Paying Tribute To Hammer Horror
Cinema Junkie / February 26, 2016
For almost two decades, starting in the late 1950s, you could count on Hammer Films for breathtakingly lurid Gothic horror tales that served up vampires, werewolves, monsters and luscious ladies. British author Antony Earnshaw talks about the studio and it legacy for the launch of a yearlong film series Get Hammered at the Digital Gym Cinema.
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast, I’m Beth Accomando. If you grew up in the ‘60s or ‘70s then Hammer Films might have given you your first cinematic scare, so today my Podcast is dedicated to Hammer Horror.
[Movie Presentation] [00:00:29]
Hammer, so begins a typical trailer for one of the Hammer horror films. There would also usually be blood soaked title graphics and a "Cert X" rating, which meant no children allowed.
For almost two decades, starting in the late 1950s, you could count on the British studio for breathtakingly lurid Gothic horror tales that served up vampires, werewolves, monsters and luscious ladies. It turned Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing into icons, and gave a generation of kids their first taste of terror in bold Technicolor reds that practically dripped off the screen.
Hammer was not always associated with horror. Founded in 1934, Hammer began by producing a small number of modest productions distributed by its company Exclusive Films. But it wasn’t until 1955, when the studio decided to adapt a popular TV to the big screen that it hit upon a winning formula.
That film was The Quatermass Xperiment, but it wasn’t until 1958 that Hammer horror discovered color.
[Movie Presentation] [00:01:35]
The Curse of Frankenstein looked to Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, which was very attractively in public domain and loosely adapted it into a Gothic horror film shot in bold, vivid colors to emphasize the blood. The film was directed by Terence Fisher and starred Peter Cushing as Frankenstein and the towering Christopher Lee as the doctor’s creation. That film would launch the Hammer brand, a brand that held strong up into the 1970s.
It was followed in quick succession by Dracula, called Horror of Dracula in the U.S. with Lee as the blood-sucking count and The Mummy in which Lee again played the monster.
[Movie Presentation] [00:02:14 - 00:02:30]
The Get Hammered film series is a yearlong tribute to the best of Hammer horror that I curated with Miguel Rodriguez of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival. The series serves up what we’re calling a full flight of B&B, in other words Babes and Blood, the signature items of the Hammer horror film. We’ll introduce in screen classic Hammer titles every month on select Sundays at 1 p.m. at the Digital Gym Cinema. The series kicks off this Sunday with Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula.
Rodriguez and I are part of The Film Geeks at the Digital Gym Cinema, a group of volunteer programmers dedicated to bringing a diverse array of films to San Diego. Get Hammered is the perfect follow up to our program last year called Universal Suspects that paid tribute to the black and white creature features of the 1930s through the 1950s.
My guest today is Antony Earnshaw, a writer, broadcaster and film programmer with the love for horror and Hammer horror in particular. I also had a chance to speak with Artist Graham Humphreys who’s done a lot of work inspired by Hammer films. His art and his interview I did for San Diego Comic Fest are online at kpbs.org/junkiepodcast. I began my interview by asking Antony Earnshaw how he was introduced to Hammer horror.
Antony Earnshaw: I came to it because my mom was a big Hammer horror fan and she would get very frightened of Christopher Lee playing Dracula. And I remember being a child, being eight years old, my dad was never interested in this stuff, but he’d watch it with my mom because she liked it, so he kind of suffer it. But then [indiscernible] [00:04:05] me after bed sometimes I would come downstairs and maybe I needed a drink or I had a bad dream or whatever it was, and I remember coming into the living room in our house and Dracula was on TV and my mom was scared and she was kind of hiding her face in my dad’s armpit which didn’t do him any favors, but it helped her. And our standing of the doll watching her reaction to what was playing out on the TV screen and thinking oh my god, eight years old I didn’t know what it was, I never heard of Christopher Lee.
But from that day onwards I knew what Dracula was. And I came back to it when I was in my early teens on the back of Star Wars, because the lead villain in Star Wars was Peter Cushing and Peter Cushing was all over our TV schedules in those days, because the BBC would run from the time late night double bills and a lot of them where Hammer. So the same guy that I liked and enjoyed and was scared by in Star Wars was in all these other movies. And certainly there was a connection between that and the face that my mom used to watch. And so I became a Hammer head of the age of 12 or 13 years old. So it goes all the way back – I will be 50 this year, so we’re going back a long way and I’ve been a Hammer fan all that time.
Beth Accomando: Since you got introduced to them on TV, I’m curious, did you see them first in color or in black and white?
Antony Earnshaw: Color, yeah. I mean we had the color television from the early ‘70s, so really from me being about five we would have the color TV, yeah, so all this in color.
Beth Accomando: Because to me Hammer just screams out color. I mean they were always – that was such a vivid aspect of those films.
Antony Earnshaw: Well I think Hammer – the people behind Hammer when they were making the movies in the late ‘50s or mid-‘50s when The Curse of Frankenstein came out. They went with Eastman Color I think in the early films and then later Technicolor. The Eastman color was very vivid and it lends itself to that lurid quality that those movies have. And obviously Technicolor is vibrant and vivid and leaps out to the screen. So when you’re looking to create the backdrop which is about blood and which is about swirling red capes, the fangs and red eyes, there is nothing better than that to have that kind of color effect. So yeah, they do lend themselves to color very much.
And if you think about the very early Hammer’s, there is only really a handful that are in black and white. The two Quatermass movies, the Abominable Snowman, not many more, really from Curse of Frankenstein onwards they were pretty much all made in color.
Beth Accomando: Let’s go back a little bit in time. Hammer was not always associated with horror films; can you give me a little sense of where the company came from and the turning point for them when they kind of discovered that horror was going to be a way to find success?
Antony Earnshaw: Well Hammer began as the distribution company in the 1930s called Exclusive Films. They were pushing out very modest rather mediocre second-run movies. And when they decided to make their own films on to the Hammer banner 10 years later into the early ‘50s, they were often doing adaptations of popular British Radio serials. So it has something like P.C. 49, P.C. standing for Police Constable and it was the adventures of a local policeman. But on the wireless in the UK at that time on the radio, families would tune in every week, because it was always a cliffhanger and Hammer realized that if people were listening to this on the radio then they might well go and watch it in the cinema. So they started making low budget movies and these were very low budget films. And geared towards the domestic audience, these weren’t films that were going to travel to the States that were made for British audience.
