A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.
The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.
Hammer Films, the British studio that revived the classic horror film in the late 1950s with a lusty mix of gothic repression, lurid debauchery, sensationalistic set pieces, and bleeding color, struggled to keep up in seventies as rival studios became even more lurid and censorship standards brought nudity into mainstream cinema. The Hammer formula was getting tired, and so were the directors, so new blood (so to speak) was brought in.
Twins of Evil (CAV), the third film in what has been called Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy,” is scripted by Tudor Gates (who came to Hammer by way of Mario Bava) and directed by John Hough (who came from television, notably “The Avengers,” where he learned sleek style and visual wit).
It’s another twist on Sheridan Le Fanu’s female vampire story “Carmilla,” this one announced right in the title. Playboy centerfolds Madeleine and Mary Collinson play the titular twin orphans, beautiful young women who arrive from the cultural capital of Venice to the repressive, superstitious, northern European town of Karnstein. This isolated village is ruled by a debauched Count (Damien Thomas) and terrorized by a severe Puritan sect of witch hunters that calls themselves “The Brotherhood.” Led by the obsessive Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), who sees sin everywhere, they behave no better than a lynch mob: too terrified to confront the politically protected Count, the only true evil in the land, they target beautiful single women and burn them at the stake, ostensibly to end to evil killing the townsfolk but more clearly purging their own lust.