Started by businessman William Hinds in 1934, Hammer Studios in England would eventually carve out for itself a reputation among movie buffs as one of the finest purveyors of horror fare in cinema history. The studio’s first film was the obscure comedy entitled The Public Life of Henry the Ninth, in 1935, and it would not be until 1953, with Four Sided Triangle (the lack of a hyphen in the film’s title is annoying), that the studio would begin to produce the sci-fi and horror films for which it would soon become best known. The ball really began rolling for Hammer in 1957 and ’58, though, with the releases of The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula (both of them costarring two of the studio’s most dependable players, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), and from that point on, the studio would become one of the foremost producers of quality horror fare in the world. Starting in 1957 and over the next 15 years, there would flow out from Hammer four films featuring Professor Quatermass, seven with Frankenstein, nine with Dracula, four with the Mummy, 14 psychological thrillers (I have recently written here of my love for the Hammer film Nightmare, from 1964), not to mention prehistoric films and colorful swashbucklers. (For those who are interested, there is a complete listing, in Wikipedia’s Hammer entry, of all 174 films that the studio has produced to date.) For today’s Shocktober column, I would like to shine a spotlight on a half dozen Hammer horrors that do not deal with Professor Quatermass, Frankenstein, Dracula or the Mummy, but that all might provide some first-class viewing during this scariest of holiday seasons:
The Kiss of the Vampire is a Hammer Studios film from 1963 that should manage to surprise and impress even the most jaded horror fans. In it, British honeymooning couple Gerald and Marianne Harcourt run out of petrol near “Kronenbourg,” Germany in the year 1910 or so (judging from their vintage automobile), and are soon befriended by the area’s most prominent citizens: the family of castle-dwelling Dr. Ravna, a debonair host who just happens to head a clan of blood-loving vampires! Interestingly, these vampires differ somewhat from the type we’ve all come to know and love, in that they have a fondness for ordinary food and wine, and can walk about during daylight hours … as long as it’s fairly cloudy outside. Still, they remain averse to garlic and definitely suffer from, uh, crucifixaphobia. But this film offers us much more than just a group of atypical neck noshers. Kiss… has been beautifully photographed, boasts some truly striking sets (an “ornate coffin,” Ravna calls his sumptuous home), and features a literate script and fine acting from its relatively no-name cast. There are also several impressive sequences: Ravna’s son, Karl, playing his eerily dreamy piano composition; a flaming-hand cauterization following a vampire’s “kiss”; a vampire masquerade ball; and perhaps the best pentagram/conjuration scene ever shown on film … at least, until The Devil Rides Out came along in 1968. And, without giving anything away, let me just say that the vampires are undone in this film in a manner I have never seen before. From its deliciously morbid vampire-funeral opening to its (perhaps too) abrupt conclusion, this concise little picture is still another winner from the great House of Hammer.
THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966)
Andre Morell’s character, Dr. Forbes, makes a very unusual house call at the opening of The Plague of the Zombies. His old student, now practicing in a small (Victorian era) Cornish village, is mystified by the recent outbreak of deaths in that town, and even his wife, Alice, is starting to exhibit some strange lethargy. After Forbes arrives to help, he and his friend uncover a mix of voodoo, grave robbing and the undead, in this lesser known Hammer title that certainly deserves a greater renown. And thanks to the fine folks at Anchor Bay DVD, this film’s popularity may soon spread beyond its current cult reputation. Plague… features an intelligent script, fine acting, solid photography and great atmosphere. Andre Morell’s doctor makes for a very reassuring action hero, despite the actor’s age (he was 57 at the time this picture was made). The film boasts three very chilling scenes: the first, nighttime appearance of a zombie on a hillside; the much-celebrated dream sequence; and Alice’s rising from her grave. The smile on actress Jacqueline Pearce’s face in this last scene is just haunting. Though marred by a somewhat disappointing finale, the film remains a minor horror masterpiece and one of the scariest works that I’ve yet seen from the House of Hammer. This movie would make a wonderful double feature with the similarly themed White Zombie (1932), or with another Hammer film made that same year (1966), The Reptile, featuring Pearce again and the same director, John Gilling. Any way you watch it, though, the film is a real winner.
Immediately upon finishing his wonderfully creepy film The Plague of the Zombies (1966), Hammer Studios director John Gilling began making The Reptile, using the sames sets and the same Victorian Cornwall setting. And, thankfully, one of the same actresses: Jacqueline Pearce. Pearce had made a terrifically frightening zombie in that earlier picture, and was here cast as the daughter of a theology professor, who is turned by the Snake People of Borneo into one of their own as a vengeance for her father’s snooping… This is actually a quite literate little picture, with fine direction, good-looking sets and exteriors, and solid acting. Like Plague…, it features some shocking moments, a good deal of sustained suspense, and characters who are likable and appealing. We do not get to see the snake creature that Pearce becomes overly much, but that was fine by me. Pearce is a remarkably beautiful and talented performer, and every frame that she is in is spellbinding. Her unique face is equally suited to inducing sympathy or chills; in that respect, she is reminiscent of the great “Queen of Horror,” Barbara Steele. I guarantee all FanLit viewers that if they watch these two films (preferably back to back, for one superbly well-matched double feature), they will become instant fans of Jacqueline Pearce, and will want to see more of her work. Despite some unanswered questions and a somewhat weak finale (again, similar to The Plague of the Zombies), The Reptile is a solid horror movie, and still another winner from the House of Hammer.
