November 24, 2013

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

It could be stated that the 70s were a tough time for the legendary Hammer Film Productions, as after ruling the 60s with their trademark brand of lavish Gothic horrors, their classic formula was beginning to show its age, and on top of that, times were changing, and the company began to face strong competition from the new breed of grittier, edgier films that appeared in that decade. "The Vampire Lovers" is an attempt to spice things up a bit by adding an even stronger dose of eroticism to the Gothic horrors the studio was famous for. Ever since the release of "Dracula" (1958), Hammer Films had subtly played with eroticism in their productions, but "The Vampire Lovers" would be a step ahead. The experienced Roy Ward Baker (of "A Night to Remember" fame) was put in charge of the movie, but it would be the introduction of one of the studios' most iconic actresses, the gorgeous Ingrid Pitt, what would turn the film into a cult classic. This free adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's classic Gothic novel "Carmilla", is rightfully, one of the best Hammer films, not only of their late period, but of all time.

In 19th century Styria, a remote region in Austria, a series of deaths amongst the villagers brings back the ancient rumors of vampires, specially when Laura (Pippa Steel), the niece of General Von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), falls sick to the same strange disease that it's killing the villagers. Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt), the daughter of a Countess, is living with the General's family as a house guest, after General Von Spielsdorf agreed to have her under his care while her mother is away. Laura quickly befriends Marcilla, who does everything she can to comfort young Laura. Sadly, all is in vain and the beautiful young girl dies. The mysterious Marcilla, vanishes from the General's home without leaving a trace. Several weeks later, the disease returns to the region, this time affecting Emma Morton (Madeline Smith), the daughter of a British nobleman (George Cole) who doesn't believe in vampires. However, Emma has a friend that looks after her, a young woman named Carmilla, that bears more than a passing resemblance to the disappeared Marcilla. Death has arrived to the Morton's house.

While scriptwriters Harry Fine, Tudor Gates and Michael Style do take some liberties with "Carmilla"'s plot, "The Vampire Lovers" is actually one of the most faithful adaptations to Le Fanu's novel, in the sense that it remains true to the novel's spirit and its balance of sheer Gothic horror and classy eroticism. The plot is quite well developed and there's an interesting attempt at building up a new mythology separated from Hammer's Dracula films. Also, the story plays nicely with suspense remarkable, as even when the story is told from the point of view of the "antagonist", the tension (both sexual and non-sexual) is always at the upfront. Keeping a balance between horror and eroticism is hard, but "The Vampire Lovers" manages to make a vivid portrait of those important aspects in the nature of the vampire myth. Carmilla is a temptress and a predator, a wild force of nature that, true to the vampire iconography, represents chaos and wilderness. What's interesting is how despite the outcome of the fight between the vampire and the civilized men, the vampire is always treated as the most charismathic figure.

The experienced Roy Ward Baker (who had already done a film for Hammer, "Quatermass and the Pit" in 1967) brought to Hammer Film Productions his extraordinary ability to do wonders with limited resources, a trait that suited like a glove the lavish look of the low budget horror films that made Hammer famous. What director Roy Ward Baker gives to the film is certainly class, a certain subtlety and elegance in his use of the camera that work wonders for the eroticism inherent in the story. While this subtle approach may seem restrained, it actually enhances the eroticism of several scenes, as what's implied is often more tempting than what is shown (and it's shown a lot). Despite the low-budget, the movie looks very good, as Roy Ward Baker makes an excellent use of his resources allowing him to create nightmarish scenes despite the budget constrains. An instrumental figure in this is cinematographer Moray Grant, who employs his talents to give the film a haunting atmosphere of dark fantasy that fits nicely with the Gothic tone of the story. "The Vampire Lovers" is one of the best looking horrors from the Hammer house.

It's more than clear that "The Vampire Lovers" is basically a star vehicle for the beautiful Ingrid Pitt, and she truly makes the most of the chance. As the lead character, Carmilla, Pitt is simply breathtaking, and not only because of her imposing beauty. Pitt manages to create a character that's both seductive and terrifying, alluring and destructive, the very essence of the horror tale. With her powerful screen presence, Ingrid Pitt carries the film with ease and creates an iconic figure in the process. And her strong personality makes a pretty good contrast with the innocence portrayed by actress Madeline Smith as Emma Morton, her counterpart in several scenes. Smith makes a fine job in her role, but her character is sadly a tad underdeveloped and ends up as just another damsel in distress (the real star is Carmilla of course). Kate O'Mara delivers another of the great performances of the movie as Mme. Perrodot, a governess infatuated by Carmilla's power. George Cole, Douglas Wilmer and the legendary Peter Cushing complete the cast, bringing excellent support due to their experience and great talent.

