The Snow Queen (1966)

I have recently been working my way through a pile of DVDs of Russian fantasy films – not reviewing them all here, but if you’re a regular reader of this site you know the Russian fairy tale genre is something I’ve been championing for a few years (in particular the masterworks of Aleksandr Ptushko). But to come across an unexpectedly wondrous little film like Gennadiy Kazanskiy’s The Snow Queen (1966) has rejuvenated my enthusiasm for what Soviet-era cinema has to offer in fantasy storytelling. I can confidently tell you that you’ve never seen a film that looks or feels like The Snow Queen before, although its giddy appropriation of different special effects styles and animation may bring to mind the Czech fantasies of Karel Zeman, and some of its imagery might remind you of classic Walt Disney. Certain passages align closely with Aleksandr Rou’s long series of Russian fairy tale films, but the storytelling and characterizations are more sophisticated. This is because Kazanskiy’s film is based not on Russian folklore, but on Hans Christian Andersen’s melancholy tale “The Snow Queen.” Andersen is even a character, introducing the story and then diving in to participate. Kazanskiy, who was coming off a major hit in his home country with the science fiction fable Amphibian Man (1962), and who had directed the Arabian Nights fantasy Old Khottabych (released in the U.S. as The Flying Carpet, 1956), treats Andersen’s story as fairy tale spectacle, packing each scene with imaginative ideas without ever risking boredom in his young audience.

Natalya Klimova, as the Snow Queen, spies through the window.

Andersen (Valeri Nikitenko) tells the story of a brother and sister, Kay (Slava Ziupa) and Gerda (Elena Proklova), who are visited one day by a pallid and gaunt ice salesman (Nikolai Boyarskiy) who wishes to purchase their grandmother’s red roses in hopes to cultivate and sell them during the winter. She treasures the roses and refuses, and in revenge the man, who is actually the servant of the magical Snow Queen (Natalya Klimova) in the distant North, summons her to punish the family. She kisses Kay and turns his heart to ice – he becomes cruel and follows her on her sleigh to her palace. Gerda runs away to search for him, occasionally assisted by Andersen himself. Along the way she meets a talking, bespectacled crow; a king who steps out of a painting in his castle and tries to trick Gerda into becoming his prisoner using magic flying skis; a party of forest bandits under a banner of skull and crossbones, popping out of doors hidden in trees, and led by a bandit queen and her clever daughter; a helpful reindeer who carries Gerda to the North; and finally the Snow Queen herself. Gerda discovers her brother drained  of color and trying to spell “Eternity” with little ice cubes at the Queen’s command (he looks a bit like David Bowie’s Pierrot in the “Ashes to Ashes” video). Gerda restores his humanity and defies the Snow Queen’s stormy fury.

Gerda (Elena Proklova) searches for her brother with the assistance of a crow.

The depth of the characters and even the deployment of comedy receive more consideration than you would typically find in the straightforward genre of Russian fairy tale cinema. Consider the bandit queen’s daughter (Era Ziganshina), who saves Gerda from the clutches of the Snow Queen’s counselor but only because she wants to claim Gerda for herself: a friend is a thing as valuable as the rest of her mountain of loot which she shows off proudly. She quickly deprives Gerda of her belongings, claiming that friends share, and pulls a pistol on Gerda to let her know that the sharing is a one-way transaction. Only when Gerda – with a little help from H.C. Andersen – explains that her brother will freeze to death in the Snow Queen’s clutches does she win the girl’s sympathy. She gives Gerda back her belongings and allows her to continue her quest on the condition that Andersen tell her a story. He relates Gerda’s own tale – a story of the story we’re already watching, in a mildly meta twist – and her eyes moisten. This thawing of her heart is echoed in the eventual literal thawing of Kay by Gerda’s telling him stories of what he’s missed at home while he’s been away. Stories, and their ability to move us, conquer all. (Earlier in the film, the King must also receive a special appeal before he can be won over; it is the prince and princess who make the necessary impact. The King wants to capture Gerda to please the Snow Queen’s counselor, because otherwise the man might stop delivering his precious ice cream.)

Gerda encounters cel-animated guards at the Snow Queen’s palace.

Visually, the film is superb. The Snow Queen is a giant accompanied by a whirlwind of animated snow. Commenting on the action are a tiny gnome and a living inkwell (an actress in costume), seamlessly swapped out with a model when the gnome lifts off her head by a hinge and dips a pen down her neck to get ink for his message. The talking crow is a mechanical puppet that even walks, leading Gerda to his cottage in a meadow. The King’s castle is haunted by cel-animated ladies in waiting and weightlifting strongmen projected on the walls and over Gerda’s Red Riding Hood cape. When she steals the King’s magic skis, she flies overhead in them. In riding the reindeer to the Snow Queen’s realm, both become animated figures running over the snow toward an impressionistic painting of the Aurora Borealis – as though it is perfectly ordinary for any fantasy film to switch suddenly into a cartoon. And I doubt any children watching would flinch at the transition. The Snow Queen’s palace is guarded by more animated figures who collapse into piles of snow and ice when Gerda defies them, and the palace itself, as she advances, is a procession of paintings, miniatures, minerals and crystals. Her throne room is a vast plain of black ice which dwarfs its inhabitants, Gerda and Kay – it looks like a tableau straight out of Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman (1951) or something by William Cameron Menzies. While Kay tries to spell “Eternity” with his ice cubes, he’s lost in a vast, abstract production design, trapped inside his own mind. But the physical/metaphysical, live action/animated, shape-shifting world of The Snow Queen is also an accomplished simulation of a child’s rich imagination.

Posted in Theater Fantastique | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scars of Dracula (1970)

Following hot on the heels of Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), in which Christopher Lee was just barely convinced to pick up Dracula’s cloak once more, Scars of Dracula (1970) was conceived as a double bill with a new Frankenstein picture (the failed reboot Horror of Frankenstein) to try to revive the studio’s fading fortune. With American financing having dried up, Sir James Carreras – soon to walk away from the studio he’d once ushered to great success – turned to the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC), recently taken over by EMI; the resulting films had a much lower budget, and it showed. Roy Ward Baker, who had just directed the exploitation classic The Vampire Lovers (1970) as part of Hammer’s short-lived deal with American International, was handed the reins to the Dracula film; screenwriter Jimmy Sangster directed the Frankenstein. The two pictures made for an irresistible poster, but the films themselves were weak tea compared to Hammer’s glory years – a troubling sign as the studio entered its most fraught decade. A Region B Blu-ray from StudioCanal, part of the company’s new wave of Hammer releases, offers fans an opportunity to reassess with an attractive and colorful HD presentation. The film still compares poorly to other entries in the long-running Dracula series, but its virtues sit alongside its flaws so equally that depending on your mood, Scars of Dracula is either abysmal or a guilty pleasure – a fun, bloody bit of Gothic sleaze. My opinion flips each time I watch it, and this time, I admit, I was a bit more favorable.

Paul (Christopher Matthews), fleeing the Burgomeister’s men, drops in on his brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) and Simon’s squeeze Sarah (Jenny Hanley).

Unusually, the film dispenses with one of the most enjoyable aspects of the franchise: it does not pick up where the last one left off (which was merely Dracula collapsing in a church, so it’s no big loss). Still, Dracula is in a state of dissolution once again, and is immediately, improbably revived by a giant vampire bat that spills blood out of its lips onto Dracula’s powdered body. This bat, and his bat brethren, are practically main characters in Scars, so it doesn’t help that they’re far too phony looking to appear in a film made in 1970. Dracula is soon feasting on the neighboring villagers; the “scars” of the title appear over an image of one of his victims and the bite marks on her neck, though we will later come to see other, more sadistic kinds of physical scars left by the Count. (The film’s literal-mindedness makes it fruitless to apply a metaphorical interpretation of the title.) The angry villagers, led by a priest (Michael Gwynn, Village of the Damned), storm Dracula’s castle, attack his servant Klove (Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor Who) and set fire to the place, leaving it in ruins. Later, we meet Paul (Christopher Matthews), who’s sleeping with the Burgomeister’s daughter (Delia Lindsay), a bawdy misadventure that eventually throws him into a carriage carrying him away toward the mountain village in the shadow of Dracula’s castle. Hammer mainstay Michael Ripper plays a tavernkeeper (of course) who turns him out in the middle of the night, leaving Paul with no choice but to seek the castle for shelter. He’s greeted by a warm and surprisingly chatty Dracula, one more in line with the character who greeted Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s novel than the often-mute persona of evil Lee usually portrayed. Paul is seduced by one of Dracula’s mistresses (Anouska Hempel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and meets his fate when he discovers Dracula’s secret crypt, whose only door is in the sheer face of the castle wall. As with Psycho, our main character is abruptly offed and it’s left to a young couple to go looking for him: his brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) and Simon’s girlfriend Sarah (Jenny Hanley, The Flesh and Blood Show).

