Our story opens in Paris, 1890.
A figure in a cloak and hat attacks an elderly gent as he walks home through the fog-filled streets. A short way away, acclaimed sculptor Georges (Anton Diffring) is hosting a presentation at his home, to show off his latest work. Ex-girlfriend Janine (Hazel Court) drags her new beau, medical man Pierre (Christopher Lee), along there on their way to the theatre.
They, along with the other party-goers, are impressed with Georges' latest effort - a bust of a beautiful young model named Margot (Delphi Lawrence). But what only Janine realises when she later goes snooping around, is that he also has a half-finished bust of her under wraps.
As the shindig draws to a close, Georges is quick to usher everyone out so he can rush to the safe in his study and retrieve a green serum from it that prevents him from turning jaundiced and aging horribly. This act is witnessed by Margot, who happens to have stayed behind unexpectedly - unfortunately she must die as a consequence.
The following day, Janine pays a visit to Georges and reveals that she's seen the bust he has of her. Confessing his love for her, he invites her to stay and pose nude some more so that he can finish the sculpture off. She obliges, but their work is cut short when Georges' old pal Ludwig (Arnold Marle) turns up.
It transpires that aged Ludwig is a surgeon who had planned to perform a life-saving operation on Georges, one that will prevent him from having to quaff that mysterious green serum every six hours just to stop from aging horrendously. Alas, Ludwig has suffered a stroke since they last met and resultantly cannot perform the operation.
Hmm, does Georges know of any other surgeons in town who could help him while under Ludwig's tutelage? Well, there is Pierre - current partner of the woman he desperately loves...
So, Georges' secret is one that ostensibly echoes THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. We learn through a candid conversation he shares with old (very old) pal Ludwig that Georges, despite having the appearance of a healthy 40-year-old, is actually 104 years of age. He is, you see, a scientist as well as an artist - and has hit upon the secret to eternal youth. However, it comes at a gruesome price - a price that others must pay at regular intervals.
As Janine grows increasingly obsessed with discovering why Georges insists on keeping her at arm's length, he and Ludwig begin to charm Pierre into performing a "pioneering" operation on the needy artist. But how long before not only the truth about Georges' condition, but also the grisly exploits necessary to keep his youthful demeanour intact, are exposed? Will Janine still want to know him if these inconvenient truths become common knowledge? And ... will Pierre kick off if he learns of his girlfriend's affair with the man he's due to operate on?
Based on Barre Lyndon's play and written for the screen by the talented Jimmy Sangster (THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS etc), THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH is an excellent early - 1959 - entry into Hammer Films' canon of Technicolor horror films.
Talky and rather stagey in its action - unsurprising considering its stage play source material - these matters don't harm any, as the script's quality is met with charismatic performances and the star pull of Lee's formidable screen presence. In a rare role as the hero, he's stoic, classy and almost laughably serious. It's difficult to take your eyes off him.
Court possesses the necessary allure as the big-busted heroine with a winning smile and soft voice. Marle almost steals the show as the bungling old doctor. But this is, naturally, Diffring's show: a perfect stand-in for Peter Cushing in terms of physicality, his prim accent and extremely mannered movements result in a character as elegant as he is sinister. He's also hilariously old-fashioned in style at times - turning away from actors and facing the screen to deliver melodramatic lines in true soap opera-style. It all adds to the film's unshakeable charm.
Though lack in the true iconic standout moments or star quality of other Hammer productions from the same era - notably THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY and in particular DRACULA - director Terence Fisher does a good job of delivering a fluid, highly watchable and elegant horror thriller capable of providing equal amounts of guiltily pleasurable theatrics and genuinely wonderful Victorian-style aesthetics.
Eureka! bring this superb film to dual format release for the UK, offering both blu-ray and DVD versions in a single nicely-priced package. A screener copy of the former was dent to us for review purposes.
THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH looks very good on Eureka!'s UK blu-ray. Presented uncut and in its original 1.66:1 ratio, the picture is 16x9 enhanced in this MPEG4-AVC encoding. It's colourful, well-contrasted and filmic in texture. Blacks are deep and the print used is mostly clean (some minor fading and debris in the early scenes notwithstanding). Images are a tad soft at times, so don't expect a revelation along the lines of the HD restoration of Hammer's DRACULA from a couple of years back, but all in all this is a very fine presentation of a film that's almost 60 years old.
Uncompressed English mono audio is largely clean and suffers from only mild muffling effects on occasion. It's clear for the vast majority of the time. Optional English subtitles for the Hard-of-Hearing are well-written and easy to read at all times. These are available from the disc's main page.
Speaking of which, Eureka!'s disc opens up to a static main menu page. Although there is no pop-up scene selection menu, the film does contain 8 chapters.
Bonus features commence with a lively discussion from critic Kim Newman, on the origins of the film and how it was influenced by an earlier horror film from Paramount Studios called THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET. We learn of Hammer star Peter Cushing's general distaste for Sangster's scripts, and how Diffring was drafted into the cast. It's an enthusiastic, engaging and informative piece.
Author and Hammer expert Jonathan Rigby is always good value for money too. True to form, the 17-minute interview with him that follows is refined, well-read and different enough from Newman's thoughts to remain an equally valid prospect. If anything, Rigby's chat is even more crammed with background info than Newman's. Excellent stuff.
We also get a handsome 28-page booklet (complete with a spiffing cover reproducing one of the best theatrical posters I've seen in some time). In this, that other authorative voice on Hammer films - Marcus Hearn - proffers a new essay giving his own views on the film and its coming to be. The film's original press book is reproduced in its entirety, and it's a thing of beauty. Laced with lovely photographs throughout - a mixture of monochrome and colour offerings - the book concludes with the usual notes on how to view the film correctly, and a list of disc production credits.
All in all, THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH stands up well after all these decades and can claim to be one of Hammer's most enduring horror pictures. It's been catered for admirably on Eureka!'s blu-ray.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Eureka Entertainment|
|see main review|