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Terror in the Tower

UNLESS you have spent the past month living up a particularly tall tree, you will surely have read that the long-lost mortal remains of King Richard III have been found underneath a council car park in Leicester. When I’m not writing about dodgy horror movies, I work in the Marketing Communications Office at the University of Leicester: it was our archaeologists who found the skeleton, our geneticists who identified the body’s DNA, our osteologists (good word!) who examined the bones for wounds. It was, in short, a University of Leicester gig.

      And it was our Press Office and Marketing Communications Office who communicated this extraordinary discovery to the world, which is why I can legitimately claim to have been part of the team behind the ‘King in the Car Park’, arguably the most important - certainly the most exciting - archaeological discovery of recent times. When they needed somebody to cycle over to the dig in the rain and stick laminated press releases onto the car park gates, who do you think they called? Mikey-boy, that’s who. Oh yes. I’m telling the grandkids about this one. 

      But what, you may ask, assuming you’re still reading and haven’t got confused, thinking you have accidentally clicked a link to the website of Archaeology Today, has all this got to do with horror movies. Well now, Richard III (or as we like to call him on campus, Dicky Three) has been portrayed on screen a number of times. Most famously of course, by Larry Olivier in 1955, a performance which remains the definitive interpretation and even survived Peter Sellers’ glorious Beatlesque lampoon. There was Ian McKellen, who played Richard as a non-hunchbacked Nazi, and according to the IMDB Richard Plantagenet has also been portrayed on screen at various times by the likes of John Carradine, Ollie Reed, Ian Holm and Paul Daneman. But what only dawned on me fairly late in the day was that Richard III was the central character in two interesting and still popular vintage horror movies, one from the 1930s, one from the 1960s. And those are the text of our sermon today.


      Quite apart from anything else, preparing for this column by watching the 1939 and 1962 films both called Tower of London was a great excuse to spend time with Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, not that one should ever need an excuse to watch a Karloff movie. Or a Vincent Price picture, come to that.

      The 1939 film is one of those ‘horror films by default’ in that it’s really a historical melodrama, but the cast, crew and studio mark it out as a horror picture. Rowland V Lee had recently completed Son of Frankenstein for Universal Pictures and, since they couldn’t keep pumping out monster movies every few months, had hoped instead to capture some of the same magic by reuniting his lead actors in a tale of Tudor politics, spiced up with a bit of gruesome torture. Lee was no stranger to exaggerated historicals, having helmed versions of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

      Basil Rathbone was cast as Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III) with Karloff as Mord the executioner, a character curiously absent from Shakespeare’s version of the story. We now know of course that Shakespeare somewhat exaggerated Richard’s villainy (though it turns out he was right about the hump - take that, revisionists!) but back in 1939 no-one had any doubt that Richard was a wrong-’un who did in his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, in order to seize the throne. (A quick history primer may be in order: Richard was the younger brother of Edward IV, who died in 1483. Edward V was only 12 so Richard was named Lord Protector of the lad and his brother, but stuck them in the titular Tower and they were never heard from again. This left Dicky free to assume the throne as Dicky Three where he ruled for two years before being killed in battle by Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII ... yada yada yada, William and Kate, basically.)

      In the screenplay by the director’s brother Robert N Lee (who said he ignored the Bard and simply worked from history books), Richard is a cunning schemer who actually has a little cupboard with a miniature throne room and tiny dollies of all those who stand in the way of his ambition. These include puppet ruler Henry VI (jobbing bit-part player Miles Mander, perhaps best known to horror fans for The Return of the Vampire), brother Edward, the two boys and a middle brother, George, Duke of Clarence - a very early role for Vincent Price. (Price’s other 1939 credit was another historical romp, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, the title of which is a sage reminder that ultimately all these films were part of the 1930s vogue for Merrie Olde England which began with Charles Laughton’s glorious turn in The Private Life of Henry VIII.)

      But this is really Karloff’s film. Bald and bushy-browed like some premonition of Thunderbirds villain The Hood, Boris absolutely hams it up as the Tower’s head torturer and executioner, happy to serve as Richard’s henchman. He drags a club foot, totes a heavy axe and even has a pet raven. There is a lovely humanity to the role, most notable in the scene where the two princes are killed, a subtle qualm visible in Mord’s expression as he realises that maybe child murder is a step too far - but he is in too deep and it’s too late to change his mind. He also begs Richard to be allowed to accompany him to battle, convinced that killing in hot blood must be more satisfying that the prosaic tortures of the Tower dungeon.

      John Sutton is nominally the ‘leading man’ but his bland hero stands no chance of making a mark alongside Karloff and Rathbone in full flow. Rathbone’s son John Rodion has a small role and even ghastly poppet Donnie Dunagan from Son of Frankenstein crops up as a child bridegroom. The likes of Holmes Herbert, Leo G Carroll and burgomeister-for-hire Lionel Belmore pepper a sprightly cast. A terrific not-quite-life-size castle set was built for the production which was then endlessly reused for decades. Another link toSon of Frankenstein was the reuse of part of that film’s score after Frank Skinner’s original, historically accurate music - all crumhorns and serpents - was deemed too twee for the grand guignol story.

      One of the standout scenes is Richard’s murder of his brother, the Duke of Clarence who - as any fule kno - was drowned in a butt of Malmsey. Rathbone and Price face off against each other in a drinking game amid the barrels of the royal wine cellar. Thoroughly sozzled, Clarence is tipped into a barrel which, on set, was actually full of Coca Cola! But Price got even 23 years later when, having established himself as a thoroughly theatrical horror film star, he took the lead role of Richard in a loose remake - Roger Corman’s Tower of London.


      The 1962 version is even further away from both Shakespeare and historical records, with Price hamming it up like there’s no tomorrow, substituting psychosis for Rathbone’s Machiavellian plotting. In fact, the script by Leo Gordon, James B Gordon and F Amos Powell owes considerably more to The Tragedie of Macbeth than The Tragedie of King Richard the Third. The Duke of Gloucester is egged on towards the throne by his power-hungry wife and finds himself visited by the ghosts of his victims. These scenes are impressively written and directed, treading a fine line between the supernatural and the psychological so that either interpretation works. They are also very well-done examples of double exposure, particularly a scene where Richard’s angry throttling of a ghost leads to his actual throttling of his scheming spouse. The only credit for the special effects is ‘Modern Film Effects’, a company that was still providing optical trickery as late as The Empire Strikes Back. 

      In the absence of a club-footed executioner, it is left to Michael Pate to play Igor to Price’s regal mad scientist. A more modest cast than the 1939 assembly nevertheless includes a few recognisable faces such as Sandra Knight and the great Morris Ankrum. Charles Macaulay (he was Dracula in Blacula!) plays Clarence this time round, stabbed in the back by Richard before being dumped into the traditional Malmsey.

      Corman had started making films in colour by this time but opted for black and white here so that he could use some stock battle footage from the 1939 film at the film’s climax. There is almost no mention of Henry Tudor and he certainly never appears. Instead, Richard Plantagenet ends up wandering in confusion around a mist-covered battlefield, tripping over dead bodies before eventually falling onto an inconveniently placed halberd, thereby fulfilling a prophecy that he would die by a dead man’s hand (curiously, neither the historical record nor the Bard of Avon picked up on that one).

      In fact, as we now know (thanks to the diligent work of academics from the University of Leicester), Richard met his end in a desperate last-ditch charge straight at Henry Tudor. Having perhaps unwisely removed his helmet (presumably so the French upstart could see precisely who was heading his way), Richard went down among a sea of weapons, many of them wielded by knights who were meant to be on his side, crying, "Treason! Treason!” He suffered several massive blows to the skull from a variety of edged weapons, then his body was stripped, draped over a horse and suffered the ultimate indignity of having a sword rammed where the sun don’t shine. (And that doesn’t mean Leicester...)

      All of which, apart from not being known in 1962, would have cost Roger Corman money when a few yards of astroturf, a couple of small trees, a smoke machine and Vincent Price in full-on mad mode sufficed perfectly well. If there’s a problem with the Corman film it is, frankly, a physical one. Price plays Richard with a much more pronounced hump (H-U-M-P, pronounced ‘hump’) than Rathbone did. But we have all seen hunchbacked assistants and film versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: what do hunchbacks all have in common? Well, a hunched back, obviously, but as a result of that they’re all short. Analysis of the bones found under the Leicester car park show that Richard III would have been 5’8” if he stood up straight but lost several inches because of his scoliosis. Where 5’10” Olivier actually hunkered down for the role, 6’2” Price simply wanders around straight-backed with a cushion up his doublet, making him the tallest hunchback in cinematic history, towering over all his co-stars in a way as distracting as it is ridiculous. The thick American accents of many of the cast don’t help much either.

      Actually, Price did the ‘butt of Malmsey scene’ three times in his career, as it also features in 1973’s magnificent Theatre of Blood. Critic Oliver Harding (Robert Coote) likes a drop of el vino and consequently has a tendency to nap through plays he should be reviewing, so Price’s psychotic thespian Edward Lionheart drowns him in a barrel of Chambertin 1964.

      With Richard III’s historical rehabilitation in recent years emphasising that he was a popular king who introduced all sorts of Good Things (like trial by jury) it’s unlikely that we will ever see another version of Tower of London. But the last Plantagenet’s horror career may not be over if I have my way. Coming soon from the Simpson iMac is a slasher script, inspired by true events, in which the irate ghost of Richard III hacks his way through a bunch of archaeology students in a carefully non-specific Midlands university. All I have to do is find a way of making it clear that The Revenge of Richard III is not a sequel... 








MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.