priest in ‘To the Devil a Daughter.’
Maybe not living in the bathroom but certainly at home in the library as Lee did ‘fess up to owning around 12,000 books on the occult in an interview with the Telegraph the same year. Lee took the occult and Satanism very seriously and was wont to warn people of its dangers:
“I have met people who claim to be Satanists, who claim to be involved with black magic, who claimed that they not only knew a lot about it. But as I said, I certainly have not been involved and I warn all of you: never, never, never. You will not only lose your mind: you lose your soul.”
From this, you can take Lee was a believer—an Anglo-Catholic—who was deeply concerned about the possible dangers of devil worship, Satanism, and communing with spirits. Strange that he should make a living out of pretending to do these very things.
I still wasn’t convinced, so the sales assistant upped his pitch.
“And these glow in the dark,” he smiled.
I wasn’t buying it. The guy obviously didn’t know his stuff. Dracula’s teeth weren’t supposed to glow in the dark, not even the Wolfman’s teeth did that. Now I was begrudging the fact I had pocketed my school lunch money to walk into town past the prison, abattoir, and graveyard to buy a set of vampire teeth that glowed in the dark but that didn’t drip with blood like Dracula’s.
“Or, would you prefer this set of Wolfman fangs?” he added rustling through packs of novelty teeth.
To give the man his due, I was in a joke shop among the whoopee cushions, fake dog turds, and electric shock handshake pressers. It wasn’t exactly Transylvania. It wasn’t exactly Hammer Horror either which was the very thing that had inspired me to make this little shopping expedition.
On late Friday nights, the local Scottish television network screened horror movies under the title Don’t Watch Alone. My parents were cool enough to let my brother and I sit up to watch these creepy old black and white films featuring Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, and co. Then one Friday night, on came Dracula with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The following week, The Curse of Frankenstein with the same two stars and both films in glorious technicolor. My mind was blown. Hideous monsters and blood-red fangs. I’d found a new thrill, a new passion that superseded even my Spidey collection and my hopeless dreams of ever owning an Aurora Monster Kit.
For the next few years, horror movies and in particular Hammer horror movies ruled my life. I dug up, sought out, and tracked down every little piece of what-have-you on Hammer and the films they made. I signed-up for the Peter Cushing fan club. I asked for Denis Gifford‘s classic Horror Movies book for Christmas—which was almost a mistake as he hated Hammer horror but at least his writing on the old B&W movies was superb. I clipped all the horror movie listings in the Radio Times and the cinema ads from the local paper and stuck ‘em all in a big scrapbook which I kept for years until I lent it to some fucker who never gave it back. (Rule #1 kids: Never lend people stuff you really, really want to keep ‘coz they’ll never give you it back. But if you can lend it, then give it freely, but just don’t expect to ever get it back. Because that’s not going to happen.)
Hammer started way, way back in the early thirties when one-half of a double act “Will Hammer” of Hammer & Smith aka William Hinds, a jeweler and theatrical agent, set up Hammer Film Productions in 1934. He had an early hit with The Public Life of Henry the Ninth, a comedy spoof of Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII. Then with the assistance of Enrique Carreras, the company made a series of short, moderately successful films including one starring Bela Lugosi The Mystery of the Marie Celeste.
But Hammer really didn’t take off until Anthony Hinds and James Carreras joined their fathers William and Enrique as directors. Suddenly, Hammer was branching out into sci-fi and then horror films with The Curse of Frankenstein which sealed the company’s success and then, of course, Horror of Dracula which famously had a marquee at the Haymarket, London that dripped neon blood from Christopher Lee’s vampire fangs. Over the next twenty years, a rotation of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and various vampyros lesbos made Hammer the brand name for the best in British horror movies.
So, back to the joke shop where I ultimately went for the Wolfman’s teeth, as those green glowing, non-bloody vampire fangs were pretty damned anemic and being a werewolf was the closest I ever came to having a dog in my childhood.
Now, here for your retinal pleasure is a damned fine selection of Hammer movie posters from early science-fiction to late kung-fu vampirism and devil worship. Enjoy.
