Release List Reviews Price Search Shop Newsletter Forum DVD Giveaways Blu-Ray/ HD DVD Advertise
DVD Talk
Reviews & Columns
Reviews
DVD
TV on DVD
Blu-ray
International DVDs
Theatrical
Adult
Reviews by Studio
Video Games

Features
Collector Series DVDs
Easter Egg Database
Interviews
DVD Talk TV
DVD Talk Radio
Feature Articles

Columns
Anime Talk
XCritic.com
DVD Savant
HD Talk
Horror DVDs
Silent DVD

discussion forum
DVD Talk Forum

Resources
DVD Price Search
Customer Service #'s
RCE Info
Links

Columns



DVD SAVANT

The Hammer Horror Series:
The Brides of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Phantom of the Opera, Night Creatures, Nightmare, Paranoiac, The Kiss of the Vampire, The Evil of Frankenstein


The Hammer Horror Series:
Universal
Street Date September 6, 2005
29.98

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

With this monster collection of titles, eight in all, Universal has released its entire library of Hammer Films holdings in one go. After the breakout success of Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula in 1957 and '58, the tiny Hammer studio wasted no time making lucrative distribution and co-production deals with the Hollywood majors. Columbia was the first on board but the partnership with Universal resulted in access to copyrights and trademarks associated with the old Uni horror films that Hammer was in part re-making. The Mummy is now controlled by Warners but was initially released by Universal-International, which accounts for its close adherence to the basic storyline of the 1932 original. This batch of thrillers covers the next four years, 1960 to 1964. Relying on largely the same talent pool, Anthony Hinds becomes the dominant screenwriter, as well as taking over producing chores from initial stalwart Michael Carreras. Meanwhile home-grown screenwriter Jimmy Sangster stepped back from adapting the classics to instead grind out a succession of ever-diminishing murder thrillers inspired by Psycho.

Universal's share of the Hammer output included several of their better pictures, but after the compromised classic The Brides of Dracula the unique qualities that set Hammer apart began to show signs of age. Hammer branched out by making adventure epics, and for a time abandoned its science fiction line after shelving the superb The Damned (These Are the Damned) for two years (four in America). Still harbored in a country house, Hammer's creative team worked small miracles but eventually could not disguise their over-used sets, even when radically re-dressed. The enormous profits of the first color blockbusters must have been tapped to enrich the founders of Hammer and its forebear Exclusive films, for there is little evidence of expanded production values in the films themselves. The vanguard of England's booming film industry was shooting its productions largely in the same two manor houses up until the middle 1960s. Thus Spain and Tsarist Russia are represented by settings one might expect to see on a television show.

Yet almost all of these Universal releases have some special hook or quality to set them apart. The surprise is getting them all at once instead of spread out over three Halloweens, a couple of titles at a time. In an old 1960s advertising campaign a company called Contadina asked "How did they get all those tomatoes in one itty bitty can?" After seeing eight full features packed onto only two DVDs -- and still looking good -- we're asking the same question.

This is bound to be long set of reviews --- quality issues will be discussed title by title.


The Brides of Dracula
1960 / Color / 1:66 enhanced 16:9 / 85 min.
Starring Peter Cushing, David Peel, Yvonne Monlaur, Martita Hunt
Cinematography Jack Asher
Production Design Bernard Robinson
Film Editors Alfred Cox, James Needs
Original Music Malcolm Williamson
Written by Peter Bryan, Edward Percy, Jimmy Sangster
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds
Directed by Terence Fisher

Genre stylist Terence Fisher launched Hammer's color horror films and directed the majority of the classic titles. Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy were all terrific color productions, and The Stranglers of Bombay was an accomplished horrific adventure story. Unfortunately, the sadistic excesses of Stranglers brought down the wrath of critics and censors, making things tough not only for Hammer but for filmmakers like Michael Powell. His Peeping Tom became a casualty of the times.

Thus The Brides of Dracula, a semi-sequel to the original Horror of Dracula conceived as a step up in gore and sex, was clobbered by pre-production pre-censorship. Articles in the enthusiastic but sometimes disorganized fan magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors explain that the screenwriters were forced to come up with a new storyline about a certain Baron Meinster (although Jimmy Sangster's original Disciples of Dracula script did call for Dracula to appear at the climax to punish Meinster). The writers then were forced to butcher that plotline to make the picture palatable to John Trevelyan of the British Board of Film Censors. According to Jimmy Sangster, Anthony Hinds did the final draft uncredited, possibly to tackle the censor concerns and trim the budget. What's left is a slightly misshapen and fragmented tale, redeemed by excellent direction and superb performances.

Synopsis:

On her way to the Lang School for Girls, Student teacher Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) is purposely rerouted to the castle of Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) where she befriends the mysterious Baron Meinster, a youthful and sad prisoner shackled in golden chains. She believes his story and frees him. Little does Marianne know that the dashing, handsome 'prince charming' is really a depraved vampire - and her act is the opening of a Pandora's Box of supernatural killings. Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is soon on the case, but the crafty Meinster is always two steps ahead of him.

The Brides of Dracula is the first Hammer film forced to be truly reticent about its subject matter and the first to exhibit a recurring, frustrating plot structure. Fans eager for new vampire thrills sit through seventy minutes of preliminary events. When Meinster is finally established with his enticingly feral vampire brides, the movie suddenly wraps up in a flurry of action.

That flaw afflicts far too many Hammer pictures that tread overly-familiar ground introducing the same suspicious villagers and explaining the same standard monster lore. Just at the 'launch point' into what should be the third act (sometimes, the second act) the movie is suddenly over before it has begun.

Brides offers plenty of compensations. Visually enticing, it creates a colorful world of wonderful textures, from Van Helsing's tweedy outfits to the swirling mists around freshly-dug graves. Yvonne Monlaur (Circus of Horrors) is a charming female lead, as lusciously fleshy as the twin vampire brides are menacingly provocative, with their silver-dollar eyes and wide, fanged smiles.

The film has superior characterizations. Cushing's Van Helsing is as cool and rational as ever, even if Meinster and his undead female acolytes keep slipping through his fingers. Martita Hunt's Baroness is an interestingly shaded vampiress, Hammer's first undead creature conceived not as an unwilling victim. The compromised shooting script asks us to be sympathetic toward her, even though she has lured Monlaur's Marianne to certain death at the castle. There's a heavy moral afoot about lax parenting that results in spoiled offspring becoming sex- & blood-crazed demons.

David Peel's Meinster is a terrific Dracula Jr., a potential vampire king as an aristocratic delinquent, a hellion from hell, so to speak. The 'mysterious chained prisoner' subplot is an intriguingly classic device that many viewers will recognize from a memorable episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, originally written by Charles Beaumont. We also see the first vampire 'enabler' in a Hammer picture, a cackling servant named Greta (Freda Jackson of The Valley of Gwangi) who waits over a fresh grave cooing encouragement to the new vampire within.

There follow far too many carriage trips, visits by amusing but irrelevant characters (Miles Malleson yet again) and a general scrambling of scenes reportedly due to censor intervention. Marianne's co-teacher Gina (Andree Melly) was meant to be seduced and vampirized much more graphically than the BBFC would allow. The initiation of Meinster's initial victim (Marie Devereaux of The Stranglers of Bombay) is skipped -- Meinster's first night on the prowl isn't even depicted. Had the original story been filmed, The Brides of Dracula might have become a truly erotic horror masterpiece.

The film has highlights as choice as anything in the Hammer filmograpy. Baron Meinster's entrances are presented in the same dynamic style afforded Christopher Lee. Baroness Meinster's fearful reception of Van Helsing is truly pitiful as she knows she's now a loathesome creature and must be destroyed. Director Fisher shows his keen eye for depth and detail in every scene.

The showdown between David Peel's Meinster and Van Helsing is rewardingly dramatic but a bit drawn out. Cushing reverses the effects of vampirization, an awkward detail that, along with the bat transformations (scoffed at as nonsense in Horror of Dracula) push the story back into Universal territory. The established genre 'rules' are changeable for the sake of convenience.


The Brides of Dracula looks stunning on this DVD, even brighter and sharper than the old flat laserdisc that surprised us back in 1990 or so. The early color Hammer films through Brides have a super-saturated look with deep blacks and rich highlights. From the next film forward, that quality goes out of the series - we're much more aware of film grain and flatter lighting. (Note, courtesy of readers David Fredricksen and Michael Hinerman, 9.07.05: The change in color can be attributed to the replacement of the meticulous cameraman Jack Asher with Arthur Grant. Grant's work is excellent but Hammer traded those rich earlier images for increased production speed.)

The Brides of Dracula is transferred 16:9 and 1:66. All of the other titles in this set are 16:9 enhanced, cropping off the original (by strict definition) 1:66 aspect ratios to at least 1:78. As they were commonly shown that wide or even wider when released (notice that the title blocks are not cramped north/south) this compromise has to be considered preferable to non-enhanced letterboxed 1:66. The improvement in picture detail is significant when compared to, for example, MGM's flat letterboxed transfer of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Brides of Dracula has an alternate Spanish audio track of very good quality.



The Curse of the Werewolf
1961 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 93 min.
Starring Clifford Evans, Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller, Anthony Dawson
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Production Design Bernard Robinson
Film Editor Alfred Cox
Original Music Benjamin Frankel
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds) from The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds
Directed by Terence Fisher

Novelist Guy Endore reportedly broke into the world of screenwriting with a daring political book called The Werewolf of Paris, a partly allegorical novel about subhuman conditions during the French revolution giving birth to monsters. Hammer's foray into lycanthropy strays far afield from the Curt Siodmak inventions for Lon Chaney at Universal twenty-one years earlier. A harsh and rather sordid interpretation of satanic power versus Christian love, Anthony Hinds' ambitious screenplay revels in perversions of Catholic symbols, as if it were a Gothic take on The Exorcist. The result is a grim and dispiriting tale enlivened by the 'discovery' of dynamic actor Oliver Reed and some ferocious monster scenes.

Synopsis:

The horrid Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson) unjustly imprisons a wretched beggar (Richard Wordsworth) for ten years, reducing the man to a slobbering brute. When a buxom servant girl (Yvonne Romain) refuses his advances, the Marques has her thrown in with the beggar. He dies while assaulting her, and she escapes and attempts suicide. Kindly Don Carido (Clifford Evans) rescues her and gives her shelter. She dies giving birth to her illegitimate child on Christmas Day, causing young Leon to be cursed with the horror of lycanthropy - the holy waters boil at his baptism. Little Leon's childhood is filled with nightmares as local sheep are torn to bits. Don Carido and the local priest (John Gabriel) cover for Leon as best they can.
When grown, Leon leaves home to work in a winery and falls in love with Cristina Fernando (Catherine Feller) who is already promised to another man. He succumbs to the full moon and commits several murders, only to find that Cristina's influence, as promised by the Priest, counteracts the evil pull of the demon within him. But he's arrested for the murder of a co-worker and jailed - a decision the authorities regret when Leon transforms into a superhuman wolf monster before their very eyes.

