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Hammer Films Double Features

by Glenn Erickson Sep 05, 2016


A Frankenstein, a Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and a mythological dame from Hell: three out of four of these classic titles appear in encodings well worth a Blu-ray upgrade. The star quotient is high too: two films each with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Hammer Films Double Features
The Revenge of Frankenstein + The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb
The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll + The Gorgon

2 separate Blu-ray purchases
Mill Creek
1958-1964 / Color / Street Date September 6, 2016 / separate purchases 14.98

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Okay, this sounds like the right way to release studio Hammer holdings to the rabid, acquisition-hungry fans: Blu-ray double Bills. As the source studio for Mill Creek’s offerings is Sony, we have every right to expect great transfers, audio and picture. If Mill Creek gives them quality encodings, it’s a lock.

The movies themselves are a not-bad selection. One classic and three classy entertainments, each one of which has its following. And if the price online is correct, even cheapskate Savant will be buying copies. What Mill Creek has done essentially, is taken a Sony 4-title “Icons of Horror” DVD release from eight years ago, swap out a B&W title for a color title, bump it up to HD and divide it in two.

Double Bill One

The Revenge of Frankenstein
Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment
1958 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 84 min. / Street Date August 13, 2002 / $19.95
Starring Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson, Michael Gwynn, Lionel Jeffries, Oscar Quitak, Charles Lloyd Pack, Richard Wordsworth, George Woodbridge
Cinematography Jack Asher
Production Designer Bernard Robinson
Film Editor Alfred Cox
<Original Music Leonard Salzedo
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds
Directed by Terence Fisher

Because The Revenge of Frankenstein is one of Hammer’s very best I’ve given it a much more detailed write-up. This thoughtful mix of mad surgery and tragic disfigurement was the very first follow-up to the firm’s smash color debut feature, and is one of the best Frankenstein films ever. Peter Cushing alters his interpretation of the rash vivisectionist and Jimmy Sangster’s intriguing script pulls in several fresh ideas.

The story sees the bad doctor hiding out in a credible bourgeois environment, Germany in 1860. After only three years in Carlsberg, Dr. Victor Stein (Peter Cushing) maintains a flourishing private practice and tends to a busy ward of charity patients. The insular and jealous local medical council is upset that Stein is taking all of the best patients. One council member, young Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews), recognizes Stein as the Baron Victor Frankenstein, you know, that fiend that everybody assumes was guillotined for a series of blasphemous murders. Instead of exposing the brilliant scientist, Hans joins him in his latest venture. Using ‘spare parts’ from the charity ward, the Baron has fashioned a new, handsome body for his misshapen assistant, Karl (Oscar Quitak). Hans helps his brilliant mentor to install Karl’s brain into the ‘new’ corpse and bring it to life.

Frankenstein’s benign new ambitions are thwarted once again, and this time it’s tragic: he’s on a basically good mission. An attempt to give the ‘new’ Karl (Michael Gwynn) a calm recovery is spoiled by a scheming ward orderly (Richard Wordsworth) and the beautiful Margaret Conrad (Eunice Gayson), a meddling socialite charity volunteer. Already set on having a bright new life free of his old, twisted body, Karl blanches at the idea of being exhibited as a scientific freak. He escapes, risking the healing process. He’s got an iffy prognosis either way: Dr. Stein’s earlier chimpanzee brain transplantees turned cannibalistic when the operations didn’t go perfectly.

This second Frankenstein outing has a marked de-emphasis on gore, although we’re still granted some graphic views of socket-less eyes, crumbly-looking brains and meat-slabbed limbs. We also get a benevolent and rational Victor Frankenstein who truly wants to help poor Karl have a new life. Frankenstein may have the same egotistic desire to vindicate his radical research but he’s no longer an outright murderer. A stray arm or two finds its way into his freezer, but he’s sworn off murdering kindly old professors and raping the household help. His assistant in Curse was all too aware that the Baron was a treacherous zealot who couldn’t be trusted beyond his scalpel; Hans Kleve in Revenge joins Dr. Stein in a mutual comradeship that for a while seems like a winning combination.

