Archive for Freddie Francis

Grey Matter

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2015 by dcairns


I’ve been known to mock Curt Siodmak, to refer to him as the great Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother. “Is he your favourite idiot brother?” my friend Alex asked the other day. He isn’t even that, I was forced to admit — W. Lee Wilder is a still more remarkable specimen of the breed.

But I was really impressed by TV movie Hauser’s Memory — teleplay by Adrian Spies, based fairly faithfully I think on Siodmak’s novel. And then I stumbled on a copy of Donovan’s Brain, young Curt’s best-known book. It was filmed three times officially — as THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston, as DONOVAN’S BRAIN with Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan (wouldn’t they make a houseful) and as THE BRAIN, by Freddie Francis with Peter Van Eyck, but Curt hated all three versions. The radio production with Orson Welles is better — probably. I’ve been saving it for last.

The book is really enjoyable, with memorable characters in its cold-fish narrator, a rather inhuman scientist who steals the brain of a dying millionaire, and various sleazy types he meets once the brain starts to telepathically force him to do its bidding. The formula is similar to Hauser’s Memory  — a dead character possesses a live one, so while there’s a battle to maintain personhood by a character invaded by a foreign mind, there’s also a kind of investigation/puzzle where we want to find out the secret motivation of the mental invader.


Siodmak had the unenviable task of retraining himself to write in English after he fled Hitler. Other filmmakers managed to adapt readily, but for a writer the challenge was far greater. Language was Siodmak’s instrument. Like his former collaborator Billy Wilder, he never quite got the American idiom down pat, but Wilder always worked with brilliant co-writers to smooth out any linguistic kinks. In his novels, Curt has to struggle along by himself. He would write sentences like “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” which possibly plays better in German, though I’m not wholly convinced of that.

Donovan’s Brain has sentences like “I woke at a very early morning hour,” which is weirdly OFF. In German, “very early morning hour” is probably one word, some beautiful compound noun a foot long. He gets his commas wrong here: “It might like a blind man, feel the light or, like a deaf one perceive sound.” I had to read that a couple of times to make sense of it, did you? And then there are bits where he reaches for an effect and his awkwardness with English makes him fall flat on his face: “Even the fact of our marriage had been dissolved in my work’s acid domination.”

But despite this, the book is a really good read! And it has bizarre stuff in it that’s never made it into any screen version. At one point, disoriented by the brain’s long-range control, the hero falls into a ditch and gets his vertebrae compressed by a steam shovel. He has to wear a full torso plaster cast that makes him look like a turtle for thirty pages. And this has no real impact on the plot at all. But it’s something I’d love to see in a film. It would particularly suit Von Stroheim, I feel.



Young Curt was scathing about the changes inflicted on his book by filmmakers. In the Stroheim atrocity, directed by the sometimes skilled George Sherman, the mad scientist lives in a castle — in Arizona! — and the plot stops for a Spanish speciality dance before the brain has even been hatched. The novel goes like a train, but there’s no chance of zip with Erich setting the pace. The filmmakers supply him with a limp, just to slow things down even further, and instead of being an antihero he’s made a straight villain, with Richard Arlen as one of those useless heroes whose only purpose is to protest each new plot development. Ralston is fabulously bad, flashing her eyelashes with every other line to give “significant” looks.


Felix Feist’s fifties fiasco is a lot closer to the letter of the book, but while Siodmak’s protagonist was somewhere between autism and Camus’ L’Etranger, Lew Ayres plays it repulsively HEARTY, and says things like “C’mon, get with it, baby!” I wanted to slap his brain. The more the script tries to render him likable, the creepier he gets. But I liked Gene Evans, who doesn’t seem like a movie surgeon at all, and who therefore may resemble a real one, I’m prepared to believe. And the future first lady vivisecting a monkey makes it kind of worthwhile.


Freddie Francis (who also made THE SKULL!) brings more visual panache to his version than his predecessors, though the monkey brain earlier on is one of the most laughably inept props ever — it looks like a half-deflated balloon with the crenellations drawn on in magic marker. Anne Heywood, Bernard Lee, Cecil Parker, Maxine Audley — the supporting cast is excellent, even before you get to Miles Malleson as a sherry-swigging coroner (who fails to say “Room for one more inside” despite ample opportunity) and Jack MacGowran as a blackmailing morgue attendant. Peter Van Eyck is the closest anyone has gotten to capturing the icy callousness of Siodmak’s protag, though he’s also curiously antic. But the plot gets caught up in scheming and forgets all about the poor brain. The balance is upset. Siodmak complained that the filmmakers added a stripper, but there’s no sign of her in the print I viewed.Though Anne Heywood, always game, flashes a nipple for about four frames.

Now I guess I have to watch CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.


Shit Happens

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2014 by dcairns


THE VAMPIRE HAPPENING is a late-career travesty from Freddie Francis. It was pretty obviously going to be terrible post-synched nonsense from the off, but I kept watching, lured in by two strange, pataphysical coincidences. Firstly, the vampire lady is called Clarimonde, which is the name of the vampire in a film I made, also called CLARIMONDE. The name comes from the Hanns Heinz Ewers story I was adapting, and he got it from another story, La Morte Amoreuse, by Theophile Gautier. Having discovered that one, I pilfered a speech from it, using the beautiful translation provided by Lafcadio Hearn, thus involving three masters of the supernatural in one fourteen-minute film (or four masters if you count me. OK, four masters.)

The second coincidence occurs at the airport scene near the start of the film — European seventies horror movies are addicted to airport scenes — see also THE HORRIBLE SEXY VAMPIRE, BARON BLOOD, and especially LISA AND THE DEVIL. This is odd, since airports are the least supernatural or Gothic places in existence, although they are very seventies. Even today.

(I never thought of them as spooky until I found myself at Marco Polo Aeroport coming back from Pordenone, and it was entirely deserted. And after I had a nice chat with the man working the baggage x-ray (when they airport is quiet, these people are relaxed and fun to chat to) I was proceeding into the echoing depths of the empty air-mausoleum, and his voice boomed out of the tannoy wishing me a happy flight, by name. THAT was spooky.)

The weird coincidence though was a voice on the PA announcing the next flight to “Slabovia,” which is a fictional East European country, sort of an anti-Ruritania, invented by me for a Channel 4 education programme called The KNTV Show around thirty years after Francis made his film. So how did it end up being name-checked in THE VAMPIRE HAPPENING?


(Belatedly, I worked out that the name used was “Slobovia,” an obsolete abusive nickname for any Eastern European backwater which I’d inadvertently come very close to using myself. Al Capp seems to have invented it in Li’l Abner.)

This intrigued me. It seemed very much as if the universe wanted me to see this film. So I watched it. It was terrible. There was a torture chamber and some sexy trees. Bad jokes. Awful acting. It ended, and I seemed to hear the universe chuckling.


Tree porn: this is genuinely presented as if it’s meant to be sexy. The “legs” part with a creak in the breeze…

Still, photographically it’s often splendid, as you’d expect from Francis — the location is magnificent and he captures it in rich, deep, dark hues. The happening itself is chaotic and ugly, though — a handheld riot of fake fangs and fake tits. The script is embarrassing, with Ferdy Mayne repeating his count bit from THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS but with horrible material — you feel bad for him. I can’t quite work out FF’s attitude to the bucketloads of nudity he’s required to show: either he had contempt for it and just ladled it on with a weary, “You want flesh? Here you go!” approach, or else like Ken Russell he was uncritically keen on the female form and so didn’t exercise any quality control. Quantity over quality. This works in THE DEVILS — goes towards realism — but seems defective in a brainless exploitation flick.

Still, the flopping, goose-bumped nudies cavorting through Francis’s drafty castle are some kind of antidote to the cascade or airbrushed centrefolds who tumble headlong through THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, seeming strangers to body hair and even pores. Even a shit film can induce a kind of nostalgia for when sex objects were human.


Things Roddy said during Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2012 by dcairns


A specific example of the limits of conceptual knowledge in WMS is from a reported instance of a 21-year-old woman with WMS (Verbal IQ of 69) who was literate and read several books on her favorite topic: Vampires. When this subject was asked what a vampire is, she responded reasonably and clearly that a vampire is ‘‘a man who climbs into ladies’ bedrooms at night and sinks his teeth into their necks.’’ When asked why vampires do that, she thought for a bit, and then said, ‘‘Vampires must have an inordinate fondness for necks’’ (Johnson & Carey, 1998).

Fiona’s brother Roddy is Christmassing with us again, which means we’re watching lots of his favourite horror movies. Roddy has Williams Syndrome, like the woman quoted above, and oddly enough he likes vampires too. (Williams people are often musical, and often seem to have passionate interests, bordering on obsession: Roddy’s love of cranes and digging machinery is very typical of the condition.)


“I wouldn’t like to meet him on a dark night. Wonder what would happen if I did?”

Roddy says this once during every screening of a Christopher Lee DRACULA film. Lee is his favourite vampire, and we’re pretty sure the attraction is the sexual fascination Lee’s Count is able to exert over every blonde he encounters. Roddy does not exert this fascination, but would probably like to. Wouldn’t we all?

“What’s that he’s doing? Is that a coffin or something? Another victim? Oh my God.”

Roddy himself watches quite hypnotized, becoming antsy and talkative only when the suspense builds. But the boring scenes with Barry Andrews keep him hooked too, since it’s always possible that something more vampiric may happen at any moment.

This movie has a fair bit of tedium, but director Freddie Francis contrives some lurid and Bavaesque colour effects, which seep in whenever Lee is around. Unfortunately, nothing but verbiage seeps in when Barry Andrews and Rupert Davies are around.


“Is it her he’s looking for? Look! He’s rubbing his face on her face. Oh! He’s a vampire and he bit her.”

“Uh-oh, there he is. What’s happening? Uh oh. Here you go.”


People with Williams consistently interpret faces as being friendlier than the rest of us.

“He’s smiling, look.”

“Ah-oh, here we go. He got caught – run!”

Here, Roddy seems to be unsure who he’s rooting for, shouting helpful advice to Dracula as well as to the heroes. But he knows pretty well who the goodies and baddies are. The character of the unnamed priest (Ewan Hooper) who gets enslaved by Drac is a puzzle, though. Characters who behave inconsistently are troubling.

“Uh-oh. This is the best bit.” Hooper smashes Rupert Davies on the head. “Hit the wrong man!”

I try to explain to Roddy that no, he hit the man he was aiming at, but he doesn’t understand Hooper’s two-faced Renfield persona. People with Williams Syndrome are extremely sociable and tend to think the world is their friend, until proven otherwise.


Also, since the spread of cognitive abilities in people with this condition is quite varied, I suspect Roddy has a rather uncertain “theory of mind.” I can explain the concept of theory of mind with a test ~

If you say to a child under three, “A little boy has some sweeties, and he hides them under a bowl, but when he’s away his mummy moves them and puts them under a cup. When the boy comes back, where will he look for his sweeties.” Younger children always say “Under the cup,” because that’s where the sweeties ARE, and they can’t grasp the fact that the boy has different knowledge from them. That’s theory of mind.

When we watched ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, Roddy became frustrated by the character of the policeman, who didn’t know that Lon Chaney was the Wolfman. I tried to explain that the policeman didn’t know that fact, but no matter how I tried to express it, Roddy thought I was claiming that Lon Chaney wasn’t the Wolfman. “I’m sure Lon Chaney is the Wolfman,” he muttered, repeatedly.

“What’s going to happen now? Uh-oh, here comes guess who. Uh oh, he’s got a hold of him now.”


“He’s not very pleased, is he?”

Tests have shown that Williams people are very attentive to faces, when watching TV or otherwise. This close concentration seems to be connected to a difficulty in interpreting the meaning behind facial expressions. Because the condition involves high levels of sociability, Williams people concentrate very hard on the faces, trying their best to make out what the expressions mean. Concordantly, Williams people aren’t much interested in cartoons. Roddy loves slapstick stuff where people without learning difficulties fall down or bump their heads, thus losing their supposed sense of superiority, but cartoons aren’t interesting, presumably because the faces don’t have enough detail of expression.

Roddy’s generally very good at recognizing people’s faces — that seems to involve a different part of the brain. He did think the CGI Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL was “that man from that programme with the horse” — Wilfred Brambell in Steptoe and Son (but what other real human being ever looked like that?), and he did think Veronica Carlson in this films was a presenter from 70s children’s show How, but that’s not so unreasonable: Jenny Hanley’s appearances in SCARS OF DRACULA did not prevent her co-presenting Magpie on Children’s telly in the seventies.

“For example, adolescents and adults with WMS have difficulty differentiating not alive into the conceptual categories of dead, inanimate, unreal, or nonexistent.” The Neurocognitive Profile of Williams Syndrome: A Complex Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses, Ursula Bellugi, Liz Lichtenberger, Wendy Jones, and Zona Lai, Marie St. George


“I ken what he’s going to do — I ken what happens!”

Roddy sort of believes in Dracula, and sort of believes in Santa Claus. It’s quite hard to work out how much he believes, though. I think it might be similar to the belief in God a lot of people must have — they would be astonished at any example of divine intervention (of course there are no doubt many people who would accept a miracle as wholly appropriate to their understanding of the world — I suppose…) Roddy doesn’t expect to meet Dracula on a dark night, and he knows that Christopher Lee is an actor. Or at least he accepts that these things are widely acknowledged to be the case. He believes Castle Dracula is a real place and won’t take in any information about special effects that contradicts the evidence of his own eyes. (To be fair, Yvette Mimieux believed the iron sphinx in THE TIME MACHINE was a real structure, and hoped to visit it one day, and she’s in the film.)


“Watch out! There he goes! Eyes start watering.”


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