BluRay/DVD Reviews

HAMMER ICONS OF HORROR

By • Dec 1st, 2008 • Pages: 1 2

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As the old song goes, “Tis Autumn.” It’s a time when falling leaves rustle in the wind, and an autumnal light basks everything in an eerie glow. Seeing as pumpkins are in short supply this year, Sony Home Video has stepped into the breach with this set of Hammer horrors. The collection comes with a cover illustration of an gauzy-looking mummy carrying a luxuriously-coiffed female. (You might say this is a slightly different interpretation of the term “wrapped tight.”) There’s also a big yellow sticker announcing “Fan Approved Art!” It’s true. I actually voted for the cover art, though not this particular image. Still, I suppose it’s my duty to review the set.

Initially, I wasn’t all that thrilled about ICONS OF HORROR. Unlike this past summer’s ICONS OF ADVENTURE collection, there’s no commentary by the surviving crew members and writers who worked on these films. I was really looking forward to hearing Jimmy Sangster on the development and production of SCREAM OF FEAR, as well as Don Mingaye on the set design for THE GORGON. It’s possible that the lead-in time was simply too short. Nonetheless, I’m giving this set my highest recommendation. Although these films generally have less than stellar reputations – I myself was very disappointed by THE GORGON when it first came out – they turn out to be, in retrospect, among the best, if not the most revered of Hammer productions, highly entertaining and beautifully made, making this an essential purchase for fans of British 60’s horror.

In the late 50’s, Hammer Films, a cheeky indie outfit that used a moldering castle in Bray as its shooting stages, infused new blood – both literally and figuratively – into the British cinema by producing a series of atmospheric and psychologically realistic horror films based on classic (and public domain) literary works. These Gothic period films, often directed by Terence Fisher with an elegance that belied their minuscule budgets, had a freshness and plausibility due in large part to the intimacy of the performances. What made these films so interesting, in addition to the envelope-pushing sexuality and gore, was the characters’ moral ambiguity, often featuring Peter Cushing as an egotistical yet sympathetic scientist and Christopher Lee as his nemesis, a flaming id of implacable force. As envisioned by screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, the haughty rationality of Cushing’s scientist often gave birth to the frightening irrationality of Lee’s monster. (When these films were being made, the “Ban The Bomb” movement in the UK was at its height, and I wonder if the ambiguous or even hostile attitude towards scientists in the Hammer horrors were influenced by this.) Instead of simple moral tales, the Hammer horror films, artfully and entertainingly, explored the mid 20th Century’s dark origins by discovering the birth of modernity in these fables from the Victorian era of scientific hubris and supernatural vengeance.

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL

In the early 70’s, Cahiers du Cinema published an article extolling THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, an obscure and long unavailable adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as one of the best post-war British films. In those days, the deconstructionists at Cahiers would regularly elevate some neglected B movie to attack what they considered the hegemony of commercial Hollywood cinema. So I was somewhat skeptical. Besides, I had already seen the US version, retitled HOUSE OF FRIGHT. Although I took into consideration that the film had 8 minutes cut by AIP, it still wasn’t anywhere near a masterpiece. (The icky blue highlights typical of Pathecolor, the process owned by AIP, didn’t help.) When asked about the film in an interview, Terence Fisher shrugged his shoulders and said, “Nobody came.” It was the only Hammer horror of the late 50’s to play to empty houses, odd man out in a box office bonanza that included THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. Now Sony has released, in a gorgeous restored Technicolor print, the uncut UK 88 minute version of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, and it looks like those wild and crazy Frenchmen may have been right.

THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, in addition to being a beautifully realized tale of mystery and imagination, is also a perfectly rendered illustration, in Terence Fisher’s best tradition of quality style, of a bon mot by Oscar Wilde: “There are two great tragedies in life. The first is not getting what you want. The second is getting what you want.” In Wolf (A KID FOR TWO FARTHINGS, THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE) Mankowitz’s imaginative reconstruction of Stevenson’s novel, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Paul Massie) manages to achieve both tragedies simultaneously.

Dr. Jekyll (who has a thick beard and bushy eyebrows, in addition to a tweedy sensibility) is obsessed by the apparent dichotomy between thought and desire. He feels that if he could isolate pure impulse, he would be able to discover the source of the soul. To this end, he has invented a serum. Tired of experimenting on monkeys, he needs a human subject. So the good doctor experiments on himself. (In the opening scenes, director Fisher fills the wide 2:35:1 frame with symmetrical compositions that underline the film’s theme of doubling.)

After injecting the serum, Dr. Jekyll becomes extraordinarily handsome and interested only in the pursuit of pleasure, a late Victorian incarnation of a callow East Village nightclubber. Paul Massie’s Hyde has a fixed grin on his face, like Batman’s foe The Joker, and speaks in a soft yet insinuating voice that sends chills down one’s spine. Although Mr. Hyde is anything but sympathetic, the scenes are structured so that one can’t help but root for him, the same way one identifies with a winning team, creating an ambiguous moral relationship between the audience and the film.

While exploring the fleshpots of Limehouse and Soho, Dr. Jekyll – in the guise of Hyde – runs into his wife, Kitty (Dawn Adams, in an orange wig that clashes with her cornflower blue eyes). Not recognizing her husband, Kitty refuses to take Hyde as her lover, quashing Dr. Jekyll’s attempt to cuckold himself. It turns out that Kitty is also leading a double life. She is having an affair with Dr. Jekyll’s university friend Paul (a simply wonderful Christopher Lee, for once playing a three-dimensional character), who is basically a cad, but has such self-knowledge that he’s likable nonetheless. Hyde isn’t angry because Kitty is unfaithful (to his Dr. Jekyll persona) but simply because he can’t get what he wants. Hyde is a creature of desire, but he also possesses Dr. Jekyll’s intelligence. Hyde therefore lures Kitty and Paul into a maelstrom of sensuality and crime, the details of which are so engrossing and cleverly plotted, that I’m at pains not to give anything crucial away.

Terence Fisher, the director who put Hammer on the map as the world capitol of Horror, began as an editor at Gainsborough and graduated to directing during the post-war flowering of British cinema’s late golden age. Along with David Lean, to whom he is often compared, Fisher’s impeccable craftsmanship and innate story sense preserved the last vestiges of British “classical” filmmaking in the 60’s and 70’s. Unlike Lean, though, it’s almost as if Fisher applies traditional British cinematic style (in which, of course, he was trained) in order to critique that world view of glorious Empire and high ideals, an interesting subterfuge considering he is making Victorian period films about the hidden beast beneath the polished veneer. In other words, Fisher is a multi-stylist, ironically undermining the myth the audience is watching while simultaneously elevating it through a surfeit of artistry, rather than being the classicist he is often mistaken for.

As Hyde’s actions become increasingly uncontrollable, the previously classical compositions in the film become wildly asymmetrical, placing actors in the far corners of an empty frame and filling the screen with a blur of movement and emotion. (During a climatic Can-Can scene, Fisher inserts out of focus shots of the dancers in a manner that was very radical for 1959.) As the boundaries between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde break down, the feeling of directorial detachment between the audience and the emotional core of the film also breaks down. Suddenly, as the images become increasingly abstract, often using roughly painted walls of smeary red as a backdrop (whether from poverty or design, it’s impossible to tell), the horror of Hyde seems to seep through the screen, questioning one’s own role in what is unfolding.

Much more than Victoriana, there is a Weimar Republic ambiance about this film. One thinks of Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, of unfocused cultural bohemia, and of brutal young men with a singular sense of purpose attempting to obliterate what they perceive of as decadence; young men that are similar in many ways to this film’s view of Mr. Hyde. In Mankowitz’s interpretation, Dr. Jekyll’s elitism of intellectual snobbery is simply the other side of the coin to Hyde’s elitism of brute force.

This film, not only going against the grain, but actively evading one’s own preconceptions about what a horror film or Victorian period piece should look like, completely changed my ideas about British cinema of the 50’s. I don’t know if I can compare THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL to a cinematic Dead Sea scroll, but watching it has certainly liberated my sense of possibility. Made at the same time as Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA, this low budget Hammer horror’s view of 19th century London’s demimonde has a virtuosity and freedom of expression that is inebriating. Imagine the Brecht of THE THREE PENNY OPERA and the Bunuel of BELLE DE JOUR collaborating on a movie structured like a Chuck Jones cartoon (with Hyde as Bugs Bunny and Jekyll as Elmer Fudd) and you’ll have some idea about what to expect from this artistically challenging and consistently amazing film.

A number of on-line critics have been complaining the film has “little horror content.” I guess it all depends what you mean by horror. Certainly, there’s no buck-toothed beast dragging a mess of bloody entrails behind him. Then again, Stevenson’s novel isn’t a typical Gothic, but instead speculative fiction of the Victorian kind, that combines a science-fiction framework (as in H.G. Wells) with the shadowy doubles of German Romanticism, especially author T.A. Hoffman, in order to investigate a certain state of soullessness. In fact, the theme of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could be taken from Goya’s lithograph for the title page of Los Capricios: “The sleep of reason engenders monsters.” I found the film terrifying, especially towards the end, where Hyde becomes intimate with the film’s major characters, then betrays that trust in the most violently destructive way, forcing Jekyll to try and gain control of his body again.

There’s an amazing scene where Dr. Jekyll has a conversation in a mirror with his own reflection that is transformed into a leering Mr. Hyde, directly linking Fisher’s film to the haunted dopplegangers that stalked through so many German silent films, such as the 1913 and 1926 versions of THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE.

I guess I should comment on the film’s apparent lasciviousness. I, for one, always took the title of the BBC tv series, NO SEX PLEASE, WE’RE BRITISH, completely seriously, so finding semi-nude couples sprawled on messy bed sheets having just completed erotic activity in a British horror film from 1959 was a bit of a shock. The dialogue is also fairly explicit for its time, especially that of the female characters, who do not mince words. (Wolf Mankowitz’s dialogue turns crudity into personal poetry, not an easy thing to do.) I thought it was all perfectly appropriate, considering the setting, and it enhanced the general feeling of a loss of humanity.

In fact, there’s an awful lot of women in this film in various states of undress. I would particularly like to point out the shapely Norma Marla as Maria, who gets to prance about with a snake in her mouth. (Her character is bedded a number of times by Hyde as a consolation prize when Kitty refuses to play along.) In one of the bar scenes, a very young Oliver Reed, his hair in a pompadour, and looking like a cross between Lord Byron and Mick Jagger, gets into a drunken brawl (why am I not surprised?)

Ah, yes. The transfer. Frankly, words fail me. All the descriptions that come to mind, such as stunning, freshly minted, perfect color registration, etc, do not seem to do justice to what’s on the screen. All I can say is that watching this film was a wonderful act of discovery, and I hope it will be for you as well.

(Rating: ****)

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB begins with what appears to be a scene from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, as Bedouins on horseback undulate against shifting sands. What’s Lawrence of Arabia doing in a Hammer horror, you might ask? Don’t ask. Next, someone made up to look like Anthony Quinn takes the plastic hand of a dead Egyptologist and tosses it to his mates, all of them going “Ha! Ha! Ha!,” as if they’re warming up for a quick game of cricket.

The hand belongs to Professor Dubois, a French archeologist who, with his daughter Annette (Jeanne Roland), is excavating the long-lost tomb of Ra. Also helping out are John (Ronald Howard), Annette’s finance, and his mentor Sir Giles Dalrymple (Jack Gwillim), England’s pre-eminent Egyptologist.

Alexander King (Fred Clark), an American show business impresario with a gift of gab, has financed the expedition in order to feature the mummy as a theatrical attraction in London, much to the chagrin of Sir Giles and his associate at the University of Cairo, Hashmi Bey (George Pastell). They warn King of the mummy’s curse, but King seems unmoved. “Great,” King says. “With that kind of publicity, maybe I can charge the public more than ten cents.”

When King opens the sarcophagus before an invited audience, however, the mummy is missing. Soon, members of the expedition begin dropping like flies, with telltale pieces of gauze lying nearby. Has someone stolen the amulet of immortality found in the tomb and used it to bring the mummy back to life?

The film was written and directed by Michael Carreras, the son of Hammer Films’ head James Carreras. According to Jimmy Sangster’s commentary on the ICONS OF ADVENTURE set, Michael Carreras, unlike his father, was very interested in the creative side of filmmaking, and mainly responsible for the stylistic diversification of Hammer projects in the mid 60’s. For instance, Michael Carreras initiated the series of black and white thrillers inspired by PSYCHO, of which SCREAM OF FEAR, also included in this set, was the first and most successful.

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a cross between Universal’s “Kharis” series of the early 40’s (in which a mummy kills off members of an archeological expedition) and the concluding New York City sequences from KING KONG (where the giant ape is exhibited before a paying audience) and is the sequel to one of Hammer’s most famous and frightening films, 1959’s THE MUMMY.

Under the direction of Terence Fisher and as personified by Christopher Lee, the title character in 1959’s THE MUMMY is a terrifying force of nature, emerging from a bog to seek vengeance against a seemingly rational and Godless society. He crashes through windows and walls, leaving a trail of blood and green slime in what is, at least visually, a veritable return of the repressed. Wrapped in unwieldy bandages, Christopher Lee uses his eyes to express a gamut of emotions. He is forced by a power greater than himself to kill, though he wants nothing to do with it. At the film’s climax, he is face to face with the reincarnation of his great love, played by Yvonne Furneaux. Fisher frames Ms. Furneaux in a low cut dress against a book-lined wall, symbolic of the ordered life that the Mummy threatens to destroy. Tears fill Mr. Lee’s eyes as he flails his brutal arms about needlessly, for even he is powerless before the entreaties of the heart.

It’s almost impossible to compete with such a progression of visceral imagery, so Michael Carreras doesn’t really try. Nonetheless, CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB has a visual splendor, along with a pleasing palate of yellow and gold that is atypical for a Hammer film. The production is fairly lavish, with all kinds of interesting period details. The film was shot in Elstree Studios, with larger facilities and more standing sets than Hammer’s usual digs at Bray.

Michael Carreras’ take on Victoriana is much lighter than Terence Fisher’s, both visually and thematically. Rather than a dark Gothic with horror elements, CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB is more in the comic style of the Jules Verne adaptations (such as the much bigger-budgeted AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS) that were flooding the marketplace at the time. Even the trailer is funny, setting one up for a comedy-thriller. In fact, Michael Carreras’ true talent as a director may lie more in satire than horror, though the spooky scenes, when the mummy of Ra is re-animated and on a rampage of vengeance, are effectively done. Even here, though, we have a Scotland Yard inspector telling his men (in reference to the mummy), “Keep your eyes on him, but don’t get too close.” Instead of jumping out when one least expects it, this mummy’s appearances are highly theatrical. He is usually seen in long shot, framed in doorways or by velvet curtains, lumbering forward with the bow-legged efficiency of a hockey goalie. (This theatricality may be partially due to the elongated Techniscope frame.)

Whenever Fred Clark is on screen, his oversized personality and expressive bald pate overwhelms everything else. All the director really has to do is put Mr. Clark in the center of the frame, and suddenly the generally blah performances and patchwork script take on a touch of genius. (Somewhere in a University Cinema Studies Program, a graduate student is writing a thesis about Mr. Clark’s work in this film, entitled THE COMIC SUPPORTING ACTOR AS AUTEUR.)

Jeanne Roland continues the Hammer tradition of busty French actresses, although the frilly Victorian dresses she is forced to wear somewhat obscures her true talents. Ms. Roland has a kind of feral sensuality, but unfortunately her command of English is less than exemplary. She seems to have only one expression, a perky smile, while pleasant, seems a little out of place when being chased by a homicidal mummy. She finished up the 60’s by appearing in a number of James Bond movies, usually cast as a masseuse.

Terence Morgan plays an enigmatic rake of independent means, with a fascination for all things Egyptian. Although Mr. Morgan is adequate, his receding hairline and puffy cheeks, not to mention his disinterested look whenever he espies Ms. Roland’s cleavage, doesn’t really make one believe his character is irresistible to the fairer sex.

Mr. Carreras’ meaty direction and fantastic visual flair, with evocative imagery that threatens at time to burst through the screen, makes this film well worth watching in spite of flawed casting. Stylistically, THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB may be a mish-mosh, but it’s a vibrant and visually enthralling one. In its irreverent but imaginative use of Victorian-era archetypes, the film reminds me of Alan Moore’s innovative graphic novel set at the turn of the last century, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

In particular, there are two scenes towards the end, where legendary cinematographer Otto Heller’s innovative camera work (seen in PEEPING TOM and THE IPCRESS FILE, among others) and Michael Carreras’ stylistic aspirations come together brilliantly. I don’t want to reveal the film’s ending, so let me just mention a romantic interlude with Mr. Morgan and Ms. Roland (finally wearing a low cut gown) envisioned as a 360 degree crane shot floating past dozens of flickering candles betwixt the principals shadowy faces in addition to an exciting and satisfyingly gory climax set in the London sewers, with moss-covered bricks illuminated by a shaft of fog-laden light from above.

In general, this transfer is a joy to watch, enhancing the already fabulous photography and intense colors. Rather than a straight-forward sequel to THE MUMMY, Michael Carreras’ film is more of a genre-bender stuffed with a melange of droll Scotland Yard inspectors and impetuous petticoated lasses, an entertaining and visually stunning mix of adventure and horror done with a light comic touch that, in spite of a meandering plot, stays in the mind and keeps one glued to the screen.

(Rating: ***)

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3 Responses »

  1. Thankyou for reviewing these delightful little gems from the house of Hammer. It is sad that today’s gore crowd has totally forgotten that style and visuals, tastefully executed have more power than bucketfuls of blood and meat hooks. I think I’m not alone when I say it is these great little movies from Hammer that, like Universal of old, will more than stand the test of time!

  2. This was a great review! The Gorgon has always been a favorite of mine, but Scream of Fear and Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll are both among the very best of Hammer. I couldn’t agree more about Christopher Lee’s performance in Jekyll, it certainly is one of his best.

  3. wonderfull work Mark! very insightful review about Hammer’s place in not only film history but in the hearts and minds of it’s followers. I had most of these films on DVD-R..however after reading your review I am more inclined to add this set to my already bloated collection of discs.

    I must reexamine Two Faces once more as you point out screening a beuatiful print can make a difference in appreciation to be sure.

    The Gorgon is an acquired taste and the special effects were never a strong selling point with Hammer…THE DEVIL RIDES OUT would have been a masterpiece if they had a real budget for effects, I will always love it anyway..

    I look forward to your next review which I hope is soon

    Cheers
    David Del Valle

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