Tag Archives: Christopher Lee

RetView #51 – The Gorgon (1964)

Title: The Gorgon

Year of Release: 1964

Director: Terence Fisher

Length: 83 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, Jeremy Longhurst, Prudence Hyman

Methinks it’s high time we paid another visit to the Hammer Horror vault. The plot of this camp classic, which has more cheese than a stuffed crust Domino’s pizza (just look at that poster!) was based on an idea submitted by Canadian fan J. Llewellyn Divine after Hammer placed an advert in The Daily Cinema magazine reading (in part), “Got an idea you think would make a good film? One with an exciting title to match? Good, compulsive selling ideas with the right titles are what hammer are looking for right now.” The original story concept, which was based on ancient Greek mythology, was expanded into a screenplay, and the film eventually succeeded in reuniting the stellar partnership of Cushing and Lee after a four-year absence. It also marked the return to Hammer of director Terence Fisher, who hadn’t worked for the company since the failure of Phantom of the Opera (1962) several years earlier. This film is often listed as one of Fisher’s personal favourites, and is fairly typical of his work which is characterised as being a, “Blend of fairytale myth and the supernatural alongside themes of sexuality, morality, and ‘the charm of evil.’”

It’s the year 1910, and the setting is a picturesque German village called Vandorf, where a mysterious creature is attacking people and turning them into stone, which nobody thinks is weird at all. When his girlfriend falls victim, Bruno (Longhurst) becomes prime suspect and commits suicide. However, professor Maister (Lee) isn’t convinced of Bruno’s guilt and harbours suspicions that Magaera, a sister of snake-haired Medusa, is responsible, a creature so ugly that she turns everyone who lays eyes on her into stone (which might explain Cardiff City’s defensive frailties this season). He then sets out to help Bruno’s brother, Paul (Pasco) find her and wreak vengeance. Unfortunately, Magaera has the ability to disguise herself and could be any one of a cast of characters including the creepy Dr Namarov (Cushing) and his assistant Carla (Shelley) who, conveniently, work at the local mental hospital. What unfolds is an intriguing build on a simple, millennia-old premise, complete with hammy acting, lush scenery and period stage sets.

Though the name of The Gorgon character is “Megaera (Jealous),” in ancient mythology, Megaera is one of the three Erinyes (or Furies), the goddesses of revenge, not a proper Gorgon. According to Hesiod, the three Gorgons were, in fact, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. Film lore maintains that leading lady Barbara Shelley wanted to play The Gorgon using a special wig fitted with live green garden snakes woven into it for a more realistic effect, but her idea was vetoed due to budget restrictions. Which was a crying shame because I think that’s something many cinema-goers would love to see. In fact, a different actress altogether (Hyman) was brought in for the climactic Gorgon scenes with the producers blaming a tight filming schedule, though the real reason was probably an attempt to maintain an air of secrecy about who was playing which character amidst all the media speculation the film was generating. Strangely, Hyman is given the credit Chateline, a character not mentioned in either the script nor the film.

When producer Anthony Nelson Keys saw the abysmal Gorgon effects in the finished movie, he told Shelley that he should have listened to her and got her the snake wig. As it happened, the only snakes on show were mechanical prompting Sir Christopher Lee to later quip, “The only thing wrong with the Gorgon is the Gorgon.” True, after a big set-up, the final appearance of the monster is slightly deflating, something the Monthly Film Bulletin picked up on dubbing it, “Vague and insufficiently spectacular.”

By contrast, Peter Cushing loved working on the film, commenting during production, “Hammer have got to the heart of the matter. When so-called ‘horror’ films first came in, everyone got on the bandwagon and some awful stuff was churned out, but over the years Hammer have made better and better films.”

Trivia Corner:

During filming, Prudence Hyman was almost decapitated for real. She was supposed to duck when Sir Christopher Lee swung the sword, but forgot to do so at the critical moment. The Assistant Director pushed her aside just in time. The scene was then redone with a dummy, just to be on the safe side. The scene took over a month to shoot. Hyman and Lee had met years earlier when Hyman had been a travelling ENSA artist, and a young RAF lieutenant called Christopher Lee piloted the plane she was on through a terrible storm.

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RetView #49 – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Title: The Curse of Frankenstein

Year of Release: 1957

Director: Terence Fisher

Length: 83 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urqhuart, Valerie Gaunt

Like Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Curse of Frankenstein was another Hammer Films production and, along with Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959), is now seen as a cornerstone of the British institution’s considerable repertoire. The premise is obviously based on Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 tale Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. It was the first of the Frankenstein series, the very first Hammer movie to be made in colour, and has retrospectively been dubbed the first “Really gory horror film” by Professor Patricia MacCormac. It has also been credited with revitalizing a stagnating genre. All things considered, it makes perfect RetView fodder.

The story is told in flashback form when, in 19th Century Switzerland, Baron Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) is on trial for murder and confesses his story to a visiting priest. The film then cuts to a newly-orphend 15-year old Victor who hires a private tutor, Dr. Paul Krempe (Urqhuart), to teach him science. Together, the pair start a sequence of experiments geared toward bringing dead animals back to life. The experiments are successful, but when his cousin Elizabeth (Court) moves in and Frankenstein suggests making a ‘perfect’ human being from scavenged body parts, Krempe opts out. However, he is brought back into the fold when the monster (Lee, who was awarded the role primarily due to his 6’5” frame and his modest £8-a day fee), now equipped with a damaged (ie defective) brain, escapes into the nearby woods and kills a blind man. What a blind man is doing in the woods by himself is anyone’s guess, but anyway…

Realizing it is out of control, Krempke shoots the monster and the men bury it in the woods. However, as soon as Krempke departs, Frankenstein digs it up again and reanimates it. The rotten bastard. Back at the house, his maid Justine, with whom he has been having an affair, reveals she is pregnant and threatens to expose his grisly experiments unless he marries her. This doesn’t sit too well with the rampaging Victor, and he quickly has the monster dispatch her which is what lands him in jail. The visiting priest doesn’t believe his story. Krempke and Elizabeth, who are now happily shacked up together, refuse to corroborate it, presumably in an attempt to stop the same thing happening again, and ***SPOILER ALERT*** Victor is led away to the guillotine.

The film was an immediate smash hit for Hammer, it’s comparatively low budget contributing heavily to its financial success as there were comparatively fewer costs to offset. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, who adapted Mary Shelley’s book for the screen, was so anxious to keep costs down he didn’t write in scenes of villagers storming the castle as seen in other Frankenstein films, “Because we couldn’t afford it.” The ploy worked. The movie was produced on a budget of just £65,000, and some sources estimate the film recouped at least 70 times that figure. For many years, it held the distinction of being the most profitable movie to be produced in England by a British studio and has always been much-loved by the public, which is reflected in various contemporary reviews and its Rotten Tomatoes rating which currently sits at a respectable 77% from 3,815 ratings. However, it was given a luke-warm reception upon it’s original release, a review in the New York Times dismissing it as a “Routine horror film,” and the Tribune of London calling it, “Depressing and degrading.”

Okay, then.

A quick word on the fate of Hammer Productions; the company effectively ceased production in the mid-1980’s. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In May 2007 the company name, along with its entire library of some 295 movies, was bought by a consortium headed by Dutch media tycoon John de Mol which vowed to, “Take it back into production and develop its global potential.” True to it’s manifesto, the company financed a return to the fold in the form of contemporary horror Beyond the Rave (2008). That isn’t a typo, by the way. It really is a horror movie about a rave. That was followed by a steady stream of offerings including Wake Wood (2011) and, more recently, The Lodge (2019), which proved a surprise hit. In September 2019, hammer signed a worldwide distribution deal with StudioCanal for its catalogue, so after some uncertain times, the future is looking bright.

Trivia Corner:

Although Hammer’s two great stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had appeared in several pictures before, including Hamlet (1948) and Moulin Rouge (1952), their long-lasting friendship was cemented on the set of Curse of Frankenstein when Lee stormed into Cushing’s dressing room saying, “I’ve got no lines!” To which Cushing allegedly responded, “You’re lucky, have you read the script?”


RetView #34 – Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

Title: Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors

Year of Release: 1965

Director: Freddie Francis

Length: 98 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman, Max Adrian, Ann Bell, Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle.

dr terrors house of horrors

I love a good anthology film. It’s like getting four stories (or in this case, five) for the price of one. This little gem, not to be confused with the unrelated Dr. Terror and his Gallery of Horrors (1967), was the first in a series of horror omnibuses made by the Shepperton Studios-based Amicus Productions between 1965 and 1974.  Later, more accomplished efforts included The House that Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and the outstanding Vault of Horror (1973). One of the company’s founders, American Milton Subotsky, also wrote the screenplay for Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, among other things, and later in his career went on to work on several Stephen King adaptations, notably Maximum Overdrive (1986) and Sometimes They Come Back (1991).

Five men board a train at a London station and are joined by a mysterious sixth, the enigmatic and, quite frankly, scary as fuck Dr. Schreck (Cushing). The name, he helpfully explains, is German for ‘terror,’ like that’s going to make anyone feel better. Dr. Schreck then whips out a deck of tarot cards, which he calls his ‘house of horrors,’ and proceeds to reveal the destiny of each of the travellers in turn. Again, not creepy at all. By this time, you are beginning to think that this dude is an absolute riot at parties. The preamble provides the backdrop and framework in which to tell five separate stories, all connected by the aforementioned scenario.

Werewolf: The title kinda gives this one away, except it doesn’t really, if you know what I mean. The narrative follows Jim Dawson (McCallum) who returns to his ancestral home on a remote Scottish island where he finds himself embroiled in the culmination of a family curse and a centuries-old feud. This isn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds, and the twisty ending is really quite clever.

Creeping Vine: Bill Rogers (Freeman) and his wife (Bell) return from holiday to find a creepy (boom!) vine growing in the garden. Soon, the vine develops a life of its own, along with a killer instinct. This one could almost be lifted straight from a vintage edition of Tales from the Crypt.

Voodoo: Biff Bailey (Castle) is a jobbing musician who accepts a gig in the West Indies where he stumbles across a voodoo ceremony. He memorizes the tune they are playing, and despite being warned, goes back to London and plays it, thereby unwittingly unleashing all manner of fuckery. Plagiarism is not cool, kids. ‘Probably’ based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich who, ironically enough given the subject matter, is uncredited.

Disembodied Hand: This one is, ahem, hands down the grisliest, and probably the best, story of the lot. It follows the misadventures of pompous art critic Franklyn Marsh (Lee) who falls victim to karma after causing a tortured artist to lose his hand.

Vampire: Dr. Bob Carroll (Sutherland) returns to the states with his new French bride. Back home, a spate of killings occurs, which seem to have been carried out by a vampire. Bob’s friend (Adrian), convinces him that his pretty new wife is responsible for the murders and Bob kills her. However, as he is being led away by the police, the friend says to himself that the city isn’t big enough for two doctors, or two vampires, and turns into a bat. The bastard.

As you can see, all the stories have twists, and this tradition is continued within the wraparound story, as in the end it is revealed that all five men were already dead, having copped it when the train they boarded crashed, and Dr. Schreck was actually death himself. Wow, right?

As they did in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and just about every other film they ever appeared in together, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the horror film equivalent of Starsky and Hutch, put in a couple of truly memorable performances. In fact, the entire cast excels. A special mention should also go to the director Freddie Francis, who achieved most of his success as a cinematographer, winning two Academy Awards and working on classics such as The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984) and Cape Fear (1991). All this natural talent, combined with the overall tongue-in-cheek approach and clever, quirky writing, makes Dr. Terror’s House of Horror a worthy addition to any horror collection.