Dracula (Christopher Lee) at rest in his crypt.

It’s no secret that although Hammer’s Dracula films have inspired a loyal and enthusiastic following over the decades, their storylines and characterizations often pale in comparison to the more fascinating Frankenstein films of Peter Cushing. Scars of Dracula is no exception, unless you are to compare it directly to its counterpart Horror of Frankenstein, a series low point. Though I love the Dracula franchise, I’m still baffled that the screenwriters time and again applied so little imagination. Writer and Hammer exec Anthony Hinds has his pseudonym (John Elder) on the script, and as a result it maintains a certain standard of quality, but it is also out of ideas…with one exception: a welcome return to Stoker’s source novel, which surely appealed to Lee. The castle-bound Dracula is allowed to be a gentleman again, showing his feral side (and bloodshot contact lenses) only when he feasts or exacts his revenge. Baker, studying the novel, insisted his film also contain the book’s surreal image of Dracula scaling the castle wall. If there is one aspect of the film I truly love, it is the notion that Dracula’s crypt is inaccessible to anyone who is not a vampire or a bat (and this is the sole matte painting in the movie that actually looks good); the image of Paul descending toward the crypt by bedsheet is a great deal of fun, and when Simon gets stuck in this dank room near the climax, there’s a genuine feeling of peril. Elsewhere, Troughton’s portrayal of the servile Klove is interesting because the depraved man becomes more sympathetic as the story moves along. Fixated by a portrait of Sarah in a stolen locket, he is moved to save her life and Simon’s; only later do we see him turn against Simon, as it’s the girl he truly wants. There’s also the fact that Klove’s relationship with his master has a trace of homoerotic S&M, as he willfully exposes his scar-laced back, asking Dracula to punish him for his transgressions.

Simon descends the castle wall.

This being a 1970’s Hammer film, proceedings are more graphically portrayed. Vampire bats – who don’t seem to be at Dracula’s control so much as acting as his gleeful co-conspirators – slaughter villagers taking shelter in a church in one sequence, blood splashed against the walls, Baker’s camera zooming in on ripped flesh. Dracula enacts his rage on Anouska Hempel by stabbing her over and over with a knife; the BBFC had the resulting scene cut which showed him drinking from her wounds. Hanley’s ample cleavage, which takes a starring role in the final reels, is at one point mauled by a bat (trying to rip a cross necklace away from her); she spends the climax with her breasts scratched bloody. There’s even a bit of gratuitous nudity early in the film, though it is nothing compared to The Vampire Lovers (or the many sexploitation films that were arriving in seedy British theaters). Yet there is a tackiness to the film which can’t be overcome, most obviously in the scene of Dracula’s demise. These requisite climactic moments are usually pretty disappointing in anything made after Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), but Scars features the worst of them all: Lee, holding an iron spear, is struck by lightning, swapped out with a stuntman in a phony-looking mask who’s set on fire, wobbles about in slow-mo, is replaced once more with a stationary dummy, and finally by what seems to be a lit match flung off a miniature castle. Over this I would gladly take Dracula being surprised by stained glass windows and falling off a balcony (Taste the Blood of Dracula) or being defeated by a bush (The Satanic Rites of Dracula). Astonishingly, this kitschy climax and the ending credits are accompanied by one of composer James Bernard’s very best scores. Bernard always rose to the occasion, and the swooning theme for Scars of Dracula might as well belong to a Romeo and Juliet adaptation. You have this, and you have Lee giving a more enthusiastic-than-normal performance, so I can’t complain too harshly when it comes to Scars. Anyway, soon Hammer would be forced to become a bit more imaginative when it came to their most famous monster – by transporting him to 1972 London.

Posted in Theater Caligari | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment