Retro Review: The Astrologer

An accidental amateur masterpiece… Rating N/A

Some bad movies are just, well, bad. Others are bad, but fun to watch. Then there is that special category of film which exhibits such disregard for the conventions of cinema that it falls down a metaphorical rabbit-hole and comes out the other side as, if not exactly a good movie, then the sort of cinematic experience which is uniquely compelling, drawing certain cult-like swarms of weirdoes to seek them out. You know the kinds of movies I’m talking about: The RoomManos: The Hands of Fate, After Last SeasonTroll 2. Add to that Craig Denney’s 1976 magnum opus and sole filmmaking effort, The Astrologer.

The film stars Denney as one “Craig Marcus Alexander,” following him through his youth as a street urchin and pickpocket, to his young adulthood as a fortune-teller at a carnival, to his eventual recruitment by a ring of jewel thieves. After two stints as a guest of the Kenyan correctional system, he smuggles a small fortune in gemstones out of Africa. Once he shakes the shady characters vying to relieve him of his bounty, he returns to California a millionaire, ready to pursue his lifelong dream: build a reputation as the world’s foremost astrologer and build a media empire. And that’s just the first thirty minutes of the film.

No written synopsis of The Astrologer can prepare the viewer for the sheer disregard for the basic fundamentals of film grammar Denney exhibits. He ruthlessly repeals the laws of cause and effect. Alexander’s rise and fall takes place over the course of months, but exposition fails to clarify which months, or what order they go in. Mood, tone, and even genre conventions change seemingly at whim: one minute, the film presents a Papillon-style examination of brutal prison conditions; the next, it’s high adventure in the jungle, like an Indiana Jones movie directed by Christopher Mihm. Denney crassly presses two songs and most of the orchestral bits from the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed into service as incidental music. “I’m going to put those tropicalists where they belong: out of business!” Alexander says at one point, as if that were a thing a real person would actually say, even in the mid-’70s.

Sure, I can describe in mere words the restaurant argument scene—the slow motion, the cuts perfectly timed to match the dramatic bits of Procol Harum’s “Grand Hotel”—but I can’t ever come close to conveying the actual emotional resonance of that sequence.

It becomes clear that The Astrologer is the work of a man who has no idea what the hell he’s doing, other than taking money and turning it into whatever he thought the movie was going to be. Yet Denney’s amateur status makes the film more, not less, riveting. Is it good or bad? The question’s moot.

Sadly, it has never seen a home-video release in any format and is unlikely to ever do so, apparently due to music-licensing costs. Your only option is to pray that the American Genre Film Archive brings it to a theater near you sometime during your lifetime. If it does, I sincerely urge you not to miss it.

Starring Craig Denney, Darrien Earle, Arthyr Chadbourne. Directed by Craig Denney. 96 minutes, 1976.

Retro Review: The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Bowie we see in this weird sci-fi film is more genuine than any other persona he’d adopt over the course of his career.

United Kingdom. Directed by Nicolas Roeg, 1976. Starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Bernie Casey. 139 minutes. 7/10

David Bowie scored his first hit single in 1969: “Space Oddity,” in which Major Tom flies to space and doesn’t come back. Over the next few years, Bowie would continue in an overtly science-fiction-inflected vein, creating characters like Ziggy Stardust and developing a musical version of 1984 (eventually aborted). By the mid-’70s, you could probably be forgiven for assuming he actually did come from another planet. The logical progression of his image would then be to play an alien in a movie; with his unnatural hair coloring, emaciated frame, angular, androgynous features, and permanently dilated right eye, he certainly looked the part.

Legend posits many actors either considered or approached to play the title role in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth: Peter O’Toole, Robert Redford, Mick Jagger, even author Michael Crichton (Roeg’s first choice). In retrospect, however, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton–an alien from a dying, war-scarred planet who comes to Earth in a desperate bid to save his people, only to become tempted and corrupted by the vices of humanity (alcohol, television, and sex: note how Newton’s true form lacks genitals and most orifices)–could only be played by David Bowie.

In a sense, the film could serve as a thinly veiled biography of Bowie, who’d become rich and famous seemingly overnight, who possessed a lucrative brilliance…and who also developed an addiction to cocaine. (Indeed, Tevis later came to realize that the story served as a metaphor for his alcoholism.) Bowie approaches the role with a specific naïveté, that of the artist who wants to act but has no real idea how to go about it. Constantly zonked out on nose candy, able to interact with the world around him but not feeling part of it, the otherworldly alienation that Bowie/Newton exhibits isn’t an act.

An auteur who made his bones under Roger Corman and came into his own as a filmmaker in the wake of the French New Wave, Roeg complements Bowie’s performance (or lack thereof) with the perfect aesthetic sense and set of visuals. Having perfected the art of hazy, hypnotic, mildly psychedelic atmospherics with 1971’s Walkabout, he gives the flashbacks to Newton’s home planet a sense of having been filmed on location after the apocalypse. He gives the film a steady, deliberate pace, always keeping emotional distance from the characters even in their passionate moments.

Roeg’s distinct, singular vision of the film has its drawbacks. Candy Clark, playing a hotel housekeeper who becomes Newton’s lover, careens wildly between “embarrassing” and “atrocious.” Roeg often employs symbolism too obscure for its own good, and occasionally falls prey to self-indulgence. Most notably, at nearly two and a half hours, the film is at least 30 minutes too long, and particularly drags during its final act.

Yet, ultimately, The Man Who Fell to Earth serves as an important document of what David Bowie represented, and–perhaps inadvertently–who he actually was during this stage of his career. Bowie contained multitudes–Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Goblin King, the sophisticated crooner of Let’s Dance–yet in a very real sense, the Bowie we see in this weird sci-fi film is more genuine than any other persona he’d adopt over the course of his career.

R.I.P. David Bowie (David Robert Jones) 1947-2016

The Man Who Fell to Earth poster

Retro Review: Over the Edge

A seminal teen drama.

United States. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, 1979. Starring Michael Kramer, Matt Dillon, Pamela Ludwig. 95 minutes.

Welcome to New Granada, the planned community of the future, bringing twentieth-century European living to the southwestern desert. It’s a great place to live, if you’re an adult. However, one-quarter of New Granada’s residents are aged 15 or younger, and they’re bored off their asses. They live in the middle of nowhere. The project to build a bowling alley, roller rink, and drive-in theater was canceled, and the primary meeting-place for the local youth is a prefab aluminum building laughingly called a recreation center.

Over the Edge lays out its central thesis early: when 25% of a community’s population has no freedom, nothing to occupy its time, and doesn’t even want to be there, you have a recipe for disaster. Deprived of anything constructive to do, the kids turn to vandalism, drug abuse, rebellion and violence. The film starts with two teenagers shooting out the window of a passing police cruiser and ends with a riot during a PTA meeting.

Yet while the kids aren’t the heroes of the piece, they’re not exactly villains, either. It’s very clear that the Powers that Be are more interested in property values and real-estate development than in making sure their community is a great place for all its residents to live, and not just the ones who belong to demographic minorities. This is best demonstrated about halfway through the film, where an out-of-state developer tells New Granada’s de facto leader, “You were in such a hopped-up hurry to leave the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you were trying to get away from.”

In addition, the kids are extremely likable, given that they’re a bunch of snot-nosed punks. Hidden inside Over the Edge is a deft and poignant coming-of-age story, as protagonist Carl Willet (Michael Kramer) navigates the treacherous and sometimes violent waters of adolescence: fitting in, his first crush, and so forth. His best friend is Richie White (an impossibly young-seeming Matt Dillon), a shady character who boasts about being labeled “incorrigible” by the authorities and whose motto (also the film’s signature line) is “A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.” It’s an overt threat but also an implied promise of loyalty: all the kids have is each other, so they need to stick together.

Director Jonathan Kaplan takes a no-frills approach that borders on documentary or verité, a feeling reinforced by a lack of big names in the adult ensemble and experienced actors amongst the teens. (Not only does Dillon make his screen début here, he also apparently made his acting début as well.) Far from hurting the performances, it actually helps them by stripping away the façade of character, as if the kids are playing themselves.

Over the Edge is a seminal teen drama, less romanticized and idealistic than the subgenre tends to produce but more realistic and relatable. And if you don’t think the film’s themes have application outside its cast of privileged white youth, then you haven’t been paying attention to the news coming out of Baltimore recently.

OVER THE EDGE

Retro Review: Time After Time

H.G. Wells really is a time traveler who chases Jack the Ripper into the future in this thinking person’s adventure tale.

United States. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, 1979. Starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen. 112 minutes.

