Sunday, November 25, 2007


After giving a high-class update to vampires, werewolves, mummies, and mad scientists, Hammer Studios turned to the living dead for this 1966 outing from director John Gilling. I'm sure it'll come as no surprise when I say the film is long on mood, short on thrills (visceral or otherwise).

Esteemed doctor Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) and his daughter travel to the village of Cornwall to assist Peter Tompson (Brook Williams), a former pupil struggling to find a cure to a mysterious plague that's befallen the local populace. Because we've seen the opening sequence, we know that voodoo is to blame, yet the film insists on forging ahead as if it's all a mystery. (PLAGUE's pretty good at dispelling any air of suspense it creates by telegraphing information; for example, we know Squire Hamilton, with his voodoo-symboled ring and wicked sideburns, is behind it all the moment we see him.)

Typical Hammer fare, PLAGUE uses period trappings to add a classy veneer to an otherwise lackluster tale. We're forced to suffer through a series of stiff, interminable conversations until the film's mid-point, when Sir James learns the culprit is voodoo, an "absolutely disgusting" version of witchcraft practiced by the people of Hi-ee-tee. (That James considers voodoo a form of savage witchcraft is one of the film's understated racist details; another is that though the population of Cornwall is Caucasian, Hamilton manages to have a few blacks in tribal headgear beating drums for his voodoo ceremonies.)

Late in the game we learn that Hamilton has been harvesting zombies to use as slaves in his tin mine, though the undead are such ineffectual workers that you wonder why he bothered in the first place (surely finding a handful of day laborers would be easier than resurrecting a horde of corpses and whipping them until they finally obey). Herein lies the film's biggest flaw, in that aside from a dream sequence in a mist-laden cemetery, the zombies aren't particularly scary (though Roy Ashton's makeups are effective).

The best Hammer productions have always benefitted from the commanding presences of actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and without their charisma to compensate for the leaden pace, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES remains a limp, boring pseudo-mystery that could only charitably qualify as a horror film.

No comments: