Monday, February 16, 2009
Everything You Desire
Over at his essential Moon in the Gutter site, Jeremy Richey is in the middle of a month-long celebration of films that have for whatever reason not yet been released on DVD. I have several favorites that fall into this category that I’ve written about before but I’ve tried to come up with a few other titles that qualify. Some of my own favorites in this category seem to be those that have slipped through the 70s-80s crack, forgotten about by everyone except for film buffs who pay attention to such things. You know, the FREEBIE AND THE BEANs of the world. Why certain films aren’t getting a release is a mystery, particularly the ones that feature recognizable names. But going beyond that to other eras, what’s also strange is that just about every post-1958 film from Hammer Films has been released on DVD in America, even the most obscure titles, but there has been no sign of their excellent but largely unheralded version of the H. Rider Haggard novel SHE. This is particularly unfortunate because it remains one of the most accomplished entries made by the company. It seems like a Region 2 release has happened, but nothing in Region 1 for us in the States (and for the record, I have no intention of getting a multi-region player, thank you very much). It’s tough to figure out if this is a case of a studio not caring or maybe even if there is some kind of obscure rights issue (oddly, the quasi-sequel THE VENGEANCE OF SHE, which I’ve never seen, has been released on DVD though it’s owned by other hands). Even odder is that when MGM released it on tape back in the 90s, it was letterboxed to its full CinemaScope ratio so it has at least been available to see in the proper form in some format. Fortunately, I managed to nab a copy when Jerry’s Video closed down. SHE stands apart slightly from many of their other films not only because it’s more of an adventure-fantasy than a horror film but also feels somewhat more upmarket, maybe because of the presence of star Ursula Andress. The budget feels slightly bigger, the running time is longer and the story feels like it holds together a little better as a result.
Palestine, 1918—With the war over, archeologist Holly (Peter Cushing), his valet (Bernard Cribbins) and young friend Leo (John Richardson) are feeling without purpose, with no desire to go back home to England. Musing over drinks one night, saying how they’re not sure what to do with their lives, the decision winds up being made for them when Leo meets a young woman named Ustane (Rosenda Monteros) who takes him away from the nightclub to where he learns what certain people have in mind for him—he is in fact the reincarnation of the long-dead love of the luminous Ayesha, “She who must be obeyed” (Ursula Andress). Convinced that he has been told the truth, Leo and his companions, decide to make the long trek across the desert in search of the lost Pharaonic city of Kuma where he hopes to once again find Ayesha and discover “everything he desires” which may even mean eternal life as well.
The older I get, the more problems I see in certain Hammer films, probably a result of meager budgets, weak casting and haphazard scripting. That doesn’t mean I don’t love some of those films. To be honest, I’m not even sure I’m as big a fan of SHE as some of those (Hammer doesn’t get much better than FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED), but if anything that may have to do with my own genre preferences. Quite a few of those films are 80 minutes of buildup followed by a brief climax but SHE (directed by Robert Day, written by David T. Chantler, “based on the famous novel” as the credits tell us) feels like a more complete and developed story with characters that are well-explained and developed as well as a mood that captures our imagination right from the start. Shot by Harry Waxman, who also photographed THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE and THE WICKER MAN among others, it’s easily one of the best and most richest-looking films from Hammer during this period. True, not all of it has dated particularly well--its portrayal of dark-skinned natives ruled by light-skinned masters (including the likes of Ursula Andress, among others) does feel slightly uneasy in this day and age but at least this element never overwhelms the basic story. It does resemble certain other Hammer films by keeping the top-billed Andress offscreen through much of the first-half after a big introduction but that makes sense—the protracted journey of the characters across the desert adds to the anticipation and having the actress play a supernatural creature who is dreamed of more than actually seen is really an ideal use of her. Lead actor John Richardson, whose role in Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY would make these two an ideal double bill, is an appropriately stoic main character but looking at it today one of the big pleasures of SHE is getting to watch Peter Cushing in one of his best supporting roles. He doesn’t have to be the paragon of virtue that Professor Van Helsing was and he’s not the uptight bastard that Victor Frankenstein and certain other villains he played were. It’s hugely enjoyable to see him in a looser, more human role, one in search of life and adventure, but still very much the voice of reason. The mixture of excitement and emotion we hear in his voice when he looks at a map and exclaims, “So it’s all true. And I shall live to see it,” makes it a genuinely thrilling moment. As the queen’s right hand man Billali, Christopher Lee has a role that is a little more of the sort he’s been seen in before, but the longer running time allows a character such as his more shadings than he would get otherwise. One scene where Cushing asks Lee certain questions almost seems to have been inserted to give the two actors a scene to play together but it does help clarify both characters’ viewpoints and does keep certain balls in the air that ultimately make for a more rewarding experience. Another scene where Cushing discusses the reasons why immortality doesn’t have as much appeal to him at his advanced age is also something that could be lost in a tighter cut but it provides some food for thought that the film doesn’t otherwise contain and is probably the actor’s best moment here. Seeing these two great actors in such roles that are worthy of them is a real treat for anyone who’s had to deal with numerous films that didn’t take proper advantage of their presence—in some cases, other films that both of them appeared in.
The film’s score by James Bernard is probably one of my very favorites by that composer, with the recurring ‘trek across the desert’ theme being a personal favorite, lending the perfect feel of a boys’ adventure to the whole thing. But the heavenly theme heralding the presence of Aeysha, coupled with the otherwordly beauty of Ursula Andress feels perfect in how it convinces us that we really are on some other plane of reality where achieving immortality may really be possible. Or maybe it’s just the feeling given by a film from another time, the kind of film that presents us with this mood that we will never see again. Like many Hammer films, the pacing is somewhat leisurely in this day and age, maybe even moreso with this film’s 106 minute running time but seeing multiple entries from that studio where it feels like the end credits get rushed onscreen as soon as humanly possible at the end (and kept at around 90 minutes, I assume to allow for double billing), this is a reminder of how much more rewarding a viewing experience something like SHE can really be. It’s a memorable display of how thrilling the films that came out of Hammer were and also makes one wish that they had made more of them that contained as much ambition.
It’s also a tape I guess I’ll have to take care of, because I’m going to want to see it again at some point. Here’s hoping we get a disc one of these days, because it could be a beautiful thing. Certainly SHE deserves to be placed alongside some of the best films that ever came from Hammer. And to keep with Jeremy’s current theme, here are links to a few pieces I’ve written in the past on movies that also sadly remain unavailable on DVD.
THE WILD LIFE
THE NEW AGE
FREEBIE AND THE BEAN