The Hammer Horror Series

I am perhaps a little biased, having grown up with these movies on television – they were among my first introduction to the world of horror, something tacitly tolerated by my mother, who remembers seeing some of the Hammer movies at the cinema when they came out. While not including any of the “true classic” Hammer movies – and, in fact, Christopher Lee is conspicuous by his complete absence – this is still a worthy purchase. There’s a good variety of titles present here, touching most of the bases which made the studio one of the linch-pins of British cinema in the sixties: if not perhaps the most critically-acclaimed at the time, commercially successful to the point that the studio would win a Queen’s Award for Industy in 1968. These titles are from somewhat earlier, covering the period from 1960 (Brides of Dracula) through 1964 (The Evil of Frankenstein and Nightmare), with the directors including the two names most associated with the studio, Freddie Francis and Terence Fisher.

While the complete lack of extras on these movies is disappointing, there can be no complaints about the quality of the prints used, or the transfers, both of which are excellent: aspect ratio and colors are both spot-on, and as a result, even when the films are a little tedious, you can admire the cinematography, which is never less than luscious. As we head towards the fiftieth anniversary of their original releases, the majority of them stand the test of time pretty well. The one thing which stands out here is how good most of the performances were, anchored by the ever-reliable Peter Cushing, who takes concepts which could easily be described as ridiculous, and sells them through sheer acting chops. But the likes of Oliver Reed, regular Michael Ripper and Patrick Allen all step up to the mark, and it’s easy to see why, even now, Hammer is among the most venerated names in the genre. Despite a dud or two, this box-set is highly-recommended for lovers of classic horror.

Brides of Dracula (1960)

Rating: B-

Dir: Terence Fisher
Star: Yvonne Monlaur, Peter Cushing, David Peel, Freda Jackson

Christopher Lee was not involved in making the sequel to Dracula, but Hammer wasn’t willing to let such a profitable property go to its rest, so brought the cheaper Peel in to play a blood-sucker instead. His Baron Meinster is being kept chained by his mother, and is inadvertently released by Marianne Danielle (Monlaur), a teacher on her way to a new position, who doesn’t realize the evil that lurks within his elegant frame. He follows Marianne to the ladies’ school where she works, which has the potential to provide an all-you-can-eat buffet for the Baron. Fortunately, Doctor Van Helsing (Cushing) is in the area, ready to martial the forces of light, as the dead bodies start to pile up around the village, and the local girls start developing unpleasant habits – such as hissing loudly and an aversion to crosses.

Peel is the George Lazenby of Dracula movies – this was his only appearance, and it’s easy to see why he was dumped, possessing none of the screen presence Lee brought to the role, instead coming more from the Robert Pattinson school of performances. There are also some totally cringeworthy bat effects, which completely derail the movie’s atmosphere whenever they are used: the IMDB says, “The prop department put a lot of effort into making a realistic model bat. It got lost and had to be replaced on short notice.” No kidding. The script plays terribly fast and loose with vampire lore and has some gaping holes, apparently due to multiple writers – for instance, the fate of the titular brides is conspicuous by its complete absence.

Fortunately, the other aspects of the movie are good to excellent, led by a surprisingly-actiony Cushing, who also bring his usual gravitas to things, selling effectively what is often a fairly ludicrous concept. The scene where he wakes from unconsciousness, realizes he has been infected, and what he must do as a result, is great, and surprisingly hardcore for its time. Monlaur provides attractive window-dressing, and the whole thing is just beautifully shot by Jack Asher. These qualities certainly overpower the flaws, and this is an enjoyable slice of nonsense, with Cushing’s typically-marvellous performance at its core.

[Also starring: Mona Washbourne, who plays Frau Lang, the wife of the school-owner, also portrayed Henry Higgins’ housekeeper in My Fair Lady.]

Captain Clegg (1962)

Rating: B-

Dir: Peter Graham Scott
Star: Peter Cushing, Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain
a.k.a. Night Creatures

In 1776, notorious smuggler Captain Clegg is eluding the British Navy. After one of the crew attacks his wife, the mulatto perpetrator has his tongue cut out and is dumped on a deserted island to die. However, the Navy, under Captain Collier (Allen), rescue him and he joins their crew. 16 years later, Collier is investigating smugglers based in the coastal village of Dymchurch, where Clegg’s grave lies. The mulatto leaps at Dr. Blyss (Cushing), the local parson, apparently enraged – but the illiterate mute is unable to explain his actions to Collier. It hardly counts as a spoiler to reveal that Blyss is actually Clegg, who faked his death at the hangman’s hands, to start a new life, doing good [Well, if you discount his position as the head of the local smugglers, I suppose]. To add spice, the local squire’s son, Harry (Reed), has set his cap at Imogene (Romain), Clegg’s “orphan” daughter. That is not to the tastes of her guardian, who is also at odds with Blyss over the running of the gang.

Thouhh Hammer were best known for their Dracula and Frankenstein horror movies, this is a lesser-known gem in their collection, Cushing and Allen giving first-class performances as the adversaries. Blyss/Clegg is an ambiguous character, somewhat like Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein. We also enjoyed the luminescent skeletal costumes worn by the smugglers, even if this felt like something from Scooby-Doo. [Did they really have glow-in-the-dark paint in 1792? I doubt it.] Director Scott wasn’t a Hammer regular, but then, this is more of a swashbuckler than their usual fare, and he acquits himself well enough. While I can’t say the romance between Harry and Imogene quite sets the screen on fire, it’s there mostly to show Clegg’s humanity as the film heads towards its climax. The moral ambiguity here is quite startling given its time, and the production values are good enough to pull off the period atmosphere. If slightly out of the norm for the studio, it’s a solid piece of action-drama.

[Also starring: Allen also did the voice-over work for the UK government’s Protect and Survive films, which brought him fresh renown in the 1980’s as the voice-over on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes: “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear…”]

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Rating: C

Dir: Terence Fisher
Star: Clifford Evans, Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller

This was the only werewolf film Hammer ever made, because this did not do well at the box-office in either the UK or the US. I can see why: it takes far too long to get going, being about 45 minutes before two separate prologues are out of the way, and we get to the meat of the action. Leon (Reed) is the child of rape, additionally cursed by being born on Christmas Day [that’s prologue #1]. The love of two good foster parents in a Spanish village, has more or less kept him out of trouble as a child [prologue #2], but he is now making his own way in the world, until his animal passions are awakened by the beautiful Cristina (Feller). He goes completely over the edge after a work-colleague browbeats him into a trip to a local den of ill-repute, where the combination of hard liquor and soft women start him on a rampage that can only end one way. Let’s just say, an enraged mob bearing torches is involved – as is, for some reason, a church bell-tower. Hey, I never realized this was The Werewolf of Notre Dame. One could say that the sight of Reed, rampaging and snarling his way through town, was the shape of things to come…

Amusingly, the only reason this was set in Spain, was because Hammer needed to use sets they’d already built, for a movie which fell through [I read several explanation for why, from censorship to financial issues]. That may explain why there’s really no location flavour here at all, beyond a couple of flamenco dancers – otherwise, it might as well be the generic middle-European town often used by the company. As mentioned, the problem is mostly one of pacing, with so much time spent depicting Leon’s early (or even pre-foetal) years, there’s hardly time left for him to do anything at all, after his true nature is revealed – and, even then, there is hardly any attempts at a transformation to speak of. You’ll find some fun to be had from watching Reed, who does have charisma even at this early age. However, when you compare this to Hammer’s Dracula or Frankenstein flicks, it’s clear their heart just wasn’t in it.

[Also starring: You get to see Warren Mitchell, a.k.a. Alf Garnett as a hunter, and Desmond Llewellyn, Q from the Bond films, in an uncredited role as a castle footman.]

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

Rating: C

Dir: Freddie Francis
Star: Peter Cushing, Sandor Eles, Peter Woodthorpe, Katy Wild

“He has a good brain and excellent eyes. I won’t tell you where I got them, but I assure you they are perfect.” Only Peter Cushing could manage to deliver that line – which appears to have strayed in from Young Frankenstein – with perfect comic timing, yet also make work the Baron’s mournful plea, “Why can’t they leave me alone? Why can’t they ever leave me alone?” Despite this evidence of Cushing’s immaculate range, the film itself is a disappointment. Most of it takes place in and around Karlstaad, a town from where the Baron was driven previously. He returns there, having also being dispatched from another town, because he hopes to sell his possessions and regroup, only to find they were “confiscated” by local authorities. Although he locates his creation, frozen in a nearby glacier and opts to set up shop again, the brain remains inanimate. He recruits hypnotist Professor Zoltan (Woodthorpe), to re-activate the monster’s brain, but his new accomplice decides to use it for his own, less academic purposes, of robbery and revenge.

