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Horror Classics: Four Chilling Movies from Hammer Films


DVD SAVANT

Warners answers the call for Hammer horror with four nifty thrillers starring the great Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The transfers are immaculate — Technicolor was never richer than this. The only drawback is that Chris Lee’s Dracula has so few lines of dialogue.  On hi-def, Cushing’s Frankenstein movie is a major re-discovery as well.


Horror Classics: Four Chilling Movies from Hammer Films
Blu-ray
The Mummy, Dracula has Risen from the Grave, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Taste the Blood of Dracula
Warner Home Video
1959-1970 / Color / 1:66 – 1:78 widescreen / 376 min. / Street Date October 6, 2015 / 54.96
Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux, George Pastell, Michael Ripper; Christopher Lee, Rupert Davies, Veronica Carlson, Barbara Ewing, Barry Andrews, Ewan Hooper, Michael Ripper; Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Thorley Walters, Maxine Audley; Christopher Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Linda Hayden, Isla Blair, John Carson, Ralph Bates, Roy Kinnear.
<Cinematography
Jack Asher; Arthur Grant; Arthur Grant; Arthur Grant.
Film Editor Alfred Cox; Gordon Hales; James Needs; Chris Barnes.
Art Direction Bernard Robinson; Bernard Robinson; Bernard Robinson; Scott MacGregor.
Makeup Roy Ashton; Heather Nurse, Eddie Knight; Gerry Fletcher.
Original Music Franz Reizenstein; James Bernard; James Bernard; James Bernard.
Written by Jimmy Sangster; John Elder (Anthony Hinds); Bert Batt; Anthony Hinds.
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Nelson Keys; Anthony Nelson Keyes; Aida Young; Aida Young.
Directed by Terence Fisher; Terence Fisher; Freddie Francis; Peter Sasdy.

 

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Hammer Films is something of a frustration for American disc collectors right now. If one isn’t Region B compatible — not a big expense but a no-no in households where ‘fun’ money is dear — the Blu-rays being offered by U.K. producers are completely out of reach. And even if one is all-region equipped, a new generation of disc producers have been monkeying with some of the films’ color timing, making them look like modern horror films with desaturated colors, or all-bluish hues. Some of the rationalizations for the discs affected are fairly insulting, as if web loonies had taken control of the asylum.

A few winning U.K. titles have been Region A compatible, but American enthusiasts have for years been begging Warner Home Video to remaster their Hammer holdings, which include three of the earliest and best Technicolor Hammers. Peter Cushing and Chris Lee’s fans especially ache for a Region A copy of Dracula, aka Horror of Dracula, which is still the ne plus ultra of Hammer Nirvana. A couple of years back the Brits pulled off a miracle, restoring a slightly longer cut with legendary alternate gore angles. It was released on Region B in the UK. Unfortunately, an annoying, unacknowledged major color revision turned the whole movie dark and dank, shifting the warm colors to the blue-gray range.

I say all that to commend Warner Home Video for releasing this first set of Hammer goodies. The general consensus is that they’re all winners, color and quality-wise, even if they aren’t given any extras beyond original U.S. trailers. We’re told that the film experts on the WB lot are looking at the restoration issues in Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein.

Horror Classics: Four Chilling Movies from Hammer Films contains two Christopher Lee thrillers from the Dracula franchise, an excellent Peter Cushing Frankenstein installment, and the stars together in a real classic, the company’s first Mummy movie. Made under license from Universal pictures, it remains a favorite of most of the Hammer faithful. It was my first experience with horror film at age eight, so my personal enthusiasm for it is enhanced by joyous nostalgia.


Terence Fisher’s The Mummy keeps looking better and better, and Warner’s encoding seems even more lush and colorful than last year’s Region B Blu-ray from England. I reviewed a DVD back in late 2001 and stand by what I wrote there. Although any film could be improved, this is a superlative job of horror filmmaking that balances action with eerie visuals. Terence Fisher learned directing at Gainsborough, where the house style made the most of a few ornate sets and allowed violent action to play in master shots. The unstoppable Kharis tends to smash his way into scenes, and stride quickly to his victims, crossing large rooms in three or four swift steps. Kharis (Christopher Lee) and John Banning (Peter Cushing) sell the violence with exaggerated stage motions that enhance the theatricality. As little blood is involved, the gore quotient is sold through impressive stage effects, of a harpoon going right through the ghostly mummy, and Banning’s shotgun blasting big chunks out of his 4,000 year-old wrappings. Fisher uses cutting only when he wants to make a special point, as with the three-way battle of wills in the last scene between Kharis, Mehemet Bey (George Pastell, never better), and Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux, purple nightgown, blue eyes).

