DVD: Hammer House of Horror (1980)

January 25, 2013 | By

Film: Very Good

DVD Transfer: Very Good

DVD Extras: Good

Label: Synapse Films

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released: September 11, 2012

Genre: Horror / Mystery / TV / Anthology / Hammer Horror

Synopsis: 13 part anthology series by legendary British studio Hammer Horror.

Special Features: Optional Episode Intros by Film Historian Shane M. Dallman / 2 interviews: “Grave Recollections: A Visit with Kathryn Leigh Scott” + “Hammer Housekeeping: A Visit with Mia Nadasi” / Animated Stills Gallery

 

 

Review:

After making its last horror film in 1976 (the troubled production To the Devil a Daughter), Hammer Films moved their interests to TV, where most of the directors and actors in Britain had found work after the feature film industry lost key American investment.

It was a wise move, yet the series failed to enjoy a second season, perhaps due to the studio’s own financial woes, as well as the costs of making and marketing a glossy horror anthology series when few kindred were having success on TV. (Witness ABC’s own horror anthology Darkroom, which lasted 16 episodes in 1981.)

The original 13 episodes were eventually released on DVD in the U.K. and later America (via A&AE), but neither edition offered any contextual extras – rather surprising, given the talent pool included many Hammer alumni from prior feature films – plus the transfers were in need of a major redo. Synapse’s set offers clean new transfers which are markedly superior to the older PAL to NTSC conversions used by A&E, and they’ve included a pair of interviews and brief episode intros which highlight the series’ most important elements.

It’s hard to tell whether critics applauded Hammer’s venture into TV, but fans of the studio, if not horror and mystery anthologies shows, will be surprised by the overall quality that went into producing what was essentially a low budget series. Shot primarily on location in small towns and re-using the sides and interiors of several estate homes (especially the one featured in the main titles), apartments, curving country roadways, and even vehicles, HHOH features several tales that could easily have been fleshed out into feature films. (If the studio’s current owners are looking for new material, it’s worth their while to re-examine the series’ best teleplays.)

Note: the following reviews contain some descriptive material that might be spoilerish.

“Witching Time,” the first episode, is notable for clearly establishing the series’ inherent gore and brief / implied nudity. There’s also the welcome casting of Jon Finch (Macbeth, Frenzy, The Martian Chronicles) as a composer trying to maintain creative focus when his wife Mary (Prunella Gee) is boffing her psychiatrist (Ian McCulloch), and a sudden thunderstorm brings a possessive witch (Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Patricia Quinn) into his arms. Mary’s sudden shifts from terrified to calm between scenes are a bit wonky, and Quinn is heavily theatrical as the randy witch, but it’s fun to watch Finch give his cuckolded anti-hero full gravitas as he’s tormented by the time-travelling witch. The isolated country home is very atmospheric, and there’s a few unique moments where Finch’s character works with giant antiquated video gear, playing back footage on a ¾” U-matic system to match picture to synth music.

The first of three episodes directed by Hammer regular Peter Sasdy, “The Thirteenth Reunion” could easily be reworked into a grim little feature film, since the character of investigative reported Ruth is so beautifully crafted and acted by Julia Foster – clearly cast for her skills rather than matching her character’s thirtysomething age. Ruth is sent to a New Age fat farm to investigate allegations of abuse by its founder and merciless whips on portly clients, but soon she uncovers a grisly scheme where certain clients disappear or die in mysterious accidents. Jeremy Burnham’s script is sharp, taut, and builds a great deal of suspense, and although there is a somewhat shocking finale, once gets the sense the script may have been distilled from an unproduced feature, since the buildup to the main shock is so well orchestrated. Veterans Richard Pearson plays a sympathetic love interest, and Dinah Sheridan (Genevieve) has a small but memorable role as Ruth’s acerbic editor.

Sasdy also directed Denholm Elliott (To the Devil a Daughter, The Vault of Horror, The House That Dripped Blood) in the series’ bawdiest and most surreal episode, “Rude Awakening,” where a two-timing real estate agent relives the same day where he conspires to murder his wife (the brilliant Pat Heywood) and live happily forever after with his secretary Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge, who provides the series’ most frank display of boobery). Each ‘repeat’ features Lolly and property vendor Mr. Rayburn (James Laurenson) in slightly different attire and roles, and although there’s perhaps one too many ‘repeat’ days, it’s a fun, morbid little tale written by Gerald Savory, a longtime mystery writer.

