Words guaranteed to bring a good (and gory) time.

When Star Wars was released in 1977, it had a lot of things going for it.  One of those things was the casting.  Diane Crittenden, Irene Lamb and Vic Ramos, the casting directors for the film had done their job perfectly.  We had three relative unknowns in the main lead roles.  But to supplement their performances, we had two great British actors.  The first, of course, was Sir Alec Guinness, already an Oscar winner, and, back in the 50’s, star of the Ealing Comedies, one of the best group of films ever created in a single genre by a single studio (see a future post).  But for the villain, they brought in Peter Cushing.  By this time, Guinness had been in 37 films (including two Best Picture winners and two Graham Greene adaptations) and Cushing had appeared in 83 films (including a different Best Picture winner and a different Graham Greene adaptation), but they had never done a film together (and wouldn’t in a sense here, either, because they never appear onscreen together).  Part of this was that while Guinness was rising with David Lean films and starring at Ealing, Cushing was further east, on the other side of Heathrow Airport, starring in another great group of films created in a single genre by a single studio.  He was one of the two key actors in the Hammer Horror films.  And rather appropriately, Christopher Lee, who would be his onscreen enemy in so many of these films, would eventually take over the role of Star Wars villain starting with Attack of the Clones.

There had been great Horror films before.  In fact, none of the films that Hammer would make would rival the best of the films produced by Universal between 1923 and 1935.  But while Universal had a great run of success with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, The Man Who Laughs, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein, it trailed off badly after that.  There was also irony going on during that stretch.  While those films combined for one measly Oscar nomination (Bride of Frankenstein – Best Sound), it was Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that would actually win a major Academy Award (Best Actor for 1932-33 – Frederic March).  There were a couple of other Horror gems during this time (Vampyr, King Kong), but after 1935, it all went south.  I have not seen a single Horror film released between 1935 and 1956 better than a mid *** except The Body Snatcher.  There were just endless sequels, getting worse and worse, as budgets got lower and lower and acting became nonexistent.  They weren’t even good entertainment anymore, they couldn’t frighten and they were just boring.

Then came 1957 and a film called The Curse of Frankenstein.

This was the beginning of Hammer Horror.  Hammer Productions had begun in 1946 with a film called Crime Reporter.  The first of their horror films was Room to Let, a 1950 film.  And prior to 1957, Hammer continued to put out several films every year, though they were much more successful in the U.K. then they were on this side of the pond.  The next step came with The Quatermass Experiment (U.S. title – The Creeping Unknown) in 1955 (U.S. release date – 1956).  But the true rise of Hammer Horror came with The Curse of Frankenstein, released on 20 May 1957 in England and debuting in L.A. on 17 July.  With this film, Hammer was walking on the grounds that Universal had claimed as their own back in the late 20’s and early 30’s, but abandoned to the likes of Abbott and Costello in the late 40’s.  But this was a vibrant new film – going back to the original novel, rather than the Universal film and focusing on the man rather than the monster.  They were carefully treading around Universal’s copyright (though the novel was long beyond protection).  But during the production of their next film, Dracula (released in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula), they negotiated with Universal to have the right to remake their old films.  There was money enough to go around and soon it was and Hammer was heavy into the horror film business for the next 20 years.

What follows is not an in depth-guide.  I am no expert on the Hammer Horror films and I this is not a complete guide.  Indeed, the films that have no star rating after them are ones I haven’t seen.  But this is an introduction to a group of films I have a strong fondness for with some reviews of the rather prominent ones (which also happen to be among the best).  Like, the For Love of Books, this is designed to get you interested and hopefully make you seek out something you’ve never tried.  So, enjoy the Hammer Horror films.

The Dracula Films:

Dracula (1958, U.S. title – Horror of Dracula) – the best of the Hammer films

Horror of Dracula  (1958, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***

While it might have been The Curse of Frankenstein that started it all, this is the big one.  The one that everyone lives for, and the one really that got me into watching all the Hammer Horror films in the first place and quite frankly, the best of the bunch.

This is not exactly the Dracula that you would have been expecting.  Unlike the 1931 film, which owed much more to the stage production (which Lugosi had starred in), and unlike the Coppola film which sticks really close to the novel (well, except for that whole eternal love bit), this film, if it owes its script to anything, is Nosferatu, the F.W. Murnau classic.  There are a variety of characters who never show up in the film, combinations of other characters, and the action never reaches anything beyond Central Europe.  Right from the start the plot is different (actually right from the start we know that we’re in for something unlike anything Universal gave us – the first shot of the film is Dracula’s coffin, with his name carved on the side, and then a considerable amount of bright red blood begins to drip on it).  Jonathan Harker has come to catalog Dracula’s library, or so we are told.  Actually, Harker is a colleague of Van Helsing and he is there to kill Dracula.  After some back and forth with the woman held in the castle, and being bitten, Harker proceeds on his mission.  But he makes the fatal mistake of killing the woman first and by the time he goes to finish off the Count, that presence is standing above him in the doorway, and there is nothing left for Jonathan but to be discovered in the crypt, undead, by Van Helsing, who then finishes off his friend.

This allows Van Helsing to get into the action much earlier than normal, and that’s a great thing.  Peter Cushing is by far the best Van Helsing ever to appear on-screen.  He’s smart and dedicated and athletic – he’s racing down to the basement to discover a coffin (then confronted by the Count), or chasing the Count through his own castle.  There is nothing about the cerebral old man in this performance.  He is doing what he can to save the people around him but make no mistake – he is in this to kill Dracula, and he’s not going to let anything stand in his way.

After the death of Lucy (Harker’s fiancee here – see, different), Van Helsing teams up with Holmwood to save Mina from the same fate (her danger revealed to them when they go to leave her and Holmwood hands her a crucifix and she collapses in pain).  Holmwood is played by Michael Gough, who most people my age would remember as Alfred in the Batman films from 1989-97.  Once they discover Dracula’s hiding place, and he is flushed out into the open, there is a race for the castle (with a rather amusing border guard scene), and then the final chase through the castle itself.  The death scene is fantastic.  We don’t need one man stabbing Dracula in his coffin or four men teaming up just at dusk.  This is simply Van Helsing versus Dracula, and when Dracula gets the better of him, Van Helsing pulls a surprise, running across the table and leaping for the curtains, bringing sunlight onto Dracula’s foot, instantly crippling him.  Then we get the final destruction, as Van Helsing forces him into the sun.

Two final things here.  The first is that the production values on this film are very good – the technicolor is nice and vibrant and the blood is a gory shade of red.  Cushing and Lee are both very good and everything in the film looks good.  The other thing is the ending.  Unlike modern films, where we have to wrap things up and then get long strings of credits, here, as soon as we focus on the ashes of Dracula drifting away in the wind, we get two cards of credits and the film is over.  The Hammer films never over-stayed their welcomes.

Christopher Lee returns to his iconic role in Dracula – Prince of Darkness (1966).

Dracula – Prince of Darkness  (1966, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***

This is the best of all the Dracula sequels that Hammer made over the years.  But there is a considerable amount of irony to that.  The first is that Peter Cushing, who had been so perfect as Van Helsing earlier, is nowhere to be seen in this film.  Instead, while Cushing had taken command of the Frankenstein sequels in which Lee was absent, now it was Lee’s turn to take over his own franchise.  So, we get the return of Dracula, as played by Lee – the gothic, tall, dark and handsome gentleman with a taste for blood.

Now, if you remember the end of Horror of Dracula . . .  Actually, it doesn’t matter if you remember the end of Horror of Dracula.  The first several minutes of this film show you the final several minutes of that film – the chase of Dracula through his castle by Van Helsing, culminating in that leap for the curtains and the final disintegration in the sunlight, forced into it by Van Helsing bearing two candlesticks across each other like a crucifix.  So, Dracula was dust at the end of that film.  How do we go beyond that?

Rather brilliantly, to my mind.  There is a servant still in the castle, and when some tourists end up trapped there, having had their coach stolen and the coach they find bringing them straight to the door, the servant goes to work.  He relies on the curiosity of one, and then kills him.  He yanks him up in the air with chains and leaves his blood to drip down upon the ashes he has laid across the bottom of the coffin.  We get to watch as the various layers of body slowly form – bones, then muscles, then finally tissue.  Then, for some unexplained reason, mist comes in and covers the length of the coffin.  It makes no sense in reality, but in movie terms, it means that suddenly, we can see a hand come out of the coffin and we know that Dracula has come back to life.

But now we have the other irony.  We have Christopher Lee, the masterful presence, the first sex symbol Dracula, with that incredible voice that would be perfect for Saruman and even Death (in Discworld), and he doesn’t utter a single line in the course of this film.  In fact, given that he says nothing over the last half of Horror of Dracula, we go over a film and a half with him as Dracula without saying a line.  It’s debatable why he says nothing (one source says the lines were bad and he didn’t want to say them, another that the script had no lines for him, yet another that the script had no lines for him so Hammer could keep the cost down by paying him less), but the fact is, even without his magnificent voice, he is a dominating presence in the film.

He also once again gets to have a rather clever death scene.  I considered whether I needed to warn about spoilers, but, seriously, I think it’s pretty much expected that if you go to see a Dracula film that Dracula will die at the end of the film.  There’s really no other way around that.  But here it is very well done – in the final chase, his coffin spills out onto ice next to his castle.  The hero comes down to face off and his lovely lady, that Dracula had been seducing, takes a shot with the shotgun, even though she knows it can’t hurt Dracula.  But, it does manage to crack the ice, and in vampire folklore, they can not cross rushing water.  Several shots later, he’s stuck on a small piece of ice surrounded by open water and then it overturns and he’s down into the deep and the movie can end and we can wait around for another resurrection.

other Dracula films:

  • The Brides of Dracula  (1960, dir. Terence Fisher)
  • Dracula Rises From the Grave  (1968, dir. Freddie Francis)  –  **.5
  • Taste the Blood of Dracula  (1970, dir. Peter Sasdy)  –  ***
  • Scars of Dracula  (1970, dir. Roy Ward Baker)  –  **.5
  • Dracula A.D. 1972  (1972, dir. Alan Gibson)  –  **
  • The Satanic Rites of Dracula  (1973, dir. Alan Gibson)  –  **
  • The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires  (1974, dir. Roy Ward Baker)  –  ** – the worst of the bunch and technically not a Dracula film, only Van Helsing

The Frankenstein Films:

The film that began it all – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein  (1957, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***

This was the film that began it all.  It brought out memories of the old Universal film without actually being a remake (there is more of the original novel here – including the use of Frankenstein’s actual first name, Victor, instead of Henry).  It was a good, fun horror film, but in vivid technicolor.  It made a good amount of money and convinced Universal to team up with Hammer and convinced Hammer that horror was their thing of the future.  And, most importantly, it established the team of director Terence Fisher and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (unlike Karloff, Lee got billing at the start of the film).

This is a bit of a dark film.  The film begins with Frankenstein himself in jail, awaiting the guillotine.  He then tells us his story (this allows for an extensive flashback to when he was a child; aside from the perfect casting Peter Cushing as the cold, methodical doctor whose genius will bring about his downfall, we also get the perfect casting of Melvyn Hayes as the young Victor – there are few examples in film history where someone seemed to so perfectly be the embodiment of a younger version of an actor, although, he was already 21 when he made this).  We see his genius, but we also see his madness as he is determined to find a way to bring life to the creature that he is creating.

This is where things get very different than the Universal film.  Not only is this in color, but the lab is so very different – a lab farther up, in the actual house, rather than in the castle – and no big scene where he raises him up.  And once the creature is finally created, he looks completely different.  Rather than a technological terror, he is more like a zombie, which makes perfect sense, since he is scrounged up from other dead bodies.  We do get an escape, and a scene with a blind man (though very different than in the original), and an eventual scene where they are forced to destroy the creature.

But then we get a bit of darkness again.  His former partner, who has been warning him against this, and his cousin, who was imperiled by the monster, refuse to acknowledge its existence, and Victor is sentenced to death for the murder of a maid who he had been romantically involved with and who was killed by the creature.  The last shot shows the guillotine, anxiously awaiting its victim (which is the first scene of the next film – Revenge of Frankenstein, though he manages to get out of that fix, or there would have been no sequels).

Aside from the great sets and costumes (like so many other Hammer films), and the strong performance from Cushing, and the sheer size and presence of Lee, the best thing is how original the film is.  Because they were trying not to have a legal battle with Universal, they create their own version of the monster and they do a very good job with it, creating a monster that in some ways is even more horrific, and lacks the human edge that Karloff gave his.

other Frankenstein films:

  • The Revenge of Frankenstein  (1958, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***
  • The Evil of Frankenstein  (1964, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***  –  probably the best of the Frankenstein sequels
  • Frankenstein Created Woman  (1967, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***
  • Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed  (1969, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***
  • Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell  (1974, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***

The Mummy Films:

Hammer’s third revival of a Universal franchise – The Mummy (1959)

The Mummy  (1959, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***

Unlike Frankenstein and Dracula, The Mummy had no original source material that Hammer could go back to.  This was the first film whose production began after Hammer and Universal made their agreement.  So, instead of trying to create a new look on established gothic characters that had been around for decades, this was a new take on an original film character.  When it came to casting, it seems that new ground wasn’t about to be broken.  Peter Cushing would be playing the British archeologist, digging up a tomb in Egypt, then returning to the isle, and Christopher Lee would be playing the monster under all that makeup.

This film doesn’t have nearly the reputation that the first two films do.  The Hammer Story dismisses it as “structurally little more than a string of picturesque and nice-lit killings” and The Charm of Evil calls it “stylish yet curiously empty.”  I find a lot more to it than either of those descriptions.  The first thing is that this film, like the Universal original, relies more on an atmosphere of dread than the frightening menace of Dracula or Frankenstein.  It’s the very notion that a mummy could come back to life and haunt you for daring to disturb it.  And this film, unlike its predecessor, is made in England and stars English actors.  The notion of the “Curse of the Pharaohs”, brought to life in the rash of deaths that haunted those who were present at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, was something that was much bigger news in England, the home of many of those Egyptologists who died.  There were reasons for all of those deaths, but the more fantastical notion that a mummy would come to life is something that works much better in England than here.

As for the film itself?  Well the film works, just like the first Brendan Fraser Mummy film would work, and for entirely different reasons.  The Fraser film would rely on his charm and athleticism, the good looks of Rachel Weisz and some enjoyable special effects.  There is nothing like that here, though we do get certain similarities (the resurrection of the beloved in the person of the young British woman – I always find it hilarious the notion that an Egyptian from 3000 years ago would bear any resemblance to a modern Brit).  This film relies on its Victorian settings – the dark swamp, the immaculate library – it’s solid central hero (Cushing would never be mistaken for Fraser, as he has dignity and presence whereas Fraser has something more akin to Fairbanks charm, though Cushing does get a nice action scene when the mummy first crashes in on him and he fires at him, then turns and leaps across his desk, then quickly climbs a ladder to grab a spear to stab him with), and its lumbering menace.  In the new Mummy films, the Mummy is supremely powerful.  Here, he is simply a dark presence, not under his own will and only able to stop his killing under the command of the resurrected beauty.

Like any of the Terence Fisher films, you can spot the lower budget in certain points (do they really expect us to believe the set they have for the tomb? – of course they do, this is a 50’s genre film and not looking for heightened realism), but it generally looks good.  The sets look nice, the costumes are good, the cinematography is spot-on and the music works well with the film.

But the key to this film, as always, is Cushing and Lee.  Cushing is solid in the heroic role and he even gets the happy ending.  And Lee, of course, like in Frankenstein, is slathered in makeup to the point of unrecognizability (after the showing on TCM, Robert Osborne pointed out that Lee hated the makeup and hurt his back badly during the film and swore never to play the role again – and he didn’t).  It would seem like a waste of everything but Lee’s height, except that we get the flashbacks to the time before he was mummified and we get Lee as an ancient Egyptian and we get to hear that wondrous voice (at least until he is punished by having his tongue cut off).

other Mummy films:

  • The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb  (1964, dir. Michael Carreras)  –  **.5
  • The Mummy’s Shroud  (1967, dir. John Gilling)
  • Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb  (1971, dir. Seth Holt)

The Other Films:

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing switch – Lee is the good guy, Cushing the villain in The Gorgon (1964).

The Gorgon  (1964, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***

Surprisingly enough, The Gorgon was the first film in which Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee worked together since The Mummy in 1959 (I probably could have figured that out, but I owe that bit of trivia to Robert Osborne on TCM).  It reunited them with director Terence Fisher on an original idea – that one of the Gorgons from Greek mythology had come to life in early 20th Century Germany (it is not Medusa, but Magaera, created for the film) and is turning locals to stone.  This film manages to combine a number of things that Hammer did well with a few surprises that distinguish it from the rest of the Hammer catalog.

The first thing is that the production values, as usual, are quite sound.  There is a wonderful set in an old decaying castle where the Gorgon goes to hide out and where she is continually encountered.  Unlike, say Badham’s Dracula, where the dusty, decaying mansion made no sense, here the castle is a haunted location and works perfectly.  And with just a few other sets (the inquest room, the doctor’s examination room and office, the inn), we get a sense of the time period without ever seeing much of the area (there is one tracking location when we are first introduced to the professor).  Second, the music is quite good – one of the things about Hammer films was that they had scores that worked well with the films – not great John Williams anthems, but good music in the background that helped heighten the suspense and horror and weren’t distractions at all.  Then, we also have a wonderful sense of atmosphere.  Much like the problems on set that lead to the shark being unseen for most of the first half of the film in Jaws, here, we have a heightened sense of danger because we see so little of the Gorgon early in the film – even our first glimpse is a brief one, between shadows and webs.  This works even better when we finally see the Gorgon later and she’s not exactly that scary – so it works better for the film early on when we can’t see her.  Then there is the talent – we have the classic team of Terence Fisher directing and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee starring in the film (and throw in the attractive Barbara Shelley -the queen of Hammer Horror).

But then there are surprises as well.  First, there is the Gorgon itself.  Rather than what those of us who grew up with the original Clash of the Titans might expect, her victims don’t instantly turn to stone.  In fact, one of the more horrific scenes is watching one victim slowly stumble to the inn and give instructions to his servant as he slowly dies, turning to stone, desperately trying to finish the letter to his son telling him what has happened.  Then there is the early scene between the young lovers – when we almost get a glimpse of a topless Toni Gilpin – certainly more risque than we were seeing in any major American films at the time, and a tantalizing tease of what was to come in future Hammer films.  Then, there is simply the fun of realizing who is in the film.  Of course we have Cushing and Lee.  And this time they get to switch roles – it is Cushing as the doctor in the town who is covering up the mystery that is the ostensible villain while Lee plays the investigating professor, who eventually finishes the Gorgon off.  And, in an extra benefit for Lee, no makeup was needed (unless that’s a wig, which is possible) – he just needed a big bushy moustache and he was ready to go, so unlike his previous films.  But, there is something else as well.  For those who have seen either of the feature films from the mid-sixties, they know that Peter Cushing played Doctor Who twice on film.  But opposite him, in the conspiracy of silence in the town, is the chief of police, played by Patrick Troughton, two years before he become the Second Doctor.  And it’s not their first film together – in fact, they were both in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, alongside Christopher Lee, a good decade before the Hammer Horror films began.  And Troughton was supposed to be in The Curse of Frankenstein and later, though they wouldn’t share screen time, he would be the gravedigger arrested in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell before Cushing reappears as Frankenstein later in the film.

Plague of the Zombies (1966)

Plague of the Zombies  (1966, dir. John Gilling)  –  ***

This is a good example of what Hammer Horror was capable of even when they weren’t necessarily bringing their A game (and given the kind of films they were best at making, most people weren’t exactly expecting an A game).  Plague of the Zombies is a simple horror / monster film.  Like so many of the Hammer films, it is set in the Victorian Era, partially because it creates a certain kind of atmosphere, partially because you have different kind of character reactions back then and that works well with the plot and partially because they weren’t a terribly rich studio and they had a lot of costumes and sets for this era already (in fact this was filmed back-to-back with The Reptile – the two films shared locations, two of the minor stars, the director and most of the major crew).

The basic premise of the plot is simple.  A lot of people have been dying in this small town in Northern England.  The local doctor, only there for a year, writes to his old mentor.  The mentor (Andre Morell, who was Watson to Cushing’s Holmes), whose daughter is best friends with the doctor’s wife, decides to visit and see what is going on.  We already know that voodoo is what’s going on because there has been an opening scene when we see the main practitioner at work.  He also happens to be the local squire and certainly the most powerful man in the area.  He came back after his father died, having travelled in Haiti and is now taking advantage of the space in the local tin mine, which has a secret entrance in his house.  Before long the doctor’s wife is dead, the mentor is investigating and the daughter is next in line to join a growing list of local zombies (being pre-Romero zombies, these are under control of the master and don’t go in search of brains).

Plague of the Zombies is far from a great film.  But it is an entertaining film, it never drags, it has nice sets, nice costumes, some good driving music (driven by the drum beat in the voodoo rituals).  It is never particularly frightening, except for one scene when the two doctors have visited the graveyard and been forced to behead the doctor’s wife and the young doctor descends into a nightmare with zombies all around him, slowly closing in.

There are a couple of interesting sidenotes, both having to do with voices.  One of the actors in the film I recognized the voice and I couldn’t figure out why.  It’s because it wasn’t too long ago when I saw him in “The Daleks” – the seven part second serial of “Doctor Who” that originally introduced the Daleks back in late 1963.  The voice, a very sharp Irish brogue makes him recognizable.  The other voice was that of John Carson, who plays the Squire.  His voice is so similar to James Mason that I began to think he might have actually been dubbed except that Mason would never have worked at Hammer.

other Other Films:

  • The Abominable Snowman  (1957, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***
  • The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll  (1959, dir. Terence Fisher)
  • The Curse of the Werewolf  (1960, dir. Terence Fisher)
  • The Phantom of the Opera  (1962, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***

The Revival:

Hammer Horror is back with The Woman in Black (2012).

The Woman in Black  (2012, dir. James Watkins)  –  ***

There was a question, once the Harry Potter films were done, what the stars would do.  It’s perfect that Daniel Radcliffe would pop on over to Hammer Films, before coming to Broadway, and make The Woman in Black, a gothic horror film that revives what Hammer Films has always done best.  It takes a young innocent who life has not been kind to, it mixes in some gothic settings and it cranks up the atmosphere and it scares us (this film, less gory than the old classic Hammer films, is also much more frightening).

Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young barrister who has lost his wife and is now caring for his young son and quickly running out of money.  He heads out to Essex to deal with an estate and soon discovers that there is a mystery going on in the town concerning the appearance of a woman in black.  There are secrets that the town won’t tell him and he quickly finds himself shut out, bumped from his hotel room, with children dying right in front of him and he is desperate, less to get answers, than to get done and get out of town.

Well, things don’t go so well for our young man and he is quickly headed for a showdown with various aspects of the town, with the woman in black herself, and with the darkness in his very soul.  He needs to quench her thirst for vengeance, bring peace to her soul, and do it quickly, because it becomes apparent that the next child victim of her curse is going to be his own son, who is already on a train from London to join his father.

Radcliffe, from the very first Harry Potter film, proved himself to be an extremely gifted actor.  Here, he manages to convey that sense of having to be too important when not being ready, as he is still mourning his wife, but has to move forward so he and his son can survive.  He gets a number of scenes opposite Ciaran Hinds, who he had last seen at Hogwarts, arguing over whether the war was lost.  But aside from the strong acting from both of these two, we get a wonderful sense of atmosphere.  Instead of elaborate sets, we get an actual island in Essex, which really does get stranded when the tide comes in, and it adds a sense of foreboding doom to our young hero.  And once when get to the actual finale?  Well, I’ll let you see the film and decide how you feel.  Personally, I think it’s the only possibility for a satisfactory ending.  And it might not be over, because apparently Hammer is planning a sequel.  Which would be good, because they’ve made a hell of a lot of fine sequels in the past.

The Oddity:

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing actually get to place nice with each other in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

The Hound of the Baskervilles  (1959, dir. Terence Fisher)  –  ***

Wait, what is this doing here?  In spite of the potentially demonic hound, how does this qualify as a horror film?  Well, the answer, of course, is that it doesn’t.  That’s why it’s the oddity.  So why is it here, you might ask?  Well, because it’s still a part of Hammer.  Not only is it a key part of the Hammer films during their height, but it is directed by their best director and has their two biggest stars: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  They might not be taking on Dracula or Frankenstein, but they are tackling another British literary institution: Sherlock Holmes.

It’s Cushing himself who gets the plum role of Holmes.  Of course, if you’ve ever read the book, you know that one of the interesting things about it is that Holmes is absent for much of it.  Because he wants to be able to investigate the legendary hound that has been killing off the Baskerville family, he goes on his own out onto the moors while sending Watson off with the rich young heir, Sir Henry (played so well by Christopher Lee).  Watson is Andre Morrell, another Hammer actor (he would later play the hero in Plague of the Zombies) and he is the center of the story for the first half of the film (just like he was in the book – and it’s only natural, for those of you who have read the actual Sherlock Holmes works by Doyle know that Watson is the narrator who is bringing us all these stories in the first place).  But once Holmes is back into the story, it is his deductive abilities that keep things moving along.

Like with all the Hammer films, the production values on this, for a company that never had the kind of budgets that the Hollywood studios did, is first-rate.  There is a very good castle set for the Baskerville estate, good costumes, a nice set for the Holmes study and we get the wonderful scenes out on the moors (in color no less – the first Holmes film in color).  While the dark shadows might have worked so well in black-and-white for the old Basil Rathbone Holmes films, here it is the color that helps brings things to life (including the tarantula that threatens Sir Henry early in the film, and which is not nearly as dangerous as Holmes would have you believe – not that that was particularly well-known information in 1893).

Perhaps what is most enjoyable about this film, aside from watching Cushing as Holmes (Lee himself would have his own turn as Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, but though that film was directed by Terence Fisher, it was a German production and rather insanely, they dubbed over Lee – it’s one thing to have him be silent for a role, quite another for him to be dubbed – a ridiculously stupid choice given his magnificent voice), is that we actually get to see Cushing and Lee working together.  While they were almost always facing off against each other on screen, Cushing and Lee themselves were actually quite good friends and enjoyed working together on all of those films (23 in all).

The Talent:

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula (1958)

Peter Cushing

Peter Cushing was the noble presence of the Hammer films.  Even in films where he was ostensibly a villain, like all the Frankenstein films, he had such a commanding presence, you always want to root for him (what a brilliant idea of Lucas to have him play a villain – and he did it so well).  I have seen oh so many adaptations of Dracula and to me, there is no question, but that Cushing is by far the single best Van Helsing.  And there is the dignity that he brings to his role as Frankenstein, no matter how many people he kills to keep his secret, or how many monsters he creates.  And he is even Sherlock Holmes, and while the new fans of Cumberbatch might balk and the older fans of Rathbone will whine, there is no one I have preferred more to Cushing.  Cushing plays him with an air of indifference to the world around him, much like Doyle wrote him to be (and long before Downey would play him that way).  And he is one of the few people to play the role who seems like he might have Holmes’ brilliance.

And of course, there is his friendship with Christopher Lee.  They never got to get along on film (even when they played brothers in a non-Hammer film, they played adversaries), though in real life they were the best of friends.  I never saw anything with Lee until I was an adult, but Cushing, of course, playing a major role in the first film I ever saw (which I have now seen over 500 times), has always had a commanding presence which I will never forget.

Christopher Lee as Dracula in Dracula – Prince of Darkness (1966)

Christopher Lee

Poor Christopher Lee.  He had such a magnificent presence that he could go through an entire film without speaking and still you could sense him.  Hell, even when buried under the Egyptian wrappings, you could feel how important he was to the film.  But he had to endure such trials.  He was Dracula so many times that he desperately tried to get away from it (only to do it again for Jesus Franco).  He got injured playing the Mummy and hated the makeup so much that he refused to do another one of those films.  He played a version of Frankenstein’s monster that was nothing like the original version that Karloff had given us.

But then there are the films where we can hear his voice.  He is Sir Henry in Hound of the Baskervilles.  He has a commanding presence as Dracula in the first half of Horror of Dracula before we stop hearing his voice for the length of two films.  In The Mummy, we get him as the Mummy, but also as the Egyptian priest, with his commanding voice.  There would even be films like The Gorgon or The Devil’s Bride, where he would actually get to play the good guy.  It’s no wonder that George Lucas would eventually want him to play a Sith Lord, that Peter Jackson would bring him in to play Saruman, that he would be asked to play Death in multiple Discworld adaptations and that Tim Burton would come back to him again and again and again.  And yet, most of us still think of him first and foremost as Dracula, because he brought such a commanding presence to the ancient Count.

Terence Fisher directing Christopher Lee for the conclusion of Dracula – Prince of Darkness (1966)

Terence Fisher

Terence Fisher, like many directors, began as an editor before he moved into directing.  He had worked for Hammer for many years and directed a number of films before The Curse of Frankenstein pushed him into the realm of horror.  He then became the most important director in at the studio, directing all of their best films and making a team with Cushing and Lee.  He directed four of the five best films, including starting the Frankenstein, Dracula and Mummy franchises.  He even branched outside of horror with his stars into other iconic British stories – directing Cushing and Lee in Hound of the Baskervilles and Cushing in The Sword of Sherwood Forest.  To get an idea of how important he was to the studio, just look at the films above and see how many films he directed, and notice how the ones he directed are invariably better than the ones that he didn’t direct.

The Oscar-winning Freddie Francis

Freddie Francis

Freddie Francis was a bit of an oddity at Hammer.  He only directed two films for Hammer, so he doesn’t really belong here.  But, he was a major talent.  In the 1950’s he was a cinematographer, and he won the Oscar in 1960 for his cinematography on Sons and Lovers.  However, like so many, he wanted to direct.  He directed several films in the 60’s and 70’s, including The Evil of Frankenstein (the best of the Frankenstein sequels) and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (far from the worst of the Dracula sequels).  He also directed The Creeping Flesh, an effective horror film that starred Cushing and Lee (as brothers), yet, oddly, was not a Hammer film, instead coming from Tigon, a small company also known for horror films.  After that, Francis went back to cinematography, earning four BAFTA nominations (The Elephant Man, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Glory, Cape Fear) and another Oscar (Glory).

References:

  • The Charm of Evil: the life and films of Terence Fisher.  Wheeler Winston Dixon.  Filmmakers Series, No. 26 (Anthony Slide, ed.).  The Scarecrow Press, Inc.  1991.
  • A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer.  Denis Meikle with Christopher T. Koetting, Research Associate.  Filmmakers Series, No. 51 (Anthony Slide, ed.).  The Scarecrow Press, Inc.  1996.
  • The Hammer Story: The Authorized History of Hammer Films.  Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes.  Titan Books.  2007.

Top 5 Hammer Horror Films (my own list)

  1. The Horror of Dracula
  2. The Hound of the Baskervilles
  3. The Curse of Frankenstein
  4. The Abominable Snowman
  5. The Mummy
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