Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Vielen Dank, Herr Coniam

If you recently noticed a stratospherical jump in the quality of writing on this blog, then this is down entirely to one man:

Matthew Coniam

A while back as part of a Year End review I had asked whether anyone out there may be interested in writing for Hammer and Beyond and Matthew came to the fore. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that my little call to arms would result in such sterling contributions.

Anytime you see a really in-depth analysis of one aspect of British Horror Cinema, chances are that it was written by him. Over the months, nay: years, I often got compliments for pieces that weren't mine and had to set the record straight one reader at a time but I fear that all too often it isn't too apparent who wrote what. One really needs to be eagle-eyed and scroll down to the bottom of a blog post to notice the ID of the respective writer of the posts.

Up till recently the regularity of his and my writing was as it should be: I, as the nominal owner of this blog, wrote a handful of pieces; Matthew then had his say in a new post. I was always excited to be notified of a post by him as it put me into the position of a reader as well.

Then life came in the way and I haven't been able to post in yonks. In actual fact if it wasn't for Matthew nothing would have been published in the last couple of months. He singlehandedly is responsible for keeping this blog alive in the year so far. Every single post of 2012 until now has been his.

And for this I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart. This blog would have been moribund right now if it wasn't for you, mate.

See (now channeling my Dick Klemensen), amongst other nightmares that I won't go into here, 3.5 years ago I had to face being laid off from a well-paid job of 13 years. Not interested in getting back into the Kosmokokkick Korporate World I ended up becoming self employed and – as they say these days - “re-invented myself”.

First I set myself up as a private German Tutor and seasonal Tour Guide. Then I got myself a Massage Therapist degree and also offered mobile massages.

All of this went reasonably well but also left me enough time for all my other interests.

Downside was that every year in the winter months I had to dip into my savings, something that couldn't go on so I decided to take a temp job back in the Corporate World again to cover me over that lean period. And guess what:

I am still in that job full time.

And teach.

And provide the massages.

All in all resulting in crazy 60-70 hour weeks that I know can't go on indefinitely.

Looks like it is all either feast or famine with me these days and I need to come up with a reasonable middle way. Giving up on my projects is a definite No No but unfortunately regular part time jobs are practically impossible to come by. So I am working on my.... what is it now: Plan E?

Long story short: I am crazy busy and Matthew has valiantly picked up the gauntlet for me.

As my multi-million Euro/Pound/Dollar budget for this blog was slashed to nothing in the recession, I can't offer him riches or trips to sunny climes. But what I can offer is make you aware of the incredible talent that is Mr Coniam by listing all the posts he has written for us so far and pointing to all his other blogs with the urgent request to check them all out. I seriously don't know how he manages to write so much while still apparently living the regular life of a recently married family man. My hat's off to you!

Without further ado, here is a quick reference guide to all of Matthew's blog posts so far:

Rediscovering Mike Raven (part one)

Mock the Raven Nevermore!

Smart new Woman In Black poster...

Lee and Cushing after hours

Matthew's Watching Hammer Top Ten

How to say “De curse of de hound is on you!” in Italian

The ten Hammer films I’m most ashamed never to have seen (not including “Straight On Till Morning”)

RIP, Jimmy Sangster: The man who invented Hammer Horror

RIP Michael Gough, 1917-2011

Hammer what ifs and if onlys

“What Horror Means To Me” by Christopher Lee

The Stranger Came Home to Bray

Herman Cohen: An American Weirdo in London

If you want to read more of his, please also check out his own blogs. (Again: Just how does he do it?)

So thanks again, Matthew, I really am eternally grateful for all your help and hope that everyone who visits this blog will also start exploring all your other projects.

Oh, and should anyone be interested to follow in his footsteps and write something for Hammer and Beyond (either a standalone piece or something more regular), please do let me know. This blog is meant to be a voice for anyone interested in Classic Hammer and British Horror.

Rediscovering Mike Raven (part one)

(Click here for introductory musings...)

If you look at the content of his whole (not very long) life, you can see that he never wasted a minute and was always creating in some way or another. Therefore his four films were not a major part of his life.
- Mandy Fairman

I don’t know if he would have liked to continue with films, but Mum certainly wouldn’t have let him!