Detractors call the Egypt flashbacks tacky, but they say the same of ancient pageant epics with thousands of extras. Fisher keeps his frame alive with simple pans, perfectly timed. A trick composition makes Chris Lee seem twice as tall as George Pastell. I know the interior of the tomb makes no sense, bathed in eerie green light from no rational source. This show isn’t meant to be seen on a tiny screen. On a big screen, even in a home setup, Fisher uses visual dynamics to pull us into his settings, like a heightened theatrical experience.

The Mummy handles its ‘colonial guilt’ aspect well. Unlike later Hammer pictures that nag at us with political disapproval of colonial depredations, these English scientists raid Egypt for archeological treasures without guilt. Mehemet Bey is indeed a fanatic, although you can hardly blame him. The magic of a living mummy proves that his religion is a real force in the world. . It’s unreasonable to expect John Banning to turn the other cheek at this stage of the colonial game .The cagey Banning baits Bey with his own zealotry. It’s all-out war against the unholy magic that has killed John’s father and Uncle. Kharis wants to steal John’s wife as well. Why John Banning is wasting time in his library looking at scrolls, when Isobel is upstairs, makes us question his virility. Kharis has patience (4000 years worth) and vitality on his side, and he’s broken every law of the gods and man to be by her side. Who could deserve Isobel more? Instead of saying, “Put me down,” she should be telling him where they can catch the bus to London.

On Blu-ray the titles crash on screen with Franz Reizenstein’s peerless main theme, which is possibly the most evocative music in any Hammer film. The insistent pace provides the dimension of an ancient curse that can’t be stopped. The music reacts emotionally to every move Christopher Lee makes on screen. Excerpts were tracked into Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Shroud, which otherwise featured original scores.

I’m not a Hammer slammer like the respected Tom Weaver. He’s right in that some of the later pictures are uninspired, lazy concoctions seemingly made only because something new was needed to fill a contract for MGM or Fox. But I find the first wave of Technicolor Hammers are without peer, especially with Terence Fisher at full strength and the censors not yet spoiling the party with their pre-production vetoes. This one is a feast, with Peter Cushing and Yvonne Furneaux pitted against Christopher Lee’s expressive mime and George Pastell’s commanding reverence: “He who robs the tombs of Egypt, DIES.”


Dracula Has Risen from the Grave arrived just before the ’70s Hammer melt-down. Given a good promotional push in America, this 1968 installment was well received by fans seeing to revisit the thrills of Lee’s earlier vampire excursions. But a new director for Chris Lee’s third vampire tale brings little of interest to the mix. After spicing up the Hammer lineup with She and One Million Years B.C. producer Aida Young ran the Dracula franchise straight into the ground. The production values are rather good, and we especially appreciate some of the matte work. But the script diddles around with a mad priest, lusty serving girls and a pair of young lovers kept apart by an inflexible Monsignor (Rupert Davies), who is also a frustratingly incompetent vampire killer. The Count seems like a cameo performer in his own picture, which comes alive when he’s on screen and seems empty when he’s not. There are only a couple of moments when Chris Lee is allowed to do anything more than stand or flex his incisors. He does get one or two juicy lines of dialogue, as when he demands that the leading lady remove a blasphemous crucifix from his sight.

Veronica Carlson hits a good note of pale beauty, with hair similar to that of Catherine Deneuve. But director Freddie Francis doesn’t take the excitement over the top. Perhaps constrained by the budget, the camera angles are chosen for simple clarity rather than expressiveness. He does try out some interesting color effects when Dracula is on screen — colored lights with a prismatic effect. The script can be faulted — Dracula’s bag of tricks seems like old news this late in the game, and the only real twist is the way his demise is arranged. There’s no pleasure in seeing the inevitable happen, even though Lee looks genuinely surprised at his rotten luck.

I reviewed Dracula Has Risen from the Grave back in 2004 and go into much more detail there. I found Warners’ new transfer to be so rich, that I was enjoying it just for its visual qualities. This is before Freddie Francis stopped caring about his horror film assignments.


After 1964 or so, the overburdened Hammer output frequently collapsed into outright losers like the last Mummy offering, pictures that have appeal but seem rushed and formulaic, and winners blessed with unique content and new approaches. The Dracula franchise seemed to lose its way, but the various adventures of Baron Frankenstein just got more interesting. 1970’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed finally removes all ambiguity from Peter Cushing’s Baron, who has given up trying to be a nice guy to anyone, including the suffering heroine, Veronica Carlson. Frankenstein can get help only by blackmailing his assistants. When I saw the show new in theaters, I felt the absence of a standard monster. But screenwriter Bert Batt takes the concept in new directions. My review of WB’s DVD release from 2004 appreciates Destroyed’s character tension. Terence Fisher creates some excellent suspense scenes, as when the cops poking about Carlson’s boarding house almost find The Baron’s mad lab and an errant corpse or two.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed establishes a theme — the transplantation of a brain — and carries it forward to some logical conclusions. This is an accomplishment, as too many Hammers spend eighty minutes establishing an interesting situation, only to do little or nothing with the ideas they’ve introduced. Maxine Audley and the great Freddie Jones have great, emotionally traumatic scenes together. His brain transplanted to a new body, Freddie tries to convince his wife that he is speaking to her from a new face. Jones’s character is seemingly Frankenstein’s one surgical success in umpteen tries. After this satisfying development, the movie chooses to end arbitrarily, as if the clock has run out. How much cooler it would have been to see Freddie Jones and Peter Cushing sneaking away together, to re-start their experiments some place new… Argentina?

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed reverses a lot of the cheapness we’d been seeing in Hammer, with scenes populated by more than three extras and enough minor characters to make us feel we’re in a big city. It also has the spark of narrative tension missing from a lot of latter Hammers — audiences loved seeing the ruthless way that Cushing’s Baron cuts through Victorian etiquette. Had the scene not been removed in the states, we would have been put way off balance when Frankenstein rapes the leading lady – his actions are no longer defensible.


The previous Dracula entry Dracula Has Risen from the Grave seemed content to roll out the standard inventory of fangs and breasts. Taste the Blood of Dracula tries to go in a new direction, and just plain gets lost. Figuring out the 1850 equivalent of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll brings forth a story about the evils of fathers and their incestuous designs on their own daughters. Not content with brothels, an unconvincing trio of hedonists turns to the occult in search of more excitement. Illicit sex doesn’t lead to a deal with the devil any more than necking in 1970 led kids to heroin, but Taste the Blood of Dracula tries to build a film around the idea, compounded with the notion of the nasty older generation betraying their own offspring. The cute Isla Blair and the demure Linda Hayden prove that hanging around with Dracuila leads mostly to wearing lower necklines. Dracula doesn’t show up until the halfway mark, sticking us with his front man-necromancer, Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates). The Bates-and-Switch tactic leaves us in the lurch, waiting for the great Chris Lee to make another appearance.

Director Peter Sasdy keeps things moving, but tends toward an overuse of the zoom lens. Some animation as the Count is revived from dried blood, is crude and inexpressive. I more carefully cover the reasons why Chris Lee’s part is so small in my review of the old DVD from 2004. This was the year that Billy Wilder gave Lee a big break by casting him in his The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Hammer doesn’t seem to have treated Lee particularly well. It’s no wonder that he didn’t want to reprise his Dracula role, when so little was to be gained.


The Warner Home Video Blu-ray of Horror Classics: Four Chilling Movies from Hammer Films has made certain that each picture looks its best. All improve on their DVD counterparts in more than just detail. The added contrast, sharper image and richer color lessen the gap between the ‘classic’ look of The Mummy and the later pictures filmed much more quickly. I checked out all four and found them technically very pleasing, richer experiences than before. The prologue to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed uses some intriguing James Bernard zither music — the dynamic audio track on this new transfer is very pleasing.

The packaging is a sturdy book with fanfold disc holders, in an equally sturdy card sleeve. Warners is also issuing the discs with individual packaging, so fans wanting just one of the four won’t feel cheated. The sentimental / nostalgia factor for Peter Cushing and now Christopher Lee makes this a hot Halloween item. Savant is a cheapskate, yet I’ve already ordered an Amazon copy as a gift. Extraordinary!

I remember being very happy watching the Oscars broadcast back in 1995. Peter Cushing had died in late summer the previous year, and suddenly his image was on the screen for the “In Memoriam” montage – an honor then reserved for only the most beloved stars and personalities. On the broadcast soundtrack could be heard a cheer from the audience — Academy members apparently numbered more Hammer fans than one might expect. My kids were watching, which was a sort of mini-victory as well. They then ranged from 11 to 15 years of age, and were probably beginning to think their father was a freak with weird movie tastes. They may still think that, but I think they feel that some of the movies I introduced them to were indeed worthwhile.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Horror Classics: Four Chilling Movies from Hammer Films
Blu-ray
rates:

Movies: The Mummy and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed Excellent; Dracula Has Risen from the Grave Good + ; Taste the Blood of Dracula Good – .
Video: Excellent all four
Sound: Excellent English, French Spanish
Supplements: Trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French Spanish
Packaging: Four Blu-ray discs in illustrated book style holder with card sleeves.
Reviewed: October 3, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson