Friday, March 23, 2012

Taking the New Hammer plunge

Calling yourself ‘Hammer Films’ can work for you and it can work against you.
On the one hand it gets you and your films more attention from the first than any other fledgling independent film company could dream of – would you have even heard of Beyond The Rave otherwise? – while on the other it automatically creates a weight of expectation that is almost impossible to honour.
Some will want you to succeed whatever, just because of the name. Others, probably more, will want you to fail whatever, for the same reason.

Then there are those who’ll say, simply, what’s the point?
You can call yourself what you like, but it won’t result in any kind of instant metamorphosis. It’s interesting that there is an Ealing Films currently trading too, but oddly subjected to neither the same scrutiny nor the same challenging response to its product. There is a protective passion for Hammer out there that is almost impossible to please. Stray too far from the classic template and they’ll call you senselessly revisionist, pastiche it too accurately and they’ll call you hopelessly dated.

I suppose if I belonged in any of the categories above it was the ‘what’s the point?’ one, though as a certain devotee of Hammer House of Horror I had no inflexible objection to the name’s revival, and on the whole I liked the idea. But I wasn’t all that excited about the films themselves. I managed about two minutes of Beyond the Rave (I gather that’s a world record) and a heroic fifteen or so of Wake Wood (which it turns out isn’t really a Hammer film at all).
But The Resident I enjoyed, because it worked efficiently within its remit, and obviously because it brought Christopher Lee back. The New York setting was a touch provocative (though it shouldn’t be forgotten that the original Hammer psycho-thrillers it referenced were by no means predominantly English-set), and however much a casting coup Hilary Swank may have been, they should have known that you really need a dolly bird for woman-in-jeopardy roles.

Still, I liked it overall, but much more importantly, I found when that red Hammer logo flashed across the screen that I did care after all, and I do like seeing the name up there again.
So that’s why I went to see The Woman In Black last night in a well- rather than ill-disposed mood.
Better yet, I came out the same way.
It’s a film that has done the seemingly impossible: justified the use of the Hammer name, honoured the traditions of the studio’s past, evoked much of its style, and at the same time managed to appeal to a broad, modern audience that have no interest in, or perhaps even awareness of, the original films. As a film it’s good, as a juggling act it’s amazing.

There have been some tellingly dogmatic objections, of the sort to which even as hopelessly romantic a reactionary as I can raise only a weary ‘so what?’ in response: the original Hammer never made a supernatural ghost story; they cut the film to get a 12 certificate; Daniel Radcliffe is too young; George Woodbridge isn’t in it. (Okay, I made the last one up, but you get the idea.)
These are a priori obstacles, the kind of thing no amount of competence in the actual product can circumnavigate.
I can’t think of any defining reason why they wouldn’t have made a ghost story back at Bray; and they certainly had a long and fascinating history of cutting their films to match a certificate (including an A certificate once in a while). Curse of Frankenstein is a 12 these days too, and all I can say is that if I had seen Woman in Black at twelve years of age I’d still be talking about its seminal influence on me now (the way I do about The Ghoul). You won’t go short on scares, believe me. You will go short on people being lashed to chairs in basements and tortured with garden tools, but then that’s not what you came for, is it?

There are the expected anachronisms of course, of the sort which no modern film set in the past could now be expected to avoid, annoying though they are all the same: designer stubble, men walking about in the rain without hats, characters suggesting they “get the hell out” of places, and ugly modern metaphor-speak (Radcliffe’s boss urges greater commitment from his employee on the grounds that they “don’t carry passengers”).

And Wizard Boy is too young; there’s no point pretending he isn’t. But neither would it be right not to add that, given that initial handicap, he delivers a truly excellent performance that does everything possible to make you forget, or at least excuse, his fundamental unsuitability for the role. His commitment and intensity cannot be faulted – his facial acting alone has to carry a good fifty percent of the film – and if he never quite convinces us he’s a widowed lawyer with a four year old son, well… Julie Ege wasn’t my mind’s idea of an Edwardian feminist adventuress. Can’t say that worried me unduly either.
These are precisely the kind of eccentricities that Hammer must be allowed.
The rest of the film? Well, it’s not especially original and it’s not especially ambitious, so hyperbole would sit ill on its frail shoulders. But in terms of the limits it sets for itself, it’s really hard to find anything wrong with it at all. Almost everything works a treat.

