Eamonn McCusker has reviewed the Region 2 release of Hammer Horror Originals. Halloween is officially over but Hammer lives on in a box set from Warner Home Video containing their three classic late-50s horror movies – Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy.
‘SO’…for Sadists Only. That was the certificate that was suggested be specifically designated for Hammer films as full colour adaptations of traditional horror tales burst into cinemas and from such an unlikely source – Hammer, from England. While the US focused on giant bugs, monsters and radiated mutants, either literally or, as wild teenagers and communists, metaphorically, Hammer, in 1955, produced a film version of Nigel Kneale’s television series The Quatermass Xperiment, also known as The Creeping Unknown. Instead of a man from Mars threatening the earth, this was a man from England, returning to earth following a disastrous space flight and transforming into a giant blob due to space spores picked up when his capsule was breached, perched on top of Westminster Cathedral, a location chosen after its recent use in the Queen’s coronation and, therefore, fresh in the minds of a television audience. Suddenly, from being a small-time operation, Hammer suddenly had a huge international hit on their hands and they followed it up quickly with Quatermass II, also known as Enemy From Space in foreign markets. Again, Hammer hit it big but Kneale wasn’t planning any more Quatermass serials for some time, so there would be nothing to adapt. This was 1957 and Hammer had to turn elsewhere for source material.
There had not been successful versions of classic horror tales including The Mummy, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula since Universal produced these films in 1931-32 starring Boris Karloff as Im-Ho-Tep and The Monster to Colin Clive’s Victor Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Part of the problem with adapting Dracula was getting any film adaptation past Bram Stoker’s widow who owned the rights to the book while she was still alive, explaining why Nosferatu was not a straight adaptation in 1922.
By 1957, however, the widow Stoker was dead, the rights to a large number of classic horror texts were in the public domain and Hammer had a unique selling point for their adaptations – colour and, boy, did Hammer make the most of it! With the rest of the world ignoring the gothic horror tradition, Hammer adapted Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, as well as The Hound Of The Baskervilles, in quick succession, all in less than two years, made possible by using the same cast and crew – producers Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds, director Terence Fisher, writers Jimmy Sangster and Peter Bryan, for The Hound Of The Baskervilles only, and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
These films were hugely successful and established Hammer as a major force in horror; each film was increasingly successful at the box-office and, at the same time, each one generated an enormous amount of critical condemnation, which, as it always does, simply generated ever-greater successes.
In honour of three of these classic horrors, Warner Home Video have released these films, with the exception of Baskervilles, in a 3xDisc box set, just in time for Halloween.
The Curse Of Frankenstein
The achievement of this film was in indicating to Hammer the way forward were the studio to succeed. In 1957, it cost $250k to produce and made millions. Peter Cushing stars as Baron Victor Frankenstein who, as the film opens, is in prison and being visited by the chaplain (Alex Gallier). Since his incarceration, Frankenstein has been telling the same story – in a series of experiments, he created life where none existed but what life there was did not live up to his expectations. Instead of a genius, with a lifetime of knowledge behind him, Frankenstein created a monster, unable to think or feel. The experiment ended in chaos and Frankenstein is now held prisoner.
The chaplain listens as Frankenstein tells his story in flashback. Victor Frankenstein was a successful and financially secure scientist with dreams of innovating medical procedures and bringing the recently dead back to life. He obtains a corpse with which to experiment but friction between him and his partner Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) leads to a parting of their ways, particularly when Frankenstein murders a colleague for his brain, which, in a fight with Krempe, becomes damaged. When this brain is put into the corpse and Frankenstein does eventually create life, instead of genius, he has created a monster, played by Christopher Lee, in his 36th film and buried under makeup. Krempe is, by now, long gone and Frankenstein continues on alone but his obsession consumes and, as his fiancée arrives to stay, tragedy is sure to strike.
Hammer’s other major innovation, beyond colour, was in creating a scientist with none of the doubts that plagued previous portrayals of Frankenstein. Cushing’s playing of the role was as an arrogant, egotistical scientist, dedicated to completing his research regardless of the opinion of others, prepared to commit murder to achieve his aim and is recklessly having an affair with a maid in his employment although he is engaged to Elizabeth (Hazel Court). It is a superb reading of the role, indicative of the manner in which the scientist in horror films was to be portrayed from here on – a cold, unscrupulous, callous genius without a shred of moral fibre and that role would be resurrected in numerous films to come.