- Dominic Fairman

As promised in my previous post, I have now reacquainted myself with the films of Mike Raven, and am more convinced than ever that only some kind of collective psychosis can explain why the story of this most supremely idiosyncratic of actors has been so wilfully under-examined by students of obscure British cinema.

There was a time, of course, when almost the entirety of British horror, even Hammer, was wont to be summed up, and as often as not dismissed, in a paragraph or two. But we’re beyond that now, and individualists like Pete Walker, once reviled, have now taken their rightful place among the British cinema mavericks. Few careers, studios or stars that made a mark on British horror still want for serious analysis. In fact, Raven is pretty much the only exception to this rule I can think of.
What follows is my first tentative efforts to correct this imbalance, and I am enormously grateful to Raven’s wife Mandy and son Dominic for taking the time to share their memories of the man and his movies with me.

Raven Had a Dilettante Streak

Mike Raven was born Austin Churton Fairman; the son of actor Austin Fairman and actress Hilda Moore. Though his pseudonym seemed tailor made for his appearances in British horror films, he had started using it professionally long before his movie career began.
Raven only appeared in four movies, but they represent a kind of microcosm of British horror as it was in the early seventies. As well as two independently produced starring vehicles, he took two supporting roles, one for Hammer and one for Amicus.
Though all reports insist he was intent on becoming a new horror star, and played up the image offscreen to encourage an air of mystique, you only have to look at his Wikipedia entry to see that movies were but a tiny part of a short but immensely crowded career.

Most famously, of course, he was a pirate and Radio 1 DJ. (Let me clarify: he was a DJ on Radio 1 and on pirate radio; he wasn’t a Radio 1 DJ and a pirate. Though to judge from his CV that’s one of the very few things he never tried his hand at.)

The films were merely one diversion among many, according to Raven’s son Dominic: “To Dad his films (although they remain very visible) were not nearly as important to him as his work as an artist or as his contribution to giving black bluesmen a proper voice during the 1960’s.”
They were “not a major part of his life,” his wife Mandy agrees.

In later life, he became a sculptor, and lived the artist’s life in a remote farm on Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor (familiar to all fans of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn) and it was this final chapter of his professional career that he most wished to be remembered by.
Cornwall was not merely central to his life, it was also the location of his two starring movies: Crucible of Terror (1970) and Disciple of Death (1971).
“The move to Cornwall was at my insistence,” Mandy recalls. “We both loved horses and he loved sculpting so we bought a moorland farm for me, started with 35 sheep and ended up with 800.”
“We always came to Boscastle for our family holidays and Dad loved Cornwall a great deal,” adds Dominic. “We first moved to the coast and then onto the moors where Dad took a keen interest in the archaeology of the area. He spent a lot of the last 10 years of his life sculpting and riding his faithful horse Jack, and he was (by his own choice) buried on the farm in a beautiful spot overlooking the moors.”

Though his press releases at the time of his horror films make great play of his interest in the occult, Raven was a Christian, albeit with a keen interest in comparative religions and esoteric dogma. His often troubled relationship with religion informs most of his sculptural work, as well as Disciple of Death, his most personal film.
His Christian faith was sincere, “but, being Mike, it’s more complicated,” Mandy recalls. “He was, as I am, a Roman Catholic which brings its own multitude of problems for a man of his fragility.”

Disc-jockey, horror star, sculptor, ballet dancer, writer, TV presenter, photographer, student of Magdalen College, Oxford and a Lieutenant in the Royal Ulster Rifles during the Second World War… one glance at Raven’s obituaries – which read like the result of a collision between the obituaries of at least ten different people – is enough to confirm that this is a life story worth getting to know a lot more of.
According to Mandy, he had embarked upon writing an autobiography: “He was going to write his life story, which was totally unbelievable, but did not get very far before he died. It was going to be called Fairman Has a Dilettante Streak: his Oxford tutor’s words!”

The Horror Star

“His favourite horror film was Witchfinder General,” according to Mandy. “He liked and admired Vincent Price immensely, and knew him and his wife when he was younger. I dislike horror films, but he did persuade me to go to a showing of The Old Dark House put on by the Gothique Film Society, which we both loved. Since he died I have watched Stigmata and loved it and I am sure he would have too. I know, I know; its anti-Roman Catholic, but entertaining. I know this was his taste in horror.”