The Witches is a different type of Hammer picture. There are no vampires, zombies, monsters or crumbling Carpathian villages to be found, and the story takes place in as charming and sunny an English village as one could ever hope to find. In this tale, Joan Fontaine (pushing 50 here but still very beautiful) is convalescing from a nervous breakdown that she suffered after her teaching stint in the African voodoo country. She comes to the aforementioned quaint English town to begin her new job as headmistress in a small private school, and soon becomes embroiled in that town’s witchcraft, devil practices, and the attempted sacrifice of one of her girl students. Unfortunately, what sounds smashing in synopsis turns out to be a rather slow-moving film, and not at all scary or suspenseful. What should have been the most exciting section of the picture – the coven/sacrifice at the end – is just ridiculous, with a bunch of old-timers flouncing around and flailing like so many epileptic jackasses, and with a silly-looking head priestess with a multicandled headpiece. Still, the picture DOES have its small merits. Fontaine, here in her last theatrical film role, is well cast and acts impeccably, and the beautiful shots of the English countryside will surely make you want to pack up and move. Still, I didn’t care for this Hammer outing as much as I had hoped, and still don’t understand what happened to Kay Walsh’s character at the end, or why the presence of Fontaine’s teacher was necessary. Bottom line: This picture is for Joan Fontaine or Hammer Films completists only. Others would be well advised to watch Rebecca or Horror Hotel for the 10th time and call it a night.
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)
When I first saw the 1968 Hammer film The Devil Rides Out several years ago, I thought it one of the best horror movies I’d seen in a long while. Last night I watched it again, having just completed Dennis Wheatley‘s excellent 1934 source novel of the same name, and realized the film for what it is: a pale, watered-down version that, good as it is, can’t hold a Black Mass candle to its original. In his screenplay, the great Richard Matheson hits many of the main points of the book, in which the Duke de Richleau attempts to save his friend Simon from a gaggle of Satanists in 1930s England, but his screenplay condenses much, simplifies more and completely excises whole sections. Some scenes are right on the money, such as the gathering in the beginning of the film, and the demon materialization in the observatory. The novel’s two main set pieces, the outdoor Sabbat and the defense within the pentacle, are here reproduced, but with nowhere near the suspense or chills of the original. (For instance, in that pentacle scene, the book’s giant gibbering slug monster has been replaced with a more mundane over-sized spider.) Worse, the novel’s entire main plot, concerning the mummified penis of Osiris – the Talisman of Set – and its ability to start a world war, has been completely jettisoned, and rather than having a climax involving a cross-European plane chase to a crypt in northern Greece, we’re given yet another coven ritual in an English country house. Still, the film offers much to appreciate. Christopher Lee is fine as the Duke, as is Charles Gray as his nemesis, Mocata (although he is hardly the Mocata that Dennis Wheatley describes), and the film has been produced very handsomely indeed, wisely retaining the book’s 1930s setting. The story is such a good one that even this condensed version delivers the requisite goods. Still, for any fans of this movie, I must recommend a look at Wheatley’s original. That’s where the real thrills are.
Fear in the Night is a somewhat contrived and lesser Hammer picture from 1972 that somehow still manages to work up a fair amount of suspense and one or two chilling moments. The film concerns young Peggy Heller (excellently portrayed by Judy Geeson), who, after suffering a nervous breakdown, moves with her new teacher husband to a large, private boys’ school on 1,200 acres of English countryside. Poor Peggy is soon made the victim of a string of attacks by a stalker with a prosthetic hand, and her lot is hardly made more comfortable by the presence of the very strange headmaster (Peter Cushing) or his haughty young wife (Joan Collins). The film builds to a surprise ending of sorts that probably won’t surprise many, especially those viewers who have already seen a certain classic Vincent Price horror movie from 1958. Still, the film does offer some compensations, including very fine performances by the actors just mentioned, as well as by Ralph Bates, playing Peggy’s husband. Viewers will appreciate just how fine the acting is, perhaps, after a second viewing, with a greater knowledge of all the characters’ secret motivations. The film also offers some beautiful scenery, both in terms of the autumnal Hertfordshire countryside AND Ms. Collins herself. Thirty-nine years old here, and nine years prior to incarnating TV’s ultimate bitch on wheels, Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter, etc. on Dynasty, she really is quite gorgeous to look at. (Sadly, she and Cushing, though playing man and wife, share no screen time whatsoever in this picture.) But the film belongs to Geeson, who appears in every single scene (with one major exception). Just five years after her To Sir, With Love debut, she turns in a very credible and ingratiating performance. Indeed, it is the sterling acting by all four principals that elevates this rather pedestrian thriller into something quite admirable indeed.
So there you go, FanLit viewers … a half dozen wonders from the House of Hammer, all guaranteed to provide an interesting viewing experience for you some dark and stormy October night. But these six recommendations do come with a warning: Watching Hammer films can prove habit forming! For example, I just recorded the studio’s 1965 thriller Hysteria off of TCM and now can’t wait to watch it! Stay tuned…