Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Thrills, Chills, & Spills: THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH

by JB
The Man Who Could Cheat Death is terrific fun for many reasons, but one reason towers above all the others.

From the first two bars of music as the first shot fades in, you know that you are watching a Hammer film.

Like Universal horror films of the 1930s, movies from MGM's golden age, and late-period Cannon films, Hammer Films from the 1950s and ’60s have a distinctive, trademark style. The music, cinematography, art direction, editing, shot composition, dialogue, and acting are all of a piece. Perhaps this is not unique to Hammer, but it certainly is a hallmark of successful filmmaking. Could this be one of the reasons for the success of the Marvel superhero films? The same creative team and the same stable of actors keep appearing, just in different combinations.
The Plot in Brief: Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring) is a brilliant doctor who runs a famous medical clinic in Paris. His hobby is sculpture. The film begins as he is opening his studio to locals and admirers to showcase his new work. Old Flame Janine Du Bois (Hazel Court) makes an appearance with stick-in-the-mud surgeon Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee) in tow. Dr. Bonnet seems… distracted.

Turns out that the good doctor has a lot on his mind: 1) he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his oldest friend Professor Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marle); 2) his current model Margo (Delphi Lawrence) is getting a bit clingy; that won’t do because 3) Bonnet has decided to rekindle his romance with Janine; and (SPOILER ALERT) 4) he is secretly 104 years old. Every ten years he requires an operation to maintain his eternal youth, said surgery performed by his oldest friend (LITERALLY), the elderly Professor Weisse.

Hammer Films all seem like the same team made them, because of course the same team did. Jimmy Sangster wrote most of the screenplays. Terence Fisher directed. The same art directors, set designers, and costumers worked on film after film. Does there exist a single Hammer film that does not contain a scene set in a pub?
Most films starred Peter Cushing; The Man Who Could Cheat Death is a rare exception, although Cushing was originally slated to play the lead. He bowed out because he was unhappy with the script. Hammer’s distinctive group of supporting players all get a chance to shine here: Hazel Court, Christopher Lee, John Harrison, Michael Ripper, and Denis Shaw. Pieces of The Man Who Could Cheat Death feel like cast reunion of Hammer’s The Mummy.

The Hammer stable of actors is so good at showing subtext—by acting, not telling. Anton Diffring clearly has a secret. Hazel Court is the jealous lover. Delphi Lawrence is insecure. Christopher Lee is angry that he was not offered the lead role.

Watching the film, I was entertained and delighted by the way it was mixing and matching various horror archetypes in an attempt to come up with something new. At first, I thought screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was merely trying to combine the “secretly aging” trope from The Picture of Dorian Gray, the “secret formula” bit from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the “secret loneliness of immortality” shtick from Dracula, all in the service of creating a new entertainment. While whispers of those previous novels and films are central to The Man Who Could Cheat Death, while watching the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray disc’s bonus materials I learned that the film is in fact a remake of a 1945 American film, The Man In Half-Moon Street. In the American film, the good doctor is a painter, not a sculptor. I wonder why Sangster changed this detail.
Like all great horror films, The Man Who Could Cheat Death is, at its heart, a morality tale. I like that, when the character that functions as the moral center of the narrative is dispatched about three quarters of the way through, two other characters step in to fill the void. This is a film that realizes its success as a narrative depends on the Ying/Yang of personal morality.

At the midpoint of The Man Who Could Cheat Death, we find a magnificent, extended dialogue scene between Dr. Bonnet and Professor Wiess that takes the form of a philosophical debate: if someone offered you eternal life, would you take it? This is one hell of a scene, if only because, unlike most current movie fare, the film actually slows down for a few minutes to discuss ideas. Ah, nostalgia. If I were still teaching Film Study, I would use this scene to illustrate the “Man As God” archetype that Stephen King writes about in Danse Macabre.

I hope that this short column conveys my love for The Man Who Could Cheat Death. In the first podcast I ever recorded for F This Movie! (about The Wolfman remake) I talk about how I long to walk the streets of “Universalville” once again. The look and feel of classic Hammer is something I similarly crave and savor, and it’s the best thing about The Man Who Could Cheat Death. Sometimes even B and C grade Hammer films are very nice… and will suffice.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death THRILL-O-METER READING: 60%

(Acid Hand/Face Burning, Last Minute Rescue, General Pace) 60%

(Green Light SPFX and Makeup, General Immorality, Loads of Suspense) 75%

(Two On-Screen Murders, Brief Climactic Fire FX) 45%


  1. Any favorite Hammers you'd recommend F-heads check out this Scary Movie Month, JB? I've already done all the Frankensteins and Draculas, and plan on busting through the Mummies this year. What else??

  2. I love Curse of the Werewolf. I love Hound of the Baskervilles. I'm a fan of Phantom of the Opera, though it's a bit slow. Vampire Lovers is fun and full of sexy sex.

    1. Great recs! There's no such thing as a bad Oliver Reed performance, and Yvonne Romain is one of the great (now) lesser-known screen sex symbols. Love Vampire Lovers as well, and would recommend Twins of Evil to anyone looking for a follow-up. (However, the Claude Rains Phantom is my personal personal version of the story.) Thanks to your review, planning on watching Man Who Could Cheat Death tonight! (And also Scream of Fear, but that's just a happy coincidence.)

    2. *"personal preferred", not "personal personal".

    3. I have a box set of the Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy Hammer films and am a big fun of The Mummy. I hope you like it!

  3. [off topic] What's your take on mother!, JB? It's established you're not an Aronofsky fan, interested to hear your analysis of his latest.

  4. No, I am not the biggest Aronofsky fan. Though not a pleasant experience to sit through, I was entertained by it. I like how it can support multiple interpretations. I like the visual look of the film. I really thought it captured that dream logic when in the dream you are the only one pointing out how fucked up things are... and no one will listen to you. The more I think about it, the more I like it? mother! and The Wrestler are probably my wo favorite Aronofsky films. Plus, we are now in that goddamned late September trough between summer movies and award season. Besides It ( which is terrific) what the hell else is there out there to see, Wonder Woman again? Go see mother!

    1. Because I'm a heathen, I did not pick up on any allegory while watching, so I spent a lot of the movie trying to apply my own interpretation on it, which was a less-than-satisfying exercise. I walked out of the theater feeling like I saw something of high quality but frustrated that I didn't understand it. Since then, my respect has grown for it after learning what it was attempting, and like you said, the more I think about it, the more I think I like it. I usually try to know as little as possible going in, this is the rare film where I wish I had known more going in.

  5. The Hound of the Baskervilles
    The Devil Rides Out

    .....and now for the sleazier aka: good, stuff...

    Twins Of Evil
    The Vampire Lovers

  6. Anton Diffring is also in the entertaining CIRCUS OF HORROR. I loved its outlandish story and colorful visuals.

    CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF is a great film. VAMPIRE CIRCUS is an interesting oddity. An added bonus in that film is the presence of Adrienne Corri, an actress whose performances I have always enjoyed.

    Next month, Hammer's Dracula films are being shown on Turner Classic Movies. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is one I am looking forward to revisiting.

  7. Someone on social media released a complete list of all the horror films TCM is showing in October; it's an embarrassment of riches.

  8. Here ‘tis:

    October 1
    Dracula (1931)
    Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
    Son of Dracula (1943)
    Nosferatu (1922)

    October 3
    Frankenstein (1931)
    Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
    The Mummy (1932)
    The Wolf Man (1941)
    Island of Lost Souls (1933)
    The Black Cat (1934)
    The Invisible Man (1933)

    October 7
    Night of the Strangler (1975)
    Head (1968)

    October 8
    The Return of Dracula (1958)
    House of Dracula (1945)
    Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)
    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
    Jigoku (1960)
    Kaidan (1959)

    October 10
    Cat People (1942)
    The Body Snatcher (1945)
    I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
    The Seventh Victim (1943)
    Bedlam (1946)
    The Leopard Man (1943)

    October 11
    The Ghost Ship (1943)
    Isle of the Dead (1945)
    The Power (1968)

    October 13
    Kiss of the Tarantula (1976)
    Snake Woman (1961)
    Village of the Damned (1961)
    The Nanny (1965)
    The Innocents (1961)
    A Place of One’s Own (1945)
    The Bad Seed (1956)
    The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

    October 14
    Blacula (1972)
    Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973)

    October 15
    Horror of Dracula (1958)
    The Brides of Dracula (1960)
    Black Cats and Broomsticks (1955)
    The Phantom Carriage (1921)
    Diabolique (1955)
    Gaslight (1944)

    October 16
    The Snow Devils (1965)
    The Ice Pirates (1984)
    Brainstorm (1983)
    The Power (1968)
    Satellite in the Sky (1956)
    Battle Beneath the Earth (1967)
    Indestructible Man (1956)
    The Ultimate Warrior (1975)

    October 17
    The Devil Rides Out (1968)
    The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
    The Mummy (1959)
    The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
    The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
    The Reptile (1966)

    October 19
    The Night of the Hunter (1955)
    Walkabout (1971)
    Performance (1970)

    October 21
    Willard (1971)
    Ben (1972)

    October 22
    Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965)
    Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1969)
    The Monster (1925)
    Eyes Without a Face (1960)
    Kwaidan (1965)

    October 23
    The Elephant Man (1980)

    October 24
    The Innocents (1961)
    Diary of a Madman (1963)
    Curse of the Demon (1958)
    Carnival of Souls (1962)
    From Beyond the Grave (1973)

    October 25
    The Witches (1966)

    October 26
    The Omega Man (1971)
    Logan’s Run (1975)
    THX 1138 (1971)
    A Clockwork Orange (1971)
    Soylent Green (1973)

    October 27
    Psycho (1960)

    October 28
    Mark of the Vampire (1935)
    The Devil-Doll (1936)
    Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
    Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
    Village of the Damned (1961)
    Children of the Damned (1963)
    House of Dark Shadows (1970)
    Night of Dark Shadows (1971)
    M (1951)
    The Brood (1979)
    Repulsion (1965)

    October 29
    Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
    Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
    Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
    Onibaba (1964)
    Ugetsu (1953)

    October 31
    White Zombie (1932)
    Mad Love (1935)
    Dementia 13 (1963)
    13 Ghosts (1960)
    The Fearless Vampire Killers (1966)
    House of Wax (1953)
    Poltergeist (1982)
    The Old, Dark House (1932)
    The Haunting (1963)
    The House on Haunted Hill (1958)
    The Cat and the Canary (1939)
    The Old Dark House (1963)
    The Bat (1959)

    1. Wow what a channel! I miss having access to that one. I think my parents do so I might check if they (i.e. UK TCM) get the same sort of treats.

  9. Yay J.B! So great to have a new weekly column from you :)
    'Does there exist a single Hammer film that does not contain a scene set in a pub?' As a Brit, I would like to think that all British films somehow feature a pub, most of them might be off-screen visits from cast and crew.
    I have not heard of this film before now as I am not yet fully well-versed in Hammer but I want to check it out now. Hopefully I can get hold of it for SMM!

  10. Hammer's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was shown tonight on Turner Classic Movies as part of a tribute to Herbert Lom. It is an atypical Hammer production, but it is a lovely one to look at. I really enjoy the heightened theatricality of the dialogue. It feels like a melodrama more than a horror film.