Book Review: Famous Monsters – Ack-ives, Vol. 2: The House of Hammer

I’ve been a Hammer Films aficionado since I was a wee little lad. Growing up, my granmum always had AMC and other old movie stations on. As the sun went down, often times there’d be some solid old school horror, whether it was the Universal Monsters stuff, Vincent Price movies or the Hammer films, which almost always starred Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing and usually the two of them together.

I used to videotape every Hammer film that came on television and I had a solid collection. As I got older, I ended up getting just about everything I could on DVD, completing the Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy film series. Not to mention everything in-between.

So I had to pick this up when I saw it in my local comic book shop.

This reads like a book but is in a magazine format. But it’s pretty thick and has a slew of good articles about the history of Hammer studios and all the great movies they put out.

It delves into their big franchises, which were the UK’s darker and more serious takes on the franchises originally created by Universal, most of which came from famous works of literature like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Hammer didn’t just stop there, though. They did other vampire movies, mummy movies, zombie movies, werewolf movies and just about everything else under the sun that could be tailored into a good horror story.

Famous Monsters did a fine job of painting the picture of who the creators behind Hammer were and why their work was so essential to the evolution of horror.

This is definitely worth checking out and it is plastered with lots of great photos from the film themselves, as well as behind the scenes stuff.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other classic horror magazines.

Film Review: Horror Express (1972)

Also known as: Pánico en el Transiberiano (original Spanish title), The Possessor (US re-issue title), Panic in the Trans-Siberian Train (alternate title)
Release Date: September 30th, 1972 (Sitges – Catalonian International Film Festival)
Directed by: Eugenio Martin
Written by: Arnaud d’Usseau, Julian Zimet
Music by: John Cacavas
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas, Silvia Tortosa

Granada Films, Benmar Productions, 91 Minutes

Review:

“The two of you together. That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster?” – Inspector Mirov

It’s been at least a decade since I’ve watched Horror Express but I really didn’t like it the few times I saw it, even though it is one of the 22 motion pictures that teamed up real life best friends Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It also features another one of my favorite actors, Telly Savalas.

I’m not sure why I wasn’t a fan of it, as I liked it this time around but maybe I’m older, more mature, have a better palate and thought that this thing was a bit of a fine wine with just the right amount of cheese to accompany it.

I think that one of the reason’s I never liked it was due to the fact that all the prints and releases of this film are in pretty poor quality. I hope it gets a proper remaster, at some point. But I was able to not let that bother me this time, as I got caught up in the story, most of which I hadn’t remembered other than this being a mummy on a train movie.

There’s a weird twist though, this mummy is actually an alien and he has this power where he uses his glowing eyes to peer through his victims’ eyes and murder them with some sort of brain crushing ability. However, the alien mummy has to kill people to regain his form and his strength but he also can control them like an undead army.

This movie feels like a mix between Agatha Christie’s Murder On the Orient Express and a classic Hammer horror film. But it looks more like the ’70s visual style of an Amicus production. Strangely, this is neither a Hammer or Amicus film but it was able to lure in the talents of Lee and Cushing.

I liked the setting and how the environment was used so well. A train kind of limits what one can do in a horror movie but it never wrecked the plot here and it actually made you feel just as confined as the characters.

The movie uses miniatures for the exterior train shots but they come off really well. That could be due to the poor quality of the print hiding the imperfections but even the big finale, which sees part of the train go over a cliff was pulled off nicely.

I’m glad that I revisited this. I didn’t expect to actually dig it as much as I did this time but sometimes you can revisit something you weren’t fond of and see something new or worthwhile that you may have missed before.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Amicus and Hammer Films of the early ’70s, especially those featuring Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee.

Film Review: The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)

Also known as: Sax Rohmer’s The Castle of Fu Manchu (full title), Assignment Istanbul, Fu Manchu’s Castle, The Torture Chamber of Fu Manchu (alternate titles), Le château de Fu Manchu (France)
Release Date: May 30th, 1969 (Germany)
Directed by: Jess Franco
Written by: Manfred Barthel
Based on: characters by Sax Rohmer
Music by: Carlos Camilleri, Malcomb Shelby
Cast: Christopher Lee, Richard Greene, Howard Marion-Crawford, Gunther Stoll, Rosalba Neri, Maria Perschy, Jose Manuel Martin

Balcázar Producciones Cinematográficas, Terra-Filmkunst, Italian International Films, 92 Minutes

Review:

“The formula. With this I can control all things – and all men.” – Fu Manchu

I love Christopher Lee but I have never liked his Fu Manchu movies. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen all five of them and this is the only one I’ve seen more than once and that’s simply because it is featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This is the fifth and final film and it is said to be the worst one. From my experience with some of the others, none of them are good. But this one, in particular, is dreadfully boring and pretty hard to follow.

Full disclosure, I’m not sure if it’s hard to follow due to it being a clusterfuck of bad, nonsensical writing or because it was a real challenge to pay attention and not doze off to sleep or find myself daydreaming for spans of twenty minutes. I’d say that it’s all of the above.

Christopher Lee can usually carry movies, even bad ones. While he is the brightest spot, by far, in this picture, it’s not enough to draw you in or make you care. I think that even Lee was bored with these movies by this point. I don’t want to say that he dialed it in but this was probably just a paycheck and a way to work for a few weeks between Hammer or Amicus productions.

I’ve never been a big fan of the Fu Manchu character anyway, so I don’t have the same sort of enthusiasm for these movies as I do the DraculaFrankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Mummy and other classic horror and literary characters he’s made movies about.

This film is a complete waste of time unless you are an MST3K completist and haven’t yet seen the episode with this mind numbing dud.

Rating: 3/10
Pairs well with: the other Fu Manchu movies with Christopher Lee but none of them are very good.

Film Review: The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

Also known as: Blood Zone (Japan English title), Method for Murder, Waxworks, Sweets to the Sweet, The Cloak (segment titles)
Release Date: February 21st, 1971 (UK)
Directed by: Peter Duffell
Written by: Robert Bloch, Russ Jones
Music by: Michael Dress
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Denholm Elliot, Ingrid Pitt, Jon Pertwee, Joss Ackland, Nyree Dawn Porter

Amicus Productions, Cinerama Releasing Corporation, 102 Minutes

Review:

“That’s what’s wrong with the present day horrorfilms. There’s no realism. Not like the old ones, the great ones. Frankenstein. Phantom of the Opera. Dracula – the one with Bela Lugosi of course, not this new fellow.” – Paul Henderson

I know that I’ve stated a few times before that I’m not a big fan of anthologies but sometimes there are those rare exceptions like Creepshow. Well, this is one of those rare exceptions.

Amicus is often times confused with Hammer Films, as they were another British studio that made horror pictures in the same era and used a lot of the same stars. They did have a tendency to make a lot of anthology pictures though, where Hammer focused more on classic monsters in the same vein as the Universal Pictures horror films of the ’30s and ’40s.

This one might be the best of Amicus’ horror anthologies, which are really hit or miss for me.

love that we get to see Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in another film, which happened over twenty times in their careers. They don’t share screen time here, unfortunately, as both men star in different stories within this anthology framework. But each is the star of their own segment.

Additionally, we get to see a segment starring Denholm Elliot a.k.a. Marcus Brody of Indiana Jones fame, as well as Jon Pertwee, most famous for playing the third incarnation of the Doctor on Doctor Who. It doesn’t stop there though, as we also get to enjoy the wonderful Ingrid Pitt, a true British scream queen, and Joss Ackland, who I love in just about everything.

While this stacked cast does a lot to make this film work and to legitimize it in a sea of horror from the era, it is the stories and the actual connection that they have that makes this a really enjoyable feature.

This is a small and confined feeling film, as just about every scene takes place in the same house. Each segment focuses on a different owner of the house and how this haunted property finds a way to effect them and bring out their fear.

We have a story about a writer going insane, seeing his imagined killer coming to life. We then get a story that involves a wax recreation of a dead love. Then there is one about a young girl that is a witch who terrorizes her overbearing father. And finally, we get my favorite segment that sees a legendary horror actor come into possession of a mystical cloak that turns the wearer into an actual vampire. There is also a chopped up segment that strings all the tales together.

I wouldn’t say that this is the best horror film put out by Amicus but it is the best one I’ve seen in awhile. That being said, it is in the upper echelon of their pictures and pretty damn enjoyable all around.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other British horror films from Amicus and Hammer from the late ’60s/early ’70s.

Film Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Release Date: December 1st, 2003 (Wellington, New Zealand premiere)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Based on: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
Music by: Howard Shore
Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Miranda Otto, Bernard Hill, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee (Extended Edition only), Brad Dourif (Extended Edition only), Bruce Spence (Extended Edition only), Sean Bean (Extended Edition only)

New Line Cinema, WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company, 201 Minutes, 254 Minutes (DVD Extended Edition), 263 Minutes (Blu-ray Extended Edition), 192 Minutes (DVD Widescreen Edition)

Review:

“Hold your ground, hold your ground! Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!” – Aragorn

Having taken a break from seeing this for several years helped me look at this film, and the two before it, much more objectively. I loved this film when it came out and I watched the Extended Editions of all three films almost monthly for a few years. But I actually haven’t seen this now since before the first Hobbit movie came out in 2012.

My biggest takeaway from seeing it now is that this is a perfect film, at least in the form of the Extended Edition. There’s nothing I would change, add or take away from it. It is a great adaptation that took a few liberties but all those liberties worked and made this a richer story in a cinematic sense.

The acting is superb and everyone in this film was at the top of their game. But really, there are two actors who carried this film, Viggo Mortensen and Sean Astin. Mortensen was the perfect choice for Aragorn and if you aren’t willing to follow him into battle after watching this movie, you might be dead inside.

However, Sean Astin is the real star of this chapter in the franchise. As Samwise Gamgee, he is the true hero that sees things through. When Frodo, the one chosen to bear the burden of the ring is emotionally and physically drained, it is Sam who carries on, getting Frodo to the finish line by literally carrying him on his back up a flaming volcano. It’s one of the most badass and touching moments in motion picture history and really, all the credit has to go to Astin for just how damn good he was in this film. Where the hell was the Oscar nomination? I know that this was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won all eleven but it was short one for Astin’s performance.

I also can’t deny the greatness that was Ian McKellen’s Gandalf in this chapter.

The special effects are still top notch and at the time that this came out, this film had the best effects of all-time. Everything was great over the course of all three movies but the grandiose scale of this epic picture called for a massive amount of effects work. Everything was executed masterfully and it’s almost unbelievable to think that these movies came out just a year apart from each other.

This is a story about friendship, honor and loyalty and it’s hard to think of a better example of these things in any other film. The Return of the King knocks it out of the park in that regard and is pretty inspirational because of it. It taps into the best qualities of human nature, overcomes immense adversity and sees hope and goodness succeed in the face of enormous and seemingly unconquerable darkness.

Again, The Return of the King is a pillar of perfection. It’s so good that I wish I could give it an 11 out of 10 rating.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the other two Lord of the Rings films, as well as The Hobbit trilogy.

Film Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Release Date: December 5th, 2002 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, Peter Jackson
Based on: The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
Music by: Howard Shore
Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean (Extended Edition), Andy Serkis, David Wenham, Brad Dourif, Karl Urban, Miranda Otto, Bernard Hill

New Line Cinema, WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company, 179 Minutes, 235 Minutes (DVD Extended Edition), 228 Minutes (Blu-ray Extended Edition), 171 Minutes (DVD Widescreen Edition)

Review:

“From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak I fought with the Balrog of Morgoth… Until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountain side… Darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time… The stars wheeled overhead, and every day was as long as a life age of the earth… But it was not the end. I felt life in me again. I’ve been sent back until my task is done.” – Gandalf

I have seen all of these movies probably a dozen times but it has been several years now since revisiting them. From memory, I always thought of The Two Towers as the weakest of the trilogy but it is still a masterpiece and a perfect film for what it is: a bridge between the beginning and the end.

It also ups the ante quite a bit and is more epic in scale, as the two final battles alone are bigger than anything we saw in the first film, apart from the intro that showed the fall of Sauron millennia earlier.

But, really, the climax to this motion picture is absolutely amazing. If you are a fan of epic battles, this does not disappoint. If you are a fan of fantasy, this should definitely satisfy your palate.

All the key players are back and that includes Sean Bean’s Boromir, who died in the previous movie. Granted, he is only in a couple of flashbacks in the Extended Edition but it’s great to see him and to get more context in regards to how Gondor is run and the relationship between Boromir, Faramir and their father.

The return of Gandalf and the shift in power away from Saruman and to him is a really great moment that helps turn the tide towards the light. Ian McKellan was superb and his character’s evolution was incredible. The continuation of his battle with the Balrog is one of my favorite cinematic moments of all-time.

It is Viggo Mortensen who steals the show, however. While he was great in the first picture and was perfectly cast, he truly shines here and anyone watching this film would want to follow him, which is great considering what his role is in the goings on of Middle Earth and how this series ends in the following film.

If you are going to watch these films, you should always watch the Extended Editions, as they provide more story, better context and a heftier helping of the meat and potatoes. The Extended Edition of The Two Towers offers a lot of extra footage that isn’t in the original theatrical version. It isn’t so much that it makes it a different film but it certainly makes it a better one.

The Two Towers is perfect. It is a masterpiece like the other two pictures in the trilogy. It is the weakest, sure, but I’d rather be the weakest film in this trilogy than the best film in the Transformers series.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: the other two Lord of the Rings films, as well as The Hobbit trilogy.

Film Review: The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)

Release Date: December 14th, 1974 (Japan)
Directed by: Guy Hamilton
Written by: Richard Maibaum, Tom Mankiewicz
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: John Barry
Cast: Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Maud Adams, Hervé Villechaize, Clifton James, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn

Eon Productions, United Artists, 125 Minutes

Review:

“A duel between titans. My golden gun against your Walther PPK. Each of us with a 50-50 chance.” – Francisco Scaramanga

This is the last of the pre-Daniel Craig era James Bond pictures for me to review. And well, I saved one of my favorites for last.

Why do I love this one so much? Well, it has the legendary Christopher Lee as the villain and also features Hervé Villechaize and Britt Ekland, who was one of those early crushes I had as a young kid discovering movies. But I also love the story and the locations in this film. Plus, we even get to see Sheriff J.W. Pepper one more time but sadly for the last time.

As grandiose as James Bond movies are, and this one still lives up to that, the actual threat is smaller, more intimate and very personal. Essentially, James is lured into a duel: one on one, man to man, for all the marbles if those marbles are your own mortality. And there really was no one greater than Christopher Lee to play the role of Francisco Scaramanga, the anti-Bond with his iron sights aimed at Britain’s greatest spy.

Scaramanga was also assisted by Nick Nack, played by the tiny Frenchman Hervé Villechaize, who is most famous for his role on Fantasy Island. Nick Nack was a sinister little shit and amusing in every scene he was in. In the end, his fate is pretty hilarious.

The film spends a lot of time in Asia but primarily features Thailand, which is just a beautiful country. The sights are nice, the action is great and seeing Sheriff Pepper stumble through an exotic land was entertaining.

I loved the opening of this film and it’s one of my favorite in the series, as it sees a hired hitman trying to kill Scaramanga in his maze. The maze was cool and it would return in the climax of the film for the duel between Bond and Scaramanga. I liked the very ’70s style of it and it was inventive and clever and something we hadn’t seen in a Bond film up to this point.

I’d hate to say that Lee really steals the show here but this is very much his movie more than it is Roger Moore’s. Moore is still fantastic in all the ways that make him great but in this film, Lee really proved that he was a major player and should be given more roles of this caliber. At this point, he was typecast as just a horror actor but this showcased his talents at a higher, more mainstream level. He would eventually get other major mainstream roles again but not until the early ’00s, thirty years later, with the roles of Count Dooku in the Stars Wars prequels and Saruman in The Lords of the Rings trilogy. But I doubt Lee would complain, as he loved his horror career and still worked on over 200 pictures.

The Man With the Golden Gun is just a fun, exciting film and it kind of grounds James Bond after the voodoo shenanigans of Live and Let Die. It’s simple, effective and just a good movie.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: The other Roger Moore James Bond movies.