Even rendered in tacky digital format, the art direction is astounding, the photography is rich, the locations are beautifully atmospheric. Did you not dream of seeing a Hammer character making his way up and down a baroque staircase left of frame again? Dream no more!
At least two of the big scare moments work better than anything comparable in any of the similar films to which this has been compared, and the lingering sense of dread that strings them together is better yet. There’s even a slightly sappy ending that, a meaningless close on the Woman in Black’s face notwithstanding, honours the original Hammer’s commitment to ultimately restored order, even to restored order within a framework of Christian dogmatics.

I liked the casting, too, which seemed to me chosen by the classic Hammer method: an attention-catcher in front, sturdy support from traditional talent (Ciaran Hinds is splendid) and a fine third-row of well-chosen rhubarbers (David Burke, probably tv’s best ever Dr Watson, gets a line or two as the village bobby; Victor McGuire gets one as an anguished father).
It’s good to see them, and they have the feel of a new Hammer repertory. If any of them showed up again in the next one it would be wonderful. (As my compadre Mark notes in his review of the film here, it would be good if they used Radcliffe again too, perhaps in a more villainous capacity, playing his easy good looks against expectation in the Shane Briant manner.)
It is in such matters as these that the true Hammer flavour can most usefully be recalled. What the studio really needs is an overarching identity that links its new films to each other, rather than something that links any of them to the past.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What am I bid for Hazel Court's nude scene?

When I first saw the original Karloff Frankenstein, on British television in 1983, it was still missing the famous sequence in which the Monster innocently throws the little girl into the lake, expecting her to float.
The notorious cut from his moving towards her to her father carrying her sodden body through the streets, vastly more unpleasant in its implications, was still unaltered, and there was little realistic expectation of the lost footage ever being restored.
When it did turn up not long after I can still remember the excitement, but now that it’s the official version and no longer surprising, I feel perversely privileged to think that I was around to see the film when it was still missing.

These sort of thoughts are foremost in my mind because of the recent announcement that Hammer is mounting a search for missing footage, and has highlighted the quest with a Top 6 hit list of dream snips.
There is a difference, though. While the Frankenstein footage was a major chunk of the movie, the absence of which disrupted the narrative and left the film genuinely incomplete, what Hammer are looking for are for the most part merely trims, a second here and there of gore which crossed the censorial line in the fifties and sixties, and wouldn’t any more.
But it’s the very fact that such moments as the head-in-acid-bath scene from Curse of Frankenstein, identified as the number one dream restoration, are no longer shocking enough to be excluded that makes their restoration an academic exercise at best. The film is not robbed by its not being there, and surely, after the first few frissons of unfamiliarity for those of us who have already seen the film a billion times, it won’t be enhanced by its being back either.
There’s something a bit defensive about the exercise, as if the studio is saying to young, modern audiences: if you think Hammer has a reputation for tameness, that’s not our fault, and just wait until we start splicing all the juicy stuff back in…
But an eyeball here and a cut throat there won’t make any difference to the story construction – which is what really dates the films – nor will it make the films any more shocking or thrilling or scary. For the first few watches the film will seem overbalanced by the new shots, in that they will command a share of the attention paid to the film overall that they were never intended to do when shot, then eventually we’ll get used to them and they’ll fade back into the woodwork again. It’s an interesting exercise for people like me and probably you, but that, surely, is about as far as it goes.

That said, the studio’s six most wanted list does make interesting reading.
There are a few surprises. No mention of Dracula’s full death scene from the ’58 original, complete with blistering face and extended shots of his crumbling hands, nor that odd shot that crops up in stills of Harker’s corrupted body after his staking. (Of course, this may have been omitted because it makes no sense: Valerie Gaunt’s body becomes that of an old hag because that’s how old she’d really be: there’s no more reason for Harker to deteriorate in this way than Lucy.)

In the absence of the above, the continued fascination with the acid bath shots from Curse of Frankenstein is intriguing, especially since they have been at least partially restored now: the version currently available on DVD has shots that were still missing when I first saw the film in 1984, notably of the lowering of the head into the tank (covered at the time by a meaningless cutaway to Robert Urquhart looking stern, spliced in from earlier in the scene.)
On the other hand, what is this “eyeball” shot they’re looking for? Surely not the close-up of the eyeball through a magnifying glass? Yes, it’s excised in the Warners TV print that still serves as primary source for reissues, but it was present and correct in the version I saw on television in Christmas ‘84. Not missing at all, just absent sometimes.