In 1976 Topps released a set of Shock Theatre trading cards that featuring gory stills from classic Hammer horror films. Each pack sold contained three cards and one stick of chewing gum. On the front cover was a cartoon of Christopher Lee as Dracula. A speech bubble from his blood-splattered mouth said “It sure doesn’t taste like tomato juice!” It set the tone for the cards inside.
Each card had a still from one of Hammer’s famous movies. For some reason there were more vampires than man-made monsters. The films featured were Dracula Has Risen for the Grave, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Dracula AD 1972, The Satanic Rites of Dracula and Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. The images were framed in red with a truly godawful joke across the bottom. There were fifty cards in total to collect. Though apparently there was no #47 and two #17s.
I remember when these came out—but was too busy spending my hard-earned pocket money on books, records and single cigarettes. I loved horror movies. I was a cheerleader for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. But I didn’t take to this particular series because of the dumbass quips plastered across each card. With that earnestness only a child can muster I thought the “jokes” demeaned the artistry of Hammer movies. Yeah, I know…
But now: I’m older. And know a little better. Enough to admit I should have bought them just for the money these babies fetch on the collectors’ market.
View the full set of Hammer Horror trading cards over at The Reprobabte.
More gory Hammer horror trading cards, after the jump…
During the 80s, Shelley Duvall hosted a Showtime series for children called Faerie Tale Theatre. It attracted what we call in Hollywood “quality-ass talent.” Jeff Bridges and Gena Rowlands joined Duvall for “Rapunzel,” Paul Reubens played Pinocchio, Susan Sarandon and Klaus Kinski starred in “Beauty and the Beast,” and, perhaps most extraordinary of all, Mick Jagger underwent the showbiz Caucasian-to-Asian transformation (local stylists call this dangerous procedure the “Mickey Rooney”) for the series’ adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” in which Mick portrayed the Emperor of China. What the fuck.
Mick Jagger as the Emperor of China on ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’
But the 1983 episode “The Boy Who Left Home To Find Out About The Shivers,” based on a tale by the Brothers Grimm, is remarkable because it’s got Frank Zappa playing a Transylvanian hunchback named Attilla and Vincent Price narrating, not to mention performances by Christopher Lee and David Warner. Here’s the plot, as summarized on the back of the old Betamax box:
Overcoming fear is a problem for most people. But there once was a boy whose problem was his complete lack of fear! Peter MacNicol stars as that boy in this amusing production narrated by Vincent Price. The King, played by Christopher Lee, promises the boy treasure and a beautiful Princess, Dana Hill, if he can defeat an Evil Sorcerer who has haunted the King’s castle. The boy meets an ominous mute hunchback, a headless man, and finally, in a duel to the death, the Evil Sorcerer himself! Yet still he knows no fear—until the surprising conclusion. Featuring production design inspired by the work of Breughel and Durer and marvelous performances from a superior cast, this is a tale you should be afraid… to miss!
As I learn from Román García Albertos’ detailed Zappa videography, Frank discussed the role on Australian TV a few days after the shoot:
FZ: Recently, just for a laugh, I did a role of a hunchback in a fairy tale that was completed about three days ago, in a show called Faerie Tale Theatre, which was produced by Shelley Duvall and airs on Showtime cable network here in the United States. I don’t know whether they have distribution outside the US.
Interviewer: Don’t think we get it, no.
FZ: Well, I think that they’re probably going to be trying to export the thing, but it’s a whole series of fairy tales. The first one that they did was “The Frog Prince” and it starred Robin Williams as the frog. He was really great. And things are all done on video, they use a lot of video effects. Mick Jagger did the last one that was on the air, he played a mandarin in “The Nightingale.” And so I got to be a hunchback in a story called “The Boy Who Left Home To Find Out About The Shivers.”
Interviewer: Did he?
FZ: Eventually, yes, he found out about the shivers in one of the more humorous scenes in the thing.
Interviewer: Did you have lines in it?