“What if H.G. Wells really was a time traveler?” is a logical question and one that many narrative works have sought to explore. With Time After Time, writer/director Nicholas Meyer goes one step further and asks, “What if H.G. Wells really was a time traveler…and he chased Jack the Ripper into the future?” Malcolm McDowell plays Wells and David Warner plays his (wholly fictional) friend Dr. John Stevenson, an eminent surgeon who steals Wells’s time machine and uses it to escape when the police discover he’s really the Ripper. When the machine returns to Wells’s lab without its passenger, he decides he has no other choice to follow the mad doctor and stop him–a journey which leads him to San Francisco in the year 1979.

Meyer is best known for his association with the Star Trek movies based on the original series, particularly The Wrath of Khan. Keeping that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that he produced a thoughtful work imbued with a strong humanist point of view. The historical Wells was a utopian socialist, and so is this fictional counterpart; unapologetically so, in fact. He goes into the future assuming the human race will build its perfect society within four generations, but humanity disappoints by improving its efficiency with warfare and violence. By contrast, Stevenson feels more at home in the new age than in his own time. Meyer, McDowell and Warner lay out the differences between the characters in a chilling sequence about halfway through the film.

The film maintains the consistent tone of a rollicking adventure yarn, neither tipping too far in the direction of “too light-hearted” or “too dark” despite a number of elements which must have bordered on camp even in 1979. (Look, it’s Jack the Ripper, wearing a leisure suit and stalking his victims in a disco!) Unfortunately, the more science-fiction-oriented elements of the script don’t hold up to scrutiny; several elements of the time machine’s operation are obvious contrivances to keep the plot moving. I also felt one minor twist towards the end of the film was a bit of a cheat, although I understand why Meyer went in that direction.

McDowell and Warner deliver two of the best performances of their careers. McDowell perfectly embodies the idealistic yet naïve Victorian gentleman with plenty of wit and charm, while Warner radiates menace as an intellectual and philosophical psychopath. Mary Steenburgen is the weak link in the primary cast as Amy, a bank employee who aides Wells in his hunt and later becomes his love-interest. Her line-readings are a bit stiff and she doesn’t have much chemistry with McDowell. In her defense, she doesn’t have much to work with. Meyer attempts to strengthen the character with corny and too on-the-nose dialog about Women’s Lib, and he largely relegates her to a passive role for much of the final act of the film.

Despite some flaws, Time After Time is an enjoyable thinking person’s adventure tale, buoyed by two fine performances and a well-thought-0ut set of themes. Very much worth looking into.

Time After Time

Retro Review: The Freakmaker

A hybrid of disparate elements that shouldn’t really go together, much like the human-plant monsters who menace the characters.

United Kingdom. Directed by Jack Cardiff, 1974. Starring Donald Pleasance, Tom Baker, Brad Harris. 92 minutes.

Half Freaks, half Frankenstein, half Quatermass Experiment, and half Hammer Horror, Jack Cardiff’s 1974 film The Freakmaker (originally released under the less colorful title The Mutations) is a hybrid of disparate elements that shouldn’t really go together. Donald Pleasance plays the brilliant but deranged Professor Nolter, who believes he’s hit upon the perfect cure for world hunger: combine human and plant DNA, so future generations can photosynthesize their own sustenance. Sadly, he has a penchant for experimenting on unwilling subjects, procured for him by the performers of a carnival freakshow managed by the deformed and cruel Mr. Lynch (an unrecognizable Tom Baker). But then the carnies make the mistake of abducting one of Nolter’s own students, raising the suspicions of her friends, who are also entertaining eminent American scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris). Can Redford and the undergrads stop Nolter and Lynch, or are they all doomed to a horrifying existence as human Venus flytraps?

The Freakmaker gleefully recycles half-baked ideas from its earlier, better influences and isn’t ashamed of it: one scene outright acknowledges the story’s debt to Freaks. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in grue. It’s a sort of missing link between cerebral examinations of physical transformation (and its close cousin, plants that behave like animals, like in The Day of the Triffids or the Genesis song “Return of the Giant Hogweed”) and the later explicit body horror of Cronenberg and Alien. As stomach-churning as the monsters are–there’s nothing pleasant about something that looks like a Sleestak with Audrey Jr. grafted onto its chest–they’re uncomfortably beautiful, as are the dizzying array of genetically-engineered freak plants that don’t walk and talk. Of course, Cardfiff doesn’t quite have budget to do the designs justice, but if you’re a fan of this sort of thing you know when to adjust your expectations.

Pity the rest of the production doesn’t approach the standard set by the production design. Pleasance’s subtle, understated performance is marred by a bad, fake, and entirely unnecessary German accent. Baker struggles to break through the barrier built by a laughably terrible makeup job, but once or twice he really does let ‘er rip with impressive hurricane fury. His physical performance is altogether better, six feet three inches of looming menace but always managing to seem half a foot taller. The rest of the “norms” are forgettable, although Harris fits his generic square-jawed Yankee hero fairly well, and second-string Bond girl Julie Ege understands she’s only here to supply eye candy. Despite the production’s reliance on Freaks, the carnies aren’t quite as distinct as their spiritual predecessors, the exception being Willie “Popeye” Baines. Be warned, he didn’t earn that nickname by exhibiting an affinity for spinach.

But really, we’ve got to go back to the script as the single most flawed element. The lack of originality glares like lens flare, and in the bad way–this isn’t a daring remix of familiar tropes but a lazy retread of things you’ve seen a thousand times before. You can spot every twist coming ten minutes away. If the character development was any thinner, you could see through the actors. Screenwriters Edward Mann and Robert Weinbach try too hard to make the dialog “hip” and “relevant” by shoehorning in lots of casually inappropriate drug references. (The reference to Timothy Leary is worth a laugh, though.)

Overall, The Freakmaker isn’t some lost gem just waiting to be rediscovered; it’s a somewhat-below-standard specimen of cheap exploitation that’s largely notable for its design, its gore and its months-away-from-cult-stardom villain. (Baker would, of course, make his proper début as the fourth Doctor Who later in 1974…and face off against a plant-human hybrid two years later, in “The Seeds of Doom.”) But it’s not entirely devoid of entertainment value, and a perfectly valid option when you have ninety or so minutes you’re not doing anything better with.

The Freakmaker

Retro Review: The Cars that Ate Paris

Described as a “horror-comedy” but neither scary nor funny, it’s more of a relic from a distant place (Australia) and far-off time (the 1970s).

Australia. Directed by Peter Weir, 1974. Starring Terry Camilleri, John Meillon, Kevin Miles. 88 minutes (Criterion cut).

Australia, the mid-’70s. The country is in the midst of an economic downturn. Unemployment is high and shows no signs of getting better anytime soon.

Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and his brother George travel the back roads in their automobile, moving from town to town, looking for work. One night, they decide to follow a lead and head to the rural town of Paris. George, the driver, never makes it there alive: he crashes the car and is killed instantly. Arthur, sleeping at the time of the accident, has only vague memories of what happened.

Once released from the Paris hospital, Arthur has nowhere to go and, the car having been destroyed in the wreck, no way to get there. He falls into depression, his survivor’s guilt compounded by phobia. Not too long ago, Arthur was in another automobile accident–one in which he struck and killed an elderly pedestrian. The jury acquitted him, but the incident left him with a fear of driving. If he didn’t have that phobia, it might have been he who died, not George.

The mayor (John Meillon) takes him in and gets him a job. But Paris is a peculiar little town. The hospital is very busy, as frequent automobile accidents ensure a steady stream of patients. Many of them are never seen again; others suffer unrecoverable brain trauma and become “vegges,” permanent residents of the hospital. The local psychiatrist employs unconventional methods of treatment. And the youths of the town are violent and unruly, prowling the streets in bizarrely-modified autos.

The townsfolk harbor a bizarre secret. All those car accidents aren’t accidents at all; the residents of Paris cause them and loot the wreckage. Survivors are murdered, incapacitated or absorbed into the community. Arthur’s new neighbors hope to do the latter, but they won’t hesitate to the first two options to keep their secret.

Expectations can be tricky to manage sometimes. Let’s say you see a film that both IMDB and Wikipedia describe as a “horror-comedy.” Assuming you put much stock in the accuracy of either of those sources, you’re well within your rights to be disappointed when the film turns out not to be horror or funny. But how much of that can you reasonably hold against the film? Which faults actually belong to the film, and which ones belong to its public perception?

That’s my dilemma with The Cars that Ate Paris. I can’t figure out, for the life of me, how it ever gained a reputation as a horror movie. There are two creepy scenes and one shocking shot of gore, and that’s it. What’s more, it doesn’t seem to have the intent of a horror film behind it–writer/director Peter Weir doesn’t seem to be trying to scare the audience, and he doesn’t use much genre convention. Even the title is misleading: the titular cars don’t come into play until comparatively late in the film and never play much of a role. The spiky silver Volkswagen that figures in just about all of the film’s advertising and merchandising doesn’t appear until the movie is almost over and only appears in a few shots. It’s not the cars that are eating Paris, it’s the people.

The latter half of the phrase “horror-comedy” makes a bit more sense. Once one becomes aware of what’s happening in Paris, comparisons to Edgar Wright’s modern classic Hot Fuzz are obvious. Both films are social satires about insular communities going to extreme lengths to protect themselves and “the common good.” Late in the film, the Mayor and the town council installs Arthur in the newly-created role of town Parking Inspector, complete with uniform. (Arthur had a job as a hospital orderly, but struck out at that, so the town leaders need to find him something else to do if they’re not going to kill him.) But Arthur is passive to a pathological degree and turns out to be spectacularly unsuited to the position.

The problem, though, is that there aren’t many laughs in the movie. Even the situation I just described elicited no more than a few amused chuckles. If much of the film is intended as outright comedy, I can’t see it. I’m not sure whether this might be because the film is rooted in a forty-year-old representation of a foreign culture and I just don’t get it, or whether it simply isn’t, in an objective sense, very funny. Ditto with the social commentary: I can tell that Weir definitely has a point to make, and I think I’ve worked out a bit of what that point is, but I don’t know how all the pieces fit together.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean the film is a tough slog. The characters and situations are engaging enough to keep me interested, and there are several fine performances, particularly from Meillon, Robertson and cult character-actor Bruce Spence as a deep-fried mechanic who builds wind chimes out of Jaguar hood ornaments.

Ultimately The Cars that Ate Paris strikes me as a bit of an artifact, a relic from a distant place and far-off time. I just wish I could figure out what it has to say about that place and time. But I guess you can’t expect to win ’em all.

The Cars that Ate Paris poster

Retro Review: The Asphyx

Just like Hammer and Amicus used to make

United Kingdom. Directed by Peter Newbrook, 1973. Starring Robert Stephens, Robert Powell, Jane Lapotaire. 86 minutes. 6/10

The quest to cheat death is a familiar one in horror fiction, and Sir Hugo Cunningham, the protagonist of The Asphyx, belongs to a long tradition of mad and semi-mad scientists driven to unravel the secret to immortality.

Set in the 1870s, The Asphyx details how Sir Hugo (Robert Stephens), a country squire with interests in photography and parapsychology, discovers the film’s titular spirit. In a series of photographs he and his associates have taken of people as they die, he discovers each features a mysterious smudge seemingly not caused by either faulty equipment or human error. Could these photos depict the soul leaving the human body?

Sir Hugo’s next clue comes as the result of personal tragedy. At a family gathering, he films (using a primitive motion picture camera) a boating accident in which his son Clive drowns. The mysterious smudge appears in the footage, but moving towards Clive, not away from him. Sir Hugo comes to the conclusion that the smudge might be an “asphyx,” a spirit described in Greek mythology that accompanies the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

He finds the final piece of the puzzle when, on behalf of an organization protesting capital punishment, he films a public execution. Using a spotlight of his own devising–the beam filtered through water dripping upon phosphorous crystals–he briefly and accidentally reveals the presence of a spectral figure which appears as the criminal hangs. Reviewing the footage later, Sir Hugo notices two things: first, that the beam of light trapped the figure, believed to be the asphyx; second, that as long as the asphyx remained trapped, the condemned man could not die.

Sir Hugo reasons that if he could somehow summon one’s asphyx (by bringing himself to the point of death), and trap it permanently, that he would never die. Involving his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) and daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire) in his experiments, he gains the answers he seeks–but at a terrible price.

The Asphyx is a textbook specimen of vintage British period horror, the sort of films Hammer and Amicus used to make. All of the signature elements of the format are in place. Nobody as familiar as Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee appears, but Stephens and Powell are more than capable of bringing their characters to life. The former portrays Sir Hugo as more down-to-earth and sympathetic than your average mad scientist without sacrificing the obsession; the latter’s take on Giles is a more capable character than most male juvenile leads in this sort of film. Christine is more of a reactive agent in the plot than an active one, but Lapotaire’s performance in the role is better than required.

The film is also chock-full of authentic-seeming (if not actually authentic) period detail. The film’s science is in line with how the “natural philosophers” of the Victorian age thought such things really worked. The interest in spiritual matters reflects the obsessions of the period, and while the asphyx isn’t a real spirit from Greek mythology, the film’s able to pull it off. Some viewers might find certain aspects of the story weird, such as the romance between Christina and her adopted brother Giles.

The production design is superb, filled with vivid detail. The asphyx effect is a bit hokey today, but I expect it was quite effective in the early ’70s. Sir Hugo’s method of trapping asphyxes has an endearingly proto-steampunk feel (and is also reminiscent of the later Ghostbusters).

Sadly, the direction and editing are problematic. Poor editing robs two crucial scenes (Giles’s death and the guillotine sequence) of vital emotional power. There are several highly questionable directorial decisions, such as the choice of footage used when Sir Hugo screens the footage of his son’s death to his peers. And a number of flaws exist in the story–such as the magically teleporting guinea pig and the complete disappearance of Sir Hugo’s fiancée from the story by the end of the first act–that could either be problems with the script or scenes deleted from the final cut.

Contemporary audiences might have accepted such flaws, but the modern viewer might not.

The Asphyx is, ultimately, an artifact of the time that produced it. It doesn’t have much to offer viewers who aren’t interested in this type of film. However, fans of the format should enjoy it immensely.

The Asphyx poster

Twins of Evil

One of Hammer’s weaker Gothic vampire films.

Beautiful twin sisters Maria and Frieda Gellhorn have traveled to a distant village to live with their uncle Gustav after the deaths of their parents. The pious, devout and strict Gustav is the leader of a vigilante group, the Brotherhood, dedicated to stamping out the evil of witchcraft in the region, mostly by organizing burnings of suspected witches. Politics prevents Gustav from acting against the decadent Count Karnstein, a libertine who indulges in Satanic rituals–but enjoys the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor. But the Count’s activities bring him to the attention of his vampiric ancestor Mircalla, who transforms him into one of the undead. Soon, the Count turns his gaze to the Gellhorn sisters, particularly the rebellious Frieda. Can Maria save her sister from the vampire’s ministrations, or is her soul already damned?

The “ruthless witch hunter” horror sub-genre popular in the late ’60s (Witchfinder General, 1968) and early ’70s (The Bloody Judge and Mark of the Devil, both 1970) offered opportunities for filmmakers to indulge in period settings and erotically charged psychological set pieces. So right now the question going through your head should be, “So surely Hammer Film Productions would have made one of those movies at some point, right? With added vampires?” And the answer to that question is, of course, “Yes.”

1971’s Twins of Evil is the final entry in Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy,” a loose series of films based on (read: “borrowing character names from”) J. Sheridan le Fanu’s Gothic novel Carmilla. You don’t need to be familiar with its predecessors (The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire) to understand what’s going on here; indeed, Mircalla Karnstein–the primary antagonist of the first two films–is little more than a sideline here.

Twins isn’t as strong as Hammer’s other vampire films of the period. Largely this is due to the characterization: most of the characters simply aren’t particularly memorable or well-drawn. This is somewhat to be expected when it comes to the “good guys,” which include the virginal Maria, the twins’ aunt Katy, and Anton Hoffer, the choirmaster at the local girls’ school. But Freida and the one-dimensionally evil Count suffer from this as well. Uncle Gustav should provide an interesting source of moral ambiguity, but instead makes a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn from baddie to reformed baddie halfway through the third act; there’s no real “redemption arc” here. And I was personally disappointed that screenwriter Tudor Gates didn’t use his premise to comment on the gender and generational issues of the time.

The films’ other major weakness comes with its stars, Mary Collinson (as Maria) and Madeline Collinson (as Freida). The Collinson twins were Playboy’s Misses October 1970, and their performances are pretty much in line with what you might expect from former Playmates. The fact that they can’t consistently keep their German accents going for more than a few words at a time could become the source of a drinking game. Indeed, one wonders why they’re bothering with the accents at all, considering no one else is. The lack of acting skill is less of a problem for Madeline (who’s given little to do but vamp) than for Mary, who’s got an actual character portray. Still, at least they look great in cleavage-enhancing corsets.

Despite a limp script and unconvincing leads, Twins does have a bit going for it in other departments. The supporting cast, particularly Damien Thomas (Count Karnstein), Peter Cushing (Uncle Gustav), David Warbeck (Anton) and Kathleen Byron (Aunt Katy) are excellent. Director John Hough isn’t quite as much of a stylist as his contemporaries at the studio, but the direction is solid. The production design is gorgeous and the photography lush, two Hammer trademarks, and several of the effects sequences are better than you might expect from a film of this budget and vintage.

Still, one can’t quite shake the feeling that Twins of Evil doesn’t quite live up to its potential, and can only be recommended to diehard Hammer fans. For everyone else, it’s significantly less than essential.

Starring Peter Cushing, Madeline Collinson, Mary Collinson, Kathleen Byron, Damien Thomas, David Warbeck. Directed by John Hough, 1971. 87 minutes.

TWINS OF EVIL poster