Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Christopher Lee

Last month Cinema Revisited enjoyed a right old Christopher Lee fest.  We saw ‘The Wicker Man – The Final Cut’ at Filmhouse in Edinburgh and then Hammer’s 1958 ’Dracula’ (released in the USHorror of Dracula’) at The Cornerhouse in Manchester.  

‘The Wicker Man’ was originally released in 1973 as a supporting picture for ‘Don’t Look Now’. Although it is now respected by critics it did not fare well in 1973.  Studio executives had no idea how to market the film and wanted to change the ending (Noooooooo!).  EMI (who had bought British Lion during production) advised director Robert Hardy to remove twenty minutes from the film and Roger Corman suggested a further thirteen minutes were cut to make the film marketable in the US.  Christopher Lee fervently supported the film (although he was unhappy with the cuts) and even offered to buy critics seats to see the film in order to get it reviewed.

Over the years various efforts have been made to locate and restore footage and many who have seen the film on TV or on video are often confused as to which version they have seen.  ‘The Final Cut'  celebrates the film’s 40th anniversary and restores the story to the version Robert Hardy originally intended with reinstated scenes including the ‘Gently Johnny’ segment.

To be honest ‘The Final Cut’ is an odd experience.  The film opens with a scene of Howie on the mainland which is so brief it’s pointless.  There are other scenes from the mainland which I have seen on the TV that were missing from ‘The Final Cut’, whilst a brief, irrelevant scene showing Willow cleaning down a table outside the Green Man is included.  The restored scenes are obvious, of poor quality and lacking colour.   Willow’s Song and her attempt to seduce Howie occur later in ‘The Final Cut’, on his second night on Summerisle and, whatever Robert Hardy’s original vision may have been, I’ve seen this film too many times to find this switch anything but clunky and odd. Although most critics are in agreement that the film is improved by introducing Lord Summerisle earlier I’ve always enjoyed the way he pops up out of his chair like a pantomime demon when Howie visits him at home.

For viewers today the power of the film lies in the ending. Maybe back in 1973 it asked some questions about religion which were ahead of it’s time.  The people of Summerisle have abandoned Christianity in favour of a reconstituted neo-paganism introduced by Summerisle’s grandfather.  Lee’s Lord Summerisle makes it perfectly clear he doesn’t believe in this religion but it suits his purpose, controls the population and made his family rich – ideas which are still pertinent today.  In an era where horror film  vampires could be destroyed by the very sight of a makeshift crucifix made from two splinters of wood, the idea that Howie’s ‘true’ God does not save him is an unsettling one.

Howie’s outrage at the islanders’ sexual liberation, particularly the sexual assertiveness of the women, also loses impact in the age of Madonna and internet porn, although scenes in the school showing the sexualisation of children are still uncomfortable.

This is Jane at 'Castle Dracula' in Bran when she visited Transylvania in 2008.

God gets a slightly better deal in ‘Dracula’. Vampire films haven’t been the same since Louis du Pont Du Lac told ‘the boy’ in ‘Interview with the Vampire’ that he couldn’t be killed with holy water or crucifixes.  Terence Fisher’s ‘Dracula’, though, can be.  Harker vows ‘It only remains for me now to await the daylight hours where I will, with God's help, forever end this man's reign of terror.’ and Van Helsing destroys the fiend using a crucifix made from two candlesticks a sign he claims represents the triumph of good over evil.  Things aren’t quite so simple now and our relationship with ‘belief’ is less self-assuredly ‘right’.  Eagle eyed viewers may have also spotted the bizarre horoscope mosaic on which Dracula meets his (un)death. 

In common with many film versions of Stoker's original text Fisher plays around with the plot and the characters switch around but the names stay the same.  In this version Harker is engaged to Lucy and Mina (it's Rose from 'Brighton Rock'!) is married to Holmwood. 

Although the vampire has come a long way through folklore and literature it was Tod Browning's version (played by Bela Lugosi) who made the mould until Anne Rice came along with her pesky logic.  It was cinema that started to make vampires sexy (this hasn't changed) and let's face it, nothing says 'sex' more that Christopher Lee.  Women love him; he only loves blood. Vampires are no longer just  animated corpses, the work of a Christian devil; with The Twilight Saga's Rnenesmee we now have children who are born vampires, it's no longer even necessary to die first. 

This was Lee's first outing as The Count (although not his first pairing with Peter Cushing) and he went on to play the character seven times for Hammer, with a decreasing number of lines and less and less to do.  One of the reasons Lee was so keen to play the role of Lord Summerisle was to show his skill and versatility as an actor.  The year after 'The Wicker Man' was released Lee played Scaramanga in 'The Man with the Golden Gun'. For those who like trivia, Lee is related to Bond author Ian Flemming.

We're covering Hammer on our next show on November 23rd so tune in between 4-5 for more Christopher Lee!


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