FZ: Yes. Here are my lines: “Uh uh uh!” and “Oooh, heh heh!”
Watch’s Zappa’s appearance as the “ominous mute hunchback” on ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ after the jump…
Playing almost like a particularly claustrophobic Dario Argento film produced by Roger Corman, but starring Hammer’s two most notable leading men, the gory low-budget—but totally wonderful—Horror Express is one of those films that we of a certain age saw repeatedly on “Chiller Theater” type TV shows in the mid-to-late 70s. When I was a ten-year-old kid, this film absolutely scared the shit out of me.
In Horror Express, which is almost a horror comedy, a supposed “missing link” is discovered in Siberia, but the frozen creature is merely the vessel for an extraterrestrial “spirit of pure evil” that can hop from victim to victim turning them into zombies that bleed from their eyes. It stars Christoper Lee and Peter Cushing as two competitive archaeologists. Telly Savalas has a great supporting role as a brutal Cossack officer who’s a nasty piece of work and there is even a weird Rasputin character milling about. It was written by Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet, the same (one-time blacklisted) screenwriters who penned the “undead biker” cult classic Psychomania. It was directed by Eugenio Martín. Like many European films of the time, this Spanish production was shot without sound and the actors dubbed their voices in later so it’s got that loopy sort of feel.
Horror Express has been in the public domain for years and crappy quasi-bootleg copies have been making the rounds at 99 Cents Only stores and the like for a while now (I have one that has the film reels out of order). In 2011, Horror Express fans were treated to a deluxe 2-disc dual DVD/Blu-ray release from cult meisters extraordinaire, Severin Films. Created using the original camera negative, the DVD extras include a recording of an extensive 1973 interview with Peter Cushing. (Cushing’s wife died right before filming on Horror Express commenced. He almost backed out of the film entirely).
Horror Express makes for great campy “Midnight Movie” viewing. If you’ve never seen it before, it’s big fun.
The beloved actor Christopher Lee, who played a part in several of the most profitable film franchises in history and yet still managed to be primarily identified with his portrayal of Dracula, passed away on Sunday at the age of 93 from respiratory problems and heart failure. In addition to his many Dracula movies for Hammer, Lee was the heavy in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, and also played notable roles in the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series as well as, believe it or not, the last movie of the Police Academy franchise and the second Gremlins movie. If you were looking for a serene representation of evil, Lee was hard to beat.
In this video Lee demonstrates a few sword acting tips—his main piece of advice is, behave as if you actually want to kill the other person. When he says, “I’ve actually done more swordfights on film I think than anyone ever has.” one is certainly inclined to believe him!
While it may have lacked a bug-eyed Michael Ripper leading a band of pitchfork-wielding villagers, through torch-lit, cobble-stone streets, up to the castle to stake the dreaded vampire, Dracula 1972 A.D. did have an interesting back story, and a hip young Johnny (“Dig the music, kids!”) Alucard, great-grandson of the infamous Count.
Johnny had an interest in swinging parties, dancing, ending world hunger and er, Satanism. Johnny could also model hats at jaunty-angles and had a beezer plan to bring back his long-lost relative from the dead (cue lightning. And this is where the back story comes in.
Dracula 1972 A.D. was (surprisingly) inspired by real events. This was the news reports of the Highgate Vampire—a shadowy figure seen wandering around the famous London cemetery. TV crews hung around the graveyard in hope of capturing the blood-sucking count, while the press told tales of dead-of-night, occult rituals, and a “King Vampire from Wallachia,” who had allegedly been brought back from the dead by hip-young Satanists—you can see where writer Don Houghton got the idea for Johnny Alucard and his friends. Or, as Professor Van Helsing said:
“There is evil in the world. There are dark, awful things. Occasionally, we get a glimpse of them. But there are dark corners; horrors almost impossible to imagine… even in our worst nightmares.”
Without Michael Ripper, the villagers this time round were played by the police, who had the usual comic asides but still knew something nasty was afoot in modern London town.