Trivia Corner:

Jazz musician Acker Bilk was originally cast to play the part of Biff Bailey, but he suffered a heart attack and was replaced by Roy Castle, later of Record Breakers fame, in his theatrical movie debut.


RetView #27 – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Title: The Hound of the Baskervilles

Year of Release: 1959

Director: Terence Fisher

Length: 87 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Andre Morell, John Le Mesurier, Francis de Wolff

The-Hound-of-the-Baskervilles-1959-poster-1

Sit down and buckle up for the second Hammer Horror film in my RetView series, following the trailblazing Witchfinder General. There have been numerous other adaptations of the Hound of the Baskervilles. But even over half a century later, none are as critically acclaimed as this version of the classic gothic horror. Why? Because few cinematic partnerships make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up in quite the same way was Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee do. The quintessential British duo starred together in dozens of films, and became as synonymous with each other as tea and biscuits. Director Terence Fisher (who also directed Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein,The Mummy, and The Two Faces of Dr. Jeckyll, among ,any others) also deserves credit for his efforts. Add to the mix the fact that this was the first Hound of the Baskervilles adaptation ever to be filmed in colour, and you have a perfect storm of superlative talent, excellent source material, and groundbreaking technological advances which may go some way to explaining this particular film’s cultural impact and enduring popularity.

Given that The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best-loved Sherlock Holmes novels first published in serial form in the Strand magazine in 1901-02, the plot itself should require little introduction or explanation. But for those unfamiliar with it, it concerns a Dr Mortimer (de Wolff) who asks Sherlock (Cushing) and his intrepid sidekick Watson (Morell) to investigate the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville, who he believes was killed by a huge, bloodthirsty dog prevalent in a family course. Furthermore, he believes the new owner of Baskerville hall, Sir Henry (Lee), is next in line. These fears are confounded when he loses his shoe and a tarantula attacks him. Really. And Dr Watson is assigned to ‘look after’ Sir Henry until Sherlock is good and ready to hook up with them. My favourite character in the whole film is the butler, Barrymore (Le Mesurier, from Dad’s Army). Unfortunately he isn’t there when Watson falls into some quicksand near Baskerville Hall, as you do, but luckily a man named Stapleton and his daughter Cecile are there to save the venerable doctor.

That night, Watson sees a strange light on the moors and goes to investigate with Sir Henry, but after seeing a mysterious figure and hearing the mournful howl of a hound, their escapade is cut short when Sir Henry is taken ill. That mysterious figure is later revealed to be Sherlock himself, who arrived at Baskerville Hall ‘a few hours’ after Dr Watson. For some bizarre reason that is never explained, the enigmatic and eccentric detective then chose to sleep rough, rather than announce his presence. After Sherlock stops acting out, he solves the mystery pretty quickly. The ghostly, mythical Hound of the Baskervilles is a mutt with a mask (at least in the book he is painted with phosphorous paint so he glows in the dark) who is kept in an abandoned mine shaft by Stapleton and his daughter, who turn out to be illegitimate descendants of the original Sir Baskerville and stand to inherit a fortune if the rest of the Baskervilles die.

Motive enough for murder?

You bet.

The climax sees Watson shoot Stapleton, who is then attacked by his own mask-wearing dog. Watson shoots that, too, just for good measure, and Cecile falls into the quick sand (you’d think she’d know where it was by now) and dies a horrible death.

This version of The Hound of the Baskervilles is so well loved that it is one of a very select few to achieve a faultless 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The book is also considered one of Conan Doyle’s best. It was Sherlock Holmes’ first outing in eight years, since his apparent death in The Final Problem, though it is set two years before the events in that story. The inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles is believed to have come from the ferocious black dogs of English folklore. Stories concerning these mysterious, red-eyed creatures are widespread and the entity is known by numerous names, the most popular being Black shuck. Devil Dog (not to be confused with hell hounds) is a convenient group name, and they are usually considered to be harbingers of death.

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Trivia corner

The Baskerville Hall set is the same set that was used for Dracula (1958). The Hound of the Baskervilles also borrowed some music (composed by James Bernard) from the same film.


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