The only other inclusion in the list that I predicted would be there is the tongue scene from The Mummy. Ever since I was a boy, long before I’d seen the movie, I had been fascinated by the ‘before, during and after’ shots in Alan Frank’s book Horror Movies, and especially by the look of genuine revulsion on the face of the slave looking at the flaccid tongue in the third image. It was weirdly shocking to catch up with the film and discover these shots were not there. (The same goes for another on the list: the broken bottle stabbing from Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, reproduced over two full pages in Frank’s later book Horror Films.)

But the other Mummy trim, what the studio charmingly calls the “underdressed maidens”, is of an altogether different order.
I had always thought that this was not a cut, so much as an alternative take prepared for more liberal foreign markets, and so the question is raised: just what is the definitive, authentic version of a Hammer film? I would have said it was the version prepared for the home territories, perhaps with a bit of censor-fiddling undone if you really feel the need. The idea of adding extra sensationalism, however, via the insertion of footage that was never intended to be seen in Britain, might be thought to cross the line between legitimate restoration and artistic interference, like adding new CGI effects, especially since including the underdressed maidens would entail not merely adding footage to the film but removing some as well to make room for it.
I suspect that for many behind this project, the definitive version of any Hammer movie is going to be the one with as much tits and blood as possible, regardless of how, when or why such footage was shot. (And if the underdressed maidens do make the list, despite this reservation, surely it should have included the holy grail of Hammer alt-edits: Hazel Court’s nude scene from The Man Who Could Cheat Death?)

Intriguing too to see the studio’s admission that they did not keep the trims in their film library. No reason why they should, but it reminds us that they have a film library, and raises the much more interesting question of what they do have there.
I’ve often been struck, despite the massive cult interest in Hammer films, by how little has ever been seen by way of rare or behind the scenes footage. Call me an old fogey if you will, but I’m personally much more interested in the talk here of how “the original UK title sequence has been reinstated on Plague of The Zombies” – the first I’ve heard of such a thing – than in the prospect of seeing a few extra drops of blood on Christopher Lee’s cape.
If I were asked to compile my own personal dream list of missing Hammer footage, it would be things like test shots, outtakes, and whole scenes cut for time rather than taste.
So what else is still loitering in the archives?
Did they really junk the Peter Cushing sequences from Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb? Are there no pre-dub soundtracks with Ingrid Pitt and Susan Denberg and Mike Raven using their real voices? Interesting though it may be to compare the existing and an “extended, more explicit version” of The Viking Queen, I’d rather go looking for one of the original edits of To The Devil a Daughter, before they ruined the ending: it might even be enough to turn it into a classic.
As for my number one choice of all, it just has to be that legendary, perhaps even apocryphal, test sequence for The Hound of the Baskervilles, with an ordinary-sized dog on a scaled-down set, grappling with children dressed as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson...

POSTSCRIPT: As this page makes clear, as the BBC news report does not, the films on the list are those selected to undergo the first wave of restoration, with more to follow, so the top six missing moments refer to these films only, not the entirety of Hammer's output.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: As Holger notes in the comments, the reason why the search for the Dracula finale is not top priority is because they actually found it last year.
Just testing, just testing...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rediscovering Mike Raven (part three)

Part One
Part Two

“It wasn’t a great film or a great performance, and personally I would have liked someone like Stephen Weeks (director of I, Monster) to direct Mike, as he could easily have too much of his own way! We both liked Tom (Parkinson, the director) very much. He had an art school background and was very similar to Mike’s radio audience, so it was quite easy to go to the next step and do another film.”
- Mandy Fairman, Mike Raven's wife, on Crucible of Terror (1971)

That other film was Disciple of Death (1972), Raven’s second starring vehicle and a very different animal from Crucible.
While the first was essentially a conventional British horror film, albeit with a few very unusual moments, Disciple is intensely personal, and really quite unlike any other movie.
That’s a much overused observation, but it really does apply here. Indeed, viewed today, it is hard to imagine how Raven could not have seen that he was serving up something that was just too bizarre, too esoteric and too personal to suit the tastes of his time.
But at the time his confidence was such that he finally and decisively cut his ties with BBC Radio, where he had been comfortably ensconced as a respected blues DJ for many years.

“Mike gave up the BBC during the post production of Disciple,” remembers Mandy. “He was the first DJ to leave Radio 1 of his own accord and they really didn’t want him to go. I still have the farewell letter from Doreen Davis saying that he could go back at any time. Several people did the show afterwards but I don’t feel it had the same impact. The official line by the BBC was that he was taking a break.”

What he couldn’t have foreseen was that Disciple would prove to be his last film appearance of any kind, his horror career undone before it had really started by a combination of bad luck, bad management and bad reviews.

