Judge Dennis Prince is no stranger to the grisly and sexually gratuitous delights of Britain's Hammer Films. Three cheers, he implores you, for blood, beasts, and bulging bust-lines.
A call to gothic horror fans: finally, here's the DVD release of the 1994 documentary that is likely the best retrospective of this legendary British film studio. Hammer was the studio that single-handedly resurrected the terrors of Frankenstein, the horrors of Dracula, and other nightmarish notables at a time when these classic monsters seemed relegated to the dust of a bygone era of genre cinema. Not so, as you'll learn when you embark on this chilling journey into the dreadful world of Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror.
By the 1950s, the classic Universal monsters like Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Frankenstein Monster had become all but irrelevant in the motion picture industry. Audiences, instead, flocked to the latest atomic-scare and nuclear-nightmare science fiction spectacles, seeming to prefer giant radioactive beasts and out-of-control mutations to man-made or mythical monsters. As the formerly frightening fiends were reduced to roles as comic foils (as in the non-scary yet nonetheless enjoyable Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein), or completely revamped to be more kid-friendly, it seemed that the classic creeps had outlived their original usefulness. But in the 1950s, a small British film company found terrific success with The Quatermass Experiment (released in the U.S. as The Creeping Unknown), determined it would focus on horror and, more specifically, that it would try its hand at breathing new life into the Frankenstein Monster and Dracula.
Urged on by its stateside distribution partner, 20th Century Fox, Hammer Films dusted off a mad doctor's slab and retooled his high-voltage chamber or horrors to bring 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein to British and U.S. audiences, presenting Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) and his misshapen creation (Christopher Lee) in vibrant Eastmancolor. The deep red blood flowed more plentiful than ever as Hammer wagered that the classic monsters could still draw audiences—bolstered, of course, by a generous helping of graphic violence and sultry sexiness. By 1957's standards, the effect was shocking, as audiences witnessed vivid surgery scenes, bloody battles, and plenty of buxom beauties on hand to fill the screen with their bulging bustiers. In 1958, Hammer presented Dracula (released stateside as The Horror of Dracula). This latest entry, with just as much blood and boobs as the Frankenstein picture, set the stage for a revived franchise of classic fear on film. The studio would tap this well of horrors for many pictures to come, featuring more of the rampaging Frankenstein Monster and the seductive Dracula, as well as the Mummy, werewolves, and many other denizens of horror lore and literature.
In Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror you'll learn about all of Hammer's accomplishments, including the earliest beginnings of the studio and how it dabbled in all genres including comedy, war action, detective thrillers, and even documentaries before finding its true identity in the colorful carnage of horror. While those who have studied Hammer extensively won't find much gasp-inducing new information here, the proceedings are helmed by none other than Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing appears by way of audio narration only; he was fighting off cancer at the time (this documentary actually aired on British television just days before his death in August 1994). Always the consummate professional, his narrative is informative, impassioned, and clearly shows his pride in his work with Hammer. Christopher Lee appears on camera and is as erudite as ever. With an authoritative yet warm delivery, he deftly offers tantalizing tidbits and revealing reflections of his work with the Hammer studio, its stable of directors, and his long-time horror compatriot, Peter Cushing. The mere presence of these two genre giants makes this required reference material for Hammer fans and general horror enthusiasts everywhere.
That's not all, though. Writer and director Ted Newsom has hopped continents to include rare interviews with Hammer alumni like directors Val Guest, Freddie Francis, and Roy Ward Baker. You'll also hear from writer/director Jimmy Sangster, who offers some amusing anecdotes about his migration from scriptwriting to camera jockeying. More treats abound as we are reintroduced to well-regarded Hammer actors like Hazel Court, Ingrid Pitt, Martine Beswick, and Raquel Welch (if ever there was an angel sent to Earth, she is it). Stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen is also on hand to discuss his work on One Million Years B.C. It's a well-rounded and fully engaging excursion into the history of the studio and its work.
While the Hammer pictures have long had a loyal fan base (and rightfully so), those fans have undeniably suffered for their passion. Since Hammer films were financed and distributed by several different studios (including Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Universal), it has been difficult to obtain material for documentaries like this. Most such programs have had to settle for public-domain trailers that are generally in horrid condition. This documentary is no different, and therefore the quality of material within varies from quite good to very bad. It never becomes truly unwatchable, but don't expect any sort of reference-quality video or audio. (Thankfully, much of the Hammer horror catalog is obtaining re-mastered releases from the likes of Anchor Bay, Warner Brothers, and others.)
This new disc from Image Entertainment (see their previous release, The Horror of Hammer, too) makes the most of the unsteady source elements, delivering a full frame presentation that is more than suitable. As this isn't the sort of program to study for technical prowess but, rather, is to be enjoyed for its informative content, the inconsistent image quality actually lends historical texture to the outing, with the rare on-set home movies being most enjoyable. The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix that remains clear and intelligible throughout the generous 99-minute run. The only extra you'll find on the disc is a rather lackluster video trailer.
It's been thirty years since Hammer Films produced a horror picture (To the Devil, A Daughter in 1976), but the enthusiasm and demand for their former creature features hasn't waned. Thanks to the proliferation of home video in the 1980s, horror connoisseurs have been afforded the opportunity to savor each individual Hammer horror again and again, no doubt introducing others to the studio's excellent offerings. With the current proliferation of DVD, the Hammer legend continues to thrive, and will no doubt entrance and enthrall new generations of film fright fans, who know a good gothic horror when they see one. And when it comes to documentaries, this particular program is highly satisfying and, therefore, is highly recommended.
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