And Hammer did something very, very canny, they evolved the style and they evolved the notion that if it worked on the wireless or the radio it would work on cinema. Well obviously, if it worked on television it would also work in the cinema. And what they happened upon was the Quatermass stories and the BBC had just put out the version of the Quatermass Xperiment. And the story is that these things were so popular that people wouldn’t leave their homes, they wouldn’t go to the pub, they wouldn’t go out to dinner, they wouldn’t go and do anything else, they would stay in on a Saturday or Sunday evening and they would watch the live performance, because everything was live in those days.
[Movie Presentation] [00:09:27]
Antony Earnshaw: And there was such – they have such an impact, the Hammer, the people at Hammer at the time said, well, if people wanting to stay at home and watch this then surely they would go out to the cinema to watch it if it was made into a movie and that’s what they did. They made a film version of the Quatermass Xperiment.
[Movie Presentation] [00:09:58 - 00:10:11]
Antony Earnshaw: Very famously they changed the spelling of the word “Experiment”. They took off the “E” and they capitalized and said it was “X-periment” and that’s the word that you see all over the posters and the advertising of the time. In fact, this was the only the 12th film in the UK to qualify for an X-certificate since the inception of the certificate few years earlier. So they were going – they were hell-bent on doing something different. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they knew that they had a winner and what they did do to make it commercial, they imported an American star. So they brought in an actor called Brian Donlevy.
[Movie Presentation] [00:10:52 - 00:11:29]
Antony Earnshaw: Who is very well known in the States, North America, and that allowed them to take their film abroad. So they weren’t just making domestic pictures anymore for an English audience, they were making potentially international films for an international audience and they cracked the American market and Quatermass 2 followed and another movie called X the Unknown which starred another American actor Dean Jagger and some of them were thinking well what do we next. And what they did next was they made the first British color horror movie and it was Frankenstein, an adaptation of Frankenstein.
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Beth Accomando: So talk about the impact that Hammer had in terms of making these color horror films and getting these X-ratings which to clarify an X-rating – to certificate X isn’t the same as what an X-rating here in the United States would have been?
Antony Earnshaw: Yeah. Well the certification and the classification in this country is different. Now the X certificate doesn’t exist, it’s now an 18 certificate, so nobody under the age of 18 is allowed. But an X represented the same thing, it was nobody under 18.
Beth Accomando: Okay.
Antony Earnshaw: But the content might have been horrific or frightening, it wasn’t sexual, it wasn’t pornography, so that’s the difference. What they managed to do almost by accident was recreate a genre or resurrect a genre which had pretty been dormant for many years. But other people who reacted badly to Hammer films in the 1950s and even into the 1960s had grown up watching the Universal Pictures coming out of the States in the ‘30s and ‘40s. But in 1956, it was exactly 25 years after the Boris Karloff Frankenstein, the Bela Lugosi Dracula, it was a quarter of the century and a great deal have changed and audience tastes have changed. And what Hammer managed to do was creating something that was pretty much unfettered, in other words they took a story which was in the public domain, so no writes attached to it, so they took Frankenstein which the book came out I think in 1819. So it’s long out of copyright. They very, very loosely adopted it. They took the name only and it wasn’t called Frankenstein, it was called the Curse of Frankenstein and they made it in color and they included within it the whole range of special effects and violence and very terrific elements.
[Movie Presentation] [00:14:25 - 00:14:52]
Antony Earnshaw: There is a wonderful British review from the period in a newspaper called the Daily Telegraph and I will read a quick extrapolation from the review. The reviewer was a man called Campbell Dixon and he was reviewing the Curse of Frankenstein in May 1957 and he wrote, “when the screen gives us severed heads and hands, eyeballs dropped in a wine glass and magnified, and brains dished up like spaghetti, I can only suggest a new certificate ‘SO’ perhaps, for Sadists Only”. And the influence was if you’re not going to the cinema to watch this kind of thing for entertainment then there must be something wrong with you and if you’re the kind of person that provides this kind of stuff then obviously you’re pandering to the lowest common denominator and there must be something wrong with you too.
So there was a huge reaction, negative reaction from the industry, from critics, from right-minded individuals, from politicians, from the establishment in the UK, but that didn’t matter, because the audiences looked it. And if you flash-forward another 20 years or so, people were reacting to movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the Exorcist or Knights of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead or later the Fletcher [phonetic] [00:16:14] movies of the 80s, everything is cyclical and people forget that 30 years ago we were reacting badly to the movies that were coming out then, 20 years before that we were reacting to movies of that period and 20 years before that we were reacting to the Hammer films.
So while they were breaking new ground and while they were setting the establishment this is being going on ever since horror movies have been made. So Hammer kind of fell into a grove they accidentally created something and then they were carried along on the wave of it and that never stopped. I mean Hammer was an exploitation studio, but they had – they were one of the mainstream studio. Michael Carreras who took Hammer from his father in 1969 or 70 used to say to people I want to make better films. And some of his collaborators said well, the films that we’re making are making money, they’re successful, they’re not costing very much, people like them, we have an audience, why do you want to mess with the formula. So he had aspirations to do with the things. But back in the early 90 – in the mid 1950s and into the early 1960s, they just wanted to make successful films on a budget that people will go to and that’s what they did.
Beth Accomando: The kind of criticism that these films were getting and the X-ratings, that must have added appeal especially – I mean because part of what attracts young people to horror is that it does feel kind of forbidden and like you’re not supposed to go there. And I’m wondering if that just built up the appeal for young kids and were young kids like sneaking into these movies or was it just something that they eventually got to when they got old enough?
Antony Earnshaw: I think young kids have been sneaking into movies, as long as young kids have known that there was something doggy about the films playing in their local cinema. I’ve interviewed people who’re now very well known in the industry and they will tell stories about being 10 years old and paying somebody to go into a cinema and then [indiscernible] [00:18:27] in an ally way outside and all that fencing and they will be hiding upstairs in a circle, this is when British Cinemas had a stall and a circle and an upper circle, they were very, very big cinemas. They would hide themselves away and these kids will be 10 or 12 or 13 years old watching an X-certificate movie which will gear to adults. But they would look at and then having done it once they try to do it again.
