Monday, 14 September 2015

the man who could cheat death

between all the frankensteins and draculas there are some lesser known and rather more curious hammer productions that depart from the usual format. the man who could cheat death falls into this category.

the film follows dr. georges bonnet (anton diffring) as he pursues the impossible dream of eternal life through increasingly nefarious means. when the surgeon he has secured to finalise his immortality is unable to complete the procedure he has to somehow convince a more conservative doctor, pierre gerrard (christopher lee), to take his place. the solution to his predicament presents itself in the form of janine dubois, a young woman both bonnet and gerrard are in love with.

for the most part, the man who could cheat death concerns itself with one central question – is bonnet’s pursuit of eternal life good for humanity, or simply good for him? fhe film proceeds to answer that question by unraveling bonnet’s character and ultimately his physical form until we are left with the truth in all it’s horrifying glory. there are other elements at play, including a murder mystery subplot as a determined detective closes in on bonnet after a girl who modelled for him (he is also a sculptor) disapperars. on top of that there are hints of dorian gray and the film occasionally wanders into jekyll and hyde territory with bonnet even having to consume a special serum, only his is used to prevent a transformation rather than to trigger it.

describing the twists of the plot and obvious literary influences leads to an assumption that there is a lot happening onscreen, and yet the film mostly takes place in one or two rooms. a glance at the opening credits reveals it was based on a stage play by barre lyndon (who also wrote the 1950s adaptation of war of the worlds, among a great many other things) and in this sense very little appears to have been done to adapt the story for cinema, except for jack asher’s shadow-rich cinematography. as a result the film feels more contemplative, thought-provoking and at times, unfortunately, slower than the more well-known hammer titles. the scenes of horror almost seem out of place against the philosophical discussions that occupy much of the dialogue, and yet they are a welcome distraction when they arrive.

what’s interesting is who we the audience are supposed to side with. the film takes its time before fully revealing what bonnet is attempting to do, although we find out early on that he has some serious anger management issues. bonnet’s secret is of course clear from the title to a point, but it’s only as the details of his condition are revealed that we understand the true extent of what he has had to become. the film presents bonnet as the protagonist and anton diffring is a charismatic lead so it’s hard not to be on his side as his ambition turns murderous.

this is partly helped by the fact that the romantic lead and the closest thing the film has to a hero is played by christopher lee. obviously, lee is amazing and i’ve enjoyed seeing him play against type both here and in the hound of the baskervilles. at the same time, there is something slightly off about lee in roles like this and it’s hard to fully sympathise with him. instead, he comes to represent the conservative establishment, unwilling to support bonnet’s controversial approach to progress and thus making it easier to sympathise with the mad doctor. i wonder if this was the intention, although i think it would have been more successful with peter cushing in the bonnet role, as was originally intended. diffring certainly does a great job, but it’s not the most sympathetic portrayal of a scientist gone mad with ambition, and i can’t help feeling cushing would have added some much needed humanity to the role.

while it doesn’t succeed on every level, the man who could cheat death certainly delivers in the climax, which i won’t give away here but there is an awesome combination of fire and amazing make-up effects that really make the ending work. overall, this is an interesting story and fits neatly into the hammer canon whilst also providing a nice contrast to their usual output in its theatrical setting and contemplative dialogue.

eureka entertainment release the man who could cheat dead on blu-ray on 21st september 2015

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