The Ultimate Hammer Collection DVD Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 25, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    The Ultimate Hammer Collection DVD Review
    SRP: £149.99


    Whilst I can't comment on the picture quality of all twenty-one films in the collection, the eight on offer here, with the exception of The Reptile, are all definitely cleaned-up and buffed to a very rewarding gleam. The ratios obviously vary - although most appear to have an anamorphic 1.78:1, 1.85:1 or 1.66:1 image - but one title that positively leaps out with a gorgeous transfer is Dracula - Prince Of Darkness, which actually has that wonderful 2.35:1 aspect that I mentioned in the review. This really work wonders with a fine, hardly blemished and grain-free image. Prehistoric Women also benefits from a 2.35:1 image, but there are far more cracks and lines on the print than with Dracula, and the picture can also appear a little fuzzy and soft round the edges - then again, maybe that's appropriate, give the subject matter. Some of the images have been very slightly cropped down one or both sides, as well, adding the pick and mix of scales and ratios.

    Colours, on the whole, are decent but not quite as strong or as bold as the those exhibited on the Franchise Collection releases, though I was pleased with how vibrant Demons Of The Mind appeared. Blood, typically, looks nicely garish and bright. Black levels are good and detail is smartly rendered throughout, with a lot more information available than I had expected to see. Most of the films offered are stable and robust prints, with only a few slight wobbles, frame judders or shimmying edges. All, however, exhibit edge enhancement to some degree. And another digital glitch is the over-enhancement of red during title sequences, with the films' names and cast lists throbbing with lines of over-saturation that look positively out-of-place, like neon signs in a period set. Even the menu screens are badly affected by this.

    The worst print on offer from the ones that I've seen is that for The Reptile, which is in pretty poor condition. Considering that it was made at the same time as Plague Of The Zombies which, on my stand-alone copy, looks just fine, this is something of a disappointment. The image is terribly faded and dusty and suffers from very poor contrast. It looks shabby despite being one of Hammer's sunnier shoots. But the rest all appear healthy and rewarding.

    The Bitrate graph is taken from Dracula - Prince Of Darkness.

    The Ultimate Hammer Collection Picture


    All the films that I have been able to view from this set carry a DD 2.0 mono soundtrack. And, it has to be said that I thoroughly enjoyed the audio transfer for each of them, discovering no real errors - no hiss, distortion, drop-outs or fades - with the sound being clear, punchy and, as is often the case with James Bernard's scores, quite raucous at times. Dialogue, effects - such as the continual moaning of the wind in Dracula - Prince Of Darkness - and music all carry a clarity and oomph that is refreshing to hear on films of such vintage. The newer titles from my assortment - Demons Of The Mind and To The Devil A Daughter - sound a little clearer perhaps but, really, all the discs that I have been able to review have sounded very warm and engaging. I wish I could say more, but that just about sums them all up.

    The Ultimate Hammer Collection Sound


    As far as extras go, the eight titles that I have received offer up the best of what is available with this set.

    Dracula - Prince Of Darkness has the pretty informative documentary, The Many Faces Of Christopher Lee. Running for a decent 57 mins, this is obviously an overview of Lee's illustrious career, featuring many clips to illustrate his famous guises and lots of input from the great man, himself. Lee wanders about a sitting room, picking up props and memorabilia from his exploits and then tells us a few anecdotes about the films they represent. Check out his bizarre song and dance routine from the oddity The Return Of Captain Invincible, in which he manically teases his onscreen nemesis Alan Arkin with all manner of alcoholic beverages - it's a hoot! The downside of this lengthy feature is the manner in which Lee talks us through his career, with his laboured diction and attention to theatrical pauses becoming a touch tiresome after a while. It should also be noted that this resume only goes up as far the mid-nineties, so there is no mention of Lord Of The Rings or Sleepy Hollow.

    The Scars Of Dracula has a fine commentary from horror historian Marcus Hearn and star Christopher Lee and director Roy Ward Baker. Lee is on marvellous form, as ever, and he enjoys much reminiscence and anecdote with Baker. The star also stakes his claim about not liking the gore in modern films, which seems a tad ironic considering that the movie he is talking over is actually one of his bloodiest Dracula outings. Michael Ripper gains great respect from all concerned, as do Troughton and stuntman Eddie Powell. Not exactly scene specific, the chat takes in a wide spectrum of Hammer's heritage and the art of movie-making in general, but remains at all times, entertaining and informative - even down to the mechanics of filming a vampire's bite. At one point even my favourite film of all time, Gladiator, gets a mention! But one of the most pertinent comments from Lee is regarding the veritable blackmail he felt that the studio heads put him under to keep him playing Dracula again and again. It also features a Stills Gallery.

    Demons Of The Mind has a Commentary with director Peter Sykes, writer Christopher Wicking and co-star Virginia Weatherall. As is so often the case with people discussing a film they made a long time ago, the speakers here tend to veer off track quite a lot, with more anecdote and memory being brought forth to celebrate the later careers of certain actors and filmmakers. But there is still plenty of good stuff to be gleaned from this chat, such as the original casting choice of Marianne Faithful for the role of Elizabeth, and the fact that the extremely effective location shooting was not actually Bavaria as is so often stated, but Sussex. Overall, this is a fairly breezy commentary that, despite a few silences, never outstays its welcome.

    There is a commentary on The Horror Of Frankenstein but, despite being a huge fan of all things Hammer, I couldn't bring myself to listen to it. Unless it is just a great big apology for such a lousy piece of celluloid cancer, I just don't want to hear it, I'm afraid. It also features an Image Gallery and an Interview with Veronica Carlson.

    To The Devil A Daughter, perhaps the most troubled and curious film of the entire set contains a hilarious 7-minute Interview with Eddie Powell, culled from a much longer Q & A session, and the twenty-three minute documentary To The Devil ... The Death Of Hammer. As the title suggests, this pretty candid piece describes in excruciating detail just how the production went wrong - bad script, no ending, a main star who hated the project and couldn't wait to leave, etc. With contributions from Christopher Lee (check out the size of his glasses at the very start!), a humbled Peter Sykes who does a lot of shrugging, actors Honor Blackman and Anthony Valentine who share some funny stories, and film historians and screenwriters such as Marcus Hearn and Christopher Wicking who really just bemoan the loss of Hammer, and what could have been. There is some great gossip about Richard Widmark, his on-set tantrums and his determination to flee the production which, somehow, makes the failure of the film seem worthwhile. Well, almost.

    Of the other titles in the collection, The Nanny features a Commentary with director Jimmy Sangster; Straight On Till Morning features a Commentary with star Rita Tushingham; One Million Years BC has interviews with Raquel Welch and effects maestro Ray Harryhausen; and Blood From The Mummy's Tomb has interviews with star Valerie Leon and screenwriter Christopher Wicking, as well as TV and Radio Spots.

    All films in the set offer their own theatrical trailers, too.

    A final mention must go to the packaging of the collection. Although I do not have the full boxset, I have to say that I don't like the simple, but bold red-on-black artwork at all. To me, something that stark and stylish simply isn't Hammer. The Studio That Dripped Blood should have had a fabulously lurid montage of its pivotal creations emblazoning its veritable movie-casket. But, hey, that's just me. It is still an eye-catching design ... and that's what matters at the end of the day.

    The Ultimate Hammer Collection Extras


    Basing my opinion on the selection of discs that I received, and upon my knowledge of the other movies that are in the full collection, I would have to say that this is pretty decent boxset though, in all honesty, it is still very pricey indeed. The documentaries and relatively few commentaries are a bit hit and miss, but the transfers, judging by the titles I have been able to view, are very well presented. However, and this is the crucial thing, folks, if you are a fan of Hammer Horror (like me) the chances are that you will have quite a few of these titles sitting on your shelves already. To a casual viewer, this set is a no-no - it's just too big a plunge. But even to someone with more than a passing interest, and a need to see what all the fuss is about, this collection does not represent the very best of Hammer, since there are a great many notable classics omitted, but it is still a great cross-section of the horror and fantasy genres that the studio so redolently indulged in, presenting, as it does, the good, the bad and ugly of their prolific output.

    The Ultimate Hammer Collection Verdict

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £149.99

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