While Cushing is, as noted, his usual fine self, the rest of the film isn’t up to the same standard. There’s too much concentration during the first-half on the mechanics of the re-animation, Frankenstein and his sidekick (Eles) running about their laboratory, flipping switches. Then, it diverts later into the hijacking of the monster by Zoltan, which is not really very interesting either. The script basically throws out the window all the events of the previous Frankenstein Hammers, and the make-up job looks like Boris Karloff undergoing a poorly-executed facial [not the only aspect so borrowed, which may be connected to the then-close ties between Hammer and Universal]. Truth be told, there is precious little “evil of Frankenstein” to be seen here – it’s clearly Zoltan who is the bad guy, and he’s not an adequate focus. Frankenstein is largely relegated to the sidelines until the ending, which must have disappointed the torch-wielding mob as much as it disappointed me. Possibly the weakest of Hammer’s Frankenstein efforts.

[Also starring: Woodthorpe provided the voice of Gollum, both in Ralph Bakshi’s animated film and the BBC radio version of Lord of the Rings.]

Kiss of the Vampire (1963)

Rating: D+

Dir: Don Sharp
Star: Edward de Souza, Jennifer Daniel, Clifford Evans, Noel Willman

In the introduction, I wrote a bit about how much Hammer relied on getting good performances from stalwarts like Peter Cushing. Well, here’s a prime example, because rarely has he been so greatly missed. Clifford Evans’ Professor Zimmer, an alcoholic vampire-hunter who bears a strong resemblance to Coffin Joe, icon of the Brazillian horror genre, starts strongly by drunkenly gatecrashing a funeral to impale the vampiric corpse with a shovel. But it’s all downhill from there, with Evans proving incapable of selling the basic concept. Similarly, Dr. Ravna (Willman), leader of the vampire cult, lacks the screen presence and feral intensity of Christopher Lee. Newly-married couple Gerald and Marianne (De Souza and Daniel), who fall into his clutches after their car runs out of gas and they are forced to take shelter at a nearby inn, are basically entirely forgettable.

There are some interestingly paranoid scenes after Marianne is kidnapped by Dr. Ravna for induction into his clan, and Gerald is met with stonewalled denials of her entire existence. Everyone claims he arrived alone, until the Professor confirms what’s happened, to Gerald’s huge relief. But that kind of psychological cat-and-mouse play isn’t why you watch Hammer movies, and this is just too well-mannered, with dinner parties and masked balls instead of bodice-ripping and throat-draining. And what’s up with another dreadfully-executed bat-attack sequence? Here, there’s a whole flock of the things which tear into the vamps, as a massive chiroptera ex machina. It was originally supposed to have formed the climax of Brides of Dracula, until Cushing objected. On seeing them here, in all their rubbery glory, I can see why, and am fully behind him…

[Also starring: Well, this one’s pretty thin on the ground, in people who’d go on to anything else – it was less a stepping-stone than a millstone, I think. Evans had a regular role in late sixties’ boardroom drama, The Power Game, as building tycoon Caswell Bligh. Nope, I’ve never really heard of it either.]

Nightmare (1964)

Rating: C

Dir: Freddie Francis
Star: David Knight, Jennie Linden, Moira Redmond, Brenda Bruce

There are some things that aren’t actually much fun to watch on-screen, but it’s a lesson film-makers have difficulty learning. Taking drugs would be top of the list, but based on this one, “going mad” can surely not be far behind. Highly-strung teenager Janet (Linden) is sent home from school, as her nightmares are disturbing the other pupils. Turns out her mother went mad, stabbed her father and had to be locked up in a local asylum: Janet is concerned she inherited whatever caused the insanity. Things don’t get much better at home, despite the presence of nurse Grace Maddox (Redmond). Janet continues to see things, culminating in her fatally stabbing the wife of family lawyer Henry Baxter (Knight) at a birthday party – which results in the girl being consigned to the same asylum as her mother. However, it turns out this was all a plan by Baxter to get rid of his wife, so he can marry Grace. But when they move into the family home, Grace starts to suspect her new husband might have similar plans for her…

The main aspect of interest is the abrupt shift in focus in the middle of the film, clearly inspired by the similar change from Marion Crane to Norman Bates in Psycho, as the movie swings from Janet to Henry. It’s this middle section that contains most potential, with Francis pulling off the change with some aplomb. Unfortunately, the front and final portions are a good deal less interesting, Janet and Grace staggering around the house, looking disturbed and frequently shrieking at the top of their lungs – Chris was in the office, commenting afterwards, “What were you watching? There was an awful lot of screaming…” and it’s probably fair comment. The necessary plot-points are established with enough efficiency that by the time the third or fourth titular sequence comes into play, you have to suppress an urge to yell, “Enough, already!” at the screen. With all respect to Francis, Hitchcock he ain’t, and any efforts to prove otherwise, such as this, are doomed to fail.

[Also starring: George Cooper, who portays chauffeur John, also played caretaker Mr Griffiths for many years in Grange Hill.]

Paranoiac (1963)

Rating: C+

Dir: Freddie Francis
Star: Janette Scott, Oliver Reed, Alexander Davion, Sheila Burrell

After the economic failure of Phantom of the Opera, Hammer switched back to smaller projects, with long-time scribe Jimmy Sangster writing a series of psychological horrors, without the expensive period trappings. This one centers on the dysfunctional Ashby family: the parents died in an accident, and teenage son Tony took his life a few years later. Now there’s mentally-troubled Eleanor (Scott) and drunken rake Simon (Reed), who is looking forward to getting his inheritance, instead of relying on the disapproving family lawyer who administers the trust fund. It’s be even nicer if he could get Eleanor committed as insane… However, that hope is derailed when Tony apparently returns from the dead, after eight years – just in time to take over the family. But it is the “real” Tony or an impostor? And if it’s the latter, at whose behest has the cuckoo been inserted into the nest?

It’s ironic to see Reed playing an alcoholic asshole, given that’s basically what he became for the majority of his later life. Sangster’s script pulls off a number of twists that I didn’t see coming, though the ending appears to abandon all semblance of sanity and heads into Gothic loopiness. While not all bad – it gives Reed the chance to engage in some excellent, manic face-pulling – it doesn’t really fit with the tone set in the opening 70 minutes, which are much more prosaic and down-to-earth. Indeed, you could say that Reed doesn’t really fit with the rest of the performances, which are a good deal more laid-back by comparison. Interesting that Hammer also went back to black-and-white for this one: whether as a cost-cutting measure, or to invoke comparisons with Psycho is hard to say, but it’s quite effectively used. Even though I watched this at the end of a really long day, it kept me awake and adequately interested, when a lesser film would have failed to stave off unconsciousness.

[Also starring: Maurice Denham, who plays family lawyer Mr. Kossett, had a long career as a character actor. His voice, from Night of the Demon, is heard on the opening of the Kate Bush song, “Hounds of Love”: “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!”]

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Rating: C+

Dir: Terence Fisher
Star: Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Edward de Souza, Michael Gough

What? No songs? Yeah, we kept breaking into Music of the Night through this one, but it’s not really the film’s fault that I’m listening to the Lloyd-Webber soundtrack as I write this. The story shouldn’t need much description, but there are some interesting differences from other version. Here, the Phantom (Lom) is actually a disgruntled composer, who sold the publishing rights for his work to Lord D’Arcey (Gough), only to have him claim the compositions as his own and publish them. An accident involving nitric acid at the printers leads to the Phantom’s disfigurement and seclusion in the opera house, from where he sabotages D’Arcey’s attempts to stage the opera. But he is seduced by the voice of Christine (Sears), and kidnaps her to teach her the proper delivery of his work. For obvious reasons, that disturbs her boyfriend, theatrical producer Harry Hunter (de Souza), who heads off into the sewers beneath the theatre in search of his missing beloved.

There’s not much threat to this Phantom, who comes over as an almost entirely sympathetic figure, especially at the end, where his behaviour is positively heroic. If there’s a villain in the piece, it’s D’Arcey, who oozes with slime as he tries to convince Christine to go back to his apartment for a little late-night “singing practice.” The film seems to be building towards a confrontation between him and the Phantom, particularly given their previous history, but this angle is never fully-developed. The other aspect I was surprised to see omitted is that there is absolutely no romantic chemistry between the Phantom and Christine: he is just her teacher, and appears to be from the Jack Bauer school of music tuition. He slaps her about, makes her sing scales until she falls into unconsciousness, then pours sewer water on her to revive her – he makes Simon Cowell seem gentle in comparison. Like the rest of the film, it’s a different approach from every other adaptation, but the various pieces never quite come together in the way that they should, and the result is a good deal less than the sum of the parts.

[Also starring: The rat-catcher who gets stabbed in the eye is played by the second incarnation of Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton.]