It would be very easy to dismiss "The Vampire Lovers" as just an erotic film about lesbian vampires, particularly now that the theme of lesbianism in vampire films has been overdone, but this movie truly offers a lot more than that. For starters, it's a horror movie centered around its characters, with Carmilla at the center, playing with the rest of the characters as pieces of a game of chess. The atmosphere plays an even more important role in "The Vampire Lovers" than in usual Hammer films, as Roy Ward Baker aims for an aura of romanticism for the movie. Certainly, the low budget is at times noticeable and it may lack the dynamism and energy of the Hammer films directed by Terence Fisher, but this approach to the vampire film was not only daring and refreshing in its time, it was the next step in the road that Hammer had been taking the vampire film since "Dracula" (1958): the vampire was not only a monster, it was an attractive monster. Roy Ward Baker's version of "Carmilla" began its own "subgenre", becoming the main influence to the many subsequent erotic films about vampires that were done across the world.

The 70s would prove to be a difficult time for Hammer Film Productions, as in order to keep up with the times the company would begin to produce all sorts of variations to its horror films. Some would be set in modern times, while other would be bizarre combinations of genres ("The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires", mix of Gothic horror and martial arts is a perfect example of this). Nevertheless, "The Vampire Lovers" is one of the forgotten gems of that period in Hammer history where experimentation was needed to survive. In the case of this film, the experiment worked, and two more films were done in this model, making what is now known as the "Karnstein Trilogy" (with the films "Lust for a Vampire" and "Twins of Evil"). Despite its problems, "The Vampire Lovers" can be considered amongst the best Hammer films, not only of the late period of the company, but of all its history.


November 23, 2013

7 Women (1966)

Widely regarded as one of the greatest masters in the history of cinema, American director John Ford left a remarkably rich legacy through his long and prolific career in the movies. While chiefly known as a director of Westerns (a genre to which he contributed several masterpieces such as "Stagecoach", "My Darling Clementine" or "The Searchers", to name a few), John Ford's body of work shows a quite versatile filmmaker, able to tackle very diverse types of stories. Unfortunately, that other side of Ford's oeuvre has left a bit overshadowed by the great success of his classic Westerns, but nonetheless it's an interesting facet that's well worthy of checking out. The perfect example of this is "7 Women", the film that closes John Ford's career as the last feature-length fiction film that he would do in his life (his final work would be a documentary, "Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend" in 1970). Being a movie completely focused on a group of female characters, it would seem that this movie is a tad unusual for the legendary director of Westerns, but the truth is that this is actually the perfect farewell from one of cinema's masters.

Set in Chine, in 1935, "7 Women" deals with the tribulations that are lived by the staff at a Christian mission in a remote region in the north of China. Lead by the strict Ms. Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), the staff consists of Andrew's assistant, Ms. Argent (Mildred Dunnock), professor Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) and his wife Florrie (Betty Field), and last but not least, the young Emma Clark (Sue Lyon). At the mission there's the expectation for the arrival of the new doctor, as the situation in the region is difficult with the rumors of attacks by the notorious bandit Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki). However, to the shock of everyone at the mission, the new doctor is actually a woman, Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), and it doesn't take much time before Dr. Cartwright's cynicism and open despise for religion collides with the Ms. Andrews' authoritarian personality. Despite this, Dr. Cartwright will prove to be of great help, having to deal with problems such as Mrs. Pether's advanced pregnancy, and the outburst of plague amongst the mission's population. However, her greatest challenge will come with the arrival of Tunga Khan to the mission.

Written by Janet Green and John McCormick, "7 Women" is an adaptation of a short story titled "Chines Finale", written by Norah Lofts (the story had already been adapted to television as part of the "Alcoa Theatre" TV series in 1960). The core drama in "7 Women" is centered mainly in the conflict between Ms. Andrews and Dr. Cartwright, using the contrast between their strong personalities as the basis to make a study on morality, religion and the relationship between them. While for Ms. Andrews' eyes the ways and behavior of Dr. Cartwright are irreligious and immoral at all accounts, ultimately the actions of the tough newcomer begin to prove themselves far more useful for the mission than the strict discipline preached by Ms. Agatha Andrews. As it can be seen, "7 Women" isn't much of an epic adventure in an exotic land, but an intimate character study where the conflicting personalities of the 7 women of the title are dissected, as when adversity comes knocking to their door, they must learn to collaborate despite their multiple personal differences.

In this his last feature-length film as a director, John Ford shows his masterful skill behind the camera at giving life to Lofts' story with a very appropriate and interesting subtlety. As mentioned before, despite the exotic location in which the story is set, "7 Women" works more as an intense drama of a more intimate variety, so director John Ford adapts his very particular style to really get into the microcosm that the mission represents. Ford leaves aside any attempt at visual flare (though Joseph LaShelle's work as cinematographer is brilliant) in favor of a greater focus in his characters. With an agile visual narrative, Ford portraits the mission's staff with great detail carefully developing their different personalities to the plot's benefit. In the end, Tunga Khan's attack is just another excuse to take to the limit the conflict between Ms. Agatha Andrews and Dr. Cartwright. Certainly, the main conflict was one of great interest for Ford, as even since his earlier classic, "Stagecoach" (1939), he had treated the complex theme of hypocrisy in religion's morality.

Naturally, given that "7 Women" is a film focused entirely on the relationships between the characters, the performances by the cast take a greater degree of relevance for the film's success. Fortunately, the acting in "7 Women" is of a superb quality, starting with Anne Bancroft completely taking over the screen as the witty Dr. D.R. Cartwright. While reportedly Bancroft wasn't the first choice for the role, her work is simply outstanding, managing to capture the complex personality of her character, a woman hardened by the frustration of living in a men's world. Her counterpart, Margaret Leighton, makes a fabulous job as Ms. Agatha Andrews, the strict and devoted leader of the mission. What's interesting about Leighton's performance is that she manages to avoid making of her character a caricature, as she conveys the complex subtleties that make her character human. Young Sue Lyon makes an acceptable job as Emma, who finds herself divided between her loyalty to Ms. Andrews and her admiration to Dr. Cartwright, whom she begins to see a role model (to Ms. Andrew's dismay).

At first sight, it would seem to be strange that director John Ford, whom basically helped to create the iconography of the wild west in his Westerns, would take the job of crafting a movie starring almost entirely women. However, "7 Women" is a film that in its themes is actually closer to John Ford's cinema than what one could thing at first: for starters, as in many of Ford's celebrated classics, "7 Women" deals with the conflict of different personalities forced to be together by the circumstances. Besides, Dr. Cartwright's has a lot in common with Ford's cowboys, being clearly outside the "normal" standards upholder by the proper "civilization". Cartwright is strong, smart and independent, so she means a direct threat to the concept of discipline and submission understood by Andrews (whom by the way, has a lot of sexual repression). The role that plays religion is also interesting, as Ford makes of "7 Women" a criticism to the hypocrisy of an arrogant, holier-than-thou attitude that judges based on moral prejudices instead of in the acts of sacrifice.

Certainly, such conflict was of great importance for Ford (a Catholic), given that "beliefs vs. acts" is a major argument between Protestants and Catholics. Now, "7 Women" isn't a movie absolutely without flaws (the most notorious being the fact that's pretty obvious that the film was shot entirely on a set), nevertheless, said flaws are completely overshadowed by the film's many virtues. Due to its unusual characteristics, "7 Women" is usually forgotten when discussion John Ford's filmography but, given its themes and style, the movie actually summarizes perfectly the totality of the work done by this great filmmaker. Gifted with great visual beauty, and intelligent screenplay and superb performances, "7 Women" closes masterfully the career of the legendary filmmaker. And if there's a doubt about it, one just has to check out the final scene of the movie, which is a farewell equally as beautiful as melancholic. The farewell of a master.


Asylum (1972)

When talking about 70s British horror, the obvious reference is of course the classic gothic horror films produced by Hammer Film Productions during that decade. Nevertheless, Hammer Films and their monsters weren't the only horrors coming from the United Kingdom at the time. Inspired by the success of Hammer Films in the horror genre, Amicus Productions began to produce their own genre films in a similar visual style (in color, and often with the same cast), though with several obvious differences: while Hammer was making period gothic horror films, Amicus set its films in contemporary times, and instead of gothic horror the Amicus films were mostly anthologies, portmanteau horror films consisting of four or sometimes five short horror stories linked by a common theme or frame story (inspired by the British classic, "Dead of Night"). "Asylum", released in 1972 and directed by Roy Ward Baker (whom already had spent a time at Hammer, directing "The Vampire Lovers" in 1970 among others), is a perfect example of the kind of horror films that Amicus would be producing during the 1970s.

"Asylum" (also known in the U.S. as "House of Crazies"), takes its title from the fact that its framing tale is about a physician, Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), whom arrives to the asylum of the title for a job interview. Dr. Lionel Rutherford (Patrick Magee), the man who is conducting the interview, decides to put Martin to test: one of the inmates at the asylum is Dr. Starr, the former head of the Asylum who lost his mind after a complete mental breakdown. Dr. Martin will have to interview the inmates at the asylum and identify which one of them is actually Dr. Starr. If he manages to recognize him, Martin will get the job. So, Dr. Martin gets into the asylum, meeting each patient in their solitary confinement cells and listening to their tales. Patient Bonnie (Barbara Perkins) will tell a tale of ambition and voodoo, while tailor Bruno (Barry Morse) will reveal his bizarre experience with a quite special fabric. Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) will detail her cherished friendship with the mischievous Lucy (Britt Ekland), while Dr. Byron (Herbert Lom) will talk about a terrifying experiment with soul transference.

Writer Robert Bloch (author of the novel "Psycho", adapted to the screen in 1960) takes on the scriptwriter duty in "Asylum" taking as basis four of this short stories, to which he adds the asylum theme as framing story for the film. While the use of a framing story as bookend for the rest of the tales is a pretty common device in Amicus Productions' anthologies, the fact that Bloch uses the asylum motif gives the movie a quite particular identity of its own, as it allows the tales to move between the more realistic horror to the realm of pure fantasy with great ease, as after all, these are the stories of a group of mad people. Two major themes appear in each one of Robert Bloch's stories: the animation of inanimate objects, and the concept of identity and its deviations. This one ultimately echoes through the whole film, as the framing story involves Martin trying to discover whom amongst the inmates is actually Dr. Starr in disguise. however, this theme ends up a bit forced in the framing tale as it0s obvious that at least two of the interviewed inmates are too young to be seriously considered as candidates to be Dr. Starr.

By 1972, director Roy Ward Baker was already considered as one of the most experienced filmmakers in the United Kingdom, having directed classics as "Morning Departure" (1950) and "A Night to Remember" (1958). While working at Amicus Productions meant lower budgets, Baker already had the talent and experience to do more with less, and "Asylum" shows this at its best. If there's something inherent in anthology films is that, by their own nature, they have the tendency to be uneven in terms of the quality of the stories that conform them, and sadly, "Asylum" is no exception. However, director Roy Ward Baker manages to lessen this a tad by keeping an equal degree of quality and stylistic coherence through every story. While the tales may shift in tone, the visual style that Roy Ward Baker keeps through the whole film gives the movie an ominous atmosphere of uneasiness, of dark abnormality that benefits the film a lot. So, even if Robert Bloch's screenplay is no the strongest element in "Asylum", its impeccable manufacture certainly is.

Like most of the movies released by Amicus Productions, the cast is made up of a mixture of legendary stars of the horror genre (Peter Cushing and Herbert Lom), and young rising artists looking for the chance to shine (Britt Ekland and Charlotte Rampling). The result, as in every portmanteau film, varies from tale to tale, though in general the acting in "Asylum" is of great quality. On one hand there are haunting performances, as the ones by Mores and Cushing in "The Weird Tailor", in which both actors manage to capture perfectly the slightly hammy tone that a tale of dark supernatural fantasy like this one demanded. On the other side, Britt Ekland and Charlotte Rampling aren't as fortunate in their tale, which moves in the terrains of psychological horror. While the story where they work, "Lucy Comes to Stay", is perhaps the dullest of the four, a better work by the two actresses may had meant a significative improvement. Patrick Magee, who plays the sinister wheelchair-bounded Dr. Lionel Rutherford in the framing story, makes a terrific work as the authoritarian and devilish doctor.

Despite some rather mediocre performances, "Asylum" doesn't have its weak spot in the acting department, as the cast as a whole makes an effective job. The film's weakness is perhaps hidden deeper in the Robert Bloch's screenplay. As mentioned before, it's common in anthologies that some of the stories are less functional than the rest, and that's unfortunately the case in "Asylum", as while "The Weird Tailor", "Frozen Fear" and the framing story are brilliant and quite interesting, "Mannikins of Horror" and particularly "Lucy Comes to Stay" fail to reach that level. The case of "Lucy Comes to Stay" is specially interesting as its plot is some sort of variation of the one in "Psycho" (so it's not a strange territory for author Robert Bloch), though set in a more youthful atmosphere that doesn't match the solemn way the story is developed, making it feel a bit slow and dull in comparison to other stories from "Asylum". A similar case is the problem of "Mannikins of Horror", as it has a quite interesting premise that would had benefited from a less campy, and more serious and somber tone.

While of a budget considerable lower than the gothic horrors of Hammer Film Productions (and that's saying something), Amicus Productions' anthology films could be as interesting or more than some of its rivals' horror movies, and "Asylum" is perhaps the best proof of that. While it may not be the best work of writer Robert Bloch, the movie benefits enormously from the masterful way director Roy Ward Baker crafts the movie, as well as the classy work by cinematographer Deny N. Coop, who manage to return that mysterious and somber atmosphere of classic gothic horror to the very modern contemporary England. It's a perfectly done mix of the old and the new. Despite being lesser known than the movies from Hammer Film Productions, it's worth to discover the oeuvre of Amicus Productions, and "Asylum" is a great way to start.