Straight on Till Morning Review
Well, being the engineer of the RetroFest which has, naturally, covered some of Hammer's classics already, it should come as no surprise that I would attempt to tackle this large and entertaining collection of some of the studio's shining ... and, it must be said, less then shining moments. As an ardent fan of this three-decade spanning, home-grown fright-film industry, it is an extreme pleasure to see that their movies are gaining more and more DVD releases these days in spruced-up prints and, at long last, with some nice accompaniments. Even if the PR check discs that I have received cover only eight out of the twenty-one films that are on offer with this set, it is lucky that the assortment does contain some good juicy titles ... and the classics that didn't materialise - well, I have them already, and will almost certainly cover them much more comprehensively at a later date in the RetroFest.
What is actually on offer with this full collection is a broad gamut of period horror and psychodrama, with a sprinkling of classic sci-fi, Amazonian tribe fantasy and early historical romp. One notable omission, though, is not actually a film, or a film type, but rather an actor - and one who came to personify, alongside Christopher Lee (who is quite nicely accounted for with this set), the look, style and attitude of Hammer at its best ... none other than Peter Cushing. Barring the less-than-entertaining She (1965) and the lousy Frankenstein Created Woman, all we get that is halfway decent is Fear In The Night (1972), alongside Judy Geeson and Joan Collins and a flashback sequence that opens up Dracula - Prince Of Darkness, showing the sprightly Van Helsing doing away with the Count in a recap from the original film, this collection does not feature any of his better, or more iconic movies, which is, to be honest, quite baffling and certainly detracts from that “Ultimate” bit in the title for this release. But then, in its favour, this boxset does contain a few oddities and curios that have either never had a DVD release before, or have suffered poor and lamentable editions in the past.
So, in the order of my favourites, let's have a little look at the ones that I received. And, don't worry, folks, this time out I'm not going to write reams and reams about each film - despite my compulsive urge to do so. Quite fortuitously, the eight titles I am covering explore the best and the worst of what the studio had to offer, and take in a couple of neglected gems, as well.
Dracula - Prince Of Darkness, the first official sequel to the classic Dracula from 1957, was released eight years later and, under the tight direction of Terence Fisher, rose above the dubious honour of having to follow such a widespread, and highly regarded hit, by suffusing the somewhat slight story with huge doses of atmosphere, some memorable set-pieces and a dash of iconic casting. Coming across as a kind of period template for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in that it chronicles the misfortunes of a group of trendy travellers who have strayed far from the beaten path - in this case two upper-class English couples visiting the Carpathians - Darkness features a style of hospitality that sees one character hoisted upside down over Dracula's remains so that the blood pouring from his slashed throat can resurrect the Count. Although this occurs quite far into the film, the shock of this act happening to someone that he we have come to care about is a real eye-opener and, visually, it is one of the studio's most powerful moments. Dracula, himself, is actually hardly in the film and this is an element that would wreck many of the later sequels although, here, it works quite well as we are allowed to concentrate upon the other cast members, who include a wrath 'n' thunder warrior-monk called Father Sandor (played with agreeable relish by the excellent Andrew Keir - who went on to portray the best screen incarnation of Prof. Quatermass), the dashing fop of Charles (Francis Matthews who, among other things, would go on to voice the original Captain Scarlet with his distinctly Cary Grant-ish tones), the tight-lipped shrew Helen (a wonderful turn from popular Hammer vixen Barbara Shelley, fresh from The Gorgon), the adorable Diana (Suzan Farmer) and the human blood-tap Alan (Charles Tingwell).
Oh, and let's not forget the implacable, and homicidal manservant Klove, Dracula's disciple, played with terrifically stoic verve by Philip Latham - a beast almost as frightening as the Count, himself.
Shelley is awesome. At first she is the narrow-minded and starched epitome of Victorian repression and then, after the Count's toothy seduction, she becomes devastatingly transformed into a snarling, feral temptress, an uber-vamp who provides another of the film's most startling images when Father Sandor's mad monks spread-eagle her for some holy purification in what has been described as “an ecclesiastical gang-rape”! But the star of the show is undoubtedly Keir, who would reunite with Shelley on the set of Quatermass And The Pit. Stepping into the vampire-slaying shoes of Peter Cushing's Van Helsing (who, as I said, recounts the story of the first film in the meaty flashback prologue), Keir imbues his cassocked-crusader with a gruff, larger-than-life persona and an occasionally scathing tongue. Clearly enjoying himself immensely, despite working virtual double-shifts by appearing in the musical Maggie May after the day's shooting at Bray Studios had finished, he provides great heart and a feisty sense of adventure to the romp. His berating of the dumbstruck locals in the tavern and the vicious denouncing of the funeral procession earlier on are grand instances of rapid and credible character building.
Good prowling camerawork from Michael Reed and some nice action footage of speeding carriages and horsemen out for revenge imbue a sense of moody scale and dynamism. But Darkness suffers from some of the worst day-for-night filming that Hammer ever put on the screen - with scarcely any attempt to mask the daylight being made - though this is more than compensated for with the use of Techniscope. Hammer didn't often release films in gloriously wide 2.35:1, but here they crafted a spacious, panoramic vista that stretches vividly across the screen, captivating the eyes and providing a size and scale that most of their later features would lack to their detriment. Christopher Lee, however, is a bit of a let down. Bereft of dialogue - apparently he refused to spout the lousy lines that had been written by John Sansom (actually better known as director Jimmy Sangster) and preferred to portray the Count as a mute - and sporting some very uneasy and pantomimic expressions, he essays a rather watered-down Prince of Darkness. Then again, as I mentioned earlier, his brutal acolyte Klove, with such sinister pleasantries to his duped guests and a sadistically matter-of-fact penchant for ritualised slaughter, is more of a fiendish threat, anyway. Check out the Renfield substitute played by Thorley Walters, merrily eating flies in the monastery and falling under his Master's influence in a nice reminder of the original novel.
The Devil Rides Out (1968) is a great little film. Based on the celebrated black magic novel from Dennis Wheatley, this is a grand old adventure that pits Christopher Lee's Satan-bashing avenger, the Duc de Richelieu, against Charles Gray's eminently urbane, yet wholly sinister warlock Mocata in a lively 1930's milieu. Some badly ham-filled performances from Leon Greene, as the heroic Rex Van Rijn, and Nike Arrighi, as the victimised Tanith notwithstanding, director Terence Fisher's energetic adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's acclaimed, though pulpish, satanic thriller of the same name (screenwritten by the great sci-fi and horror novelist Richard Matheson on his second contract for Hammer) is rich, fast-paced, flamboyant and action-packed. In the first twelve minutes we have had all manner of intrigue, chills and suspense as the noble and esoterically-versed Duc and fist-happy Rex attempt to save the immortal soul of their young friend Simon (Patrick Mower looking a lot like Toby Maguire) from the vile clutches of demonic coven leader Mocata.
A great title sequence sets the scene for the battle between the forces of light and darkness - with some eye-catching witchcraft symbols and images whirling through a Saul Bass-inspired montage - and the film, as a whole, treats Wheatley's pet topic of black magic with suitable danger, menace and seriousness. Matheson's quick-witted and economic screenplay keeps a kind of fifties spy caper-esque vibe to the proceedings that plays expertly into the, by now, very experienced hands of Lee and Gray. The set-piece-filled scenario gains great speed with the exciting Mayday Eve Sabbat, when the Duc and Rex perform a crazed rescue-cum-kidnapping right before the blazing eyes of the Devil, himself, in the form of the Goat of Mendes and then propels us into the awesome long night of siege that sees the good guys taking sanctuary within a chalk-etched pentagram whilst Mocata hurls all sorts of hellish manifestations at them, including the Angel Of Death, itself. It is a tour de force sequence that, even today, has the power to drag you to the edge of your seat as James Bernard's riotous score keeps on piling crescendo after shrilling crescendo. It's not a good one for arachnophobes, though!
The Reptile was directed by John Gilling and released in 1966. This was actually shot back-to-back with the marvellous Plague Of The Zombies and, utilising the same sets and stages and a lot of the same crew - although The Reptile looks and feels like a much older film - is a sublime piece of work that is part of the distinctly “English” horror sub-genre that takes the ideology of the Hindu snake-girl myth as its central thrust. Jacqueline Pierce, so good in Plague Of The Zombies (that dream sequence decapitation is another of Hammer's most memorable images) plays Anna Franklyn, the unfortunate recipient of a Burmese snake-cult curse that sees her periodically shedding her skin and putting a venom-filled bite on certain nosy locals in picturesque Cornwall. Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel are Harry and Valerie Spalding who travel down south to move into the country cottage they've just inherited from Harry's recently deceased brother. Discovering that there is a veritable plague of horrifying deaths around the area, his brother's being one of them, Harry decides to investigate. Enlisting the help of Michael Ripper's likeable pub landlord, Tom, Harry soon unearths the mystery surrounding the strange and secretive Franklyn Family who reside in a gothic mansion across the moors.
The murders, themselves, are actually quite savage - the victims turn a livid green after the bite and foam horribly at the mouth. The colourful character actor John Laurie (later to be seen in the TV comedy Dad's Army as the demented Frasier) is on fine form as the local loony, known as Mad Peter - twitchy, idiosyncratic and fascinating to watch. Pierce is beautifully tragic and distant - her hypnotic playing of an exotic musical instrument is a strangely alluring sequence that, almost literally, puts a snake-charming spell over the film. Classy, well-filmed and acted, The Reptile also benefits from Roy Ashton's bizarre makeup effects for the title creature that strike a truly repulsive nightmare image. A nice touch sees Harry Spalding inadvertently emptying poor Tom's pub of locals on two separate occasions. But watch out for the glaring mistake that affects a powerful shot of a corpse in the foreground whilst the mystified heroes examine it - the body is clearly breathing and still moving its supposedly dead hands. A terrifically atmospheric film, though. Jacqueline Pierce, as most sci-fi fans will probably already know, went on to play Servalan in the cult (but naff!) TV series Blake's 7.
The Scars Of Dracula, directed by Roy Ward Baker and released in 1970 is dizzy, daft and demented ... but still tremendously good fun. Packed with incident, witty dialogue and containing several spirited episodes, Scars (written by John Elder, which was actually the pseudonym for Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) still exhibits quite a mean streak and has the dubious honour of being the first Hammer film to gain an R rating in America and it is, indeed, quite gratuitous and vicious ... for its time. Retaliating to the typical torch-wielding mob causing a fracas in his castle's courtyard, Dracula sets loose a storm of vampire bats to lay waste to the God-fearing villagers left behind to shelter in the church, and the province seems cursed from that day on. Newlyweds, Simon and Sarah (played by the fresh faces of Dennis Waterman and Jenny Hanley) cut short their honeymoon to seek out Simon's Casanova-inspired brother Paul (Christopher Matthews) who has gone missing in the area. Everyone, it seems, ends up in the castle where a decidedly pale-looking Christopher Lee wines and dines them, before fixing them with a crimson-eyed stare and then attempting to chow down upon them. But Scars does take a few liberties with the tired old formula and, to be honest, it was about time too ... after the two damp-squib sequels that followed on from Prince of Darkness. For a start, the Count in this, his fifth outing, now proves to be a dab hand with a knife - making mincemeat out of his beautiful concubine Tania (Anouska Hempel) for stepping out of line with one of the houseguests - and even a fire-heated sword - for the cruel torture of his grizzled manservant, again called Klove (but this time played by the great Patrick Troughton). In fact, it is the sadistic relish that Dracula exhibits in these scenes that gained the film its notoriety. There's even that old BBFC-hated image of blood on breasts appearing in the exciting climax atop the battlements of the castle. But fans should take note that the oft-seen still of the Count greedily guzzling gore from the stomach wound of Tania is still the only trace that they will see of a scene that was completely excised - and then subsequently lost - at the censor's request even before the film's release.
Dennis Waterman and Jenny Hanley are serviceable, but Christopher Matthews makes for a good, wench-bedding hero during the first half of the film. Michael Ripper and Michael Gwynn (who played the monster in Hammer's second Frankenstein film, The Revenge Of Frankenstein in 1958) offer typically good support, but the over-use of some incredibly naff special-effect bats raises more eye-rolling derision than gasp-inducing frights. The brief addition of Benny Hill-regular Bob Todd, as the Burgomaster, almost makes up for those pathetic string-flutterers, though. Some of Hammer's worst model and matte shots can be found in this film, but then they've also got one of the best, as well - the vertigo-inducing view down the walls of Castle Dracula is wonderfully evocative and striking, and certainly seems to have been an inspiration for a similar perspective seen in Coppola's much more recent interpretation. As a very brief, but welcome bonus, we are also treated to seeing Dracula climbing this wall at one point - a famous scene from Stoker's novel that is only partially lifted in that Dracula is speeding upwards and not headfirst down the stonework. The fog-enshrouded courtyards and battlements look tremendous too, as do all the richly decorated and designed interiors which all possess that unique and otherworldly Hammer aesthetic.
The Scars Of Dracula is no classic, like the first two in the series, but it stands head and shoulders above the other hangers-on in what came to be a very tired and depressing cycle.
Demons Of The Mind, written by Christopher Wicking and directed by Peter Sykes was released in 1972 and was, again, a swing-shift for the studio who were, by now, beginning to feel elbowed out of the horror scene by the much more imaginative and financially-smothered American genre products. They'd dabbled in psycho-dramas before, most notably in Taste Of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963) starring Oliver Reed and The Nanny (1965) with none other than Bette Davis, and they would again, shortly after Demons, with Straight On Till Morning (also from1972), but there was a sense with this film that the studio was actively trying to break new ground. Visually arresting - with lush photography from Arthur Grant and grand location work - and boldly thematic, Demons tells the story of the bizarre Zorn Family and the hereditary insanity that its empirical patriarch, played by Robert Hardy, believes is affecting his son Emil and his daughter Elizabeth, Shane Briant and Gillian Hills. Enforcing his suspicions are a series of strange murders taking place in a nearby village - young girls being strangled and their bodies left sprinkled with rose petals. Again, like the slightly earlier Hands Of The Ripper (reviewed separately, and not part of this collection) the script makes clever use of psychology and runs with the theme of obsession and madness brought on by exposure to a shocking event. The unmasking of the real killer is hardly a shocking revelation, but the actual denouement is exciting and dramatic, featuring a cool reminder of all those angry villagers from the old Universal movies and a great many of Hammer's earlier gothic chillers, and is surprisingly violent. The casting is quite special, too. Alongside Robert Hardy, we have the great Michael Hordern as a priest and horror-familiar Patrick Magee as the psychoanalyst Dr. Falkenberg. And, for sixties music fans, there is also Paul Jones, from the group Manfred Mann, as the heroic medical student Carl. Demons Of The Mind is a good, and little-seen film which is a nice addition for this release.
Horror Of Frankenstein, directed by Jimmy Sangster and released in 1970, however, is not. Oh dear, oh dear. This one is utter tripe, I'm afraid, and if you can stick with it until the woefully poor climax, then you are a much more patient, and charitable, soul than me. Ralph Bates is the heir to Frankenstein's legacy of body-building lunacy, but does so without any of the panache, sly wit or style of even Peter Cushing's final lacklustre outings. And, speaking of body-building, the imposing figure of a muscle-packed Dave Prowse prancing around in broken leg irons and a big, padded nappy just has to be the complete nadir of the entire Frankenstein cycle. Kate O'Mara and Veronica Carlson (last seen in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) provide the glamour and a jobbing Dennis Price the more obvious moral serpent of the piece. Horror is, without doubt, one of the worst and most unnecessary films from the Hammer stable - completely pointless and devoid of logic, excitement or talent. This one smacks of a film that was just a title on a production sheet that then had a reluctant, and unwanted, story wrapped around it by people who were only involved with this sorry spectacle because they were contractually obliged to be. Just plain awful, folks. Avoid it.
Prehistoric Women, from 1968 and helmed by Michael Carreras was originally entitled Slave Girls and fitted snugly in with Hammer's own little genre of bikinis and spears, a series of pretty lousy films spearheaded by One Million Years BC, which can also be found in this set. Here, the hunter David Marchant (the forgettable Michael Latimer) pursues a wounded leopard deep into the jungles of darkest Africa and stumbles upon a lost tribe of Amazon women led by the swarthy-faced Martine Beswicke - who would appear in more Hammer films, such as the loopy-but-imaginative Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde - who keep the neighbouring tribe of blondes subjugated and enslaved. In a purely male-fantasy scenario, the Amazons pacify rival male tribes by offering them the blondes as playthings. The film is certainly lively and the finale that sees Beswicke's Kari doing battle with the gorgeous Edina Ronay, whom Marchant has, typically, fallen in love with, is sensationally titillating, even if the surrounding film is ultimately quite tedious and dull with some pretty awful set design and a totally “stagey” feel.
To The Devil A Daughter was the final nail in Hammer's theatrical coffin. Released in 1976 and directed by Peter Sykes, this is a broken film that struggles with Dennis Wheatley's original story and the perceived need for much more graphic gore and nudity. The impression given from the film is that its makers simply didn't know where to go with it, losing all notions of what it was that made such bigger-budgeted American material like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, which this film tries so hard to emulate, work in the first place. Hammer's movie is like a shy, lonely teenager dressed up by his well-meaning parents and sent out to the school-disco that he has long been dreading and is clearly petrified of, his first bold steps into a new world destined to pain and humiliation. Immature, incoherent and full of oh-so-obvious attempts to shock - the slitting of a baby's throat, the full-frontal nudity of Natassia Kinski's then-only-sixteen year old debut actress and the risible birth sequence of the Devil's child - the film singularly fails to either frighten or entertain. Christopher
Lee's performance, as the satanic fallen priest Father Michael, is hardly his best and the casting of such luminous thespians as Richard Widmark - the only big star the Anglo-German production could afford - and Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliot and Anthony Valentine must surely be footnotes to their careers that they would like to have erased. Perhaps surprisingly, the film was actually quite a success, although not with the critics, who universally lambasted it. Even Christopher Lee was appalled by the nastier scenes that had been added after his filming had been completed ... and the original creator of the story, Dennis Wheatley, himself, vowed that Hammer would never get the rights to one of his books again so angry was he at what the straw-clutching studio had done to his work. Once the initial shockwave was over, To The Devil A Daughter sank from view, dragging Hammer with it, the poor producers never receiving a penny from it as the profits all went to EMI and overseas investors. It was, indeed, a terrible blow for not only Hammer, but for the entire British Film Industry too, which subsequently descended into one of its blackest and bleakest periods of creativity-starvation and abject depression. Hammer, save for the two TV series produced by Roy Skeggs - Hammer House Of Horror (which is great) and Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense (which isn't) - had run out of ideas, backing and hope, and, despite the constant rumours of a resurrection, still lies rotting in its grave to this day ... perhaps waiting for some hapless soul to wander a little too closely and offer up its lifeblood for one last stab at immortality.
Although I can't totally vouch which “versions” of the other films are in this set - Hammer's product has been fiddled about with so many times in the past by distributors - I can safely say that Studio Canal have done a good job so far with uncut stand-alone titles, and the transfers have usually been of a high standard. Elsewhere in the full collection, the choice titles have got to be Blood From The Mummy's Tomb, with the buxom Valerie Leon, Fear In The Night, The Nanny, the great Plague Of The Zombies, the simply awesome Quatermass And The Pit, Rasputin - The Mad Monk and the Shane Briant/Rita Tushingham psychodrama Straight On Till Morning. But the collection still offers a wide array of Hammer's prolific and varied output, featuring horror, sci-fi and fantasy. The studio also produced a lot of comedy, such as On The Buses and Man About The House but these are hardly what Hammer is renowned for.
Real fans mourning the absence of Curse Of The Werewolf, Brides Of Dracula and Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg) should check out the fantastic set that The Franchise Collection put out last year, called simply The Hammer Horror Collection, which contains eight marvellously presented features.
Well, resting for now, anyway ... though hardly, given the rife speculation that still surrounds the studio, in peace. Fear not, Hammer- fans, I will be covering some of their earlier movies soon - the wonderfully atmospheric X The Unknown and The Abominable Snowman coming up next.