Hammer House Of Horror Review
It's clear now that this was Hammer's last real attempt at generating interest in its unique brand of British horror. The studio had, for many years, been seen as safe, cosy and unthreatening, offering the same old retelling of traditional horror tales as they had done following the successes they had with Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy in the late-1950s. That is when they were still making horror films - Hammer had stopped making sci-fi years before, their horror was not as successful as it had been and the studio's major successes, indeed their most successful films ever, were now big-screen versions of On The Buses and Man About The House. Oh, how far they had fallen.
The problem Hammer had with horror was that, when compared to The Exorcist, The Omen and other big-budget horrors from the US, not to mention indie hits like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn Of The Dead and, at a real extreme, Italian gut-crunchers, Hammer just appeared so out of touch that television was probably the only way forward for them, where they could continue making the same kind of films they always had and in changing very little but the running time, they would be seen as daring and controversial.
To be fair to Hammer, the plan worked - when the television series was eventually shown, it seemed incredibly thrilling with gore, nudity, violence and erotica, all of which was much more excessive than any other television series being shown at a similar time, broadcast, as it was, at 9.05pm from October to December 1980 on ITV. The title of the series was chosen to be Hammer House Of Horror and so as not to appear without a real house of horror, Hammer bought Hampden house in Buckinghamshire in the UK, close to Hammer's traditional base at Bray. It is Hampden House that appears in the title sequence in every episode of this series and provided Hammer both with a base from which operations could be conducted but a gothic mansion that would allow filming in a range of environments, all of which had been added to the house over the years.
Series one of Hammer House Of Horror included a total of thirteen episodes, each of which is summarised below:
The House That Bled To Death - The episode most people will remember as it's the one everyone will have been allowed to watch before their parents realised how comparatively adult the entire series was going to be. A young couple (Nicholas Ball and Rachel Davies) and their daughter (Emma Ridley, transformed at a later age into a very-much-of-their-time wild child) move into a run-down house, available on the market at a suspiciously low cost, that has remained unoccupied ever since a murder was committed there, when an elderly man killed his wife. Soon after moving in, however, items belonging to the previous occupants begin appearing in the house, including the knives used in the murder and the old woman's false teeth. A further series of gruesome events occur including the death of their cat, hallucinations and, in what is probably the whole series' most famous moment, blood showering the guests at a children's birthday party from a broken pipe in the kitchen.
This is probably the closest to a standard horror story in the entire series in that it is a straight telling of a haunted house tale, where the past actions come back to haunt the present owners of a property. If you are familiar with The Amityville Horror, The House That Bled To Death will sound remarkably similar but the latter does try to move away, towards the very end from the former, attempting to satirise 'true-life' horrors and the pretence that they are somehow more real that reality would indicate. The singular fault in that, though, is that it feels as though it was bolted on at the last minute and the final scenes indicate that the conviction wasn't there to see it through.
The Silent Scream - Peter Cushing - a Hammer regular from the very earliest days of their series of classic horrors, playing Dr Frankenstein in The Curse Of Frankenstein - plays Martin Blueck, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, now a pet shop owner in suburbia, who demonstrates to Chuck Spillers (Brian Cox), just released from prison, an innovative way of ensuring animals remain in captivity through habit, training and punishment. Blueck had been remarkably kind to Spillers, visiting him regularly in prison but as he reveals his hatred of being in captivity and the difficult time he had in prison, the true horror of Blueck's experiments unfold - a human subject is required!
The Silent Scream is one of the better episodes - the twist is nicely handled, Cox and Cushing are great actors and the premise is more interesting than many others, if only because it is not so dependent on a traditional horror story as many of the other episodes in the series. The jailer/jailed roles, divided between Cushing and Cox, are well realised, although the police investigation subplot, introduced when Cox's wife, Annie (Elaine Donnelly), contacts the police about her missing husband, is a little unnecessary but the ending more than makes up for it.
The Two Faces Of Evil - This is an updating of the old doppelganger story, in that everyone on earth has a double, identical in appearance but unknown to them, whose only purpose is to kill if and when a meeting takes place, of which William Wilson by Edgar Allan Poe is the most famous example.
