Monday, 30 January 2012

Review - Flesh And Blood, out Hammering Hammer?

Hammer films, eh? Everyone knows what they are, few people consider them much more than a lurid joke. Of course, being fans, we know better. Granted, some of their output was a bit lurid, particularly around the early 70s, and some of it hasn’t aged well (particularly the stuff made around the early 70s – but not, I might add, all of it).
But a lot of what Hammer did was, and remains, mightily impressive. Shoestring budget horror films raised above their contemporaries by strong casting, amazing design and some cracking writing which took the source material - a bunch of dusty old Gothic horror tales - and ran with it. So they may have started off by giving lip service to Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, J Sheridan Le Fanu etc (although you'd be hard pressed to gain your English Literature GCSE if you ignored the books and watched the Hammer film instead), but soon decided to chuck them in the bin and go off on wonderful, mental, flights of fancy.
When I started the British Horror Films website back in 2000, Hammer was dead. Buried. Long gone. With little hope of ever "rising from the grave" or any other dusty horror film cliche you could think of. The health of the British horror film was looking pretty poor as well - very little was being made, and what was being made wasn't being watched.
Things have changed muchly in the last decade. I’d like to think it was down to me and my website, but let’s face it, it wasn’t. The day that a hastily sellotaped together bunch of bad jokes, random swearing and photos of boobage manages to influence the multi million pound budgets of the film studios are still at least a fortnight off, if not longer. Yea though I may well get 150,000 page impressions a month, that means fuck all to The Man. And it would help if I updated the thing occasionally, as well.

These days, of course, as well as yer 28 Days Later, Dog Soldiers, Shaun Of The Dead and all the rest of them, we now also have a resurrected (sorry) Hammer, giving it all that with their remakes of Swedish horror films, strange penthouse thrillers and remakes of The Wicker Man (with a bit of Stephen King’s Pet Semetary thrown in). And the question is, who cares? Well, not the audiences, who appear to have stayed away in droves from the three aforementioned releases. And not me, because as far as I’m concerned, any fucker can stick the word “Hammer” in front of a film’s credits in a bid to get more gullible twats to watch it. Hammer’s horror output was never about giving their name to someone else’s work. It was about a small(ish) almost cottage industry approach to film making, producing entertainment using the same production teams, actors and sets over and over again to make something greater than the sum of its parts, and something that was immediately identifiable as part of a “brand”. Before people even knew about shit like that.

That’s why I’m far more interested in the forthcoming Hammer production of The Woman In Black, a gothic horror tale (good), in a period setting (great) ,with a high profile casting (excellent), based on a provenly terrifying book and play (superb), that we’ve just been told has been cut to achieve a 12 rating at the request of the makers (fucking shit wank bollock twats). Quidditch fan-attracting age rating aside, it seems like a step in the right direction. But only a little step. Hammer CEO Simon Oakes has already put his cards on the table gothic-wise, saying that he’s far more interested in making films that are “relevant to the modern audience” and that as far as Hammer’s back catalogue is concerned, he wants to do more of the “mini Hitchcocks” the studios churned out in between the full-blooded horrors (you know, those films NO-ONE HAS HEARD OF).
The whole Gothic horror film thing is a puzzler. No-one seems particularly keen to make them, including, it appears, Hammer, and yet people love them.
I myself, putting all personal taste and preference to one side, have always thought that there is a space for Gothic horror to thrive in modern cinema, if done well (Kenneth Branagh take note). This Christmas we had the BBC’s Great Expectations on the telly, and the entire planet watched it. People love a bit of Victorian melodrama, and it’s never been easier to do than now. Get a few blokes in top hats and a period street sorted out, and you can fill the rest in with computers. And who better to do that with a horror bent than a resurrected (sorry) Hammer?
But they won’t. As usual with these things, the people involved seem convinced that the future lies with cameos by Christopher Lee, starring roles for Hilary “who the fuck is she anyway” Swank, and publishing deals for books in a genre no-one’s reading any more. It’s a shame, cos I think that a new version of Dracula or Frankenstein done under the Hammer name would be absolutely brilliant, provided it was done right, with the emphasis on good acting, having the money on the screen and not trying to compete with the never-ending stream of crappy teenage-monster-in-love rubbish currently pouring out of Hollywood.

And so we come to Flesh and Blood, a new comic book which goes back to those classic Hammer gothics and plunders them unmercifully to produce exactly what Hammer should be doing now.
Do you remember the film Van Helsing? You might have blocked it out, and rightly so. Come on now, remember... in its favour it did at least have Kate Beckinsale playing a busty gypsy. Van Helsing was a Hollywood monster mash-up, pitting Dracula against Frankenstein’s monster against the Wolfman against Wolverine out of the X-Men. And it was shockingly bad, mainly because it had no heart, no soul, and had been created by a studio which had seen Stephen Sommers do an alright job on The Mummy and let him run riot with Universal’s entire back catalogue whilst playing with the “still not quite up to the job” digital effects that were prevailing at the time. If someone had had the sense to produce the thing as a homage to the old black and white movies it ended up bum-raping, more along the lines of a serious Young Frankenstein, it could have been tremendous. As it is, all I can remember is Kate Beckinsale and a scene where a horse and carriage somehow manages to jump a ravine.
Anyway, Van Helsing was shit. I think we can all agree on that. Luckily, Flesh and Blood, despite taking a similar creative line, isn’t (there’s one for the back of book 2: “Not shit, says”).
What it is is tremendous. A tour de force, a work of great love and considerable talent. And it would work for anyone who loves horror, not just fans of Hammer. Why? Because unlike Van Helsing it has been written and illustrated with love. Great dollops of it, pouring off the page and filling your eyeballs. Writer Robert Tinnell and artist Neil Vokes are obviously massive fans of Hammer’s glory days, and it shows. From the pacing and the settings to the dialogue and the look of the thing. There’s nothing within these pages that Hammer wouldn’t have done at the time, if they’d thought to bring together their back catalogue for a huge bust-up. It really is like Tinnell has taken an unused script by Jimmy Sangster, Tudor Gates or Brian Clemens and channelled it onto the page, with Vokes using his pen like Terence Fisher or Freddie Francis might have used their camera. And I can offer no higher praise than that.
So what is Flesh and Blood? Well, it’s a comic book. A graphic novel, if you’re of that rather 80s persuasion. It’s in colour, and there are a lot of pages.
The story sees the death of Carmilla the lady vampire bring about a right stagecoach-load of problems for an assorted cast including Baron Frankenstein, Abraham Van Helsing, Dracula and assorted characters from Hammer’s gothic stuff. The way it’s done is clever and original, with the characters retaining their signature Hammer-ishness (as an example, Baron Frankenstein is not the moaning muppet from the book, or the suave scientist from the Universal films, but very much the cold ruthless psycho Cushing portrayed).
There’s a lot of references to the films, as well - a nasty bat-driven bloodbath straight from Scars Of Dracula (except with decent effects this time), a sexy love scene with more than a passing resemblance to Lust For A Vampire (sadly without the jarring soundtrack this time), and a beheading with more than a nod (see what I did there?) to The Vampire Lovers. Cracking, and references which please the fans but don’t alienate the casual reader.
And that, after all, is what is important. I’ve often said that there is no point wallowing in the past - there’s a reason why when Vampire Circus comes out on Blu Ray it doesn’t race to the top of the charts, and that’s because it’s an OLD FILM, a period piece with little relevance for modern audiences. That’s not to say they wouldn’t like it if they tried it, but there’s no way anyone under the age of 30 is going to want to see something that has no relevance to them. I’m not saying that young people can’t appreciate an old film, but they don’t have the same terms of reference that we 40-somethings have. Their reaction is going to be “that effect was rubbish” / “why has nothing happened for 20 minutes?” / “who’s that?” / “why isn’t this frightening?” / “is I’m A Celebrity on the other side?” rather than “it’s amazing that effect used to look good” / “weren’t films better when they could take their time?” / “ooh, it’s Romana out of Doctor Who” / “when I saw this on BBC2 when I was 10 this was fucking terrifying, I had to sleep with the light on for weeks” / “stuff like this is so much better than I’m A Celebrity”. If someone is going to remake old Hammer films, they need to make them relevant for a modern audience, without losing the essence of what made them great the first time round. That’s what Tinnell has managed with his script, and it’s why the people behind today’s Hammer should snap it up for a film.

And before I go, because I’m aware this is turning into an unfocused meandering rant, a word about Vokes’ artwork. It’s lovely and fits with the script perfectly, but what stands out (fnaar fnaar) is the way he draws the ladies.
His style is relentlessly modern (in that cartoonish way that is the fashion these days) but the women are possibly the sexiest cartoons seen since Bob Hoskins’ jaw dropped in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
And that mixture of fun and horror (and enormous boobs) is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s Hammer, and it should be on the big screen, proudly proclaiming so. Flesh and Blood, I salute you for doing what the real Hammer won’t.

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