The plot of The Curse of the Werewolf is ambitious and original but doesn't really fit the cramped Hammer format; the movie is a third over by the time we meet our leading player as an adult, and the werewolf thrills barely get revved up before it's time to ring down the curtain. The elaborate effort put into a long list of characterizations doesn't really pay off, as the original story of the imprisoned beggar (sympathetically played by Richard Wordsworth, the luckless astronaut of The Quatermass Xperiment) is unknown to the players in the second half of the story. The colorful sheepherder (George Woodbridge) and wolf hunter (Warren Mitchell) of Leon's childhood don't figure into the later story either; every ten minutes or so Curse has to establish a new setting and new characters from scratch.

The endearing Cristina (played by Catherine Feller of The Gypsy and the Gentleman and Waltz of the Toreadors) briefly kicks the film into a hopeful note. Her 'true love' shows signs of redeeming our hopelessly damned hero Leon, a development that gets full audience approval because we care deeply about Leon's fate. But the rushed ending hasn't even time to give Cristina a closeup, let alone allow her to interact with her beloved monster. The opportunity for a lycanthropic Romeo & Juliet is thrown away.

That's a shame because Oliver Reed's monster is a ferocious original, due in no small measure to Reed's already considerable brute magnetism. The silver-haired creation resembles a cross between The WereWolf of London and La Bête in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. The involved origin story is dispiritingly ugly and pitiless - it would seem that a truly Christian God would bless the poor offspring born under such sorry circumstances, instead of curse it. If "God" is not to be blamed for the injustice visited on Leon, than all we have to fall back on is the bland nastiness of an evil aristocrat. What good is Faith if we can be damned by our geneology alone? This horror film posits a cruel Church-invented cosmology of despair.

The Curse of the Werewolf has about five minutes of peerless monster excitement as we anticipate Leon's transformations and finally witness his powerhouse prison breakout. Director Terence Fisher's dynamic cutting stresses the lightning reflexes and lunging unpredictability of a caged animal. When Reed's wolfman seems to assault the camera, several cuts lift us right out of our seats.

Oliver Reed makes an exceedingly likeable victim of demonic possession. His determination to end his curse (even if it means being burned alive) and his sweaty shakes prior to going ferally ballistic place him far ahead of Lon Chaney's whining self-pity.

The Curse of the Werewolf is still a Hammer favorite, perhaps due to the precociously adult nature of its story (at age nine, there was no way my parents would let me near this one) and the cult status of Oliver Reed, who made a couple of dozen pictures in the 1960s but tended to turn up on American shores in exciting roles in horror thrillers. This was actually at least his third film for Hammer.

A hindrance to some fans is the film's inadequate Spanish background. We're used to the absence of anything culturally convincing in English films set in Spain; a couple of flamenco dancers don't compensate for all the cockney accents. But Bray's familiar courtyards and manor house rooms don't look very Castillian even when ornately redressed. When in doubt, the camera cuts to Leon hiking through the same sand pit quarry that shows up in every other Hammer picture. After seeing a Spanish track on The Brides of Dracula Savant hoped there'd be one here to give the atmosphere a boost just for fun, but no such luck.


The Curse of the Werewolf also looks great enhanced at 1:78. Colors are far less piercing than in the earlier film but are still good; when I finally got to see this one theatrically in the early 1970s the prints were always faded to a brownish magenta. Hammerphiles in the know report that shots censored in some earlier video versions are back and intact. The clear track makes it easier to fully appreciate the rich score as well - composer Benjamin Frankel also tracked The Night of the Iguana and A Kid for Two Farthings.

The Phantom of the Opera
1962 / Color / 2:1 enhanced 16:9 / 84 min.
Starring Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Thorley Walters, Michael Gough, Edward de Souza
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Production Design Bernard Robinson
Film Editors Alfred Cox, James Needs
Original Music Edwin Astley
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds) from the novel by Gaston Leroux
Produced by Anthony Hinds
Directed by Terence Fisher

Some sources say that the boxoffice failure of The Phantom of the Opera resulted in Terence Fisher's first break with the studio. Universal gave this re-jiggering of the Gaston Leroux pulp thriller a big release but it didn't compare well with earlier American versions. Few people remembered the silent picture except in stills in monster magazines and clips on Fractured Flickers, but the colorful 1943 classic with Claude Rains was still a popular item on television. 1962 audiences expected a bigger remake and instead got a scaled-down intimate version.

Although Fisher's Phantom is nowhere near as dull as Savant once thought it to be, there are few bravura moments and precious little Phantom action. Anthony Hinds reinterprets all of the iconic moments to fit into a melancholic romantic take on the old story. Even though actor Herbert Lom loved being able to play a sympathetic lead for once, appreciating this Phantom takes a special sensitivity.

Synopsis:

Repeated mysterious deaths and sourceless voices cause the shutting of the opera St. Joan, much to the dismay of its composer, womanizer Lord Ambrose d'Arcy (Michael Gough). Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza) locates a replacement lead singer in Christine Charles (Heather Sears) but she is fired after refusing d'Arcy's advances, with Harry and most of the orchestra pit quitting not long afterwards. Harry investigates and turns up evidence that a Professor Petrie may be the real composer of works d'Arcy has stolen as his own, and that Petrie may still be alive and perhaps responsible for the frightening deaths at the opera house. And indeed, the disfigured Petrie is the Phantom residing in a lair in the sewer below the main stage.

Besides its timeless central character, The Phantom of the Opera is associated with a full menu of penny-dreadful thriller elements from the turn of the previous century. The original story and the Lon Chaney version had labyrinthine passages, strange death vendettas, competing swains for the leading lady (both police officials of some kind), a bal masque and many more quasi-supernatural shenanigans.

Anthony Hinds' screenplay gives the Phantom the same motivation from the 1943 version - an unscrupulous promoter has stolen Professor Petrie's music and taken credit for it as well. Almost every event is reshuffled, usually to lesser effect. Petrie/The Phantom personally does almost nothing violent, except accidentally cause his own disfigurement, splashing himself with acid. The kidnappings and odd murders here and there are all the work of a handy mute assistant, who also has an inclination toward clumsiness.

All of these simplifications drastically reduce the fantasy and mystery element. Without miles of catacombs in which to prowl, it seems as though even a cursory check of the cellar would nab the Phantom. Most of the story's potential highlights are muted or negated. Petrie never develops a full character, although Herbert Lom is wholly sympathetic and wears his canvas mask well. He has no romantic tie to Christine, the hopeful new singer, and only gets to coach her in one singing lesson. And the plotline even forgets to take vengeance on the sniveling Lord d'Arcy (Michael Gough, actually fairly restrained). The last we see of him, he simply exits a room screaming. The outright horror elements are reduced to a hanging corpse, an eye stabbing and a quick view of The Phantom's grey-and-green mangled face.

(spoiler)

The Reader's Digest feel is confirmed at the end when The Phantom makes a John Wilkes Booth-like leap upon the stage. The famous falling chandelier is reduced to another bizarre accident, courtesy of The Phantom's fumbling assistant. It's a little like Kato accidentally shooting The Green Hornet in the back, or Ygor clumsily dropping a piece of machinery onto Baron Frankenstein. Oops!

The Phantom of the Opera has an impressive music score by Edwin Astley and manages to imply a scope of production beyond what we really see on screen. Moving the opera from Paris to London was a good call in that regard, as the charwomen and ratter aren't chattering in Cockney dialect while pretending to be French. Patricia Clark provides Ms. Sears' singing voice.

Herbert Lom gives a solid performance within the script's limits. For the second time in two years he plays Bach's Toccata in Fugue on a pipe organ (name that film...). Interesting female lead Heather Sears (The Story of Esther Costello, Room at the Top, Sons and Lovers) gambled that this one would be her big opportunity, but unfortunately no. She suffered through playing under Joan Crawford, and now this. Besides Michael Gough's drooling letch, nobody else really makes a big impression. Leading man Edward de Souza carefully uses a rowboat to cross ten feet of water, and then plunges in to swim the rest of the way to the Phantom's lair.


The Phantom of the Opera looks a tad worn on DVD, with a tiny bit of unsteadiness in the first reel and some odd fringing in some early scenes that looks like bad separation compositing (?). The grain is also higher but the depth of color is sufficent to lend character and bite to settings and Herbert Lom's closeups. By now, Hammer's habit of ending their movies without elaborate farewell scenes is becoming a bit frustrating. Our characters haven't even begun to register a reaction to the final tragedy when the show cuts to The Phantom's lonely mask for the scrolling title.

There's no sign of the American TV version of Phantom, which adds some filler scenes with a couple of policemen investigating the Phantom's past. The new footage was shot at Universal, with none of the cast from the original.



Night Creatures
1962 / Color / 2:1 enhanced 16:9 / 80 min. / Captain Clegg
Starring Peter Cushing, Yvonne Romain, Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed, Michael Ripper
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Production Design Bernard Robinson
Film Editors Eric Boyd-Perkins, James Needs
Original Music Don Banks
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds) from the novel Dr. Syn by Russell Thorndyke
Produced by John Temple-Smith
Directed by Peter Graham Scott

Hammer tried to branch out into historical action dramas in the early 60s, making their own Robin Hood movie and several pirate pictures like The Pirates of Blood River. That show is noted for having Christopher Lee in an eyepatch ten years before the Richard Lester Musketeer movies, and also for being a pirate picture without a pirate ship.

Night Creatures is the real surprise of this collection as even most Hammer fans haven't seen it and some of those who claim to, have really bad memories. Mainly an adventure film with a couple of scenes given a horror overtone, it's a winner that affords opportunities for several Hammer stalwarts to play refreshingly well-defined characters. Peter Cushing's devious Reverend Blyss of Dymchurch is an almost complete departure from his sober scientists and humorless vampire hunters.

Synopsis (No Spoilers):

Navy Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) tries to unmask a costal community as a nest of smugglers but is outfoxed at every turn. Coffinmaker Jeremiah Mipps (Michael Ripper) and inkeeper Mr. Rash (Martin Benson) hide their stockpiles of wine smuggled from France while the kindly Reverend Dr. Blyss charms Collier with toast for breakfast and the proud fact that Collier's old pirate nemesis, Captain Clegg, rests in a grave in his churchyard. But cracks begin to show in the deception, even though young Squire Harry Cobtree (Oliver Reed) and a helpful conman (Jack MacGowran) lead the persistent Collier on a wild Goose chase. An unknown relationship between Blyss, Mr. Rash's serving girl Imogene (Yvonne Romain) and a horribly mutilated mulatto (Milton Reid) threatens to give away the whole show.

(No Spoilers)

Night Creatures was released as Captain Clegg in England and its scarcity for the past 43 years is complicated by Walt Disney's Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, a later production also known by the title The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. It starred Patrick McGoohan and is almost as rare. Disney purchased the source book and had specific rights to the Dr. Syn name. Technically a remake of an old George Arliss movie, Hammer's film changes the lead character to Dr. Blyss to protect the innocent and smugglers alike. According to the director, Peter Cushing helped with the re-write.

Hit-and-miss writer-producer Anthony Hinds puts together a fine action script that's directed at an energetic pace by Peter Graham Scott, of the British Danger Man and Sir Francis Drake TV series. A too-hasty "Long John Silver" prologue shows actor Milton Reid, a specialist in playing menacing Asians (Terror of the Tongs, 55 Days at Peking) sentenced to have his ears slit and his tongue cut out for assaulting the wife of the evil pirate Captain Clegg (Reid is no De Niro, as his missing tongue appears to be intact in later scenes). Seventeen years later we come across the apparently unrelated smuggling operations being conducted on the Romney Marshes, with troublemakers and stool pigeons terrorized by "marsh phantoms," banshee-like ghost riders somewhat similar to those later seen in the Spanish Blind Dead film series.

Night Creatures is a swashbuckling smuggling tale not unlike Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn or Fritz Lang's Moonfleet with their hidden identities and quiet country churches hiding secret grottoes of skullduggery. As the film will be a happy surprise for many a Hammer fan, nothing more specific will be said about the plot.

The closest Night Creatures comes to a monster is Milton Reid's mulatto, who is cleverly used by the Navy as a human bloodhound to sniff out contraband. Hammer fans will be excited to see the studio's most dependable bit player Michael Ripper in a solid role even bigger than his part in The Plague of the Zombies. Jack MacGowran (The Fearless Vampire Killers) has a nice bit as a devious decoy, while Patrick Allen (the voice of many British trailers, including the James Bond series) makes his stern naval commander reasonably sympathetic.

Hammer's reputation as a showcase for bosomy starlets is, uh, enhanced by Yvonne Romain's return after making an oversized impression in the opening reels of The Curse of the Werewolf. In her kissing scene with a bewigged Oliver Reed it is obvious that both actors were highly conscious that most viewers weren't likely to be paying attention their faces.

Night Creatures has an interesting take on the concept of smuggling, which in 1962 was possibly still a concern even though the years of England's post-war shortages were coming to a close. The story sides firmly with the local smugglers against the government much the same way that tales of moonshiners in America invariably champion the cause of the local hillbillies. Thus the piratical smugglers become the heroes even though they use terror - the ghoulish night riders -- to maintain their criminal enterprise. It's an odd form of populist antiauthoritarianism that in later years has found real-life expression in secret cults and political separatists. The perfect U.S. rethink of Night Creatures would be Robert Mitchum's moonshine action winner Thunder Road enlarged into a statewide conspiracy, with Mitchum as a Night of the Hunter- style preacher covering up the loose ends. The phantom nightriders? The Ku Klux Klan, of course. They're just protecting the hill people's right to free enterprise.


Night Creatures on DVD looks fine - the color photography makes good use of atypically fresh exterior settings. The titles credit the film as a Hammer-Major production, a distinction for which Savant cannot account. This is the first really satisfying Hammer discovery in quite a few years.



Paranoiac
1963 / B&W / 2:35 enhanced 16:9 / 80 min.
Starring Janette Scott, Oliver Reed, Sheila Burrell, Maurice Denham, Alexander Davion
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Production Design Bernard Robinson
Film Editor James Needs
Original Music Elisabeth Lutyens
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Produced by Anthony Hinds
Directed byFreddie Francis

Hammer got on the Psycho bandwagon early with an excellent suspense mystery called Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear) starring Susan Strasberg and written by Jimmy Sangster. They followed that up with a string of lesser shock thrillers, of which Paranoiac is the best. But that's not saying much, as Sangster's clumsy script this time out can't even manage to keep the characters consistent. It received wide distribution just the same, with its creepy image of a strange masked killer showing up in fan magazines to frighten us kids considered too young to see such 'adult' subject matter. At age ten, Savant assumed that the word 'paranoiac' had something to do with sex.

Synopsis:

The well-to-do Ashby family is having a crisis of sanity along with sundry inheritance problems. Eleanor (Janette Scott) appears to have gone batty and imagines that she sees her long dead brother Tony sneaking around the estate. Hothead Simon (Oliver Reed) is anxious to have her sent away so as to maximize his inheritance - he's installed a mistress, Francoise (Liliane Brousse) as Eleanor's nurse. Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) doesn't seem to have a sense of humor about anything. Simon accuses accountants John and Keith Kossett (Maurice Denham and John Bonney) of stealing from the estate, but he's the one running it into the ground. Then, a handsome stranger shows up to prevent Eleanor from killing herself. He turns out to be the long lost Tony (Alexander Davion), who isn't dead after all -- although Simon has his doubts.

There is plenty of mental aberration in this movie, along with that old standby greed, but I don't think the film has any paranoids, exactly -- nobody thinks that some shady conspiracy is closing in on them. With the possible exception of an unusually clueless butler the script makes every member of the Ashby household who isn't losing their mind a potential crook or accomplice to crime. Depressed Eleanor thinks she's crazy and tries to kill herself, while another obviously malicious relative turns out to be not only murderous but crazy too. There's little in the way of suspense or surprise in the revelations, as we haven't any normal person to experience the show with - we follow whoever happens to be on camera but the meaning behind their actions is mostly kept hidden. The story is 'misleadingly arbitrary' - we're not given much of a reason to be concerned about anything. A couple of murders occur, and we barely care. That's not good, especially after the excellent Scream of Fear.

(Spoiler - just this next paragraph)

Sangster cobbles a creepy idea from Psycho - a dead person being 'kept alive' in the memory of a deranged killer - and tries to engineer a story coup by having a supposed returned brother (real spoiler) turn out to be an impostor, but a benign one. Thus Eleanor has a nasty incestuous attraction to her brother that turns out to be A-OK when he's revealed to be a total stranger. Unfortunately, the plot doesn't even begin to deal with the tangled emotions and reactions that revelation would entail. Sangster's script just abandons that plot thread for a quick wind-up finale.

The acting is basically good. Oliver Reed is remarkably believable as a troublesome alcoholic and Alexander Davion almost looks like James Bond material as the mystery man at the Ashby manse. The usually impressive Janette Scott never gets the chance to find a real character. All in all, director Freddie Francis demonstrates once again that he can make any horror film duller than it needs to be. The one really good scene involves an MG sports car dangling off a cliff with Eleanor trapped inside. The sequence works well, even without a payoff shot of the car crashing onto the rocks below.

Paranoiac looks fine in this enhanced 2:35 Hammerscope transfer. This is probably the second time out of the can for the negative, as the film made its debut on Laserdisc in the early 1990s. The B&W image is strong, and the soundtrack clear.



The Kiss of the Vampire
1963 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 88 min. / Kiss of Evil
Starring Clifford Evans, Edward de Souza, Noel Willman, Jennifer Daniel
Cinematography Alan Hume
Production Design Bernard Robinson
Original Music James Bernard
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds)
Produced by Anthony Hinds
Directed by Don Sharp

Terence Fisher did not direct all of the early Hammer horror films, and one of the better of the new breed was Don Sharp, already established with episodes of The Avengers TV series. The Kiss of the Vampire has yet another stealth script by credited producer Anthony Hinds, but this time around there's enough novelty in the concept to keep our interest high. The plot would seem to be the main inspiration for Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers: A demonic coven of vampires holds a masked ball to initiate an unwilling woman (in a scarlet dress) into their fold.

Synopsis:

Newlyweds Gerald and Marianne Harcourt (Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel) are stuck in a small Transylvanian town when their motorcar runs out of petrol, but are delighted to be invited to the great hall of the Ravna family. Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) and his friendly son Carl (Barry Warren) treat them warmly. But a second invitation leads to terror when Marianne disappears and Gerald is told by everyone that she never existed. Gerald's only hope is Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans of The Curse of the Werewolf), who reveals that he's been waiting for the right astrological moment to put an end to the cult of the hellish Ravnas.

The Kiss of the Vampire knows how to get off on the right foot -- the very first scene gives us an unexpected jolt when Professor Zimmer interrupts a funeral by plunging a shovel through the coffin. The supposedly dead woman shrieks, blood wells up through the shattered lid, and we're off on a fresh adventure that avoids quite a few vampire clichés. Writer Anthony Hinds borrowed the opening scene and some other elements, like the unique climax, from Jimmy Sangster's original Brides of Dracula script, Disciples of Dracula.

The "newlyweds lost in a strange neighborhood" cliché is definitely here, although Hinds gives us something to think about by placing this tale in the year 1910 or so, when an automobile might be relied upon to take a cross-European honeymoon jaunt. Gerald and Marianne respond politely to Dr. Ravna's hospitality, unaware that all the genteel people they meet are ravening bloodsuckers. The plot actually advances without our being able to guess every step before it happens, and although the end does come quickly, it's like nothing seen in a previous horror film -- not perfect, but refreshingly different. The Kiss of the Vampire is right up there under the top tier of Hammer accomplishments.

Director Sharp keeps his camera animated and his screen refreshed. His camera placement isn't as assured as Terence Fisher's but his angles always express something about the scene. We hardly get to know the various vampires in Ravna's clan, but we respond immediately when their appetite for blood is up. Ravna might as well be running a Manson-style sex cult, the way he directs his disciples and decides who will be biting who (whom?). Just enough detail is given to keep us interested without feeling overly familiar with what we're seeing.

Edward de Souza has a lot more to do here than he did in The Phantom of the Opera. Jennifer Daniel (The Reptile) is a good choice as a loyal wife type, reminding us of Mina in Horror of Dracula. Clifford Evans may be Hammer's first vampire hunter who's more of a religious figure than a Van Helsing-type scientist; soon the Dracula series would be populated by killer priests and monks creating almost as much havoc as the vampires they have sworn to destroy. Evans delivers a cautionary warning carried over from The Brides of Dracula: Let your daughters go out on the town at night and they'll come back to you as depraved soulless ghouls. He sounds like the intolerant radio parenting hack Dr. Dobson and his 'family values' that presume all children should obey their infallible parents.

Familiar character actor Noel Willman has the perfect aristocratic hauteur but lacks the physical prowess to fend for himself when the chips are down. His power, like that of Charles Manson, lies in the absolute obedience of his cult.

(Spoiler)

The fantastic ending with a horde of bats descending on the panicked coven is a truly original idea that Hammer would return to in future 'black magic versus black magic' epics like The Devil Rides Out. In 1963 the bat-attack seemed a gothic horror to parallel Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. The goofy marionette bats are pretty feeble now so it takes a willingness to appreciate the state of the art of effects 42 years ago to fully appreciate the scene. James Bernard's regal musical score repeats a lament from Horror of Dracula as a final bar of music at the fade-out.


The DVD of The Kiss of the Vampire looks fine, if a tiny bit hazy and grainy every so often. Considering how sloppy many library titles of this vintage turn out when encoded for DVD, it still looks terrific - and that's not taking into account that there are roughly two hours and fifty minutes shoehorned onto each side of this two disc set.

I believe I saw the end of the network television version of this movie in the middle 'sixties, which along with The Evil of Frankenstein was augmented with new scenes to pad it out to a two-hour running time with commercials. I don't recall the added material but the risqué ending was hacked down quite a bit -- too many leggy vampire vixens writhing on the floor, I suppose. Some writers claim that there is a yet longer version of this scene, but Savant's editorial ears detect no telltale audio jumps in the track.



Nightmare
1964 / B&W / 2:35 enhanced 16:9 / 83 min.
Starring David Knight, Moira Redmond, Jennie Linden, Brenda Bruce, George A. Cooper, Clytie Jessop
Cinematography John Wilcox
Production Design Bernard Robinson
Film Editor Pauline Wise
Original Music Don Banks
Written and Produced by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Freddie Francis

Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster produced this psychodrama himself and came up with a pitifully generic spook show in which a pair of corrupt estate caretakers plot to drive an heiress insane. Almost nothing remotely original or distinctive happens!

Synopsis:

Young Janet (Jennie Linden of Women in Love) is sent home from boarding school because of traumatic nightmares in which she relives the murder of her father by her mother, a madwoman. Schoolteacher Mary Lewis (Brenda Bruce of Peeping Tom and The Tenth Man) accompanies Janet and hands her off to the care of Grace Maddox (Moira Redmond of Freud and A Shot in the Dark). But the hallucinations of Janet's mother prowling the corridors and killing with a knife persist, and it looks as though the anxious young girl will have to be sent to the asylum.

First off, let's avoid being too negative about the career of Freddie Francis, who was surely one of the best cameramen ever. He was Jack Cardiff's choice for Sons and Lovers and David Lynch's for The Elephant Man and Dune. But we have to think that his advancement to director wasn't accompanied by either a great desire or aptitude for the job, because his directorial work is professional but dull. In Nightmare he moves the camera nicely through dank corridors and even brings back "Mrs. Jessel" from The Innocents -- which he photographed, one of the best-looking horror films ever made. But Sangster's inert script does mostly nothing, and Francis' direction not much more.

Sangster ticks off the stock situations one by one. (One can hardly call these Spoilers:) Young Janet witnesses a horrible murder as a child, and gets the notion that she might have inherited her mother's madness. She's put in the care of 'loving' helpers that actually have a hidden agenda. A ghostly woman in white haunts her nightmares but is actually a cheap ruse to drive Janet nuts. Once she's out of the way, the chortling conspirators have a falling-out of trust that leads to their demise. A suspicious teacher turns out to be Janet's best friend.

The script falls back on gags that would be rejected by any story editor on a '60s television show -- and they were pretty tolerant. The conspirators bet their lives that Janet will not see through their tricks, or catch the 'phantom' woman in white. The even predict the impossible, that Janet will lash out and kill a particular innocent bystander to advance the plot. None of these events carry a real element of surprise or discovery. The main character exits the film twenty minutes before the conclusion, leaving us with a bunch of schemers we don't care about.

The actors do well with the limited space they're provided, especially Moira Redmond as the nasty schemer on whom the tables are turned. Brenda Bruce has the cast's most expressive face. The woman in white is played by Clytie Jessop from The Innocents, with an added scar.


Nightmare is a flawless transfer with a sharp image and excellent sound. It would be of interest to compare this picture with Scream of Fear, another Sangster story about a schoolgirl come home to a house of intrigue. We'd be curious to see if the script is all that much better, or if the input of a committed director made all the difference.



The Evil of Frankenstein
1964 / Color / 1:85 enhanced 16:9 / 87 min.
Starring Peter Cushing, Peter Woodthorpe, Duncan Lamont, Sandor Elès, Katy Wild
Cinematography John Wilcox
Art direction Don Mingaye
Original Music Don Banks
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds)
Produced by Anthony Hinds
Directed by Freddie Francis

The Evil of Frankenstein is the most thoughtless entry in the Hammer Frankenstein/Dracula series, at least until the quality plunge of the 1970s. Ignoring the first two Frankenstein instalments, it restarts the story along the lines of the Universal series but does so in such a superficial way that it makes us long for the repetitive 1940s assembly-line sequels. This time around Peter Cushing's poor Baron can't even extricate himself from a few hick burghers or predict the downside of involving an unprincipled carnival mountebank in his plans. Frankenstein should have skipped some anatomy classes and learned more about people.

Synopsis:

Hounded out of his latest secret lab, Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) and his assistant Hans (Sandor Elès) go back to Karlstaad in the hope that the ten year hiatus will have dimmed their memory among the locals. Enraged to find that the Burgomaster and police chief have looted his possessions, the Baron is delighted to discover his original Monster (Kiwi Kingston) encased in mountain ice, watched over by a young deaf mute beggar girl (Katy Wild). With Hans' help The Monster is soon revived but lies in a coma until the Baron enlists a shady carnival hypnotist, Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe) to help out. Unfortunately, Zoltan takes over control of the automaton-like Monster and sends him back to Karlstaad to steal and kill.

The Evil of Frankenstein is proof positive that Hammer films had no long-range plans for the studio and instead stumbled from film to film in hopes of once again hitting paydirt, or at least paying the bills. Thanks to the studio's relationship with Universal, The Monster this time looks like a Pla-Dough copy of Jack Pierce's original creation while Frankenstein's life-giving electrical apparatus has devolved back to Strickfaden electrodes and metallic hardware. A new backstory replaces the clever revisionism of The Curse of Frankenstein and The Revenge of Frankenstein with a colorless return to dusty old territory. Frankenstein finds his Monster preserved in a glacier, just as had happened in Frankenstein meets the Wolfman twenty-one years before. It's The Deja-vu of Frankenstein.

Hammer had gone to great lengths to make the doctor and not The Monster the center of their series, with the Baron utterly ruthless in the first episode and eager to make partial amends to society in the second. All he has to say for himself in this tale is the Garboesque "Why can't they just leave me alone?" Rationality equals amorality in the Hammer Frankenstein world, and the Baron spends this episode on the run from an 'unenlightened' bourgeoisie who don't like their cemeteries robbed and their citizens murdered.

Anthony Hinds must have spent all of a weekend on the script, for he has the Baron break with his cool characterization and stage an emotional outburst when he sees his old enemies wearing his rings and sleeping in his stolen furniture. The mastermind who once cleverly concealed levels of deceit from the medical establishment can no longer keep his temper in a public bar.

And the hopes of anything interesting happening with The Monster vanish as soon as the drunken Zoltan sends it out to rob a church and 'punish' some bureaucrats he doesn't like. The Monster is reduced to an instrument-of-revenge boogeyman, like the old 40s Mummy. Poor old Frankenstein can't get any significant work done; one gets the idea that if he tried to start small with some hamsters or petrie dishes, it still wouldn't be long before dead bodies and a lab fire were ruining his plans.

Peter Cushing is almost totally subdued here, reduced to an action hero who can't keep up with his own creation. Although the fine actor is still reason enough to enjoy the show, our attention goes to the flashier roles of Zoltan and the snooty Burgomaster. Katy Wild and Sandor Elès returned in later Hammer epics, but neither makes a significant impression. Wild just helps guide the Baron and gets manhandled by Woodthorpe's drunken hypnotist.

The best that can be said for Freddie Francis' direction is that he keeps the kettle boiling and picks consistently good cameramen, in this case John Wilcox. Why Hammer would go for Francis over Terence Fisher must have come down to money or personalities; a blind man on a galloping horse could see that there's no comparison between the two as directors.


The Evil of Frankenstein is in great shape with nothing to complain about in the picture or audio track, unless it's to regret the absence of composer James Bernard. There's also a Spanish audio track, which will be of great help in lending a proper Iberian tone to the film's already strained Bavarian atmosphere.

We may never see the infamous TV version again, with Steven Geray and William Phipps playing in a US-added backstory, that apparently explains how the beggar girl lost her voice as a younger child. It sounds totally unnecessary.


Hammer Horror makes an eight-fold comeback! Even Milton Reid's mutilated 'mulatto' ("Gwarrrr! Ungwarrrh!") could see that Universal's The Hammer Horror Series is going to jump off the DVD shelves, spinning previously ignored vault filler into home video gold. Surely this will lead to more collections of Univeral's as yet- untouched horror and science fiction classics, the ones that sold well in big Laserdisc boxes just as that format was gasping its last breath.

Night Creatures and The Phantom of the Opera are transferred at the head-scratching aspect ratio (AR) of 2:1, a big surprise. Purists need note that the title blocks, often the safest way of determining an intended AR, lie comfortably within the 2:1 margins and that the framing isn't all that wider than 1:85. The truth is that the film compositions look fine; in fact, the look of Phantom is much improved over full-frame.

Savant asked about this development through a Universal connection and was told that the transfer ARs were determined by technicians from documentation found with the stored film elements; the specs for the job were neither arbitrary nor the result of video voodoo. As the films look superb on my 65" rear-projection set (and heads aren't bisected as happens several times in Warners' disc of Horror of Dracula) Savant sees no reason to complain.

Other major-studio home video divisions would do well to consider Universal's present formula for turning what might be iffy individual releases into a one-sale 'gotta have' purchase. Once discounted, these shows are going to average out to a little more than three dollars per title. If the set does as well as Savant thinks it will, we will perhaps see the remaining Hammer holdouts appear sooner than later. Setting aside known esoterica like Never Take Candy from a Stranger, fans will turn quickly to any sightings of titles like The Man Who Could Cheat Death (Paramount), The Gorgon, The Stranglers of Bombay, These Are the Damned, The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (Sony), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, She (Warners) and The Quatermass Xperiment, Twins of Evil, Hands of the Ripper (MGM-Sony). C'mon, studios, the fans are ga-ga over this stuff.

The best thing about The Hammer Horror Series DVD set is that even though eight titles are packed onto just two discs, there are no visible compromises to video quality. Only once or twice did I notice busy shots that could use a slightly higher bit rate. The technicians behind this release are surely getting the maximum out of the double-sided double-density DVD format.

The packaging makes good use of Universal's clever 'window' artwork as used on earlier Monster boxed sets. Extras are non-existent, but at this price point whiners deserve to have their ears slashed and their tongues cut out ("Gwarrrr! Ungwarrrh!") The sales text gives quickie blurbs on each picture, while the package back touts the legendary performances of Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed and Janette Scott (huh?) but misses Herbert Lom entirely. Some phantoms can't get no respect.

Significant help on this review came from Hammerphile Gary Teetzel.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Brides of Dracula rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
The Curse of the Werewolf rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Good --
Sound: Excellent

The Phantom of the Opera rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Night Creatures rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

Paranoiac rates:
Movie: Fair +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
The Kiss of the Vampire rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

Nightmare rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
The Evil of Frankenstein rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent


Supplements: none, Baron, the coffin was empty
Packaging: Two double sided discs in card and plastic folder in card sleeve
Reviewed: September 5, 2005


Other DVD Savant Hammer Films Reviews:
Quatermass 2, X the Unknown, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy, Horror of Dracula, The Plague of the Zombies, Die! Die! My Darling!, Quatermass and the Pit, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Countess Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Demons of the Mind, Straight on Till Morning




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

Advertise With Us

Review Staff | About DVD Talk | Newsletter Subscribe | Join DVD Talk Forum
Copyright © DVDTalk.com All rights reserved | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use

Release List Reviews Price Search Shop SUBSCRIBE Forum DVD Giveaways Blu-Ray/ HD DVD Advertise