Apr 05 2010

These Are the Damned films featured in “The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films”

[feel free to mentally add your own punctuation to the headline, but I kind of like it the way it reads]

The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.

These Are the Damned

These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit neatly together but add up to a brilliant structure.

It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.

Alexander Knox talks to his children

Adapted by Evan Jones (who also scripted Eva and Modesty Blaise for Losey) from the novel Children of Light by H.L. Lawrence, it has very clear echoes of the earlier Village of the Damned with a more modern nuclear angle and adult approach. And it’s an anomaly in the Hammer catalogue, with its emotional restraint and art-film aspirations. The gothic horrors were full of sex and lust but the Simon’s unsavory interest in Joan, who is easily less than half his age, and the creepy possessiveness of King’s obsessive control over little-sister Joan are far more psychologically complicated and discomforting and Losey isn’t about to offer any reassurance on that score. Next to the crisply efficient and coolly fatal manner of Bernard, the arrogance and lust of Simon and the simmering rage of King are purely human, yet those emotional complications make them vulnerable once they are adopted by the kids and thrust into a whole new world of concerns. Bernard is an fascinating dichotomy, with an authentic paternal affection for the kids while he ruthlessly protects the project’s secrecy. The children are starved for real human contact, and the reality comes as a shock: humans are warm and these kids are cold as ice. But their separation from human society is more than simply a national secret. It’s a matter of survival: these sweet British kids will inadvertently kill anyone who comes into extended contact with their irradiated bodies. They are doomed to a life isolation from the rest of society and Losey plays up the alienated atmosphere not just of the children’s high-tech dungeon (and the eerie scenes of technicians wandering through the schoolrooms and play spaces in radiation suits) but the entire social world. The coldly observed film ends with an emotionally stifled tragedy and a resigned fatalism that matches Bernard’s philosophy: the atomic kids are the future of the world doomed by a human race programming its own extinction. It’s a perfectly pitched portrait that opens with punk nihilism of British toughs swaggering through the streets and ends on the cold fatalism of the military hovering over our heroes, just waiting for their inevitable deaths and the subsequent clean-up.

The disc is restored to its full 96-minute running time and beautifully mastered; Arthur Grant’s cool, smooth B&W cinematography looks beautiful and creates a perfectly chilly emotional atmosphere that only gets chillier once it hits the caves.

Guy Green’s The Snorkel (1958) is an awkward title to a smartly-tuned little murder thriller, a locked-room mystery that gives the twist away in the opening scene (and in the title, for that matter) and then eases into a battle of wits between the smooth killer and his stepdaughter, who is convinced he killed her mother but needs the evidence to prove it. It’s modest in scope and stylistically restrained, not particularly suspenseful but well developed. Green observes the details of each scheme in great detail and still manages to withhold surprises for the inevitable second go round, with schoolgirl Candy (Mandy Miller, a spunky Haley Mills ringer) going Nancy Drew on her silky stepfather Paul (Peter van Eyck), who is already sidling up to Candy’s older friend and unofficial governess Jean (Betta St. John). The film, co-scripted by Hammer’s most prolific house scribe, Jimmy Sangster, from a story by Italian genre specialist Antonio Margheriti (under his western pseudonym Anthony Dawson), is a bit ungainly in both Candy’s headlong leap into junior detective and the adult response to her accusations. Peter van Eyck delivers faux-sincerity with great conviction but the rest of the adult cast falls into familiar types and display some questionable perspectives on mental illness. But it’s well plotted and nicely constructed and it builds to a marvelously satisfying twist of savage poetic justice. Too bad Hammer didn’t have the nerve to see it through and really give the film and its teenage heroine a coldly sinister twist, but the coda (and the sudden appearance of a lighthearted musical cue that tell us all is well) hardly wipes away the grim scene before it. One final note: I have a weakness for films where characters get ideas from other films and this one is especially nifty. Candy figures out Paul’s method when she glances out her window and sees a giant movie poster with a scuba diver plastered on the wall opposite. For the record, it’s a poster for the Louis Malle/Jacques Cousteau documentary The Silent World.

Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1960) is another potentially exploitative project, about an old man child molester in a small town protected by a rich son and a community too scared of reprisals to speak up, brought to the screen with seriousness and sensitivity. Based on a stage play and set (for no discernable reason) in a small town in Canada, it’s startlingly adult in subject matter and the suggestive in style, and it startles the audience from the very first scenes. The young daughter of the town’s new school principal, Peter Carter (Patrick Allen), gives a matter-of-fact account of her day, which ended with her and her friend dancing naked for the elder Mr. Olderberry (Felix Aylmer, looking not so much threatening as unnervingly excited as he watches the girls play from on high). She’s not all that troubled by this bit of play. The parents are, understandably, a little more alarmed. The response of the community when Peter reports it to the police and presses charges is even more alarming. This is no isolated incident but no one wants to challenge the Olderberry family, which owns the local industry and employs most of the town, and the police press him to simply drop the complaint: “Nobody was hurt, were they?”  The film’s point of a community in denial at the expense of their children’s safety is blunt but the portrait is more nuanced  than you might think. The hostility directed at Peter and his family is not overt, more a show of distancing themselves from this outsiders upsetting the town’s unspoken contract with Olderberry family. It falls somewhere between passively enabling a child molester (so long as he refrains from actually hurting them) and a Shirley Jackson story playing out in the modern world, where the nervous citizens of a small town sacrifice the innocence of their young girls in a kind of lottery in exchange for job security and just hope their number doesn’t come up.

The original British title to "Never Take Candy From a Stranger"

There’s no sensationalism in the presentation and Cyril Frankel maintains a strong, serious attitude to the subject and to the drama. The final act tightens down the tension as the old man’s actions finally rouse the citizens to action and the stakes—young girls in peril—makes the situation far more nerve-wracking than your usual horror film. Yet Frankel leaves the details offscreen, suggested rather than shown. The most brutal scene of the film is the verbal bullying of a little girl witness by the defense attorney while the judge simply stands by, another authority figure swayed by the power of the Olderberry family. Given such an atmosphere of willful denial and social intimidation, there’s not much room for a happy ending.

Peter Cushing is a Scrooge of a bank manager in Cash on Demand (1961), a mix of heist film, crime thriller battle of wits and modern day A Christmas Carol. André Morell, who played Watson to Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles a couple of years earlier, is the mastermind and one-man criminal gang who manipulates efficient and petty bank manager Fordyce (Cushing), a pinched, precise, fastidious man who does everything by the book and keeps his distance from the employees. Directed by Quentin Lawrence and based on a television film he had directed earlier, the entire film is kept to a couple of sets and a small, contained cast, and the controlled microcosm is part of what makes it work, as the threats are all outside the walls, unseen and only heard over a phone line or described by the charmingly commanding Morell. The rest is a matter of intimidation, suggestion and precise organization. It wraps up a little too neatly in terms of benevolence out of the blue but it’s still satisfying as a modest little heist mindgame.

The set is filled out by Val Guest’s Stop Me Before I Kill! (aka The Full Treatment, 1960), a psychothriller with Claude Dauphin as a doctor who tries to drive his patient mad, and Maniac (1963), a Jimmy Sangster-scripted thriller with Donald Houston as an insane killer whose weapon of choice is an acetylene torch.. The three-discs are stacked on a single spindle in the case, a design unique to Sony that I still dislike, as it is prone to scratching the vulnerable surfaces of the discs.

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