Blu-ray: Four Hammer horrors debut on ‘Horror Classics: Volume One’

HorrorClassicsV1Horror Classics: 4 Chilling Movies from Hammer Films(Warner, Blu-ray) presents the respective Blu-ray debuts of four films from Hammer Films, the British studio that revived the classic monster movies in gothic style and lurid color (to match the lurid atmosphere of sex and death).

The Mummy (1959) is the third of Hammer’s classic horror revivals and the fourth Hammer film to pair up its two marquee stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing stars as archeologist John Banning, whose dig for a lost tomb results in untold treasures but leaves his father a mumbling madman and marks the rest of the company for death. Lee is Kharis, a former high priest turned gauze-wrapped guardian of the tomb, a veritable Golem sent on a mission of vengeance by Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), a disciple of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris. “I’ve spent the better part of my life among the dead, but I’ve never worked in a place with such an aura of menace. There’s something evil in there.”

The scenes at the archeological dig and the flashbacks to the ancient burial are stagebound and frankly cheap looking, but Terence Fisher—Hammer’s top director—is back in familiar territory when the action relocates to the misty swamps and Victorian mansions of rural England. The towering, 6’3” Lee makes the most terrifying mummy to date. He covers ground in giant strides, smashes his way into rooms with heavy Frankenstein-like swipes of his arm, and takes shotgun blasts with barely a twitch, yet melts from rage to calm at the sight of Banning’s wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux), a dead ringer for his dead Queen. He’s haunted soul, rampaging juggernaut, and a hugely powerful monster all in one. In the classic Hammer tradition there’s a sadistic twist to the flashback when Lee’s transgressive priest has tongue removed. It’s not as gory as it sounds, but it still carries a shivering eeriness about it. Hammer’s Mummy sequels, like Universal’s before it, are a spotty lot but the original is quite good.

Terence Fisher also directs Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1970), the fifth entry in Hammer’s “Frankenstein” series, and Cushing delivers his most cold-blooded portrayal of the mad Baron yet. Abandoning his latest experiment after a drunk stumbles into his secret lab (upsetting a severed head) he hurriedly finds new lodgings with a sweet young thing (Hammer glamour babe Veronica Carlson) whose boyfriend (Simon Ward, in his film debut) works in the local sanitarium. Frankenstein blackmails the lovers into complicity with his latest experiment, resorts to kidnapping and murder for his subjects, turns accomplice Ward into a killer, and even rapes his Carlson in a coldly brutal scene. It continues Hammer’s evolution of Cushing’s Baron into a truly mad scientist, as in utterly insane and cruelly amoral, destroying the lives of all around him in his search for scientific knowledge out of sheer hubris.

The goriest film of the series kicks off with a flamboyant beheading with a scythe (seen only as a spray of blood across a window) and is full of bloody brain surgery, conveniently offscreen but vividly suggested in the slurping sound effects of surgical saws and drills and the gallons of blood left in their wake. Freddie Jones is heartbreaking as Frankenstein’s latest creature, a once insane scientist who awakens to find himself cured but trapped in a grotesque alien body. When he attempts to communicate with his wife, half hiding in a dark corner while she peers around and sees only a monster, Fisher offers the most affecting moment of pathos on the entire series. It helps make this one of the best films in the series and one of the unsung Hammer classics.

Frankenstein-must-be-destroyed-poster

Christopher Lee stars as the malevolent Count in both Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) and Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). The former, directed by Freddie Francis, picks up where Dracula: Prince Of Darkness left off, revived from an icy grave by the blood of a priest and pursued by a Monsignor (Rupert Davies). The latter, directed by Peter Sasdy, moves the location to Victorian London where the Count is resurrected by a depraved English Lord (Ralph Bates) and proceeds to revenge himself on the men who killed his servant by seducing their daughters and sending them to murder their own fathers.

All four films, previously available on DVD, have been newly remastered for Blu-ray. The colors are vivid, not to say appropriately lurid, and the images strong and sharp. They are distinctive upgrades from the previous DVD releases, which are well over a decade old. There are no supplements.

All four films also available in separate volumes.

More releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’

When British production studio Hammer Films first found success reviving the classic movie monsters with remakes of Universal horror films of the thirties in full, blood-dripping color and lurid Gothic style, they tried their hand at every iconic horror classic they could, but they found their biggest successes minting sequels to The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958). The Dracula films turned into a curious mix of spin-offs, sequels, and modernized updates, with guest bloodsuckers filling in for Dracula until Lee returned to title role. The Frankenstein movies, however, became a more connected cycle of films, variations on a theme centered not on the creature (as in the Universal films) but on Baron Frankenstein, played by Peter Cushing in all but one of the films. They followed a chronology (with minor exceptions) that charted the Baron’s monomaniacal obsession to create life at any cost and Peter Cushing defined him as a ruthlessly ambitious man of science, a pitiless rationalist ready to sacrifice human life in the name of scientific discovery. He was, in an odd way, both hero and villain of the series, and a very different portrait of the scientist than presented in either the novel or the iconic 1931 film.

The 1967 Frankenstein Created Woman, Hammer’s fourth Frankenstein film, is a loose sequel that finds the Baron in residence at a generic Bavarian village with a new assistant, Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), an old, amiably befuddled, apple-cheeked country doctor, and a whole new plan of attack. Instead of the familiar surgical patchwork bodies cobbled together from unwitting organ (and body) donors and reanimated with electricity, he takes a more metaphysical approach this time.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Hammer Films’ ‘Twins of Evil’

Hammer Films, the British studio that revived the classic horror film in the late 1950s with a lusty mix of gothic repression, lurid debauchery, sensationalistic set pieces, and bleeding color, struggled to keep up in seventies as rival studios became even more lurid and censorship standards brought nudity into mainstream cinema. The Hammer formula was getting tired, and so were the directors, so new blood (so to speak) was brought in.

Twins of Evil (CAV), the third film in what has been called Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy,” is scripted by Tudor Gates (who came to Hammer by way of Mario Bava) and directed by John Hough (who came from television, notably “The Avengers,” where he learned sleek style and visual wit).

It’s another twist on Sheridan Le Fanu’s female vampire story “Carmilla,” this one announced right in the title. Playboy centerfolds Madeleine and Mary Collinson play the titular twin orphans, beautiful young women who arrive from the cultural capital of Venice to the repressive, superstitious, northern European town of Karnstein. This isolated village is ruled by a debauched Count (Damien Thomas) and terrorized by a severe Puritan sect of witch hunters that calls themselves “The Brotherhood.” Led by the obsessive Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), who sees sin everywhere, they behave no better than a lynch mob: too terrified to confront the politically protected Count, the only true evil in the land, they target beautiful single women and burn them at the stake, ostensibly to end to evil killing the townsfolk but more clearly purging their own lust.

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Blu-ray: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing Board the ‘Horror Express’

Eugenio Martino’s Horror Express (Severin) is a one of those odd duck films: a Spanish horror for an international audience with Hammer stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and American actor Telly Savalas (something of an international character actor icon of the time thanks to such films as The Dirty Dozen, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Assassination Bureau) in a small but significant supporting role. Set on the Siberian Express, it’s a mix of murder mystery, supernatural horror, mummy movie, zombie film and alien attack at the turn of the century.

While it’s a minor horror film, it’s filled with incident, paced like a speeding train and flavored with hints of late Hammer horrors and Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead. The dangerous cargo is the frozen remains found in Northern China by archeologist Christopher Lee, a “missing link” that turns out to be even more unique and tenacious than anyone anticipates. Coming back to life with burning red eyes, it starts sucking the life and the knowledge out of bystanders and then jumping bodies in its instinct for survival. Peter Cushing is a rival gentleman scientist who uses his fortune to grease the wheels of foreign diplomacy, but shifts from enemy to colleague when the “fossil” escapes and the milky-eyed corpses start to stack up, and then come back to life. This train carries plenty of promising vessels, including a beautiful spy, a Rasputin-like monk and a pair of aristocrats in a private car.

I took particular pleasure in the indignant dignity maintained by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in all the ridiculousness of the filmmaking, sparring and sniping and sabotaging one another before finally teaming up as the body count builds. And then there is the blast of personality that Telly Savalas brings as a “Cossack” feudal lord from an rural posting. Just when you wonder when he’s going to make his appearance, he rolls out of the sack shared with some nameless woman and leads his troop onto a train by order of a government that’s not sure what’s going on but knows that something wicked this way comes.

Continue reading at Videodrone for disc details and the trailer

These Are the Damned films featured in “The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films”

[feel free to mentally add your own punctuation to the headline, but I kind of like it the way it reads]

The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.

These Are the Damned

These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit neatly together but add up to a brilliant structure.

It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.

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TV on DVD for 12/22/09 – Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes and the last Taxi ride

The Sherlock Holmes Collection (1968) (A&E) – Peter Cushing first played Sherlock Holmes in the Hammer Films version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a gothic take on the classic Holmes novel directed by Terence Fisher. It was dream casting, not just visually (his gaunt face and hawklike profile made him the heir apparent to Basil Rathbone) but temperamentally; he seems to be the very embodiment of science and reason (attributes that made him such a great Van Helsing in the Dracula series).

Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock

Which makes this discovery such a find. Cushing returned to the role of the greatest detective in the late sixties BBC series Sherlock Holmes. Only six episodes survive and they have been collected in this three-disc set, which is headlined by the two-part adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Cushing’s second take on the famous tale) and includes faithful adaptations of Conan Doyle classics The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet among the episodes. Cushing is a hearty Holmes and his friendship with the observant and intelligent (if not nearly so brilliant) Watson (Nigel Stock) grounds the show. This show is produced in the familiar BBC manner, with studio scenes shot on video and location footage on film, but it’s a convention that fans of vintage British TV have become accustomed to and the shows look quite good on the A&E discs. Six episodes on three discs, plus the featurette “Sherlock Holmes: The Great Detective.”

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