Reviews

Swinging Two Hammers: 'The Man Who Could Cheat Death' and 'The Skull'

Anton Diffring and Arnold Marlé in The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)

Two British horrors with iconic stars about doctors who can't heal themselves and the women who love them.


The Man Who Could Cheat Death

Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Anton Diffring, Christopher Lee
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1959
USDVD release date: 2017-03-14

The Skull

Director: Freddie Francis
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1965
USDVD release date: 2017-03-14
In one of these films, there's a true aspect to the fakery.
Newly on Blu-ray are two good-looking British horror films with iconic stars, both about scientific men punished for their hubris.

In Terence Fisher’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), the arrogant doctor is played by German-accented Anton Diffring, accepting a role turned down by Hammer Studios’ resident mad scientist, Peter Cushing. In Victorian-era Paris, a cold fish named Dr. Georges Bonnet goes around periodically murdering guys for their pituitary glands, as we see in the murky credit sequence that introduces him living behind the iron bars of No. 13 Rue Noire. He treats patients (never seen) while also sculpting busts of beautiful women, like Margo (Delphi Lawrence) and the love of his life, Janine (Hazel Court, fiercely ravishing). Unless he replaces his glands periodically, he glows green and goes somehow radioactive. Otherwise, he maintains his middle-aged youth forever, like Dorian Gray. Christopher Lee is on hand as the default straight hero, a dull part save for the fact that he's Christopher Lee.

Emphasizing the Dorian Gray parallel is Diffring's alienated vibe. Court once stated in an interview that she didn't understand why their scenes were so cold until she learned women weren't this actor's cup of tea, but this coldness and hesitation is part of his character. His sexuality is expressed by turning beautiful models into aesthetic marble and leaving the actual women unsatisfied while he goes searching for male glands. In fact, his models have a curious history of disappearing, which isn't sufficiently explained.

This promising material was adapted by Jimmy Sangster from Barré Lyndon's play The Man in Half Moon Street, filmed by Paramount in 1945. The studio still owned the rights, so it contracted with Hammer for a co-production. The result is very talky with spare and perfunctory action, a fact Fisher tries to offset by making sure Jack Asher's camera is never quite immobile amid Bernard Robinson's beautiful sets. People may be sitting around gabbing, but it's a pleasure to wander an eye over the Technicolor doodads around them. Fisher feels comfortable in projects where characters are trapped in their doom, and perhaps this is why Bonnet's home, where most of the drama is ensnared, feels like a prison.

Troy Howarth offers a commentary in which he discusses careers and makes remarks on the action, and there are two similar interviews with other historians, Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby. Newman places the film in Hammer's context and mentions parallels with Dorian Gray, while Rigby discusses the context of youth-making "monkey glands" in 1920s pop medicine and subsequent horror movies.

Peter Kushing and Patrick Wymark in The Skull (1965)

A film that goes refreshingly in the opposite direction, dialogue-wise, is The Skull, a giddy production from Hammer's rival Amicus. It's one of many horror films directed by Freddie Francis, who remains most famous as a cinematographer, with the result that his horror projects are more renowned for looking good than being scary. This one approaches avant-garde style.

The excellent Peter Cushing plays Dr. Maitland, a collector of occult memorabilia whose old friend (Christopher Lee) is glad to be rid of the Marquis de Sade's skull because of its poisonous, addictive, corrupting influence. Naturally, we're all agog to see how it works.

Amicus co-producer Milton Subotsky scripted from Robert Bloch's story "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade". This project shouldn't be confused with The Screaming Skull (1958) or The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959), although perhaps it's inevitable. Something about disembodied skulls of this period seemed to drive everyone bonkers, not to mention the skull-like mask of the hallucinatory The Mask (1961).

Besides Cushing and Lee, the bonanza cast includes Patrick Wymark as a shady antiquarian (the best kind), Patrick Magee (who would play de Sade in Marat/Sade two years later) as a coroner, Nigel Green as a police inspector, Jill Bennett of the angular clamlike face as Mrs. Maitland, Michael Gough thrown away as an auctioneer in one scene, and George Coulouris in another one-scene role where at least he gets to kill someone.

The first 40 or so minutes pace and sometimes plod through the set-up, again with nicely designed claustrophobic bric-a-brac rooms shot politely and looking better than ever in HD resolution. There are wordless sequences here and there plus a couple of flashbacks to the story of the skull and highly prejudicial explanations of de Sade, and then we're abruptly reminded that we're in the modern world of phones and cars, although our main three collector-bibliophiles hardly live in it.

Suddenly there's a Kafka-esque hallucinatory scene that might be a dream, and the final third of the movie has almost no dialogue, no bothering with character and such nonsense, only a sense of movement and weirdness as Maitland breaks down and does unfortunate things under the evil influence of the cursed skull -- the skull! It's what we've paid to see, and we get it in spades. After five minutes without dialogue, we have a couple of brief lines from Lee, then no dialogue again for the 15-minute climax, unless you count screams. All this is scored by Elisabeth Lutyens, whose career as a concert composer made room to explore avant-garde sounds in horror films.

It's what Alfred Hitchcock called "pure cinema", and it's pretty darn nightmarish and surreal. The floating objects are done excellently, the black wires only being visible in some late shots. Today these scenes would be done with CGI and might look convincing but we'd know it was fake, whereas in this movie, we know it's "fake" and yet we also know it's real in the sense that real objects have real floating relationships in the same room with Cushing. In other words, there's a true aspect to the fakery.

Again, Rigby and Newman have separate interviews on the making of the picture. This time, the audio commentary is by Tim Lucas, who offers his typically thorough backgrounds and genre connections while paying special heed to the effects of composition, set design, and color. He also offers quotes and comparisons from Bloch's story; you'll hardly find a more informed appreciator on a film such as this, and it deserves the attention.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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