Sergeant, I’ll bet you a pound to a pinch of shit… that there’s a little piece of hash at that party… and if there is, I’ve got them.
Alas, the critics were more vicious to Dracula 1972 A.D. than any crucifix-wielding Van Helsing. Roger Ebert gave it one-out-of-four, while the broadsheets considered this “hip” retelling to be the worst of Hammer’s Dracula films. It was all a bit mean, for Dracula 1972 A.D. was not really that bad. Indeed, age has been kind to the film, and fans of Hammer Horror and vampire movies will enjoy the fine performances from debonair Christopher Lee as Dracula, and nervy Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing, who both seem to relish their entanglement in a modern-day setting.
Lee was the focus of a short, promotional film, Prince of Terror, which peaked behind-the scenes of Dracula 1972 A.D., and visited the great actor at his London home, where he briefly enthused about the real Vlad Țepeș, aka Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia. All rather jolly really.
There is always something about behind-the-scenes footage that reminds me of my childhood. It’s perhaps the memory of those holiday movies the slightly-posh-neighbors-along-the-road used to show after spending a fortnight in Fuengirola or Benidorm, sometime in the 1970s. The invited guests would be entertained with “Viva Espana” on the record player, a fondue set, a bottle of Rioja and a selection of dips, before the overly-tanned holiday-makers talked through their 8mm films: “That’s Pedro, oh he was nice, and there’s Auntie Jean, look, pink as a lobster.”
I suppose it’s the commentary, which is here supplied by Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley and Francis Matthews, who all get similarly excited when recognizing old friends and past pleasures: “Look, there’s Bert.” “There’s Roy.” “We’re doing the crossword!” The main difference here, of course, is that this home movie is something far more special: a 16mm-reel of behind-the-scenes footage from Dracula—Prince of Darkness, and it’s all good fun.
Dracula—Prince of Darkness (1966) was essentially Hammer Films’ sequel to their classic interpretation of Dracula from 1958. Indeed DPOD opens with archive of Peter Cushing, as Professor Van Helsing, using candlesticks to despatch the Christopher Lee’s Count.
It’s interesting footnote that while previously Lee’s Dracula had spoken in the original film, in DPOD he only hissed. Christopher Lee claimed this was because he read the script.
‘I didn’t speak in that picture. The reason was very simple. I read the script and saw the dialogue! I said to Hammer, if you think I’m going to say any of these lines, you’re very much mistaken.’
However, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster disagreed with this version of events in his autobiography Inside Hammer wrote:
‘‘Vampires don’t chat. So I didn’t write him any dialogue. Chris Lee has claimed that he refused to speak the lines he was given ... So you can take your pick as to why Christopher Lee didn’t have any dialogue in the picture. Or you can take my word for it. I didn’t write any.’
Whichever version you choose to believe, we can all agree that Dracula—Prince of Darkness is a classic Hammer Horror.
Happy Birthday Sir Christopher Lee, actor, singer and cinematic icon, who celebrates his 91st birthday today.
I can still recall the fabulous thrill of seeing Lee’s performance as the gruesome “Creature” in The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), where he managed to make the brutally disfigured creation both pitiful and terrifying. He achieved greater success as the Count in Dracula (1958), a performance that established him as an international star. Lee made the role of Dracula his own by bringing a charm, sophistication, intelligence and sexual attraction to the role.
In both films, Lee played against his friend and colleague Peter Cushing (who would have been 100-years-old yesterday) and together they dominated the box-office from the late 1950s-to mid-1970s, with a range of classic Horror movies, including The Gorgon, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Skull, Scream and Scream Again, The House That Dripped Blood, Dracula 1972 A.D., Nothing But The NIght, The Creeping Flesh, and Horror Express.
Of course, there were also his solo turns with The Devil Rides Out, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Wicker Man, The Three Musketeers and The Man With The Golden Gun.
But unlike Cushing, or Vincent Price (whose birthday is also celebrated today), Lee wanted to be more than just a Horror actor, and therefore moved to America in the 1970s, where his starred in a variety of films—some good, some not-so—which ranged from Airport ‘77, 1941 and Gremlins 2.
Most careers would have finished there, but not Lee’s. He return to form and greater success with roles in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) and then the BBC TV-series Gormenghast (2000), all of which led onto Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and episodes 2 and 3 of Star Wars.
At 91, Sir Christopher is making 2-to-3-films-a-year, and has just recorded and released a Heavy Metal album, Charlemagne: The Omens of Death.
Happy Birthday Sir Christopher and thanks for all the thrills!
Behind the scenes with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing on ‘Dracula 1972 A.D.’
A preview of Christopher Lee’s heavy Metal album ‘Charlemagne: The Omens of Death’
Artist and illustrator Mark Dawes has designed this fabulous poster of one of my favorite actors, Charles Gray, in his unforgettable role as the Crowley-inspired villain Mocata, from The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil’s Bride).
Adapted by Richard Matheson from Dennis Wheatley’s classic, occult novel, the film starred Christopher Lee as the Duc du Richelieu, who pitted his wits against Satanist Mocata (Gray), for the souls of Simon (Patrick Mower) and Tanith (Nike Arrighi).
Mark has a brilliant selection of work over at his Illustrated Blog, which myself and Mocata will you to check out….
If you’re not familiar with the 1973 TV movie pilot, Poor Devil, starring Sammy Davis Jr. as a bungling devil, Jack Klugman as his intended victim and Christopher Lee as Satan, you’re in for a campy, kitschy, somewhat surreal treat. I mean, it’s a cast from Hell, right?
A lighthearted spin on the Faustian bargain, you’d have to assume that this NBC-financed project was inspired by its star’s membership in the Church of Satan—the “Candy Man” showman was inducted as an honorary warlock at the Circle Star Theater in April 1973. (There is a CoS reference in the dialogue when Davis is heard to say “I’ll call the Church of Satan downtown. They’ll know how to contact him.”)
In any case, it’s pretty amusing if you like this kind of thing. TV’s Batman Adam West and familiar-looking character actor Gino Conforti are also featured. This originally aired on Valentine’s Day, 1973.
Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula has never been out-of-print, since it was first published in 1897.
Stoker spent 7 years researching vampire tales from European folklore, including some of the myths and history surrounding Vlad Tepes Dracul, the infamous Prince of of Wallachia, who impaled his enemies on stakes and allegedly drank their blood.
As for the character of Dracula, Stoker captured much of his friend, the actor Henry Irving, in his description of the Count. Later, it was thought Irving would make the perfect stage Dracula, but when asked to read an extract form the book, Irving pronounced it, “Dreadful!”
Since then, there have been many great actors who have portrayed the Count, most notably Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman and Louis Jourdan - who made a memorble TV version back in the 1970s.
Dracula is the most portrayed literary character on film, with 272 films, as of May 2012. The closest rival is Sherlock Holmes with 254 films.
Christopher Lee regarded the character of Dracula as “heroic, romantic, erotic. Irresistible to women. Unstoppable by men.” When cast as the vampire, Lee “played him as a malevolent hero.”
“I decided to play him as a man of immense dignity, immense strength, immense power, immense brain…he’s a kind of a superman really.”
Dracula, and vampires, are re-interpreted by every generation. These days, the vampire is a hormonal bad boy who wants a suburban life. But when I was child, I used to ponder: can vampires lose their fangs? And if they did, what happened?
‘It is often believed that a vampire cannot lose his or her fangs, but I can assure you vampires can, and often do, lose their fangs.
‘The loss of such essential teeth leads the vampire to use various utensils to start the flow of blood: a knife, a cutthroat razor, a bottle opener. Unfortunately, this means the death of the victim, which is generally to be avoided, as the last thing a vampire wants is to attract any unnecessary attention.
‘Such toothless vampires are messy eaters, and are rarely invited to dinner parties, as they waste more than they can drink.
‘Another misconception about us nightwalkers is our fear of garlic. We love garlic – well, most of us do – as it adds flavor to our diet. This is quite understandable when you consider our native homeland is Transylvania, where the local diet is rich in garlic that infuses the blood with a very delicious tang. It also purifies, lowers cholesterol and aids digestion.
‘It is a commonly held superstition that vampires are terrified of the crucifix. Well, while some vampires are Christian and some Jewish, most are agnostic. This is because we are the living dead, or undead. We are the creatures of the night, the residents of limbo, who have not quite died and have not gone to wherever-it-may-be. If at all. We therefore find it hard to believe in an after-life, unless it is this one. Which I suppose means, we are more like Jehovah’s Witnesses.
‘You may be surprise to hear that vampires do date and have various courtship rituals, just like you day-walkers. I can still recall my first date with my dear wife – we dined out on some winos, and got pleasantly drunk. As you can imagine, my future father-in-law was not best pleased when I returned his tipsy, giggling daughter back to their crypt.
‘And let me be clear, once and for all – no we cannot turn into giant bats, dogs or any sort of ethereal mists. Which is a pity, I know. No, sadly, we have to get around on foot or by car. In fact, it was another creation of the industrial revolution, trains that allowed vampires to move away from our overcrowded homeland.
‘As for sleeping in coffins, there is much conjecture about this. Some vampire historians believe we may have slept in coffins, mainly to escape detection. Remember it would have been rather strange in the olden days to get up at night and sleep during the day. Therefore, sleeping in a graveyard became the ideal place to hide out.
‘Or, perhaps, living and sleeping in a coffin is much cheaper than maintaining a house, a castle or a condo on the upper-eastside.
‘Yes, daylight is bad for us, just as it can be for you – it gives us skin cancer, something we are highly susceptible to, as our flesh is undead and has no elasticity or protection from the sun’s harmful rays. But, thanks again to changes in society, we have been able to find work as night watchmen, town criers, long distance lorry drivers, sewer workers, or just generally the night shift workers, who stack shelves or keep garages open, you know the sort. These days, most of us are in IT, where we can work to our own flexi hours.
‘As soon as we started working we made money. And as we made money, we found that we were buying houses, moving into nice neighborhoods, raising our families.
‘Oh yes, we do have families with all that this entails. We start junior off on mother’s blood before weaning them onto small insects, rodents, then medium sized animals.
‘And as for drinking blood, well it is the world’s fast food, a kind-of McDonald’s. Just as easy to pick up, but more filling, and nutritious, and there’s always plenty of it to go round. What amazes vampires is why humans waste so much of it – murder, suicide-bombers, muggings, knifings, gunshots, slaughterhouses, funeral homes, and war.
‘Of course, our kids do all the rebellious - feasting on winos blood, or sucking on a junkie to get high.
‘As for disease, we try to be careful about this, as too often you can catch a dose from some late night snack. That’s why we tend to stick to nice, clean, straight people, middle class people, who go to church, say their prayers, look after their health and work hard for a living. And yes, stakes can kill us. As can silver bullets, regular bullets, knives, and lots of other things too. That’s because we are not, as you say, immortal, we are the Undead.
‘We live to about one-hundred-and fifty or two hundred years of age, but that’s only because our metabolism is slower than yours. Our heartbeats approximately at one beat an hour. As for reflections – you can see us, we’re physical after all not ethereal.
‘So, how can you recognize a vampire?
‘We look like you. A bit pale, maybe. A bit more lethargic. The best way to recognize us is to look out of your window tonight, some time long after dark, and just see how many people are up and about. You can take my word for it, that at least one in ten or one in twenty of the people you can see is a vampire.
‘And don’t be fooled, not all of them have fangs - some of them wear dentures.’
A fine selection of false teeth are on display here, in this short video history of Dracula. Presented by Christopher Lee, who tells Dracula‘s history from novel, to the first theatrical productions and on to the Count’s life on film. With contributions from Bela Lugosi jnr, Peter Cushing, Jimmy Sangster, Freddie Francis and Caroline Munro.
