Saturday, October 31, 2009

Christopher Lee Gets Knighted (And I Go Off On A Tangent)

The news that Hammer actor Christopher Lee was knighted made me reflect for a moment on my youth watching Hammer films on American television.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how lucky I am to have grown up in the 1970s. And, as I've posted before, I was the only child of an only child (my mom), and my father was a pretty bad person but one with a great record collection.

One day I'm going to do a lengthy post on how I became enamored of all things British precisely because my father hated The Beatles; the band broke up when I was 3, but they were still getting played constantly on the radio and those songs are some of the first things I can remember liking that my parents did not like.

But, when I think of the era after my parents' divorce, it is with a great deal of happiness.

As you can see from this photo, I was a spoiled kid with an armful of action figures in front of my grandparents' house.

The good thing about being an only child is you can do what you when you want.

So, while my mom may have exercised some control over my media intake, my grandparents let me watch what I wanted on television -- my grandfather worked in a movie theater in the 1930s so he actively encouraged me to watch the classics from that era.

And when I went to my father's apartment in that post-divorce era, it was with the knowledge that he would pass out early and I would be free to watch television all night on the weekends.

In the 1970s, a city like Washington, D.C. had two great independent television stations (Channel 5, WTTG, and Channel 20, WDCA) and we could pick up the signal from Baltimore (Channel 45, WBFF) for another as well.

Channel 5 in D.C. showed a lot of great 1930s and 1940s films all night on the weekends and, like Channel 20, would occasionally show a Hammer film as well.

Reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, I was a big Hammer fan at the time and I loved seeing a bit of blood and skin on television when I was 8 or 9, even if I couldn't articulate why.

The Hammer films, like the Godzilla and Gamera films from Japan, were on constantly and it would be silly to try to remember when I saw each film on telly.

However, I do have a vivid memory of being about 8 or 9 and staying up to see the 1968 classic, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave and that opening sequence just thrilling me in a weird way. As the body dropped from the bell, I realized that this was certainly not the same kind of horror film that Universal Studios had made in the 1930s and 1940s in America.

Channel 5 would show Monty Python's Flying Circus on Saturday nights around 11 and then I would watch either the new Saturday Night Live or just wait for the monster movies to begin.

By this time, my biological father had traded alcoholism for sleeping pills; he would listen to his soul and blues records, take his sleeping pills or antidepressants and literally pass out. This left me free to watch TV.

It sounds depressing now, but, really, in my memory I was quite happy to have the apartment to myself and I would sit up all night watching monster movies, reading comics, and constantly drawing pictures.

The Hammer films were very British but also very garish -- heaving breasts and blood -- and the majesty of Christopher Lee was an awesome thing.

Nothing thrilled me more than those moments in a color Dracula film where the Prince of Darkness would bite into the neck of some comely British babe only to raise his face to the camera to reveal blood dripping from his teeth -- and sometimes his eyes were oozing blood too!

For an 8-year-old in a pre-internet/cable TV world, this was the coolest, creepiest thing I had ever witnessed! None of the moralizing of the Universal Dracula films, no, this was an evil little spin on the road to sex-and-death.

I met the film's starlet Veronica Carlson and the film's director Freddie Francis at a movie convention in 1997 and they were very charming and normal.

Hammer did not get a lot of respect from serious critics at the time but they produced quality films with solid production values and, more importantly to me as an 8-year-old fan, they delivered the goods.

Congratulations to Christopher Lee and Happy Halloween!