A Brief Reign of Terror

David Sanjek

At a time when the English horror film was too often content to revel in exaggeration for its own sake, Gordon Hessler brought a measure of craft and intelligence to material that might otherwise have been hackneyed.


Director: Gordon Hessler
Cast: Vincent Price, Elisabeth Bergner, Patrick Mower, Hilary Dwyer
(American International Pictures/MGM Home Entertainment, 1970/2003); Rated: R

Director: Gordon Hessler
Cast: Jason Robards, Jr., Christine Kaufman, Herbert Lom, Lilli Palmer
(American International Pictures/MGM Home Entertainment, 1971/2003); Rated: PG

Director: Gordon Hessler
Cast: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Hilary Dwyer, Alister Williamson
(American International Pictures/MGM Home Entertainment, 1969/2003); Rated: M

Director: Gordon Hessler
Cast: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alfred Marks, Michael Gothard, Christopher Matthews
(American International Pictures/MGM Home Entertainment, 1970/2003); Rated: PG

:. e-mail this article
:. print this article
:. comment on this article

As the 1960s came to close, the English horror film reached a kind of crossroads. For more than 15 years, the genre had been one of the mainstays of the national film industry. The works of the Hammer studio in particular held a worldwide pedigree, and audiences associated a certain mayhem with the work of that company. Typically, Hammer films were set in the distant past, most often the Victorian era, and featured figures associated with time-tested fiction, like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein monster.

Bloody as these were, the disquiet they elicited was controlled -- some might argue constrained -- by the old-fashioned filmmaking. When censorship restrictions in England became undone in the late 1960s, companies like Hammer were free to exhibit what they previously struggled to intimate. This liberality led, unfortunately, to a lamentable lack of imagination, for the studio responded with little more than a sequence of films featuring bare-breasted female vampires as well as a routine display of gore.

Other companies took advantage of the change of regime with greater success, and a new body of directors came to be associated with the horror film. One of them was Gordon Hessler (1930- ). Born in Germany, he began his career in American television as a script editor and eventually produced the Alfred Hitchcock series. He took a leave of absence to direct his first film in England, The Woman That Would Not Die (1965), after Hitchcock turned down the material. In 1969, American International Pictures (AIP) hired him to help supervise a troubled production based on the life of the Marquis de Sade. Subsequently, he joined the company's foreign office in London as a producer and director, and churned out four pictures in three years.

In three of them, Hessler drew upon and benefited from two essential colleagues: screenwriter Christopher Wicking and cinematographer John Coquillon. While Wicking brought a fresh perspective to the genre's conventions, the late Coquillon possessed a keen eye, particularly for outdoor locations, and shared with Hessler a proclivity for documentary-like attention to details. (He would go on to shoot Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs [1972] and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid [1974].)

Hessler did not initiate these projects. AIP typically chose a title and constructed a marketing campaign that was presold to distributors before a foot of film was shot or a word was written. Oblong Box, Cry of the Banshee, and Murders in the Rue Morgue made the most tenuous of references to Edgar Allan Poe in their promotional literature, allowing the studio to link them with Roger Corman's work for AIP in the first half of the 1960s. The scripts given to Hessler and Wicking were often banal in the extreme, and required considerable and speedy re-writing. The fact that they produced work of interest and sometimes of considerable skill, speaks well of their grace under pressure.

The Oblong Box was assigned to Hessler following the unexpected death of Michael Reeves (1944-69). A tale of revenge, The Oblong Box depicts the disfigurement of Sir Edward Markham (Alastair Williamson), wrought by a group of African natives as retribution for the inadvertent murder of a child. Brought back to England by his brother, Julian (Vincent Price), Edward becomes a recluse against his will. He hatches an elaborate plot to escape, whereby he would appear seemingly lifeless through the means of a potion concocted by a native witch doctor, N'Galo (Harry Baird). Once buried, he could be unearthed with the aid of other cohorts. The plan is foiled, however, when Edward almost expires for real. Furious and driven nearly mad by his physical deterioration, the aristocrat wrecks revenge.

Hessler provides the requisite period detail of 19th-century England and coaxes commendable performances from his cast, subtly evoking Edward's malevolent presence through allusion and implication. Long before we ever see Edward's less than impressive makeup, Hessler's prowling camera stands in for the aristocrat caged in his own home.

The racial dynamics of the piece remain a bit dubious. The natives who torture Edward appear inhuman, in the opening scene shot through distorting lenses. At the same time, the revelation about the brothers' behavior in Africa brings an unexpected note of anti-colonialism into the film. The retribution wrought upon them turns out to be just punishment, such that the narrative is less about one madman on the loose than a thoughtful genre piece.

Cry of the Banshee is the least accomplished of Hessler's AIP features. He and Wicking did considerable research on the subject of witchcraft before writing the script, but AIP insisted they downplay the contrast between white and black sorcery. Instead, the picture amounts to a confusing concoction of disparate elements. Take a little nature worship by underclad extras, add a dollop of torture, stir in a family curse and top off with a transfigured monster. Preface it with a piece of a poem by Poe and, voila.

Price once again plays an imperious and sadistic magistrate, Lord Edward Whitman, this time in 16th-century Ireland. Incensed by the pagan rites practiced by a coven of Druids, he scatters the group with gunfire, killing several members in the process. Subsequently, he tortures any of his subjects whom he suspects of collaboration. The Druids' leader, Oona (Elisabeth Bernger), survives and places a curse upon Whitman and his family. Her revenge is personified by a figure known as a "sidhee." The creature takes the form of Roderick (Patrick Mower), a servant to Whitman and furtive lover of his daughter, Maureen (Hilary Dwyer). In turn, Whitman's family succumbs to Oona's spells. His wife goes mad, his sons die, and Edward must face the wrath of the "sidhee."

Hessler brings energy to these tired materials with great difficulty. The scenes in which women are tortured seem uncomfortably exploitative, included as a reason to disrobe the actresses. Those involving witchcraft devolve into shots of gyrating performers with late '60s haircuts attending to Bergner's overly emphatic curses upon the House of Whitman. Least successful is the monster. For the most part, Hessler wisely keeps it obscured and stages the attacks in the dark or off-camera, but when the figure finally appears in full view, the makeup lacks any credibility.

The subsequent production, Scream and Scream Again, is one of the most exhilarating genre films of the period. Adapted in only the vaguest way from a novel by Peter Saxon, Wicking's screenplay audaciously lays out a series of seemingly unconnected actions that eventually prove to be part of a widespread conspiracy. Hessler took a chance with this approach, as it requires that viewers suspend their confusion until the payoff. Scream and Scream Again combines the dislocated perspective one associates with Alain Resnais with the generic satisfaction of red-blooded exploitation. Imagine Last Year at Marienbad (1961) crossed with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

During the opening credits, a man runs through a city, then appears to suffer a seizure and collapses. We cut to a hospital ward. An expressionless nurse enters the room, checks on his condition, and leaves. The man then lifts up his sheets, discovers that one of his legs has been removed and screams. It will come as no surprise that, in creating this sequence, Hessler and Wicking had in mind the shocking start of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou (1929). There, a man strapping a razor turns to a seated woman and slices open her eye. Hessler and Wicking don't stop here: when we see this man later, he is being systematically dismembered.

As the film proper begins, a number of women have been found sexually molested and drained of their blood. A young physician, David Sorel (Christopher Matthews), accompanies Police Superintendent Bellaver (Alfred Marks) as he comes up against representatives of government security who want the case closed. At the same time, in an authoritarian foreign country, a group of upper level party members vie for power, only to be sequentially removed by Konratz (Marshall Jones), a dispassionate individual of inordinate physical strength.

Before the connections between these events are revealed, Bellaver and Sorel locate the culprit (Michael Gothard) behind the killings. This longhaired attractive young man eludes their pursuit in a well-shot chase sequence only to be cornered in a quarry and handcuffed to the rear bumper of a police vehicle. All of a sudden, he escapes by ripping off his entrapped hand. His fate leads the authorities to the offices of a research scientist (Vincent Price).

Scream and Scream Again was apparently admired by the great German director Fritz Lang, a specialist in evoking pervasive paranoia. The film confounds audience expectations by employing the documentary-like directness Hessler developed in his two previous films. By playing the outrageous with a straight face, the director creates a nightmarish scenario that's hard to forget.

The last picture Hessler shot for AIP, Murders in the Rue Morgue, possessed the biggest budget and led to the largest disappointment. Shot in Spain with an international cast, the project built upon the narrative experimentation of Scream and Scream Again, along with allusions to Poe as in his first two films. Wicking's script amalgamated Poe's killer ape with the performance of the material by a French Grand Guignol company, led by Cesar Charon (Jason Robards, Jr.). Also starring in the production is his young wife, Madeleine (Christine Kaufmann), who has been experiencing nightmares and what appear to be flashbacks in which an axe-wielding figure threatens her. Simultaneously, participants in Charon's troupe turn up dead, and suspicion falls on a former associate, Rene Marot (Herbert Lom), thought to be dead.

All of Madeleine's visions, presumed during the course of the film to be flashbacks, turn out to be flashforwards, prefigurations of events to come. That provocative effort amounted to a waste of time, for AIP completely re-edited the film, making linear what was not and removing 11 minutes in the process. They further trivialized the flashforwards by obscuring them with a red filter and cutting several other scenes.

This DVD restores all the damage, from the sole copy of Hessler's original cut, found in the MGM vaults. Unfortunately, much as the material proves to be more intelligible with the additions. Lom's villain comes across as a kind of bargain basement Phantom of the Opera, a role he had played for Hammer Studios in 1962 with equally unsuccessful makeup. The imagery that haunts Madeleine lacks the necessary touch of disquiet that would raise the hackles of the audience. Most of all, Robards appears detached, as if the role were below him.

On the plus side, Hessler again displays a keen appreciation of period décor, and the narrative develops a compelling momentum. However, the screenplay's inventive treatment of time does not have a visual equivalent. The scarred madman and the stone-faced figure in Madeleine's dreams fail to stretch our imagination like the fearful figures in Hessler's previous picture.

The DVDs of these four films have been released as double features in MGM's Midnite Movies series, The Oblong Box paired with Scream and Scream Again, and Cry of the Banshee accompanying Murders in the Rue Morgue. In addition to the first-time release of the complete version of Hessler's final AIP film, the other prints each incorporate material excised from the American release. These include the Terry Gilliam designed credits for Banshee, which bear an unsettling similarity to the work he would later do for Monty Python. Each DVD also includes an interview with Hessler, in which he discusses production processes, his relationship with AIP, and early tutelage under Hitchcock.

If, as he would himself argue, Hessler is a journeyman filmmaker, a craftsman, that does not mean his work fails to provide pleasure and the occasional palpitation. In the case of Scream and Scream Again, he shows that intelligent individuals can make unusual and edifying use of generic materials. At a time when the English horror film was too often content to revel in exaggeration for its own sake, Gordon Hessler brought a measure of craft and intelligence to material that might otherwise have been hackneyed. The degree of care that MGM has given to the DVD reissue may be a reward long overdue, but one he deserves nonetheless.

Pop Ten
Collapse Expand Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.