There’s a bit of a misnomer in the title of this film: while there are many corridors, there’s very little blood featured in what amounts to an effective thriller from 1958.
Corridors of Blood stars Boris Karloff in rare non-monstrous mode as Dr. Thomas Bolton, an expert surgeon in the Victorian period searching for the key to painless surgery. Bolton’s humanitarian efforts to discover anesthesia have him experimenting on himself with a mixture of gases until he finally finds the mixture that works. Unfortunately, the mixture also causes blackouts that have Bolton wandering London, getting into mischief and eventually being exploited by underworld criminal Black Ben (Francis de Wolff) and his associate Resurrection Joe (Christopher Lee) to sign false death certificates for murder victims.
Corridors of Blood is a surprisingly slow-moving film for its run time (it comes in at less than an hour and a half), taking awhile to build the character of Bolton and the world of barbarous surgery that he’s trying to reform. The most intense scenes are also the earliest, as Bolton performs amputations without the benefit of anesthesia. That in itself is horrific enough and Bolton’s colleagues seem to be immune to the suffering of their patients, relying on the refrain that you cannot separate pain and the knife. Bolton disagrees, but as he gradually becomes addicted to the anesthetic gases with which he experiments his own surgical skill suffers.
While far from a horror film, Corridors of Blood is actually quite effective at creating a sympathetic protagonist whose gradual downfall is entirely due to his humanism (in contrast to your usual mad scientist). Christopher Lee puts in a strong but underused performance as the sepulchral Resurrection Joe, a character who looms out of dark corridors dressed in a funeral coat and top hat. The other characters are fairly stock, from the earnest young doctor who wants to make a difference to the sweet Victorian maiden (Bolton’s niece) confused by what’s going with her uncle. Still, though you can predict the ending of this film, that doesn’t make it any less poignant.
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee made a remarkable 22 films together over the course of four decades – the first being one where they never even appeared in the same scene, as the pair actually appeared in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948. More often than not they were antagonists, pitted against one another in a series of Dracula films from Hammer Studios and as Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. It’s a pleasure to come across a film where the two friends share the screen and are (mostly) friendly with one another.
Horror Express is not a Hammer film, but it certainly looks and sounds like one. The film features Lee as Sir Alexander Saxton, an archaeologist and scientist who discovers a “missing link” in a cave in Manchuria. Returning to England with the specimen via the Trans-Siberian Express, Saxton hopes to change the face of science with his mummified creature. They’re joined Saxton’s friendly rival Dr. Wells (Cushing), his assistant Miss Jones (Alice Reinhea), and a whole gang of suspicious characters that include a Polish Countess and her husband, a lovely stowaway, and a mad monk. Also on board is Inspector Mirov (Jose Pena), a police officer following Saxton around after the sudden and inexplicable death of a thief in close proximity to Saxton’s mummy. As soon as the train starts moving, people start dying. It rapidly becomes clear that the thing Saxton has in that case is not quite as dead as it appears, and is capable of murdering with one glance of its shimmering red eyes.
Horror Express is something like The Mummy meets Murder on the Orient Express with a healthy overtone of Italian giallo. The influence of the latter becomes obvious during the murder sequences, a bit more violent and disturbingly realistic than your usual horror fare of the time period. The violence is not overdone, however, and the film relies more cleanly on the slow realization of who, and what, is doing the killing. An abrupt shift halfway through the film makes for some excellent tension, while Saxton and Wells join forces to stop the creature and protect as many people as they can.
Cushing and Lee are enjoying themselves here, as perhaps the only English speakers in a Spanish/British horror film with a primarily Spanish cast. They begin initially as rivals and quickly become buddies, facing the monstrous horror with two very stiff upper lips. The pair are always fun to watch together; their chemistry tends to leap off the screen, even when the surrounding events might make lesser actors into hams. The rest of the cast is quite impressive on the whole, with no one standing out as a poor performer among the rest. You have to be willing to enter into the madhouse spirit of a film like this to get any enjoyment out of it, but at least the cast seem game, taking their parts seriously without overacting.
There’s really not much to complain about with Horror Express, so long as you accept the initial and rather silly premise. The denouement does feel rushed, however, and raises a number of questions of plotting that are never satisfactorily answered. The sudden introduction of Telly Savalas as a Cossack commander is jarring, not least because Savalas does not even attempt to sound like a Cossack. The final showdown comes off as perfunctory, especially after some strong tension building over the rest of the film.
I would not put Horror Express forward as the best film Cushing and Lee made together, but it is very far from the worst. It’s a solid, enjoyable hour and a half spent in the company of one nasty monster, and two of the finest horror actors to ever haunt the screen. As we mourn Lee’s passing, we can find a bright spot in the idea that he’s still stalking monsters with Cushing, on the screen and, perhaps, elsewhere as well.
Hammer Studios went into decline as they skated into the 1970s. Their returns would rapidly diminish; they would begin replacing their brand of well-made camp horror with ever greater exposure of skin, blood and pointless violence. But there were a few remnants of the old Hammer as the studio went into the 70s, and none is weirder, or more enjoyable than Dracula A.D. 1972.
The year is 1972 (in case you missed it) and Count Dracula has been dead for 100 years. But his acolytes live on, and it’s time for the King of Vampires to return to wreak havoc on the groovy chicks of swinging London. Dracula is resurrected by a bunch of bored hippies, led by the nasty Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame). While the others take the whole satanist ritual as a big joke, Johnny is dead serious. Dracula returns from the dead, looking pretty damn good for being dust and ash for the past 100 years. He wants blood, and he wants it now; cue Johnny running around procuring sexy girls to satisfy Dracula’s bloodlust. But Dracula is particularly interested in chowing down on Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), one of Johnny’s friends and the youngest descendant of Laurence Van Helsing, who staked the undead Count. Meanwhile, Jessica’s grandfather Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and a police inspector (Michael Coles) investigate the mysterious deaths of the young maidens that Dracula has been draining.
Dracula A.D. 1972 is the height of Hammer camp, with a groovy go-go soundtrack, crazy clothes and drug-addled hippies (what with their loose morals and blood-sacrificing ways). There are some uncomfortable parallels between Dracula’s murders and the Manson family killings that only took place a few years before; the film trades on the mainstream fear of the new generation, with the group of friends always looking for a new thrill. There’s an added fluid sexuality – Dracula’s acolytes are all men instead of brides – and, as always, the heaving bosoms and red-paint blood we all expect from Hammer.
But when you come down to it, no Dracula film works without Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Lee thankfully does not have to wander around swinging London or board a bus in his cape; he instead sticks to the de-sanctified churchyard while Johnny does his dirty work. Cushing and Lee are excellent adversaries, even when they barely spend a moment on-screen together: Cushing’s slight physicality, his solid Englishness, the quiet intensity with which he tries to protect those he loves, juxtaposed against Lee, tall, elegant, with booming voice and nearly black eyes. They make a great team, and Dracula A.D. 1972 brings them together once more.
Dracula A.D. 1972 might be the last great Hammer film. While it shows signs of wear and tear – and foreshadows the studio’s decline – it still has enough campy fun to go around, punctuated by some serious moments of true horror.
Add me to the long, long list of annoyed geeky bloggers with a serious chip on her shoulder over the Twilight franchise. Add me also to the long, long list of hipsters who, like, totally was into vampires before vampires were cool. And I’m talking PROPER vampires. The ones with fangs and bloodlust; not the sparkling vegetarian high school ones (what the fuck is a vegetarian vampire, after all?)
Back in the long, long ago, vampires were scary as well as sexy. Apparently True Blood is attempting to fill that void, as it were, but even those Bayou vamps are more the descendants of Anne Rice’s sexually confused dandies than Bram Stoker’s creation of pure evil. And you gotta admit, Bram Stoker gave us the world’s greatest vampire, the King of Vampires, evil incarnate. Stoker’s Dracula was not sexy; he was not tortured over his vampire-ishness. Despite a fairly pronounced death drive, what he really wanted to do was drain everyone’s blood and create an empire of the undead. You know, a good, old fashioned take over the world kind of villain. He had fangs. He turned into a bat and a wolf and assaulted Victorian womanhood, manhood and childhood. He brought out the evil in the staunch Victorian middle-classes, making them turn on each other, forcing them into deeper and deeper depravity in their attempts to annihilate him. He was one evil sonofabitch.
Dracula has been a lot of things over the years, and has been progressively defanged since Browning’s 1931 film made him into a foreign gentleman. Time passed, Christopher Lee gave us a sexier Dracula, then a Dracula who rides the number 7 bus. Finally, Frank Langella gave us disco Dracula. And that was sort of the stake through the heart for ol’Drac. Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000 proposed that Dracula was actually Judas (!); Gary Oldman in Coppolla’s inappropriately named Bram Stoker’s Dracula definitely had the tortured romantic thing going on, but then he also did some raping and pillaging. At least Dracula never really lost his fangs, or the whole ‘I want to suck your blood’ mentality. Until now.
Vampires have typically represented the sexual confusion and mores of their time periods. It’s no accident that the most memorable vampire showed up nearing the end of the Victorian era, a time characterized by excessive sexual repression, two very ugly occurrences involving sexuality (Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde) and the escalating debate over the rights of women. That Dracula transformed over time into a tortured lover, a gentleman, a man not quite as evil as he initially seemed, seems to reflect the changing desires of the culture he comes out of. Dracula began to stop being scary when sex stopped being as scary. But today, something very weird has happened.
Twilight has enacted a sort of double repression. The vampire, rather than being an eruption of the chaos world, an embodiment of the darkness at the heart of middle class society, becomes instead fully integrated into that society. A misunderstood, not terribly dangerous celibate, continuously repressing natural desires (in the case of a vampire, blood and sex) in favor of asceticism: being a ‘good’ vampire. Sex is not to be indulged until marriage, at which point it becomes violent and bruising, resulting in a rather Cronenbergian pregnancy and C-section. And that’s romantic. The books and films present Edward as the ultimate romantic lover, but the entire romantic relationship is a reinforcement of the very patriarchal norms (men are animals, sex is evil and painful, etc.) that the vampire was originally a reaction against. By making the vampire the hero, the Twilight franchise has managed to invert the purpose of the monster (the return of the repressed) and make the monster himself into a romantic symbol that reinforces that repression. The Victorians couldn’t have accomplished it better. Vampires have ceased to be scary. They’re now pale young Englishmen with sparkling skin who resist the passions of the flesh … until, of course, they beat the hell out of their partners in the marriage bed. How romantic.
It saddens me to see Drac and his brethren fall so far from grace. I hope that we someday regain some of the kinkiness that has always characterized vampire lore (True Blood is the one hope for the future of the bloodsuckers). I don’t know what Edward Cullen and the rest of those sparkly Mormons are, but they sure as hell aren’t vampires.