Frighty Blighty: Mad dogs, razor blades, and Englishmen


Given the historical context and literary roots, it’s a wonder that the British film industry’s post-war exploration of Gothic chaos hasn’t attracted more theorists and cultists. Yankee genre bloomings, from the atomic-age giant-bug film to the Nam-era blasts of social anarchy, were about the nationally anxious now, but the English were never quite through with their Victorian past, as if haunted by the self-image created by yesteryear’s class decorum and colonialist morality. BAM’s retro is a substantial if quixotic sampling, beginning with an obligatory Michael Reeves salute, but including only one entry—1958’s The Revenge of Frankenstein—from the era’s premier cycle. Hammer Studios’ man-monster series, beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), superbly trumped the diminishing-returns, revive-the-lumbering-monster Universal run of the ’30s and ’40s by focusing on the good doctor, who, in the person of the cool, incisive Peter Cushing, became a refined, criminal megalomaniac on a cataclysmic power trip, creating one helpless disaster after another. Revenge, the first sequel, has little to do with monsters and everything to do with suffering and homicidal noblesse oblige.

Hammer, Tigon, Amicus, and the other small companies taking part in this wave of inexpensive psychotronica were productive enough to cross-pollinate styles, and so Captain Kronos, Vampire Killer (1972) is the first bloodsucking swashbuckler, and Roy Ward Baker’s The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) is a suitably ludicrous Shaw Brothers-produced hybrid, while José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) is merely the sexiest lesbian-vampire movie ever made in England, if not Europe.

Freddie Francis’s The Creeping Flesh (1973), a hammy yet disconcerting walking metaphor for viral menace, represents the beginning of the subgenre’s fade to black—15 years after Cushing’s and Christopher Lee’s rise to matinee eminence, and the same year The Exorcist realigned the horror film’s prospectus worldwide. It’s a long way from 1952’s A Ghost for Sale, Victor M. Gover’s rare, half-hour reassemblage of his 1946 mystery The Curse of the Wraydons; Ghost shows with Terence Fisher’s The Stranglers of Bombay (1960), whose Thuggee-terrified vision of vintage colonialist dread today suggests the need for a remake—from the insurrectionists’ point of view.

Francis’s Tales From the Crypt (1972) is a famous staple (mostly for Nigel Patrick’s gauntlet of mad dogs and razor blades), but Corruption (1967), directed by the neglected Robert Hartford-Davis, may be the retro’s coup. Rarely considered since its release, this stew of Frankenstein motifs and Eyes Without a Face has Cushing doing what he does best as a guilt-ridden, obliviously deranged plastic surgeon on a head-severing tear to salvage his fiancée’s scarred face. You might invoke Olivier or Greer Garson or Hugh Grant, but I’d nominate Cushing as Britain’s paradigmatic movie personage: icily superior, eminently reasonable, self-deceivingly amoral, and capable of untold ruin.