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Monday, October 26, 2015

When Sarcasm Sold Hammer Horror


Halloween Harvest 2015 --- Get Your Hickey From 60's Dracula

Something began to corrode horror movies by the late 60's, or was it me being less enthralled by them? I'd been drawing/writing homebrew monster mags for a couple years and so fancied myself sophisticate equal to Calvin T. Beck at least, not realizing that it's just such attitude that sap fun from shows I took till then on face value. Such was burden of being age fourteen. But chillers by then had slipped, first AIP stubbing toe on stinker imports (Psycho-Circus) and worse effort to maintain brands (The Oblong Box, The Crimson Cult). Sometimes you couldn't help entertaining thought that monsters had been outgrown, time perhaps to put away what you'd been told (repeatedly) were childish things, especially now with a rating system in place and films playing more for grown-up keeps. Further salt to wound was chillers not being taken serious even by their makers (or at least distributors), to which Warners and Dracula Has Risen From The Grave pled guilty. It riled me to see Hammer horror sold like a Batman episode, with all but "Boff" and "Pow" spread across camp-infected ads.


There had been silly selling before, and of Hammers, but notion of "Black Stamps" issued to patrons for Curse Of The Mummy's Tomb/The Gorgon, or Rasputin beards as reward with admission to the Mad Monk's saga, seemed less insulting to the product. Merchandising was a must, after all, and show folk had to eat. And weren't horror hosts on late shows just as cheeky, some even interposing themselves onto action during movies shown? Difference it seemed to me was patronizing air toward Dracula, jasmine scent of irony over this and horrors to come. But I was clearly alone for my disdain, as Dracula Has Risen From The Grave did a best boxoffice for the series since Horror Of Dracula, proof to those with eyes that sarcasm did sell. I went to see Grave twice, put to unease by ads, but reassured by steady course the film took, Drac's dignity and stature at no time put in jeopardy.


I'm far from knocking Warners' US campaign, it being brilliant as their send-off for Bonnie and Clyde, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Harper, Inside Daisy Clover, others I could name from the mid-60's forward (see the B&C chapter in Showmen, Sell It Hot!). WB surely had a young ad-pub crew on Dracula, the campaign wired to zeitgeist dissolve from camp to counterculture. You've Seen All This Stuff, So Let's Have Fun With It was essential message, and indeed, by 1968, vampire lore had been driven into youth consciousness like stakes to bloodsucker hearts, result of non-stop late shows, Drac movies too numerous to count, let alone see, and comics kidding the character all over series TV. Kids and certainly teenagers knew by now that staying hip meant mocking monsters, a slow-drip process since live spook shows began sending up the genre, then Abbott and Costello meeting one or another Universal fiend. Of actors doing horror, Vincent Price was wisest for recognizing, then riding, a wave of gentle, if not outright, parody.


British merchandising for Dracula Has Risen From The Grave wouldn't kid around. In keeping with prior policy, they'd sell the shocker straight. Was Brit youth, ahead of us music-wise, behind a curve re screen horror? Censorship had been strict over there, "X" certificates keeping kids out of theatres playing rough stuff, and it hadn't been long since certain chillers were banned outright. Could monsters still inspire awe in the Isles? The Hammer films never sunk to lampoon ... sex, yes, and plenty of that because it paid heavy worldwide (She and One Million Years B.C. beat pants off Frankensteins and Draculas at the boxoffice). Dracula Has Risen From The Grave had sex, more than before, yet got a genteel "G" rating in the US, that system only recently installed by time the film was released. DHRFTG seems rough to me for a G, lots of blood and open neck bites, but 1968 was ushering in a wild/wooly era where skies were limit and one-time Bray display of décolleté would plunge to nudity and "R" receipt of The Vampire Lovers and similar ilk within a few short years.


Dracula Has Risen From The Grave may have lured them in with band-aids and laugh tags, but meal served was nutritious. In fact, this may have been the best of Hammer Draculas so far, at the least a big advance on what they'd done over a last couple of seasons. Christopher Lee was back in fangs, pleasingly so with dialogue, which hadn't been case since he did the part a decade before. Hammer bouts with evil called upon crosses and holy water, Baron Meinster in Brides Of Dracula dispatched with both in fact, but here was Godly role in vampire disposal for a Going My Way of chillers (or maybe Bells Of St. Mary's, considering the opening jolt). There is a strong and weak priest, one in Van Helsing mode, another debased to beck/call of Dracula. A stake to the heart is useless lest the wielder be true in his faith, Dracula with unerring eye to separate atheists from believers. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave makes sound argument for renewed church-going if not horror film attending.


So the silly ads served good purpose of bringing business to a show that deserved it, higher-than-average receipts a spur to further Dracventures (four more Hammers with Lee, each arguably a step down, though all with points of interest). Some of ad gags for Dracula Has Risen From The Grave were cute, others a little too cute. The band-aid made for an arresting image and maybe a best of the lot, but close-up of the fangs with "Who Can Brush After Every Meal?" was insult to intelligence of juves nationwide. Warners got out a door panel set of four as was case for Bonnie and Clyde, each with same sort of jibe we'd seen on spook trading cards or mags like Monsters To Laugh With. Best of all was the panels being free to showmen. All was geared to put viewers above horror films they were going to see, that a real rock in my shoe at the time. Hindsight teaches that I should have relaxed and gone with the flow, enjoying fun with incoming ticket-buyers. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is just out from Warners with three other Hammer faves on Blu-Ray. They all look splendid.

13 Comments:

Blogger Bill O said...

Credit Freddie Francis, working in a genre he reportedly loathed, for the great visuals - including the halo around Lee. Supposedly his DP used the same filters Francis had used in The Innocents.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND was generally put down by "serious" fans who created fanzines for its approach however it had an enthusiasm they all lacked. Contemporary publications like RUE MORGUE, good as they are (and RUE MORGUE is excellent) still suffer from a major attitude problem that comes and always comes from preaching to the converted.

Hammer and AIP began by doing, consciously or unconsciously, everything right. Gradually they moved away from that. THE VAMPIRE LOVERS was the first straight filming of Le Fanu's CARMILLA. I was knocked out when I first saw it. Its two sequels exploited the nudity pf the first film in a way that weakened the films.

Storywise the writing got lazier and weaker. Guy Endore's THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS is a piece of first rate writing. The film made from it, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, is okay if you have not read the book but if we had then we knew at once how far from the mark it was.

I agree with you about the ads for DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. These films have to be sold seriously or they fail. The "nudge, nudge, wink" attitude evident in them leads only to short term success while at the same time killing the golden goose. When AIP tried to create in Robert Quarry a star of the same rank as Vincent Price (so they could save money by not using Price) they showed how little they understood their medium. Similarily, when Universal and then others used major stars like Karloff and Lugosi as red herrings they robbed their stars of their power and we, the audience, of the fruit of our expectations. Today, of course, few are interested in the people whose names appeared in the credits over those of Karloff and Lugosi. Those names have more selling power than ever.

We go to any event not to have our expectations met but to have them surpassed. Hammer, by accident more than anything else, surpassed our expectations with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE HORROR OF DRACULA. They were never to do so again.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

I saw the Rasputin poster with a beard offer at the neighborhood theater. Thought it was hilarious because the movie itself was positioned as lurid adult fare. For years I remembered it as including a "mature audiences" line next to the hey-kids giveaway, but that turned out to be memory improving on reality.

Maybe the sarcastic ads were appealing to kids and former kids who knew it was horror, but armed themselves with attitude rather than admit they wanted to be scared by old-fashioned boogies. Buying a ticket to a horror movie with a smirk was like buying a Playboy and mentioning it had Norman Mailer in it.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

The first few years of the G rating were very instructive--usually full blooded (not to pun) movies with far more acceptable range than nowadays. Today a whiff of cigarette smoke or "comic peril" is enough to slam a movie with even a PG-13. Practically anything rated G back then would now qualify for PG and up for the most ridiculous reasons. Even the a 3D edition of the 1939 WIZARD OF OZ got a PG. At least the new Peanuts movie is rated G--purposely so in intent, which doesn't happen often in 2015. Anyway, that's my MPAA bit of history for the day!

10:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's fascinating stuff about changes in ratings treatment, Barry. I had no idea they were so strict, even to a point of a PG for "The Wizard Of Oz." Who could have foreseen such a thing in the late 60's?

5:04 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Why a "PG" for THE WIZARD OF OZ? Someone's taking their job way too seriously.

6:08 AM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Call it part marketing; for the most undeserving of reasons the G rating has become mostly anathema, even for kid-oriented movies. OZ had been rated G for decades (even the original 2D version retains that rating on the Blu-ray box), but because it was re-released in a new 3D format it somehow needed a resubmission by the MPAA, who I guess deemed the flying monkeys scarier than before. Total piffle, I say.

Take a movie like the totally innocuous Best Picture, THE ARTIST--rated PG13, while a decade or two ago it would've been a G, easily. It's both marketing (with the MPAA all too willing an accomplice) and an also almost neurotic sensitivity about potentially controversial material. Or, as happens often, a single obscenity is dropped into a movie to get it out of the G category. So what we're left with is a ridiculously narrow scope for a G, and the PG now being its essential replacement. Note that any movie rated PG13 today would have been yesterday's ho-hum PG, so call it "ratings creep," as one writer once put it. Still, why should this matter? Only in that a movie that adheres to being pretty much clean (for lack of a better term) doesn't get much respect anymore.

Hey, let's still appreciate that GONE WITH THE WIND retains its G rating, despite a soldier getting shot in the face, plenty of smoking and Scarlett's shamelessly immoral behavior. It might get an R rating today if resubmitted in 3D. ;)

10:41 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Great article (as usual) and some interesting comments! I might take exception to your assertion that Hammer never sunk to lampoon. In the seventies, the studio went in all sorts of different directions to stay relevant. 1970's HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is pretty much a tongue-in cheek one shot parody of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN with Ralph Bates as a self-conscious Doctor F. Interestingly, I think that one was sold in the U.S. as a straight forward horror job with poster art of the monster, David Prowse, played for chills. In the film, he's played for parody.

11:35 AM  
Blogger b piper said...

I was in high school when HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN came out and everyone who saw it thought it was a flat-out comedy. The disembodied hand flipping the bird was the part that seemed to make the biggest impression.

12:47 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

"Something began to corrode horror movies by the late 60's, or was it me being less enthralled by them?..."

I think part of what was going on is a change from "scary fun" in movies to things more truly horrifying. By the end of the 60s, things like Night of the Living Dead, Targets, The Witchfinder General, Rosemary's Baby had come out, and they made the Hammer and AIP offerings look a little tired. To keep gothics relevant (or at least maintain some of the "fun", the choices seemed to be sex it up (Twins of Evil, The Vampire Lovers) or camp it up (Phibes, Theater of Blood). Plus, there seemed to be plenty of horror flicks coming from independent producers or euro imports to fill out double (or triple) bills.

Hammer and AIP (and Amicus) were able to hang on, but they weren't leading the market anymore.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

I have a serious question to ask: should the fangs be on the incisors or the canines?

1:02 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

ANYTHING but the placement used for fangs shown in Dracula's promotion (or maybe it's the guy wearing them). My own fangs bought several years earlier for fifty cents looked worlds better.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Those are some funny lookin' choppers!

10:09 AM  

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