Flesh and Blood revisits Hammer’s heyday
Truth in disclosure: Ted Newsom’s been a friend for over 20 years, and it’s because of his documentary Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror, which I first reviewed when it played at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. I didn’t actually meet him in person until years later, when I went to Los Angeles on a movie junket.
As a life-long Hammer fan, I was thrilled that someone (likewise a life-long Hammer fan) had finally made a documentary about the venerable British studio responsible for such genre classics as Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959) and many more, which greatly enhanced my affection for the horror/fantasy genre and my admiration for Peter Cushing (Baron Frankenstein/Dr. Van Helsing) and Christopher Lee (Count Dracula), two actors who became global icons thanks to their Hammer films. (Just for the record, I stand by my statement that Lee is the greatest screen Dracula ever, even if the films weren’t always up to his standard.)
The lasting impact of Hammer Films has been chronicled in countless books and periodicals, on numerous websites, and in the hearts and minds of its worldwide legion of fans. Even when the studio’s fortunes ebbed in the 1970s – a bleak time for the British film industry in general – there was always the hope that the studio could somehow make a comeback, which it eventually did in the 21 st century.
Over the years, Newsom and I have reconnected periodically. In 2005, he brought his vintage sci-fi spoof The Naked Monster to the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, where it played to a sell-out crowd at The Garage. “That really was a good time,” he remembers … even if he was hitting on my date. (“She liked you better,” he says.)
Now, more than 20 years since it was first released, Newsom has unleashed the director’s cut of Flesh and Blood (see Page 31 for review). It’s bigger, better, more comprehensive and more up-to-date in every way. Newsom wasn’t altogether thrilled by earlier release versions of the film, some of which had uneven transfers and/or misspelled credits.
As this is the official Director’s Cut, Newsom is pleased with the final result. “It’s longer,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, you can’t get enough.”
Lee and Cushing, marking their final collaboration, narrate the documentary. Cushing died shortly after recording his narration, but Lee’s career continued well into the 21 st century, with significant roles in Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, before his death in 2015 at age 93.
Once again I turn to my friend and mentor, Kevin Thomas, film critic at the Los Angeles Times for 50 years who reviewed many a Hammer film. Although he prefers film-noir and the French New Wave to horror and fantasy, by and large he gave Hammer Films a fair shake (or stake?) when reviewing them. That the studio would still have so fervent a following, even among fans who weren’t even born yet, doesn’t surprise him.
“Not at all,” Thomas says.
“Not in the least. They gave good value. They were made with good craftsmanship, especially given the budgets. Their period evocations were really good … and who could resist Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, two very fine actors? They were entertaining. For what they were, they were very entertaining.”
In retirement, Thomas has no plans to revisit the Hammer canon – although he recently saw the 1959 Cushing/Lee version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) for the first time – but he was pleased to view Flesh and Blood, which he calls “a damn fine documentary. It really told the whole story … and that Ted got Cushing and Lee to do it – really fitting.”
Years ago, when I mentioned how cool it must have been to hang out with Cushing and Lee on Flesh and Blood, he corrected me: “What was cool is that I got to work with them.”
As a filmmaker, Newsom’s credits include features (Whispers from a Shallow Grave) and documentaries (100 Years of Horror, Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora, Elvis: The Complete Story, A Century of Science Fiction). As a writer, he and John Brancato penned the original first-draft screenplay for Cannon Films’ proposed version of Spider-Man in the 1980s, and appeared on-camera in Mark Hartley’s 2014 documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold History of Cannon Films. He has also written articles for various publications including Little Shoppe of Horrors, which is dedicated to Hammer Films.
Dick Klemensen, Little Shoppe’s editor and publisher, is unstinting in his praise of Newsom’s documentary. “Flesh and Blood is the greatest documentary or history of Hammer Films ever done,” he states. “(It’s) amazing in scope and all the fantastic materials assembled. It will never be topped!” As an actor, Newsom has appeared in a slew of lovable low-budget camp-fests (Attack of the 60-Foot Centerfold, Bikini Frankenstein, Ghost in a Teeny Bikini, Bikini Royale 1 and 2, Housewives from Another Planet and this year’s Bikini Model Mayhem), many directed by B-movie maestro Fred Olen Ray under his pseudonym Nicholas Medina. Alas, he laments, he was never asked to doff his duds, although he did get to display his comedic and musical abilities.
Much as Hammer left a lasting legacy upon its fans, Flesh and Blood is Newsom’s legacy, the final word in vintage Hammer and perhaps Newsom’s final word. He underwent treatment for cancer earlier this year and has had a tough go of it. But he’s not one to wallow in self-pity. His caustic humor, so endearing his friends, remains strong. “If I stop smoking, maybe I’ll get 2-3 extra days,” he said. “I don’t give a shit.”
With much of the Hammer family having departed this world, he suspects he’ll join them soon. Although uncertain of an after-life, “I’m going to find out one way or the other. We’ll see what happens.”
At the end of the documentary, there is a dedication to the people of Hammer, who made the magic, and to the fans, who hold that magic dear. Thanks to Ted Newsom, Flesh and Blood captures the magic beautifully. Thanks for everything, my friend. And you’re right: She did like me better.
The director’s cut of Flesh and Blood:
The Hammer Heritage of Horror is available for $20 through the official website:
MARK BURGER can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. © 2016, Mark Burger.