While Crucible just about scraped by as a low budget mainstream release, Disciple is more obviously amateur (in the best – and literal - sense of the term) and individualistic. The budget is obviously much lower, and the fact that it is a period piece only enhances the home movie ambiance.
As the parson who takes on Raven, Van Helsing-style, Ronald Lacey makes a welcome return from the Crucible cast, as does Betty Alberge, and other recognisable faces (notably Virginia Wetherell, Louise Jameson and George Belbin, the old Baron in Jimmy Sangster’s Horror of Frankenstein), pop up as well. But the general feeling is of a rep company of – again, no pejorative meaning intended – amateur players.
“I think they all had fun shooting it, and we all had parts as extras,” recalls Raven’s son Dominic. (If you want to spot them, Mandy and some of the children are “very cheap extras” in the funeral scene, and Raven’s eldest daughter is one of the zombie girls.)

Rereading the above paragraphs, I am aware of what is going to be a persistent problem when writing about this movie: trying to describe what makes it so unusual and distinctive, without making it sound like it isn’t any good.
Let’s be clear at the outset: if you don’t like having to use your imagination, or enjoy the work of film-makers similarly obliged, if you’d rather have it all thrown at you so as to achieve that perfect state of CGI brain-death, then certainly this is not the movie for you.
But if you are a fan of those supreme individualists that exploitation cinema occasionally throw up; amazing, creative, sincere madmen like Ed Wood or Ray Dennis Steckler, then there is plenty here to reward your attention. It’s a film you have to get into a particular mindset to fully appreciate, and – crucially – it is not a Hammer/Amicus/Tigon mindset.
This is a film for people who enjoy seeing an individual vision transplanted to the screen with as little filtering through consensus, committee and studio sensibilities as possible. A low budget can only enhance such qualities: it prohibits short-cutting and reliance on cliché; it forces unusual solutions to logistic and creative problems.
It’s the kind of environment in which one-of-a-kind imaginations like Raven’s can thrive.

Though Tom Parkinson is again in the director’s chair, Raven is much more the driving force this time, with “a lot of Dad’s interest in religion and the occult… reflected in the plot” according to Dominic.
In fact, while most sources credit Raven as screenwriter, under his real name of Austin Fairman, Parkinson as director and the pair as co-producers, the print I watched has one joint credit that simply reads ‘a film by Austin Fairman and Tom Parkinson’ and no separate credits at all, indicative of the closely collaborative nature of the production.
As Mandy remembers: “It was very much Mike and Tom’s own work. They shared this ‘jokey but unjokey’ sense of humour, a bit undergrad, but with a serious layer hidden underneath.”

Though in many ways a more complicated and intricate production than Crucible, with the added financial burden of a period setting, Raven managed to scrape together only half the budget of the first film.
According to several sources, the script had originally been offered to Hammer, who had shown some interest and even announced it as forthcoming. But when Michael Carreras returned to the company at the end of 1971 it was one of many slated productions to be swept away by his new broom. Accordingly, Raven was forced to look for private financing, stumping up some of the budget himself with a bank loan.
Mandy is surprised that Hammer had ever been consulted, given their mutual history, and has no memory of their involvement: “I wouldn’t have thought that anyone connected with Disciple would have gone near Hammer: two different mind-sets. I wouldn’t have ruled out Tom approaching Amicus, but not to my knowledge, or rather memory.”
The budget, needless to say, was tight: “Both films were shot on a shoestring, but this was an even smaller shoestring, and with no distribution deal arranged beforehand. The money men were out of their depth. Tom actually sold this film in America for $250,000, and two days later the head of studio he had shaken hands with got fired! It definitely had the kiss of death on it. It has now become a bit of a cult movie and it was a shame that it was denied the audience it was meant for but somehow they have over the years found their way to it in America.”

“As I remember Dad lost quite a bit of money trying to get Disciple of Death a distribution deal and it ended up with a court case,” adds Dominic. “I don’t know where the DVD copies have come from, actually: after the court case it was never meant to see the light of day.”