“Growing Pains” is perhaps the worst episode, due to the spastic performances and clunky construction of a family who’s son returns from the dead, possessing their newly adopted child, and mucking up dad’s efforts to grow a cheap source of food for impoverished Third World communities – the latter storyline evoking Death Laid an Egg (1968) where a couple attempt to solve the food crisis by growing headless, wingless, footless chickens. As characters, the parents are complete morons, and a sequence where dad discusses geo-political issues with token African and Indian Third World characters is ludicrous in its facile dialogue.

“The House That Bled to Death” is equally clumsy, as a family is supposedly traumatized by the spirits of a murdered woman when they buy a haunted house. David Lloyd’s script is filled with dull padding that has characters entering and exiting rooms and the house with little dramatic purpose, and the meandering scenes are supposed to build towards a twist that’s hardly novel nor arresting. Emma Ridley is quite good as the traumatized daughter, but her natural performance can’t offset the similarly spastic moments where characters are in dire terror for a moment, but easygoing and emotionally sedate in the next scene.

Riffing Richard Matheson’s tale of an African fetish doll (namely the “Prey” segment in Dan Curtis’ 1975 TV movie Trilogy of Terror), “Charlie Boy” deals with the heir to a small fortune realizing the African doll he’s snagged may be responsible for killing people with whom he recently had major conflicts. The absurdity of the story is kind of fun, and the script by Bernie Cooper and Francis Megahy (who also directed a few episodes) manages to keep viewers in the dark until the finale. Veteran character actor Marius Goring (The Red Shoes) has a supporting role as an antique dealer, Angela Bruce is strangely androgynous, and Lee Lawson is hysterical to watch because he treats every pulpy scene and crazy reaction like Shakespeare – it’s all wrong, but adds to the episode’s fromage factor that’s maintained by director Robert Young (Vampire Circus).

Alan Gibson (Dracula A.D.) directed what’s perhaps the tightest and most rewarding episode, “The Silent Scream,” where a recently released felon goes to thank a financial benefactor and friend, but becomes trapped in a dangerous game of mind control. Peter Cushing is outstanding as the menacing pet vendor who ensnares our hero, and both Brian Cox (ridiculously young and curly-haired) and Elaine Donnelly are excellent as the bickering couple who must try and outwit their captor. More of a puzzle game with sharp twists, writer Francis Essex made one big boo-boo: pets large and small require not only food and water, but a clean change of bedding due to natural bodily waste, and there’s simply no way their little cages wouldn’t be soiled and malodorous when a keeper is absent for a long stretch.

“Children of the Full Moon” features a werewolf tale that’s a little clunky, but remains memorable for some weird & wonderful scenes featuring a wholly nefarious Diana Dors as the den mother of Village of the Damned-styled children, and actors Christopher Cazenove (Dynasty) and Celia Gregory as the attractive couple whose marriage is upset by an unwanted birth. Episode highlight is not seeing Gregory wear slinky lingerie, but enjoy eating raw meat as her character’s pregnancy’s strangeness goes into overdrive.

Although he’s highlighted in the sleeve copy, Pierce Brosnan has essentially a walk-on in “Carpathian Eagle,” a warped tale where men have their hearts torn out while copulating with a sexy succubus. It’s never a mystery as to who’s responsible for the killings (the revelation happens within the first quarter), but it’s fun to watch Suzanne Danielle reveal her preposterously perfect physique in perhaps the series’ sleaziest episode. The carnal tone, however, is buffered by Anthony Valentine’s compelling performance of an earnest cop who wants and deserves a loving woman, but in rather Takeshi Miike fashion, may get something else.

Hammer veteran Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire, The Brides of Fu Manchu, Psychomania) tries to make sense of the series’ oddest episode where a scrying glass (a mirror-like portal to the demon world) is sought by a cult leader and an art collector, while a lithe, pouty redhead may be the key to reclaiming the mirror and enabling the devil’s crossover to our mainland. Barbara Ewing plays the long-suffering, unloved girl to hero Ray Lonnen, while John Carson is wonderful as slimy cult leader Charles Randolph.

