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The Development Of British Horror Films Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5514 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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One aspect of the argument is that British horror developed around certain themes and key moments, the effect of imported horror will also be considered, in light of industrial cultural and social elements. It will also argue that the amount of development that took place did not develop or evolve enough to enable the genre to survive the 1970s foreign onslaught.

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The main thrust of the essay will consider the cultural and social background, including cinema audience and some industrial aspects. These are often linked as fuller employment generally leads to more disposable income for leisure purposes. Horror films are exploitation movies made for commercial gain not artistic endeavour, therefore winning formulae are often milked dry and copied by others . Prior to the advent of television, video tape, DVDs and more recently digital downloads, which provide an additional source of income, the product was made to be watched once and (discounting possible re-runs on minor circuits, or as part of double bills) expected to make its returns on the first release, and therefore needed to appeal to the target audience necessitating constant development and evolution.

The investigation took the form of viewing cinematic texts to determine central themes in light of period conventions and audience. Various literate texts were also consulted to review the validity of the conclusions reached . It became apparent during the investigation that a key factor of British horror was its tendency towards being insular and local, unlike American and European horror which tended to lay great swathes of population and/or country to waste. A common element of the genre involved innocents, generally outsiders, being drawn into, or stumbling upon, a web of deceit, corruption and exploitation. This local theme was also a financial consideration, as it enabled production costs to be controlled and kept to a minimum as British horror was generally produced by cost conscious independent companies or studios.

In a similar vein to the interpretation of the horror film, assessing the development of horror is by nature quite personal as aptly summarised by Dilys Powell: “one man’s frisson is another man’s guffaw” . Therefore, in order to minimise bias a large cross section of texts were consulted in order to present a balanced view .

Horror has changed over the years as alien invaders, mad scientists and spectral creatures, challenging to both the individual and society, have gradually been superseded by killers and sadistic scientists, both often psychotic. British horror has classic attributes such as blood, death, the afterlife, a fear of the unknown and tends to be constructed around themes of Science-fiction, Gothic, Occult, Psychological, Historical / Mythological, or Medical . These attributes, combined with a local, claustrophobic, insular setting usually manifest as innocents being drawn into danger in a variety of imaginative ways, such as: location, being drawn into cultic rituals, or falling prey to outside influence . With the exception of psychological horror, the evil in the above is generally personified and usually recognisable. This is not normally the case with psychological horror, which often concerns the evil within where a normal facade hides a murderous psychotic nature.

The 1950s saw increasing prosperity and the evolution of a youth culture with its own music, meeting places, high employment and disposable income along with a rebellious streak that challenged authority. This new youth culture saw the emergence of movements such as Beatniks and Teddy Boys, the latter associated with violence and racism, seen as being commensurate with the rising levels of upheaval in 1950s society . There were definitive attitudes to gender and roles, with men being seen as brave and women as helpless, this attitude would prevail until well into the 1970s.

Increasing cinema admission prices, gritty realistic films and horror, which played on the new ‘X’ certificate introduced in 1951, did not make for family viewing and consequently sounded the death toll for the family cinema outing. This was partially responsible for instigating the decline in cinema attendance that would continue in succeeding decades . This change in film production values made television an acceptable alternative to the older generation who stayed at home, happily sacrificing the shared audience experience of cinema viewing. They were replaced by the younger, more rebellious audience that demanded different films, a pattern that is still prevalent today.

The British film industry struggled for finance, leading to a reliance on American backers who were tempted by lower production costs, funding and allowances put in place by the British government to try and bolster the ailing industry . In order to secure some of this finance many companies entered into joint productions with other parties, e.g. Hammer and Robert Lippert who distributed Hammer’s films in America. A requirement of this type of deal was often the use of known, though fading, American actors in lead roles to generate American interest.

The V2 rocket and the atom bomb heralded the space and nuclear age, resulting in a welter of science fiction films. These involved alien invasions or creatures created by exposure to or feeding on radiation which supplanted the classic creatures of America’s first horror cycle which had begun with Dracula (1931) but had ran its course by the end of the 1940s. British production companies were not slow to jump on what they saw as a lucrative, potentially low cost, bandwagon. Hammer entered the fray with a mix of science fiction and gothic elements in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) , set against the stark, scarred landscape of WWII and maintaining its local feel. This also commented on the changing nature of society as it emerged from the privations and horrors of war during the prosperous 1950s. The production was in line with their ‘safe bet’ policy , on release it was vilified by the critics but loved by the audience.

Audience surveys revealed that the horror element was responsible for the film’s success which resulted in Hammer embarking on their very successful gothic horrors, beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) which contained amorality, graphic violence and gore in glorious colour assuaging the audience’s senses within the boundaries of prevailing censorship. Colour enabled them to dispense with the moody shadowy world of monochrome horrors, which rather than the crafted tension to assault the audience’s imagination with unseen horror. This allowed more direct depictions of violence, gore and smouldering sexuality requiring little imagination and virtually dispensing with the need to spend time on characterisations.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) heralded a new period in the history of horror that was not fully realised until well into the 1960s, as it combined dangerous science with blood, gore and sex. Apart from disregarding the proper order of things by usurping God and indulging in immoral activities it also replaced the more familiar happy restoration of order with death, sowing seeds of doubt that the evil had truly been eradicated. Thus was born the quintessentially British brand of gothic ‘artificial horror’, set in an ambiguous somewhat mythological past, but still incorporating the brave men and helpless women gender definitions of the decade and the dominance of the male.

This was a monumental step in the development of British horror as it pushed the boundaries of censorship, providing the cinema audience with a new viewing experience that was depicted with the deadly seriousness which would become a trademark of many British horrors. These first steps, resulting in some two decades of British domination of horror, were quite a gamble as major Cinema chains such as Rank and ABC were reluctant to screen British horror, or X, films until 1960 and 1956 respectively confining their release to the more minor circuits. A further gamble involved finance and co-production as Hammer stood their ground in refusing to cast American actors in the lead roles, much to the consternation of their American partners .

This re-definition of horror encouraged other producers including Amicus, AIP (American International Pictures), Anglo Amalgamated, Tigon and Tyburn to jump on the bandwagon Hammer had set rolling resulting in British horror rampaging through national and international Cinema until the mid-1970s. This depiction of horror was so new that there was no template to work to, it would generally fall to Hammer to develop it by trial and error with others following their lead. This was a double edged sword as in the early days it enabled British horror to steal a march on world horror but by the late 1960s the lack of further development on Hammer’s part for various reasons, especially finance, would eventually result in a stale and outdated commodity that did not suit the audience.

The portrayal of science in the 1930s and 1940s was populated with overzealous, totally committed, scientists whose work to benefit man had unfortunate side effects. By the 1950s and beyond the image of science had become more sinister and threatening as the power of mass destruction and side effects, which could result in mutants and monsters, invaded public consciousness. The mystique and charm of the earlier mad scientists was rapidly being replaced by the cold, calculating, although often charming, scientists who would stop at nothing to achieve their goal.

Horror in the late 1950s and early 1960s was not all gothic. Regal/Triad’s The Flesh and the Fiends (1958) journeyed into medical horror while Columbia/Sabre’s Night of The Demon (aka Curse of The Demon) (1957) conformed more to the prevailing moral standards along with a more sedate blend of occult and psychological horror combined with a reserved approach to violence and sex. This was similar to the subtle RKO horrors that had provided a counterpoint to Universal’s contemporary gothic, providing an alternative to gothic horror. Psychological horror such as Insignia’s Cat Girl (1957) was also beginning to make its presence felt, but it would not become more prevalent until the 1960s, promoted in part by censorship issues and the success of Shamley’s Psycho (1960).

Even considering the gore, violence, sexuality, eventual nudity and lesbianism British horror generally operated within a moral framework, focusing on the struggle between the spirit and the flesh, science and superstition, good and evil and using symbols of Christian belief, crucifixes and bibles, as weapons rather than contemplation and prayer until its demise in the 1970s. The late 1950s and 1960s would see the look of the inhabitants of 1930s and 1940s horror such as vampires, werewolves, zombies and psychotic scientist’s updated for the modern audience.

The 1960s saw the advent of protest marches, the seeds of Women’s Liberation, the Hippie movement’s free love and living culture all of which were seen as challenges authority . Society saw violence on the increase as the mods and rockers indulged in pitched battles at coastal resorts and the Skinhead and National Front doctrines and practices of racist violence. The cinema audience was also changing as the first phase of the ‘baby boomers’ who, like the previous young generation had their own music, high levels of employment and disposable income joined their ranks. As with the previous decade this new section of the audience expected different types of film more in line with their standards and values.

British film finance, along with the rest of the entertainment industry, would experience another ‘boom and bust’ decade. In the case of film this would be closely linked with American finance, which reached an estimated 90% by 1967 . America’s determination to dominate the film industry and maximise profits led to them reducing the quantity of output to finance blockbusters, which would ultimately prove detrimental to their industry. This enabled British companies to fill a niche as this reduction in output resulted in a shortage of product for the cinema, leaving the door open for the independent producer. This fact was not lost on British based companies such as Anglo Amalgamated and Independent Artists who, as AIP had been doing in America since the 1950s, put their house in order to fill the gap in horror production which could, to a large extent, be accomplished with low budget productions.

The closing of the 1950s and the dawning of the 1960s saw developments in sadistic violence with offerings such as Herman Cohen’s Horrors of The Black Museum (1959) which, along with Anglo Amalgamated’s Circus of Horrors (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) , formed a trilogy often termed ‘sadian’, but more properly Selwynian , movies.

The first of these updated Grand Guingol theatre with its catalogue of gruesome crimes while the second turned to medical horror with a sadistic, megalomaniac plastic surgeon murdering his creations when they challenged his authority. Unlike the first two which can be seen as more violent takes on conventional themes the third film was a new development that centre staged the psychotic killer, the human monster hiding behind a façade of normality. This was a comment on the paranoid fear of communism, perceived as the enemy within that had been growing since the mid-1940s. The film’s contemporary setting would lead to it being vilified by critic and public alike, with a general reaction of repulsion and disgust. Not only did it reflect the violence that society was more aware of due to news reports and the exposure of the seedy world of Soho (tolerated but swept under the carpet) it also portrayed the taboo subject of mental instability in the community. Unlike other movies it struck home as its style implicated the audience in the voyeuristic pleasure that was derived by the killer, making them feel a part of the crime. This was not the unreal, detached, gothic horror they were used to viewing, this was more realistic and the vitriolic reaction that ensued would lead to the censor taking a harsh stand for the next four years . This tightening of censorship would in effect almost bring the development of horror to a halt from which it would never fully recover. There is not much doubt that had this not been the case it would have rightly assumed the mantle of ‘father of the slasher/stalk and slash’ movie, bestowed on Psycho (1960), that would come to dominate 1970s American horror.

The censor’s stand, combined with Psycho’s (1960) success, saw many production companies turn to developing the low budget psychological horror such as Hammer’s Maniac (1963) concerning a psychotic killer and Compton/Tekli’s Repulsion (1965) which traced a woman’s descent into madness culminating in violence.

Despite this Hammer still continued to try and develop the horror theme by exploring new idea’s such as sadistic violence in The Stranglers of Bombay (1960), veiled lesbianism in The Brides of Dracula (1960), Voodoo in The Plague of The Zombies (1965) and science fiction with The Damned (1963). Apart from the lesbian theme, which they would not re-visit until the 1970s, they did not pursue these idea’s any further. This may have been for several reasons but it coincided with a time that they were concentrating more on their psychological horrors which were likely to be more lucrative. In doing this they missed out on future survival opportunities as the discarded themes eventually gained prominence in the late 1960s into the 1970s. They did challenge the accepted 1950s gender convention in The Gorgon (1964) giving a nod of recognition to Women’s Lib by making a strong woman the central character (and the monster), something they would not repeat until the 1970s, beginning with Countess Dracula (1970) but that Tigon would pursue with The Blood Beast Terror (1968) albeit not with great commercial success.

In general there was a lack of development due to lack of audience appeal as demonstrated by the commercial failure of Danziger’s The Tell Tale Heart (1960). This was an attempt to enter Edgar Allen Poe territory and a challenge to the extremely cost conscious AIP who had cornered the Poe market in America. AIP in turn ventured into Britain in 1965 to continue their successful Poe series with a story of obsession / possession in The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) and also take excursions into horror themes that had been experimented with by British companies such as Voodoo in The Oblong Box (1969) and medical horror in Scream and Scream Again (1969), the latter being a joint production with Amicus.

1964 saw Amicus enter the frame who, with the exception of single features like The Deadly Bees (1966), concentrated more on the portmanteau format. This enabled them to incorporate several themes within a single framework, linked by a central thread, which would have a wider audience appeal. Their tongue in cheek approach and contemporary settings were very different to the period horrors of the time, allowing them in effect to incorporate more gore, so much so that they stole a march on Hammer as Dr. Terrors House of Horrors (1965) got a release on the horror shy ABC circuit. Apart from The Skull (1965) which chillingly charted possession and a descent into madness, they also incorporated Voodoo elements in the majority of their portmanteaus. Amicus did not really add to the genre’s development, as much of their material was taken from the American EC comics and partially Anglicised for the British audience.

A further development was the depiction of some parts of society’s willingness to accept extreme violence, both to subdue strong women to men’s will and also as an acceptable means of restoring order. This was the subject of Tigon’s Witchfinder General (1968) which also challenged the current moral framework of British horror as the defeat of evil did not produce a clear winner and only resulted in madness. This is an important moment in horror as good does not really triumph, an idea that would re-surface in George Romero’s horrors.

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The late 1960s and early 1970’s saw British horror under attack from a resurgence of American horror which would eventually come to dominate the market. George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead (1968) took the slow moving, brainless zombies of American Securities White Zombie (1932) and the British Plague of the Zombies (1965) endowing them with more fluid movement and a hunting instinct with a craving for human flesh. Just as Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) had redefined horror in the 1950s he laid the seeds of a new type of horror, where the line between human and monster became blurred as infected humans themselves became the monster. More chillingly, these zombies were not Voodoo creations, but victims of an unseen infection that could spread uncontrolled and had no motive of any sort. The true horror, the disease, cannot be reasoned with or eradicated and was not personified as was the case with gothic horror.

This change in American horror was not taken on board by the British producers, who were probably under the opinion that they were almost unassailable and were happy to rely on the old guard. Where this was not possible they came to expect too much of younger talent that they had to turn to in order to minimise costs, who had not been given the guidance, nurturing and development it needed. Not only would they struggle with their basic product, but more importantly they were no longer a source of new ideas, consequently resulting in their loss of audience. The British studios would carry on remaking the same scenario over and over again either little realising or refusing to accept the fact that the audience found it old fashioned and stale. This was something that would really come home to roost as the end of the Hays code in 1969 gave American producers the freedom to depict things and scenarios that had previously been the province of British and European producers meaning that American money could be invested in their own horror productions.

The 1970s saw great changes in the social and economic sense. Britain’s 1960s sexual revolution accelerated as women demanded more and more equality and sexual satisfaction via the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’. Continuing aspects of the hippie’s ‘freedom’ culture were counteracted in part by the Punk Rock movement of the late 1970s. The full employment enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s began to disappear as 1971 saw 1 million unemployed which, combined with price rises and higher inflation, would culminate in industrial unrest . This resulted in less disposable income for leisure, which became a factor in the further decline of cinema audiences. Another major factor of the decline was the lack of investment in cinema’s fabric, which had become shabby and undermined the quality viewing experience that the audience had come to expect along with cinema closures .

Financial problems once more plagued the British Film Industry and the ‘boom and bust’ pattern of the early 1970s was similar to that of the 1960s. By the early 1970s American studios had withdrawn the majority of their finance to try and prop up their own ailing film industry, the aftermath of their blockbuster phase.

The period following the release of The Exorcist (1973), which had reinvigorated the general public’s interest in horror, proved difficult for British Horror. It struggled as it failed to adapt to the mix of innovative special effects and brutal violence of films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).More importantly, as in The Night of The Living Dead (1968), this horror was contemporary not gothic, which had formed the backbone of British horror.

The British horror industry reacted by fragmenting in many directions instead of developing their own generic product. They attempted, generally unsuccessfully, to ape the American satanic worship / possession based output, usually with low budget offerings such as Unicapital/Rank’s I Don’t Want to Be Born (1975) and Monumental’s Satan’s Slave (1976) and some bigger budgeted affairs like Hammer/ Terra-Filmkunst’s To the Devil a Daughter (1976). Although the latter incorporated the current satanic vogue it sacrificed its quintessential British style and placed an American actor in a lead role, a last gasp attempt that could only result in box office failure. British horror would not learn the necessary adaptation techniques until a younger breed of filmmaker emerged in the 1980s and beyond.

By the mid to late 1970s the popularity of British horror was in decline which, to a large extent, was the fault of the production companies. Instead of trying to develop the more traditional forms of British horror to suit the changing, diminishing audience they, as in the 1960s, basically sat back on their laurels. There were some half-hearted attempts to transplant Dracula in the modern world as with Hammer/Warner’s Dracula AD72 (1972) but all it did was confine him to a gothic setting in a ‘modern’ world that was more related to the previous decade in language and style.

Hammer had become a shadow of itself, desperately trying to engineer the survival of its particular brand of gothic horror by spicing it up even more with sex and violence. Amicus was no different as they found that their more tongue in cheek approach was not compatible with the developing product of possession, gory, psychotic and often sadistic violence, sex and nudity. This enabled smaller companies such as Benmar and K-L Productions to come to the fore with a fresh approach ranging from zombie bikers in Psychomania (1972) to cannibalistic descendants in Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972).

Even the return to science-fiction with TCF/Brandywine’s Alien (1979), which harked back to the Quatermass series of the 1950s with its mix of gothic type settings and horror, was short lived and was not really picked up as providing the ‘shot in the arm’ or development lifeline that British horror desperately needed at the time.

The relaxation of censorship and the desperate fight for finance and box office returns pulled the horror film towards sexploitation with films like Noteworthy’s Horror Hospital (1973), and the incorporation of more nudity and graphic violence in Gothic based fare of Hammer/AIP’s The Vampire Lovers (1970), the first of the ‘Karnstein Trilogy’ which played on the viewer being attracted to the lesbian act in a voyeuristic way. The lesbian vampire not only intruded on society, with her unnatural desires capable of undermining it’s authority, but also intruded into male dominated sexual territory as the erotic act of drawing blood emphasised what society deemed an unnatural sexual, non-procreative, pleasurable practice, further compounded by it depleting the victim’s body of blood, possibly affecting menstruation and a direct challenge to human reproduction. The theme was continued with Essay/Fox-Rank’s Vampyres (1974) with the added twist that the lesbian couple used a bisexual relationship to satisfy some of their desires and need for nourishment. This formed a part of the 1970s movement that saw female sexuality become more aggressive as sex driven vampires and witches which, coupled with other offerings of invasion, bodily or otherwise, by supernatural beings or alien life-forms posed a threat to the secular world and highlighted what was being viewed by many as the decline of the male’s dominant role in society.

It is worth noting that 1970s America saw pornographic films like Deep Throat (1972) make the transition from the adult into main stream, a further indication of the changing tastes of the cinema audience and giving a nod to the feminist movement as it showed a woman willing to take charge in satisfying her needs, rather than be a pawn to men’s desires.

More importantly the relaxation of censorship opened the door for the adult soft core pornography and sexploitation producers such as Pete Walker , Antony Balch and Tony Tenser to enter mainstream horror. They brought their extensive experience of making films on shoestring budgets and distribution networks to bear.

They were happy to provide offerings of sadism and sex in films like Heritage’s The House of Whipcord (1974), which commented on society’s view that girls who were just out for a good time should reap just punishment. They attacked established religion by having a murdering, non-celibate, Roman Catholic priest in The House of Mortal Sin (aka The Confessional) (1975). They also offered large doses of sex and horror in a combination of schlock and art-house style and stomach churning sadism in productions like The Secret of Sex (aka Bizarre) (1970) and mad surgeon horror, tinged with a perverse sexual desire in Horror Hospital (1973) generally appealing to an audience that had, or would, embrace the sexploitation market. Although operating in the blood soaked and grotty end of the market with their mix of sex and violence, which presaged the future American domination of the market, that had been so frowned upon by the censor in the 1950s, 1960s and part of the 1970s, they toyed with accepted scenarios and added more chills in contemporary settings.

It was not all sex and gore as Tyburn desperately tried to return to the gothic style that had once been a successful mainstay of British horror. Although they opted for higher budgets with films like The Ghoul (1975) and The Legend of the Werewolf (1976) they were doomed to box office failure, as they could not generate audience interest considering the prevailing contemporary horror climate with their efforts almost destroying the company.

Films from the more recognised horror producers such as AIP and Hammer were laced with more sex and violence as they, like the sexploitation producers, challenged people’s beliefs as well as commenting on society’s attitude that almost anything goes in the 1970s, especially in the search for truth or the restoration of order.

This determination to Americanise, or even orientalise British horror as with Hammer/Shaw’s Kung Fu based The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) robbed it of its quintessentially British touch, often resulting in pleasing neither one market nor the other.

By the late 1970s the torrent of early independent 1970s horror, that had one eye firmly focussed on the American market, had slowed to a trickle eventually becoming a downward spiral that by the 1980s would prove almost terminal and it was becoming crystal clear that British horror would never again see the heady dominating days of the 1950s and 1960s.

From 1978 onwards the horror film had moved on again as Gothic had had its day, partially the fault of the producers as their sequels which were remakes of the original offered little re-imagination, being replaced by the stalk and slash movie in the form of Halloween (1978) and Friday 13th (1980) to satisfy audience requirement for more gore and psychotic, senseless violence. The films of the 1970s had really become a combination of sex and violence which also set out to challenge the accepted sanctity religious beliefs as in Tigon/Chilton’s Blood On Satan’s Claw (aka The Devils Skin) (1970) where the leader of the coven tries to seduce the local priest and also included a violent, graphic rape scene. This theme of gratuitous nudity, sex and violence would be a factor in many British horror films of the 1970s, a good demonstration of this gratuity are the opening sequences of AIPs Cry of the Banshee (1970) and in challenging conventional beliefs British Lion’s The Wicker Man (1973) with its survival of strong pagan beliefs involving animal and human sacrifice being depicted as the only course of action due to the failure of science.

It can be seen above that the changes in the 1950s and 1970s were the most influential in British horror development. The 1950s saw the emergence of productions that not only pleased the audience but in doing so pushed against the existing boundaries of censorship and making full use of the ‘adults only’ X certificate introduced by the BBFC in 1951.

There is no doubt that this would have continued into the 1960s but for two crucial events. The first being the vitriolic reception to Peeping Tom (1960) which put the censor on the back foot, in a harsh clampdown until 1964. The other was the success of Psycho (1960) which had a two-fold effect. Firstly it was seen as the father of the ‘slasher’ movie, which would gain prominence in the 1970s, secondly it provided a life line to British producers, who were having difficulties with finance and the censor in the early part of the decade, enabling them to realise revenue by developing their low budget psychological thrillers, which would be made in monochrome to reduce the effect of gore and be more acceptable to the censor.

It also emerged that the development and production of British horror was subject ‘Boom & Bust’ cycles which occurred in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s due to their dependence on foreign investment. Also there was a continuously changing and declining, due to the proffered viewing experience and lack of investment in cinema fabric, audience that by the 1970s it had failed to evolve with.

The most costly event in the development of British horror was its failure to monitor and adapt to changing audiences and looking to the future by developing new talent during the good times to enable them to keep up with changing trends. Many of the producers stuck with the old guard and virtually remaking the same film again and again with little imagination and the odd tweak to their characters behaviour, mistakenly believing that drenching it in more violence, nudity, sex and lesbianism would save the day. Even these embellishments could not hide the same old formula from the audience. They had not realised that they were heading towards times of the rejection of religious beliefs and acts of faith. The religious symbols from the 1950s-1970s defe


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