Christopher Lee has little to do but does play The Monster as well as is possible but, as with Cushing, offers a significantly different creature to how it was portrayed elsewhere. Karloff played Frankenstein’s monster as a benevolent being, not evil but unsure of his place in the world – unlike all other beings, he was created, not of God, but of man and unable to form that spiritual and moral bond. Lee’s Monster is stunted, a reflection of Frankenstein’s desire to see this research through to the end and damn the consequences such that, when the brain of the creature is damaged, Frankenstein insists the experiment must continue. Even with the creature acting as he is, Frankenstein cannot accept responsibility for his actions and blames Krempe for the result. The Monster represents Frankenstein’s soul, lost to the humanity of his actions, desperate to hold on to life.
This is a great film and was deservedly successful on its release. Hammer, however, had to act fast to take advantage of its newfound fame, financial wealth and notoriety and the next adaptation would be Dracula.
Horror Of Dracula
As Frankenstein was to be forever portrayed as a obsessive, callous and calculating genius following The Curse Of Frankenstein, Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Dracula in this film would ensure that eroticism – never intentionally present in vampire films to this point – would be a staple element of the vampire myth from 1958 onwards. Bela Lugosi and Max Schreck were not what one would call handsome but the lean, handsome and tall Lee played Dracula perfectly, both as a gentleman and as a monster, able to instil fear as well as lust in his victims and always able to stay one move ahead of his eternal foe – Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).
Horror Of Dracula opens with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) travelling to Count Dracula’s castle in the Carpathian Mountains to act his librarian. Harker, actually there to try and kill Dracula, knowing that he is a vampire responsible for many deaths throughout history, waits until daylight to strike. Two years before Psycho, famous for killing off who appeared to be the major character not long into the film, Terence Fisher had Harker attacked by Dracula’s female companion, turned to vampirism and killed by Dracula himself within the first 15 minutes. Soon after, Harker’s friend, Dr Van Helsing, arrives to investigate his disappearance and is given his diary, in which mention of Dracula is made. Van Helsing swears to track the vampire down and to kill him by whatever means necessary.
The conflict between Van Helsing and Dracula is interesting, until a fatal mistake, uncovered almost by accident, Dracula is consistently cleverer than his adversary with the vampire turning Harker, his fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh) and her sister Mina (Melissa Stribbling). Van Helsing’s companion in this is Mina’s husband, Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) who is an often unwilling and confused accomplice whereas both Mina and Lucy are, once visited, consumed by desire for Dracula, from which he gets ever closer to Van Helsing and to the eventual fight to the death between the two.
Horror Of Dracula is incredibly stylish, much more so than The Curse Of Frankenstein and it’s obvious that Hammer had invested considerably more money in this than their earlier film. As with all Hammer films, the Carpathian Mountains bear a striking reality to Surrey but this is actually a small, but vital, element of what makes Hammer great. Elsewhere, the period settings are well designed, the movement within the film matches the search for Dracula that every character is involved in and the final battle between Van Helsing and Dracula is a great conclusion.
As good as Cushing is, without makeup on, Lee really demonstrates what a great actor he is. His first appearance as Dracula is as charming as can be but the scene, minutes later, when he appears to tear Valerie Gaunt away from feeding on Harker’s neck, this time with blood on his face, hissing and snarling, is shocking given the character we had seen only minutes earlier.
Without question, Horror Of Dracula is the greatest vampire film made, followed close behind by Hammer’s later Dracula, Prince Of Darkness, but really, this is the one in which not a single scene or frame is wasted.
It only stands to reason that Hammer’s third film in its series of classic horror films should also be Universal’s third film in their series in the early 1930s – The Mummy. The basic story of The Mummy is almost unchanged from its first performance although names are changed from Universal to Hammer, Im-Ho-Tep to Kharis.
Four thousand years ago, Kharis (Christopher Lee) was the high priest at the funeral of Princess Ananka (Yvonne Furneaux), the woman he loved. After the ceremony, Kharis tried to raise Ananka from the dead, the ultimate blasphemy in the eyes of the Egyptians and is unfortunately discovered before he completes the rite. Kharis’ tongue is cut out so that he will never tell of his punishment and is cursed to remain forever within Ananka’s tomb and to act as her guardian such that any intruders will be avenged for disturbing Ananka.
In the present day, an archaeological team disturbs Ananka’s tomb, in which Peter Cushing is a key member though a leg injury keeps him away from entering the tomb. On returning to England, the members of the team die in mysterious fashion, often being bludgeoned or crushed to death. Cushing, playing John Banning, investigates and finds an Egyptian priest, who worships the ancient god Karnack, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), living nearby – a coincidence? Banning thinks not, particularly when Karnack is also the god that Ananka Kharis worshipped, and prepares to get closer to Bey to investigate what he is doing in the English countryside and how much he knows about the murders. What he finds is more shocking than he could have imagined and as he gets closer to Kharis, so Kharis gets closer to Banning’s wife, Isobel, Ananka’s exact double (also played by Yvonne Furneaux).
Of the three films included here, The Mummy is probably the weakest of the three, although still a strong film in its own right. Sadly, Christopher Lee’s acting is restricted – he’s back to marching around in a threatening manner and not saying much – so even less effort is required on his part than in The Curse Of Frankenstein. The real star here is, as with Frankenstein, is Cushing and his playing of Banning is good, if never excellent.
The key problem with The Mummy is that the sets used for the Egyptian locations simply do not look effective and ruin the feel of the film during those sequences, appearing much too artificial, whereas the sequences set in England look as good as in any other Hammer production. Looking back, it may have been worth spending the extra and flying production to a desert location just to keep a grip on the flow of the film.
All three films are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and the picture, while generally soft, was been well transferred. Any softness is due to the way in which the films were originally made and the age of the print, particularly those scenes filmed on studio sets. Any filming carried out on location is generally much sharper. As expected, colours are excellent as they would need to be with the bright reds on display here but the picture can be very dark at times.
The Mummy starts very strangely in that the picture is runs at 1.56:1 within a 1.78:1 frame until 1min59s when it reverts back to the correct aspect ratio of 1.78:1. It then remains at this aspect ratio for the rest of the film.
All three films are presented in their original mono soundtrack with both The Mummy and The Curse Of Frankenstein available in English, French and German with Horror Of Dracula missing the French soundtrack. The mono soundtracks are the only way these films should be presented as stereo or surround remixes would do nothing for the overall transfer onto DVD.
Each disc includes only one trailer, which, for the impact these films had on the future of horror, just is nowhere near good enough. Sadly, though, it’s all too typical of Warner’s attitude to DVD, which, from the choice of case through the lack of 2xDisc sets to the miserable presentation of extras smacks of just not caring enough about their archive. There are a large number of documentaries available on Hammer and plenty of information on these three films alone so why have Warner’s just not bothered? The attitude of many other distributors ought to have shamed them into trying harder but to date, they just don’t seem to realise the value of the format.
The box states that there should be three exclusive art cards but not in this set and the pictures within the box are stills from the films but there is a mistake, possibly deliberate, in that Stephanie Beacham does not appear in any of the films included here though she did appear in Dracula A.D. 1972, a much later Hammer production.
These were incredibly important films and, while the lack of extras are all too typical of Warner’s, yet still wholly disappointing, the box set with all three films included is worth buying if horror is your thing, particularly key films in the development of modern horror.
Sadly, Hammer just could not maintain this quality level for long and soon settled into a series of sequels to their main genre films before almost giving up on horror for film adaptations of television sitcoms. Looking back, the level of success simply was not sustainable as, with basing their most successful films on adaptations and unoriginal product, there was no one there who could make horror films such as The Exorcist, Videodrome, Dawn Of The Dead or The Omen, hugely successful horrors but requiring an original mind that Hammer did not possess.
Without these three films, however, would any of those mentioned be possible? I don’t know but it would have been more difficult to get the bright reds of blood and body parts without a small studio in England doing it first and, for that alone, Hammer will always be remembered.
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