|Hammer Horror Series, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 06 September 2005|
For horror film fans, Universal Home Video has offered mixed blessings over the last few years. It’s great that they’ve released the majority of their best horror movies of the 1930s and 40s (and a couple from the 50s) in well-produced sets, some with extensive extras. But they’ve been more cavalier in their handling of movies they merely released rather than produced.
This Hammer Horror Series (part of the company’s ongoing “Franchise Collections”) is a case in point. Eight of the Hammer movies distributed in the U.S. by Universal are included here, mastered from excellent prints. The set is included in a reasonably attractive slipcase set with images of Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed (in werewolf form) on the cover.
But they’ve also crammed four films onto each disc, front and back, at an 18-bit rate. This resulted in lots of complaints from disappointed and angry customers—the discs wouldn’t play all the way through on their DVD machines. This was also true of Universal’s recent set of Bela Lugosi movies. These complaints are widespread (and intense), but so far Universal has given no signs of responding to them.
Both the Lugosi and Hammer sets played fine on my aging DVD machine, and I’m very pleased to have these films at hand. This Hammer set includes one of the best films the company made (“The Brides of Dracula”), several good ones and no outright clinkers. Each film has been individually mastered at the aspect ratio appropriate to it, resulting in new screen shapes with almost every movie. The sound for all is crisp, clean 2.0 mono, the same as in theaters.
Two of the three principal actors who emerged from Hammer are well represented here. The precise, intense Peter Cushing is the star of three of the films; Oliver Reed is the star of two and appears in a third. (Christopher Lee, the third, isn’t represented here.) The set covers most of Hammer’s output—there are two vampire movies, a Frankenstein entry, a couple of black-and-white thrillers and two literary adaptations. There are films from two of Hammer’s best-known directors, Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis. It’s a very good sampling of Hammer’s output.
Fans have been clamoring for a DVD release of “The Brides of Dracula” for years; not surprisingly, it leads off the set. Dracula himself is not around—a brief narration tells us he’s dead—but the vampires he created are still around. A young woman (Yvonne Monlaur) traveling through the Transylvanian forest is invited to a meal by Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt). When the kindhearted visitor frees the Baroness’ handsome blond son (David Peel)—he’s in silver chains—she discovers she’s actually set free a powerful vampire. But Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is on hand to try to stop Baron Meinster’s evil.
“Brides” is a particularly handsome Hammer, with lush color, attractive sets and good photography; the print used here is especially good. It’s a fast-paced movie with a very good cast, exciting, tense and involving. The script was rewritten several times, possibly explaining a few story lurches and an occasional lack of logic. The means Van Helsing uses to destroy Baron Meinster is creative but confusing and anti-climactic. Still, this is an exceptionally good film, one of the very best in Hammer’s history, and it’s great to have it on DVD at last.
It shares a disc side with the almost schematic “The Curse of the Werewolf,” based loosely on Guy Endore’s novel, The Werewolf of Paris. The setting here is Spain, unusual for Hammer—but the sets were built for a movie about the Spanish Inquisition that was cancelled before production began. Prudent Hammer used them for this movie, changing the novel’s setting from France.
It’s almost textbook-like in its demonstration of how a werewolf comes into being. A beggar (Richard Wordsworth) is humiliated by an arrogant, degenerate nobleman (Anthony Dawson), then tossed into a cell and forgotten. Years pass. A mute girl who’s been kind to the now deranged beggar is put in the cell with him. He rapes her and dies. She staggers out, kills the nobleman, and gives birth in a nearby village on Christmas Eve. A kind man (Clifford Evans) adopts the boy and raises him, Leon, as his own son. As a boy, Leon falls under the spell of the full moon, but the kind man and his housekeeper manage to cure him of his lycanthropy.
For a while. As a young man (Oliver Reed), Leon ventures into a nearby town where he falls in love, and shows a slight tendency toward dissipation. Soon, he’s again turning into a werewolf—off screen; there are none of those amazing transformation scenes here. It’s up to his foster father to set things right at a great cost.
“The Curse of the Werewolf” divides viewers more than most Hammer movies; some love it, some just as intensely dislike it. Director Terence Fisher adopts a somewhat stately pace, and until the last couple of reels, all werewolfery is off screen. But it’s a tragic story rather than merely melodramatic, and Oliver Reed is excellent as both the troubled Leon and the hairy creature he turns into. This is one of the movies that began to establish Reed as someone capable of much more than Hammer was offering him.
It was not particularly successful for Hammer (though one doubts they ever lost money), which probably explains why it’s their only werewolf movie. But, the erratic pace to one side, it’s an especially good one, which clearly was never forgotten by Nick Park and his associates. “Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” hearkens back to this movie.
The flip side of this disc brings Hammer’s version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” very different from Gaston Leroux’s novel, though resembling the 1943 Universal version with Claude Rains. Surprisingly, Cary Grant, of all people, announced his desire to play the Phantom, but neither Hammer nor Universal could afford his salary, and the role went to Herbert Lom.
Again directed by Terence Fisher, the movie is a neat, compact version of the story with somewhat less opera—and less Phantom—than usual. It has the standard high quality Hammer set design, several effective actors and a couple of interesting scenes (one involving a herd of rats). Lom’s Phantom, like Rains’, is less a villain than a man driven insane by betrayal. He lurks in the catacombs beneath the opera house, tormenting those who mistreat the music he wrote and which was stolen from him by an arrogant, cynical nobleman (Michael Gough). He wants to teach a new singer (Heather Sears) to do his music justice.
The first two “Phantom”s were elaborate, expensive productions; the first included one of Lon Chaney’s most amazing, memorable makeups (the only time Leroux’s description was followed), the second had lots of opera and Rains in a robin’s-egg-blue mask. Lom has an ugly, blank, one-eyed mask, and under it he’s merely somewhat scarred, not the hideous-from-birth Erik of the novel and the Chaney film.
This one clearly had a lower budget, but even at that was lavish for Hammer. It’s a good movie, not an outstanding one, and Herbert Lom is especially effective as the tormented Phantom.
“Paranoiac” accompanies “Phantom.” Although the title suggests Hammer’s version of “Psycho,” instead this resembles “Diabolik” more. In crisp, handsome, black-and-white ‘scope photography, it tells the tale of a greedy, arrogant heir (Oliver Reed), pitted against a man who seems to be his brother, long thought dead. There are masked figures, sinister organ music and gliding shots through the old manor house. Freddie Francis, the cinematographer of the elegant, classic “The Innocents,” directed here, and continued on with more films for Hammer and for their rival, Amicus.
This is one of Hammer’s better thrillers, generating some suspense and cranking up the tension. Reed is a bit much, here, but his star power was already showing. He was handsome in a simian way, a very strong screen presence.
The second disc begins with one of Hammer’s best vampire movies. A young married couple (Edward de Souza, Jennifer Daniel) are driving an early car through the Bavarian countryside. They run out of petrol and spend the night at an inn, but are summoned to the castle of a nearby nobleman (Noel Willman). Wouldn’t you know it, he’s the head of a clan of vampire cultists and he wants the wife.
The distraught husband turns to a drunken but learned man (Clifford Evans again) for help in rescuing his wife from the clutches of the white-clad vampire clan. The climax, originally envisioned for “The Brides of Dracula,” is surprisingly elaborate and unusual for a Hammer movie.
This is an intelligent little movie, sexy in the usual Hammer manner, with crisp, efficient acting, a good villain turn by Noel Willman, with Evans especially good as a bitter father who lost his daughter to the vampires. As in “Brides of Dracula,” vampirism is treated as a physical and spiritual disease. This makes good use of standard Hammer locations—Bray manor, Black Park—and is shot in handsome color. Director Don Sharp brings vigor and skill to the movie; it’s a shame he didn’t do more films for the studio. The music here is especially good.
“Nightmare” is unusual in having few if any Hammer regulars in the cast; it also is set during the winter, with many snowy scenes. Like “Paranoiac,” it’s set in the present and makes excellent use of the manor at Bray. Freddie Francis directed again; he must have liked Clytie Jessop, who played the ghost woman in “The Innocents,” for she turns up here and in his non-Hammer “Torture Garden.”
Overall, it’s a lesser Hammer, written by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster. It’s essentially a variation on “Gaslight,” with a young woman (an heiress, of course) being driven mad by weird, recurring dreams and a late mother who evidently stabbed her father to death. Toward the end, the gaslighters are gaslighted.
This is one of those stories that requires everyone, absolutely everyone, to do precisely what the conspirators want them to do. It’s a weak approach, and is no stronger here; this is the least interesting film in the set.
“Night Creatures” isn’t a horror movie at all, but a robust pirate tale set on the channel coast in what seems to be the early 19th century. A stern Naval officer (Patrick Allen) leads a small band to a coastal town, hoping to trap the smugglers known to be working there. A charming local parson (Peter Cushing) and the townspeople seem more amused than anything else, but gradually the officer begins putting together elements that lead him to suspect the dread pirate Captain Clegg, thought to be hanged, may be living in the village. The “night creatures” are horseback-mounted smugglers decorated with luminous paint to resemble skeletons. They gallop around Romney Marsh to scare away the overly curious.
If this story sounds familiar, you may have seen the 1930s “Dr. Syn” with George Arliss, or “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” with Patrick McGoohan. All three are based on the same novel, but Hammer (and a coproducing company) were forced to change some of the character names. It’s one of those tangled showbiz cases that require a law degree to understand.
“Night Creatures” (“Captain Clegg” in England) is a speedy, lively movie with lots of good performances, including another appearance by Oliver Reed, here the son of the local squire. Hammer regular Michael Ripper has one of his best roles as a sardonic villager. Patrick Allen is somewhat too stern as the investigator, but Cushing is especially appealing as the frisky parson.
Cushing is also good in the final film in the set, “The Evil of Frankenstein.” This is peculiarly separate from the other Hammer Frankenstein movies, hard to view as a sequel to the previous or as a setup for the next. This time, Baron Frankenstein declares that he’s intent on establishing the biological truth of evolution, though why that quest would lead him to make a Monster isn’t entirely clear. In any event, when he returns to Carlstadt anonymously, the Monster is long gone.
Or is he? A mute girl who befriends Frankenstein and his assistant is found kneeling before a figure frozen in a big block of (unconvincing) ice—Frankenstein’s previous Monster. When Frankenstein brings it back to life, it’s clearly brain-damaged, so the Baron turns for help to an unscrupulous hypnotist (Peter Woodthorpe) from a village carnival. Things do not go well for anyone.
“Evil” looks different from other Hammer movies and has a different kind of score. This was the only Frankenstein movie Hammer made in conjuction with Universal, explaining why the makeup on shambling Kiwi Kingston (a wrestler from where else, New Zealand) resembles the classic Boris Karloff makeup, though cruder and blockier. It’s unclear why the Monster rejects bread and porridge and goes for raw meat, but it’s not a good sign.
Despite the utter lack of extras—no trailers, even—this is a very good set for fans of horror movies, especially those who grew up with Hammer movies as a regular part of their movie diet.