Reviews: Hammer Blu-rays, M.R. James BBC Ghost Stories Vol.5, Wallenberg
|REVIEWS - BLU-RAY REVIEWS|
Chills in varying quality - and a heroic tale from a lesser-remembered war hero...
The Devil Rides Out (1968, dir. Terence Fisher)
Released 22nd October 2012
Hammer applies its trademark Gothic veneer with considerably greater care than usual in this, the second and best of the company's three stabs at the satanic stylings of author Dennis Wheatley. Christopher Lee comes over to the light for a rare foray as central hero the Duc de Richleau, teaming up with friend Rex van Rijn (Leon Greene) to prevent the evil Satanist Mocata (Charles Gray) from enmeshing the son of his old friend (Patrick Mower) into a devil-worshipping cult.
The Devil Rides Out is perhaps best remembered for what Lee argues in his commentary to be Hammer's most enduring image, that of our heroes fighting a series of spectral and psychological nemeses from within the protective confines of a ritual circle. And yet the most chilling scene contains no special effects, but is instead a simple conversation between the wife of one of Richleau's friends (Sarah Lawson) and the unwelcome visitor Mocata. Charles Gray's transfixing litany of nonsense slowly and breathlessly gives way to his genuine, evil intentions once his prey is suitably hypnotised - a prime example of the power of good writing (from screenwriter Richard Matheson as well as source writer Wheatley) interpreted through first-class performances - not something that was by any means guaranteed in a Hammer movie.
The later appearance of Old Nick himself (played by Christopher Lee's stunt-double, in chillingly effective prosthetic make-up by Eddie Knight) is a little undermined by the necessary timidity of the accompanying orgy, two years before the censors fell and allowed through a floodgate of cinematic licentiousness; but the earlier appearance of a demon to Lee and Mower in the latter's observatory is truly scary, and beautifully underpinned by a James Bernard score that descends into hysteria far less frequently than his other work for Hammer.
If there are moments of acting and writing genius in The Devil Rides Out that are worthy of the best of the talent behind the project, it is worth considering that this is all very old-school material in an age of little sympathy for the noblesse oblige that drives its heroes. This is one reason why Hammer's US distributors were not keen on the project when they finally saw it. But time has redeemed the film in this respect, turning a commercial flaw into an artistic advantage.
As in Wallenberg (see below), the quality of acting drops quite shockingly away once we leave the central cast behind, and this is not helped by the fact that Leon Greene's perfectly fine voice (he was an opera singer of some repute) has been dubbed into a mid-Atlantic tone by Patrick Allen, one of the most distinctive and recognisable voices of the last half-century.
Blu-ray, restoration, aspect ratio and added CGI
The visual quality of Hammer movies is sky high across the gamut at least of their gothic horror output. A great deal of the budget of any Hammer film was expended on high quality cinematography and definition. From this point of view, the Blu-ray enthusiast is well-served, and the picture quality of The Devil Rides Out pays back Arthur Grant's meticulous and inspired cinematography. The trade-off is that the movie is sometimes absurdly overlit for a horror film, due to the low light-sensitivity of good quality colour stock.
As detailed in the extras (see below), some grave VFX omissions were rectified with reasonable taste for this edition, such as the re-insertion of the background to the skull-face of the horse-riding 'Angel of Death', and a tasteful improvement or two to the observatory seen at the beginning of the movie.
Unfortunately the edition also contains one fatally under-funded facepalm of an 'update', where the entrance of the aforementioned Angel of Death is now adorned/ruined by a sub-Harry Potter burst of light, which looks as if it was done on a (perhaps quite old) Macintosh by an untalented intern at the visual effects company undertaking the work. Since this is one of the key moments in the film, it is more than just a pity that the producers of this edition were unable to accept that their vision exceeded their purse-strings. Very, very poor indeed.
This edition contains three new documentaries, none of which feature Christopher Lee, but all of which are a decent length and fairly interesting. Watch out for your Blu-ray player whirring up during some of the less well-shot interview footage though (this counts for all three Blu-rays detailed here).
- Black Magic: The Making of The Devil Rides Out' (33.35)
Featuring Richard Matheson, actor Patrick Mower, Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, authors Denis Meikle, David Huckvale, Phil Baker and Jonathan Rigby, amongst others.
