THE THEATER THAT DRIPPED BLOOD:
CINEMATIC MEMORIES OF HAMMER FILMS
by Michael McGlasson
Some forty years ago, while living in an age of prosperity and well-being in the small community of Garden City, Michigan, about twenty miles west of Detroit, I happened to be sitting one evening in front of an old RCA Victor black and white TV while enjoying the antics of Humbert Humbert, the rascally decadent pursuer of Dolores Haze, a.k.a. Lolita, the featured movie on channel 2 which had attracted my interest only because of James Mason, the great British actor whom I had seen in Journey to the Center of the Earth at the local drive-in a few months earlier. As I sat there transfixed by the beauty of Lolita, played by actress Sue Lyon, the scene quickly shifted to the Haze living room, where a strange movie was being broadcast on another black and white TV. The characters in this particular movie seemed to be extremely upset over something, for one of them suddenly ripped a handful of bandages from his face and proceeded to strangle a very shocked, elegant-looking young man in a dark suit. Theface behind the bandages was so horribly mutilated that I almost turned the channel, but a commercial for Lux detergent interrupted the movie and my fears of that face were quickly alleviated.
A couple years later, while prowling around the local Woolworth’s five and dime with fifty cents in my pocket, I noticed an odd-looking magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland lying next to a pile of newspapers. I eagerly picked it up and flipped through the pages, and to my utterastonishment I saw that face glaring back at me, but this time more lurid and highly-detailed. I glanced at the bottom of the photo and a caption read CHRISTOPHER LEE AS THE CREATURE. Right below this was another photo of the same shocked, elegant-looking young man in the dark suit with a caption proclaiming PETER CUSHING AS BARON FRANKENSTEIN. I then went to the contents page and discovered to my great delight that the movie within the movie was The Curse of Frankenstein. This event opened the proverbial black door to a lifelong fascination with horror cinema, yet to this very day I have been unable to determine why Stanley Kubrick inserted one of Hammer Film’s most horrific classics into his Lolita--as a diversion, perhaps, or maybe. . . ?
The opportunity to finally see The Curse of Frankenstein on the big screen (remember, no DVD’s, no VCR’s, except a Brownie 8mm movie camera) came sometime in the fall of 1966 at the State Wayne Theater, a small venue then owned and operated by the Schaffer brothers who ran a chain of theaters in the Detroit metropolitan area from about 1955 to the mid 1970’s until the appearance of the cineplexes and the decline of the independently-owned film companies such as American International Pictures (Nicholson & Arkoff) and Amicus forced them out of business. The Curse of Frankenstein, released in 1957 and the first of Hammer Film’s forays into the cinema of terror, certainly lived up to all my expectations, for I remember being completely overwhelmed by Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the doomed creature with the body of a condemned criminal, the hands of a gifted sculptor and the brain of poor old Dr. Bernstein, pushed to his death from an upper floor balcony by Baron Frankenstein.
To make this afternoon at the movies even more horrendous, the second feature was Horror of Dracula, also starring Christopher Lee as the fiendish demon lover whose unholy existence as King of the Vampires and Lord of the Undead was graphically terminated by Abraham Van Helsing (played magnificently by Peter Cushing) with the assistance of two silver candlesticks and the newly-risen sun streaming through a set of Gothic windows. The famous disintegration scene at the conclusion of Horror of Dracula was intact, just as Terence Fisher had intended it to be--a bubbling, burning cauldron of flesh literally falling from Dracula’s face as the rest of his body shriveled and crumbled to dust, leaving his signet ring and some whiffs of hair behind on the polished marble floor. These two films, due to the acting abilities of Cushing and Lee, catapulted Hammer Studios into the stratosphere of horror film production where they held mastery over their American and British competitors for almost thirty years.
Prior to my first viewing of The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, I had seen many films steeped with graphic violence, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological manifesto Psycho with Anthony Perkins as the demented Norman Bates (the old Ed Gein scenario), A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, all starring a then-obscure Hollywood character actor named Clint Eastwood who had appeared as a lab assistant in the 1950’s B-shlocker Tarantula with John Agar and Leo G. Carroll. But the type of violence depicted in The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula was somehow different than anything I had witnessed before. For example, when Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name drew his .45 caliber Colt Peacemaker and blew away one of hisoutlaw rivals from less than ten feet away, there was no indication of blood on the body of the person who had just been drilled with a chunk of hot lead. In the case of Horror of Dracula, the violence was accentuated with copious amounts of blood in full, glorious color by driving wooden stakes into still beating hearts, the blood gushing like a garden hose; the fangs of the dreaded Master of the Undead piercing the tender throats of young, nubile females and the pivotal scene with Jonathon Harker, bearing the kiss of Dracula on his neck, gawking at the demonic figure of Christopher Lee, his lips parted and fangs dripping with blood. The main difference between the "spaghetti western" and Horror of Dracula in the context of violence lies in what the late Robert Bloch called "adult fairy stories," or the myths of childhood transformed for a mature audience. With such films as A Fistful of Dollars, the violence was based on reality, for I knew that a chunk of lead passing through my heart would kill me, but I only sensed the reality of the vampire or the reincarnation of a dead body since they dwelt in the realms of the imagination and the unknown.
Another aspect of The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula which made a lasting impression upon such a young, inexperienced voyeur was the way Cushing and Lee portrayed their individual characters with an intensity of devotion beyond the exposition of Jimmy Sangster who in his own right must be considered as one of the premier screenwriters of horror cinema. In The Curse of Frankenstein, Peter Cushing projected an aura of complete menace and domination over the other characters with the possible exemption of Robert Urquhart in the role of Baron Frankenstein’s pedagogic mentor. This intensity was magnified by the make-up genius of Phil Leakey and the sweeping, tension-filled score of James Bernard whichwas reminiscent of the music of Bernard Herrmann from Jason and the Argonauts, another of my all-time favorite movies of the early 1960’s.
For some strange reason, a very special camera shot in Horror of Dracula was impressed in my memory, perhaps due to its heraldic motif which was similar to my Gaelic coat of arms (an upside-down white St. Andrew’s cross)--FIDELIS ET MORTEN--loosely translated from its Latin origins as FIDELITY WITH THE DEAD, or simply "the dead are my friends." Little did I know that this simple Latin phrase would lead me headlong into the realms of horror cinema which persists to this very day, all because of that face on the black and white TV screen in Lolita’s living room and that shocked young man in the dark suit who created a monster from the pitiful remains of a criminal hanging from the gallows pole.
NEXT INSTALLMENT COMING SOON
COPYRIGHT © MICHAEL MCGLASSON, 2001