Raven’s own appearances in British horror films are a mixed bag indeed.
The least remembered, perhaps, was the least ostentatious: as Enfield in the Amicus movie I, Monster (1971), a more or less straight adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Nowhere else would he appear in such illustrious company: third-billed behind Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
According to Mandy, it was a rewarding association: “He enjoyed working on it, although it was an entirely straight role. He very much liked Peter Cushing who was kind and courteous, and Stephen Weeks bothered to direct him and give him his time. I don`t think he was ever in the studio at the same time as Lee.”
(It’s just a pity Weeks didn’t find a role for him in his subsequent film, Gawain and the Green Knight [1973]: a lively chunk of English folklore that would surely have much appealed to Raven’s sensibilities.)

But it is Count Karnstein, in Hammer’s Lust For a Vampire, that remains his most high profile appearance, and it should have been his most important showcase. Sadly, for Raven, the experience of shooting a featured guest role at Britain's most prestigious horror factory was, to say the least, bittersweet. Chief among his frustrations was the studio's decision to dub his voice.
Hammer did this repeatedly and almost always misguidedly, and there was nothing exceptional about Raven’s treatment: many of the studio’s leading ladies, even Ingrid Pitt, suffered the same indignity. But in Raven’s case it seemed especially demeaning, partly because the substitution – by radio warhorse Valentine Dyall – was so very crude and obvious, but also because Raven was, after all, a man who made his living with his voice.

Mandy remembers: “He was not very good or happy being employed by other people, and his feelings regarding Hammer are best not repeated! To me they were a group of people who were stuck in a groove; it came as a bit of a shock after being in the music business. When I found out about the dubbing; Mike was still broadcasting at the time; I tried to convince Hammer that it was ridiculous but failed. The row was not inconsiderable.”
The shooting of the film, too, was not harmonious, according to Mandy, whose memories of director Jimmy Sangster echo his own published reflections on the production:
“Both of us liked Jimmy Sangster, who I believe died last year, and at the time of Lust seemed bored and tired of the sameiness of Hammer Productions. Maybe we were both wrong about this, but it was certainly our impression at the time. Hammer were in a cul-de sac and the Karnstein pictures were heading towards soft porn. Then Crucible of Terror came along, and that, after his experiences with Hammer, was a joy.”

(Part 2 to follow shortly)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mock the Raven Nevermore!

Many moons ago I contributed to a book called Ten Years of Terror: British Horror Films of the 1970s.
I haven't looked at it in years, but not long ago I came across a review of it on Amazon, in which was written the following:
"But while the book seeks to inform and entertain, readers may be disconcerted by some of the cruel jibes which pass for 'criticism' (the string of comments directed at Mike Raven, star of Crucible of Terror, are especially unpleasant)"

I'm pretty sure I'm the main culprit here: I recall reviewing Crucible of Terror for the book, and including a variety of smartarsey put-downs of the star.
Though the intention was to be amusing rather than cruel, it's still something I now deeply regret. In fact, I'm rather ashamed of the tone of much of my early writing on horror films, the majority of it (I'm pleased to say) fairly well buried in long-forgotten magazines. I've not gone back to the book to check on my piece, but I have every reason to think that this reviewer has got it spot on. Guilty, m'lud.

For a long time, actually, I've felt the need to make amends to the memory of Raven, who sadly passed away in 1997.
Not because he was necessarily a better actor than we ever claimed but simply because of all the male figures who passed through British horror, he seems to have been given the most flak and the least slack, almost as if he was serving as the symbolic figurehead for everything we didn't like about the decline of British trad-horror.
And 'male' is most definitely the operative word - here's another home truth from that same Amazon reviewer:
"There is a tendency - peculiar to a certain breed of UK genre writer - for cheesecake to dictate the evaluation of any given film. Young male actors (not considered sexy by straight male reviewers) are constantly dismissed as non-entities, regardless of ability or experience, while even the most talentless actress will be praised for little more than a flash of her cleavage. In a review of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, for instance, Robin Stewart (a perfectly adequate performer) is rubbished because he lacks macho prowess, while Julie Ege 'comes closest to achieving a performance'."

Hands up again, I think.
Imagine if Valerie Leon had followed up Mummy's Tomb with two self-devised horror cheapies in which she took the lead? Would we all be so unforgiving of their - or her - cinematic merits then? (Now stop imagining it and carry on with this post.)
So ask yourself: would the British horror film have been a better thing without Mike Raven or his two massively eccentric starring vehicles?
Just to pose the question is to reveal the absurdity of it. Raven is part of the wonderful, rich fabric of British horror, and whatever you think of him or his films, he's a wonderfully strange and enjoyable part of it. And if he'd been a woman we'd be hailing him as the unsung hero of the hour.

The thing that has really prompted this, though, is a recent post by my pal Mark, he of the Random Ramblings, which told me a number of things I never previously knew about Raven, and made me feel even more of a berk for writing him off so crassly.
I knew, of course, that he had been a disc-jockey, and takes pride of place (front row centre) in the famous group photograph of the original Radio 1 DJs:

But I didn't know that after his two Cornish-set starring horrors he stayed on in Cornwall, reverted to his real name of Austin Churton Fairman and became a sculptor, specialising in religious subjects with a marked erotic undercurrent.
That he was genuine occultist, with a deep and sincere knowledge of religious esoterica, had been a key element of his image as a horror star, but his own faith, it seems, was Christian: "looking back from the comparative serenity of old age," he wrote, "I can see that my whole life has been conditioned by two main elements; my consistently unsuccessful struggle to come to terms with my own sexuality, and my, consequently, equally unsuccessful attempts to live up to my Christian beliefs."
Many, in fact it would appear most, of his pieces are inspired by Biblical passages: you can see a good selection of them here, at this fascinating website maintained by his family.

Of course, to anyone who knows Raven's horror films well, there is something entirely splendid about his having become a sculptor in the wilds of Cornwall - that being the premise of his first and more widely-seen starring movie, Crucible of Terror.
I wonder how much we tend to pre-judge these movies by the standard of his best-known appearance of all: as Count Karnstein in the prologue of Hammer's Lust For a Vampire. Not only is he entirely dubbed (by Valentine Dyall), he also suffers the indignity of having close-ups of Christopher Lee's eyes (from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave) substituted for his own (surely the only time any actor has been subjected to so bizarre an indignity as the imposition of an eye-double).
It's as if the studio, having gone to the effort of hiring him, then refused to have any faith in him at all, even though the part is an obvious try-out, and there's very little anyone could do with it that would have had a lasting effect on the film.
As it is, the obvious overdubbing of Dyall's almost comically sepulchral tones and the inserts of Chris Lee's peepers more or less do for the performance: there's no question that Raven left to his own devices would have been better. (He's perfectly adequate, you'll remember, in I, Monster.)
But it's that silly Hammer image of him, I think, that we tend to bring with us to his two starring vehicles, and as a result the assumption that they - and he - are inherently ridiculous is ingrained from the start.

That they are low-budget affairs is obvious, and until some eccentric benefactor pays for a top class restoration we will have to be content with pretty sub-par prints. (They are incredibly grainy, as if they had been blown-up from 16mm).
But what they most definitely are not is the predictable, run of the mill rehashing of sub-Hammer themes and motifs. You could never mistake them for a Tigon film or an Amicus film or a Herman Cohen film. They look, and are, unique.
Crucible is almost a hearkening back to the baroque grandiosity of pre-Hammer horror, with some splendid shots of the bubbling cauldron in Raven's foundry, and excellent use of Cornish tin-mining locations.
The second, Disciple of Death, is potentially the more intriguing, and clearly personal to Raven: an occult melodrama that he both wrote and produced. Set again in Cornwall, with Raven as 'The Stranger', a Satanic emissary who recruits young women for diabolic sacrifice, the film is a period piece - incredibly ambitious considering the budget.
I'd love to tell you more about it, but the truth is I've never actually seen all of it - and it's a long, long time since I've seen Crucible for that matter.
Still, one ker-ching on the Amazon till later and both are heading my way: I will report back...

In the meantime, here's to Mike Raven: the world of British horror would have been vastly the poorer without him.