I mean there have been stories of kids sneaking into movies and watching it two and three and four times in a day, they just wanted to stay in the cinema. They hide away from the people that are running the cinema and they watch the movie over and over. You might say to somebody that the movie that you watched really wasn’t very good and they said yeah, but it was illegal, we shouldn’t have been there. And I saw it four times in a day, I’ve never forgot it. And you can ask people what they think one of the best films that they’ve enjoyed in their lives or the most quality experience and quite often they will say you know what, my favorite movie of all time is The Gorgon from Hammer.
[Movie Presentation] [00:19:37 - 00:19:52]
Antony Earnshaw: [indiscernible] [00:19:53] is a huge Hammer horror fan, huge. If [indiscernible] [00:19:57] down and ask him for his favorite movies, he tends to name about 100 of them rather than about 10. But you can bet him both in dollar there will be a Hammer horror film in that.
Beth Accomando: What do you think it is about these films that does grab people so strongly? And you ask people who love Hammer horror and almost everybody has some vivid childhood memory of one of the films or I talked to one person and he remembers just the lobby cards from the film like terrifying him.
Antony Earnshaw: Yeah. Well, we’re talking about a time I’ve never experienced the American Diver-In for instance. I would have looked who have lived through that. The outdoor cinema experience is pretty much gone. It exist in my memory even though I never experienced it. And what you’re talking about in the UK is a similar type, small cinemas often two or three or four in an average town sometimes privately run independent, sometimes part of the big chain. But the people running them knew that they had to market and promote these movies in a very specific way to a very specific audience and the audience would primarily be the younger, sleep talking [phonetic] [00:21:11] teenagers, people in the early 20s, maybe 30s, you weren’t going to get many older customers coming to watch the Hammer movie.
It just wasn’t that back. So what they will do, they would use all of the exploitation publicity that they could get their hands on so they might have a banner outside the cinema featuring Dracula, bending over the neck of a beautiful maid and you might have a Van Helsing with his cross or whichever monster was in the movie, might be the Gorgon or it might be the zombies from Plague of the Zombies.
[Movie Presentation] [00:21:46 - 00:22:05]
Antony Earnshaw: And the posters will be very lurid, the poster art was very specific for a Hammer horror film and the lobby card inside, we use to call them front of house still, they’re slightly smaller over here, in the States they’re rather bigger. But the lobby cards were all part of that. So you would come in and sometimes the production companies were very canny and very clever, they would put something on a lobby card that wasn’t actually in the movie. So maybe it was a scene that had been cut on the audit of the censor or maybe it was just a scene that was too long and they chopped it, but they left it on the lobby card. So you’d come in with your boyfriend or your husband or whatever and you think wow, look at this, but it’s not in the film or you just advertising the film is coming to the cinema and you see something pictured on that lobby card and you think oh my god I must see this movie and in a week or two weeks time or a month’s time you go and watch the movie and maybe that sequence is not in it at all or maybe it is, maybe it’s the key sequence of the film.
So all of this stuff, the marketing campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s was very, very clever and it was all geared towards drawing you in, giving you something that you recognize. For Hammer, within a very short space of time, Hammer had become a brand, Hammer represented gothic British horror and yet the gothicness of it, it was set in Europe, it was set in a Europe that Hammer had created, because the Europe represented in those early Hammer films isn’t realistic historical Europe, it’s a Europe created by Hammer script writers, but inhabitant by characters that they created. So you could slip into a Hammer movie, it might be a Dracula film, it might be a Frankenstein film, but in both very little resemblance to the books with those names that might be in – might be on your shelf and your bedroom or in the local library.
So Hammer was breaking new grounds, they were driving forward with their own interpretation of classic horror. So people were buying into that in a big way and later in the 1960s there were other companies coming through like Amicus and like Tigon and into the 1970s there was another company called Tyburn and they were all trying to mimic what Hammer was doing and there was enough room for them to do that. But nobody ever did it quite as well as Hammer, they initiated that strand, that run of movies. And they had the team and the repertory of actors to do it.
Beth Accomando: Now most horror films are not overtly political or presenting social commentary, but did the Hammer films for British audiences, was there some level of social commentary or was it bringing up any issues or ideas that were not overtly being dealt with, but that kind of – was it reacting against some sort of conservatism or repressionary thing? Did it have any kind of aspect of that to it?
Antony Earnshaw: Well, they were certainly going up against the establishment, because the British Board of Film Censorship actually was then the BBFC was run by and on behalf of the British establishment. So the censor in the UK was working on behalf of the government. The industry at the time was self-regulating, so if you produced a movie – if I was the censor and you produced a movie that came across my desk and I didn’t like the look of it, I could suggest that you might want to turn it down or change it.
And Hammer started doing something very clever. They would send a script, a copy of the script to the BBFC around a month before the start of production and they would allow that script to be taken upon by the various examiners or readers of the BBFC. Some of these readers commented on Hammer’s scripts, and they call them uncouth, uneducated, disgusting, vulgar and they would send that too much blood was unpalatable. If there was too much stake work of a vampire being staked, they will say that’s prohibited. We don’t want to do too much of that, thank you very much.
So people who were writing scripts for Hammer will put things into the script that they knew the censor wouldn’t allow, so the censor would react and say no, you can’t have that sequence involving a person being decapitated, you must remove it so that Hammer would say oh of course, we don’t want to cause offense. But instead of having the heading chopped off, could we have the throat being flashed and the censor would say well all right, yes, that’s better and that’s what they wanted all along. So they were playing a game with the censor and by association playing a game with the establishment. Are they overtly political? It depends upon your point of view. Frankenstein played by Peter Cushing is pretty much running wild. He is free to do exactly what he wanted.
[Movie Presentation] [00:27:23 - 00:27:37]
Antony Earnshaw: He is from the upper-class, he praise on the lower-classes. You could say that that’s being going on in this country for 200 years, but the upper-classes look down on the middle and the working classes and trample them underfoot, maybe that plays a part in some of Hammer’s movies. Dracula is an aristocrat and what does he do, he sucks the blood of other people. You could say that the aristocrats of Britain have been feeding on the blood of better men for 100s of years. So there were lots of interpretations that you can put to a Hammer movie and better people to me have deconstructed and reconstructed them to drive home a political point. So I’m sure there is a great deal to be said about them. It might take a much longer interview than the one we’re doing today.
Beth Accomando: You’ve worked as a film programmer and put together programmers of Hammer horror films. What is it about these films that gives them their lasting appeal and what kind of reactions do you get now screening them 10, 20, 30 years after they initially came out? Are they still as popular with people?
Antony Earnshaw: They are still popular, not all of them. I would say that there are maybe a dozen Hammer movies that really stand the test of time. But you’re not talking 10, 20, 30 years ago, you’re talking 50 and 60 years ago.
Beth Accomando: Yeah, now…
Antony Earnshaw: The last true Hammer movie, I’m not talking about the Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe, I’m talking about talking about To the Devil a Daughter came out in 1976 or 1977, that’s the best part of 40 years ago. They only had really 20 years of production. So I start them from the color movies. So Curse of Frankenstein was 1956, obviously the Quatermass movies were slightly before that. And they ground to a halt in 1976, 1977 in terms of movie making. So they only had 20 years really and in that time there must be 50, 60 movies, maybe more, I don’t know exactly how many. But only about a dozen were real quality.
Now when you on earth those movies and bring them to a big screen rather than a television screen, I don’t care how big your home cinema is, it’s never going too much in cinema screen. And people sometimes say to me I’ve got this new Den, I’ve got this big screen TV and I watch on my blu-ray thing. I would say great, good, I’m pleased, but I still prefer to watch my movies on a movie screen, a big one, in a cinema. And when you present these films to modern audiences and they may have seen them and they’re maybe familiar with them and they may know the dialogue. They can repeat the dialogue scene-by-scene, show them these movies on a big screen and it’s entirely different experience, especially when you’re talking about the color.
And if the film is being restored and maybe it’s in a new print, maybe a 35mil print, but it maybe on a DCP, digital, they look magnificent. And sometimes you get people coming out of these screenings who are old enough to have seen the movies the first time around. So if they were 18 in 1956, that means they were born in 1938. So you’re talking about older men. But they will come out of the screenings and they will say wow, I never believed it could look so good. And some of them are absolutely timeless. The original Dracula or I think its Horror of Dracula in the U.S., that movie hasn’t dated. It hasn’t dated because it’s set in 1890 or something. So it’s not set in the modern era. There’re no cars that can date the movie. It’s set a long time ago and its set in an artificial sense of Europe as I say that never really existed. It only existed within the Hammer horror universe.
So people watch these movies and if they’re watching them for the first time, what do you get from them is the sense of wow, the effects are tremendous, the acting is great, the interplay between the characters, isn’t Christopher Lee sexy, isn’t he a sexy vampire and Peter Cushing, who is always my favorite when I was a kid. Peter Cushing is a very athletic man of action which is in star contrast to Edward Van Sloan when he was playing it in the universal films opposite Bela Lugosi, but different eras, different actors, different backdrops, everything is different. And the really good Hammer horrors, the ones that are well written, well acted, well directed, the production design is lush like the cinematography is mouthwatering, the music is great. When all of those things come together then Hammer as a form is an exemplar of what a horror movie should be.
Beth Accomando: Well you mentioned seeing on a big screen in the cinema, but the other aspect of it besides just the visual quality of it is that communal experience that you have, watching with a horror film with a group of other people is always more fun than watching at home where you might pause it and get up or get distracted by something and it seems like that really makes it special as well.
Antony Earnshaw: Absolutely, I agree with you in every way. There is also this idea of you use the word communal, this kind of shared experience of being frightened. I was being interviewed by somebody last year and they said what makes a good horror movie and I said horror. If a movie is a horror movie, it should frighten you. If a movie is a good comedy, it should make you laugh. If it’s a good romance, it should make you want to kiss the person next to you, but hopefully it’s not a perfect stranger that you get my drift.
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Antony Earnshaw: A good western, we know what the western genre is. It’s the good guys against the bad guys. It’s the guy in the white hat versus the guy in the black hat. And you should have that level of adventure to it. A good thriller, it should make you grip the sides of your chair, it should have your eyeball burning out of your head, because you’re so hipped up by what you’re seeing on screen. Movies, that’s what watching a movie should be about and the Hammer films did that perfectly, the good ones did it perfectly. But even the bad Hammer horror in many ways is better than some of the other stuff that was coming out at the time, because Hammer had – they had a formula and they worked that formula and very rarely – I mean they did deviate, they very rarely did they deviate, they stuck to what they knew.
It was only later when movies changed and the whole era became more permissive that Hammer went down a different route and it was the lesbian vampires and they made a handful of those films that didn’t quite work. And by then movies have changed anyway on the back of Rosemary’s Baby and Knights of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, everything had changed and Hammer had to change as well.
Beth Accomando: If you had to pick three Hammer horror films to put into a time capsule to say forever, which will be your three favorite?
Antony Earnshaw: I knew you were going to ask that and it’s a murderous question.
Beth Accomando: I know. I’m sorry.
Antony Earnshaw: It’s a good job that was 6,000 miles apart. I probably have to strangle you. What would I chose? Well to be honest Beth, it changes day-by-day. It depends on my mood. It depends whether I’m in a Peter Cushing frame of mind or a Christopher Lee frame of mind. Horror of Dracula I think is the classic. I mean it stands above all of the films that they made. I love The Mummy which came out the year after.
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Antony Earnshaw: But I also like one of the later Frankenstein’s, a movie called Frankenstein Must be Destroyed.
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Antony Earnshaw: Which I think is in many ways the most realistic and the most brutal of the Frankenstein’s. I think that the Peter Cushing’s characterization of Frankenstein evolved in a more true fashion than Christopher Lee’s Dracula. Chris Lee’s Dracula, one movie, he didn’t even say a word. He was so appall of the script that he refused to say the script allegedly. So he was mute throughout the movie. But Peter Cushing as Frankenstein was allowed to evolve the character and you followed his adventures or his misadventures through all the various movies.
