Wednesday, October 18, 2017

October 30 is... Hammerween!



It was now 60 years ago that Hammer Films released their first color horror film, Terence Fisher's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) - and, in commemoration of this important anniversary, some major activity is afoot in the UK. Indicator - the company responsible for two recent very impressive Ray Harryhausen sets (with a third on the way) - will be releasing a box set called HAMMER VOLUME ONE: FEAR WARNING, which will collect four of Hammer's Columbia co-productions from the 1960s: MANIAC, THE GORGON, CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB and FANATIC (aka DIE! DIE, MY DARLING!). There is another set due in January 2018 that will include THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, THESE ARE THE DAMNED and THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY. VOLUME ONE will include Blu-ray (RB) and DVD (R2) discs of all titles and be released on October 30, just in time for Halloween. The discs will contain a wealth of extras for each title, mostly of the featurette/video essay variety, with a full audio commentary for THE GORGON by DIABOLIQUE's Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, and 32-page booklets for each title with essays by Kim Newman and others. The set will be priced at 42.99 GBP and is available via amazon.co.uk.


Studio Canal also have four coveted Hammer titles in store for October 30 release as "doubleplay" BD/DVD sets (again, RB and R2), with four more to follow on January 29, 2018 but theirs are being released individually with a cover price of 14.99 GBP. The first four titles are SCARS OF DRACULA, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, FEAR IN THE NIGHT and DEMONS OF THE MIND; the next grouping will offer HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, DOCTOR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING, and TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. None of the titles have commentaries, but each is supported by an entertaining featurette (18m, roughly) produced and directed by Marcus Hearn in which various Hammer historians (Jonathan Rigby, etc) and even some stars (Valerie Leon, Jenny Hanley) offer memories and notes concerning the various films. I've been able to preview the first four Studio Canal titles and they have never been more beautifully presented on home video: crisp, colorful, loaded with depth, spotless.

Klove (Patrick Troughton) models the SCARS OF DRACULA.
SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), directed by Roy Ward Baker, was the fifth film in Hammer's Dracula franchise starring Christopher Lee (omitting 1960's BRIDES OF DRACULA, which didn't) and also the first in the series to be produced solely by British funding. The script by "John Elder" (longtime Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) is a compendium of familiar series situations, kicked-up with a new emphasis on bloodletting, sadism and bawdiness. Jenny Hanley plays the female lead, Sarah, whose attraction to two brothers - responsible lawyer-to-be Simon (Dennis Waterman) and the bedroom adventurer Paul (Christopher Matthews) - brings her to the attention of Count Dracula (Lee) and his mortal manservant/enabler Klove (former DOCTOR WHO Patrick Troughton). Lee has some impressively fierce scenes but nothing much is done to permeate the film with dread of him, as Terence Fisher did so ably in his early series entries; here, he's a bit too approachable and available. It's Troughton who steals the film as the almost subhuman Klove, who finds redemption for the past crimes he's committed in service by a photograph of Sarah and finally by closer contact with the woman herself. SCARS is more cheaply made than other films in the series, but DP Moray Grant invests it with color and ripe Gothic atmosphere that is a revelation here, in contrast to earlier releases and particularly the turgid-looking US theatrical release prints. I did notice some "day for night" anomalies though, with the sequence of Simon and Sarah's flight from the castle flickering between night and daylight, and Dracula himself resurrected at the outset to look upon an exterior that transitions to daytime.

Valerie Leon.
BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1971), based on Bram Stoker's 1903 Egyptian thriller THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS, was something of a cursed production having lost its star Peter Cushing after three days of filming (he was called away by his wife's terminal illness, and replaced by Andrew Kier), a crew member (who perished in a motorcycle accident), and finally its director Seth Holt (to a heart attack) all before its last week of shooting. Executive producer Michael Carreras stepped in to direct, and the result is a fascinating hodge-podge - without question one of the more potent Hammer films of the 1970s, but one that always gives me the feeling of having been poorly (or at least incorrectly) assembled at the editing stage.

The lead character, Margaret (Valerie Leon), is introduced while tossing and turning in a nightmare that is repeated midway through the film, and no explanation is ever given for what appears to be the scar of an attempted suicide on one of her wrists. The scenes of the archaeological expedition resulting in the curse of the Egyptian Queen Tera (also Leon) are presented as flashbacks but I suspect these were meant to open the film, and that the miraculously bleeding stump of the Queen was meant to resonate with a later shot revealing Margaret's scar (we get in zoom-in, though we've already seen it). Leon, though dubbed by another actress, has considerable presence and the story (scripted by Christopher Wicking) is compelling for the many ways in which it echoes Stoker's DRACULA: a foreign source of evil transported into the heart of London, the relationship of the story to a madman in an asylum, the forces of good and evil being arranged in two houses within view of each other, the patriarchal governing of the women by older male characters who live to see the women empowered by supernatural evil, and so forth. For reasons well beyond my understanding, someone thought it would be amusing to arrange a two-shot of Margaret and her boyfriend Tod Browning (!) on a bed, Tod on his back with his legs apart, with Margaret in an inverted position facing the camera while eating a banana.

