Friday, May 26, 2006

The Hammer Drops

O, to see with new eyes

Insomnia is the movie obsessive's oldest friend, worst enemy, asset and origin-story component. Middle-of-the-night film viewing never actually works as a lulling technique for me, but somewhere around 3 AM on Wednesday, staring at the wall and listening to my heart beating far to fast for rest, I thought: "Why don't I watch a Hammer horror movie?"

That, I am sorry to say, pretty much sums-up my relationship with Hammer Film Productions, Limited. With the rare exceptions of the oversexed The Vampire Lovers (1970), pitch perfect Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and magisterial Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), I confess to being a little bored with most Hammer pictures. "Bored" is lazy criticism, and what I mean is that I've never personally connected with the house style. I certainly understand where their admirers are coming from, agree that the cheapo-lavish production values create a beautiful shabby elegance, and I admire the strange dual-engines of graphic bosom-and-gore and innate European classiness. I love the stable of players, from the iconic giants (Peter Cushing, particularly, is my favorite screen Holmes, the only one who nails the detective's utterly alien intellect trapped inside the lovable, flawed shell of a human eccentric) to the pin-up girls to the impressive gallery of pug ugly character actors. I understand the import of Hammer's horror-flood coinciding with the Shock! TV package and I'm grateful for the studio's contributions to my nearest and dearest genre.

But somehow I've always been more excited to read books about these movies than actually revisit them, and I doubt I've seen more than a third of the important "one off" non-series films after their entry into the horror fray. There's just a personal disconnect, which doesn't stop the film critic or film geek in me from admiration, understanding or analysis. I'm reminded of being in audiences at silent comedy screenings; you can tell when audiences are laughing because they intellectually "know" this "was" funny. You can tell because when the timeless, eternally hilarious gag happens, then they laugh for real. The personal disconnect is between the Universal Golden Age and the sleazier, crazier European horror to come, both cycles are dreamier, stranger, scarier, and more packed with geniuses who requires no qualification or excuse to sell me on their charms. The vivid color horror of Hammer looks monochromatic compared to the mad hallucinations of the usual-suspect Italians, and the innovative explicitness just doesn't touch my heart like the elegiac Universal gems. Finally, sprawled on the couch at 3:30 AM, though I've known them for (!) decades, yeah, the House of Hammer finally opened up for me. I must have first seen The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) twenty years ago, but it took twenty years to find it personally affecting.

It was the all-time great entrance of Christopher Lee's creature that finally got my heart racing, and the first time a Hammer production actually frightened me. Frankenstein (Cushing) throws open the door to his lab, a weird barely human figure stands on unfamiliar limbs, too close to the door for comfort. Before we can focus on what feels amiss about the bandaged form, a herky-jerky dolly-in (the speed and shakiness are startling) brings us right up to its face, closer than expected, and not the least bit endearing. This monster isn't here for us to project our feelings of alienation, but a to reflect the alien world of death. Anyone expecting Karloff's puppy dog eyes is met with sickening opaque blue cataracts, and a mask of glacial, stupid violence. It's a wowee-powee moment in a film with a dozen of them, and I realize it's the subtler pleasures of Hammer that keep aficionados coming back, but I needed that wow.

Christopher Lee has always been a performer of iconic grandeur next to Cushing's dazzling nuance; it's the towering and divine next to the warm and humanistic; the difference between Beethoven and Mozart. I like to see the fingerprints all over a character. But Lee's all-movement performance in Curse is star-making for a reason, his joints seeming barley connected until the body is primed for doing violence. These are the kind of nuances I haven't appreciated over the broad strokes in a Lee performance.

The half-hearted liner notes for the DVD make some uninformed remarks about Jimmy Sangster's adaptation being closer to the Shelly novel than previous celebrated versions... don't buy it for a second. Here's a movie where the creature only escapes the castle grounds for a few hours, and seems to beg possible reading wherein Frankenstein has merely gone mad and is murdering housekeepers and peasants himself. The focus of Terence Fisher's film is different from Whales', but not particularly more faithful to Shelly. Here the center of horror is Frankenstein's fixation on his work, and therein was also the magic for yours truly. Curse is the story of a man too driven and too secretive, and ultimately destroyed by work ethic. Singular obsession with one's private passions may lead to great works, but as you hole up in the lab for weeks at a time... or try to maintain artistic careers, and a day job, to say nothing of multiple blogs... be it your great love or no, you necessarily start hacking away those parts of your life which are not The Work. The damage sustained to personal relationships (Frankenstein loses all friends, lovers and ultimately professional credibility) at the cost of blissful immersion in work is the true curse of Frankenstein. Connecting with Curse of Frankenstein in this way was probably not even possible for a child, maybe not for a younger man. I never knew it, but I was faulting the film for being too sophisticated, and addressing an aspect of life I hadn't encountered 20 years ago.

1 comment:

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Chris-- You probably know about the Hammer Festival coming to the American Cinematheque this month. I don't think Curse is part of what's going on, but there are lots of other great titles that will be featured. Check their web site, and check out SLIFR over the weekend-- I'm hoping to have a thorough roundup of what the Cinematheque has to offer this month, Hammer and beyond. My favorite-- Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed-- will be represented. Thanks too for your excellent consideration of Curse. This kind of personal response to films, old and new, is what I really have come to value, and what I think writers on blogs have come to do best. And you're one of them, to be sure.