Many, many years ago I saw Hammer’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death on a grainy old TV, so imagine my delight when I heard that Eureka video were going to re-release the film as a dual-format Bluray and DVD on 21 September. This rarely shown movie was originally released in 1959 when Hammer was a hot new studio pumping out lurid colour horrors full of Kensington gore and heaving bosoms in low-cut period costume. This small British studio had made an absolute killing with their reinterpretations of Frankenstein and Dracula so Hollywood majors were queuing to offer Hammer their old horror properties for a makeover in return for a distribution deal.
Hammer had already knocked out The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) for United Artists and The Mummy (1959) for Universal, when Paramount turned up with The Man in Half Moon Street, which based upon a Barre Lyndon play, Paramount had originally been filmed in 1945 with Nils Asther as Julian Karell the doctor and artist who maintains his youth with regular gland implants – maybe not as crazy as it sounded back then since monkey testicle implants had been sold as the Viagra of the 1920s!
Transplanting the action to Paris in 1890 German actor Anton Diffring plays Georges Bonnet, a successful doctor who also likes to dabble in sculpture. He is also 104 years old and kept young by regular implants of parathyroid glands harvested from the people he murders (prefiguring Ralph Bates’ Henry Jekyll who becomes Jack the Ripper to harvest glands in Hammer’s 1971 gender bending Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde). Unfortunately Bonnet’s pet surgeon Dr Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marie who had also been the Buddhist Abbot in Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman) has had a stroke and is unable to perform the operation Bonnet needs, so he blackmails Dr Pierre Gerard (Christopher Lee) into performing the operation by kidnapping their mutual love interest Janine Dubois (Hazel Court).
Hammer had intended The Man Who Could Cheat Death as another ensemble piece with Terence Fisher directing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, however Cushing pulled out claiming exhaustion. Diffring got the replacement gig having played the part in a recent ABC TV adaptation, along with Marie as the surgeon. ABC’s play is now lost, thanks to the policy of wiping and reusing expensive video tape that has destroyed so much of the UK’s TV heritage. Diffring, who spent most of his film career playing the Nazis he fled from Germany to escape, does a competent job as Bonnet cool and sophisticated with the ladies, but all wild eyes and maniacal gurning when he needs his anti ageing potion, however he does lack the charm that Cushing could have brought to the role.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death ticks most of the boxes you would expect from an early Hammer chiller with Jack Asher’s lush.technicolour cinematography capturing the wonderfully cluttered Victorian interiors created in Hammer’s Bray Studios by Bernard Robinson. Michael Ripper rocks up as a mortuary attendant and there is the normal assortment of jarred body parts and bubbling test tubes in Bonnet’s laboratory, even if the flow of Kensington Gore is a bit thin compared to Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein flicks. There are suitably foggy exteriors for Bonnet to pursue his victims through and (spoiler alert) a nice ageing sequence at the end with make-up by Ray Ashton that prefigures what he does to Ursula Andress in She (1966). Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster’s script does betray the movie’s origin as a play, being a lot wordier than the treatments he delivered for the likes of Dracula and The Mummy, at the expense of the action.
Asher’s camera clearly loved Hazel Court (who played Elizabeth in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein) she positively glows whenever she is on set and there is rumoured to be a continental print that shows a lot more of Court in the infamous modelling scene, the actress used to joke that the two grand extra she received on top of her normal fee equated to ‘One for each bust’
One of Hammer’s more unusual shockers, a movie that sort of mashes up Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde and Jack the Ripper, I give the Man Who Could Cheat Death a 555/666
The Man Who could Cheat Death is released in te UK as a dual format Bluray and DVD on 21 September price £15.99
Extras: fascinating interviews about the film with Hothouse pal Kim Newman and English Gothic author Jonathan Rigby, plus subtitles.