Hidden Hammer Delights
By Kristin Battestella
After being unable to find several of these elusive films from Hammer Studios in stores, streaming, or on the almighty Netflix, I was surprised to receive this Hammer Horror Series Franchise Collection set for Christmas. Though they may be lesser known Hammer fare, this quartet is worth the pursuit indeed for the horror laymen or the Hammer enthusiast.
Kiss of the Vampire – This 1963 side-quel in the studio’s Dracula franchise has all the expected color, gothic design, and vivid style of its compatriots. There are some interesting filming touches, camera angles, and good old Bray Studios again, too. This uncut original 88 minutes has all its intended blood and juicy intact as well, and the foreboding music and turn of the century costumes complete the spooky atmosphere. Good screams, sexy chicks lying in wait for some fangs – it’s all almost enough to combat the run of the mill, good for background, looks like a Hammer Film casting. We feel for Edward de Souza (also of Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera) as the proverbial blood hits the fan, but the ensemble is just too British bland. It’s tough to make a Hammer vampire picture without any stars. Though creepy, the premise is typical as well –a honeymooning couple’s car breaks down before a dreary hotel and then a bizarre invitation to dine with the local noble of sinister repute arrives. There are pictures of folks who haven’t aged and a masquerade ball/cult scene, too. One would swear this was a recent movie! I know it sounds all flash and no substance, but the subtle religious hints and possibilities of vampirism as a disease or social club are intriguing. To modern eyes, the finale special effects might seem corny, but the conclusion is a fitting, intense, top shelf twist on this entertaining little piece.
Nightmare – Oft Hammer compatriots Freddie Francis and Jimmy Sangster team up for this very moody and effective 1964 black and white thriller. Eerie music and smart uses of silence and diegetic sound accent the sixties styles, snow scenery, and mysterious country estates. Excellent light and shadow, candlelight and silhouettes also push the insanity fears, paranoia, violence, murder, and creepy ladies over the edge. There’s a wonderful, scream-filled flashback adding to the mystery, and solid suspense filming works for both the nightmare bizarre and the askew real world, too. Is crazy inherited? What does childhood trauma do to the mind? Or is there something else at work entirely? Some of the screams might be a bit too much, and at first, one may think this is merely an extended Twilight Zone episode. However, some added kink keeps the audience wondering how far the terrors are going to go. The twists keep on coming for not one long Twilight Zone, but rather this invokes a lot of TZ-esque tricks woven together – and it works.
Paranoiac – Everybody’s swindling somebody and pulling over the wool in this 1963 suspense filled twister, another from director Freddie Francis and writer Jimmy Sangster. To start, the situations or red herrings may seem obvious or the premise standard – insanity, mistaken identity, inheritance, incest and all that given and taken from Josephine Tey’s source novel. However, the cast keeps it interesting, and wow Oliver Reed is so young! He makes for a great drunken playboy, of course, and Janette Scott (School for Scoundrels) is also honest and charming in what can so easily turn into annoying hysteria. The country house, classic cars, Old World décor, and sixties glam also work wonderfully with solid camera work and the black and white crisp photography. Contrast and shadow lighting also add to the foreboding, religious symbolism, and kinky crazy implications between Reed (Curse of the Werewolf), nasty French nurse Liliane Brousse (Maniac), and harsh aunt Sheila Burrell (The Six Wives of Henry VIII) – not to mention the suicide plotlines. It’s all a bit racy for the time, and although I don’t really see any Psycho connections, these people have every right to the eponymous paranoia. The creepy music hastens the puzzle, and the solid pace makes this one feel longer and deeper than 80 minutes. I’m surprised more Hammer fans don’t talk about this piece. Sure, it’s not uber horror and some scenes might be hokey now. However, the eerie atmosphere and dang good fright moments keeps this one entertaining.
And a Split Decision
The Phantom of the Opera – This 1962 Hammer adaptation of the oft-recounted Gaston Leroux tale moves the music to the creepy bowels of London and doesn’t star any of the studio’s more famous leads. Director Terence Fisher also strays from his usual flair with erroneous, herky-jerky camera zooms. A production like this should be a polished, colorful presentation, even a spectacle, not some misunderstood Phantom’s viewpoint cinema. Surprisingly, Michael Gough is also on the nose as the slick and snotty Lord Ambrose, the rest of the cast is un-dynamic, the decrepit Phantom make-up is uninspired, and the obviously dubbed operas are a downer, too. This rendition isn’t so much a carnival musical as it is a macabre looking period piece with some stage numbers in it, and for 84 minutes, the pacing is slow and stagnant. Though the good scares and fright moments are too few and far between, there is some visual value in the quality turn of the century décor, top hats, gas lamps, velvets and lace. Hammer completists or Phantom obsessed can enjoy this unique take – it’s flawed, but also must be seen for its dark interpretation.
The Hammer Horror Series Franchise Collection also included four more well-known Hammer Films. Feel free to continue with our previous reviews of the following: