BluRay/DVD Reviews

HAMMER FILMS: THE ICONS OF SUSPENSE COLLECTION

By • Apr 5th, 2010 •

Share This:

Three discs are stacked on top of one another in this space-saving single container release. Hammer Suspense Icons? Hmmm… Peter Cushing’s in one. Val Guest directed one. Joseph Losey directed one. They were made during the company’s golden, Bray Studios period. But none of them are horror films – though a few contain creepy elements. And with the exception of one, they’re obscure titles.

Don’t you wonder if they aren’t just second rate denizens of the Hammer library?

Well, wonder no more. A few of them are better than most of the horror films the company released, shocking as that may seem. On the first disc are STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! and CASH ON DEMAND, two that equal practically anything the studio put out.

STOP ME…! is a fast-paced story (both in dialogue delivery and editing) with a fabulous opening shot, written and directed by Val (THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, QUATERMASS 1 & 2, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYAS, and 1/5 of CASINO ROYALE) Guest. Guest was a top narrative director, certainly every bit the equal of Hammer’s prized Terence Fisher, and I would jump at the chance to see any film with his name attached. I spoke to him only once, on the phone, when he was pushing 95, curious to know if he had taken any more nude stills of Janet Munro, my dream-girl from DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, aside from those which appear as a supplement on the DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE DVD. He indicated that they were either back in England, or that he hadn’t…it wasn’t clear.

Anyway I digress… This is a story that seems to be going in one troubling direction, but twists around based on characterization moreso than plot. The cast is great – Diane Cilento (once Ms. Sean Connery, now running a theater group in Australia) brings a French accent to bear as very much an element of innocence and vulnerability – a great choice, and I wonder if it was there at the screenplay stage, or just happened fortuitously in casting. Ronald Lewis is an angular, threatening presence as the pent-up, dangerously neurotic survivor of a car crash who might or might not have been demented before it happened. Probably he was only slightly demented before, awaiting a trauma to bring out his negative personality traits in full bloom. The big surprise is Claude Dauphin, a wonderful French actor (whose widow, Ruda, helps run the Deauville Film Festival). Dauphin gives this film its deeply classy patina with a much-shaded performance as a psychiatrist who stumbles upon the troubled married couple while they are on vacation, and involves himself in their plight beyond the call of professional courtesy.

The DVD print is laden with rich, solid tones, and the widescreen image is well designed by the director and his DP.

CASH ON DEMAND is equally surprising. Bear in mind, if you’d gotten just these two films for the price, you wouldn’t have been disappointed. The gaunt and gifted Peter Cushing plays a bank manager as if he were the reincarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge, and like Scrooge, all manner of punishment is visited upon him for his inhumane, judgmental ways.

Again, as in STOP ME…!, not only is the directing and camerawork top rate, but the cast is commendable. Cushing is equalled and aided by Andre (SEVEN DAYS TO NOON, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, Quatermass in the TV version of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT) Morell – who has never been better, and Richard Vernon in the Tiny Tim roll, who finds himself in the position to deal Cushing his come-uppance, but hangs on to his humanity instead. Incidentally, Cushing and Morell were paired in Hammer’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES as Holmes and Watson respectively.

CASH ON DEMAND is a small, tightly confined film (something Polanski would have had fun with), almost like an extended TV episode in feel, but it delivers the drama effectively, and keeps you alert with its narrative drive.

THE SNORKEL’s image is razor sharp, with vivid blacks and whites, but it also has a terminal case of ‘the grain.’ At times the frame is so full of chaotic moving particles that it evokes the Marabunta just before they attacked Charlton Heston in THE NAKED JUNGLE. I can live with them, but it seems like this entrée had an over-zealous transferist.

Guy Green (THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, THE MARK), never stood a chance of directing anything to equal his cinematography on David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS and OLIVER TWIST. But that’s okay. No reason he shouldn’t have tried, and he didn’t do half bad. Jack Cardiff gave directing a shot as well, and while never equaling his cinematography, he gave us a few damn decent flicks such as the (unreleased on DVD as of yet) DARK OF THE SUN, SONS AND LOVERS, and SCENT OF MYSTERY (which I really like, with or without the scents).

Peter van Eyck is a creepy villain. Betta St. John is an invisible 3rd lead. And Mandy Miller, as the 14 year old who believes her step-father murdered her mother, and who, by blabbing about it in front of him constantly, becomes his next homicidal focus, is unconvincing and unlikable for much of the film. Eventually she becomes convincing, but never likable. The art direction, camera placement, and powerful sense of inevitability carry the narrative to a triple conclusion, each of which is quite satisfying (like putting marshmallow sauce, hot fudge, and then whipped cream, on top of your sundae).

MANIAC suffers from inner logic problems. This is one of two films in the package to lead off with the topic of pedophilia. The other, NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER, deals with the opening salvo for the duration. This one never really comes back to it, except in that it explains the plight of the avenging father. The girl, now four years older, after having been brutally raped in the opening minutes, seems now to be a bit emoitionally remote but otherwise fine, and if her psychological condition stays on our minds throughout, waiting for the other shoe to fall, it proves to be nothing more than a red herring.

Pleasant seeing Kerwin Mathews having discarded his Sinbad duds. He’s reasonably decent here, though called upon to do questionable things emotionally. Clearly he has eyes for the girl, but when the mother (a tough Nadia Gray who reminded me of Candy Barr after she was released from prison) makes moves on him, he switches over like a career gigolo. Yet that doesn’t really seem to be in his nature. Though the film has several devilish twists in the third act, the machinations of the first and second acts often fail to add up.

But, like the others in this collection, it’s beautifully shot in B&W, reasonably well cast and competently performed. It’s in Michael Carreras’ direction that the holes appear, but they’re never deplorable. Nonetheless, this + THE SNORKEL = the weakest of the three disc duos.

The collection gets back on track with disc three’s NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER, a social message film Hammer took seriously, though the critics at the time, thinking it exploitative because of the general tone of the company’s output, were excessively harsh in their judgments. A shame. It’s a wonderfully intelligent study of small town prejudices, the difficult specter of pedophilia, and the abuse of child witnesses when such cases are brought to court. It’s up to any of the Warner Bros social issue films of the 30s, and the large cast is pristinely chosen, including the young girls, one of whom is a Hammer alumni, having appeared in HORROR OF DRACULA among others.

Patrick Allen is the new school principal, as well as new in town, who has to decide whether to make an issue out of his young daughter’s having been persuaded to dance in the nude by the wealthy, demented town patriarch. Allen’s forehead is so large that for a while I couldn’t stop wondering if he’d come from the planet Metaluna. But once I shook that off, I was in for a well-paced ride, filled with drama, enlightenment, and even a little dash of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, as two girls try to escape in a dingy with less success than the children in Charles Laughton’s frightening fairy tale.

The B&W Megascope cinematography is stunning, and the film element looks immaculate. It’s nice to see that Hammer kept its materials well protected, or perhaps the US companies that licensed them, in this case Columbia Pictures.

The most unusual, and the most flawed, for last. Former blacklisted filmmaker Joseph Losey took the helm of THE DAMNED (US release title THESE ARE THE DAMNED). He demanded a last minute re-write, and the transportation to the location of some abstract statues, and what emerges are two different films in one celluloid husk, a la Rodriguez’s FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. The first half is about generational clashes, and mankind’s inability to get along with one another. An older man (Macdonald Carey – 48 but looking 60) thinks he’s picking up a young woman (Shirley Anne Field – 23, but looking 30). He gets the shit kicked out of him by a foolish, mincing but dangerous pack of ‘Teddy boys’ led by the unconvincingly petulant, sociopathic Oliver Reed, whose sister is the girl Carey thought he’d snared. Pulverized but somehow not dissuaded, he goes after her again, and begins to sway her allegiance from her violent cohorts to his more intellectual, affectionate approach. Which makes him even more the target of the leather boys, who keep whistling the movie’s theme song as they go on the prowl, just one of many borderline idiotic directorial choices.

The second half of the film is a bleak, cautionary sci-fi tale which, courageously, ends tragically. Both parts are pretentious to the point of ludicrousness (even Carey, who is the most realistic in his performance, is made to say unrealistic things), but at the same time there’s something adventurous going on stylistically. The editing is rudely discordant, and the lighting, particularly at night, seems intentionally obfuscating. I think you could get away with calling it an experimental film. I can’t imagine the Hammer brass being too thrilled about that, and personally, I don’t like the film, or care about anyone in it, but I am haunted by it.

THE COLLECTION, in balance, IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Tagged as: , , , , ,
Share This Article: Digg it | del.icio.us | Google | StumbleUpon | Technorati

Leave a Comment

(Comments are moderated and will be approved at FIR's discretion, please allow time to be displayed)