Peter Cushing gave a slightly different spin to each of his six outings as Baron Frankenstein. This version is the most humane of the bunch. The Baron grew colder and less tolerant in future outings, until, in the third-best installment Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, he’s become an irredeemable villain. The putative ‘monster’ in that show is just another pathetic brain transplantee; Frankenstein does all of the killing, and is back to raping women again, just to put them in their place.

But here we have a kinder, gentler Baron Frankenstein. He’s dropped his libidinous criminalities; he shrewdly fends off the attempts of a matronly countess to use her daughter as marriage bait. He also has no interest in ward candy striper Margaret Conrad, played by Eunice Gayson, the voluptuous Sylvia Trench of the first two James Bond movies. Instead of skulking about, Dr. Stein carefully places a flower in his lapel and serves the poor, taking his meals alone in his clinic office.

The Revenge of Frankenstein earns high marks despite adhering to the frustratingly unchanging format for mad surgery films: no matter what the doctors do the subject becomes a monster and all hell breaks loose. Jimmy Sangster was at this point one of the hottest pop screenwriters in the UK. His fresh approach takes some novel story turns, along with some not so adroit. The best thing this time out is that there’s no blather at all about transgressing in God’s domain. The Baron is a rational man in a world that falls back on superstition only when it needs an excuse for a lynch mob. He’s gone undercover as ‘Dr. Stein’ and learned a few public relations lessons. He and Dr. Kleve make no medical mistakes whatsoever, and the synthetic Karl gets an optimistic new lease on life. The desired ending would have Karl marry Margaret (she has a thing for scars, you know) and live happily ever after. No such luck.

Having dispensed with old-fashioned moralizing, Sangster posits no reason for the doctor’s failure except regrettable staffing decisions and plain bad luck. At the halfway point Revenge becomes almost bittersweet in its pathos. Audiences sincerely want the gentle, deserving Karl to get his second chance. Matinee kids that cheered Chris Lee getting his head shot-gunned off here totally identified with Michael Gwynn’s Karl and suffered along with his each and every trauma — especially when he’s severely beaten on his vulnerable skull. Gwynn twists and distorts himself to suggest regression to savagery, succeeding where the script stumbles. Even some mainstream reviewers gave Revenge high marks based on Gywnn’s sympathetic embodiment of the monster, often overlooking Cushing to praise the gaunt actor. Gwynn can be also seen in Village of the Damned, Barabbas and as Hermes in Jason and the Argonauts.

At its midpoint Revenge has nobly resisted the usual series of predictable murders. The entertaining nonsense science includes a silly Pavlovian experiment with plucked eyes that are magically able to look left and right while suspended in a tank of water. The show generates some of the same appeal as David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, a film that Savant always thought was an upscale Hammer horror freed from the need to be a monster movie. The two films share a lot of ground. Each doctor is by and large benevolent. Both seek fame and acceptance through their discoveries. The monster in each case is hidden away in a secret room in a clinic, only to find misfortune through the interference of foolish hospital staff and corrupt interlopers.

But the 1958 market demanded a standard hulking menace, so Jimmy Sangster complied. Karl becomes a creeping killer for the last reel.

Frankly, Sangster isn’t the best screenwriter in horror film history. He wastes time and energy on characters that don’t pan out, and his third act throws logic for a loop. After being clubbed, Karl’s damaged brain begins to deform his new body into the likeness of his old one, with a twisted arm, hunched back and lame leg. This only makes fairytale sense but we grudgingly accept it. Then Sangster has Karl revert to cannibalism as well, regressing to a state of savagery lower than the even the brutalized street scum in Stein’s public ward. After all his enlightened willingness to make Frankenstein a liberated surgeon free from religious fundamentalism, Sangster invents a new reactionary notion – that messing with Mother Nature will turn us all into savages again.