Director Sharp seemed to focus on keeping a consistently weird mood knowing the chase between the men and heroine / former altar sacrifice Allison (pretty & pouty Rosalyn Landor) and the episode’s resolution weren’t too well choreographed. There are some great moments of occult nonsense involving ‘uncooperative’ sacrifices, but the best scene shows why Sharp was regarded as a highly capable director: when Randolph visits his nemesis, he uses his stealth powers of persuasion to warp Michael’s grasp of reality and gravity, and the brilliant little sequence is pulled off purely by performance, editing, and camera placement. Its simplicity is proof how scaring an audience does not necessitate the use of swirling CGI effects and clamorous sound design.

Sasdy’s final episode is “Visitor from the Grave” which featured Simon MacCorkindale (Falcon Crest) and Dark Shadows’ Kathryn Leigh Scott as a couple tormented by the ghost of a nefarious business partner shot by wife Penny during a break-in and attempted rape. The mood nor twist finale aren’t original, but like “Charlie Boy” part of the fun is watching an actor’s pompous, mannered theatrical gravitas take a pulp character and turn it into animated fromage. MacCorkindale plays Harry like a swashbuckler pining to commit some grand physical act of heroism, while Scott – the rare American talent in an otherwise wholly British production – is generally convincing as neurotic trying desperately to maintain a grasp on reality. Sasdy’s wife Mia Nardi appears as a medium with giant curly hair.

Equally wonky is “The Two Faces of Evil” that has a wife (appropriately high-strung Anna Calder-Marshall) thinking her husband Martin (Gary Raymond) may be an impostor in what’s clearly a riff on The Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image.” Director Alan Gibson creates some interesting time displacement using sharp sound and picture edits to fracture and reassemble details of the traumatic car crash that effectively destroys a disgustingly lovey-dovey family, and Raymond (The Rat Patrol) is especially terrifying as the loving / dangerous husband. The dialogue and direction is a bit too surreal – unlike “Rude Awakening,” each day within “Two Faces of Evil” is grounded in reality – and David Hawkins is terribly weak as the couple’s son.

When originally broadcast, the entire 13 episode run was shown on U.K. TV, but subsequent airings as well as the U.S. syndication package omitted the finale episode, “The Mark of Satan” not because it was poor or set up an unrealized second season, but due to it being utterly Wrong. Don Shaw’s script and Don Leaver’s direction is quite frankly fucked up, and yet it makes this episode arguably the best in the series because its focus is almost entirely from the perspective of a mama’s boy who believes he’s been infected by an “evil virus” masquerading as meningitis, and hears radio messages by the police telling him to save himself. Peter McEnery (Beat Girl, Victim) gives a thoroughly convincing performance of the autopsy orderly losing his grasp on reality, and Shaw’s story shares some interesting similarities with Pierre Jolivet’s 1991 film Simple mortel where a man goes bonkers when radio broadcasts tell him of an impending apocalypse.

Like “The Silent Scream,” “Mark of Satan” is a great character study, and it’s a shame the series failed to find enough financial interest and continue its grisly yet pulpy exploration of things supernatural, horrific, and criminal. Even the weaker episodes have fun elements, and fans of odd if not cult TV series should enjoy the high quality of material written and directed by many of Britain’s top TV talent. HHOH is also unique for offering consistently downbeat endings – irrespective of an affected characters’ genuine moral goodness – and if there’s a singular theme that unites each tale, it’s that we’re all doomed.

Synapse’s DVD set includes lengthy interviews with actresses Kathyrn Leigh Scott and Mia Nadasi who reminisce about their work in horror and aspects of their shared episode “Visitor from the Grave,” and Shane Dallman provides optional episode intros that give brief background notes on the talent and story material. Those wanting zero spoilers ought to save the intros for the end, and should also be aware that episode 3, “Rude Awakening,” features a prologue that recaps money shots. (This was the only episode to do so.)

Hammer did take one more poke at TV via the co-produced Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, which partner Fox aired in the U.S. as The Fox Mystery Theater in 1984. Several of the HHOH writers and directors also worked on the mystery series which expanded the running time of HHOH from 54 minutes to a meatier 73, and featured more American stars but less risqué nudity. The series has yet to appear on DVD in North America.

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Postscript

Jon Finch’s own Hammer appearances include The Vampire Lovers (1970), The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), and The Final Programme (1973), whereas Peter Sasdy directed Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), Countess Dracula (1971), and Hands of the Ripper (1971.

Hammer did eventually resurface from a prolonged production hibernation with new films starting from 2008.

 

 

© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

 

External References:

IMDB — Composer Filmographies: James Bernard / John McCabe

 

Amazon Search Links:

Amazon.ca Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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