Billed simply as ‘the Stranger’, Raven plays a Satanic emissary, raised from the depths when blood is accidentally spilled on his grave, compelled to supply the Devil with an endless succession of virgin sacrifices, surrounded and served by his white-faced former victims. Only when one of his victims comes willingly to his altar and agrees to die and be his companion in eternity will he be freed from his onerous duties…
At least, I’m reasonably certain that is the extent of the idea, but the narrative is developed so obliquely, with so much left for us to assume, or giving up its meaning long after we have experienced it, that you can never feel entirely sure what is going on or why.
The Stranger, for example, gets visibly older and younger from scene to scene like Stoker’s Dracula, but there’s never any clear indication whether this is dependent on how recently he has undertaken a blood sacrifice. (We see him drinking from a chalice of blood in one sequence, but he doesn’t then get younger, and he’s at his most sleek and dyed-black-haired at the beginning, before he’s killed anyone.)
Both plot and setting are uncommon in a film of its type; I suppose Blood on Satan’s Claw is its closest cousin, but the two films are quite unlike each other in style and presentation. As befitting a film written by a man of Raven’s interests, the plot is steeped in mysticism, magic, ritual and symbolism. It goes further into such realms than just about any other British horror film, bucking the general trend towards rationalism, established and rarely violated since Hammer’s original Dracula had haughtily dismissed the notion of vampires turning into bats as “a common fallacy”.
Not for Raven such empiricist cynicism: his film is a rich stew of bizarre esoteric touches, and one which – to say the least – is not afraid to rely on purely magical plot developments, not least in its climax.
While many reviewers have balked at the sudden leap into the supernatural at the end of Crucible, here by contrast is a film that starts in that frame of mind and gets progressively stranger as it moves on.

There are some strikingly beautiful images. The early funeral sequence, in which several members of the Raven clan appear walking the coffin along the lowering Cornish skyline, the weeping of the mourners and the howling of the wind mingling to form a single uncanny noise, is one such, and indicative of the unshowiness of the film’s best effects.
“I thought Tom shot that really well,” agrees Mandy. “He wanted to have a funeral exactly as it would have been during that period.” The point of influence may well be the eerily wordless pre-credit sequence of Witchfinder General, Raven’s favourite horror film, but if so it comes close to eclipsing its source.
Like Ken Russell’s television films, there is a pictorial simplicity that is far more effective than the kind of elaborate set-ups that draw attention to themselves but distract from the general mood. The film makes good use of skylines especially – Raven and Parkinson were not the first period film-makers to notice that the sky is the one part of any location that is guaranteed not to have changed over time - and a later sequence in which the avengers gallop on horseback past a gibbet, complete with gently swinging corpse, is simply superb.
Lovely use throughout is made of natural light – note the scene where the heroine encounters the gypsy woman and asks her to tell her fortune, with the two silhouetted against the waning sun.
There are many other great touches, some ideas which impress in their very simplicity and willingness to risk naivety. Look at the moment when the hero is led to the Stranger’s lair by the ghoulish face of his dead sister appearing at his window and summoning him outside: generically basic stuff, but presented with a striking kind of straightforwardness that could only be diluted by any additional effects or tricks of presentation.
The same goes for the abrupt cuts to split second shots of Raven’s eyes (really his this time, not Christopher Lee’s) accompanied by the sound of a crow, or the scene where his shadowy form appears in the heroine’s bedroom, set to the first line of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, looped to notably odd effect.
The film is intensely scored throughout to classical organ pieces, often assumed to be library recordings, but in fact specially arranged and recorded for the film, and very effective they are too. (According to Mandy, the additional responsibility of overseeing the film’s score was a decisive factor in Raven’s decision to leave Radio 1: “He was responsible for all the music, which was played on the organ in St Clement Danes, and he felt he didn’t have enough time. I can’t remember the name of the young organist, but he was brilliant.” It was Robert Cornford, the multi-talented musician and composer, who died tragically young in 1983.)