Or, perhaps the cannibalism is an undeveloped theme suggesting that class differences are like evolutionary stages. It’s not a very enlightened message: The dirty poor, by ‘rejecting’ the civilized ways of the clean society people, are becoming animal-like. The ward orderly even makes a verbal case for behaving like an animal. Karl’s plunge into savagery is simply more extreme. I think it’s more than possible that I’ve expended more thought on this idea than writer Sangster ever did.

The secondary characters are only partially integrated into the story. While Stein and Kleves work harmoniously, Sangster makes the gorgeous Margaret Conrad a ditzy, decorative idiot. Her only real function is to set up Karl for tragedy, by freeing him before he’s healed. She makes no deeper connection with the play beyond handing out free tobacco from her wicker basket. Margaret gets some entirely unmotivated help from Richard Wordsworth’s sleazy orderly. The gaunt Wordsworth is well known for playing emaciated prisoners in the Blood Island war movies and for his famous role as spaceman Carroon in Hammer’s first big hit The Quatermass Xperiment. The miserable shape-shifting Carroon has a lot in common with this movie’s Karl, as both are pathetic fugitives that have lost control of their bodies and roam the streets committing unintended murders. Here, Wordsworth establishes the grimy presence of the underclass and adds a note of comedy relief.

Also doing well in a brief stock part is the great Lionel Jeffries, who teams up with Michael Ripper to form a grave robbing team. Francis Matthews is fine as Kleves, a civilized and progressive soul who’s probably quite an anachronism for 1860 Germany. As is usual, the Hammer Germany is populated with Cockneys in Bavarian togs, spouting Anglicisms and inappropriate phrases. In the examining room, the Countess asks Stein to ‘give her daughter an overhaul,‘ as if Vera were a leaky exhaust manifold.

Visually stunning, The Revenge of Frankenstein overcomes petty issues by virtue of its inspired performances and the assured direction of Terence Fisher, here on his third film of a six- or seven-picture string of successes. He manages to weave powerful drama from Cannibal Karl’s plight. The simple scene where the snarling but traumatized surgical failure crashes the Contessa’s recital party is one of Hammer’s best. Instead of the usual violence, we get a key image previously unseen in Frankenstein movies — the monster stumbles at his creator’s feet, tearfully begging for help.

The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb
1964 / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 80 min.
Starring Terence Morgan, Ronald Howard, Fred Clark, Jeanne Roland, George Pastell, Jack Gwillim, John Paul, Dickie Owen, Jill Mai Meredith, Michael Ripper.
Otto Heller
Film Editor Eric Boyd-Perkins
Original Music Carlo Martelli (and Franz Reizenstein)
Written by Henry Younger (Michael Carreras)
Produced and Directed by Michael Carreras

Prolific Hammer producer Michael Carreras directed The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb, an acceptable entry in Hammer’s none-too glorious Mummy series. The Carlo Martelli music score is interrupted during flashback scenes by Franz Reizenstein’s superior cues for the 1959 Terence Fisher version, reminding us that it has all been done much better before. Carreras’ camera placement is weak. He has a fondness for ragged pans across décor and faces, something that doesn’t work out too well in the Techniscope format.

The script only half-develops its ideas. When a curse befalls the raiders of the tomb of Prince Ra-Antef, we know that scurvy Egyptologist Hashmi is behind it, because he’s played by Hammer’s all-purpose Eastern fanatic George Pastell (The Mummy, The Stranglers of Bombay). Fred Clark is fine as Alexander King, a Barnum-like impresario hoping to make millions by exhibiting the Mummy back in England. His subplot is terminated before it can really get up to speed. King is meant to provide cultural contrast as a vulgar American stirring up trouble, but he’s easily the most honest person in the show. Everyone else seems to be hiding their identities and motives. Actor Clark also projects more personality than anyone else, so much of the show’s sense of fun exits along with him.

The potentially interesting material involves a love triangle. Egyptologist John Bray (Ronald Howard) watches while his intended Annette Dubois (Jeanne Roland) falls in love with a more interesting new acquaintance, Adam Beauchamp (top-billed Terence Morgan). The smooth fiancée poacher Adam is a man with a secret; it seems that he knows altogether too much about Egyptian relics to be the amateur he claims to be.

The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb starts with a graphic hand-chopping but thereafter pulls back on the gore. What we get is seventy minutes of setup and harrumphing police investigation, and about ten minutes of repetitious Mummy attacks modeled on Terence Fisher’s original. Ra-Antef (Dickie Owen) smashes through doors and lurches into fancy houses, but he lacks Christopher Lee’s panache. He seems physically unimpressive, and not just because he doesn’t tower over his victims. Chris Lee’s aggressive juggernaut didn’t loiter about, as does this Ra-Antef. Our new Mummy is also saddled with a costume that was surely designed with production convenience in mind. It looks like a baggy stack of wet newspapers, with a head that resembles the comic character Zippy covered in ashes. Ra-Antef’s mask allows for no variation in expression.

But Carreras’ show moves quickly, and has great color and lighting by cinematographer Otto Heller. Ms. Roland is stunning in her gowns, including the number she picks for a midnight jaunt through the sewer, carried by the Mummy. It’s interesting that Hammer’s male leads at this time all seemed to be in their ‘forties… almost as if the young Turks up in the front office wanted to avoid the romantic competition that younger actors might pose.

Double Bill Two

The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll
1960 / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 88 min / House of Fright.
Starring Paul Massie, Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee, David Kossoff, Norma Marla, Francis De Wolff, Joy Webster, Walter Gotell, Oliver Reed.
Jack Asher
Film Editor Eric Boyd-Perkins
Original Music David Heneker, Monty Norman
Written by Wolf Mankowitz
Produced by Michael Carreras
Directed by Terence Fisher

We were very happy eight years ago when Sony remastered The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll uncensored at its full uncut length of 88 minutes. The show was also known as House of Fright in an 80-minute abridged version distributed by American-International.

Aided greatly by the impressive music of David Heneker and Monty Norman, The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll gets off to a rousing start. No, the title theme is not sung by Lou Christie, although I can imagine a heck of a good music video montage. This interesting Dr. Jekyll experiment is certainly better than Hammer’s other ‘transformation’ movie The Man Who Could Cheat Death. The twisted screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz (Expresso Bongo, The Day the Earth Caught Fire) plays fast and loose with Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous story but can’t be said to have come up with an interesting variation. Mankowitz’s bearded, dour Henry Jekyll (Paul Massie) is a lone researcher attempting to define and control the duality of man. He wants to liberate mankind’s potential from the restraints of conscience and morality, which in this movie’s view leads immediately to horrible behavior. Jekyll’s wife Kitty (Dawn Addams of The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) proves to be equally two-faced. She’s having an affair with the wastrel gambler Paul Allen (Christopher Lee), on Henry’s money.

Jekyll uses a potion to split his personality, but the Hyde that emerges is not a traditional monster. Audiences in 1950 may have tuned out right then and there. Hyde is instead a handsome and amoral cad eager for sensation. Faster than you can say Julius Kelp, Hyde beds Maria (Norma Marla), a snake dancer at a bawdy night club-bordello. Hyde becomes furious when he fails to seduce ‘Jekyll’s’ wife Kitty, and instead discovers that Kitty actually loves Paul. The remainder of the narrative uses tragic mistaken identity-and-coincidence situations more suitable for a bedroom farce. Mankowitz’s mean-spirited series of machinations and twists are lacking in irony or character identification: Bad Stuff happens and that’s about it. Paul has a fateful date with Maria’s snake, while Hyde maneuvers Kitty and Maria into each other’s bedrooms. As the song goes in The Band Wagon, everyone ends in mincemeat.

Director Terence Fisher’s pace sometimes slackens — a fairly dull shot of Jekyll injecting his potion lingers in stasis seemingly forever, with the music working hard to maintain our interest. The almost uniformly bright lighting enforces a rather artificial, theatrical atmosphere. Ace editor Eric Boyd-Perkins enlivens several decorative dance scenes in the London fleshpots — and adds a couple of jarringly inappropriate wipe transitions. Let’s assume they were somebody else’s idea.

Dawn Addams may well be dubbed but gives an effective performance as a woman leading a double life. In her own way Kitty is trying to accomplish the same identity split as her husband — playing an upright society missus nabbing some thrills on the side. For once given a character role with some meat on it, Christopher Lee proves that he can play a wholly convincing cad. Paul Massie is a Glloomy Gus as Jekyll, with some really bad makeup and hair. His blonde, clean-shaven Hyde always seems a twitch away from breaking into a crazed grin. Jekyll insists that his dual-man theories have nothing to do with good and evil, but Mr. Hyde’s deeds are almost uniformly reprehensible. When Hyde’s chemical transformations begin to get out of control, we don’t sympathize with him. There’s nobody to root for in this clutch of selfish people.

The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll is short on actual horror content, but reaches for a level of cruel sexuality that the censors would never allow anyway. It’s easy to see why the movie would need cutting for American release, as Hammer seems to be reaching for salacious sex to replace censor-forbidden sadism and violence. It was bad timing for more salacious mix of horror and sex, just when the British censors were coming down hard on the company and its imitators. Some of the snake dancing by Norma Marla (or her double; she wears a mask) is pretty vulgar, including a shot of her plunging the head of a large boa constrictor into her mouth. The club harlots talk a bawdy streak, with the word “bitch” used prominently at least twice. And the film teases us with some near-nudity in the Hyde-Maria seduction scene. Columbia pawned the film off on A.I.P., but it can’t have been appropriate kiddie matinee material, even when cut.

The picture gives us a nice bit from Oliver Reed as an irate pimp (!) and a too-brief couple of moments with the talented child actress Janina Faye (Horror of Dracula). When the plot requires a London detective, we’re not surprised to see stalwart Francis De Wolff enter the scene. David Kossoff (The Mouse that Roared) is Henry’s moralizing friend. He has a welcome moment at the finish, rejecting the Coroner’s facile conclusion that Henry Jekyll “ventured too far into God’s domain” explains exactly nothing.

The Gorgon
1964 / 1:66 widescreen / 84 min.
Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Richard Pasco, Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe, Patrick Troughton, Joseph O’Conor, Prudence Hyman, Jack Watson.
Michael Reed
Film Editor Eric Boyd-Perkins
Original Music James Bernard
Written by John Gilling, J. Llewellyn Devine
Produced by Anthony Nelson Keys
Directed by Terence Fisher

The Gorgon is one of Terence Fisher’s more interesting horrors. Its pointedly female monster is pursued not by a strong Van Helsing-type character but by men weakened by their interest in women. Paul Heitz (Richard Pasco) wants to discover what killed his brother and father, but the authority figures in the tiny town of Vandorf seem intent on hiding the source of a series of unsolved murders. Asylum doctor Namaroff (Peter Cushing) submits false death certificates to hide the fact that all of the victims have been literally turned to stone, or “gorgonized.” (It sounds like a cheese-making process, frankly.) Paul sends for his professor friend Karl Meister (Christopher Lee) to help solve the mystery.

In the script provided by John Gilling, the male characters live in various states of impotent fear. None of them seem to have their act together as much as do the women in the plot. Dr. Namaroff is particularly ineffective in controlling women, even a madwoman in his asylum. Nursing assistant Carla Hoffman (favorite Hammer horror queen Barbara Shelley) is repulsed by Namaroff’s jealousy when she becomes attracted to Paul. Paul and the Doctor end up fighting each other instead of watching out for the dreaded Gorgon Magaera (Prudence Hyman). The she-creature claims her victims on the second night of each full moon. 27 safe days out of 28 — that’s better odds than living in Chicago or South Central L.A..

Fisher directs this outing with considerable skill, maintaining tension in a story with very little action and far too many scenes where dull policemen talk about the case. James Bernard’s eerie Gorgon theme puts new chills into the familiar Hammer castle sets. Barbara Shelley’s Carla is a sympathetic heroine to Richard Pasco’s sincere hero, but Christopher Lee’s professor is the only real take-charge character. Interestingly, this horror piece has no comedic coachmen or gravediggers, giving it a distinctly more sober feel than most other Hammer Gothics. But the younger Hammer fans probably came for the violence, blood and monsters, not Gilling’s dramatic conflicts.

What surely stunted The Gorgon at the box office was its lack of a good monster. The tall Magaera is shown too much and is little more than a scowling woman with greasepaint makeup and rubber snakes in her hair. We’re told that a complicated mechanical Roy Ashton makeup concept was discarded in favor of a quick fix by the effects department. The movie was obviously done on a tiny budget. The makeup and special effects Hammer were willing to pay for sometimes just weren’t up to the job. How the company continually made costume pictures so cheaply is quite a mystery.

Screenwriter John Gilling would move on to direct a pair of similarly low-budget, impressive Hammers, The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies. As a drama The Gorgon can at least make a claim on being different, but I’ve found it a hard sell to young viewers with no connection to the era in which it was made. My children are all grown now, but as youngsters I turned all three of them into Hammer experts (when their mother wasn’t looking). They liked almost everything, but The Gorgon was one of the losers. Why? “It’s the rubber snakes, stupid Dad.”

As unlikely as it may sound, Mill Creek’s Blu-ray of Hammer Films Double Features seems to have been initiated by a response to fan requests. When the company licensed some DVD collections last year, the fans spoke up. Most already had the old Sony DVDs; what they desired were upgrades to Blu. It looks as if Mill Creek has happily complied, and the result is something of a split decision. All of the titles appear to be HD versions of the same transfers as released on DVD. I made an A-B comparison of all of the titles with their earlier DVD copies, and found them all to be improved. The newer three titles always looked quite good but now have added sharpness and improved contrast. The oldest title The Revenge of Frankenstein was mastered in HD more than fifteen years ago, and doesn’t look anywhere near as good as the other three. It’s sharper and a bit brighter than its old DVD counterpart, but the overall improvement is much less apparent. It’s dirtier and less colorful than the other three. By all rights it should compare in quality to newer discs of the other initial Jack Asher-shot Hammers, with colors that knock one over. But it’s still a great picture. Unless you’re holding out for a miracle transfer, it isn’t a deal-breaker. After all, I eagerly sprung for the ‘All Blue, All the Time’ English disc of Horror of Dracula, and am content to live with it until some devoutly-to-be-wish’d re-master takes place. I think Revenge missed out by being so popular. It was transferred long before the others, and then not upgraded. I think that if Sony had release plans of their own for Revenge they’d certainly have remastered it by now — they do marvelous work.

My recommendation to fans is to let the price point be your guide. I know of at least three friends that have gambled on preorders already, based on the sticker price.

It looks like the much-anticipated Halloween disc release stampede has begun: as I write this a stack of Olive discs has arrived. Expect plenty of monsters and mad doctors in next week’s review mix.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hammer Films Double Features Separate Blu-ray purchases
Movies: Frankenstein Excellent; Mummy’s Good; Jekyll Good -; Gorgon Good +/-
Video: Frankenstein Good – minus; Mummy’s Excellent; Jekyll Excellent; Gorgon Excellent.
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 3, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.