Peter Cushing as the menacing Headmaster in FEAR IN THE NIGHT.
FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972), written and directed by Jimmy Sangster, is a minor psychological thrillers, a project that dated back to a Sangster script originally submitted in 1963, when he was cranking these out with regularity. It sounds like a joke but it's the story of a young woman repeatedly attacked by someone with a prosthetic limb - and her name is Peg! 

A high-strung young Londoner, Peg (Judy Geeson) - we're told she suffered a nervous breakdown six months earlier - is attacked in her apartment, after which she readily agrees to marry her boyfriend Robert (Ralph Bates) and move to the countryside. He's been hired to relocate to a 12-acre estate where he's to look after the aging former headmaster (Peter Cushing) of a private school which now serves as his private residence. Somewhat expectedly, he has a prosthetic arm - and he also has a much younger and not particularly likeable wife (Joan Collins, sporting the same striped vest sweater she wore the same year in TALES FROM THE CRYPT). The premises is full of sheeted furniture and rigged with recordings of past school assemblies, lending to its ghostly ambiance, but what is really going on here has a very rational explanation. About 20 minutes before the end of the picture, it seems to lose all its energy when a major character is excused, but the postscript accrues its own interest and the story resolves in an interestingly ambiguous sort of way. Okay, if a bit on the dull side, mostly due to a preponderance of drab colors and an utter lack of concern for visual atmosphere. A bit hard to believe, considering that the cameraman was Arthur Grant (THE GORGON, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA - and, incidentally, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB).

Gillian Hills and Robert Hardy in DEMONS OF THE MIND.
DEMONS OF THE MIND (1972), directed by Peter Sykes, was also photographed by Arthur Grant and it is here that we see his work at its latter-day best. Of all the Hammer films in this group, this is the one that actually looks like a classic Hammer film, and there is never any hint of budgetary constraints though they must have been there. Nevertheless, this is a controversial entry among fans, with several of the commentators in the accompanying featurette taken aback by its graphic violence and full-frontal nudity, describing it as "sick" and "unfocused," though the film itself is actually about mental illness and admittedly qualifies as marginal horror at best. 

The life of this film began, we're told, as a script called BLOOD WILL HAVE BLOOD, a kind of post-werewolf film about a nobleman who either was or imagined himself to be a former lycanthrope and his twisted attempts to stifle this accursed strain in his deeply inbred bloodline. By the time Sykes and screenwriter Christopher Wicking got through with it, nearly all its references to lycanthropy were discarded. As I see it, what remained may have left the film without a clear relationship to Hammer horror but the end product is an aggressive attempt to share barracks, as it were, with Michael Reeves' highly influential WITCHFINDER GENERAL (aka THE CONQUEROR WORM, 1968), as a study of how the lives of young people were perverted and destroyed by a literally insane patriarchal society. 

The film, which chronicles the extreme attempts of one Count Zorn (Robert Hardy) - supported by dubious figureheads of science (Patrick Magee) and religion (Michael Hordern) - to keep apart his incestuously inclined son (Shane Briant, his impressive debut) and daughter (BEAT GIRL's Gillian Hills, remote yet ravishing), even ends with a freeze-frame of a woman's scream to emphasize its debt to Reeves. (The casting shows a similar debt to Stanley Kubrick with several members of the cast being recruited from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE: Magee, Hills, Virginia Wetherell and Jan Adair.) Some of the performances are admittedly over-the-top but perhaps in the same way that Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (1971) is over-the-top, to make the lesson we are being taught about the abuses of power and authority impossible to miss. An ambitious Gothic that falls somewhat sort of its presumed mark, this is nevertheless one of Hammer's most authentic and interesting films of the 1970s. 

The individual titles are handsomely packaged and presented, but the supportive content feels minimal. It feels a missed opportunity that Studio Canal did not commission feature-length commentaries - or to include extant ones, as in the case of SCARS OF DRACULA, whose Anchor Bay (USA) and EMI (UK DVDs included a commentary by Christopher Lee and director Roy Ward Baker, both now deceased. Take care to preserve your old copy for future reference!

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.