The story of the legendary British film production company, Hammer, began humbly back in 1935, when the Spanish-born owner of a chain of cinemas, Enrique Carreras joined forces with theatrical agent and amateur stage performer William Hinds, to form a small film distribution company called Exclusive Films Ltd. Enrique's son James joined the company at around this time; and, when he was away in the Army during the Second World War, James' own son, Michael Carreras, also started working for Exclusive. By the end of the war, Exclusive Films had already begun to produce a limited number of low budget British films; but in 1947, Hammer Films was formed in order to implement a full programme of production — giving an opportunity for both Michael and William Hinds' son, Tony, to move full-time into the production side of the film business. In fact, this was a revival of the company name, since Tony's father had dabbled in film production during the early-'30s before joining up with Enrique — and, using his stage name (Will Hammer) as the basis for the company moniker, had produced a number of second features which were later to be redistributed by Exclusive Films.
Romance, crime and comedy formed the mainstay of the company's initial output; with BBC radio serials such as "Dick Barton, Special Agent" providing much of the source material. An important development came in 1951 when Hammer bought Down Place, a country house in Windsor near the banks of the Thames, and converted it into a studio (renaming it Bray Studios in the process) where most of the Hammer Productions would, from now on, be shot until "When Frankenstein Created Woman". A deal with Hollywood distributor Robert M. Lippert benefited the fledgling company by gaining it access to American finances through FOX, since Lippert (who was a good friend of FOX head, Spyros Skouras) could use Lippert's distribution company as a 'shadow company' in order to evade Britain's strict "quota laws", These laws forced American production companies to give away a portion of their profits to the British companies who were required to make the second features that ran alongside their own films in British cinemas. Although a few features — both early efforts by Terence Fisher — which could be said to belong to the horror genre, were produced around this time, it wasn't until the 1955 adaptation of the BBC's television serial "The Quatermass Xperiment" (not a part of this set), and its huge international success, that Horror became a major component of Hammer's output — eventually the dominant one. Various themed films followed, more-or-less in the same mould as the Quatermass films, but when the idea came-about of adapting the classic monster movies of the '30s Universal cycle, in full, lustrous colour, the name Hammer was secured forever in the annals of fantastic cinema. This massive box set from Optimum Releasing takes up the story when Hammer was at the height of its powers in the mid-'60s; and tracks the Company's slow decline to eventual oblivion, with its final horror outing in 1976.
"She" (1965) is a ripping adventure yarn based on the story by H. Rider Haggard, and represents the best of the company's exotic "lost world" adventures; a sideline developed alongside the successful horror pictures. But although this one stars both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, it doesn't really offer much in the way of horrific thrills until its final moments, when the 2,000 year-old Princess Ayesha reverts to her true age. The story sees Ursula Andress' character in search of the reincarnation of her murdered lover; when she thinks she has found him in the form of intrepid adventurer, Leo Vincey (John Richardson) it's the cue for much exotic romantic melodrama — all captured in glorious widescreen Technicolor!
In marked contrast to the fabulous splendours on offer in this fantasy epic, 1965 also offered up the grim black and white thriller, "The Nanny" starring the legendary Bette Davis. This thriller is a much darker piece of work than many of the Hammer "mini-Hitchcocks" of the period, darker even than Bette Davis's Robert Aldrich directed psycho-thrillers, "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" and "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte". Roman Polanski would take this kind of material to a different level in the very same year with "Repulsion", but director Seth Holt extracts every last shiver of unease from this edgy thriller (based on a novel by Evelyn Piper), which concerns Davis's unnamed Nanny descending into gibbering madness as the ghosts from her past return to haunt her. Wendy Craig is the mixed-up mother of the very dysfunctional Fain family; William Dix is her troubled young son, Joey, and Pamela Franklin his tomboy next-door-neighbour, Bobby. The whole family is in shock after the accidental drowning of Joey's infant sister a year previously; but Joey returns from boarding school convinced that Nanny actually murdered her! The boy has consequently developed a morbid hatred of middle-aged women, even tormenting his boarding-school mistress by faking his own suicide! The mother, Virginia, is a living wreak though, and has regressed to a semi-infantile state which leaves her entirely dependent on Nanny to look after her completely. With so much repressed psychosis in the house, events soon spiral out of control, and the fact that Joey witnessed Nanny's peculiar reaction to the discovery of his sister's body ("I'd never seen anyone who was really completely barmy before!") eventually puts him in great danger. Davis is on top form here — but special mention must go to the young William Dix who plays Joey. The character is the emotional centre of the film and the young actor carries off a very psychologically complex role with great aplomb. This is one of a handful of Hammer films which feature some genuinely disturbing moments.