But if you go all the way back to 1956, the Curse of Frankenstein, over the course of about four or five years there was one classic film after another, so you have Curse of Frankenstein, you have Horror of Dracula, you have The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Brides of Dracula and also in there you’ve got The Abominable Snowman which is one of the films in black and white which hasn’t held up as well and some of the effects aren’t as good. But all of the other films that I just mentioned are just tremendous and all turned down within about five years.
So I will be hard-pressed to choose, I would want to choose from that run of movies rather than look further forward into the ‘60s or ‘70s, although I have to say one of my guilty pleasures is a movie called The Satanic Rites of Dracula which was a modern dressed Dracula set in the 1970.
[Movie Presentation] [00:38:49 - 00:39:10]
Antony Earnshaw: And I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and he hates it, he can’t stand it and he is saying to me what are you thinking, how can you choose his film. He said it doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit, nothing about it is real and I said look it’s one of these things that I remember from being a child, from being a teenager, it had an effect on me and I enjoy it. So I’m not going to apologize for it, it’s just something that I like and you don’t. But every Hammer fan would give you three different movies I’m sure.
Beth Accomando: Oh yeah. One of my favorites is Curse of the Werewolf, because I’m a huge Oliver Reed fan.
Antony Earnshaw: Oh good for you, me too.
[Movie Presentation] [00:39:48 - 00:40:12]
Antony Earnshaw: Curse of the Werewolf was a tremendously difficult and troubled film especially with the UK censor. The sequence in the dungeon with the girl and the beggar caused Hammer immense problems, because they thought they could show one script to the censor and then shoot a different version so that the censor wouldn’t realize, but the censor did realize and then said to them you can’t include that sequence in the film. Well Hammer haven’t shot an alternative, so take it out would have really mad movie, so they had to do some fancy footwork with the censor. And to try and get the sequence included in the film even if it was somewhat diluted. But there were immense problems with that film and yet many people would say as you would that it’s one of the best that Hammer made. It’s not – I enjoy it and I recognize its quality, but for me it doesn’t match the ones that I mentioned to you earlier.
Beth Accomando: Yeah. I’m onboard with you and it’s very difficult to pick which is the favorite and it all depends on what mood I’m in when I happen to sit down to watch something.
Antony Earnshaw: And also who you’re with. If you’re talking about going to watch a movie with your friends that can determine how you react or what you watch. If there are three movies on that night, do you choose Twins of Evil, do you choose Evil of Frankenstein or do you choose I don’t know, Plague of the Zombies. It’s a hard choice.
Beth Accomando: I want to talk about one of the people behind the scenes, Roy Ashton who did the makeup effects on the films, what kind of an impact did he have in terms of helping to make these films so memorable, because he did some great work on a lot of these movies.
Antony Earnshaw: He had an enormous impact, but he would tell – I interviewed Roy many years ago and he would tell you that like many people working on those movies, their success and their triumphs was down to experiencing, because they would give it a script and they said that the producers said right in the sequence the Phantom of the Opera tears off his mask and presents his scared face to the Halloween, so you need to make his mask. And it needs to be something that he can just remove with one hand, so he can’t fascinate; it just needs to fit on his face. So Roy went away and he came up with something, but it couldn’t be similar to the mask that Lon Chaney wore in the Universal Phantom of the Opera, because Universal had the copyright on that and Universal would sue if it was perceived that Hammer was copying them or stealing their ideas. So they had to come up with something else.
So he had the mask that Herbert Lom wears in the Phantom of the Opera from papier-mache. It was a very, very cheap effect. He probably made it over an evening and let it dry and then painted it the following day and took it into the studio and said how about this and they said great, oh wow, what a tremendous job and he is thinking yeah, that’s my newspaper. I cut it, I wet it, I molded it to my face and suddenly here is the mask. A lot of what they did was down to lack of money and lack of budgets they have to be inventive, they had to think outside the box, that’s the phrase that I completely hate, but you could understand where they were coming from with it. If you given a budget, a big budget you will spend it and quite often you see movies today where they throw everything at the screen to try and impress you and I.
But an actual fact, if they’ve used a bit of imagination and they’ve used inventiveness rather than money they would succeed more. And Roy Ashton and another makeup designer called Phil Leakey, they were the people who designed the monsters, the Frankenstein monsters. And in the first Frankenstein, the Curse of Frankenstein, people said that Christopher Lee looked like a road accident. It was his patchwork thing whereas in the Universal Boris Karloff Frankenstein picture from 1931, you had the flat head and you had the stitches and you had the bolts through the neck, they couldn’t do any of that, they weren’t allowed because of copyright. But also they didn’t have the budget to create that. They didn’t have a huge makeup studio. So someone like Roy Ashton, he is as crucial to the success of Hammer as Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing or Terence Fisher or James Bernard, any of those guys. But what they did, they did because there is no money on the table. These films were very, very cheaply made and these guys had to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That was a great job and they did it.
Beth Accomando: I read that – one of the trivia things I had read that, I loved was that Roy Ashton and Christopher Lee would sing opera while he was putting on makeup?
Antony Earnshaw: I’ve heard this, yeah. Well Christopher certainly was a trained opera singer. Roy, when he retired from makeup would often perform in local production. Now just how often or how loudly they sang, I couldn’t tell you, but it’s certainly become part of the Hammer miff. There is an actress called Barbara Shelley who worked with Christopher Lee on Dracula: Prince of Darkness and she was being made up in one room and further down the corridor Christopher Lee was being made up. And he would sing and they used to open the doors and listen to his voice kind of reverberate and echo down this corridor. Christopher didn’t need a microphone. His voice was strong enough that he could fill the studio with it. So she certainly told that story as well.
Beth Accomando: We just – we’re talking about Christopher Lee, what did actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt bring to Hammer in terms of helping to define that brand and helping to make them popular?
Antony Earnshaw: Well, Peter Cushing was the first true television star that Britain ever had. He was a huge, huge draw on television. There were only a handful of channels in the UK at the time. There weren’t dozens like there are now. So if he was on television and if wasn’t in Quatermass, but he was in lots of other television plays. Perhaps the most notorious was 1984 and he won a bunch of awards for that. There were newspaper headlines the next day that this is too brutal for TV and the repeat performance should be banned, et cetera, et cetera. Peter got a great deal out of that and his capability and versatility as an actor along with the fact that he was a very famous TV face were one of the reasons that Hammer wanted to work with him. So he brought all of that discipline and a sense of being serious to those roles, Peter Cushing never played his horror for jokes. He never sent it up. He was winking of the audience while he was carving a whole in somebody’s head. He played it straight. He used to say I play horror like I’m playing Hamlet and you have to do it seriously, otherwise people see through it. So that’s what he brought to it.
Christopher Lee as you probably know is a very tall man, who is about six feet four and half, the legend about Christopher is that he wasn’t being cast in traditional leading man roles, because he was perceived to be too tall and too foreign looking. So he’s often cast in support, he was cast as villains and he was cast as the monster because he was tall, but he didn’t have any lines. So a great deal of his performance of the creature in Curse of Frankenstein was down to mine, in that sense he was mining and he was using his eyes and he was using his body and his hands to bring across the ferocity of this creature, but also it’s vulnerability is long enough.
And the same thing comes across in The Mummy where he picks up the girl and he is looking at the girl with longing and sadness and devotion and when he attacks the camera zooms in on his eyes and you see the rage in his eyes. He is being locked up for 2,000 years. He is attacking the bad guys who’re daring to defile the princess. He is not using his voice. He is using his body. He is using his face on what you can see under the bandages. That’s what he brought to it.
But he also brought immense grace to something like Dracula and Martin Scorsese was interviewed in a documentary over here many years ago now and he says the first time you see Dracula in the movie, he stands at the top of the flights of stairs, he walks down the stairs, he shakes hands with his visitor and he says I am Dracula and I welcome you to my house. So he is not a snarling vampire or rather he is not just a snarling vampire that comes later. He is a gentleman. He is an aristocrat. He is a warrior. He is a lover. He is an immortal. And something else that Christopher Lee said, he said this in several interviews, he said it to me, he said what a gospeley fate to be immortal. Dracula has been alive for 100s of years. What is he looking for? He is looking for a mate. He is looking for a companion. He is also mad. He is insane, but he is also a gentleman. And all of those things come to play in his characterization of Dracula.
And in many of the other films that he plays in too, another film that people talk about is the Devil Rides Out and it was a favorite of Christopher Lee, because he believed in all of that. He was a great student of the occult and he said that in many ways Devil Rides Out is a very dangerous film. So he brings modern just acting to it. He brings veracity. He brings authenticity. There is nothing artificial about Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. Ingrid Pitt brought Hammer into the 1970s. She kind of brought the style of Hammer into a new era, because just as Christopher Lee was a sexy vampire so as Ingrid Pitt. And whatever Christopher Lee did for the guys or for the girls rather, Ingrid Pitt did for the guys.
She was statuesque, she had a tremendous body, she is lush, her legs, her hair, her lips, her breasts, perfect and she wasn’t shy. So when Hammer wanted a buxom vampire to strip on screen, but she had to look good and Ingrid Pitt looked good. I don’t think she was the best actor in the world, but quite often let’s be honest if you’re a guy going to these movies, you’re not going to be looking at your lady vampire for her acting skills, you’re going to be looking at her other attributes and Ingrid Pitt brought all of that to the screen. And she would have said that herself, she’s gone now, but she said that herself. She said I – they wanted me for my sex appeal and she brought sex appeal.
Beth Accomando: The two things that you – that seem to spring to mind immediately when somebody mentions Hammer always seems to be like blood and babes along with Christopher Lee, but…
Antony Earnshaw: Yeah, well Christopher had his first share of bate as well. I mean there is enough production shots out there in publicity pictures showing Christopher Lee surrounded by scantly clad, buxom babes with diaphanous gowns and acres of décolletage. I mean that was Hammer. Yes, I think they chose their stars very carefully, but they also chose their leading ladies very carefully. And quite a few of them have passed into modern miff because of the way they looked and the way they were willing to behave on screen. I mean Twins of Evil is a perfect example.
[Movie Presentation] [00:53:44 - 00:54:02]
Antony Earnshaw: It’s a lesbian vampire movie and they wanted a gimmick and the gimmick was that the two girls in the film were identical twins. So one will be the good twin and one will be the bad twin and you would see them strip so they would bare their bodies for the camera. But the sly in the ointment was that only one of the girls would agree to strip. So whenever they wanted to try and get them – both together on screen wearing not very much, they couldn’t, because only one of them was prepared to take their clothes off. Sometimes it didn’t always go to plan.
Beth Accomando: We just talked about some of these very attractive young women who helped build the Hammer brand, but another thing that they did was they gave some older actresses a chance to shine in a slightly different kind of horror film, in films like The Nanny and Die! Die! My Darling.
Antony Earnshaw: Yeah. Well, who can forget Bette Davis?
Beth Accomando: Yeah.
Antony Earnshaw: Now, Bette Davis was probably the biggest female Hollywood star of the 1940s, late ‘30s, into the ‘40s, Bette Davis, Kathie Hepburn, Joan Crawford or a few more, but Davis was the one that could really act them off the screen. By the mid-1950s, she wasn’t being hired very much anymore and she famously put an adverb in one of the trade magazines that said something like “actress in her 50s looks for regular employment” and she was making movies over here, making thrillers. I live in New Yorkshire. She made a movie in New Yorkshire. I didn’t know about this until a few years ago, but she did. So she was pretty ubiquitous. By the 60s the rose weren’t there anymore and on the back of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hammer suddenly realized that this grandom [phonetic] [00:56:00] of the screen was available to do exactly the kind of films that they’ve been producing and so we got to The Nanny.
[Movie Presentation] [00:56:08 - 00:56:28]
Antony Earnshaw: If ever a characterization was geared towards scaring the be-Jesus out of children is Bette Davis’s The Nanny, because we all know that a nanny is someone to be trusted along with doctors, policemen and teachers and things like that. Well this nanny isn’t to be trusted at all.
[Movie Presentation] [00:56:52 - 00:57:07]
Antony Earnshaw: And there are moments in that film that will chill the blood as effectively as any vampire or werewolf or Frankenstein creation or zombie or whatever else, Hammer came up with The Gorgon, I will put my hats in the ring and say that The Nanny is arguably the most scary creation that Hammer ever came up with and that it’s all down to Bette Davis and her cackle, she does a good cackle.
Beth Accomando: Yes, she does. Of directors who worked at Hammer, which ones stand out for you?
Antony Earnshaw: Well most of those early titles that I was talking about whereby Terence Fisher. Terence Fisher had been around a long time. He’d been an editor I believe prior to becoming a director. So he knew his way around the cutting room and he knew his way around the studio. In the last few years, last 25, 30 years people have been rather down on Terence Fisher. They referred him as an inverted comment of pedestrian director which seems to me to signify that he lacks energy or drive, he lacks dynamism. So he doesn’t have that kind of fizz to him, which I think is rubbish. You looked at those early movies and he as much as anybody else is creating something entirely new. Of course we have Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, of course we have Jimmy Sangster, the writer and of course we have James Bernard with his music and Bernard Robinson, the production designer, et cetera, et cetera, Roy Ashton.
But when it comes down to it that it’s one man on the studio flow, who is calling the shots. He is directing. He is directing everything that you see and that’s Terence Fisher. And I think that he is the – pretty much the secret weapon. If a director can be a secret weapon, it sounds like enormous, doesn’t it? But if a director can be a secret weapon then I think he is Hammer’s secret weapon and a great many of my favorite Hammer movies were directed by him. I also like Roy Ward Baker. Roy came through, he made movies in Hollywood, made a movie with Marilyn Monroe, have made a bunch of films over here in the UK including a movie about the Titanic and war movies and all sorts of things. He was a very versatile director. And Roy ended up doing several films for Hammer, he made Quatermass and the Pit which I think is one of the very best Sci-Fi movies ever made and he also directed The Vampire Lovers.
[Movie Presentation] [00:59:50 - 00:59:59]
Antony Earnshaw: Which was an adaptation of an Irish ghost story which Hammer ramped up and made a lesbian vampire film, and again the censor knew what Hammer was playing at, but Hammer could quite rightly turn down and say look it’s all in the story. And Roy had that delicate touch that he was able to encompass and incorporate all of the end of lying elements of lesbianism in the story and he brought it to the fall but without being too labored about it. So he straddled both cams, he straddled the classic and the exploitative. I think he is – along with Terence Fisher I think he is the key – the other key director working within the Hammer’s table.
Beth Accomando: So what do you see as the legacy that Hammer has left behind and is there influence still being felt today?
Antony Earnshaw: Well, we’re talking about it.
Beth Accomando: Yes, we are.
Antony Earnshaw: 60 years on from the Curse of Frankenstein, you put together from the list that you sent me are tremendously varied and very imaginative season of films. You wouldn’t be doing that if there wasn’t an audience out there to watch them. And it’s a prophesizing thing as well. You clearly see a value in these movies and you want other people to see them or to experience them for the first time or to watch the menu and to remember how they felt when they first saw them, because there is something unique about Hammer. It is about what I said to you earlier, about creating this world of their own, this unique landscape inhabited by heaven’s [indiscernible] [01:01:55] when the church goes by and you shouldn’t trouble that road sir, keep away from the castle on the hill.
Every town should have a haunted house and in the Hammer landscape the haunted house is Dracula’s castle up there on the hill and everyone knows that he is dead and nobody ever talks about it until some stupid Englishman with his wife decides to call it the near by in or they lose a – the wheel of their carriage and they have to hitch a ride and they’re picked up by some phantom carriage that takes them to Dracula’s castle. This is the landscape that Hammer created and its still is relevant now in terms of scaring people or intimidating people or making them want to know more. That’s what Hammer did so well and the influences are everywhere.
I mentioned Scorsese earlier, Martin Scorsese is a huge Hammer buff and if you look closely in some of his movies, you will see him borrowing shots, angles, the way somebody walks into a room, the way somebody stands at the top of the stairs and he is let from behind or she is let from behind, he’s borrowed it from a Hammer film. So instead of looking at Christopher Lee, you’re looking at Robert De Niro, instead of looking at Peter Cushing you’re looking at I don’t know, Harvey Keitel. They’re all [indiscernible] [01:03:27] and some film makers will not admit to being influenced by Hammer, but others do. And there is a freshness to some of the Hammer product that even after 50 or 60 years you can show some of these films to modern audiences, to kids.
And if they’ve grown up on Tarantino or Peter Jackson or Christopher Nolan, sure, the Hammer movies looked to be clunky, maybe the special effects aren’t very good and the bat that’s trying to bite the lady is obviously a rubber bat and you can see the strings. It doesn’t matter, what matters is the vibe and what matters is that if you get yourself in the right frame of mind, these movies can transport you to another world and to another age. And nearly all of the actors have gone now, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee died last year at the age of 93, but they represent something and the style of acting has changed now, the style of movie making has changed, the backdrops of the movies, they were all on – they were mat paintings and small models and everything was made out of what was there to be found in the laboratory or in the studio. Nowadays movies are overwhelmed by budget, Hammer didn’t have that. So what you’re looking at is a tribe of the imagination in one film after another after another.
Beth Accomando: Has the industry changed so much that we will never see another kind of Hammer brand again, I mean we don’t really have studio systems the same way we did. Do – I know we talked about how horror kind of comes in these waves and these cycles, but do you think that we’ll ever see like another brand like this where it’s coming from one place and creating such a strong impact from a single source?
Antony Earnshaw: I think the issue is there is a huge gulf between budgets and this is same in the UK as it is in the States, I’m sure. You can maybe make a movie in the States for a $2 million or you can make a movie for a $200 million and there is nothing in between. And Hammer were making viable movies for 200,000 or 300,000 pounds which in American currency will be say $0.5 million then. And they could do six or 10 of these movies a year. So if you’re talking six or 10 movies for $0.5 million each, you’re talking about a complete budget, a total budget of $5 million which is nothing. But nobody is able to make movies for that cost anymore. It costs too much.
So if you’re aspired to create something, you have to have the budget to match it. But nobody is funding movies for say $20 million. They will give you the money for a $2 million film or you can raise money through the studios for the $100 million or $150 million film. But in between there is this grey area and that’s where Hammer thrived, they thrived on making low budget films, quality low budget films and they would strike a deal with Warner Bros or with Columbia or with American International and they would pre-sell their films in advance knowing that they had made that money before the single foot of film was shot. That’s not happening anymore. So the industry has changed so dramatically.
