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Monday, May 30, 2011

Beautiful Screamers

NEWS FLASH!

I'm pleased to announce the launch of the Weird Movie Village Tumblr! Be sure to visit every day for your dose of strange pics, videos and sounds.

And now on with the show...

Last year I wrote a post entitled "Smashing Birds." Even though I said at the outset that it wasn't about avian abuse, I still get an amusing—and annoying—number of visitors to the page whose average zero seconds of reading time tells me they're Googling for bird torture and are sorely disappointed when they find that my post is about British starlets. I'm going to play it safe this time and give this post, which is similarly-themed, a different title.

Here's a look at a few of the most intriguing and memorable actresses who've played parts in the realm of horror and fantasy over the last 50 years. The list is not in any particular order...they're all great.

1. Barbara Shelley. Dubbed "The First Lady of British Horror," this elegant actress is considered to be one of Hammer Studios' greatest assets, and indeed she appeared in some of its most memorable offerings, including Quatermass and the Pit, The Gorgon, Rasputin, the Mad Monk and—my favorite performance—as Helen Kent in Dracula, Prince of Darkness.

After his appearance in the legendary Hammer Dracula (1958), Christopher Lee refused to play the part for nearly eight years, but was finally persuaded to come back for this film. However, he considered the dialogue that was written for him to be so poor that he refused to speak it, so he plays the part mute. Not to worry...Ms. Shelley picks up the slack as Helen, an extremely uptight and paranoid English matron who is traveling through the Carpathians with her husband and another couple when they have the bad luck to be ditched by their superstitious coachmen and are forced to spend the night at Castle Dracula.

Although Drac had disintegrated to dust in the first film, his faithful servant, Clove, has been hanging onto his remains, waiting for an opportunity like this. Helen's husband is strung over the vampire's coffin and exsanguinated, and soon the monster is bubbling back to life. Revived and hungry, he turns to Helen for refreshment, and she transforms from an almost Mary Poppins type into a sensuous, scary creature of the night.

Her attempted seduction of her sister-in-law (Suzan Farmer) is erotically twisted, and her snarling viciousness as she is restrained by priests in preparation for her staking by Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) is just terrific. The staking scene itself still resonates. Dressed in a flowing gown and being restrained by numerous male arms, even though she's become a monstrous creature who needs to be destroyed, it still plays as a kind of rape, especially when the blood gushes out around the stake.

Another memorable role for Shelley was Anthea, birth mother of one of the creepy alien kids in the original Village of the Damned, whose fear of the little monster was tempered by her natural built-in maternal love. And who could forget her Sonia, the poor lady-in-waiting who is the recipient of the manipulative Rasputin's lustful advances...until he doesn't need her anymore, and then she snuffs it?

Shelley's captivating beauty and rich, modulated voice enabled her to play a variety of roles and ages. After the Hammer films she did a lot of television, but it was good television: "Dr. Who," "EastEnders," "Maigret"—even a recurring role in a 1981 miniseries version of The Borgias. Although a recent stroke has slowed her down a bit, Shelley still makes appearances at fan shows when she can. I'd like to get the chance to meet her.

2. Ingrid Pitt. Another face of the "new Hammer," Pitt was never a blushing flower. She is best remembered for two films: The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Countess Dracula (1971). The former is an important film, as it was released at a crucial time when the studio was trying to reposition itself to appeal to adult audiences.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Hammer had always been reliable for delivering more extreme Technicolor violence, earning it the slogan "the studio that dripped blood," but the liberated sixties, with films like Bonnie and Clyde, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Midnight Cowboy, showed the heads of Hammer that they were losing touch with their core audience, and they realized that they would have to reinvent Hammer as—to put it crudely—"the studio that showed tits."

The Vampire Lovers is based on Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novel "Carmilla," about a lesbian vampire, and indeed Pitt, playing the mysterious houseguest Carmilla/Mircalla, arrives at a small village and wastes no time putting the bite on the resident virgins. The always-reliable Peter Cushing plays the General who is unwittingly playing host to the vampiress until he figures out what's going on and brings a halt to the proceedings with a well-aimed stake. This was the first Hammer film released with an "R" rating in the States, and it's the first from the studio to have nudity and sex. Pitt has no problem taking her kit off and does so in several scenes.

In Countess Dracula, Pitt plays an aristocrat who finds that bathing in the blood of virgins preserves her youth, so she must procure an endless supplies of nubile beauties to support her habit. It was directed by Peter Sasdy, who helmed a few of the "new Hammer" films, including the very good Hands of the Ripper (1971) and the interesting Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970).

Pitt worked regularly throughout the years in every genre, even appearing in several episodes of "Dr. Who." She was also an author and an early adapter of the Internet, launching her "Pitt of Horror" Web site back when it was rare for celebrities to do such a thing. She also loved her fans and was a tireless participant at conventions, giving autographs and talking about her career with eager fans. Sadly, she died last year at age 73. She is missed.

3. Caroline Munro. With her deliberate voluptuousness, Munro embodied the "new Hammer" starlet for the 1970s.

As Hammer moved into its R-rated decade, innocent-looking beauties like Yvonne Monlaur and Veronica Carlson were replaced by harder-edged actresses like Munro and Stephanie Beacham. Even Joanna Lumley ("Absolutely Fabulous") checked into Hammer for Dracula A.D. 1972!

I don't mean to suggest that Munro always essayed tough girls, however—she played her share of maidens in films like the odd Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974) and even Vincent Price's beautiful—but dead—wife in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).

And what an incredible career she's had! She was a Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), she fought dinosaurs in At the Earth's Core (1976), and she even appeared in Jess Franco's trashy but fun Faceless (1987), starring an unhinged Helmut Berger.

Probably her most notorious film is William Lustig's sleazy, adults-only Maniac (1980), in which she plays New York photographer Anna who develops a hesitant romantic relationship with Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) who, unbeknownst to her, is a serial killer. It strains credulity that she would be attracted to this greasy, pockmarked guy, but the film is so awash in 42nd Street grime that it fits...somehow.

I remember seeing posters for it everywhere when I first moved to Los Angeles. The distribution company, Analysis, had gained notoriety with the hardcore Caligula the year before, and Maniac was also touted as an "adults only" release. With Tom Savini's over-the-top gore, it's a disgusting experience, but it also serves as a valuable time capsule of the era. Just as Last House on the Left killed the "flower power" sixties, Maniac disemboweled the disco 70s.

Munro is still working regularly, and when I met her at a "Monsters Among Us" convention in Los Angeles in 2003, I found her to be utterly charming.

4. Stephane Audran. A French actress with unusual beauty, Audran's career has spanned more than fifty years. Of course, my favorite Audran performance is as the titular character in Gabriel Axel's Academy Award-winning Babette's Feast (1987), but she also appeared in several genre films, including Le Boucher (1970) for her then-husband, the noted directed Claude Chabrol, known as the "French Hitchcock." In it she plays a schoolteacher who falls in love with a murderous butcher.

Also for Chabrol she played a dual role in The Champagne Murders (1966), a confusing psychological thriller starring a sexually ambivalent Anthony Perkins. In Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon (1981), she plays the wife of a cop-turned-serial killer. And in Franco's previously-mentioned Faceless, she plays a patient at a plastic surgery clinic who gets a hypodermic needle jammed into her eye!

She was also in a neglected giallo, The Spider Labyrinth (1988), and it sounds like a film I need to seek out. With special effects by Fulci favorite Sergio Stivaletti, it's been compared favorably to an Argento film by those who've seen it. Oh—and she was also in Luis Bunuel's classic The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and the Jean-Claude Van Damme starrer Maximum Risk (1996)! Now that's variety!

Still active, Audran's latest role is in 2008's The Girl from Monaco playing—you guessed it—a murderer!

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