Universal continued its "Franchise Collection" of films crammed onto two-sided DVDs with the 2005 2-disc The Hammer Horror Series. Hammer, the British company renowned for stylish, beautifully crafted horror films from 1957 to 1975, released its many offerings through different distributors. This collection represents the Hammer films distributed and subsidized by Universal, and should really be called Hammer's Universal Horror Series. Most Hammer films were issued by other companies, most notably Warner, 20th Century Fox, and Columbia. All of the Universal-sponsored Hammers appeared on VHS but most had been out of print for a long time before finally reappearing in this set. Perhaps uneasy about the draw of Hammer films in the 21st century, Universal created a very budget-conscious release: eight films on two discs, two films per side.
The films that Hammer made for Universal are of uneven quality: some count among Hammer's best work, and some are minor, deservedly lesser-known efforts. One of Hammer's two biggest stars, Christopher Lee, is, in fact, conspicuous by his absence. Three of the films--Paranoiac, Nightmare, and Night Creatures--aren't horror films at all: the first two are psychological thrillers and the last is about smuggling and pirates during the 18th century.
First in the set is Brides of Dracula (1960). The film is the second and probably the second best in Hammer's long Dracula series, despite the fact that Dracula himself does not appear. After the first Hammer Dracula (US title: Horror of Dracula) in 1958, Christopher Lee refused to play the role again for seven years, rightly concerned about the typecasting that had beset Bela Lugosi. So Hammer was forced into the strange position of making a sequel without the main character, as Lee was, of course, irreplaceable. Brides of Dracula concerns one of the Count's vampiric disciples, Baron Meinster (David Peel), his campaign to seduce a beautiful young finishing-school teacher (Yvonne Monlaur), and the successful efforts of Professor van Helsing (Peter Cushing)--the character acting as a continuing thread from the first film--to prevent it. Cushing's van Helsing is even better fleshed out here than in Dracula. Overall, the film is equally dramatic and polished; it may even be more original. Several new twists are included, the most striking of which are the vampire's incestuous feeding on his mother (played by the brilliant Martita Hunt) with her subsequent acquiescence to release by van Helsing; and Meinster's destruction by the cross-like shadow of a windmill. Director Terence Fisher is at the helm, as always proving his mastery of form, narrative, and visual composition. The DVD is an excellent print presented in the expected 1.66:1 aspect ratio, far superior to the old VHS tape in zoomed full-screen which lost considerable parts of the frame on all sides.
Next is The Curse of the Werewolf (1961); set in Spain, it is really a tragic tale of an orphaned boy who is cursed with lycanthropy that results from the accident of birth, itself caused by incidents of cruelty, madness, and rape. The principal role is taken by Oliver Reed, who appears in three of the eight films in this set. A distinguished actor, Reed's association with Hammer continued in some form through the 1970s, when he narrated the British TV documentary series "The World of Hammer." Terence Fisher is again the director, and as the writer David Pirie observed in his important 1972 study A Heritage of Horror, Fisher concentrates less on violence than on suffering; The Curse of the Werewolf is a prime example of his approach. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, which seemed unusual, the European norm at the time being 1.66:1; but documents relating to the film indicate that 1.85 was intended.
Hammer's The Phantom of the Opera (1962) is given a treatment quite unlike any other version, and is very under-rated. Rather than a hideous madman who gains the feared reputation as the "opera ghost," becoming obsessed with and kidnapping a rising soprano, Fisher's Phantom is a wronged composer and brilliant musician who accidentally disfigures himself while trying to destroy copies of his music that have been plagiarized. Driven to despair and hallucinations, he ends up living beneath the opera house, eventually teaching a fine young singer to perform the principal role in a stolen opera of his that the theatre is producing. Once again, despite the trappings of horror, this is a story about genuine human tragedy, and is easily the most compelling reworking of the story, though like almost all filmed or staged versions, it is far removed from Gaston Leroux's original novel. Phantom was one of three Hammer films issued to US television in forms that were severely re-shaped by the removal of original scenes and the addition of terrible newly created ones. The full-frame VHS of the original appeared in 1990 but was not widely available. It contained the original theatrical trailer, which is not included on the present DVD set. The print used for the DVD is excellent, but the presentation is cropped to the strange aspect ratio of 2.00:1, making it seem cramped, especially when compared with the open-matte full-frame VHS tape where, in addition, the images were not zoomed.
Paranoiac (1962) is the first of the two Psycho-like thrillers in the collection. The plot concerns a falsified identity and madness stemming from inter-family murder. Oliver Reed stars once again. The director this time is the award-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis, who became a key horror director in the 1960s and '70s. His style is more visually florid than Fisher's, his story-telling less introspective. Paranoiac was filmed, and is presented here, in Cinemascope (called "Hammerscope"), with the aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and in black & white like Hitchcock's Psycho, the model that Hammer felt would give it the biggest box-office return. The film is very well done, but it is no Psycho.
Don Sharp's Kiss of the Vampire (1963) has always been regarded as one of Hammer's best films and it is easy to see why: the elegance and subtlety of Terence Fisher is combined here with the visual fluidity of Freddie Francis. Like Brides of Dracula, it is a vampire outing made during Lee's years of refusal to touch Dracula. Curiously, it has a few thematic devices that were reused when Hammer finally persuaded Lee to appear in Fisher's Dracula, Prince of Darkness two years later. Briefly--and so as not to reveal too much--a young English couple who are honeymooning in the Carpathians at the turn of the 19th century become the guests of a charming aristocratic family who turn out to be vampires. The film seems to be the first where mystical rituals are used to subdue evil forces. The film has the added benefit of a score by Hammer's best composer, James Bernard--an assistant to Benjamin Britten. Kiss of the Vampire was thought to be lost for a number of years--strange for a film made in the 1960s. Like Phantom, it was issued to American TV by Universal with many scenes deleted or rearranged, and awful new ones added--including a new ending; it was retitled Kiss of Evil. The original film finally appeared on VHS in 1990, and a letterboxed DVD was released by Image in 1998. The current version has been transferred anamorphically like all the films in the set, so 16x9 TV owners get an extra benefit. Otherwise, the two transfers, both in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, are equally fine (curiously, the 1998 Image DVD erroneously indicates 1.66:1).
Nightmare (1962) is the other black & white "scope" thriller directed by Freddie Francis to be included. Its premise is not unlike Gaslight--various seemingly kind persons attempting to drive the heroine mad--but with bloodier twists. Francis' visual style is appealing but the film becomes predictable, dragging during its second half. The best, nastiest, and least British Hammer thriller Fanatic (1964) with Tallulah Bankhead, released in the US as Die, Die my Darling (not in b&w, "scope," or directed by Freddie Francis), is a Columbia film, and sadly not represented in this compilation.
Night Creatures--originally titled Captain Clegg--directed by Peter Graham Scott, is a film about a supposedly dead pirate captain and wine smuggling in a coastal British village called "Dymchurch" during the late 18th century. Peter Cushing stars as Dr. Blyss, a kindly village parson with a secret, and Oliver Reed has a key role for the third time in this set. The film is well done, but it might have benefited from the surer directorial hand of Terence Fisher. As in The Phantom of the Opera, the peculiar, constricted 2.00:1 aspect ratio is used. The story was re-filmed by Disney as The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.
The set concludes with The Evil of Frankenstein (1964). Ostensibly the third Hammer Frankenstein film, it is unrelated to any other in Hammer's series. The plot is reminiscent of a Universal "B" picture of the 1940s: Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), now an outlaw, secretly returns to his abandoned chateau to find his creature encased in ice beneath it; reviving it, he is blackmailed by a vicious sideshow hypnotist into letting him use it for what the Baron discovers to be criminal purposes. It is the weakest of the Hammer Frankensteins, Peter Cushing's great performance notwithstanding. It is the only one of the six Hammer Frankenstein films with Peter Cushing to be directed by Freddie Francis rather than Terence Fisher, and it shows. The print is very crisp. It is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and, like Brides of Dracula, reveals noticeably more visual material on all sides than the zoomed full-frame VHS version. The Evil of Frankenstein is the third Hammer film that Universal re-shaped for American television, making it even less satisfactory than it was originally. Interestingly, both versions were simultaneously available on VHS from MCA/Universal, so the informed buyer had to check the listed running time, the shorter one being the original film (87 vs. 97 minutes).
The Hammer Horror Series is a necessary addition to the DVD collection of anyone who loves Hammer's output; it is the only way these films are available. Except for some questions about a few of the aspect ratio choices, it contains very fine anamorphic transfers. However, squeezing two films--not especially short ones--onto each side necessitates the exclusion of any bonus materials, even trailers. Tiny reproductions of the original posters are printed next to the brief plot synopses in the cardboard case--though the miniature photo of the Phantom poster is for the incorrect version--the 1943 film with Claude Rains. The films are, however, closed-captioned in English and subtitled in French and Spanish. Be aware that the return rate for this set has reportedly been high--not surprising, as "flippers" often have problems in pressing or overall readability. But for the Hammer fan, persistence will pay off: my third try was defect-free.
Review by Robert E. Seletsky
|Released by Universal|
|Region 1 NTSC|
|Extras : see main review|