The Universal Hammer Horror Series Disc One Review
Universal’s new “Hammer Horror Series” set contains eight films made between 1960 and 1964 when the British company had a distribution arrangement with Universal International. This is the first in a two-part review of the set, covering the films on the first DVD-18 disc. There have been reports that some viewers are finding that the films don’t play correctly on their DVD equipment. I had no problems but it’s worth bearing this in mind and buying from a source which will enable you to get a replacement set if necessary.
The Brides of Dracula
OK, let’s be pedantic. There aren’t any brides of Dracula in this film. In fact, Dracula, being dead, doesn’t appear. Now we’ve got that over with, it’s important to state up-front that The Brides of Dracula is a great movie and one of the definitive works of Hammer horror. Unforgettably atmospheric, genuinely scary and beautifully performed, it’s a richly coloured fairy-tale in the best tradition of both Hammer’s early classics and the work of authors ranging from the Brothers Grimm to Angela Carter.
The plot of Brides concerns a young girl, Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), whose journey to her new teaching post in Transylvania is interrupted when she accepts the hospitality of Baroness Meinster. That night, she discovers that the Baroness has a son who she keeps chained up. Unlocking his chains, Marianne soon discovers why he is kept a prisoner and, after biting his mother, the young Baron Meinster begins to establish himself as a formidable source of terror. The only man who can put a stop to what Marianne has inadvertently begun is Dr Van Helsing (Cushing).
If we look at the Hammer ‘Dracula’ series as some kind of chronology, The Brides of Dracula seems to stand outside the rest of the films. I tend to assume that it takes place after the first film when Van Helsing, very reasonably, considers Dracula to be dead and is travelling through other parts of Transylvania. A bigger mystery is why the film doesn’t feature Count Dracula in the first place. It appears that this was never even considered by Hammer who presumably thought that it would be difficult to resurrect Dracula in a convincing manner (although this hadn’t stopped them bringing Frankenstein back from the gallows a year earlier). Nor did they seem interested in casting Christopher Lee, who was being marginalised by the company and was soon to begin excursions into Euro-horror directed by the likes of Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti. If anything, they seem to have envisaged a Van Helsing series as a vehicle for Peter Cushing but then, due to the BBFC’s increasing censoriousness, backed off this as well.
By any measure though, this is one of the best of the ‘Dracula’ movies and this is partly due to the extraordinary presence of Peter Cushing. He’s a little warmer as Van Helsing this time round and this adds humanity to his intellectual rigor. He radiates goodness and it’s always refreshing to see a film in which heroism is directly equated with intelligence and immense moral strength. Cushing is also tremendously physical of course, as the end of Dracula demonstrated when Van Helsing suddenly seemed to transmute into Errol Flynn, and even when he became a little more frail and life took its toll on him (especially during the period immediately after the death of his wife), he remained a man of action as well as academia. It’s an iconic performance and through it, Cushing becomes as much the symbol of Hammer as any other actor.
Cushing is surrounded by one of the best casts ever assembled by the company, a considerably more impressive ensemble than in Dracula. The absence of Christopher Lee is atoned for by the presence of two extraordinary actresses, Martita Hunt and Freda Jackson. Both were familiar faces in British cinema of the 1940s and Hunt, in particular, became the embodiment of a certain type of very Victorian evil in her incarnation as Miss Havisham in Lean’s Great Expectations. As Baroness Meinster she is quite formidable and during the second half of the film, when she returns as a vampire, she has enough dramatic power to scare the living daylights out of you. Freda Jackson, in a smaller role, makes a similar impression as the vampires’ faithful protector. One suspects that the vitality of Cushing’s performance persuaded both ladies that they were not slumming in a horror flick and that they should consequently met him at full strength.
Terence Fisher was a much-maligned director in Britain, accused of both squalid morality and visual mediocrity. French admirers decried this reputation and considered him a master filmmaker. Although the truth is probably somewhere inbetween these assessments, there’s no question that The Brides of Dracula is a very well made film indeed. Fisher, working from an excellent screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, Edward Percy and Peter Bryan, delights in the mise-en-scene, splashing rich colours around as if he were working in conscious tribute to VIncente Minnelli. He also indulges some fascinatingly dubious subtexts – lesbianism, in the relationship between Marianne and her vampirised friend Gina; incestuous lust between the Baron and his mother (consummated, perhaps, by the bite); the frightening single-mindedness of puritanical Christianity in the sequence where Van Helsing burns out Meinster’s bite. Baron Meinster himself, well played by closet-homosexual David Peel, is a compellingly ambivalent figure, both perfect gentleman and hideous monster. There’s a touch of 1890’s decadence about him and more than a slight scent of ‘Dorian Gray’ in the final scene where his beautiful flesh melts away to reveal the horror beneath.
Fisher’s regular collaborators, DP Jack Asher and production designer Bernard Robinson, are also on top form and the film looks magnificent despite a relatively low budget. Roy Ashton’s make-up is also impressive, distracting attention from some typically low-rent special effects – although it’s only fair to say that the vampire bat, daft as it is, is still better than the appalling prop which featured in Scars of Dracula. There’s real movie magic here and as the film gears up to a ferocious climax, accompanied by cameos from Hammer veterans like Miles Malleson and the great Michael Ripper, it’s hard not to think that The Brides of Dracula represents Hammer at their very best.
The Brides of Dracula, which has never been available in the UK on home video, looks absolutely stunning on this R1 Universal disc. The colours are eye-popping, the images are crisp and detailed and there’s a remarkable lack of print damage. I can’t imagine this film ever looking better than it does here. The mono soundtrack is equally pleasing.
As with the other films in this 8-film set, there are no extras included at all. This is regrettable although the price is low enough to make the set excellent value for money.
The Curse of the Werewolf (1960, Terence Fisher)
“It’s a beautiful evening. The moon is just rising. The full moon…”
Hammer only made one werewolf movie, perhaps forewarned by Universal’s failure to keep a wolf-man series going in the 1940s. Luckily, The Curse of the Werewolf is an absolute cracker of a film and one of Hammer’s strongest productions. It demonstrates the strengths of Terence Fisher as a director and, in Oliver Reed, introduces us to an actor who could have been a great horror star had fate not taken him in a different direction.
One aspect of the film which is immediately striking is the time it takes to get going. I don’t mean this as a criticism, quite the opposite. It takes time to develop the narrative with a lengthy prologue that counts among the finest extended examples of Hammer horror. It’s set in Spain during the late 18th Century, a time and place which only crops up once in Hammer’s history and is, as a consequence, rather more interesting than their usual Mittel-Europe setting. This prologue explains how Leon (Reed), the werewolf of the title, came into being through the actions of a pair of mirrored characters; a beggar (Richard Wordsworth) and a Marques (Anthony Dawson). The beggar arrives at the Marques Sinestro’s court on the day of his wedding and, following some sadistic fun and games from the decidedly depraved nobleman, is flung into the dungeons and forgotten about. Some years later, a mute servant girl dares to cross the aged, deranged Marques and is forced to join the now animalistic beggar in the dungeons. Immediately, the beggar forces himself upon her and, raped and pregnant, the girl escapes the dungeons and kills the Marques. This is richly coloured, exciting and weirdly disturbing stuff. The Marques and the beggar are deliberately paralleled in their behaviour, coming to look equally dreadful – although the Marques, with some kind of serious dermatological trouble, edges it for sheer disgustingness. Fisher directs this prologue for all he’s worth, pacing it furiously and not skimping on the gore during the surprisingly bloody murder. There’s a rather obvious visual metaphor – a house of cards collapses – but it’s such a good zoom shot that it can easily be forgiven. Both Wordsworth and Dawson are superb in their roles with the latter etching one of the most repulsive villains in Hammer’s history.
Generally speaking, the rest of the film should be a disappointment after such a rip-roaring opening but, much to the credit of Terence Fisher, it most certainly is not. The story of the child Leon, brought up after his mother’s death by the avuncular Don Alfredo (Clifford Evans), is familiar stuff but its done with enormous conviction and a sweeping romanticism that presages Fisher’s work on Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein Created Women. He works particularly well with Oliver Reed, the actor’s burning, saturnine countenance proving perfect for the character, and the werewolf sequences are quite stunning, showcasing Roy Ashton’s remarkable make-up both for the bloody deaths and the ultimate transformation sequence. Fisher, and his DP Arthur Grant, revel in the richly saturated colours provided by the setting and the ultimate effect is rather like a lavishly illustrated book of folk stories. John Elder’s screenplay allows Fisher to indulge his penchant for doomed love affairs and Leon is presented as a sympathetic character damned by fate to meet a sad death. The final reel is a headlong descent into gothic tragedy, all the more effective for being played completely straight. Oliver Reed never goes over the top here and the result is one of his most engaging performances. He’s well matched with Clifford Evans who makes something quirky and touching out of the thankless role of the eternally pure savant.
There are weaknesses here and there. Some of the supporting performances are grim, particularly the wooden John Gabriel as a sanctimonious priest and Martin Matthews as Leon’s best mate. It’s also true that Leon’s feelings for his eternal love Cristina seem to develop in a flash and it’s only due to Reed’s convincing performance that have any cause to believe in their relationship. But these are minor quibbles. Hammer Films are seen at the very top of their game in The Curse of the Werewolf and it’s a film which should be seen by anyone interested in British horror. Like many of the films in this new collection from Universal, it’s been neglected for too long.
Some print damage is evident in this transfer and the colours don’t come across quite as strongly as they should do. But it’s wonderful to finally see a widescreen version of the film and no-one is likely to be seriously disappointed by the quality of the picture. As with the other films in the collection, the mono sound is excellent and presents no problems at all.
It’s particularly rewarding to see the film in an uncut version. The BBFC cut it savagely back in February 1961, citing the censorious moral climate as a reason to be cautious with what they passed. This print sees the British cuts restored to the film and the result is a full-blooded revelation.
Paranoiac (1962, Freddie Francis)
During the early 1960s, Hammer was reeling from a few flops including an expensive version of the Jekyll and Hyde tale. More out of desperation than anything else – a state of mind which became familiar to the studio as the years went by – they turned to a different kind of film, inspired not by classic Gothic fiction but by the huge success of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques and Hitchcock’s Psycho. The results were patchy; ten years of ludicrously over-plotted thrillers in which young heroines were menaced by apparitions, stalked by psychopaths and driven mad for various reasons, most of them financial. The best examples of the cycle are the most praised – Seth Holt’s The Nanny - and the most underrated – Peter Collinson’s edgy, disturbing and wildly out of control Straight on Till Morning and most were written by Jimmy Sangster, taking a break from his adaptations of familiar horror stories.
Paranoiac is very typical of Sangster’s style in that the only way to get any real enjoyment out of it is to have virtually no idea of the plot in advance. All I will reveal is that the story involves a rather awful family in which the daughter appears to be going completely mad following visions of her dead brother and the surviving son – well played by Oliver Reed – is more than happy for her to be certified insane. Events from this point on don’t make a great deal of sense but they are entertainingly daft and quite ingeniously put together. Sangster’s strength is plotting stories which hold together while you watch (even if they subsequently fall apart) and he’s very good at creating characters who you would cross the road to avoid.
It helps a good deal to have Freddie Francis in the director’s chair. Francis, at this point still an Oscar-winning cameraman fresh from Sons and Lovers and The Innocents, has genuine visual flair and he creates some deliriously nightmarish black and white images which make cunning use of the 2.35:1 frame. Francis livens things up with mad camera angles, shock cuts and a complete lack of interest in whether there is the remotest trace of logic In what happens. Most of the cast are anodyne twentysomethings who deserve to meet a violent fate but Oliver Reed is typically lively – hamming wildly at times in order to keep our interest - and there are nice bits from Sheila Burrell and the reliable Maurice Denham. Burrell deserves particular credit for pulling off a ludicrous monologue in the middle of the film which could have floored many other actresses. The denouement is daft enough to be irresistible but try not to think about it too much afterwards.
Paranoiac looks wonderful in this anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. There’s virtually no print damage and the monochrome images are glistening and gorgeously sharp. Plenty of detail is in evidence and there’s just enough grain to offer a pleasingly cinematic appearance. I’ve certainly never seen the film look as good as this before. The mono soundtrack is equally good with Elizabeth Lutyens interesting and sometimes atonal score coming across very strongly.
