DVD Savant’s Guide to the New Wave of Classic Hammer Blu-rays
Curious about all those Region B Hammer Blu-rays from overseas, the ones requiring a region-free player? As a public service, Savant has solicited an expert opinion (you’ll have to take my word for that) of a film restoration/transfer specialist who is also an informed fan of the filmic output of the little horror studio at Bray. I know, real Hammer fans buy first and worry about quality later, but this little guide might be of help to the rest of us budget-conscious collectors.
A ‘Guest’ article
Written by a trusted Savant correspondent.
(Note: I receive plenty of emails asking for advice about the quality of Region B Blu-rays, most of which I don’t see. I have access to industry people qualified to compare and judge the discs, but they stay off the record, because their employers forbid them to go online with their opinions. They must sometimes simmer in silence as print critics and web reviewers that have no technical expertise, dispense misinformation or slam entire home video companies for imagined aesthetic crimes.
You’d be surprised how many telecine people and video experts have no special interest in movies. But technical experts can be Hammer fans too, and I’m always asking this one about the strange way the UK releases are being transferred. So for Halloween, and to go with the new Warner’s Hammer Blu-ray release, I asked him to do what I can’t do: review the quality of these Region B releases that only a few fans get to see. My unnamed friend has most of them. He’s more lenient than I am about the odd revisions we’ve seen. Just remember that the titles with the fewest comments are the ones without problems. When he says, “it gets by,” he’s really saying, “It’s great.” — Glenn Erickson, 10.11.15)
A GUIDE TO THE NEW WAVE
of Region B HAMMER BLU-RAYS
Glenn Erickson and I recently had a discussion about the state of the classic Hammer Studios Blu-ray releases, in light of Warner Brothers’ recent four disc set. I mentioned some observations I had with the import titles not yet available in the States and he encouraged me to go through them and write an overview. Many of these have been out for quite awhile, and the issues with some of them have been extensively covered and hotly debated in forums and genre webpages, so this won’t qualify as much of a revelation to the hardcore fans. But I thought the more casual enthusiast who doesn’t frequent those areas of the net might find it of interest. My background is in the areas of film restoration and overseeing telecine work, so I try to point out problems or compliment those areas in particular. What I don’t do is discuss the aesthetics of each movie, since I figure if you’re interested enough to read this you probably already know these films pretty well and have reached your own opinions. If not, most have been reviewed in their standard-def incarnations by DVD Savant and I recommend you look them up! They make great and insightful reading. I also stress that these are simply my opinions, and some fans may find the problems I point out more or less egregious. As the old cliché goes, ‘Your mileage may vary.’ I’ll also mention the obvious — unless you have an all-region player most of these releases will not work on your machine.
THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN
After the success that Hammer Films had enjoyed with adapting Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Xperiment (available domestically from Kino), they took a crack at another Kneale teleplay, The Creature. The theatrical film was titled more descriptively as The Abominable Snowman (of the Himalayas). People were first able to appreciate its B&W ‘Hammerscope’ compositions in an out of print Anchor Bay DVD from many years back. It has so far only been released on Blu-ray in Japan in an expensive, bare bones edition. Quality is good, but little effort has been put into cleaning up the minor battle scars on the film source. Hopefully it will garner a release elsewhere, and it would probably be prudent to wait for a cheaper (and better) edition. But if the true Hammerphile is chomping at the bit to add this to their collection now, it at least is ‘Region A’, and doesn’t require a multi-region machine.
[ Note: Savant correspondent Jeff Nelson passed on some information about the Japanese Blu of The Abominable Snowman, which I in turn handed over to the writer of this article. He verified that Jeff’s information (and that of Classic Horror Film Board posters named “dolphyguy” and “Gerani53”) is 100% correct. The bottom line: don’t ditch the Anchor Bay DVD. Here’s my contact’s response:
Okay, just finished looking at both, and he’s indeed correct. Here’s a quick rundown. The Japanese Blu-ray has a runtime of 1:25:04 and the Anchor Bay DVD is 1:29:56. On the DVD, a Warner Bros. logo is superimposed over the mountain background for the main titles. The Blu-ray does not have the logo. Cushing’s discussion with the High Lama occurs at 20:48 on the DVD. My theory as to why it possibly might have been cut is that the Lama’s accent is quite thick during this speech, making him hard to understand. The bandit attack occurs at 25:37, and as the CHFB guy points out there’s a strange defect in the binocular optical, a horizontal rectangular white block behind the bandit. I don’t think the two deletions add up to the full five-minute discrepancy, but they come close. Any additional edits would be insignificant. While it always stinks to have scenes missing I think I’d stick with the Blu-ray, because in a side-by-side comparison it blows away the old Anchor Bay release, which is of course much less sharp and has significant DNR artifacts.]
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN
When the current incarnation of the Hammer company announced they had rights to several of the classic golden age titles, there was a lot of excitement within fan circles, and this film was one of the most eagerly anticipated. The first signs of trouble was when the company proudly proclaimed via their webpage that they had determined the correct aspect ratio for the film was open matte (or 4X3 full frame), and would be presenting it that way. The reaction was swift and heated. Several well respected technical historians voiced loud objections, providing trade articles specifically stating the intended framing was 1:66:1. Hammer finally agreed to release the Blu-ray with transfers of the film both ways. Once the release hit the shelves there was further grumbling that the matted transfer was centered incorrectly, but it hardly mattered, considering the anemic look of the film in general. Some people felt it was ‘acceptable’ and at least better than the earlier Warner DVD. It was closer to the correct aspect ratio, perhaps, and did include a shot not in the previous release. But the image was more faded and blown out, obliterating many details that were clearer in the DVD. The explanation was the degraded state of the film source, which Hammer said was provided by Warners. This is no doubt true, born out by the fact that Warners bypassed including it in their just released Hammer Blu-ray collection, citing that it ‘needed work’. The upside is the disc has many interesting supplemental features and a good commentary track.
(HORROR OF) DRACULA
The general consensus is that this is the jewel in Hammer’s crown. Its influence was felt in genre films for decades, and it cemented all the elements of Hammer’s identity — writer, stars, director — making them the horror kings of the fifties and beyond. The film is so respected that the British Film Institute undertook a restoration, with Warners’ limited participation. Shortly after the restoration was completed, exciting news came that the legendary missing shots from the end disintegration of Dracula had been in found in a print stored in a Japanese archive. The print also had a more explicit vampiric seduction of Mina. The Hammer company leapt at the chance to obtain and restore this material… no small feat, considering it was in absolutely horrendous condition and would require expensive digital fixes. Hammer’s disc uses the BFI’s finished restoration as the source for their Blu-ray. Since it did not include the newly-found footage, the company inserted it in a separate, second version of the film on the three-disc set.
Despite the universally welcome addition of the found footage the Blu-ray release once again hit heated controversy with the fans, this time due to the cold color grading of the film overall. Many felt this was a revisionist attempt to make the film look more contemporary, and was not true to the original look. The Hammer company had received much negative feedback for creative choices on several of their other releases. In this case they are not to blame (if one considers the complaints valid). Ben Thompson oversaw the BFI restoration. In the documentary included on the disc entitled Resurrecting Dracula he explains that the color grading decision was based on a new Check Print supplied by Warners, as well as the way the original negative ‘naturally’ timed out. But he also stated he intentionally avoided the saturated colors of an IB Technicolor print from the film’s first release. This is a bit baffling, as one would think the goal would be to emulate how the film was presented in 1958. No matter how one feels about the film’s look there’s no denying the Blu-ray betters the older Warner DVD in just about every way. The earlier disc was improperly over-matted at 1:78, while the Blu-ray is given a roomier and correct matting of 1:66:1. The DVD only supplied a trailer, while the Hammer BD has a wealth of fascinating supplemental material. It even includes the Raw transfer of the Japanese source print, which gives one an idea of the miracle Hammer pulled by making this thrashed-to-death image look anywhere near as good as it does.
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
We finally get to a title without much controversy! The first release was from Australia’s Shock label, and looked very good indeed. It was bettered (marginally) by the U.K. Arrow disc, which followed months later. Both are sourced from the same master, so the differences are really in the encoding, which seems a tad sharper on the Arrow label release. There’s no question Arrow has the more plentiful and interesting extras as well.
The Hammer company hit the ball out of the park with this release. Presented both in 1:66:1 and a second open matte version (why?), it demonstrates just how breathtaking the early Jack Asher- lensed color films could be. The release also contains a lot of great extras. The film has also just been released domestically by Warners, and appears to use the same (1:66) transfer but has no extras except the trailer.
THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH
A Blu-ray version has been available in U.S. since May of 2011, packaged by Legend Films with Amicus’ The Skull. It looks muddy, faded, with little detail in the black areas. These are all the signs of a substandard film element, such as a CRI (color reversal intermediate). A number of the Hammer shows from this period have had issues with degeneration to the original negatives, narrowing the choice of what can be used for transfer material. Eureka Entertainment in the U.K. have just released (September 21) a BD standalone edition which I have not seen. The word on the street is that while not ideal, it’s still a big step up from its domestic counterpart.
Years ago Universal released a fantastic Hammer Films DVD set. It contained a knockout version of The Brides of Dracula, presented at 1:66:1 and with great color. The film had its Blu-ray debut in England in 2013 via the Final Cut Entertainment label, and it was a disappointing head-scratcher. It should be noted that labels such as Final Cut very often license a title and are provided a master from the licensee on a “take it or leave it” basis. Whether or not this is the case here, their Blu-ray is sourced from a transfer inferior to the one used for the DVD (which was destroyed in the Universal Studios fire in 2008). The Blu-ray is presented at an aspect ratio of 2:00:1. Reasonable arguments can be made for Hammers from the early sixties being correctly matted at either 1:66 (European standard) or the slightly tighter 1:85 (U.S. standard). But where does this odd variant come from? It was probably never screened like this, at least not intentionally. The cropping simply cuts out too much picture information. Hopefully if Universal releases or licenses it here in the U.S. for Blu-ray it will return to the handsome 1:66 look of their DVD.
A very nice BD from Germany’s Anolis label is available, presented in 1:85:1. Some good extras, in English, as well.
Another release from Final Cut, which has the same screwy 2:00:1 matting. Admittedly it was the same in the old Universal DVD box. It is also from a 1080i master at the sped up PAL rate. While it’s fun to see the main title returned to the U.K. original (Captain Clegg), it is video-generated text over a textless background element. So overall this one is pretty much a wash.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
This is an example of when producing a Blu-ray release might not be the best idea if you can’t find good film source material. This Final Cut disc caught a lot of flak for looking objectionably grainy and soft. Once again the original negative for this film is most likely unserviceable, and this appears to be possibly transferred from a YCM ‘recombine.’ Without getting into the technical weeds, what is involved in a recombine is a process similar to the old Technicolor 3-strip negatives. Namely, three different strips of film, each containing one of the color matrices, are optically printed together to create a ‘new’ negative. There are a number of potential problems, however — overall softness and a buildup of dirt and grain. Color fringing occurs, much like the older rear screen televisions when the three color guns were slightly out of alignment. Perhaps that’s a simple way to explain recombining separations, but the relevant aspect is that it’s very possible to end up with a less than ideal element to use for an HD transfer.
This is most likely the same film source as was used in the Universal DVD box set. It would be a different transfer, again, as the earlier master fell victim to the studio fire. Unable to do much with the soft picture, the added resolution of Blu-ray mainly sharpens the grain. The only area of improvement on the Blu-ray is that it presents the film at 1:85:1 instead of the mysterious 2:00:1 used in the old Universal box.
The transfer seems overly bright on this U.K. Final Cut release, but overall it gets by.
When the Blu-ray market was starting out Hammer fans waited impatiently, hoping for some of the studio’s horror titles to start hitting the new format. It took several years. This was the first, released in the U.K. by Eureka. A middling entry in the sub-genre of Psycho- inspired movies Hammer cranked out in the mid sixties, it was an odd choice to be the first of their horror entries to hit HD. The film’s detriments are offset by the fantastic transfer however, which is razor sharp with a great grayscale. It’s an exciting peek at the promise the new format could provide the Hammer library, a promise displayed only intermittently with the releases that followed.
Another Final Cut Entertainment U.K. release. Perfectly acceptable, if not impressive in a ‘bowl you over’ sense. A noticeable improvement over the DVD.
DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS
The company’s direct sequel to Horror of Dracula has never fared very well on home video. Anchor Bay’s early DVD was dull, with muddy colors and fading on the edges of the frame. Subsequent U.K. and Italian releases were a little better but had issues of their own. This was the first Blu-ray release from the new Hammer company (unless we count Quatermass and the Pit; it’s unclear if that was completely under their banner). Most fans give it an unenthusiastic passing grade, but for my taste it’s one of the least watchable Hammer BDs. This is due to the green /yellow- hued color grading. I have seen several early theatrical screenings of DPOD from good quality prints, as well as numerous TV broadcasts through the years. While it was never going to match the sumptuous look of either of the first two entries in the Hammer Dracula series, it still had a ‘normal’ color palate.
I will digress for a moment and say a word about the process of color grading a film. Each time a movie is transferred to video the colorist has a wide range of choices as to what the film should look like. There usually isn’t a template that automatically spells that out. Multiple approaches exist. Colorists can reference a film print or a previous tape master if those are available. The ‘talent’ (director or director of photography) may be asked to provide input. But other things come into play like time and budget constraints, and in the case of older titles the condition of the film element being used. Hammer provided a short documentary on the transfer process for this film in its Blu-ray supplements, which gave the impression that they were using the original Techniscope negative. Remember that Techniscope is a half-frame process, so the granularity of the image is going to be greater. Normally this would be the best source, but color dyes fade and change over time, limiting what can be done. Other Hammer negs from this era have fading problems. I don’t know if this is what’s happening in this case, or if the end result simply reflects what the colorist thought looked best. If the latter is the case it would be a matter of taste. Personally, I don’t think it looks good or correct. The transfer also suffers from overuse of digital noise reduction (DNR), which blunts the sharpness usually gained by going HD.
It has since been released by Exclusive Media Group (which owns the new Hammer company) in the U.S. Not surprisingly it’s the same master.
THE REPTILE and RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK
These two Hammer company releases are especially frustrating in that each comes close to being a definitive transfer. Issues in their main title sections keep them from reaching that gold standard. In the case of The Reptile the pre-credit and credit sequence come from a really ugly film element, giving you the impression you’re in for an unpleasant viewing experience. But at the conclusion of the credits the screen snaps to an impressive, detailed and sharp image for the rest of the film. I have a theory as to why this would be the case. When I was overseeing lab work on several Hammer titles many years ago I discovered that the title sequences were not spliced at the beginning of the first reel of the negative, as one would expect. They were instead kept separately, presumably to make it easier for the lab to switch out to a different language reel for other territories. The problem is that in the course of fifty plus years of film elements getting shuffled around to different labs and storage facilities it becomes mighty easy to lose that extra can, especially if the inventory doesn’t specifically list it as part of the set. I suspect that’s what happened here, and Hammer was forced to go a title sequence of substantially worse quality. A real shame, because the rest of the show is a beauty to behold.
The problem with Rasputin is less excusable. The film opens with its main titles, accompanied by composer Don Banks’ moody and brooding music. But the music is difficult to appreciate on the Blu-ray because the dynamic range of the audio track is about as good as something recorded from a telephone line. At the finish of the credits the audio improves to an acceptable level. The company responded to complaints with the, ‘it’s the best available’ line. While that might be true as far as what was in their inventory the audio could easily have been improved by simply sourcing it from one of the previously released DVDs, none of which had the issue. This is not a complicated or expensive fix. Outside of this aggravating defect the rest of the BD looks great and sounds okay.
THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES
From Hammer Studio Canal. This release had no significant problems and looks very good.
From Australia’s Shock label. Outside of looking slightly pale this Blu-ray is okay. It has also been given a release stateside by Exclusive Media Group.
Not one of Hammer’s better mummy movies (although it has many fans) it nevertheless got a beautiful looking transfer. From the Hammer company.
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT
This early Blu-ray release set the bar of expectations for the future very high. It’s a stunner. Razor-sharp and extremely detailed, it provides a revelatory viewing experience even for fans that have seen it countless times through the years. It’s unclear whether the Hammer company were directly involved in producing this disc or it was purely Studio Canal / Optimum, but whoever it was deserves kudos.
***sigh*** One of the most controversial disc releases from the Hammer company. While their intentions were good, they don’t seem to have understood what their customers wanted, or would accept. No one would argue that the effects in this film were adequate, but the company made the decision to ‘correct’ them with new digitally created replacements. Modifying the content of a film in this way is a big no-no in both the restoration field and among film fans, UNLESS you offer the revisions as a choice via a second version alongside the original. Oddly, for a company that supplied superfluous full frame variants as extras on both The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy, they did not supply the unaltered version of this film on the Blu-ray. They also didn’t announce what they had done until the news leaked on the Internet, further infuriating fans. Are the new effects an improvement? Technically speaking, of course they are. That doesn’t negate the fact that the original version should have also been included. It would have made an interesting comparison as well.
The problems with this release aren’t restricted to the alterations. The title sequence has always presented mult-colored graphics and titles appearing against a black background. The new Blu-ray has a reddish patina that contaminates the black background and white text. Perhaps if one wasn’t familiar with the film it wouldn’t be noticeable, but it’s hard to imagine anyone purchasing this who hasn’t seen it, many times over. Also, the shot-to-shot timing on this transfer is sloppy, with brightness and contrast mismatched in some sequences.
This is a title some other territory needs to release, going back to the drawing board with a fresh transfer. Anolis Company in Germany have an excellent record of quality, and it would be good news to see it show up on their schedule.
CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER
Australia’s Shock label put this late entry Hammer classic out on BD, and it’s a winner, containing all the attributes one would expect from the HD upgrade. Some nice extras as well. There’s also exists a Spanish release (Capitán Kronos, Cazador de Vampiros), but I’ve never seen or heard any feedback on it.
The first release was also from Australia by Shock, and was a disappointment since it was 1080i with a PAL speedup (on BD!). Happily the subsequent release in the U.K. by Icon is 1080p and looks great. These two releases are the first to contain several excised shots not seen in any U.S. version, theatrical or otherwise. There were some problems with Icon’s pressing, but it was corrected and replacements were issued. It features some great extras by the usual Hammer experts as well.
So there you have it – my personal rundown of what hasn’t been offered to U.S. customers and why multi-region players are an absolute must for the aficionado of Hammer horror. There are a few that aren’t covered here because I haven’t seen them. I haven’t caught up with The Witches but I understand it looks very good. The reverse situation also exists, of course, with foreign territories deprived of a number of titles released so far only in the states.
Compared to the situation just a few years ago there is much to rejoice about what’s been made available both here and abroad. Warners just released the first in what will hopefully be several batches of Hammer horrors they own. But there are still plenty left waiting to be issued in HD from other studios, like all the titles held by Sony Pictures (The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Gorgon, Scream of Fear to name just three). The studio itself seems to have little interest in putting them out on Blu, and although they struck a deal for a large number of library titles to be released by budget label Mill Creek, so far all that company has done with the Hammer items is to repackage the previously released DVDs for budget sales. Perhaps Twilight Time may take an interest but I suspect until Mill Creek’s option runs out any hope for seeing BD editions of these here in the U.S. are slim. If that’s the case let’s hope other world territories come to the rescue for these and other M.I.A. Hammers!
Note about Frame Grabs: They were captured in the VLC media player program, and were not adjusted in any way except for size. They are not intended as anything more than a general example of some of the points I brought up. How these Blu-rays will look on your monitor in a home viewing environment can of course be significantly different.
October 14, 2015
Addendum: Savant Hammer Reviews To Date.
⚛ Cloudburst 5.21.11
⚛ Spaceways 11/30/00
⚛ The Quatermass Xperiment 10.22.11
⚛ The Quatermass Xperiment Blu-ray 12.06.14
⚛ X the Unknown 09/17/00
⚛ The Curse of Frankenstein 10/02/02
⚛ Quatermass 2 05/20/00
⚛ The Abominable Snowman 08/08/00
⚛ Horror of Dracula 10/02/02
⚛ Dracula (Horror of Dracula) Blu-ray Region B 4.13.13
⚛ The Revenge of Frankenstein 7/22/02
⚛ The Snorkel 4.03.10
⚛ The Hound of the Baskervilles 05/13/02
⚛ The Hound of the Baskervilles Blu-ray 6.13.15
⚛ Ten Seconds to Hell Blu-ray 1.06.14
⚛ The Man Who Could Cheat Death 6.21.08
⚛ The Mummy 10/10/01
⚛ The Mummy Blu-ray 10/06/15
⚛ The Stranglers of Bombay 6.10.08
⚛ Never Take Candy from a Stranger 4.03.10
⚛ Hell is a City 12.12.02
⚛ The Brides of Dracula 9/06/05
⚛ The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll 9/30/08
⚛ Stop Me Before I Kill! 4.03.10
⚛ The Terror of the Tongs 6.10.08
⚛ Scream of Fear 9/30/08
⚛ The Curse of the Werewolf 9/06/05
⚛ Cash on Demand 4.03.10
⚛ The Pirates of Blood River 6.10.08
⚛ Night Creatures 9/06/05
⚛ The Phantom of the Opera 9/06/05
⚛ Paranoiac 9/06/05
⚛ These Are the Damned 4.03.10
⚛ The Kiss of the Vampire 9/06/05
⚛ Maniac 4.03.10
⚛ Nightmare 9/06/05
⚛ The Evil of Frankenstein 9/06/05
⚛ The Devil-Ship Pirates 6.10.08
⚛ The Gorgon 9/30/08
⚛ The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb 9/30/08
⚛ Die! Die! My Darling! Columbia TriStar 7/15/03
⚛ Die! Die! My Darling! Sony Pictures Choice Collection 4.09.13
⚛ She 9.15.09
⚛ The Plague of the Zombies 5/05/01
⚛ One Million Years B.C. 3/07/04
⚛ Quatermass and the Pit 12/05/98
⚛ Dracula Has Risen from the Grave 04/28/04
⚛ Dracula Has Risen from the Grave Blu-ray 10/06/15
⚛ Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed 04/28/04
⚛ Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed Blu-ray 10/06/15<
⚛ Taste the Blood of Dracula 5/02/04
⚛ Taste the Blood of Dracula Blu-ray 10/06/15
⚛ The Vampire Lovers 8.24.03
⚛ The Vampire Lovers Blu-ray 4.02.13
⚛ Countess Dracula 8.24.03
⚛ Twins of Evil Blu-ray 8.21.12
⚛ Vampire Circus Blu-ray 12.18.10
⚛ Dracula A.D. 1972 10.25.05
⚛ Straight On Till Morning 07/30/02
⚛ Demons of the Mind 07/30/02
⚛ Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell 9.17.13
⚛ To the Devil a Daughter 11.05.02
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson