Saturday, 26 October 2013

"Monster Mash" by The Misfits

I didn't have time to write an entire post tonight, so I will leave you with The Misfits' cover of Bobby "Boris" Pickett and The Crypt Kickers' "Monster Mash". The Misfits recorded their version of the song in 1997 to help promote planned release of the classic Rankin/Bass stop action animation film Mad Monster Party on DVD in 1997. It is for that reason the video is composed of clips from the film!  Not only did The Misfits record a cover of "Monster Mash" for a the planned DVD release of Mad Monster Party, but they also played hosts for a special showing of the movie held at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Unfortunately, disagreements over distribution rights would develop and Mad Monster Party would not be released on DVD until 2006. The Misfits would record a new cover of "Monster Mash" for their album Project 1950, on which they covered several other classic songs as well. Without further ado, here is "Monster Mash" by The Misfits.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Twenty Years Ago Today Vincent Price Died

It was 20 years ago today, on 25 October 1993, that the great Vincent Price died. He has always been my one of my favourite actors, and one whose impact on me was more immediate than many. Although he would travel far and wide in his career, he never forgot his home state of Missouri. He made annual, personal appearances at  Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville for over thirty years. He also taught workshops on both acting and art history there. In 1984 Mr. Price founded the Vincent Price Theatrical Performance scholarship at the university, awarded to those who have demonstrated talent in acting. I have known more than one person who had the honour to meet Vincent Price in person. What is more is all of them have the same thing to say about him. Quite simply, he was the consummate gentleman.

Of course, even if Vincent Price and I did not share the same state and even if he had not done so much for the state of Missouri, he would still be one of my favourite actors. Vincent Price is one of those actors whose name everyone recognises. He numbers among such legendary horror actors as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Cushing, and Sir Christopher Lee. Beyond being the only American among those celebrated actors, Vincent Price would be unique among them in other ways. Although each of them had careers before they entered the horror genre. Messrs. Karloff, Lugosi, Cushing, and Lee would not become truly famous until they began acting in the genre. This was not the case with Vincent Price.

Prior to his career changing role in House of Wax (1953) he may have been best known for dramas and period pieces. He appeared in such films as  The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1938), Hudson's Bay (1941), Dragonwyck (1944), The Three Musketeers (1948), Otto Preminger's classic Laura (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). While Vincent Price did make horror films before House of Wax, including Tower of London (1939), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The House of the Seven Gables (1940), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), he was not particularly identified with the genre. And well before House of Wax Vincent Price was a recognisable name among cinema goers, if only as a character actor in period pieces and dramas.

Of course, following House of Wax Mr. Price would become best known for his work in the horror genre. Even then the work Mr. Price did in horror films would set him apart from Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Sir Christopher Lee. Indeed, in some respects he could be considered the American equivalent of Peter Cushing. Vincent Price did not play monsters. Instead his role generally fell into two categories. He was either the sometimes flawed protagonist who battles monsters (The Tingler, Last Man on Earth, The Oblong Box). Unlike Peter Cushing's Van Helsing, however, Vincent Price's characters were not professional monster hunters, but men who through circumstances beyond their control were forced to confront terrors:  Dr. Warren Chapin in The Tingler coming face to face with the title creature, Dr. Robert Morgan fighting humans transformed into vampiric creatures by a plague (it was the first adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend), and so on.

The second type of character Vincent Price often played during his career as a horror actor (and perhaps the sort of characters for which he was most famous) were individuals who, through circumstances or even the ill intent of others found themselves driven to the brink of sanity (and often beyond it). It was a pattern set by House of Wax, the film that established Vincent Price as a horror star after fifteen years in the film business. In the film he played wax figure sculptor Prof. Henry Jarrod, who seeks revenge after his business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) burns their wax museum to collect the insurance money, seriously disfiguring Prof. Jarrod in the process. It was the sort of role that Vincent Price would play several times in his career. In The Mad Magician he played the Gallico, who finds both his greatest trick and the woman he loves stolen by his greatest rival (the Great Rinaldi, played by John Emery). In The Abominable Dr. Phibes he played the title role, who seeks revenge on the physicians he holds responsible for the death of his wife on the operating table. In Theatre of Blood he plays Edward Kendall Sheridan Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who seeks vengeance on the critics he believes had ruined his career.

Although Vincent Price's roles as heroes trapped in circumstances beyond their control in some ways seem very different from his roles as madmen bent on revenge, they have on thing in common: they were generally complicated characters whose lives had been touched by tragedy. In most cases they were men who had suffered severe losses or experienced an extreme miscarriage of justice. Even when he was playing madmen bent on revenge, Vincent Price's characters were never purely good nor evil. Instead they were men who had seen their lives destroyed and came through the experience changed, sometimes for the better and often for worse. This made Vincent Price's characters more human and, even when he was playing madmen, more sympathetic than those often played by the other great horror actors. While we may not condone the actions of Prof. Jarrod or Dr. Phibes, we can at least understand them to a degree. After all, we have all suffered losses in our lives or many of us have felt we have been treated unjustly at some time or another. Even when do not approve of the actions of Vincent Price's actions, we can at least feel sympathy for the tragedies they have endured.

While Vincent Price had a career extending well beyond the horror genre, appearing in films from A Royal Scandal (1945) to The Ten Commandments (1956), it the characters in his horror films for which he remains best remembered. Whether playing unwilling heroes or revenge crazed madmen, Vincent Price's characters were often more human and often more complicated than those seen in other horror films. It is perhaps because of this that Vincent Price is still counted among the greatest horror actors of all time.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Late, Great Hammer Films Producer Anthony Hinds

Anthony Hinds, who turned the modest Hammer Films into the best known maker of horror films besides Universal, died 30 September 2013 at the age of 91.

Anthony Hinds was born on 19 September 1922 in  Uxbridge, Buckinghamshire. He was the son of William Hinds, who performed in theatres and music hall under the name Will Hammer. Anthony Hinds attended St. Paul's School in London. It was in November 1934 that his father founded  Hammer Productions Ltd. It was in 1935 that William Hinds met former cinema owner Enrique Carreras and together the two founded the film distributor Exclusive Films. Anthony Hinds and  Enrique Carreras' son James Carreras joined Exclusive Films in 1938. Both Hammer Film Productions and Exclusive Films suspended operations during World War II, during which time Anthony Hinds served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force.

Following World War II Anthony Hinds returned to Exclusive Films and with James Carreras took charge of the company. James Carreras reformed Hammer in 1947 as a subsidiary of Exclusive Films Ltd. It was in 1948 that Anthony Hinds produced his first film, the 48 minute short Who Killed Van Loon?. The first feature Mr. Hinds produced was Man in Black in 1949. It was Anthony Hinds who came up with the money saving idea of shooting in private houses rather than in studios. It was primarily for this reason that Hammer Films bought Down Place in 1951. A large house in Bray, Berkshire, it was later renamed Bray Studios.

In the late Forties and early Fifties Hammer produced a good number of crime thrillers, as well as films based on BBC radio shows (such as Dick Barton - Special Agent and The Adventures of P.C. 49). Early in his career, then, Anthony Hinds produced such varied films as Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949), The Adventures of P.C. 49: Investigating the Case of the Guardian Angel (1949), The Black Widow (1951), and Death of an Angel (1952). in 1953 Hammer Films made their first venture into science fiction with Spaceways. Although Spaceways was produced by James Carreras' son Michael Carreras, it would be Anthony Hinds who would be responsible for Hammer's next science fiction film, a film that would signalled a major change in direction for the studio.

In 1953 the BBC aired the television serial The Quatermass Experiment, which proved enormously successful. Anthony Hinds was very impressed with the serial and as a result Hammer Films entered into negotiations with the BBC to buy the film rights to The Quatermass Experiment only two days after the last episode had aired. While the BBC worried that any film based on the serial would inevitably receive an "X" certificate (the British Board of Film Censors rating that restricted audiences only to anyone over the age of 16), Hammer Films had no such concerns. Indeed, having noticed the success of the French film Les Diaboliques (1954), Hammer decided to take advantage of the situation for publicity purposes when the BBFC awarded it with an "X" certificate, even titling their film  The Quatermass Xperiment. Released in 1955, The Quatermass Xperiment proved to be a huge hit, so much so that it was Hammer's most successful film up to that time.

If The Quatermass Xperiment signalled a change in direction for Hammer Films, a film released by the studio in 1957 would make that change in direction a fact. Produced by Anthony Hinds, The Curse of Frankenstein  was the first of Hammer Films' colour horror films. Colour was not the only thing revolutionary about The Curse of Frankenstein, however, as it was further set apart from the Universal Gothic horrors of the Thirties and Forties by blood (in Eastmancolor red), violence, and a rather strong hint of sex. The Curse of Frankenstein proved incredibly successful not just in the United Kingdom, but in the United States and elsewhere as well. In 1958 Hammer Films followed The Curse of Frankenstein with their own adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel Dracula. Also produced by Anthony Hinds, Dracula (known as Horror of Dracula in the United States), proved even more successful than The Curse of Frankenstein and would set the pace for all Hammer Horrors to come.

Throughout the Sixties, Anthony Hinds produced many of Hammer's most notable films, including The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), and Fanatic (1965). He also produced Hammer Films' television show Journey into the Unknown. Anthony Hinds was not only a producer, but also wrote screenplays under the pen name John Elder. He did uncredited work on The Brides of Dracula, before going onto do credited work on such Hammer films as Captain Clegg (1962), The Phantom of the Opera, The Kiss of the Vampire, and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, among others.

It was in 1970 that Anthony Hinds left Hammer Films. He continued to write screenplays, including such films as The Ghoul (1975) and Legend of the Werewolf (1975). He wrote an episode of the TV programme Hammer House of Horror, as well as the television film Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death.

While Anthony Hinds revolutionised Gothic horror with hints of sex and violence, he was not particularly pleased with the more explicit horror films that Hammer Films made after he had left. When James Carreras told him that now they could do anything, Mr. Hinds thought, "'Well, I’m not sure that doing everything is what it’s all about."

There can be no doubt that Anthony Hinds was largely responsible for turning Hammer Films into the foremost producer of horror films in the Sixties and, along with Universal Pictures, the studio most associated with the genre. It was not simply that he took Gothic horror, a genre generally filmed in monochrome, and gave it colour, but that he also pushed the boundaries of Gothic horror in terms of violence and sex. In doing so he not only ushered in a new era of slightly more explicit horror films in terms of gore and sex, but also a new cycle towards Gothic horror that persisted into the Sixties. With Hammer's success, American International Pictures, Tigon British Film Productions, Amicus, and other studios would produce their own colour, Gothic horror films.

Of course, Anthony Hinds was not only a producer, but he was also a screenwriter. He co-wrote or wrote some of Hammer's better films, including The Kiss of the Vampire, Captain Clegg, and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Even when the films he wrote did not have the quality that The Kiss of the Vampire (one of Hammer's very best) did, the films written by Mr. Hinds were generally enjoyable and a lot of fun. A ground breaking producer who built Hammer into the horror studio of the Sixties and revolutionised the genre of Gothic horror, as well as a screenwriter, Anthony Hinds will long be remembered.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Review of The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life by Lyndsy Spence

There were perhaps no more notorious sisters of the 20th Century than the Mitford sisters. The oldest of them mingled with the Bright Young Things of 1920's London. The youngest of them came of age in Britain during the later interwar years. Some of the Mitfords would go onto considerable acclaim for their various works, while others would find themselves condemned for political beliefs many found abhorrent. The children of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and Sydney Bowles, the Mitford girls were beautiful, intelligent, eccentric, and often controversial. They could never be accused of being boring.

The Mitford sisters' fame and notoriety would lead to what to what around 1979 the London Evening Standard termed "the Mitford Industry". If anything, since 1979 the Mitford Industry has only grown, with literally hundreds of books and documentaries about the sisters, and even a musical (The Mitford Girls by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherri). This year has seen a new addition to the many books published as part of the Mitford Industry, The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life by Lyndsy Spence.

The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life is an original, unique, and whimsical take on the Mitford sisters. It is written in the form of a self help book, showing how the life experiences of the Mitfords may be applied to our own lives. There are such sections as Nancy's Guide to Fashion, The Mitfords' Guide to Funerals, and Pamela's Household Hints and Tips. The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life tells how one can throw a jubilee party, take a holiday in winter, conduct oneself at a shooting party, and even speak like a Mitford. Miss Spence delivers these bits of advice on how to behave as a Mitford with a good deal of wit and humour, making the book both amusing and very readable.

While humour is at the forefront in The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life, that does not mean it is a book that lacks depth. Miss Spence has clearly done her research and it shows. The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life is then not simply a humorous look at possibly the most famous sisters of the 20th Century, but also a very good overview of the sisters and their lives. Indeed, the book includes summaries on each sister, as well as individuals' personal recollections of the sisters themselves. The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life also has one of the most extensive bibliographies I have ever seen, and could prove most useful as a guide to books for those who wish to read more about the Mitfords.

Not only is The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life a very readable book, but it is also a very attractive one as well. Tessa Simpson's illustrations of the Mitfords on the cover evoke the famous sketches of the girls by Sir Harold Acton, while at the same time having a personality all their own. History Press also provided the book with such nice touches as special glyphs for the various sections  There are little hangars for Nancy's Guide to Fashion, little rifles for the Mitford's Guide to a Shooting Party, and so on. There are also several never before seen photos of the Mitford family over the years.

The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life is an amusing and very entertaining volume that those who are interested in the Mitfords will find as a welcome addition to their library. At the same time, however, Lyndsy Spence gives us a wonderful overview of the sisters with considerable insight into their lives. This also makes The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life an excellent introduction to anyone new to studying the Mitford sisters. In the end, The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life is not simply a book for those who are already familiar with the famous sisters, but anyone with an interest in the history of 20th Century Britain.

The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the History Press, and other fine books sellers. 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A Review of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean

Today, nearly 100 years after her birth and a few years shy of the 50th anniversary of her death, Vivien Leigh remains one of the most famous and beloved film stars of all time. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that she made a total of 19 films, far fewer than most of the big names to emerge during the Golden Age of Film. To this day she remains one of the most iconic actresses of all time, with books, documentaries, merchandising (mostly related to her role as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind), and web sites dedicated to her.

Among those many web sites is VivAndLarry.com, dedicated to Miss Leigh and her long time husband and collaborator Lord Laurence Olivier. Chances are that if you are a classic film buff, then you are not only familiar with this website, but its webmistress as well, Kendra Bean. You might also know that for the past five years Miss Bean has been working on a coffee book about the life and work of Vivien Leigh. This month saw the culmination of that work with the publication of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait.

As a coffee book Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is most impressive. It has a large number of photographs, including many never before published photos by Angus McBean, who photographed Vivien Leigh for the entirety of her career, from her earliest days on stage to her death. I must also say that I really appreciated the layout of the book as well. Too often coffee books are put together in such a way that it interferes with both reading and sometimes even looking at pictures. This is not the case with Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, whose layout flows quite well. Indeed, while I usually don't notice such things, I have to say I was even impressed by its typography, which is both easy to read and aesthetically pleasing. The cover, with a photograph of Vivien Leigh at her most beautiful and her name in electric blue, numbers among the most eye catching book covers I have seen in a long time. Running Press did a very good job of putting Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait together, creating a book that is nearly as beautiful as its subject.

Here I do not wish to give the impression that Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is a picture book. For a coffee book it has a good deal of text. While it is not an in depth biography of the sort that Hugo Vickers' Vivien Leigh: A Biography is, Miss Bean gives the reader a good overview of Vivien Leigh's life and career. She does a particularly good job of addressing Miss Leigh's relationship with Lord Laurence Olivier, her husband for many years. This should not at all be surprising. Beyond her obvious talent as a researcher and writer, Kendra Bean had access to the Laurence Olivier Archives with its literal treasure trove of private letters and documents. For a coffee book, then, Miss Bean gives considerable insight not only into Vivien Leigh's career, but her unfortunate struggle with bipolar disorder. Here I must say that while Miss Bean is obviously a fan of Vivien Leigh, she does not shy away from the more unfortunate aspects of Miss Leigh's life. That having been said, she presents Miss Leigh in a most sympathetic light, while also presenting her as an all too human woman with a very serious illness.

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is an extraordinary tribute to an actress who has remained an object of fascination since she first appeared on stage. It gives a very balanced and objective, but at the same time sympathetic view of a film star who is still considered one of the great beauties of her time as well as one of the most talented actresses of the Golden Age of Film. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait would be an excellent addition to any Vivien Leigh fan's collection.

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, the TCM Shop, and other Fine Book Sellers