October 21, 2008

Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films

icons hammer

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Ratings (out of 5): ***

Most horror aficionados know by now how the British studio Hammer re-invented the genre by taking the classic monsters and filling them in with color (especially garish red) and a little suggested sex. All they had to do was make the monsters different enough from Universal's classic black-and-white creations to avoid lawsuits. But on the downside, Hammer spent most of the 1960s trying to cash in on their early successes, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), which meant "sequelizing" their own films and looking for more properties to "borrow." And so, though the studio has a large cult following today, not all of its sixty-plus horror films are really worth watching.

To prove it, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released a more-or-less random two-disc DVD collection of four movies from the Hammer vaults (and distributed in America by Columbia Pictures). Another thing the collection shows is that director Terence Fisher, probably the best of the Hammer contract players, was not infallible. His first contribution to this collection is arguably the least interesting, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). For Hammer, this was the first of two attempts at adapting the Robert Louis Stevenson story; Fisher's version makes Jekyll a decrepit hermit and Hyde a smooth, seductive ladies' man. But after that, the movie pretty much follows the original story, without using its new twist in any interesting ways. (Jerry Lewis used the same idea to much better effect in The Nutty Professor three years later.) Paul Massie plays the two lead characters, with Dawn Addams as his devious wife and Hammer stalwart Christopher Lee as a backstabbing friend.

Fisher's The Gorgon (1964) fares slightly better. It features the studio's two most bankable stars, Lee and Peter Cushing (later in the first Star Wars) in a tale of Medusa's sister, who turns innocent passerby into stone. A hasty murder trial blames a young artist for the death of his fiancée, but the boy's father knows that something more sinister is afoot. Eventually a big city professor (Lee) clashes with an evil doctor (Cushing) to discover the real secret behind the stone corpses. And, yes, there's a pretty good beheading.

Shot in magnificent, shadowy black-and-white, Seth Holt's Scream of Fear (1961, released in the UK as Taste of Fear) is arguably the set's best film. (Michael J. Weldon, of the legendary Psychotronic Video Magazine, insists that the film rips off Psycho, but it certainly contains enough new ideas to make it fresh.) The beautiful, wheelchair-bound Penny (Susan Strasberg) arrives at the home of her father -- whom she hasn't seen in years -- and her new stepmother (Ann Todd). Her father seems to have disappeared, however, and a friendly chauffeur (Ronald Lewis) tries to help. The story has more twists than a pretzel, and they're all just as delicious. Christopher Lee co-stars as a creepy doctor.

Finally, we get Michael Carreras' The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964), the second of four "Mummy" movies filmed at Hammer. This one is just plain ridiculous; the characters make no sense, and the creature doesn't arrive until the last reel, but it happily veers into so-bad-it's-good territory. And on the plus side, it looks great, with its widescreen, full-color cinematography highlighting all those Egyptian tombs and artifacts. Fred Clark (Sunset Boulevard) is great fun in his portrayal of a boisterous American businessman with no morals.

Each film comes with its own trailer, but no other extras.

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Posted by cphillips at October 21, 2008 10:23 AM
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