Judge Brett Cullum is about to put the Hammer down on Universal for over-packing their DVDs—and not with extras, either.
Our reviews of Nightmare (published December 11th, 2009), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) (Blu-ray) (published October 31st, 2011), The Phantom Of The Opera (1943) (published August 29th, 2000), The Phantom Of The Opera (1989) (published January 15th, 2005), The Phantom Of The Opera (2004) (published May 9th, 2005), The Phantom Of The Opera (2004) (Blu-ray) (published May 9th, 2008), The Phantom Of The Opera (2004) (HD DVD) (published June 19th, 2006), and The Phantom of the Opera at The Royal Albert Hall (Blu-ray) (published February 7th, 2012) are also available.
Hammer Horror, Hammer Horror,
Hammer Horror was run out of a large estate in the English countryside, using a stable of creative talent to produce their films. They used the same sets over and over, certain actors seemed to always appear, and the productions all began to look the same. But miracle of miracles, each new release always had a twist on a tried and true formula. Each of the eight films included here in The Hammer Horror Series has something to intrigue viewers.
Horror movies go in and out of fashion, but there's always a major genre renaissance about every twenty years. The '20s featured Lon Chaney and his "1,000 Faces" of horror; during the '40s the Universal monsters ruled screens across the world. Then, twenty years later, an English studio named Hammer began to see how profitable the fright business was. After huge success with Christopher Lee starring in The Horror of Dracula, and similar success with Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer films were distributed by Universal in the United States. The Hammer Horror Series DVD, from Universal, represents their complete library of titles from the studio. Eight movies span two discs, and present some of the more obscure titles in the Hammer vault. These aren't the "Christopher Lee as the ultimate vampire" epics, although Peter Cushing certainly pops up a lot in the set, including once as Van Helsing. Viewers raised on the slasher movies of the '80s will find these films quaint, but those who remember the time when horror always had an English accent will be thrilled.
Facts of the Case
• Brides of Dracula (1960)
Brides of Dracula isn't quite as action-packed as it could have been. Originally this feature was going to have Christopher Lee appear in the climax as Dracula to punish Meinster, but that part of the production was never worked out. You can tell from the rushed ending that something was off. Also, the original script for the movie was much darker and a little kinkier—but British censors were notoriously brutal at the time, so many changes were wrought to tone this one down. A lot of gore and sex were removed when they made the final product, and the result feels a little more sterile than it should. David Peel doesn't make a very cool vampire, the plot plods along at a near lethal pace, and there just isn't enough action with the women vampires to be interesting. But one man saves the day for Brides of Dracula, and his name is Peter Cushing. The actor plays Van Helsing for all he's worth, and his performance as the fearless vampire hunter makes this outing a fun thrill ride. Creepy castles, Gothic boarding schools, and a climax at a rundown windmill all showcase the film's handsome production values. Fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show will recognize the famous entrance to the Meinster mansion as the same front door featured leading to Dr. Frank N. Furter's castle.
• The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
The Curse of the Werewolf is an ambitious Gothic thriller that takes a while to get moving. But once it does take off, it's a stunner. Reed's portrayal of Leon is wonderfully tortured, and he oozes a primal sexuality that permeates the film and easily elevates it into one of the better entries in the werewolf genre. Film fans will recognize many of the English cast, such as Clifford Evans (The Tenth Man) and Desmond Llewelyn (Q from the James Bond series). The acting is solid, the sets are appropriately grand, and the werewolf sequences are pretty brutal. The only problem with the film is the vast amount of story it seeks to cover in a brief running time. Seems the movie has to redefine itself every quarter-hour with new characters and locales. Werewolf fans may be disappointed to learn a transformation doesn't truly come in all its hairy glory until the last minutes of the climax.
• Phantom of the Opera (1962)
The problem with Hammer's take on Phantom of the Opera is it plays things a little too safe. The Phantom is seen in the pre-title sequence, and his antics seem toned down from other incarnations of the tale. The outstanding make-up is an obvious influence on Sam Raimi's Darkman, as well as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but ultimately this Phantom just isn't as creepy as he could be. It's fun to see the tale set in London, but the English opera sequences are painful to sit through. God help me, but I was missing Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Phantom has someone to do all of his dirty work; it's this mute assistant who causes most all the mayhem. The Phantom's lair seems awfully close to the surface, and the absence of a maze of sewer catacombs make the film feel a little silly, All anybody had to do was check the basement to avoid all of this. Fans of Tim Burton's Batman can catch a glimpse of Michael Gough, who played Alfred, as a leering letch after Christine.
• Paranoiac (1963)
Paranoiac is a black-and-white thriller that is entertaining despite being uneven. There's some really creepy, incestuous subplots rolling around here, and the parlor melodrama plays out well. The biggest problem—which seems to plague all the movies on the set—is that it wraps up in the final reel at breakneck speed. Plenty of time is spent setting everyone up, but once things get rolling, they go by speedily without much resolve. Oliver Reed gives a fine performance as the alcoholic brother, and Alexander Davion is suave and cool as the mysterious stranger.
• The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
Kiss of the Vampire is quite original, and should be a nice jolt for horror fans. It avoids clichés, and moves at a great clip. It's probably the best feature on The Hammer Horror Series for chills and thrills in an unusual vein. There's quite a bit of sexual subtext oozing out of the vampiric cult; they seem to be a bloodsucking commune with a definite biting order. There's an awesome climax where bats attack the bad guys. It's something Hammer would explore again and again—black magic taking on evil.
• Nightmare (1964)
Nightmare is another black-and-white psychological thriller, which deals with madness and how violence lives on in children. It's clumsier than Paranoiac, and it feels a little more predictable than most of the other features collected here. The story centers around people with dubious motives to help Janet. They, of course, are trying to drive her over the edge, but the tables are in danger of being turned. It's fine for a melodramatic thriller, but nothing you will rave about when you've worked through the entire set. It's about as generic as its title.
• Night Creatures (1962)
Night Creatures is the odd man out in The Hammer Horror Series, because it's really more of a swashbuckling adventure, and not straight-up horror. It's a costume drama with a creepy scene here and there. The cast includes Cushing, Reed, and the whole stable of Hammer regulars (minus Christopher Lee). Yvonne Romain returns from Curse of the Werewolf to give the movie some busty support. It's all about churches hiding evil smuggling operations and preying on superstitious types to mask their schemes. It's a trippy affair, and a movie I hadn't heard much about before this release. It's the hidden find of the set.
• The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
This sequel to Curse of Frankenstein seems a little like a cheap knock-off of better material. The effects are scaled down from the previous movie in the series—even the monster seems bargain-basement when compared to the original. Cushing's Frankenstein seems to make an odd turn from wanting to destroy society towards wanting to help in this chapter. He is the center of the story, and gives a more interesting performance than the production calls for. He's certainly interesting, but Peter Woodthorpe (The Madness of King George) gets the flashiest role in the picture as the hypnotist Zoltan. The monster is merely a puppet for Zoltan's schemes, and doesn't get to do much of great interest.
The Hammer Horror Series is a collection of eight movies that rely mainly on mood and atmosphere to create a spooky experience. All the films look handsome, and have wonderful performances by then-rising stars of the British cinema. These are all the kind of movies fright fans watched on network showcases on late-night weekend television. They make for a campy, fun festival of British reserve and Gothic suspense. They were modern takes on classic themes when they were produced, and they still feel like forward thinking takes on timeless tales that horror films have mined from the beginning of film. They are an important chapter in horror history, and the set is an important ones for fans of classic fright cinema.
Hammer Studios always knew what makes horror films work—an air of deadly sexuality, coupled with a mortal fear that lust might lead to death. Their '60s movies turned "free love" into a nightmare of creepy castles, vampires, ghouls, and werewolves. In a way they seemed to be creating a conservative knee-jerk reaction to sexual liberation, but at the same time they were using sex to sell fear. Much like the teenager slasher films of the '80s, these films were cautionary tales about promiscuity and straying from morality. In all the vampire films, whenever a female falls into the spell of the Nosferatu, she suddenly switches her prudish buttoned up wardrobe for low-cut, blousey nightgowns. When Oliver Reed turns into a werewolf, the first thing that happens is his shirt comes off. They were having fun with sexuality and its crucial role in the horror film. The films in this collection aren't so much scary as they are just plain gorgeous people on handsome sets engaged in elaborate metaphors of fear and sex. It's exploitation in its purest, lurid form, and it's a hell of a lot of fun.
The transfers in general are striking. A few of these titles were released on laserdisc back in the day. The transfers here are certainly a step up from that format, and light years above VHS copies. Some of the original aspects are slightly cropped, and the colors are dialed down a little to compensate for a modern translation of '60s films, which were often wider in scope and had more saturated hues. Oddly enough, the technical quality of the films is uneven; some of the features fare better than others. Grain is more prevalent in some features, but on the whole the set looks solid. All the films are presented with clear mono tracks, and most seem to have a Spanish audio choice as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Universal has piled all eight films onto two double-sided DVDs. I love the idea of saving space on my shelf, but there have been reports of technical problems with these discs. The films have a tendency to freeze during layer changes, especially on older model DVD players. This has been an issue with all the Legacy sets, as well as the recent release of The Bela Lugosi Collection. Frustrated consumers are finding that exchanging their copy for another one results in the same problem time and again. I wonder whether, if Universal spread out the movies over more discs. the quality of the transfers would improve and the freezing problem would be solved. The studio seems to have turned a deaf ear to these complaints, and you can find countless outcries on Amazon under the customer comments section for this set. I personally experienced the freezing during Paranoiac. Even my computer's DVD player (which is only a month old) couldn't get past a certain point in the film. If you have a player prone to freezing in the slightest, The Hammer Horror Series is likely to trigger the problem.
There are no extras to speak of—not even the original trailers can be found. Hammer Studios has a rich history, and many of these actors are still with us. How hard would it have been to gather a few interviews, or even assemble a commentary session or two? You can't tell me there is a shortage of film historians willing to talk about the studio and its impact on the industry. I'm excited to have all these films in one shot, but would be more than happy to have an extras disc included. This is as bare as bare bones gets. Pity, because again this is a case where the background of the films would prove as interesting as the features themselves. We'll have to settle for books and PBS documentaries to learn anything about The Hammer Horror Series.
These aren't the classics of the Hammer catalog by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, there are a couple of gems nestled in The Hammer Horror Series, but for the most part these are films serious Hammer collectors, and not the casual fan, will clamor for. People searching for the best of Hammer would do better to seek out a title like Horror of Dracula, which features Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing going head to head. These films are great fun, but they weren't the ones that made Hammer famous.
The Hammer Horror Series is another fine set of creepy classics from the vaults at Universal. Like the other sets, the discs are bare-boned and crammed with movies on each side. Technical problems may arise if you have a temperamental player, with freezing the biggest gripe for many consumers. Otherwise, this is a rare chance to discover some long-lost gems of the Hammer horror cannon. Enjoy it for a glimpse of Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed at the height of their powers.
Universal is found guilty of ignoring some technical issues, and still cramming as many movies as they can onto a single disc. Hopefully one day they will iron out the issues, but until then be wary of their collections if you notice a problem. The Hammer Horror Series is otherwise a fine collection of one of the most influential cottage studios cranking out horror from the English countryside. Hammer Studios is free to go down in the history books for making England a spooky place again.
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Scales of Justice, Brides Of Dracula
Perp Profile, Brides Of Dracula
Distinguishing Marks, Brides Of Dracula
Scales of Justice, The Curse Of The Werewolf
Perp Profile, The Curse Of The Werewolf
Distinguishing Marks, The Curse Of The Werewolf
Scales of Justice, Night Creatures
Perp Profile, Night Creatures
Distinguishing Marks, Night Creatures
Scales of Justice, The Phantom Of The Opera
Perp Profile, The Phantom Of The Opera
Distinguishing Marks, The Phantom Of The Opera
Scales of Justice, The Kiss Of The Vampire
Perp Profile, The Kiss Of The Vampire
Distinguishing Marks, The Kiss Of The Vampire
Scales of Justice, Paranoiac
Perp Profile, Paranoiac
Distinguishing Marks, Paranoiac
Scales of Justice, The Evil Of Frankenstein
Perp Profile, The Evil Of Frankenstein
Distinguishing Marks, The Evil Of Frankenstein
Scales of Justice, Nightmare
Perp Profile, Nightmare
Distinguishing Marks, Nightmare
• IMDb: Brides of Dracula
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