The 1966 horror, science fiction, and exploitation slate may be most infamous for what many claim is the worst film of all time: Manos: The Hands Of Fate. It’s also the year that Barbara Steele made her last Italian Gothic, An Angel for Satan (which we’ll cover later in a Steele retrospective). William “One-Shot” Beaudine was responsible for back-to-back western horrors: Billy The Kid Meets Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Michael Hoey banked on Marilyn-imitator Mamie Van Doren to lift Navy vs. The Night Monsters (it didn’t work) while Curtis Harrington and Michael Reeves made futile attempts to salvage films started by others: Queen of Blood and The She-Beast, respectively. Hy Averback tooted his horror horn to warn us of hooked killer Patrick O’Neil in Chamber of Horrors and Freddie Francis had us screaming about Deadly Bees. Considerably better was Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby Kill. It was Hammer Horror and Hammer-related films, however, that owned the year’s genre product.
officially resurrected the Count in Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, with Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelley trading saliva in Anthony Hinds’ screenplay (written under his usual pseudonym John Elder). Fisher jumped ship and headed to Universal (momentarily) for Island of Terror, starring Lee and Peter Cushing, but directed with little enthusiasm.
Lee, Shelly, and Hinds teamed again that same year for Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk, which is effective trash as only Hammer could deliver. Hinds’ previous writing credits include Brides Of Dracula (1960), Curse Of The Werewolf (1961) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963). 1966 was a busy year for him, having also scripted The Reptile (see below). Hinds continued writing for Hammer up until their cult TV series, “Hammer House Of Horrors” (1980).
The leftover sets from Prince of Darkness must have affected Lee, because he delivers one of his best performance as Rasputin. He is perfectly cast. The film opens moodily in a pub with a local doctor departing after having dismissed any chances of survival for the innkeeper’s wife. Moments later, Rasputin enters, put his hands on the ill woman and, through the intensity of his look alone, immediately heals her. Now a hero of sorts, Rasputin engages in drunken song and dance with the locals and takes off to have his way with the innkeeper’s daughter in the barn. Interrupted by the girl’s fiancée, Rasputin cuts off the poor man’s hand. When the locals turn into an angry mob, Rasputin escapes via horseback and returns to his monastery. Shocked to discover that Rasputin is a monk, the locals take their grievances to the bishop. As defiant as ever, Rasputin dismisses his superior with the defense of having committed sins worthwhile for God to forgive, as opposed to mere petty sins. Booted out of the monastery, Rasputin hypnotizes Sonia (Shelley), a lady-in-waiting for the Tsarina (Renee Aspersion) into injuring the young price, which naturally leads to Rasputin being called into heal the boy and inserting himself into the inner circle of the royal family.
Lee frequently complained that he wasn’t given much to do in his vampiric roles. That is not the case here. He drinks poison, seduces Shelley (again), throws acid in a man’s face, and gets thrown out of a window. With much of the same cast as Prince of Darkness, the other standout performance is Shelley, who convinces us that her unofficial title as “The First Lady of Hammer” should probably have been an official one.
Being Hammer, the emphasis is on the horror as opposed to the political, which may have been out of necessity since Prince Yusupov (believed to have been involved in the plot to assassinate Rasputin) was still living, and had previously sued MGM for libel over their film Rasputin and the Empress (1932). For whatever reason, the emphasis here works. It’s an idiosyncratic but apt mix of horror and religion. Unfortunately, the energy begins to wane, in both scripting and direction, which leaves the actors and Don Banks’ score to keep the momentum going.
Like 1964’s The Gorgon, The Reptile is hampered by its low budget, and while it succumbs to a number of genre conventions it has winning qualities, which include a female monster and stylish direction by John Gilling. Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) has inherited his late brother’s Cornish cottage. After moving there with his wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel), Harry finds the villagers to be an unfriendly lot, suspicious of strangers due to the black death, whose victims foam at the mouth and turn green. Harry soon discovers that all the victims were bitten on the neck by a snake: a reptilian Countess Dracula named Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) who has been cursed by a cult of snake people. Roy Ashton’s makeup work here is striking, particularly with the limited budget he was given. Gilling throws off the pastiche of clichés and admirably keeps Reptile moving with a menacing pace until its combustible finale. He’s helped considerably by Pearce’s beguiling performance.
Gilling shot The Reptile back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies, using many of the same sets and actors. Together, The Reptileand Plague have earned a small cult following as chic Gothic siblings. Despite having zombies as a subject, Gilling’s second entry is a commendably restrained Hammer entry. Again, locals are being murdered. The culprits are zombies (as in the voodoo variety). Jacqueline Pearce again stars, and her role here is similar to the previous outing with Gilling. For reasons unknown, Pearce is seldom mentioned in the Hammer babe indexes, which is unfortunate as she has more charisma than the bulk of the stock. She later starred in the British televisions series “The Avengers,” and most memorably in the cult fave “Blake’s 7.” Ashton’s makeup here is again striking and highly effective, creating a chilling tribe of zombies who can be seen as a bridge between Val Lewton and George Romero. Plague differs from its elder brother in having a political subtext, which today may seem anathema in its portrayal of the upper class as antagonists. A visually robust dream sequence, in which zombies claw their way out of the grave to pursue a victim, has been much imitated and is a testament to Gilling’s craftsmanship. Plague is additionally striking for its vivacious pacing, ardent characterization, and impressive performances from Pearce and John Carson (as a subtly caddish aristocrat in red jacket).
Thanks primarily to Gilling, both Reptile and Plague are enjoyable, modest standout productions during a period of Hammer fatigue. Gilling’s first horror film was the dreadful Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952), which at least featured an animated performance by Bela Lugosi. His next genre outing was 1956’s strange but uneven The Gamma People. He returned in 1960 with the underrated Burke and Hare opus Flesh and The Fiends starring Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance. Shadow of the Cat (1961) and Blood Beast from Outer Space (1965) are both slightly better than their titles would suggest. He would again team with writer Hinds in 1967 for The Mummy’s Shroud, which floundered badly. After that, Gilling was relegated to television with the exception of one final film: Cross of the Devil (1975), which no one seems to have seen.