The Universal Hammer Horror Series Disc Two Review
Kiss of the Vampire (1962, Don Sharp)
The absence of Christopher Lee doesn’t matter a great deal in this exciting, fast-moving vampire yarn, directed with sleek brilliance by Don Sharp. Kiss of the Vampire is a sophisticated and intelligent study of vampirism which drops some hints about the nature of the affliction that have a distinctly Cronenbergian air about them.
It’s set somewhat later than most of Hammer’s period Gothics and the Edwardian setting revitalises some familiar elements. It begins with a particularly wonderful scene in which the alcoholic Professor Zimmer (Evans), fighter of self-hatred and vampires, makes a sudden appearance at his daughter’s funeral and pierces her coffin with a spade. The atmosphere here is chilly, all pale greys and blues, and it immediately grabs our interest. Zimmer is a very different savant character than Van Helsing, much more the mad prophet than restrained academic, and it’s a shame he never made a reappearance. Zimmer is called in to do his stuff when a young honeymooning couple, Gerald (Edward De Souza) and Marianne (Jennifer Daniel), become entwined with a vampire cult headed by the strangely bouffant haired Dr Ravna (Willman).
Zimmer is such a great character that it’s a shame he could have been given a more worthy opponent. Dr Ravna is a rather dull character, played by Willman on one dour note, and he never seems to have a great deal of fun. Certainly, the vampiric decadence which Zimmer rails against at length is never seen to be anything other than rather restrained high spirits by his followers. The tragedy of his vampirised daughter hints at the old Hammer theme of the old repressing the young but it isn’t really followed up, although the rampant teenage vampires Tania holds some promise in this department. However, Zimmer’s descriptions of vampirism as something resembling a venereal disease which strikes anyone who transgresses norms of social behaviour is very interesting indeed and obviously points forward to Cronenberg’s film Shivers. If only this could have been depicted with a bit more full-bloodedness during the central vampire ball sequence then the film might have gone some way towards extending the vampire myth away from the fairy tale and into the socially relevant. As it is, there are still enough provocative moments to make Kiss of the Vampire a surprisingly edgy film for Hammer to have made. There’s a wonderful ‘truth telling’ moment in which Marianne is forced to revile her husband followed by a scene involving Tania and Gerald which seems to slyly hint at the scene in Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” where Dracula offers Mina communion by tearing open his chest with a long fingernail. The marvellous climax is also unusually strong as Zimmer desperately invokes the forces of evil in order to destroy Ravna and his followers.
The film is beautiful to look at with Hammer’s usual locations spruced up nicely with plenty of strong colours and, for once, a decent number of extras to populate the sets. The ball scene was a direct influence upon Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires - along with some other moments and various scenes from the “Dracula” movies – and even though it hardly suggests the decadent revelry that Zimmer fears, it remains a memorable sequence. Don Sharp keeps the tension simmering away nicely with a pace that is rather brisker than in some of Hammer’s early 1960s movies. He also shows a refreshing willingness to take derivative or clichéd situations and treat them with enough gusto to renew them – the staking in the opening scene, for example, or the traditional suspense scenario of Gerald looking for his wife while everyone refuses to acknowledge that she ever existed. He even manages to bring the film up to such a crescendo in the final scenes that the decidedly dodgy special effects don’t matter a jot.
Once again. Universal have come up trumps with this film. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer looks gorgeously rich in terms of colours and is pleasingly sharp. There is certainly considerable grain on display but I didn’t find this too distracting. The main drawback is the amount of print damage which, in one or two scenes, becomes very unsightly. Even so, its hard to imagine that this could have been much better. The mono soundtrack, full and clear, is equally good.
Night Creatures (1962, Peter Graham Scott)
As already noted in my earlier reviews, Hammer began to lose faith with their horror projects during the early 1960s and looked for new audiences. One way they did this was with modern-dress psychological thrillers, most of them heavily influenced by Les Diaboliques. Another was with a short series of family adventure yarns designed to appeal to the summer holiday market. This series was made up of two excellent pirate adventures – Pirates of Blood River and The Devil Ship Pirates - and Night Creatures, known in the UK as Captain Clegg. This is a thinly disguised adaptation of Russell Thorndyke’s novel “Dr Syn”, also filmed by Disney in 1961, but Hammer’s version is infinitely superior. It’s a wonderfully energetic ripping yarn with loads of atmosphere and one of Peter Cushing’s most engaging performances.
Set on the Romney Marshes in 1792, the film tells the story of Dr Blyss (Cushing), a country parson with a large and faithful congregation. When a group of the King’s excise men come to investigate reports of brandy smuggling, they discover that the villagers hold an irrational fear of ‘Marsh Phantoms’ and are unwilling to assist the law with its enquiries. What only a few of the citizens know is that Dr Blyss is really Captain Clegg, a ferocious pirate who was supposedly hanged some years earlier. Clegg has organised a smuggling ring and is using the fear of the phantoms to evade investigation. A series of ruses manage to keep Captain Collier (Patrick Allen), the leader of the King’s Men, from discovering the truth but what Clegg hasn’t counted on is that the law would bring with them someone who knows him from a number of years before.
Assuming that you can keep memories of Sid James as the Reverend Flasher in Carry on Dick out of your mind, then you should find that this works very well as both a pseudo-supernatural thriller and an old fashioned adventure story. Peter Graham Scott directs with immense pace and assurance, making the most of the occasional horror touches such as the terrifying (and very well embodied) Marsh Phantoms who create a genuinely unnerving impression. The cast is excellent with Patrick Allen making a good antagonist for Cushing – although you’re amazed not to hear him recommend Northern Upholstery. It’s always good to see the likes of Derek Francis and the great Michael Ripper – the latter being given a decently sized part for a change – and Oliver Reed supplies his usual immense presence as one of the smugglers. There are some exciting action set-pieces and a more expansive feel than you’d expect for a low-budget production, aided immeasurably by the evocative prologue set in the South Seas.
But the film belongs to Peter Cushing. He apparently loved making the film and his delight spills over into his performance. There are some lovely Cushing moments, whether he’s berating his parishioners for not singing with enough gusto, silently laughing at outwitting the law or dashing about like James Bond in a dog-collar. He brings a sense of sheer joy to the film and it’s a credit to him that he outdoes every other actor who has ever attempted the dual role.
Night Creatures is another good DVD presentation on this Universal set. It’s transferred at the ratio of 2.00:1 and while this seems a little bizarre the framing looks absolutely fine. Apart from a little fading here and there and some minor scratches, the film comes up looking lovely. The mono soundtrack is, as with the other films in this set, very good indeed.
Nightmare (1962, Freddie Francis)
Most of the comments which I made in my review of Paranoiac also apply to this contemporary entry in the psychological suspense thriller series which Hammer came back to periodically between 1961 and 1972. Once again, it’s directed by Freddie Francis and benefits from his imaginative use of the wide Scope frame.
It begins at a girls’ school where all the pupils appear to be in their early twenties. Janet (Jennie Linden) is having terrifying recurring nightmares about her insane mother who killed her father some years earlier. One of the teachers, Miss Lewis (Brenda Bruce), takes her home in the hope of solving the problem but the nightmares continue and Janet begins to wonder whether she might be going out of her mind, just like mum.
As usual, Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay is wildly over-plotted and begins to get laughably silly long before the end. It’s packed with unlikely plot contrivances – why would a teacher who barely knows Janet be asked to go home with her – and the plot twists become very tiresome, not to mention ridiculous. The best known one is the assumption by the conspirators that Janet will kill a particular person when they have no reason to know for certain that she will. The use of the ‘woman in white’ is desperately derivative and not even particularly creepy. Francis, for some reason, can’t build up any tension or terror and the result is a much weaker film than Paranoiac. The cast doesn’t help much. Jennie Linden tries hard but is simply too anodyne to care about and only the reliable Brenda Bruce (from Peeping Tom amongst other films) develops an interesting character.
Having said this, if you like the sub-Hitchcock thrillers that Hammer made around this time then you will probably get some enjoyment out of Nightmare. Although Freddie Francis doesn’t manage to make it scary, he ensures that the visuals are always distinctive. Anyone who has seen Taste of Fear will be able to predict every single turn of the plot but there’s something quite comforting about this and as a consequence, Nightmare is weirdly relaxing to watch. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that at no time will you be expected to be either surprised or shocked that makes watching it like cuddling a hot water bottle while sipping a nice hot cup of cocoa.
This wonderfully clear and sharp monochrome transfer of Nightmare is generally a pleasure to view. Seeing the film in anamorphic 2.35:1 is a revelation. It’s a touch over-enhanced in places but otherwise looks as good as new. The mono soundtrack is equally good.
The Evil of Frankenstein (1964, Freddie Francis)
This, the third entry in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, is, along with Jimmy Sangster’s awful Horror of Frankenstein, generally considered the least effective of the series. It’s not hard to see why. The principal fault is the weak, episodic screenplay which makes no attempt whatsoever to link to the previous films. Compounding this are two other fatal problems - the presentation of Frankenstein himself as a self-pitying twit and the second-string cast. Having said this, no film starring Peter Cushing can ever be completely without merit – no, not even Monster Island - and if you’re a fan of Hammer horror movies (and why else would you be reading this) then it provides a reasonable amount of enjoyment.
You may recall that, at the end of The Revenge of Frankenstein, the good doctor was killed by his outraged charity patients following his attempts to give his hunchback assistant a new body. He left instructions with his assistant Paul as to how he could be resurrected and I guess we are meant to assume that these plans were fulfilled by the start of The Evil of Frankenstein. This is all well and good but why did Anthony Hinds (under the screenwriting pseudonym of John Elder) decide to include a flashback to Frankenstein’s past which contradicts what we’ve already seen in two films? Anyway, this third film in the series begins with Frankenstein and Paul (Sandor Eles) being driven out of yet another town and forced to return to the doctor’s family home in Carlstaad. Shocked to find the place looted, Frankenstein forgets that he is meant to be incognito and has a hissy fit when he sees the town Burgomeister wearing his ring. Hiding from the police in a cave, the two scientists discover the glacially preserved body of one of Frankenstein’s creations (Kiwi Kingston) and they decide to have another go at creating life. However, the creature’s brain has been fatally damaged and Frankenstein decides that the only way to revive it is to persuade Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe), a fairground mesmerist, to bring the brain to life through hypnotism.
This is all very silly indeed and more on the level of one of Universal’s 1940s Frankenstein sequels than the 1931 classic beloved by director Freddie Francis. Indeed, some aspects of the plot bear more than a passing resemblance to House of Frankenstein. This in itself wouldn’t be too disastrous – Hammer did well with equally silly plots in films such as The Reptile - but Francis treats it all with such a straight-face that the ludicrousness soon becomes overwhelming. This is particularly problematic in the case of Baron Frankenstein. He comes across as a self-pitying, effete aristocrat who goes off on one at the slightest provocation and comes out with rants such as this – “Anything they don’t understand, anything that doesn’t conform to their stupid little pattern, they destroy. They have to destroy it!” There’s no spark of cruelty in this manifestation of the Baron, no sadistic obsession and as such, he might as well be a different character to the one who appears in the other Hammer films. Peter Cushing does his considerable best with the little he’s offered – and obviously relishes scenes such as the unlikely bit of bedroom farce which requires him to escape from a lady’s bedroom using knotted bedsheets - but it’s not surprising to learn that he was forced to offer his own contributions to the script in order to keep a semblance of continuity. Few of the other performers contribute anything and only Peter Woodthorpe’s dedicated hamming as Zoltan manages to keep things going. He’s good fun to watch, especially when using his velvety tones to get the hypnotised monster to do his bidding – “They arrre baaadddd men and must be punished!”
The story plods along, taking an awfully long time to get to the point, and Freddie Francis relies on the reasonably lavish production design and some nice colour cinematography to do the work of maintaining audience interest. The participation of Universal enabled him to use a fairly convincing laboratory set and make-up for the monster that approximates that used by Jack Pierce – previous films had to change both of these elements due to threats of legal action from the studio. However, while the former is undoubtedly impressive, the latter is not a success.
Kiwi Kingston, the New Zealand wrestler cast as the monster, wasn’t an actor and when he’s got several layers of make-up plastered on top of his face, he comes across as completely helpless. He lurches around ineffectually while his head looks like something cobbled together with egg-boxes and papier mache for a fancy dress party. By the time we get to the inevitable fiery conclusion, you’re not desperate for Frankenstein to return again and it’s fortunate that, when he did, Hammer had the good sense to bring back Terence Fisher and make the Baron a good deal less sentimental.
The Evil of Frankenstein looks very nice on this DVD. Although the transfer isn’t as gobsmackingly lush as the one for Brides of Dracula, the colours are rich and there’s loads of crisp detail to take in. Some print damage is evident and the level of grain varies from pleasing to excessive, especially during the final twenty minutes. The mono soundtrack is unreservedly excellent, transferring the original recording without hiss or crackle.
This Universal Hammer Horror Series package is magnificent value for money. You get eight films, all of them very watchable and some of them bona-fide classics. I recommend it unreservedly to anyone who enjoys classic British horror and fervently hope that it encourages other companies such as Sony and MGM to disinter some of the Hammer films remaining in their vaults.