"Dracula Prince of Darkness"(1966) came a full seven years after the first Hammer Dracula film starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Although Cushing had appeared in the highly regarded "Brides of Dracula" (not included here) it took this long to tempt Lee back to the role that largely made his name, this time with Andrew Keir as his nemesis, the monk Father Sandor. The story is a basic Hammer set-up: a group of European travellers stop-off at Dracula's castle in Transylvania and are tricked into reviving the Prince of Darkness by one of his conniving retainers. The film doesn't have quite the colourful luster of the original, but director Terence Fisher stages enough excitement to make this one of Hammer's finest moments. Lee may get little screen-time and no dialogue, but this portrayal of the Count as a mysterious, snarling, predatory beast hiding behind a cloak of suave, sexually alluring sophistication, is undeniably persuasive, and Barbara Shelly gives an equally convincing performance as a straight-laced Victorian traveller, transformed into a vivacious vampiric temptress — one of the best representations of Hammer's simplistic moral polarity. The film was lambasted at the time for its "tasteless" resurrection scene, when the Count is brought back to life by draining the blood of a victim over a coffin full of his ashes, but the slight increase in explicitness as compared to the very first Hammer Gothics, was in keeping with the times and looks the height of restraint these days. Christopher Lee and Barbara Shelly went straight on to work on the loose historical biopic "Rasputin the Mad Monk" (1966), a very simplified account of the life of the Tsarina's mysterious consort which ramps up the horror as Lee gives another very commanding performance. If something seems familiar about Don Sharp's film, that may well be because it reuses the sets from "Dracula Prince of Darkness", as well as its stars!
The cost-cutting habit of making several films back to back and reusing both the casts and sets is put to no better use than in another two films from the same year: "Plague of Zombies" and "The Reptile", both directed by John Gilling. Both films are set in 19th Century Cornwall and deal with the issue of Victorian imperialism. In the former film, an evil squire, using knowledge obtained in the darkest tropics, is reanimating dead bodies and using them as slave labour in the local tin mines. Gilling creates some of the most atmospheric scenes in the Hammer cannon, most notably a weird dream sequence where the white-eyed zombies claw their way out of their graves, lurching clumsily at the camera in a nightmare-inducing fashion. "The Reptile" gives the title role to a young Jacqueline Pearce (who also appeared in "Plague ...") and is an extremely atmospheric piece, with a feeling of impending doom throughout. Local people in Cornwall are being terrorised by a spate of deaths, apparently caused by the bite of a venomous snake. In reality, the father of local girl, Anne Franklin, has incurred the wrath of a Malayan snake cult which has resulted in Anne periodically transforming into a scaly snake-woman. Again, bizarre nightmarish imagery marks this out as one of Hammer's most inventive pictures. More diabolical doings lurking behind the apparent serenity of the English countryside occur in "The Witches" (1966) where '40s Hollywood star Joan Fontaine finds herself embroiled in an orgiastic witches cult after returning from voodoo-haunted Africa. This story, by "Quatermass" scribe Nigel Kneale, is slow-moving but rewarding for those who appreciate the more restrained atmospheres of Hammer's more sophisticated offerings.
The same year also brought forth one of Hammer's most internationally successful films: the Dinosaur-based epic "One Million Years BC". Displaying a casual disregard for prehistory, the film features animal skin-clad early humans played by gorgeous screen love goddesses, such as Raquel Welch and Martine Beswick, who also happen to live contemporaneously with huge dinosaurs (many of which wouldn't have lived at the same time as each other, let alone modern humans!) The plot is a kind of stone age reprise of "Romeo and Juliet" with Raquel Welsh playing the leader of the "Shell" people, from whom she is cast out after taking up with handsome-but-hairy John Richardson from the opposing "Rock" clan. All of this nonsense is irrelevant though; what makes this film so compelling, and enables it to transcend such trite material, is the marvelous stop-motion animation work of Ray Harryhausen. The film may well be — objectively speaking — utter rubbish, but who can deny seeing this it as kid and being overawed by sequences such as Raquel Welsh's abduction by a terrifying air-born pterodactyl. From the compelling opening, when atmospheric sound effects accompany an impressionistic representation of the formation of the earth, the film grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck and continues to assail him/her with a series of images that remain seared into the brain years after. After the success of this picture, Hammer followed it up with another "historical" melodrama, this time located in 1st century Britain. "One Million Years ..." director, Don Chaffey returned for "Viking Queen", in which a female warrior defends the island against foreign invaders. This is a minor entry in the Hammer catalogue, to say the least.
1967 saw one of the company's most original spins on the Frankenstein story. Director Terence Fisher and star, Peter Cushing are reunited in the enjoyable "Frankenstein Created Woman". Here, Frankenstein and his faithful assistant Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters) get involved in macabre goings on which are bound to end in trouble when they transplant the brain of wrongly guillotined peasant, Hanz, into the beautiful blonde body of a drowned peasant girl — who then takes revenge on Hanz's killers by seducing them and then dispatching them. The film contains some of the strangest, darkly poetic sequences of any Hammer production and represents the company at the height of their creative powers. The same year also saw Hammer return to the franchise that transformed the company's fortunes back in the mid-'50s: "Quatermass and the Pit" is an adaptation of the best of the BBC's Quatermass serials, condensing the three hour running time of the 1958 original into a pert eighty minutes. Andrew Kier makes for a much more sympathetic Professor Bernard Quatermass than the American star of Hammer's '50s adaptations, Brian Donlevy - though otherwise this version looks incredibly similar to the BBC series (even down to the design of the "tripod" insect Martians), although it adds some polish and shine with its vivid colour gloss. The story is a supernatural investigation that manages to deftly combine ghostly hauntings, Satanism, and alien invasion under one explanatory umbrella, after a strange space capsule is unearthed during an excavation at the London Underground.
1968 saw the follow-up to '65's fantasy epic "She", this time without the star pull of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing or Ursula Andress. "The Vengeance of She" just about manages to stretch a threadbare story out for an overlong 101 minutes, in a plot which sees John Richardson return; this time as the leader of the lost City, who is now convinced that bewildered blonde bombshell Carol (Olinka Berova) is the reincarnation of the dead Ayesha! One of the highlights of 1968 's crop of films was Hammer's adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's black magic novel "The Devil Rides Out". Christopher Lee essay's a rare "good guy" role and is as compelling as ever as the upstanding Duc de Richleau who, in a battle to save the soul of his young friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), does battle with the forces of satanic evil in the shape of the charming Mocata (Charles Grey). Playing like a perfect cross between an action adventure flick and an eerie horror epic, Terence Fisher distils the essence of Wheatley's supernatural adventure and makes an entertaining romp filled with memorable set-pieces. The same year also the release of another lost world fantasy adventure, the entertaining "Prehistoric Women"; a much more successful outing than "Vengeance of She", the film sees Michael Carreras directing Martine Beswick as the ruthless and evil, dark-heard dictator, Kari who rules other a race of enslaved blonde bombshells and their hapless menfolk! Michael Laitimr is lantern-jawed safari guide, David Marchant, who, while hunting down an injured leopard in the wilds of Africa, stumbles into the forbidden territory of the tribe of the white Rhinoceros. After being taken back to the tribe's cave to be killed in front of their rhino idol, a strange thing happens: when David touches the rhino's horn, he is transported to a hallucinogenic, mythical past to be fought over by Kali and the leader of the enslaved blonde girls, Sari. This is b-movie adventure fluff, of course, but it is conducted in a very spirited fashion — perfect viewing for a lazy Sunday afternoon!
