Friday, October 21, 2005

It's a (um, not quite) HORROR-pa-LOOZA at the Petri Dish!!

In honor of Halloween, I swore to myself at the top of the month that I'd inundate this here Blog with heaps of horror. But a combination of work and slackerly slackishness has eaten away the first two-thirds of the month like a werewolf chowing away on a hapless night traveller.

If you've visited in the past, you know that it takes very little to get me to wax rhapsodic, episodic, or sardonic on horror cinema. So, in a fit of customary over-compensation, I've declared the rest of October a Petri Dish Horror-pa-LOOZA!!

Every day, until the end of the month, I will post an entry on something horror, except for Halloween itself (it's my anniversary, kids--cut me some slack). Today: a welcome follow-up to one of cinema's greatest fright factories.

A crash course on Hammer Films, Britain's best-known and most beloved purveyor of horror movies, lay buried in the June 2005 archives of this here Blog. In said entry, I lamented the absence of some of the studio's best and most fun efforts on DVD.

Well, Christmas has come early for Hammer DVD completist-dorks like me. Universal Home Video recently released The Hammer Horror Series, a two-disc set packed with eight (!) movies, several of which make their US shiny-disc debut.

Universal provides zilch on the extras front, but getting this entertaining octet of chillers--all letterboxed, and most drawn from crisp negatives--for under 30 smackers (even less at the right retailer) should make any horror geek a happy camper.

The set includes: The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Curse of The Werewolf (1961), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Kiss of The Vampire (1963), Night Creatures (1962), Nightmare (1963), Paranoiac (1963) , and The Phantom of The Opera (1962).

Simple nostalgia has rendered re-visiting many of these (I've watched five of the films on the set so far) a blast, but the biggest and most pleasant surprise is how well they've held up over the years. Cynical cash-cow horror franchises and self-serious Sixth Sense knockoffs have become the rage over the last decade, making Hammer's lean and sturdy story-driven thrillers look a lot more lustrous. I wouldn't go so far as to call any of the films included here masterpieces, but they all hit incredibly right and resonant notes as pulp entertainment. Try saying that about the useless remake of The Fog that recently simpered into multiplexes.

Among the movies I've watched thusfar, The Evil of Frankenstein stands as the most routine of them. The third of the Hammer Frankenstein epics (after 1957's Curse of Frankenstein and 1958's Revenge of Frankenstein), it sketches out a scenario familiar to most fans of Frankenstein lore. The good mad doctor (Peter Cushing) returns to his old stomping grounds after an extended exile to find his old monster encased in ice. The doc revives the big lug, but finds himself needing the assistance of carnival hypnotist Professor Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe) to keep the creature active. Zoltan, meanwhile, sees decidedly ignoble uses for his new hypnotic subject.

There's some real formula enjoyment here, as John Elder's script throws in a mute beggar girl (Katy Wild) and a whole gaggle of corrupt government officials alongside the usual monstershines. The performances are all solid, especially Woodthorpe, whose toadlike somnabulist manages to steal the movie wholesale. Fun, if occasionally rote, stuff.

The Brides of Dracula takes the Triple Crown as the set's most rousing offering. It's as much action yarn as horror opus, with Peter Cushing's Van Helsing taking on the vampiric minions of the evil Baron Meinster (David Peel) with a ferocity that'd make Rambo nervous. Director Terence Fisher engineers the proceedings with economy and verve--there's not a wasted frame here, and Fisher manages the very difficult balance of Gothic atmosphere and machine-gun pacing with craftsmanly cool.

Conversely, Curse of the Werewolf sounds like pure pulp until you see it executed. An imprisoned, animal-like beggar (Richard Wordsworth) rapes the servant (Yvonne Romain) of an evil Spanish nobleman (Anthony Dawson). The mute young woman escapes and is rescued by kindly Don Alfredo (Clifford Evans). Shortly thereafter, the girl dies in childbirth, and the fruit of this unholy union, Leon (Oliver Reed), grows up to find himself visited by the titular affliction.

Of all the films here, Curse comes closest to capturing the spirit of a dark fable; the early scenes, which establish the whole domino effect leading to Leon's ultimate transformation, exhibit an elegance that few of the Hammers ever strove to reach. And the performances--Dawson as the epitome of moneyed scumminess, Evans as the gruff-but-loving father figure, and especially the magnetic Reed as a good man being pulled asunder by inner demons (art imitates life, methinks)--could hardly be better. Only a climax constrained by Hammer's lack of funds dampens this fine effort's spell.

The only thing nicer than discovering a horror movie you've never seen before on a set like this is discovering a good horror movie you've never seen before on a set like this. Kiss of the Vampire ain't perfect, but it's a worthy (and occasionally masterful) addition to the Hammer canon. The hook here is in the subtle tweak to a familiar stock plot (vacationing British couple gets waylaid in Bavaria by a clutch of vampires). The bloodsuckers here are European sophisticates who oversee the countryside with aristrocratic efficiency, and their numbers are swollen not by hapless peasants, but by other rich and jaded aristocrats--indeed, the notion of vampirism-as-religious-cult feels positively prescient. In addition to the novelty factor, Kiss of the Vampire sports several scenes of hypnotic and languid eeriness. One of these--a simple bite to the hand of vampire hunter Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), and the professor's procedure to save himself--ranks as one of the most effective such scenes I've ever seen. Director Don Sharp also builds a palpable atmosphere of subtle disorientation around the likeable couple's (Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel) dark adventures. Things go a bit haywire at the end (the filmmakers' ambitions obviously exceeded their considerable time and budget constraints during the finale), but much of the journey proves creepily worthwhile.

Finally, adulthood actually improved my outlook on Hammer's 1962 version of Phantom of the Opera. It's even less of a horror film than its melodramatic 1925 and 1943 predecessors, but it more than makes up for its lack of scares with plenty of tangy backstage sparring. The great Michael Gough makes for a deliciously loathsome villain, and Edward de Souza lends flair and comic likeability to his stock hero role. Herbert Lom capably takes up the mask this time out, and he manages to imbue the character with dignity and pathos (in a nice wrinkle to the old warhorse of a plot, we actually get a bit more backstory on the pre-Phantom Phantom). The ending (which brings the Phantom to a rather random and undignified end) kinda blows, but the journey up to that point works sportingly as a representative of a genre as time-honored as the horror film--namely, the backstage drama.

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JennyB. said...

You are positively frightening...I was on the phone with my friend Teri last night and The Fog remake came up. And then she started talking about Hammer Films.

Don't know if you knew, but AMC channel is having a horrorfest Oct. 23-31. Don't know what they're playing, but it could be worth checking out. Not that you don't probably already own any movie they might show, but still. ;o)

BTW, I would love some werewolf movie recommendations sometime! To get my wolves active again. :o)