The Lewis family - Martin (Gary Raymond), Janet (Anna Calder-Marshall) and son David (Paul Hawkins) pick up a male hitchhiker (also Raymond) in a terrible rainstorm. The hitcher is actually an evil double, Martin's doppelganger and attacks him while the car is being driven away, which causes it to crash on a deserted road. Janet's last memory is of seeing the one distinguishing mark that can identify her husband's double - a long and distorted fingernail on his right hand.
After the crash, Janet and David recover quickly but of the two adult males in the car, one is alive, one is dead and Janet is not sure who survived, her husband or the man who tried to kill them. Her paranoia increases as she becomes more and more confused as to who really survived the crash until she makes an awful discovery.
Calder-Marshall plays Janet really well, probably one of the better instances of acting in the entire series, capturing the sense of confusion that Janet suffers from such that the audience only know, when she realises, what has really happened. On the other hand, the doppelgangers are slow, suffering from the sense that these clones could be outrun or avoided just as easily as the zombies in Night Of The Living Dead whereas in Poe's story, the double tracked and overcame his victim through guile.
The Mark Of Satan - This episode is the one, which you will either love or hate in that it is significantly different from the rest of the series. Where the majority of the other episodes are based on traditional horror - as much of the Hammer output is - this episode is about the internal thoughts of a worker in a hospital morgue who is convinced that a conspiracy of evil has selected him as a disciple of the devil and has much more in common with Polanski's the Tenant than traditional Hammer horror. If it did take that risk, it works out well as I believe it to be one of the stronger stories.
Edwyn Rord (Peter McEnery) sees a conspiracy in numbers, his colleagues and his environment, believing that he is the centre of a satanic plot, concentrated around his mother who he still lives with. Tragedy follows tragedy as he reacts with ever increasing levels of violence to imagined, or possibly real, threats. Rord could be psychologically beyond help, simply confused or the only one with a real insight to what is happening around us - the truth is never made clear, not even at the very end and this is Hammer House Of Horror, after all, so all of it could well be true within the rules of Rord's world.
The ending is great, linked to a brief moment elsewhere in the episode, which is devastating for Rord but is as daring and in line with new horror as the rest of the series is linked to traditional horror.
Witching Time - Hmmm...is there any horror in this? Judge for yourselves in this story about a young witch (Patricia Quinn) from the 17th century is brought forward in time to the present day...well, 1980, and interrupting the lives of the present occupants of the house in which she was born. This witch puts her mark on the young man (Jon Finch) currently living there and in doing so, he becomes obsessed with her but when his wife (Prunella Gee) returns, she resolves to get him back.
Well, the witch does bring an element of horror to the story but if I were to summarise this, I would do so as follows...Patricia Quinn shows up, does the whole, "An electric light, what witchcraft is this?" then she takes her clothes off, puts her mark on Finch during an love scene, then disappears. Gee then comes back, takes her clothes off, walks around for ten minutes in her underwear, gets attacked by various household objects and goes off to see the priest. Quinn comes back, gets naked again and then there's a final showdown between the two women over Finch who spends most of the episode wandering about so clueless, you wonder why any women would bother with him, never mind have two fight over him, one of whom travelled across three centuries to do so.
Hammer House Of Horror? Hammer House of Nudity as Permitted at 9.05 on a Saturday Night in 1980, more like. Actually not a bad episode, all told.
Visitor From The Grave - The box describes this as a story about a séance being held for a girl whose fiancée has been killed in a car crash and not only hears his voice but comes face to face with his body. Worse is to follow, as she becomes the victim of a macabre and heartless plot.
It's not far from the truth but doesn't quite describe what actually happens - Kathryn Leigh Scott plays Penny, a woman with serious psychological problems and currently undergoing treatment who shoots an intruder dead in her house after he attempts to rape her. This man, Charles (Stanley Lebor) had entered her house searching for her partner, Harry (Simon MacCorkindale), away on business at the time and who owed Charles money. Harry buries Charles' body in the woods and drives his Range Rover into a local lake attempting to cover up the crime and protect Penny but it would appear as though Charles wants to take his revenge from the grave. All the while, Penny's paranoia increases, not helped by the investigations of a local policeman (Gareth Thomas) and her superstitious best friend (Mia Nadasi).
This story has more in common with Tales Of The Unexpected than horror as the story concludes with a major twist though much of it is unbelievably farfetched, particularly the Indian Swami Gupla (also played by Gareth Thomas) who might well have stepped out of Mind Your Language and, although it is not funny, it's difficult to see how this episode can be treated as seriously as most of the others.
Rude Awakening - Probably the worst episode of the entire series with Denholm Elliott playing a lecherous estate agent, Norman Shenley, married to, in his view, the dull, short-tempered and ageing Emily (Pat Heywood). His secretary at the estate agency, Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge) however, is much younger, certainly more attractive and in a series of strange dreams, Shenley lusts after her. In these same dreams, he hears a strange voice asking him why he killed his wife and telling him he should not have done so, after which he loses his temper and actually murders his wife, always by a different method. After doing so, he wakes up but as the episode progresses, the line between what is a dream and what is reality starts to become confused.
The old 'Oh, it was all a dream…or was it?' story, though being the whole point of the episode, gets stretched to breaking point and after numerous dreams go by, the overall feeling is one of not caring what happens to anyone - just kill her and get on with the next episode! That alone is disappointing as Elliott is usually a very watch able actor but the story just gets lost in the 50 minutes it takes to get to the obvious conclusion.
Charlie Boy - Angela Bruce and Leigh Lawson play Graham and Sarah, a young couple who take ownership of an African fetish, a small but ugly doll, which, unknown to them, is possessed by the spirit of an evil sorcerer. After Sarah jokes that it can be used to curse people, Graham places a hex on everyone who crosses him, including the driver of a car in a road rage incident, all of him die soon after. Realising through newspaper cuttings what has happened, Graham and Sarah must try and stop any more deaths from happening, particularly all those in a group photograph whom Graham has unintentionally cursed.
This is not a bad episode, mid-range and neither outstanding nor overly poor but two things stand out - the road rage confrontation is some years ahead of when they started to receive widespread attention and the interracial love scene between Sarah and Graham must have surprised many in the ITV audience given that this was the era of Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language, neither of which were enlightened enough to pass by on the 'aren't foreigners/black people/Asians/other Europeans funny' school of offensive humour when here, the relationship between this couple is treated naturally, without any intrusion into the story, something unlikely to happen even now.
Children Of The Full Moon - Christopher Cazenove and Celia Gregory play Tom and Sarah Martin who, on a drive into the country for a weekend's holiday, lose control of their car and become stranded. After a short walk, they come upon a house owned by Mrs. Ardoy (Diana Dors) who lives there with many strange children. That night, after seeing a monster at the bedroom window, Tom climbs outside to investigate but falls from the ledge to the ground below while something attacks Sarah who had remained inside. When he wakes up in hospital, where he has been recovering, Tom can barely remember what happened but his wife is now pregnant with a taste for raw meat.
This episode is great, certainly one of the better ones - it's tightly plotted, fast-paced and the conclusion does include a nice twist, actually being one of the bleaker endings out of the entire series. It is interesting, thought, that the conclusion depends on a character we only meet quite late, thus ensuring the ending is not a complete surprise and where most other episodes, by about the 40 minute mark begin to look as though they're preparing for the twist, this one maintains interest until the very final minute.
It helps that the cast is one of the better ones, as with The Silent Scream. Diana Dors really plays against type, as a dowdy and frumpy housewife, around whom there was a great deal of publicity when this episode was originally shown. The kids are suitably weird and Cazenove and Gregory make such a nice couple that you really want this one to be different from the other stories but no...
The Thirteenth Reunion - A female journalist (Julia Foster) working on the women's section of a newspaper is assigned to report on a slimming club at an exclusive health farm that has had remarkable results. However, after a dinner-date with another slimmer, Ben Faraday (Warren Clarke, which questions how successful that slimming club really is), her suspicions are aroused when Faraday is killed in a car crash, in an identical fashion to another member of the club six months previously, both of which were handled very suspiciously by the undertaker. After making contact with a member of the undertaker's firm and noting that Faraday's body is not in its coffin but has, instead, disappeared, she follows the trail of clues to a large country house and a dinner party, where all the guests celebrate their thirteenth reunion after their first meeting.
This is a really good episode; keeping you guessing up until the last five/six minutes when it instantly becomes obvious what is going to happen and the mood of the piece changes from one of possible horror to a pitch black comedy. The cast is well placed in each role and the final dinner party, and the faces and remarks of each guest present, is a classic bit of comedy with a wonderful final line.
The Carpathian Eagle - A series of bizarre and ritualistic murders are taking place, where the male victims are seduced and killed, with their chests cut open and their hearts taken. A detective and his, not particularly well-liked partner, Cliff (Anthony Valentine) and Tony (Barry Stanton) are called into investigate. Cliff becomes dependent on a writer, Natalie (Suzanne Danielle) who has written a book on the legend of a murderess who committed exactly the same killings hundreds of years before and uses her to try and understand the thinking behind the killer's actions but could Natalie be linked to the murders and will Cliff solve the case before it is too late? And where does the last living descendents of the murderess fit in?
Well, most of the story is given away early after a great first twenty minutes with clues picked up, dropped and bluffed to confuse the way the story is going but it soon runs out of momentum and kind of pads a way through to a conclusion that is not entirely shocking, though it does redeem itself, in a way, in the very final scenes. Suzanne 'The Body' Danielle - or at least that's what it says here - does really well and Barry Stanton plays the crumpled and world-weary cop well even if you wonder how Anthony Valentine has managed to make it to the age he has so stupidly does he act.
All in, it's a pretty good though there is little supernatural or even horrific about it and, possibly with a little less background into Carpathian legend, could have fitted into script destined for Dempsey and Makepeace.
Guardian Of The Abyss - Instantly, this stands out as being one of the better episodes, gripping all the way to the end and, unlike most of the other episodes, this could have been extended to a feature-length film with very little extra padding being necessary.
Barbara Ewing plays Laura Stephens, the owner of an antique shop and business and occasional personal partner to Michael Roberts (Ray Lonnen), who, at an auction, buys an antique mirror as part of a job lot. She is immediately made an offer by Simon Andrews (Paul Darrow) who is a competing antique dealer and who wants to buy the mirror alone. When she refuses and he steadily increases the price he is prepared to buy it for, her suspicions are raised and, pleading some time to think his offer over, Stephens, with the help of Roberts, begins to investigate what is so special about the mirror.
It turns out that the mirror is actually a scrying glass, used by Sir John Dee, the Elizabethan astrologer, magician, alchemist and mathematician during magical ceremonies and rites used to raise demons, specifically Choronzon, the Guardian Of The Abyss and then employed many years later by Aleister Crowley. The Choronzon Society, a black magic group dedicated to succeeding where Dee and Crowley failed, is now seeking the scrying glass.
This is a great story, very sinister in the updating of the standard horror story of a black magic society messing about with devilry in old country houses. There are plenty of twists and turns to make it stand out and the final ten minutes are marvellous, tipping everything that has gone before on its head and demanding an immediate re-watching of the story.
Charles Randolph (John Carson) is a great character and the scene where he hypnotises Roberts is a good point to focus on just two strong individuals apart from the rest of the cast and between the attempts to invoke Choronzon and obtain the scrying glass. Rosalyn Landor does well in the role of Allison, the woman Roberts rescues on the roadside as she escapes from a Choronzon ritual, years before her appearance alongside Jill Gascoigne and Leslie Ash in CATS Eyes. The rest of the cast do a good job - Barbara Ewing does not really have much to do and is wasted, Lonnen is not bad and Paul Darrow plays Avon as though he was running an antiques shop in St Albans. Look out for an early appearance by Caroline Langrishe as Tina, assistant to Simon Andrews.
Growing Pains - After Rude Awakening, this is the second poorest episode in the entire series as there are little surprises, less of interest and the likely ending is given away in the pre-credits sequence.
Laurie and Terence Morton (Barbara Kellerman and Gary Bond) are in mourning following the death of their son, William, who passed away after taking overdose of drugs from his father's home laboratory, where experimentation on breeding animals was taking place. The Morton's soon adopt another boy, James (Matthew Blakstad), who begins to see signs that William's soul is not at rest and that he demands a price from his parents, who were too busy with their work when he was alive, that must be paid now he is dead.
This story is dull because miserable teenagers writing bad poetry about how their parents ignore them, as William Morton did when he was alive and which he allows James to see now he's dead, are duller than all else on this world. Not even the presence of a black Ford Capri and Norman Beaton (many years away from starring in the title role in Desmond's) can lift this episode from being awfully poor.
What really surprises about this series is just how bleak it often is - rarely is there a happy ending and more often than not, the good guys end up dead with the villains having achieved their aim. Even now, this can shock as, with a number of the better episodes, you really are rooting for a happy ending, or at least one where some of the good guys survive, but no, mostly they don't and in television land, that is really uncommon.
There's also a great deal of pleasure from the fashions, cars and personal grooming shown in each episode. There is a wonderful array of cars from 1980 including a Ford Capri, Jaguar XJS, a Mark 2 Ford Escort, a Mark 3 Cortina and a Morris Marina. None of the fashions have dated badly - 1980 was already getting past the worst fashion mistakes of the 1970s as, post-punk, straight trouser legs were back in - but there are a number of individual instances where you know they wouldn't get away with it now. For example, in Guardian Of The Abyss, check out the huge pants Rosalyn Landor is wearing during the love scene. Today, it's all Bridget Jones where big pants are concerned but in an era of M&S, they were all that were available.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and the picture quality is fine if not remastered beyond carrying out an analogue to digital transfer, which is perfectly acceptable. Each disc contains 3x50min episodes expect for Disc 4, which adds in a fourth episode so compression is fine, colours are good if a little flat. It's not reference quality but for a series filmed on videotape in 1980, it's good. There is very little edge distortion and overall, it's a good DVD image.
Each episode is presented in its original Mono soundtrack, which, as with the picture, is good and better than an unwarranted stereo or 5.1/DTS remix. The soundtrack is clean with any hiss being due to the original mix, which is, admittedly, odd in places with the sound of passing cars in the distance threatening to swamp the dialogue.
The are three extras on the DVD, none of which are particularly exciting:
Cast and Biographies: Each disc, out of four, has a reduced cast list - including director, writer and up to six actors - with a biography for each listed actor. The biographies are quite complete, giving guest appearances for each actor and, for the majority of them, guest appearances are, sadly, all that they went on to do.
Stills Galleries: Each disc has a set of stills made up of on-set photos and publicity sketches- 14 on Disc 1, 6 on Disc 2, 13 on Disc 3 and 25 on Disc 4. Some of these stills are, unfortunately, duplicated across discs, particularly the publicity sketches.
19 Page Booklet: This booklet, of which only 14 pages are a description of Hammer Films and the television series, the rest being chapter titles and adverts for future Carlton Hammer DVD box sets.
There are documentaries on Hammer available, which could have been included here as one was on the Region 1 version of this box set but the lack of any such extras here would indicate issues with licensing as Carlton have tended to include documentaries where they have the rights to do so. However, with the amount of Hammer DVDs coming out at this time from Carlton and Warner but without a sole supplier, it is likely that neither will licence any of the available documentaries and the Hammer legacy will be issued with minimal extras.
Will this series live up to your memory of it? I don't know, my memory of Hammer House Of Horror is either being sent to bed while it was on or having to switch over as, in our house, horror was ok, nudity was not and as a re-watching of the entire series has shown, there was quite a bit of skin that tended to appear without warning.
Above all else, Hammer House Of Horror is a good historical document of how Hammer tried to keep going when, really, the writing was on the wall for them. Their film adaptations of television series were always going to be short lived, as the source material was always embarrassingly dire ITV sitcoms while their horror output just could not compare with what was available on the burgeoning video rental market, long before the video nasty scares when films on video were not required to be rated. Hammer House Of Horror was a good effort to keep the business going but regardless of any success, and it was successful, a second series was faced with too much interference from American studios, it was not a further triumph and Hammer was allowed to die the death it had prevented Dracula from enjoying for so many years.
Obviously, this series is not up there with the best of Hammer from their glory horror and sci-fi days but it's a fun blast through the Hammer legacy - well-made traditional gothic horror with a curious, yet never fully convincing, willingness to embrace the modern.