Movie Fan Man: Cinema Connoisseur

Traditional, Artsy, Genre-Within-Genre: A Little Something for Everyone

And the Villain is….

A Common House Cat

by Tony Nash

(The Month of Hammer Horror Intermission #1)

(Spoilers may follow)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

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Gatto Nero (Black Cat, The Black Cat) (1981) R *** ½

Patrick Magee: Prof. Robert Miles

Mimsy Farmer: Jill Tevers

David Warbeck: Inspector Gorley

Al Civer: Sgt. Wilson

Dagmar Lassander: Lillian Grayson

Bruno Corazzari: Ferguson

Geoffrey Copleston: Inspector Flynn

Daniela Doria: Maureen Grayson (as Daniela Dorio)

Written by: Biagio Proletti & Lucio Fulci, based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe

Directed by: Lucio Fulci

Synopsis: A British Police Inspector and an American Journalist team up to find the answers to several mysterious and sometimes gruesome murders that seem connected, but no motive or suspects exist. Circumstantial findings lead them to the home of a local professor of the Occult and supernatural who has a very nasty and violent house cat.

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Lucio Fulci, known mostly for his violent gore films, takes a huge retrained step back with this loose rendition of Poe’s classic story. What Fulci does to make this version exceptionally unique is that the cat itself becomes a character in the film, and like with Poe’s story, is the key to the eventual outcome. Keeping with uniqueness, the film boasts a true supernatural feel, characters realizing there is something clearly beyond human rationale going on. Filmed entirely on location in England, the moody atmosphere Fulci intended the film is very realistic and visible ten fold as England is very famous for its fog-filled nights and early mornings. These hints at the otherworldly marks totally new territory for Fulci, as he was fairly famous for his use of dreamlike atmosphere, which is totally absent here, but does maintain the essence of something beyond man’s comprehension.

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The Black Cat, as stated earlier, is one of the primary characters of the film and Fulci uses it to the best extant he can. Whether this cat was genuinely ill-tempered or not will never be known, but if it was indeed “acting”, it was some of the most convincing behavior ever caught on camera/film. Initially used by its Master Professor Miles as a means of revenge for those who wronged him, subjecting his pet to a series of hypnotic suggestions that lead it to a world of darkness and shadow, the Cat slowly begins to gain independence from its owner, and starts wielding the dark forces Miles exposed it to for its own purposes. Like with Poe, Fulci decides to have his Cat slowly build up means for a vengeance all its own, using its new found abilities to pull those looking to connect Miles to those tragic deaths towards it, guiding them to the truth. Before it fully betrays its owner, the Cat decides to have a little fun with its new found power and create a little more mayhem to put more heat on the evil Professor, thus having any and all sole responsibility taken off it. That Miles knows his pet will one day want to pay him back for all the vicious things he made it do, and the exposure to things that would drive others to the brink of madness makes the Cat’s independent thought of its powers all the more scary and evil, as it knows everything.

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David Warbeck in Black Cat (Gatto nero) (1981)

Irish actor Patrick Magee, American expat actress Mimsy Farmer, and English-Welsh actor David Warbeck are all excellent in their respective roles of Prof. Miles, journalist Jill, and Police Inspector Gorley. Magee, most noted for his stage work-especially his collaborations with Samuel Beckett, oozes sinister essence as the deranged Professor. Clearly unstable from his usage of hypnosis and telepathy, he chooses to use his gifts to hurt the people he believed did him injustices. Little does he know the forces he invokes to aid him will also be his downfall. Farmer, an American who found fame and love across Europe shows both courage and fear as the Journalist trying to figure out the strange goings on in a quiet English village. Normally playing the love interest of the lead or the doomed woman, Farmer is able to convey well someone who isn’t afraid to find out the truth, but at the same time can’t help but fear her life may be in peril. Warbeck, who was briefly considered for James Bond does well as the experienced cop trying to solve a series of murders. Skeptical at first when it comes to the idea that the supernatural is at play, he later changes his mind when strange occurrences start affecting his life. When coincidences stop looking like such, Gorley must tackle what might lie beyond the natural realm of the world.

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Now most Fulci fans tend to dismiss this film for its lack of violence and gore effects. The truth is, is that this lacking actually helps the film a great deal. By making subtle hints that what the characters are dealing with lies solely in the beyond, it allows the viewer to appreciate the story, pacing, and suspense, and not be caught up in blood soaked set pieces that often went into overkill. Peter Cushing, who was Fulci’s first choice for the Professor Miles role, turned down the chance to work with Fulci because of his gore reputation, which greatly harmed the otherwise talented director’s chance to work with some great people. There are only three violent looking scenes in the film, but in keeping with the supernatural ideas, the scenes are brief, but effective, and are short enough for people who don’t care for those scenes to look away and look again. Hardcore Fulci fans might be disappointed by this, but those who want to see what the filmmaker was capable of without the blood effects will be very happy with the result.

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With a Cat as one of two antagonists and profiting well from a focus on the psychological aspects of Horror instead of blood/gore effects, The Black Cat is a good little Horror film. Not overtly great, but not poor as many fans might think it is, the Cat itself as a character helps the film very much in uniqueness and creativity, and shows the depicted events as might truly be revolving around the supernatural. These aspects might not look like much, but work very well in an era to where violence was the key to success, and proved this was not a dead art, but still thriving, if only used by a handful of filmmakers. In spite of a majority of fans not liking this film, Fulci gives one of his greatest efforts with this film and shows he wasn’t just a master of splatter gore.

(Now I know I said I would normally avoid Horror films made in the 80’s, but I’m making an exception here as this film isn’t overtly gross and violent and sports a very well done story. The atmosphere and characters work well and the actors give exceptional performances. I recommend the Blu Ray of the film in either its solo release or the Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats Black Cats Box Set, both from Arrow Video that sport their usual fine transfers and audio, along with translated subtitles)

All images courtesy of images and the IMDB and their respective owners.

For more information

Mondo-Esoterica/The Black Cat 1981

For any UK Fans

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

The Devil’s Greatest Adversary Is….

Christopher Lee!!!!

Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out

by Tony Nash

(#2 of The Month of Hammer Horror)

(Mild Spoilers may be present)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

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The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil’s Bride) (1968) PG-13 *****

Christopher Lee: Duc de Richleau

Charles Gray: Mocata

Leon Greene: Rex Van Ryn

Patrick Mower: Simon Aron

Nike Arrighi: Tanith Carlisle

Sarah Lawson: Marie Eaton

Gwen Ffrangcon Davies: The Countess

Paul Eddington: Richard Eaton

Rosalyn Landor: Peggy Eaton

Eddie Powell: The Goat of Mendes

Written by: Richard Matheson

Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley

Directed by: Terence Fisher

Synopsis: When Duc de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn prevent their deceased Army friend’s son Simon from becoming a member of a Satanic cult, the duo must rely on the Duke’s knowledge of the Occult to keep the group’s evil leader Mocata from taking revenge. Taking refuge at the Duke’s niece’s country château, the group spends the night fighting off the demons at Mocata’s command.

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Made at the insistence of star Christopher Lee, who was a fan of the novel, The Devil Rides Out was one of Hammer’s late period successes, before the studio began to turn towards erotica and heavier violence to keep audiences interested. What puts the film on the pantheon with the greats is that it was the first major film to deal directly with Satanism, a subject that was far too taboo, even for veteran Horror film icons of the day. Another big difference is that the film focuses more on tension than blood and violence, bordering on psychological Horror rather than conventional/traditional Horror. All the characters are three-dimensional, so they feel more like real people the audience can sympathize with or loathe, living out a real situation. The film feels very much like a play at times, as the majority of scenes take place indoors which help to reinforce the brooding sense of dread and paranoia the characters begin to experience while battling the evil forces out to get them. Some spiritual aspects come into the film, which helps the plot and action out well, seeing as how a religious subject is being talked about by the characters. This sense of true Spiritualism, not simply everyday things that could well explain many of the events that took place, really adds to the film as it lets the viewer know something very real was going on, not just in the frightened minds of most of the characters.

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What gives this film an extra leg up is the talents of screenwriter/author Richard Matheson, most known for his collaborations with Roger Corman. Having written several books himself, Matheson was the best choice to adapt Dennis Wheatley’s novel to the screen, appreciating what the author had already applied to paper. While Matheson’s time with Corman was well spent, this screenplay took the writer back to his roots as many of the Corman scripts tended to border on the Melodramatic and Fantastical, while this film is placed very much in the real world. There’s nothing funny about what happens here, everything is played as straight and for keeps. Matheson’s talents are very visible in the film, from the use of lighting and imagery, to symbolic and metaphorical motifs.

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Christopher Lee, most famous for his portrayals of Dracula, and several other movie monsters, gets to sink his teeth into a rare, but just as effective, good guy/hero role. Duc de Richleau is an aristocrat who has known the horrors of war, and knows many things about the Occult, which many dare not venture into. He’s not an overtly spiritual man, but he does take seriously the powers which the human mind has trouble comprehending. It’s never learned why or how Richleau studied about Occult arts, but Lee conveys meaning behind dialogue that this has saved Richleau, and others, in the past.  When the son of a friend whom he vowed to keep out of trouble gets mixed up with the dark forces, Richleau must rely on all his learning to save not only his ward, but his friends and family as well. Lee plays the role of Richleau with the dignity and grace of a Shakespearean actor, something Lee rarely got to showcase in his roles, reciting incantations with gusto and sincerity. Richleau is also a man of courage, and fear, as he never knows what will happen when he fights the demons of the beyond, which Lee conveys well. Lee adds that Richleau knows what’s happening even before the others have any vague sense of what they’re dealing with. Lee gives Richleau one weakness in that he can’t use a spell/prayer/incantation more than once, as consequences exist for using such words too much, but that Richleau never elaborates on. Lee proved to be just as good, if not better, at good guys as bad guys, but because he was so good at being menacing, Hammer and Amicus kept on using him as such, roles like that of Richleau being too far in between.

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Charles Gray, a British character actor, best known to US audiences as Blofeld in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever and as Mycroft Holmes to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock in Granada’s Sherlock Holmes series, is both menacing and grand as Satanist Mocata. An interesting note is that Dennis Wheatley based the character on real life Occultist and Satanist Alistair Crowley, famous and infamous for his outspoken views on everything from religion to sexuality, and the coiner of the term “Magick”. Wheatley managed to have dinner with Crowley on a few occasions for insight into his personality, Crowley having apparently unaware he would be the basis for a novel antagonist. Surprisingly, Crowley never sued for libel and defamation. Little is known of the character, but from what Gray conveys on-screen he’s a man who both appreciates and desires the power that can be granted from the Devil himself. Mocata is shown as so dedicated to the Devil, he’ll do anything, even commit mass murder, to appease his master. Gray adds an ounce of arrogance to the character, as he’s shown as so certain he’ll come out the victor, he boldly tells Richleau’s niece there will be no escape for them. This trait is what will work against Mocata at a later point. A great villain role by an underrated character actor.

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More of a psychological Thriller rather than a Horror film, The Devil Rides Out has many great thrills and is very suspense filled. What it lacks in monsters and blood it makes up for in the uncertainty of what will happen to the characters and how things will play out. This way of telling the story and unfolding the events works well for the film as it shows how creative Hammer could be when they had the opportunity to be so, and not rely simply on make-up and special effects. What makes this all the more true is that something supernatural is definitely going on and that the forces people normally mock in Horror films exist in some fashion. The actors in the film are all good, and each gives his or her best at all times. The film also ranks as one of the few to get an adaptation of a novel right as their Dracula and Frankenstein films often highly differed from the original books to the point it was a wholly different story. This was also one of the rare times a stand alone Horror feature for Hammer, after Plague of the Zombies, did well at the box office, making money for the studio and cast/crew. Lee admittedly wished he could’ve played Richleau again as Wheatley did pen some sequels to his original, but was happy to have done something different for Hammer in 50 plus year career.

(This is my 2nd favorite Christopher Lee film, and my third favorite Hammer film. Again the pacing is done well, the performances are great, and the Suspense is tight enough that it’s not overwhelming. One of Hammer’s more underrated efforts, the film is not spoken of among more mainstream audiences as the studio’s Dracula or Frankenstein franchise, and it should be more known as it shows what you can do with the terror of the mind and soul, rather than just a monster that needs to be destroyed. The Australian and UK Blu Rays are both of excellent quality and audio, the Austrailian Blu Ray playable in Region 1 players.)

All images courtesy of Images and their respective owners

For more information (click the same name link for info on the source novel)

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

Kharis & Ananka: The First Tragic Love Story

Hammer’s The Mummy

(#1 in The Month of Hammer Horror)

by Tony Nash

(Mild Spoilers will be present)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

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The Mummy (1959) *****

Peter Cushing: John Banning

Christopher Lee: High Priest Kharis/The Mummy

Yvonne Ferneaux: Isobel Banning/Princess Ananka

Eddie Byrne: Inspector Mulrooney

George Pastell: Mehemet Bey/Akir

Felix Aylmer: Stephen Banning

Raymond Huntley: Joseph Whemple

Michael Ripper: The Poacher

Written by: Jimmy Sangster

Directed by: Terence Fisher

Synopsis: After father and son archeologists Stephen and John Banning, along with relative Joseph Whemple, open the tomb of Egyptian Priestess Princess Ananka, cult devotee Mehemet Bey vows revenge for the desecration. When his father is institutionalized after going mad and then murdered, John begins to suspect something strange is afoot. When Bey suddenly moves to England with a strange case, the mystery deepens. The story of a High Priest buried alive for his blasphemous love of the Princess figures into events.

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The last of Hammer’s inductee remakes of classic Universal Monster movies might have the least in blood and darkness, but is exceptional on story and character. Remade from the first two sequels to the Boris Karloff original, audiences are treated to well meaning historians and archeologists, highly devoted cultists, and reincarnated royalty. The main difference between the early Universal sequels and Hammer’s first installment is that Hammer’s Mummy is an otherwise good man who made one bad decision and never really loses his humanity. Most of the Universal Mummies were either bad right from the start or were more or less mindless drones ordered about by cult devotees. That this Mummy is able to maintain an essence of free will and mind makes him a far more interesting character. This aspect plays a very important role in the film. That the hero recognizes early on that something about the tomb excavation has an air of evil to it, knowing in some way something will be following. That the main focus is on the love story end of the plot adds a bit of Dark Romance that helps the film move along well and the route the characters must travel to reach the end. The film takes on more of a Fantasy/Thriller feel rather than a Horror feel in that while there are some jump scares, there’s nothing overtly brooding or atmospheric that would give it that sense, which aids the film in being something different.

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An interesting historical inaccuracy in most Mummy films, this one in particular, is the subject of reincarnation. In reality, the Ancient Egyptians didn’t believe in the notion of reincarnation, for them once a person died, they went to the afterlife and that was that. It has so far never been proven in any of their surviving parchments and hieroglyphs that the Ancients took reincarnation seriously. Now this isn’t to say screenwriters and directors were ignorant while doing their research into the subjects they were talking about,  but it does seem a little odd they would continually work in that aspect to other films. Generally this notion is seen as Romantic and a good plot device for the Mummy’s downfall as the love he died for will once again return him to the afterlife, hence a more interesting storyline and conclusion for the audience.

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Peter Cushing, one of the two leading faces of both Hammer Horror and Amicus Horror, shines in one of his few Romantic leads as John Banning. Cushing plays Banning with his usual elegance and charm, adding in a layer of skepticism his other characters didn’t have, normally taking on their missions with the notion what their encountering is real. A man brought up to believe in what he sees and hears, Banning is initially skeptical about his father having raised a mummy from the dead. It’s only when he learns his father has been killed from the otherwise safe haven of a mental hospital that he begins to believe there’s a connection between it and the opening of Princess Ananka’s tomb. Relying on his education that every mythology and lore has a vein of truth in it, Banning begins to realize there may very well have been a High Priest who loved the Princess and by attempting to raise her from the dead lead to his punishment of being mummified alive. Having Cushing go from skeptic to believer was a really interesting choice for the director and screenwriter as most archeologists take the legends of the cultures whom they research and rediscover with a grain of credibility as the truth is often stranger than fiction. While there’s nothing too complex about Cushing’s character, he does play him as an ordinary man who suddenly finds himself in an extraordinary situation and does his best to come out of the situation alive, which is just as interesting as a complex character.

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Christopher Lee, the 2nd leading face of Hammer Horror and Amicus Horror, who, along with Lon Chaney Jr., has the distinction of playing most of Universal and literature’s greatest monsters. Lee is at his best in the role of Kharis/The Mummy, played with a rare form of pain and pathos. Unlike most mummies, Kharis had in life been a good man and devoted to his ruler and god, but his love for Princess Ananka, which was forbidden as Ananka was a Priestess of the god Karnack and a Vestal Virgin, and such a love would be tantamount to treason and suicide. Kharis’ love led to the most tragic, fatal mistake any man or woman could make, and he willingly pays the ultimate penalty. In spite of being mummified and dead for over 2,000 years, Kharis has managed to maintain a level of his human self, very much aware of where he his, how long it has been, and what destiny/prophesy have etched for him. Because he hasn’t forgotten who he his and what he was about, Kharis maintains his tragic stance as his memories will lead to the downfall of the cult’s stance of revenge. Lee, whose monster roles were usually evil until the last, does his best as a figure who can gain audience sympathy as this particular character has only ended up in his situation for being human.

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George Pastell, a Mediterranean-Naturalized British actor, who specialized in ethnic roles, is the prime definition of villainy in the role of Mehemet Bey. A religious Zealot through and through, Bey is depicted as a man who’d do anything, regardless of consequence, to avenge the blasphemy done to the god he worships. Single minded in what he believes he has to do, Bey spends the better part of almost five years preparing and making ready the vengeance his god demands against those labeled unbelievers. Unlike other devotee’s played by noted character players like John Carradine, George Zucco, and Turhan Bey, Pastell’s character is completely unwavering in his duties, which leads to his own undoing as he forgets a golden role of the past ages. Having this sort of devotion makes Bey a more realistic character and gives better depth to the level of his villainy. Pastell’s use of his voice and facial expressions, convey well the dedication the character has for his cult and the god at the center of it.

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Only three sequels came about from this film, in part due to Lee’s reluctance to continue playing the Mummy. The make-up had been difficult for Lee to move about in and he had severely injured his back after picking up actress Yvonne Ferneaux, the injury already bothering him after being hit by the prop bullets. The prop bullets also caused severe burns that caused Lee to miss a few days of shooting to heal up. The upside to the make-up was that it made the Mummy very realistic and showed how it would’ve probably moved around.

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While some have called this the weakest of the Hammer Universal adaptations, the film does well in conveying a truly tragic love story that never got to reach a full on conclusion. The characters might be one-dimensional and only have the simplest of back-stories, but they still come off as real and the audience is able to care about them. The story might have some plot holes and inconsistencies, but it still moves along very well and doesn’t feel like it’s too far out and not believable. Since it worked more of an atmosphere instead of relying on violence and gore, most viewers tend to dismiss this film as average, but in reality works very well. An underrated film that deserves more attention that it’s been getting.

(This is my all time favorite Horror film and my all time favorite Hammer film and comes recommended all the way. It’s not perfect, but it hits all the right notes, has great performances, good and steady pacing, and great atmosphere. Christopher Lee gives one of his most underrated performances and proves you sometimes only need eyes and brief facial expressions to tell what a character is thinking. The UK Blu Ray offers the best quality and extras for fans and the US release is good in both transfer and audio for people on a budget.)

All images courtesy of images and their respectful owners

For more information

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics