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.


Mark said...

An excellent post Matthew (and thanks for the plug!) I completely agree with you on Raven. After posting my own entry on him I was struck by how similar he was in his physical movements some times (I'm thinking the unblinking gaze and jerky head as he spoke) to Peter Cook-a big hero of mine-in Bedazzled. Now Cookie I defend to the hilt re his acting, Raven marginally less so. Shame.

His quote that you reproduce here really intrigues me. I wonder what he had to come to terms with re his sexuality, because as a twice married, and he was wed to Mandy up until his death I believe, with 4 or 5 kids it doesn't actually suggest he was in the closet. I wonder...

Wes M said...

Matthew if it's any consolation, that FAB Press book is a real rarity these days... Whatever you wrote about Mike Raven in the past I think this post goes a long way to re-evaluating the man behind the actor. An excellent, fascinating piece.

RoseOfTransylvania said...

I have always thought that Raven was in right side of the camp in Lust for the vampire. He was not good actor, but he was fun in his role, not painful to watch.

Sam79 said...

Great post. Well done for fessing up to past errors and making amends. Very noble.

Holger Haase said...

Great and insightful post as always, Matthew. Must admit I have yet to see any of the two big Raven movies but plan on erasing that cultural black spot over the coming weeks.

Mark said...

Just thinking, we may mock the Raven, but he really could have been worse; he could have been fellow DJ dear old Fluff Freeman in Dr Terror's House Of Horror!