The Woman in Black… and The Return of Hammer

The Woman in Black James Watkins, director/Momentum Pictures James Watkins’ The Woman in Black (2012) is a significant film for a variety of reasons — first and foremost, it is proof positive that the elements of the Gothic mythos can still be invested with chilling force majeure even after a million increasingly desperate plunderings have left the genre looking shopworn. The film also demonstrates that a modern sensibility (here on the part of director, writer and star, the winsome Daniel Radcliffe) can be profitably applied to a period genre — although it might be argued that the makers’ clearly avowed attempt to play down certain elements (such as period speech) does not work to its advantage, and the film also shows that the accoutrements of the classic Hammer film (notably the sumptuous, evocative period design – here a deliciously cluttered haunted house) are still reliably effective if utilised with intelligence and an appropriate sense of atmosphere. Lastly, of course, it is proof that the imprimatur ‘Hammer Films’ is still capable of posthumous life – even though one might legitimately argue that the film is only peripherally connected with the golden age of that studio (the new logo, for instance, with a series of comic strip-style images, is more redolent of the pre-credits design of the superhero movies drawn from Marvel and DC Comics – a congruence further brought to mind by the presence of Jane Goldman as the adapter of the novel; Goldman is best known as the writer of the successful film adaptation of the graphic novel Kick-Ass). But above all, perhaps, the success of the film (and it is a success, both commercially and, largely speaking, critically, though many critics have registered caveats) owes a great deal to the original source novel by the writer Susan Hill. Continue reading


A special event is being organised for re-release of the classic 1957 kitchen sink drama WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN. The inimitable Sylvia Syms (The Queen, TV’s Rev, Ice Cold in Alex, Victim), who has one of the leading roles in the film, will be speaking about it ahead of a screening at the Curzon Mayfair this Sunday 29th July at 2.30pm. You can check out what a great speaker Sylvia is in an interview she recently did for the Guardian:

Monster Pictures to expand in UK

Monster Pictures, the genre distribution label that brought the controversial ‘HUMAN CENTIPEDE’ films to the UK, today (19 July 2012) announced that it will be expanding its distribution plans for the UK.  The company, owned by Bounty Films, is building a slate of 20 new films for UK theatrical and home entertainment release over the next year, and has appointed Helen Grace, founder of indie sales and distribution outfit Left Films, as the new Label Manager for Monster Pictures UK.

From Scandinavian Crime to Lesbian Vampires… The Latest DVDs and Blu-Rays

SEBASTIAN BERGMAN Daniel Espinosa, director/Arrow Blu-ray The two-part crime series Sebastian Bergman: The Cursed One arrived with certain hard-to-meet expectations, in the wake of several groundbreaking Scandinavian crime series. The format of two 90 minute episodes went against the current trend for multi-part series (but is none the worse or that), and stars as the prickly (eponymous) profiler, one of Sweden’s most respected actors, Rolf Lassgård. The actor adopts an audacious tactic: he makes virtually no attempt to render the difficult, sexually predatory Bergman subtly likable – not even by a chink in the character’s armour (though we are aware of the vulnerable humanity beyond the uningratiating exterior). For UK viewers, Lassgård had latterly become familiar as the original television Kurt Wallander (albeit non-sequentially after both the Henriksson and Branagh incarnations). Police profiler Sebastian Bergman is shabby, unshaven, and displays a distinctly non-PC approach to women; but this is no attractively dangerous seducer; he is more of a sex pest. Bergman is also a damaged individual, attempting to deal with grief over the tragic deaths of his wife and daughter in the 2004 Thailand tsunami. Returning to his home town after the death of his mother, Bergman encounters his old police colleague, Torkel, who is looking into the savage killing of a teenage boy. Bergman also discovers a letter with revelations of a family secret. He inveigles himself (in the teeth of some opposition) onto Torkel’s team — with uncomfortable results for all concerned. The first episode is not just risk-taking in its refusal to elicit sympathy for its bear-like anti hero, but keeps its narrative focus deliberately vague, while the second episode displays another kind of audacity: outrageous borrowings from the oeuvre of the writer Thomas Harris. In the final analysis, Sebastian Bergman is not an easy series, but it’s unarguably one with the courage of its convictions.

KING OF NEW YORK Abel Ferrara, director/Arrow Blu-ray The first ever Blu-ray and Steelbook editions of Abel Ferrara’s cult gangster classic King of New York, this is a splendid rediscovery, looking better than any previous incarnation. The film is inspired by the crime classics of the 1930’s, and King of New York showcases a typically over-the-top performance by Christopher Walken as the violent mob boss Frank White. The star-filled cast now looks quite amazing (several careers were launched with the film) and Abel Ferrara’s delirious visuals positively leap off the screen.

THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY Lucio Fulci, director/Arrow No genre director divides opinions as much as the Italian shockmeister Lucio Fulci – but as one who can find much to admire in his films (with reservations!), it’s good to turn to one of his more interesting (if flawed) films. While the climactic sequence of The House by the Cemetery (Quella Villa Accanto al Cimitero, 1981) is brilliantly sustained, Fulci had no time for the importance of structure in genre films. Certainly he has few equals in delivering body-blows of untrammelled horror, and there’s a place for that in an industry overcrowded with no-talent hacks. But it isn’t enough to talk about pure, plotless film (as Fulci does) to excuse cipher-like characters and attenuated story-lines – and if he is going to shore up his film with quotes from Henry James, something more than just dripping entrails, ripped jugulars and decapitations will be needed to justify these aspirations. That said, grisly diversion is generously supplied.

HAWKS AND SPARROWS Pier Paolo Pasolini, director/Eureka Now here’s a real curiosity – a relatively early film by the late Italian master that is in some ways reminiscent of his other work, but also totally unlike it. The oddity here is Italy’s famous comic actor Totó, shoehorned into a bizarre comic narrative about a pair of Franciscan friars who follow Saint Francis’s edict that they should convert the birds of the air to Christianity. Needless to say, the results are ludicrous, and as an attack on the naivety of religion, the film is as cutting as anything in the Fellini canon – particularly surprising, given that Pasolini had just made The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Your response to the film may well be dictated by how much you can take of Totó (something of an acquired taste for British viewers) and also Pasolini’s eternal innocent, the non-actor Ninetto Davoli, giving precisely the same performance he gave in every film he ever made for Pasolini. However, for those interested in Italian cinema, it’s on the to-watch list.

DO NOT DISTURB Ralph Levy, Director/Second Sight Perhaps you are one of those who prefer Doris Day when she’s working for Alfred Hitchcock (as in The Man who Knew Too Much) and Rod Taylor when he is also working for the Master of Suspense (as in The Birds). But while those films may represent the actors at full stretch, there is some enjoyment to be had from them in this undemanding concoction which has an American couple relocating to London (or a backlot version thereof) for the husband’s job as a wool executive. Perhaps Day (as so often in her later films) is a touch too mature for the role (it’s one of the films she had to make to get out of the financial hole her husband had left her in), but it’s nice to see professionals carry slight material with the kind of skill on offer here. 

TRAPEZE Carol Reed, director/Second Sight This colourful melodrama is a very odd film, you might think, from the director of such classics as The Third Man and Odd Man Out. But as well as being a personal filmmaker, Carol Reed was a highly professional purveyor of polished studio product when the occasion demanded (think of his version of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!), and this vehicle for the barely-stretched talents of Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida (a ménage a trois in a circus setting) is always diverting – even though it’s clear that of the three stars, the athletic Burt Lancaster is the one performing most of his own high-wire stunts. There is the bonus of a striking score by British composer Malcolm Arnold.

LESBIAN VAMPIRE WARRIORS Dennis Law, director/Arrow With a title that shrieks out ‘Don’t take me too seriously!’, Lesbian Vampire Warriors delivers the kind of lively fun that one might expect with its outrageous story of a twilight world in which human beings coexist alongside vampiric predators (mainly because the latter find sustenance from a diet of small animals). A cohabiting female couple at the centre of the narrative (one vampire, one not, are winningly played by Jiang Luxia and Chrissie Chau Sau-Na), but the two elements that win over the viewer here are the kinetic, ingeniously choreographed action sequences and the striking, poster-coloured visuals. Let’s face it, there are some viewers who will never pick up DVD with this particular title – but for those of us with less rarefied characters, good fun is promised.

THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE Luis Bunuel, director/Studio Canal There was a time when admirers of art cinema (such as this writer) would go to each new film (in his late period) by the Spanish master Luis Bunuel in the cinema, assured of something highly sardonic and original. It’s good to report that viewed in the 21st century, this cheeky and outrageous piece of social comedy remains as provocative as ever.


Guy Adams on Hands of the Ripper

Guy Adams on Hands of the Ripper

As his new novelisation of the classic Hammer film Hands of the Ripper appears, Guy Adams describes the challenges of capturing the Hammer style on the page…

Some would say that novelizing a movie is like trying to sing a crossword. A film is not a book, you simply cannot capture it on the page. 

I think there’s a degree of truth to that — and hopefully I’ve learned some lessons between my first and second attempt for Hammer Books.  

My first novelization, Kronos, based on the movie written and directed by Brian Clemens stuck rather closely to the original. I went off piste towards the end (sword fights are not satisfying on paper so I built towards a different climax) but followed the narrative closely for the most part. My second book, Hands of the Ripper, much less so. Strangely, I suspect I may have managed to retain more of the latter film’s spirit.  

Hammer Books decided it would be interesting for a number of their planned novelizations to be updated to the present day. When this was first suggested to me I admit I laughed. ‘You do realize that means we’ll lose Jack the Ripper? Does that matter?’ Actually, no, it really didn’t. 

A story is not its setting in the same way that characters are not the clothes they wear. In stripping away the Victoriana of Hands of the Ripper we’re left with the important stuff: a story about haunted people in general and two in particular. A man and a woman who are broken and want nothing more than to be fixed.

Oh… and killing, let’s not fool ourselves, it’s not a book for the squeamish. Whenever the heart’s involved things tend to get brutal.

Is it still recognizably Hands of the Ripper? Certainly, you will find familiar characters doing familiar things, they may just do them in a slightly different way. 

I am a huge devotee of Hammer and I know how important it is to be faithful to the original movie. It’s also important to be faithful to the reader. You can watch the film any time (and you should, it’s one of their best) so why should you need me to tell you the story once more unless I’m willing to bring something interesting to it? Hopefully, if I’ve done my job right it will not only bring the spirit of the film to life — like that of a long-dead serial-killer, say — it may also make you look at the original slightly differently.  

What’s next? Oh, more revisionism… In January, Countess Dracula will be reborn, not in an eastern European castle but in a Los Angeles mansion. Because where better to tell a story about aging than Hollywood? They forgive you anything there but getting old. 

But at the heart of it — the slick, pulsing heart — it will still be the Countess Dracula just as this is still Hands of the Ripper. 

Hammer always was about taking a fresh look at old stories, how right that it continues to be so. 

Hands of the Ripper by Guy Adams, Hammer Books, £6.99


Allied Artists: Horror, Science Fiction & Fantasy Films Michael R Pitts

One has to admire Michael Pitts for his dedicated thoroughness in attempting to cover an area which has remained unexplored until now: an exhaustive investigation and examination (with copious credits) of every film in the horror and fantastic genres distributed by the indefatigable production company Allied Artists (and that’s a catalogue with a host of gems). The comprehensive list also includes imported titles generated from other sources, such as Mario Bava’s influential Italian giallo Blood and Black Lace. And the rarities here are legion – apart from anything else, the book will act as a highly tempting shopping list for aficionados of the genre. There are, it has to be said, a couple of caveats: Pitts sometimes devotes nearly two pages to the plots of individual films rather than useful critical commentary, and the latter would (in every case) be far more illuminating. What’s more, Pitts often relies on other critical voices than his own for these commentaries. Nevertheless, for devotees of the horror and science fiction film, this is an essential purchase, and a worthwhile addition to McFarland’s imposing library of such titles.

Barry Forshaw

Allied Artists: Horror, Science Fiction & Fantasy Films by Michael R Pitts is published by McFarland