When Judge Jim Thomas received this set, he said "Stop! Hammer Time."
Two franchises. Four classics.God, I love my job.
Back in the day, Hammer Films was cranking out decent horror movies almost as fast as McDonalds cranked out hamburgers. While the scripts were, on occasion, a tad weak, they compensated with strong production values and quality talent on both sides of the camera. Hammer's initial success was based on two major franchises, Frankenstein (seven films between 1957 and 1974) and Dracula (eight films between 1958 and 1974, nine if you count Brides of Dracula, which only has Dracula in the title). TCM gives us a taste of each franchise with TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hammer Horror.
Horror of Dracula
This movie balances Lee's tall frame and imposing presence against Cushing's energetic intellectualism. While the plot has more than a few holes, brisk pacing, and Terence Fisher's strong direction keep you engaged, right up to one of the best finishes in vampire film history.
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave stands out from other vampire films because the role of religion—no, make that the role of faith—is made central to the proceedings. Not only do you have the contrast between Mueller and the town priest, whose lack of faith makes him susceptible to Count Dooku's Jedi mind tricks (sorry, had to be done), but in one of the more clever revisions of vampire lore, the movie posits that staking a vampire isn't sufficient to kill a vampire; you also have to pray over the staked vampire, bringing the weight of your faith to bear on the evil undead. This requirement puts Paul in a dire predicament indeed; he's an atheist. The result is a classic sequence.
Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis's direction is taut and effective, using colored gels when Dracula is on screen to emphasize his otherworldliness. There are continuity errors aplenty, and a stalking scene that appears to take place in broad daylight, but as with most Hammer classics, mood and pacing—not to mention some Technicolor blood—make it work.
The Curse of Frankenstein
In sharp contrast to the Universal films, which kept the focus squarely on the monster, this movie is more about Frankenstein's moral descent, as we watch Frankenstein change from a driven man of science to a cold-blooded murderer; the creature (who only turns up in the last thirty minutes or so) is little more than a metaphor for his creator, destroying almost everything it touches. Universal famously refused Hammer the right to use Jack Pierce's iconic flat-top creature design, so Hammer had to go in a completely different direction. Christopher Lee manages a surprisingly pitiable performance despite the layers of makeup. Robert Urquart and Hazel Court (The Raven) offer nice turns in supporting roles, but this is Cushing's vehicle from start to finish.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
Three movies—The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)—come between the two films in this set, but these two movies make a good pair, if for no other reason than they show Frankenstein at his most ruthless. In the second movie, he starts off with a cold-blooded murder and proceeds to become the most cruel bastard imaginable. (In contrast, most of the other sequels portray Frankenstein more as a misunderstood man of science.) Peter Cushing carries both films admirably; his ability to shift gears between charm and viciousness in an instant demonstrate why he was such a perfect choice for Governor Tarkin in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Freddie Jones (Dune) turns in a subdued, touching performance as Brandt, who awakens from surgery to discover that he's no longer the man he once was. The pacing of the Frankenstein films is more deliberate than the Dracula films.
Trivia: It was only in 1964's The Evil of Frankenstein, co-produced with Universal, that Hammer was able to use the "classic" Frankenstein makeup.
Video quality is pretty good, all things considered. Some film damage is evident, particularly in Horror of Dracula, and there's a fair bit of grain in the two early films, but not enough to distract. On the plus side though, the detail is astonishing for such old films, and the Technicolor all but explodes off the screen. Better still, we get anamorphic transfers—my older edition of Horror of Dracula is non-anamorphic. The weakest video of the set is Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, which suffers from a relatively soft image and inconsistent colors. One annoyance, though, is that while the two early films were shot in 1.66:1, they have been matted to 1.78:1; heads tend to get cropped in close and medium shots. The later films are matted down from 1.85:1, but that difference is minimal.
Audio's a little more problematic. In Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, the sound and the picture aren't perfectly synchronized, and in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the sound mix itself is unbalanced—sound effects are too loud, musical cues and dialogue mix together, etc.
Extras are minimal, with theatrical trailers, and a couple of text features reviewing Hammer's Dracula and Frankenstein films.
While it would have been nice to have all of these films in their original aspect ratios, this remains a great set of films.
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Scales of Justice, The Curse Of Frankenstein
Perp Profile, The Curse Of Frankenstein
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Curse Of Frankenstein
Scales of Justice, Horror Of Dracula
Perp Profile, Horror Of Dracula
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Horror Of Dracula
Scales of Justice, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave
Perp Profile, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave
Scales of Justice, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
Perp Profile, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
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