The Phantom of the Opera (1962, Terence Fisher)
Its disappointing performance at the box office seems to have given The Phantom of the Opera the reputation of being a failure. While it’s certainly true that the film has some severe flaws, there are enough genuinely interesting elements to make it at the very least a worthwhile failure, and often more than that. The commercial under-performance of the film may well have been due to its ‘A’ certificate, needed by Hammer for a Summer holiday double bill with Night Creatures AKA Captain Clegg, which resulted in the BBFC cutting the film even more savagely than usual. Another factor may have been the tone of the film which is that of romantic tragedy rather than horror. In his indispensable book “English Gothic”, Jonathan Rigby tells us that Terence Fisher was determined to direct an unsensational love story and this may explain why the film is so atypical of Hammer’s approach to its horror films.
Ironically, it is Fisher’s approach to the material which has proved to be the lasting one, far more than the stark horror of Lon Chaney’s 1920s film or the camp slasher movie made by Dwight H. Little as a vehicle for Robert Englund in 1989. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical took, perhaps incidentally, the same tack as Fisher’s film, turning the Phantom into a hopelessly doomed anti-hero who is far more memorable and sympathetic than the nominal romantic lead. The film tells the story of the wronged composer, here called Professor Petrie (Lom), whose music is stolen by the caddish Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough). Petrie loses his reputation along with his face as the cruel Lord reaps the glory. Beguiled by the young soprano Christina (Heather Sears) whom he hears singing his music, Petrie – now styling himself as the ‘Phantom’ – determines to have her voice for himself. He’s not really in love with her, although the film suggests, in his mute one-eyed stare, that he’s feeling a sense of unrequited passion which he doesn’t dare indulge. But enraged by her affair with opera producer Hunter (Edmund De Souza), the Phantom kidnaps her and she finds herself in his underground domain where he promises to make her the greatest opera singer that the world has ever known.
In one sense, this is tame stuff for Hammer and even in this uncut American version, the film seems oddly staid. After a nicely sinister beginning in which nothing is quite right at the opera, the plot takes a long time to get going and the romantic rivalry for Christine’s affections which develops between Hunter and Ambrose is tedious, relying as it does on the colourless De Souza and the irredeemably hammy Gough. Nor does it help that the extracts from the opera are so appallingly amateurish. But Heather Sears is good as the innocent young singer and Herbert Lom’s performance as the sad, deformed Petrie is a triumph in every respect. Using exquisitely subtle body language and managing, somehow, to make the expressions in his single eye tell a whole story of pain and frustration, Lom is unforgettable. It may be heretical to say this but when I think of the Phantom of the Opera, it is Lom who comes immediately to mind. His sepulchral tones echo throughout the film, even during his (too) lengthy absences and it’s a shame, in retrospect, that Fisher didn’t have the courage of his convictions and made his relationship with Christina the central focus of the story. This may have taken it away from the original material but it would have been a far stronger piece of filmmaking.
Still, Terence Fisher is a strong, capable director and while the film may meander, it’s never boring. The flashback scene, in which Petrie’s story is enacted, is brilliant stuff filmed like a waking nightmare brought on by delirium. Elsewhere, as usual, Fisher manages to give a lush appearance to a medium-low budget film and the scenes at the Opera House are aided immeasurably by the use of Wimbledon Theatre as a location. There’s less visual intensity through the use of rich colour than you find in, for instance, Brides of Dracula but the sequences in the Phantom’s subterranean hideaway have a memorably fantastical quality. He also skilfully builds the tension in the second half, ensuring that the climax is deeply satisfying – although it’s hard not to echo several critics in wishing that Michael Gough’s Lord Ambrose had met the gory fate which he so richly deserves.
Hammer’s Phantom is an unjustly neglected film and it looks pretty good on DVD. The transfer is framed at 2.00:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Exactly why it would be framed at 2.00:1 is a mystery since no non-Scope Hammer film should be any wider than 1.85:1. Indeed, many of their earlier films were intended for projection at 1.66:1. Is this a major problem? Well if you’re going to be purist then yes it is since it results in over-matting and impacts upon the composition of the film. Did it affect my enjoyment? Not at all.
The film elements appear to be a little worn and this results in slightly faded colours. There is also some print damage evident in the first half. However, there’s plenty of detail. The level of grain varies between quite acceptable and slightly excessive, although that’s partly a matter of personal taste. Once again, the mono soundtrack is excellent, rendering the awful pseudo-operatic sequences a little too clearly for comfort.