And also in San Diego for instance, your average multiplex will be playing the same 10 or 15 movies as the next multiplex 30 miles of the freeway. So there is very little independent programming going on anymore and there is very little opportunity for these smaller independent low budget movies to come on to the circuit. And when you have that against you then it’s pretty much pointless making the movie in the first place, because no one is going to play it. If no one is going to play it and audience is not going to see it and you won’t make your money back no matter how much you spend or how little you spend. So it will be very difficult for a company today to replicate what Hammer did in the ‘50s or the ‘60s or the ‘70s, I mean in the 1970s the UK film industry was drying up and there was very little opportunity for any company to make any impact and Hammer found it very difficult. But in the ‘50s and ‘60s it was a boom time and the films were going all over the world. If you look at the modern Hammer production company now, how many films that they’ve released, six?
Beth Accomando: Just a handful.
Antony Earnshaw: Yeah and one of them was an enormous success, but that was only one and they’ve made a sequel which wasn’t very good. The other movies have not had the same impact. So it’s hard and Hammer, the original Hammer would turn out 10 movies a year and maybe three of them will be hits that was sufficient that would lead to them producing another 10 and another 10. As I said to you earlier, as of the 50 or 60 or whatever movies that they’ve made there is only really a dozen that stand the test of time and they’ve made a lot of rubbish.
Beth Accomando: But the cream that did rise to the top is great.
Antony Earnshaw: Absolutely and a lot of them were on your list.
Beth Accomando: Yes, I’m still looking forward to seeing these on a big screen, because some of them I have not seen on a big screen at all, so this is kind of a selfish program I guess.
Antony Earnshaw: That’s the trick of being a programmer. I’ve said this to some of the students the other week and they said when you program a movie or program a season, are you trying to looking into the heads of the people that are coming to see those movies and I said no and they said well who do you program for and I said I will program for me and I hope that you like it, because programming is not an art and it’s not a science, it’s neither of those things. The only way I can describe it to anybody is trying to catch lightening in a bottle. I don’t know you. I know your name and you live in the States and you live in a lovely part of the world, but I know nothing about you. But I know enough about your love of movies from the list that you sent me to know that we would get on. We have something in common and that’s all that you can do. You choose the movies because you like them and it’s the strength of your program that will see you succeed of fail as a programmer. And you have to stick with it and you have to stick to your guns to what you like and what you don’t like.
Beth Accomando: Well we mentioned earlier this sense of communal experience and the sense of community and for me it’s all about that joy you get from taking something you love and feel passionate about and exposing it to someone else or sharing it with someone who already loves it and it just feels so good to watch films in that kind of an environment.
Antony Earnshaw: I agree, absolutely and it’s a highly interpretive thing. Do you introduce your movies before they play?
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Antony Earnshaw: Yeah.
Beth Accomando: We introduce them and then we usually have time after the film where we have a really nice lobby at the – we have a little micro cinema called the Digital Gym cinema and so there is a nice lobby space and sometimes we have food and I do desserts theme to the movies. So I will have chocolate vampire fangs or chocolate brains that you can cut open and they will bleed and things like that we can nibble on after the film and chat about the movie.
Antony Earnshaw: But that is perfect and when I used to and I still do it now and whenever I run a festival, we try and introduce every movie and we have different people introducing. They might be programmers, they might be members of the cast or crew, it might be a director who is there or it might just be another – it might be an academic or an author. And when you introduce the movie, you should bring to it your own take on the film. It should be the movie as you see it and you bring to it your passion and your enthusiasm and what I hope is something that will transport to the audience that they will be as excited about that movie as you are and you’ve seen it before obviously, but they may never seen it before.
And through your introduction and your enthusiasm for the subject, they’re going to think wow, I can’t wait for this movie to start. I love what they read – what they wrote in the production notes, in the brochure or online, it sounds like a really great movie. I can’t wait for them. What these guys just said, oh wow, I can’t wait for this movie. It’s all about selling. It’s all about [indiscernible] [01:13:02] and that’s what Hammer did all those years ago with their posters and their lobby cards and everything else. They promoted their hell after their films and they made people want to watch them and you’re doing exactly the same thing.
Beth Accomando: Well I want to thank you very much for speaking with me. Yes, I do believe even though I’ve never met you in person that after talking about movies for a little bit I know that we would get along and could spend a long time just chatting about films.
Antony Earnshaw: Well listen, I like the idea of chocolate brains that bleed. You sold it to me.
Beth Accomando: If I can figure out a way to ship them out to you, I would do it.
Antony Earnshaw: Can you send me a picture? I will be all right.
Beth Accomando: So if people are interested in finding out what you’re doing, where they can find links to your books or to what you have coming up?
Antony Earnshaw: Well I’m on Facebook obviously and I also have a blog. I mean I’ve been writing books on movies now for about 15 years and I’ve covered all sorts of areas. My latest book is coming out through an American company called Bear Manor Media, Bear as in Grizzly Bear and it’s a book of interviews with horror Sci-Fi and fantasy film directors. And that’s coming out hopefully in May this year, lots of people in there, nothing – no one from Hammer, its all recent people. But I’ve written a book on Peter Cushing, I wrote a book about a movie called Knights of the Demon, also known as Curse of the Demon in the States. So I’m kind of steeped in horror and I have been for a long time. So if people want to read my stuff, I’m happy. It ties in what we’ve been talking about and I think they get a lot out of some of the interview book that’s coming up. But my – anyway, my website, my blog is www.antonyearnshaw.wordpress.com, so A-N-T-O-N-Y, Earnshaw, E-A-R-N-S-H-A-W.wordpress.com.
Beth Accomando: Well great. Well again thank you very much and I wish you got closer so we could serve you some chocolate brains and have you introduced in one of our films.
Antony Earnshaw: It will be a thrill. But good luck with it and I hope that the audiences buy into what you’re doing and I hope they appreciate the program.
Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. Next week I speak with Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails about composing music for 999. I will also have a preview of the upcoming TCM series Condemned about films condemned by the Catholic Church from the 1930s through 1980. To get my latest episode or to search through the archives, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or go to kpbs.org/junkiepodcast. So till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place