The two sequences that tend to attract most derision are both in the film’s second half.
The first sees the young hero and the parson visiting a Jewish cabbalist for help in defeating the Stranger. As well as lurching much further into the realms of magical fantasy than the more darkly folkloric narrative had hitherto hinted, the really odd thing about this sequence is that it is played for laughs, and very broadly, in a film that has displayed not one trace of tongue in cheek at any time prior (and we’re fifty minutes in).
Not only is he given a great deal of comic Jewish dialogue, there is an outrageous moment when, immediately after leaving his house, the Parson returns for more information to find him inexplicably transformed into a cobwebby skeleton. Instead of expressing horror, he looks away and embarrassedly mumbles, “it can wait”, as if he had just walked in and caught him in the nude.
Then, while all this is going on, we see The Stranger conjuring up a vampire dwarf to assist him: the dwarf (played by former Oompa-Loompa and future Jawa Rusty Goffe) them attempts to waylay the heroes in a variety of supernatural ways, and every time he is thwarted he stamps his feet and waves his fist. Again, the intention can only have been for the effect of this to be comic, which is strange enough in itself at this late stage in the movie, but when the dwarf then goes on to kill the Parson by overpowering him and ripping out his throat with his teeth the juxtaposition is frankly bizarre.
"The jump from horror to jokiness was meant to be sort of Saturday morning pictures," explains Mandy. "It was intentional, but perhaps a step too far for most people. Typical Mike."
It is at these moments – when the film’s detractors become most vociferous – that I was first struck by the links between this film and those of Ray Dennis Steckler, notorious for his abrupt narrative gear-changes, seen to most magisterial effect in his certain masterpiece Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. You may find yourself recalling the talking wig blocks from Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Gruesome Twosome also, and the exhilarating way in which both of those film-makers refuse you the reassurance of knowing how their movies will progress from one scene to the next.
And provided you do not find such things an unconscionable violation of the rules of verisimilitude you demand of your movies, you’ll like the weird stylistic mix here too. It’s certainly odd to see The Stranger, at first so sinister, taciturn, stealthy and black-clad, suddenly revealed by the Cabbalist’s remote-viewing skills as an eccentric, red-gowned magician, with the latter commenting on his skills as he goes about his hocus-pocus. (“A neat trick, that! Unquenchable fire!”)
And actually, there’s something authentic-seeming even about this degree of weirdness if we think of the film, as Raven surely did, as a piece of Cornish folklore. Anyone with even the smallest acquaintance with the rich store of bizarre and sinister legends in which the county is steeped will have no trouble with its seeming eccentricities, which are not really all that outlandish in comparison.

Raven’s performance lacks entirely the odd hints of uncertainty detectable in the previous film and is twice as full-blooded: just listen to his joyous delivery of his exit speech, as he prepares to torture the young lovers on a vertical rack:
“For seven days and seven nights you will be racked in torment. But long before your sinews crack and you are torn apart you will have prayed for death a thousand times. Oh, well, I must be on my way. No doubt we all shall meet again… in Hell!”

The first lines are said slowly, half-whispered, with subdued sadistic anticipation, building to a crescendo on “a thousand times.” Then, the “oh well, I must be on my way” is delivered with definite bathos, as a deliberate comic punchline; but cut short as he snaps back to devilishness, until “in Hell!” is yelled with a triumphant glee that Tod Slaughter might have envied.
It’s hard not to feel that Raven was just getting started in this film, but it was not to be.

The original critics weren’t entirely unanimous in their derision, according to Mandy: “At the press showing there was an ‘establishment’ critic, I believe from the Mirror. Not at all the sort of person we thought would ‘get’ the film. However, to Mike’s delight he got it spot on, and gave it a very good short review.”
But one good review does not a hit movie make, and the sad truth about Disciple of Death is that it didn’t really have the chance even to fail. Swamped in distribution problems it played for a week in London before disappearing in a morass of legal complications. It has rarely been seen since, and unlike Crucible - a perennial treat for curious insomniacs - it has never played on British television.

With it, alas, went Mike Raven’s hopes of being a British horror film star, though his family remember little by way of disappointment or gloomy introspection.
The Raven way was to plunge into some new diversion, and after settling into his Cornish farm that proved to be sculpture, the form of artistic expression that satisfied him for the rest of his life.

Austin Fairman, aka Mike Raven, passed away in Cornwall in 1997, at the age of seventy-two.
He was buried on his farm, in a scene strangely reminiscent of the sequence in Disciple of Death in which his family had participated, twenty-five years earlier.
As Mandy recalls: “On the 1st May, 1997, that scene more or less took place, on this farm when he was buried. All our neighbours carried the coffin quite a way across the fields to the grave. It only struck me later that this had all happened before, in the film.”

(with thanks to Mandy and Dominic Fairman)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rediscovering Mike Raven (part two)

(Click here for introduction)
(Click here for part one)

The story so far:

“Sorry about that, Danny, but in fact for the time being I’ve given up DJ-ing entirely. Now, it’s all down to horror films…”

Raven’s abrupt shift from radio personality to horror movie star was merely the latest in a series of such transitions that had marked his course through life, but to those unfamiliar with his past it must have seemed bizarrely arbitrary.
According to one interview, he had been introduced to Jimmy Sangster by ‘a friend at Radio 1’, who had merely observed that he had the right look for horror films. Sangster was then at work on Horror of Frankenstein and told Raven he had no role for him but that he’d keep him in mind. According to this account, Raven thought no more of it, and was genuinely surprised when he received the offer to make Lust For a Vampire.
As his wife Mandy remembers it: "I think that Jimmy Sangster could have been shown some photographs of Mike taken by a photographer called Phillip Stern. He was an American photographer who took quite a few photos for the Bunny Club and he knew all the Hammer people. Phillip was a very nice guy and a complete anglophile. He even belonged to the Sealed Knot (cavalier of course) and I remember going to see at least two battles, one in London and one in Cornwall. We didn`t fall out with Phillip but I think he was very much in the Hammer fold, and as I have said the row (over how Raven's performance in Lust was damaged post-production) was not inconsiderable."
But however it came about, the fact is that within a year of this casual introduction to horror movies Raven had entirely forsworn radio work in favour of this new direction, even to the extent of telling one interviewer that he would turn down non-horror film roles if they came his way.

It was an extraordinary thing to have done, because he was not just any old DJ but one of the most esteemed niche-DJs in the country, popular with listeners and hugely respected by the artists he showcased and championed.
Now, he had leaped into a whole new stream, and with an enthusiasm that contrasted markedly with his peers. While Cushing and Lee stressed their off-screen normality, the latter in particular keen to distance himself from his horror reputation at every possible opportunity, Raven was happy to be described in newspaper profiles as a genuine occultist, wearing a black cape off-screen and on.
(He’s actually wearing his cape in this fascinating extended interview, in which he discusses the story of pirate radio, and which surely gives the lie to any suggestion that the man wasn’t charismatic!)

Mandy recalls that the black clothes, at least, were not peculiar to his new image: “Mike wore black when I first met him in 1957. His theory was that if you dressed in black and white you always matched, so in those days he put together a sort of uniform: black shoes, black socks, white shirts, black Wrangler jeans and a black corduroy jacket. The aim of this dress code was not only to ensure he never had odd socks or mismatched clothes but also to avoid having to waste precious time thinking about what to wear. The same outfit could be dressed up or down, with the aid of a black string tie!”

The black clothes – his own (“there was so little money available for wardrobe”) – were much in evidence in Crucible of Terror (1971), the first and by far the better-known of his two solo vehicles.
The movie consolidated his presence as a British horror star, and may be the more useful of the two as an introduction to sympathetic newcomers: it’s certainly the more conventional. (Which is not to say that it’s all that conventional, merely that it’s more conventional than Disciple of Death, which frankly tells you virtually nothing.)
The film was the first production from Glendale Films, founded by Peter Newbrook, who had begun as the in-house director of photography at Compton-Cameo under Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, then joined forces with Compton production executive Robert Hartford-Davis to form Titan. (This was before Klinger and Tenser themselves split, the latter to found Tigon.) Hartford-Davis and Newbrook would produce a number of horror films, including the excellent Corruption, before they too went their separate ways, the former to produce The Fiend under the incongruously grandiose banner World Arts Media, the latter to form Glendale.
Just before making The Asphyx, which boasted a larger budget and starrier cast than Crucible could dream of, Newbrook tested the waters by hiring Tom Parkinson and Ted Hooker as co-screenwriters and, respectively, producer and director of this first, tentative venture.

It was Parkinson who suggested Raven as the ideal star, recalls Mandy: “Ted Hooker and Tom Parkinson were both young and keen to try something different. We had already bought a ruin in Cornwall and it was coincidence that they wanted to film there. Tom knew of Mike because of the radio show more than the films, and he was looking for a budget-price name. That he was a name already, through radio, was what caught Tom’s eye.”
Raven’s appeal, then, was not particularly in any of the horror work he had done so far so much as in the fact that his look, and voice, already seemed so ideally suited to the material.
“Whatever anyone says about his performance in this film, to my mind he certainly looked the part,” notes Mandy. “And this image was already well known to blues fans: just look at the LP cover (The Mike Raven Blues Sampler). I think this is why they approached him. He certainly had never heard of the production company, or of Tom.”

