Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Jimmy Sangster wrote a lot of movies for Hammer Films, including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). When he was asked to write a sequel called The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) – which the producers had already sold based on the title and poster art, Sangster reportedly said “I killed Frankenstein in the first film.” The producers said “you’ll think of something” and told him he had six weeks before shooting started. 

I love stories like that. As a writer, nothing gets my creative juices flowing more than a bunch of strange requirements and limitations. Give me a box to work in, and a deadline, and odds are I’ll come up with something fun and interesting. On the other hand, if you tell me to write whatever I feel like – and to take as along as I want to do it – I will probably never deliver anything. There’s something about the challenge of taking an idea that seems impossible and trying to make it work that I’ve always found irresistible. And deadlines are not only helpful, they’re practically essential. I don’t know how many times I’ve been forced to deliver something that I didn’t think was ready – like a song for new children’s musical a few years back. In spite of not being happy with what I had, I brought it to rehearsal and discovered that it not only worked, but people LIKED it. Left to my own devices, I probably would have kept tinkering with that song for days, trying to make it better. I might have even thrown the whole thing out and started fresh with a different idea. Would it have been better? I don’t know. But I can tell you that after I heard the cast perform that “flawed” version a few times, I couldn’t have imagined it being anything different.

I’m not sure how Jimmy Sangster felt about the results of The Revenge of Frankenstein, but the general consensus is that it’s a very good sequel. Sangster found a fresh story to tell – as opposed to just repeating the events of the first film, as so many sequels seems to do. It almost feels more like a  compelling art-house drama than a monster movie – although the horror eventually comes. 

Jimmy Sangster has to be one of the most prolific writers of horror films, and other thrillers, of all time. He’s got 75 credits listed on the IMDb. They’re not all horror films, of course. He also wrote the made-for-TV comedy The Toughest Man in the World (1984), starring Mr. T as a bouncer named  Bruise Brubaker. I remember seeing that one when I was a kid, but I had no idea who Jimmy Sangster was at the time. Sangster wrote a lot of made-for-TV movies after his time with Hammer Films had ended (or was winding down). My friend Brian and I watched one called A Taste of Evil (1971) during one of our annual movie marathons a couple of years ago (as I may have mentioned before, we have taken to exploring made-for-TV horror in recent year). About halfway through A Taste of Evil, I suddenly realized that it was kind of a remake – or maybe a rewrite – of an earlier script that Sangster had written for Hammer. I won’t say which one, as I don’t want it spoil either film, but it’s proof that Sangster really knew how to get the most out of a good idea. 

Sangster also wrote episodes of TV shows, including The Six Million Dollar Man (1974–1978), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974–1975), and Wonder Woman (1975–1979) – which were all important shows of my childhood. Okay, I didn’t actually see Kolchak: The Night Stalker until later, but it would have been important if I’d seen it back then, believe me. I’m not sure if Sangster ever reused any of his old movie ideas on these TV shows, but it’s certainly possible. I’ve heard of TV writers from that era reusing the same basic plot on three or four different shows, so why not reuse a movie plot?

To be clear, I’m not criticizing this approach. In fact, I admire it. I’ve read the same advice in relation to freelance magazine writing. If you’re going to spend time and energy researching a topic, don’t just pitch one article that makes use of that research. Pitch five different articles to five different magazines. I suppose nowadays, they might  talk about websites, podcasts and blogs more than magazines. Whatever the case, the advice is still good. I’ve often wondered if I could somehow apply it to my own writing. Like say, for instance, I was commissioned to write a play about a very specific period of Canadian history. I study that period intensely for a couple of years, reading every book I can put my hands on, and I now know more about that period of history than I could ever use in a single two hour play. So, why not write two or three plays? They could have completely different stories and characters, and/or focus on different aspects of that same period of history. Or, even better, I could write a screenplay or pitch a TV series based on that same research. Or, when the theatre that commissioned me in the first place decides not to produce my play, I could turn it into a screenplay or TV series, or whatever I want. Of course, this is all completely hypothetical. Or theoretical. Or 100% true – I get the proper terminology mixed up…

I’ve never been good at getting the most out of the work I’ve done, although I did reuse one song I wrote in a second musical, so I guess that’s something (although honestly I think it might have been a mistake, for various reasons – but that’s another story). I guess what I’m trying to say is that I find Jimmy Sangster to be an inspiration. I only hope that one day the inspiration, and admiration, will somehow translate into determination and action as well.

Oh, and in case I haven’t been clear, Sangster knocked it out of the park with this Frankenstein sequel. Not that it’s all about him. Director Terence Fisher delivered a beautifully shot, atmospheric movie and Peter Cushing was as brilliant as ever in the title role. Eunice Gayson, best known for playing James Bond’s girlfriend in Dr. No (1962)  and From Russia with Love (1963), is also very good as the sympathetic Margaret Conrad. If you’ve enjoyed The Curse of Frankenstein, or any other Hammer horror films, you will definitely want to see The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). A good deal more classy and classic than the average #NotQuiteClassicCinema, it’s the kind of movie that can take an ordinary #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn and turn it into something special.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Horror Express (1972)

I bought a book at a yard sale when I was a kid. It was called Star Streak, Stories of Space and was edited by Betty M. Owen. I was probably inspired by my love of Star Wars (1977), which was pretty all-encompassing for a couple of years back then. The stories in Star Streak…, however, were not much like Star Wars. The first (and longest) one was actually Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. I knew this to be the story upon which two movies were based: The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982). I had seen the former on TV, perhaps on Not Quite Classic Theatre (although I don’t think so). Oddly enough, I had not seen the “remake” by John Carpenter – in spite of the fact that I was a huge fan of Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980), and that the movie was playing in the theatre at a time when I was going to several movies a week. My friend Phil went to see it and became an instant super-fan – drawing artwork inspired by it, and talking about constantly. He wanted to go back and see it again – and he wanted me to come with him. For reasons that I cannot to this day explain or fathom I said no.

What the hell?!

I could go on at great length expressing the absurdity of this decision in light of all of my feelings, personal tastes – and the fact the I loved the movie beyond belief when I finally did see it. The fact remains, that I did not want to go and see The Thing at that moment – I almost can’t believe that we were ALLOWED to go and see it in the theatres. It seems like a movie that should have been rated R, but I guess it wasn’t.

I also couldn’t believe it when I found out later that the film had been a box office disappointment on its initial release. I’ve always known it to be a beloved fan favourite, and seemingly very popular (at least on video). But apparently it was not so successful during its initial theatrical run. Perhaps I was not the only fan who refused to go to it for some, inexplicable, reason.

The point that I am very slowly coming around to, is that when I finally did see The Thing, I was immediately struck by the fact that it was not a “remake” of the 1951 classic. It was actually a much more accurate adaptation of the original novella, Who Goes There?. It blew my mind to think that a “remake” could be a more accurate version of the story than the original film. And, dare I say, a better film as well (although I do love the Howard Hawks original). 

What I did not know at that time, was that there was another movie that was, in a sense, a version of Who Goes There? – and a more accurate version than The Thing from Another World (although not as accurate as John Carpenter’s film). That movie was, and is, Horror Express (1972).

I had been aware of Horror Express for quite a few years. I used to see cheapjack public domain VHS copies of the film floating around in bargain bins and on video store shelves. And, oddly enough, I never had the impulse to rent it (or buy it). In fact, I had actively avoided seeing the movie, refusing to rent it with friends if it was ever suggested. In that way, it was just like John Carpenter’s The Thing. For no reason that I could ever articulate, I just didn’t want to see Horror Express. It’s almost as if i had an allergy to movies that were (at least somewhat) accurate adaptations of Who Goes There?.

I don’t really think this can be true. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that there was anything in common between The Thing and Horror Express. I think I was just turned off by the plentiful, shoddy looking VHS boxes. But who knows?

I finally watched Horror Express when a friend of mine lent me a copy and insisted that I give it a shot. It was better than I had imagined, but it was a pretty bad print of the film, so I don’t think I was completely convinced. I watched it again a few years later, via another terrible print, and this time I decided that I needed to buy a copy – but only if it was a good, remastered print. Thanks to the Arrow Video Blu-ray, I’ve finally added it to my collection.

The thing that amazed me most about it, aside from how good it finally looks and sounds, is that it is, clearly, a version of Who Goes There?. I’m not sure that I ever quite realized that when I watched the shoddier prints of the film. If I had noticed any similarities, I probably would have written them off as simple borrowings of ideas from other films. In any case, for the first time ever, I realized what an interesting version of Who Goes There? Horror Express truly is.

I won’t bother trying to itemize the parallels, or even synopsize the plot. I’m probably the last person on Earth to catch on to how great this movie is – nobody needs me to tell them what it’s about. I will say that it has an amazing cast, including Christopher Lee as Professor Sir Alexander Saxton,  Peter Cushing as Dr. Wells, Silvia Tortosa as Countess Irina, and Telly Savalas as a Cossack military officer. The music by John Cacavas is also excellent.

I suppose it could be noted that most of the movie takes place on a train, which is a departure from all of the other versions of Who Goes There?. I seem to have a strange fondness for movies that are set on trains. This may all go back to my childhood, when I managed to watch Breakheart Pass (1975) three times on TV (in those days before home taping was possible). I’m still not sure how I did it (once on the US cable network, once on the Canadian channel and…?), but I remember distinctly seeing it three times in fairly short order. Needless to say, I thought it was pretty cool (and still do). But that’s another story…

Horror Express (1972) is an example of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that would probably be a lot more revered and respected if it hadn’t spent so many years being passed around on bad public domain videotapes. I personally avoided it for a long time because of that, and I regret it (although not quite as much as I regret not going to see The Thing in the movie threatre back in ’82 – sorry about that, Phil). I am so glad that I finally have a complete and pristine print that I can screen anytime I feel like it, and what better time could there be than a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn?

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Gorgon (1964)

I remember seeing Clash of the Titans (1981) in a movie theatre when it was brand new. For those who may not know, this was the last movie to feature Ray Harryhausen’s ground breaking stop motion animation special effects. Ray Harryhausen had done effects for such #NotQuiteClassicCinema classics as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), and, perhaps most famously, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and the Sinbad movies, beginning with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and including my personal favourite Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). Harryhausen produced Clash of the Titans, which felt like a continuation of what he’d been doing with Sinbad… and Jason…(bringing mythological creatures to life, etc.) and retired (more or less) shortly thereafter. 

By 1981, Harryhausen’s style of special effects were a little old-school next to the likes of the Star Wars movies, but they still had me completely captivated as a kid. Seeing the film again, just a couple of years later, I noticed the difference. But that first viewing was magical. Perhaps the most memorable sequence to me, was the one in which Perseus, our hero, confronts the Gorgon Medusa in her lair. Being a fan of horror movies, even at that young age, I found the portrayal of Medusa, with live snakes for hair, to be delightfully monstrous. Anyone who dared to look directly at her was turned to stone (as evidenced by the collection of stone statues all around her), and that was frightening and exciting all at once. Over the years, i have rarely encountered a cinematic creature more memorable than Medusa.

Over the next two decades, I spent a lot of time in video stores, examining movie boxes and renting as many as seven tapes at a time (thanks to a special deal at Movie Village, my store of choice during and after my university days). I recall seeing the box for The Gorgon (1964) on the shelves, but for some reason I was never moved to rent it. It certainly did not have the effect on me that the box for Vice Squad (1982) had had. I wonder why?

I had loved Medusa in Clash of the Titans, and I immediately recognized her style of snake-hair on the front of the box. But maybe that was the problem. Maybe I felt like I had already seen the ultimate Medusa movie, and I didn’t need to se this one. Or maybe I felt like it was something that I had liked as a kid, but that I had no real interest in now that I was older. Or maybe I noticed that it was a Hammer Film that didn’t feature vampires or Frankenstein and I didn’t see the point in that. Who knows?

Of course, all these years later, the fact that The Gorgon is a Hammer Horror that doesn’t feature vampires or Frankenstein is precisely what makes it interesting to me. And so I watched it, for the first time, last Friday. And the first thing that I must clarify is that it is NOT a Medusa movie after all. It’s about another Gorgon named Megaera. Why? Perhaps because Medusa had been famously killed centuries ago, so how could she be in Europe in relatively modern times turning townspeople to stone? 

But wait! It gets weirder. According to Greek mythology, Megaera is not a Gorgon at all. She is an Erinýe, or Fury. There were three of those, just as there were three of the Gorgons. And the Erinýes also had snakes for hair, so perhaps the filmmakers figured six of one, half dozen of the other. Or maybe it was as simple as the name Megaera sounds a bit like Medusa, and is slightly easier to pronounce than Stheno or Euryale, the actual other Gorgons. Who knows? 

None of this really matters, because The Gorgon is an entertaining monster movie that has more in common with a classic werewolf story than an ancient Greek epic. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I hate spoilers and I think people should experience movies for themselves to get the full effect. Let’s just say that there have been a series of murders in a small European town in the early 20th century. And the town’s doctor, played by Peter Cushing, is covering up the fact that the victims have all turned to stone. Christopher Lee plays a professor and friend of our young hero, Paul (Richard Pasco), who comes to town to help find out who murdered Paul’s brother and father. 

Apparently The Gorgon was the first movie to feature both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee since The Mummy (1959). If that’s true, this film is certainly proof that a reunion was long overdue. They are both excellent, and their performances make The Gorgon (1964) required viewing for all fans of horror, Hammer Films, and #NotQuiteClassicCinema. Either one of those men, on his own, would be a good reason to spend a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. Both of them together make it essential.