Thursday, 8 September 2016

Doctor Blood's Coffin - review

1961 (UK)

Contains spoilers.
I'm going to approach director Sidney J. Furie's rather tame and rather lame Cornish Frankenstein-retelling in two ways. Firstly I'm not going to hold my punches, despite undoubted charm and nostalgia, from a film that rather snoozes along with a repetitious and vacuous story that takes way too long to deliver. And second, I'm not going to underplay the significance of Paul Stockman's decaying, macabre, soulless and homicidal zombie performance, some 5 years before Plague of the Zombies, some 7 years before Bill Hinzman in Night of the Living Dead and most comparably, some 18 years before Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombie / Zombi 2).

Peter Blood (Kieron Moore) has returned home to the small Cornish and fictitious village of Porthcarron to a spate of strange disappearances, and several break-ins to his father, Robert's (Ian Hunter) clinic. Offering his skills, as a medical practitioner and biochemist, the case soon takes a dark and more sinister turn as local drunk and tin-mine expert George Beale (Andy Alston) is kidnapped on the eve of searching the coastal tunnels looking for the missing souls. What we have in many ways is a quaint and intriguing famous five mystery with a bumbling local bobby, Sergeant Cook (Kenneth J. Warren), an old drunk but harmless mortician, an earnest Doctor and the ever smiling and ever helpful nurse Linda Parker (Hazel Court) who, if we needed any reminder this is a film from the late 50's, early 60's, utilises her medical education to make coffee, carry boxes and act as chauffeur and love interest for the returning Peter.

People have been abducted, there's some old tin-mines, a mysterious syringe with an unusual compound that drags Dr. Robert to the big city for analysis and all it's really missing is Fred, Wilma, Daphne, Shaggy and Scooby to unveil the faceless evil master-mind and save the day. The thing is, given the title, the obvious similarities to the young over ambitious and morally duplicitous medical student scolded and thrown from his Vienna scholarship in the opening scene, then seen bounding the Cornish coves and heather, and the whodunit is all a bit of damp squib. Furie at least seems to recognise this though, revealing Peter as the mad scientist before the pretence becomes unbearable. 

Sure the acting is solid, the dialogue coherent and the scenery beautiful, it's just that for all intents and purposes the film is one long drawn out hour of incompetent police work, lacklustre chases and unconvincing romantic courtship. Not only does nothing really happen, but the not-muchness that does happen is painfully drawn out; an example being Peter's chase of the crawling George who's somehow shaken off his paralysing drugs, back and forth over the Cornish cliffs a good ten minutes or so too more than is necessary or wanted. It's also hard to suspend the necessary level of disbelief that not only can no one can put two and two together to even suspect that the returning stranger with the medical background, and the strange vials of South American neurotoxin might be behind the stolen syringes and abductions, but also put him in an unchallenged position to cover each and every track. 

At least after some intense dates and some major red-flags, the proverbial pebble drops leading Linda to a really rather terrifying confrontation where Peter's now rather entrenched and pathological position is provoked to increasingly desperate ends. An hour and ten, is a long time to wait to be honest, for any kind of pay-off despite how good it ultimately is, and I'd be hard pressed to recommend the film other than for the fact the decaying, long dead person brought back to life, through Peter transplanting a beating heart, is easily one of earliest depictions of what we'd consider the modern zombie. Dark, foul, rotten, and explicitly soulless and violent, the creature is clearly not the kind late husband Linda spoke so fondly of, and is clearly not happy to have been woken from its slumber. Furie is even good enough to provide some origin; as during the argument that proceeded Peter's twisted actions she confronts his extreme secular and utilitarianism position that brilliant men should be allowed to live at the expense of bums and paupers, with religious and moral prediction and warning. Tampering such as he is with life and death, she vehemently argues, is inherently wrong, evil and fraught with danger, and only God alone is capable of creating life. She tells him anything he, or science brings back will be flesh only, without a soul. It's a brilliant twenty minutes or so, well thought out, and I'd argue well ahead of its time. It's just such a pity it took so long to get there.

Light on content and laboured, this low budget British horror isn't without some redeeming qualities. Kieron Moore convinces as Peter Blood cavorting around the beautifully captured Cornish coastline every bit the crazed and rejected scientist, desperate to prove his father and contemporaries wrong. Also individually many of the incidents in the build up to the confrontation in the cavern are engaging and foreboding; if, as said, all that bit drawn out and sporadic. As a 60s British horror I'd be remiss not mention the hammer horror vibe which it has with abundance, and also remiss not to at least mention some of the rather glaring mundane distractions such as the drawings behind the windows of the internal sets, or the clear chroma-keying utilised for the driving scenes. But it's not these that ultimately detracts, and older films come, in my opinion with certain visual leeway. Doctor Blood's Coffin is ultimately a victim of its own failings; not brave enough to apply a thorough edit, and too content that thirty minutes of good content stretched to become an hour of okay, with a twenty minute brilliant crescendo would be good enough, which unfortunately it isn't -  4/10.


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