- The Power of Light: Restoring The Devil Rides Out (11.32)
Behind the scenes during the restoration and 'enhancement' process.
- Dennis Wheatley at Hammer (12.51)
A look at Hammer's varied treatment of select Wheatley works, which resulted in films including The Lost Continent and To The Devil a Daughter, and how the author felt about them, mostly featuring the faces which will become quickly familiar to extras-viewers on this and the following two Blu-ray releases (see below)
- Contiguous commentary with Christopher Lee, Sarah Lawson and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn.
Presumably set among Lee and Lawson to make sure that the old'uns don't fall silent, Hearn is an unnecessary referee in this commentary, and it's amusing to hear him crowded out by the commanding Lee voice and presence. This is an older commentary from a previous release, and well worth a listen also for Sir Christopher's evident pride in the film and fund of knowledge on the subject of Wheatley in particular and black magic in general. Thank God Lee wasn't watching the 'revised' Angel of Death sequence. I wonder what they were saying in the not-too-frequent and patently edited silent intervals?
- World Of Hammer episode 'Hammer' (24.52)
Narrated with laconic amusement by Oliver Reed, this Roy Skeggs-produced self-serving entry in Hammer's TV series has some interesting factoids.
- Stills gallery (a movie, browsable only with the fast-forward button)
Region B / Total Running Time: 96 min approx / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 / Video Codec: AVC 1080p / Audio Codec: LPCM / English Language
The Mummy's Shroud (1967, dir. John Gilling)
Released 22nd October 2012
There's rather too much Rider Haggard and too few actual chills in this difficult-to-love entry in Hammer's limited repertoire of mummy movies. And to be honest, as the extras point out, and as director John Gilling had to contend with, there is very little innovation one can bring to the formula, reducing one to picking off the tomb-raiders in a series of slasher-style murders - a basic dynamic that was used with more effectiveness and wit in the AIP Vincent Price Phibes/Theatre Of Blood movies.
For what is notionally a horror movie of some kind, The Mummy's Shroud takes an almost interminable amount of time to get beyond its terribly under-funded late-imperial Mise en scène and into anything that might remotely begin to chill the room. Worse, this time is spent meeting a series of characters who are either unsympathetic, badly acted, shoddily written or - with the exception of Andre Morell and a rare centre-stage turn from Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper - all three.
This particular Hammer outing is ill-served by Blu-ray, as the extra detail is wasted on sets which largely consist of flat swathes of plasterboard and colour. There are pockets of detail to be found, but this production very clearly got no nearer to Egypt than a box of Turkish delight with the carpenters' tea.
The plot? British imperialist archaeologists desecrate an Egyptian tomb and get fatally thumped by the mummy that was guarding it, in a series of offings which are slightly grislier than Hammer was usually allowed to get away with at this period in their long struggle with the BBFC. I'll be damned if it merits deeper effort to describe than that.
There are a couple of brividi to be had: the demise of one of the group involves a head-crushing that rather shocked me when I first saw the movie on TV in the 1970s, and that scene still packs a bit of a punch. Secondly, the family of mummy-guardians is well-cast and well-acted, with Doctor Who's first 'Master' Roger Delgado an engaging Egypt-face villain/avenger, and his mother (Catherine Lacey) quite terrifying as a mad fortune teller .
Director John Gilling had the previous year provided Hammer with perhaps the scariest scene it ever output, the green-tinged 'dream sequence' in his inventive and under-rated Plague Of The Zombies. But there is far less room for manoeuvre in this genre, and the screenplay that Gilling concocts with Hammer producer Anthony Hinds is lacklustre and uninventive.
There are two new documentaries with this edition, the first featuring footage from interview sessions that were clearly done for all three Blu-ray releases listed here:
- The Beat Goes On: The Making of The Mummy's Shroud (22.01)
Mostly an apologist tract for this movie not being a patch on Hammer's earlier entry, The Mummy (1959, with Christopher Lee).
- Remembering David Buck (05.38)
A rather more interesting, though shorter piece featuring the widow of Mummy's Shroud star Buck: Madeline Smith. One of Hammer's most-loved actors herself, Smith touchingly recalls her long courtship with her late husband, his finer qualities and, affectingly, his premature demise to cancer.
- Stills gallery (06.09)
- Hammer trailers
Region B / Total Running Time: 90 min approx / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 / Video Codec: AVC 1080p / Audio Codec: LPCM / English Language
Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966, dir. Don Sharp)
Released 22nd October 2012
Devil or saint? Christopher Lee's own reluctance to be typecast as 'monsters' or villains lends a certain disarming ambiguity to Hammer's version of the Rasputin story. Lee's intense gaze, deep voice and mighty stature suit him admirably for the role of the mysterious Russian peasant who came to influence the Royal Court at St. Petersburg.
Hammer producer Anthony Hinds once again writes the screenplay as 'John Elder', and presents Grigori Rasputin as a semi-tragic figure, an abandoned drunkard whose ambition extends no further than his lechery until his astonishing powers of healing come to the attention of the Czarina of Russia (Renée Asherson), fatally leading our anti-hero towards catastrophic ambition which will earn him the hatred of his eventual assassins.
This is the only product reviewed here which can claim a solid cast across the board, with Lee's brooding monk capably backed up by his sexual slave Barbara Shelley and wounded detractors Francis Matthews, Richard Pasco and Dinsdale Landen.
That said, the story is depicted in rather broad strokes, with little insight into the amount of time that actually passes (Rasputin's rise and fall took place over a three year period) in the narrative, and Lee could have done with (and might have relished) a few more of the better lines and comebacks of the acerbic courtier who cares nothing for tradition or formality.
However, it's a pleasure to see Lee and Shelley in such incredibly abandoned scenes together, and the coterie that conspires to end Rasputin's rise is sharper, better written and better acted than one often finds in similar Hammer scenarios - with particular praise to Francis Matthews', who gets a chance to shine during the scene where he must draw Rasputin in to his doom via the monk's love for Matthews' sister.
The pace can drag a little, particularly in the first forty minutes, but it's Lee's sharp-tongued madman that keeps us watching, along with the ever-mesmerising Barbara Shelley.
Rasputin The Mad Monk suffers somewhat from a similar lack of scenic detail as The Mummy's Shroud, so that to a certain extent the Blu-ray definition is wasted.
- Rasputin The Mad Monk 2.55:1 version
The preliminary section to this version explains: Rasputin The Mad Monk was shot in 4-perf CinemaScope with anamorphic lenses, "squeezing" a 2.55:1 picture into a standard 35mm (1.37:1) frame. The film was always intended to be matted down to 2.35:1 and this was achieved by losing detail at the left (more) and right (less) of the picture. We have restored the film "open gate" at its entire shooting ratio...this version serves as a fascinating insight into both the composition of the original frame by cinematographer Michael Reed, and the overall production design (by Bernard Robinson)...
- Tall Stories: The Making of Rasputin The Mad Monk (24.21)
The first of two new extras on this release, what have by now become the 'usual suspects' talk about Hammer's take on the Rasputin myth. Those involved not mentioned heretofore include Rasputin authority Andrew Cook and actors Barbara Shelley and Francis Matthews. Christopher Lee is absent here, and missed.
- Brought to Book: Hammer Novelisations (14.32)
A new and very interesting look at the backstory behind the paperback versions of Hammer movies, featuring contributions from Mark Gatiss, Johnny Mains and Tim Lebbon, amongst others.
- Contiguous Audio commentary with Christopher Lee, Susan Farmer, Francis Matthews and Barbara Shelley
This commentary is from the 1997 release. It's tremendously lively, amusingly punctuated with differences of opinion and the raw edges that are increasingly hard to find in modern commentaries, and utterly dominated, as usual, by Lee, who is as erudite, interesting and indomitable as one would expect. Barbara Shelley is able to rein him back a little with (presumably) appeals to his gallantry, but Francis Matthews struggles to intervene. Lots of interesting background material on the real Rasputin and the controversies that continue to surround the legend.
- World of Hammer episode "Costumers" (24.47)
Light on ripping bodices, this episode of the Roy Skeggs TV series concentrates eschews Hammer's horror output for its surprisingly large catalogue of swashbucklers and period movies. Oliver Reed's narration is particularly amusing in the sections dealing with his own Hammer Howlers.
- Stills gallery (3.15)
Region B / Total Running Time: 92 min approx / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 / Video Codec: AVC 1080p / Audio Codec: LPCM / English Language
BFI / BBC
Ghost stories - Classic adaptations from the BBC (DVD)
Released 29th October 2012
A View From a Hill (Luke Watson, 2005) / Number 13 (Pier Wilkie, 2006)
As if the ghost-bestrewn spires of his Christmas ghost stories weren't adequately comforting and escapist in their own right, the BBC's celebrated adaptations from the macabre tales of Cambridge scholar and provost Montague Rhodes James have in themselves a glow of chilly nostalgia - for a generation that remembers the wonderfully minimalist early adaptations from the 1970s and 1980s.
These rather more recent outings from the James stable eschew any thought of contemporary relevance for that period-piece languor and Gothic sensibility which spawned it, and are all the better for it.
In A View From a Hill, Mark Letheren is the urban museum curator on a mission to appraise part of the dwindling estate of a country squire, only to discover that his host's binoculars seem to pick out some odd details in the local landscape which are not visible to the naked eye - such as a ghostly cathedral in an area of the countryside where criminals were once brutally executed. Here is a worthy example of 'distant horror', from the writer who practically invented the sub-genre.
Number 13 repeats the classic M.R. James formula, essentially 'travel horror', in which a guest in a foreign land or area (this adaptation moves the story's locale from Holland to England, presumably for budgetary and language reasons) comes up against entrenched forces of the supernatural. Greg Wise plays the professor who is trying to get some work done in an otherwise ordinary hotel which has no room No.13, for superstitious reasons. Except when it does...
Anyone who buys this particular release for completist reasons - though the entire series is released (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ghost-Stories-Christmas-5-DVD-set/dp/B008JZY7YS/) on the same date as this last volume - probably knows what they want from an M. R. James Christmas ghost story adaptation - chills and ambience from a lost pre-war Britain that may or may not have existed. They won't be disappointed; the only thing missing from this volume is the rosy hue of nostalgia.
Ghost stories for Christmas with Christopher Lee - 'Number 13' by M. R. James (2000)
Here the grand master of screen horror dons the mantle of the grand master of Christmas horror, gathering together a select group of Cambridge undergraduates for some traditionally ghostly chills on Christmas eve. This 30-minute telling of the original James story is punctuated with visual excerpts to break up the reaction shots of the spellbound students sipping at their sherry, but it is the magnificent voice and presence of Lee that transfixes the viewer.
This is also an interesting way to discover the differences in the 2006 adaptation and the rather more faithful telling that Lee provides. Atmospheric and very satisfying.
Wallenberg - A Hero's Story (US TV, NBC, 1985, dir. Lamont Johnson)
Released on 5th November 2012 (UK)
Wallenberg recounts the story the well-heeled Swedish gadabout who found himself in the cause of saving thousands of Jews in Nazi-dominated Hungary in 1944, only to vanish controversially at the conclusion of his work. Though over two decades the senior of his character, Richard Chamberlain brings charm and persuasiveness to the eponymous crusader, ably challenged by the reliably engaging Kenneth Colley (familiar to Star Wars fans as one of the empire's few middle-managers to survive the reign of Darth Vader, and Python-era fans as Michael Palin's boring chum in the Ripping Yarns tale The Testing Of Eric Olthwaite) as the Nazi officer determined to rid Budapest of Jews, however pointlessly in the face of impending German defeat.
Wallenberg was shown as a two-part mini-series from NBC in 1985, and struggles initially to rise above its issue-of-the-week provenance until the bar is raised by flourishes of wit and painful rumination on the rise of the Nazis and the nature of God in a world riven by evil.
The further Wallenberg wanders from its core characters, the less defined and interesting they become, but at that core is a solid tranches of actors committed to the material and supported by the intensity of the writing and the subject matter.
Though Wallenberg's current tagline is shamefully petty - Schindler saved hundreds. Wallenberg saved thousands - the original product is a rare insight into a curiously lesser-known character from the sadly small hero roster of those who struggled and risked their lives to fight against the tyranny and obscenity of the holocaust that was happening in their own time.
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