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Complete Hammer House of Horror, The

A&E Video // Unrated // August 28, 2001
List Price: $69.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 11, 2001 | E-mail the Author
Hammer -- no two syllables inspire giddiness in horror fans in quite the same way. My interest in Hammer Films, the British studio that defined horror in the '60s and '70s and for a short while brought respectability back to the genre, has always been more casual than most. I have long been under the impression that Hammer withered and died at the twilight of the 1970s, and it wasn't until A&E announced the release of The Complete Hammer House of Horror on DVD that I learned of the 13-episode anthology series that aired in the fall of 1980. For the first time in the United States, the entire series is available in a single package.

The first episode and among the weakest of the entire series, Witching Time, stars a century-hopping witch who collapses in the barn of a film composer and soon sets out to make short work of his unfaithful wife. Thankfully, the series quickly improves in quality with The Thirteenth Reunion, where a columnist for the women's section of an insignificant newspaper discovers that a controversial weight loss clinic may be the front for murder. The final episode on the first disc is Rude Awakening, which features a philandering real estate agent who has difficulty distinguishing between reality and the nightmares that plague him.

Disc two kicks off with Growing Pains, which provides the tombstone image on the box's cover art. In this episode, a husband-and-wife scientist couple make great strides towards ending world hunger at the cost of their firstborn son. After adopting a troubled ten-year old boy, some trouble seems to arise from the grave... The 52 minutes that make up The House That Bled To Death offer more chills than its obvious inspiration, the nearly two hour long 1979 film The Amityville Horror. The title is enough of a plot synopsis, I suppose, and there's an excellent twist at the end that jabs at the 'true story' behind the Amityville case. Just as the Zuni Doll in Trilogy of Terror made for the most memorable moments of that 1975 TV movie, the standout episode Charlie Boy features an African fetish whose powers threaten both the success and girlfriend of an ambitioous would-be film producer.

Hammer mainstay Peter Cushing, whose instantly recognizable countenance from this episode graces the set's cover art as well, stars in the first tale on disc 3 and perhaps the strongest episode of the entire series, The Silent Scream. Cushing plays a pet store owner whose memories of his time in a concentration camp compel him to visit inmates at a nearby prison, where he befriends a compulsive thief. Cushing's character is perfecting a method of training wild animals, but he has bigger game in mind... There should be little doubt about what sort of beasts are featured front-and-center in Children of the Full Moon, the only episode of the series centered around a classic style of horror monster. Car trouble brings a young, successful married couple to the doorstep of a woman and her brood of eight unusual children, who are hiding a terrible yet rather obvious secret. Carpathian Eagle is the obligatory "lone cop tracks serial killer with an M.O. based in legend" episode. This unremarkable entry, one of the more disappointing of the series, includes a brief appearance by a then-unknown Pierce Brosnan who is quickly dispatched by a murderess who uses sex (and a big honkin' knife) as her weapon of choice.

The fourth and final disc begins with Guardian of the Abyss, in which an occult group is willing to go to any length to procure an ancient scrying glass that an unwitting antique exporter sets out to appraise. Visitor From The Grave stars Kathryn Leigh Scott as a wealthy woman recently released from a mental hospital in the states, only to find herself the victim of an attempted rape. She murders her attacker and is ready to confess to the police, but her lover convinces her that revealing the death may do more harm than good. You can't keep a good man down, and apparently in this case, a sleazy rapist either... Has this monster returned from the grave, or are her nerves getting the best of her again? Two Faces of Evil is another episode where the title gives away a bit too much, as confusion arises after a mysterious slicker-laden hitchhiker savagely attacks a family on vacation. The final episode is The Mark of Satan, where a coroner's new assistant feels he has been infected by the devil himself.

No anthology series -- not even The Twilight Zone, whose dismal later years tarnish the brilliance of the first couple of seasons -- is consistently excellent. Accordingly, the thirteen episodes of The Complete Hammer House of Horror are varying in quality. Impressively, not a single one of the episodes fall into what I'd consider to be bad, and the average episode easily surpasses more recent fare as Monsters, Tales From The Darkside, or the overly repetitive Freddy's Nightmares. Much like The Twilight Zone and the vintage The Outer Limits, the requisite (if occasionally predictable) final twists are often what make episodes like The Silent Scream or Visitor From The Grave so memorable. Hammer's House of Horror holds up exceptionally well today, due in large part to its lack of reliance on special effects. Low-budget effects tend to quickly become outdated, but aside from a couple of cheesy werewolves in a single episode, the makeup effects are timeless and very effective, even after twenty years. Fans whose memories of this series are based on its brief appearances on cable will likely be surprised by certain gruesome sequences and plentiful nudity that were almost certainly excised previously. Hammer's House of Horror is one of the strongest collections of horror anthology television I've seen to date, offering right at 670 minutes of solid entertainment at a very respectable $69.95 list price.

Video: The Complete Hammer House of Horror is presented, of course, in full-frame. As seems to be the case with all of A&E's television releases, these episodes look rather nice. The source material is in excellent shape, with print flaws pretty much limited to a handful of translucent splotches in Guardian of the Abyss. There's also a slight haze from time to time, as if this material was converted to NTSC from a PAL source. Black levels and contrast are both strong, exceeding my expectations, and colors seem largely accurate. The Complete Hammer House of Horror rarely shows its age, and these four DVDs offer an image that is a notch above broadcast quality.

Audio: All of the episodes in the Complete Hammer House of Horror collection sport Dolby Digital mono tracks, true to the original airings twenty-one years ago. By and large, the audio is in decent enough shape, though there's never really any doubt that these tracks are monaural. Dialogue is nearly always discernable, and the music sounds respectable. Hiss and distortion are minimal, really only rearing their head in a couple of episodes and never to any distracting extent. Overall, the audio's pretty close to what I'd expect if I were watching these episodes on cable, which is all I was anticipating from a series of its age, budget, and obscurity.

Supplements: The first disc in the set includes a Hammer filmography and an essay detailing the history of the studio, though little of this information will offer any surprises for the majority of Hammer fanatics. A sizeable photo gallery rounds out the supplements.

Conclusion: The Complete Hammer House of Horror is an essential purchase for fans of Hammer Studios or horror anthology television in general. The audio and video presentations are both above-average, and this 4-disc set is easily available online in the $40-$50 range. You're doing yourself a disservice if you pass this up. Highly recommended.
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