It seemed almost reasonable, in retrospect, to assume that Christopher Lee would live forever. Even into his early 90s, he kept working, his charisma and presence hiding his progressing physical deterioration. (Personal appearances were another matter: I was shocked how frail he appeared while accepting an honorary BAFTA.) But nothing is eternal, not even the One True Dracula (with apologies to Bela Lugosi, Gary Oldman, Klaus Kinski, Frank Langella, Jack Palance…), and so it was that Sir Christopher passed away early last month.
It was only fitting, then, that the latest Terror in the Aisles–and the first proper TitA to be held in nearly two years–pay tribute to the horror icon, with a triple feature of Horror of Dracula, Raw Meat (aka Death Line), and The Wicker Man, held at the Patio Theater on July 25.
Trailers and shorts
Before the films, of course, we had some short films and trailers.
Trailer: Hobo with a Trashcan
I had a hard time understanding the dialog in this when I saw it at the theater, so I’m glad I found it on YouTube. It looks interesting. It also looks very…backyard, shall I say. The finished product could be good, or it could be a repeat of Slices of Life. (Or Three Slices of Life, or whatever.)
Porcelain (Emily Jacobs)
I had problems with this one’s dialog as well. I feel bad for marking it down because of it, because I suspect the filmmakers don’t have the equipment or expertise to mix and master the audio to sound good in a theater. (Plus, more than likely the video will be uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo and that’s where it will get most of its exposure. In that environment it will sound perfectly fine.)
But I do have to admit I had a bit of a problem following the story, which seems to be about a woman who freaks out and starts collecting porcelain dolls, which she believes comes to life, and of course they do; and I couldn’t really judge the performances. So I was left with the visuals, which I’m sure were meant to look cheesy. I don’t think I got the whole experience.
On the other hand, scene from May! Emily Jacobs certainly has excellent taste.
Lovesick Teenage Cyclops Pineapple (Harriet Mishoulam)
Exactly what it says on the tin. It’s only a minute long, and doesn’t attempt to tell a story. I expect it’s more of a piece of video art. As art, I didn’t really engage with it, but the basic idea is endearingly weird enough to justify its existence.
Gelato Giallo (Bryan Martinez)
Another exercise in giallo style for those of you who can’t get enough of light shone through primary-colored filters and extreme close-ups of leather-gloved hands holding straight razors. It’s amusing enough to work, and work well, but I think the novelty of the neo-giallo trend has died down for me a bit.
Classic film trailers
Question: When do you show a trailer for a Bond movie at a Movieside event? Answer: When it’s The Man with the Golden Gun, which starred Christopher Lee!
Next there was a clip of Sir Christopher hosting Saturday Night Live in the late ’70s (I think 1978 to be specific), making fun of his reputation and explaining why he turned down roles in movies such as Frankenstein Shuns the Wolf Man and Dr. Terror’s House of Pancakes. In the original SNL episode, he did this to introduce fake trailers starring his own self, including (if I recall correctly) Dr. Jeckyll and Mister Rogers, but tonight it led into real trailers: Corridors of Blood, The Skull, Castle of the Living Dead, and Horror Express.
Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958)
This is one of my favorite Dracula adaptations, partially because Lee and Peter Cushing are so damn awesome in it, partially because visually it’s the archetypal Hammer period horror, but mostly because Jimmy Sangster and Terence Fisher dispose of Jonathan Harker at the end of the first act, passing the juvenile second-fiddle duties to Michael Gough’s Arthur Holmwood and promoting Van Helsing to lead hero status.
Other than that, I wrote a review in 2012 that sums up most of what I have to say about it.
Raw Meat (aka Death Line) (Gary Sherman, 1973)
This is the only film on the slate I hadn’t seen. It’s pretty good, certainly a lot grosser than I had expected for a low-budget-but-not-backyard horror film of the era. Donald Sutherland is hilarious as the world’s most sarcastic, tea-obsessed police detective, and director Gary Sherman slips in some social commentary. Apparently it’s a metaphor for racism, and how the authorities and the media only care about murder when it can be sensationalized: a greengrocer stays missing, someone says at one point, but disappear a cabinet minister and you get an inquiry.
The one problem I had with it is that it’s a bit too slow, including one first-person tracking shot, a tour of the antagonist’s home in the disused Tube tunnels, that seems to last about 10 minutes and has no intelligible dialog. Remember, I’m the guy who defended that scene in Funny Games, which tells you how much tolerance I normally have for this sort of thing.
Q&A with director Gary Sherman
Incidentally, Christopher Lee only has one scene in the film, because…
…he wasn’t originally meant to be in it. According to Sherman, Lee had gotten wind that Pleasance was going to be in the film and contacted the production office asking for a role…specifically one with Pleasance, whom he’d never worked with before.
Other fun stories: Sherman was friends with both Lee and Alice Cooper, and fixed the two up on a golf date. (If you know anything about Alice Cooper outside his music, you know he’s an avid golfer.) Sherman later tried to make a picture starring Lee as Dracula, passing the mantle on to his son, who would have been played by Cooper. But Lee, as much as he’d liked the script, had committed to never playing Dracula again.
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, significant portions of the British youth culture went mad for pastoralism and the Old Ways. These were the years of Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, an era when a guy could go around calling himself Steve Peregrine Took and join a band called Tyrannosaurus Rex, and record an album called My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair, but Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows and people actually took them seriously. The counterculture discovered Tolkien and the popularity of The Lord of the Rings stems from this point. These were the British equivalent of hippies.
It didn’t last forever. Steve Peregrine Took left Tyrannosaurus Rex, and they changed their name to T. Rex and became the band we remember them being. The Wicker Man comes right at the tail-end of this era, and this context explains what the film meant at the time and why it often seems so odd today.
Luckily, one of its strengths is that it works on several levels. It’s not a simple criticism of Christianity: Howie might be a self-righteous prig, but he’s emphatically not a hypocrite. Similarly, its attitude towards the retro-pagans of Summerisle remains ambiguous to the end. (Did the sacrifice actually work?) I like to see it as an examination of how religious fervor can be used to control populations, and how dogma can be used to justify whatever convenient atrocity you care to commit.
Of course, the reason it works is because of the performances: obviously Lee as the not-conventionally-villainous Lord Summerisle, Edward Woodward as the obnoxious but earnest Howie, and a host of supporting players including two of my all-time favorites, Ingrid Pitt and Aubrey Morris (the latter of whom passed away a couple weeks ago). It’s a classic, if a peculiar and eccentric one.