As Gore Vidal once sagely noted, the trouble with golden ages is that there’s always some spoilsport around to point out that, in retrospect, everything somehow looks too .?.?. yellow. So it is with the American Cinematheque’s well-chosen survey of the blood-soaked output of a number of independent British studios — Hammer, Anglo-Amalgamated and Amicus among them — between 1955 and 1975.
Despite winning notoriety in their time for censor-baiting levels of violence, gore and cleavage exposure, the early Hammer successes — Horror of Dracula and Revenge of Frankenstein, which inaugurated the studio’s lucrative practice of plundering Universal’s monster gallery — now look like the rickety, bottom-of-the-bill fare they in fact were. Only in such a tame and sexless era of British cinema could they have seemed so distinctive. When the bottom fell out of the second-feature market in the early 1960s, British horror should by rights have died along with it. But distribution deals with American firms kept it artificially alive — albeit destined mainly for grindhouses and drive-ins — until American money withdrew altogether from the British film industry in the early ’70s, after which not even Dr. Frankenstein could resuscitate the genre.
While it lasted — or, more precisely, as it deteriorated into numbing repetition and banality — British horror was a gothic parallel universe presided over by Hammer’s tentpole stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee — the former a country boy whose querulous, RADA-imposed diction sometimes struggled to cover his rural burr; the latter a war hero, a stepcousin and golf partner to Ian Fleming and that author’s choice for the role of Dr. No. (The Cinematheque is showing The Face of Fu Manchu, with Lee as Sax Rohmer’s Asian criminal mastermind, which hints promisingly at what might have been.) Cushing could do good or evil, but Lee was the revelation, playing Dracula in a dozen movies as an explicitly sexual presence who stood in pointed contrast to the weedy and effete vampire-hunters on his trail. Sadly, the films’ supporting casts were padded out with underdirected character players (future Batman butler Michael Gough was one especially egregious chewer of scenery); bland, sexually neutered male leads (Ralph Bates and Simon Ward among them); exiled American drunks like Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy; and sundry, saccharine female victims whose names were forgotten as soon as the fangs lodged in their pale throats.
The further one moves away from Dracula, Frankenstein and Hammer, though, the more engaging and less bombastic the Cinematheque’s series becomes, encompassing the primitive but cerebral science fiction of Nigel Kneale and Val Guest’s Quatermass movies and the chillingly ambiguous occult vision of RKO stalwart Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 Curse of the Demon — which features a notably creepy set piece involving a possessed, shuddering medium channeling three spirits of sharply contrasting accents. Elsewhere, The Nanny is a queasy and manipulative minor classic by Seth Holt, starring Bette Davis in all her swivel-eyed, post–Baby Jane glory, tormented almost to insanity by her possibly psychopathic young charge. (It’s also blessed with seasoned stage actors like Jill Bennett and James Villiers, several cuts above the usual cannon-fodder contract players.) And I Start Counting — a hen’s-tooth rarity — is an eerie and menacing portrait of the sexual awakening of a pubescent Jenny Agutter, which coincides with a series of vicious sex-killings, possibly committed by her foster-brother, who happens to be the object of her burgeoning affections.
A Golden Age, then? No. But a raffish, lowbrow Crimson Age? That’s more like it.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH HORROR: 1955–1975 | At American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater | Through June 25 | www.americancinematheque.com.