Though Raven had no hand in the development of Crucible, it proved the ideal first vehicle for him, with the bizarre plotting that was so much a feature of the subsequent Disciple of Death already much in evidence.
In a brilliantly creepy pre-credits sequence we see Raven, as sculptor Victor Clare, plastering the recumbent body of a woman in preparation, we presume, for the taking of a cast. Suddenly, we realise he has a quite different fate in mind for her, as a crucible of molten bronze is poured over the figure – just at the exact moment that her eyes flicker open!
The credits roll, and we assume that the rest of the film will be a Mystery of the Wax Museum-style piece about a mad sculptor.
But the film that then unfolds is about a mysterious assassin at loose in Clare’s house, and Clare himself has now switched to oil painting. Only at the end does the significance of the pre-credits sequence come into focus, leading to an extraordinarily left-field plot twist that will either delight or infuriate, depending on your taste in such matters. (This finale, what’s more, is set up by a scene ten minutes in that seems meaningless and is soon forgotten about: audiences only notice it on a second viewing.)
The fact that Clare’s much-abused wife, sharing his house with his regular mistress and other temporary conquests, has regressed to a state of doll-clutching infantilism is a similarly arbitrary touch, which plays as disorientingly grotesque with no clear back-story to substantiate it. Her climactic suicide only adds to the oddity.

It’s now a commonplace in reviews to note how similar the film seems to the Italian giallo movies, what with its gloved POV killer taking the camera along on its errands, a murderous implement held out in middle foreground.
But it’s important to remember that it was made in 1971, so even if the emergent giallo genre was an influence – which it most likely wasn’t, let’s be honest – the team were incredibly quick off the mark. No, what we’re seeing here is more of an odd kind of synchronicity, an unconscious similarity that is not influence so much as simultaneous inspiration. What is undeniable is that the murder scenes, in particular the killing of Beth Morris’s character and its aftermath, are quite strikingly well done. Unlike Argento and many of his progeny, who like to juxtapose their murders with deliberately intrusive music, the activities of this killer are played out in spooky silence, the only aural accompaniment being the Cornish wind whistling around the granite cottage.
The other giallo connection – and this really is an anticipation – is the colour scheme, which looks forward to Argento’s Suspiria, still five years in the future. Not only is Clare’s iron forge itself a riot of saturated colour, sending out a lush red glow to the edge of the frame and beyond, it even seems to creep – with Italianate anti-logic - beyond its immediate environs and up to the house itself, where its throbbing profondo rosso pulsates outside the nocturnal windows like the light from a flashing neon sign.

In fact, the visual design throughout belies the film’s low budget to an amazing degree, as does Newbrook’s photography, Paris Rutherford’s music score (which sounds at times like John Carpenter and at others like Lalo Schifrin), and Maxine Julius’s editing.
“Yes, it was made on a shoestring, and with a young, mostly untried cast,” confirms Mandy, “but with all the cast and crew pitching in, trying to get the job done.”
The cast certainly feels like a unit: they really do seem to know each other. Ronald Lacey, as Raven’s jealous, alcoholic son, is as strange and compulsive as always, and it’s a surprise treat to see James Bolam take a horror film lead, too. The rest of the cast features an interesting sprinkling of genre notables (Melissa Stribling, Judy Matheson) and attractive newcomers (Mary Maude, Beth Morris).

As for Raven’s own, much maligned performance: well, it’s unquestionably an eccentric job of work, but its eccentricities seem deliberate, and are concentrated mainly in the delivery of the lines: if you turn the sound down and just concentrate on his facial and physical performance he seems more than adequate. His odd way with dialogue, then, seems intended: no successful disc-jockey would have any real difficulty with line readings!
The net effect is precisely that which was presumably intended: to make Victor Clare seem like a pretentious oddball who may or may not be slaughtering the young girls he lusts after and immortalises. It’s a performance that becomes more interesting the more you watch it – especially when you know the truth about the murders.

To be perfectly frank, any horror movie that starts off in the streets of seventies London and then moves to the timeless coastline and abandoned tin mines of Cornwall has my vote before it even starts, and if you have any affection at all for the horror worlds of Pete Walker, or for the likes of Doctor Blood’s Coffin, then this is not a film that is going to leave you feeling short-changed.
After rewatching it for the purpose of these retrospectives, I have found myself wanting to watch it again, and again, and it’s been on a more or less constant loop as I’ve been composing these articles. It’s now a definite favourite, one of those films that for not entirely definable reasons becomes more compelling the more familiar it becomes. That, at least, has been my own personal reaction to it.

True, the reviews were by and large condescending, but when were they not for such an enterprise? And the mockery, albeit of a good-natured sort, even extended to the Raven household itself, as Mandy recalls: “Crucible was very much laughed at by the children - he had six, by the way - for the way in which it resembled our actual home life, especially when he banged the dining room table!”
But as far as Raven’s nascent career as Britain’s other horror star was concerned, it seemed a sound enough foundation on which to build. For the time being, his disc-jockey days were firmly behind him.
He was now very much in the horror business.

The third and final part will follow shortly