Our Picks For: Hammer Time

Hammer Films, the British fright factory known for their classy Baby Boom-era resurrection of old-time monster faves like Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy, has been responsible for many fascinating horror outings over the years. The studio, which started life in the mid-1930s cranking out inexpensive thrillers, really came into its own in the 1950s, with a series of macabre movies featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Well-mounted with fine production values, intelligent, and often sexy to boot, Hammer established itself as the go-to enterprise for Brit horror, even when it was challenged by Amicus and other rivals.

Sony recently issued Hammer Films: Icons Of Horror Collection, a two-disc, four-film set of ghastly goodies that should satisfy any Hammer fan. The set showcases the studio’s diversity in the fright film genre. Included on the set are:

The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb (1964): This follow-up to the lauded 1959 version of The Mummy delivers plenty of scares and some Hammer-centric gore to the tale of a shifty American (played by veteran character actor Fred Clark) who wants to take the tightly-wrapped Egyptian specimen on the road. There’s a curse on the swathed one, however, echoed by an Egyptian who turns out to be the Mummy’s brother. Jeanne Roland plays the comely woman terrorized by the monster after her scientist father is killed during an expedition to Egypt.

The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll (1960): An interesting read on Robert Louis Stevenson’s oft-filmed story that may have inspired Jerry Lewis’s classic 1963 take on the same material, The Nutty Professor. Here, both Jekyll and Hyde are limned by Paul Massie: As the not-so-good doctor, he’s a hirsute egghead whose wife cheats on him with pal Christopher Lee; as Hyde, he’s an amoral, clean-shaven, sexually charged fiend. There’s complexity in this version of the story from the ace team of helmer Terence Fisher and scripter Jimmy Sangster: Nietzchean psychology, carnal mind games and other food for thought are added to the horror palette here.

The Gorgon (1963): One of the studio’s least known efforts is also one of its best, teaming Lee, Cushing and gorgeous Barbara Shelley. Set in the early part of the 20th century, the fable centers on a mysterious nocturnal figure who terrorizes a small European town. It turns out the figure is, in fact, the mythological creature known as the Gorgon, a sorceress with snakes in her hair and the ability to turn people into stone. The atmosphere is genuinely creepy, the make-up effective and the presence of the three stars—with Shelley playing the fetching woman with an unsettling connection to the creature.

Scream Of Fear (1961): Even less well-known than The Gorgon is this unsettling psychological thriller helmed by cult favorite Seth Holt (The Nanny, Danger Route), who died at the age of 48 in 1971. Susan Strasberg plays the woman injured in an equestrian accident who visits her family on the French Riviera while on a break from school. But while new stepmother Ann Todd tells her that her father’s away, she sees his corpse. What exactly is going on? This film will keep you guessing until the very end, with its eerie atmosphere and surprising turns scripted by Sangster and photographed by Douglas Slocombe (Raiders Of The Lost Ark).

Along with these four terror tales, we’d like to recommend the following half-dozen dastardly delights:

The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957): The film that jumpstarted Hammer’s reign of horror superiority showcases Lee as the Creature to Cushing’s mad scientist Victor Frankenstein. The gothic mood; intelligent, serious approach; literate script; first-class acting; and color cinematography introduced the framework for Hammer offerings to follow.

Horror Of Dracula (1958): Lee is the cunning count who uses his sexuality and suaveness to seduce and suck the blood out of bosomy beauties while eluding Cushing, superior as the vampire-seeking Van Helsing. This was a Dracula not for the kiddies, especially when the elegantly evil Lee opens his mouth and we see the plasma dripping off his fangs and chin.

The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1959): Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as good guys? A rarity, indeed, but the casting is perfect in this terrific Sherlock Holmes mystery with Cushing as the detective and Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, a man attempting to avoid his family curse. Andre Morell plays a serviceable Dr. Watson, but this is really the Hammer legends’ show, and they seem to relish the opportunity to do justice to Arthur Conan Doyle’s story and step out of their villain shoes for one film.

The Curse Of The Werewolf (1961): One of the best werewolf outings ever features Oliver Reed as the handsome offspring of a mute peasant woman and a beggar who is cursed with lycanthropy. He attempts to repress his violent urges, but they are just too much to handle. This is an epic in miniature, spanning decades, offering some psycho-sexual complexity, boasting fine production elements and excellent acting, especially from the 24-year-old Reed, whose werewolf makeup is unique, frightening and memorable.

The Phantom Of The Opera (1962): Hammer and director Terence Fisher follow in the footsteps of Lon Chaney and Claude Rains in this stylish interpretation of Gaston Leroux’s novel. Herbert Lom brings sympathy to the lead role of the badly scarred music professor whose work has been stolen, and who stalks the London (rather than Paris) opera house where his work is to be performed by a singer with whom he’s obsessed. Among the film’s highlights are the lavish production values, a fine turn by Lom, and Fisher’s typically striking visual style.

Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1973): As the ‘60s wound down, Hammer attempted to take their horror in a hipper direction that didn’t quite work out with audiences, resulting in some bizarre Dracula offerings (Dracula A.D. 1972) and this genre-bender that has since become a cult favorite. With Brian Clemens of the ultra-cool The Avengers TV series behind the camera, this proposed initial foray into a series that never happened tells of the title character, a swashbuckling veteran of the Prussian Army, seeks to rid the world of vampires who have been killing turning beautiful women after transforming them into hags. With help from a hunchbacked assistant, Captain Kronos uses his word to battle the bloodsuckers in this one-of-a-kind mix of adventure, horror, comedy and swashbuckling thrills.

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