Everyone loves a hero and even more, everyone loves a villain. The more broad chested the hero and luridly evil the villain, the better. This basic black/white viewpoint that people cling to like a spit stained security blanket is often the main impetus behind the superhero genre. A figure, often with extraordinary powers, becomes the pinpoint of hope for all that is fair and just. Real life is mired with red tape, corruption and the folly of our own nature. These are all reasons why the idea of a flawed superhero wasn’t terribly popular until recent years. (Though The Kinks get some major points with their song, “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” off of their album Low Budget.) But there was a film that predated all of them, way back in 1983 in the form of Philippe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible. Did I mention that it’s also a musical?
The Return of Captain Invincible stars Alan Arkin as our titular hero who is first introduced in a 1940’s style B&W newsreel, with our young, clean-cut Captain defeating gangsters, fighting the Nazis and representing everything that is good and wholesome about America. That is, until he ends up getting hit with charges of communism by The House of Un-American Activities, led by Joseph McCarthy. The witch hunt demoralizes our hero, who goes into hiding and ends up in Australia, liquor soaked and trading his spandex for stained, baggy clothes.
To passersby, he’s just a liver-crying-for-help derelict, belting out “New York, New York” to the rural hills Down Under, when he’s not inadvertently saving lives, particularly of tough police woman, Patty Patria (Kate Fitzpatrick). It’s only a matter of time before the superhero within the man has to come back out, especially with his old foe, the devilish and devilishly handsome Mr Midnight (Christopher Lee), back on the horizon. But it takes an old promise to a young boy who has now grown up to be the President of the United States (the incredible Michael Pate), to bring the hesitant, rusty but goodhearted Captain out of retirement. The question then emerges, will the once strong superhero be able to defend the world from the evil megalomaniacal clutches of Mr. Midnight and surpass his own inner demons?
The Return of Captain Invincible is a heartfelt, goony and surprisingly smart film. It is truly a strange creature, one that could have only be helmed by the same man that gave us the historical art film, Mad Dog Morgan (with Dennis Hopper) AND Howling II (with Sybil Danning’s shirt exploding breasts), Phillipe Mora. A wholly unique filmmaker who is never praised enough for his brass balls, not to mention creative flexibility, Mora pulled out all stops with this one. From the bright, comic-book style color schemes to the number of bizarre little touches,Captain Invincible is a superhero film like no other.
For starters, there’s our main character, played with typical perfection by Alan Arkin. Handsome and with a enough emotional gravitas to pull off a man who is solid in heart but whose spirit has been cracked by the very country he protected, Arkin’s Captain Invincible is a true hero with a human bent. We get to see him run the gamut from being your typical 1940’s strong-jawed hero to being a scruffy alcoholic suffering from the DT’s the night before he goes back into training, only to circle right back to being the chap that saves the day. On top of that, Arkin’s musical background comes into play quite nicely here, taking vocal duties on most of the songs featured, with the highlights being “The Good Guys & The Bad Guys” and “Mr. Midnight.” Arkin balances out the humanity and absurdity of it all so perfectly.
Speaking of absurd wonder, Michael Pate as the President is stupendously awesome. If he ran for office, my cynical booty would be hightailing it to the nearest booth in a hot flash of a second! A legendary character actor who had made his mark both in America and his native Australia, Pate is all Kennedy hair, Texan charm and big shouldered awesomeness, with the standout being the “Bullshit” number. This literally amounts to Pate saying the word “Bullshit” over and over again, set to an electronic beat. It is cathartic in its greatness.
Of course, there is the tall, cool, grim-in-his-beauty Christopher Lee as our villain Mr. Midnight. Lee is having a lot of great fun here, bringing a sense of intentional camp to his role. Lee is center point to the absolute musical highlight of the film with “Choose Your Poison.” Yes, Christopher Lee, in that wonderful Wagner-opera from depths of unknown bass voice of his, singing about the joys of drinking. It’s even better than “Bullshit!”
Kate Fitzpatrick doesn’t really get to shine quite as much as the others but is still good and realistically tough, as in you can halfway buy her as a real police officer. The aforementioned soundtrack, while a bit MOR in spots, has some absolute gems here. It should shock absolutely no one that the highlights, minus my much beloved “Bullshit,” were all helmed by Rocky Horror pioneer and flat out genius Richard O’Brien, along with another Rocky alumni, Richard Hartley, providing the music. His numbers, which include the title theme, “Mr Midnight” and “Choose Your Poison” are A+ O’Brien greatness.
Return of Captain Invincible is not a perfect film and it will undoubtedly off-put some with its strange brew of social commentary and goofiness bordering on surrealism. The idea that a bourbon soaked derelict muttering to himself down the road could be a superhero gone to seed is a smart and thoughtful one. Our hero and concept here could fit in any time period. A little flea-bitten and hardened by a flawed world but at the end of the day, still hopeful and willing to fight for a better future.
Billy Wilder spent seven years with his co-writer I. A. L. Diamond working on the script of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The finished film originally lasted over three hours, but the studios panicked over the failure of such long form films (Doctor Doolittle with Rex Harrison, and Star! with Julie Andrews and Michael Craig) and demanded cuts. The film was hacked down to an acceptable 93 minutes. Diamond didn’t speak to Wilder for almost a year
It was a terrible act of vandalism that robbed cinema of one of its greater Holmes, as portrayed by Robert Stephens. It was also bizarre that Wilder, who believed in the primacy of the word, allowed his script to be so drastically altered, turning what was an original meditation on Holmes into a mildly distracting caper. In the process we lost Wilder and Diamond’s analysis of Holmes not as just a fictional creation, but in comparison to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The clues are all there to be found. Let’s start with the casting, Stephens, who was one of the most gifted and brilliant actors of his generation - who sadly only graced the screen in a handful of films: scene-stealing in A Taste of Honey, as the art teacher Teddy Lloyd in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and as the BFI states, “sublime” in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Stephens was a stage actor, the heir apparent to Laurence Olivier indeed, in some respects, a far better actor than Olivier, who depended for success by flirting with the audience - Olivier could never be bad as he needed, demanded, the love of his audience.
When Wilder cast Stephens, the actor asked the great director:
‘“How do you want me to play it for the movie,” I asked Billy. “You must play it like Hamlet. And you must not put on one pound of weight. I want you to look like a pencil.” So, that’s the way we did The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.’
The game’s afoot on ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’, after the jump…
Playing almost like a particularly claustrophobic Argento film produced by Roger Corman, but starring Hammer’s two most notable leading men, the gory low-budget—but totally wonderful—Horror Express is one of those films that we of a certain age saw repeatedly on “Chiller Theater” type TV shows in the mid to late 70s. When I was a ten-year-old kid, this film absolutely scared the shit out of me.
In Horror Express, which is almost a horror comedy, a supposed “missing link” is discovered in Siberia, but the frozen creature is merely the vessel for an extraterrestrial spirit of “pure evil” that can hop from victim to victim turning them into zombies that bleed from their eyes. It stars Christoper Lee and Peter Cushing as two competitive archaeologists. Telly Savalas has a great supporting role as a brutal Cossack officer who’s a nasty piece of work and there is even a weird Rasputin character, too. It was written by Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet, the same (one-time blacklisted) screenwriters who penned the “undead biker” classic Psychomania. It was directed by Eugenio Martín. Like many European films of the time, this Spanish production was shot without sound and the actors dubbed their voices in later so it’s got that loopy sort of feel.
The film has been in the public domain for years and crappy quasi-bootleg copies have been making the rounds for a while (I have one that has the film reels out of order). At long last, Horror Express fans are getting treated to a new deluxe 2-disc dual DVD/Blu-ray release from cult meisters extraordinare, Severin Films. The new high-definition master has been created using the original camera negative and DVD extras include a recording of an extensive 1973 interview with Peter Cushing. (Cushing’s wife died before filming on Horror Express commenced. He almost backed out of the film entirely).