By 1970 the first signs that the Company was beginning to run out of steam were becoming apparent. While George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" was rewriting the horror genre, and Hollywood was preparing Horror blockbusters such as "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist", Hammer stuck doggedly to their tried and tested formula: more Frankenstein and Dracula flicks! The formula was now beginning to look as pale as Christopher Lee's make-up in "Scars of Dracula" (1970)! Although generally treated with some disdain by Hammer fans, "Scars ..." is not as bad as its reputation suggests. It returns to the basic story set-up that always worked best in the Hammer Dracula films: unwary travellers finding themselves guests at castle Dracula where their host's hospitality soon reveals a more sinister side. This time it's a youthful Jenny Hanley and Dennis Waterman who end up trapped in Dracula's Transylvanian dungeons with a memorable turn by Patrick Troughten as Dracula's downtrodden retainer, Klove. Christopher Lee is enjoyably vicious and vengeful in this particular outing; although the scene where he stabs a character to death out of sheer anger may be ridiculous, its histrionics add an air of mania to the proceedings not found in any of the other Dracula films.
Not quite so successful was Hammer's attempt to reinvent the Frankenstein franchise without Peter Cushing in the role. Ralph "Dear John " Bates was being groomed at the time to become Hammer's new leading man, and "Horror of Frankenstein" (1970) was an attempt to supplant Bates in the famous role in a retelling of the original Frankenstein story, with Bates playing a handsome version of the famous scientist with a God complex. The screenplay attempts to bring a touch of dark humour to the tale, but David Prowse is a characterless, lumbering nonentity as the monster, and the film induces nothing more than a "so what?" shrug. Much more interesting was "Blood from the Mummy's Tomb" (1971) — actually an adaptation of a little-known Bram Stoker tale with a typically obtuse screenplay by Christopher Wicking. Valerie Leon becomes the focal point of the vengeful Egyptian queen, Tera - whose severed hand (which is adorned with a priceless ruby) still bleeds, centuries after her burial! The screenplay is full of bizarre supernatural happenings and a fair dose of gore doesn't go amiss either. This clever reinvention of the dried-up Mummy sub-genre is one of late period Hammer's rare treats!
"Fear in the Night" (1972) is a return to the mini-Hitchcock thriller format — taught tales with a twist. The plot is pretty much the same as all the other films in this genre with Judy Geeson being driven mad by Ralph Bates and his lover, played by Joan Collins. Peter Cushing puts in a welcome appearance as a mysterious one-armed man who terrorises the hapless Miss Geeson; and although predictable, the film is an effective variation on a familiar format, directed by Jimmy Sangster. "Straight on till Morning" is a disturbing little psyhco-thriller from 1972 which was directed by the great Peter Collinson ("The Italian Job"). It was to be the Company's last outing in the genre. Rita Tushingham plays the disturbed and deluded Brenda Thompson, who, lost and adrift in London after moving out of her family home, is taken in by attractive but psychopathic Peter (Shane Briant) who eventually gets her pregnant, keeps her a prisoner in his house, and torments her with tape recordings of the death screams of his previous victims! Bleak and realistic, this is essentially a two-hander with Tushingham and Briant both giving stellar, uncompromising performances.
"Demons of the Mind" is a late blast of brilliance from the ailing company. Peter Sykes directs this effective period thriller with Robert Hardy as the tyrannical Baron Friedrich Zorn and Patrick Magee as Dr. Falkenberg -- the practitioner of fledgling theories of the mind (and based on Franz Anton Mesmer) who is called in by the Baron to cure his two sickly children of a blood-drinking syndrome which has caused him to keep them locked-up in his Bavarian castle. While Falkenberg eschews the supernatural as an explanatory framework, the local priest is convinced that a spate of local killings are the result of demonic intervention, and attempts to gather the superstitious locals in support. The film portrays an interesting battle between early attempts at psychiatry involving animal magnetism and the like, and the ruthless faith-based approaches represented by Michael Horden's fanatical priest who sees mental illness as the result of possession by the devil. With its heady mix of incest, madness, nudity and gore, "Demons of the Mind" is probably Hammer's last great film, which includes some great performances from Magee, Hardy and (once again) Shane Briant.
The trailer for "To the Devil ... a Daughter" doesn't do the film any favours by mentioning it in the same breath as "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist". By 1976, Hammer were struggling to compete with Hollywood's big budget horror extravaganzas, and although unusually for a Hammer film, it features lots of location work in Europe, "To the Devil ... a Daughter" is essentially depending on the same formula the company had been using since the early-sixties, with a little more gore and a touch of nudity added. The film is based on another of Dennis Weatley's Black Magic novels, but the screenplay (which wasn't finished when shooting began) bears little relation to Wheatley's Satanic adventure yarn. Christopher Lee plays an ex-priest, Father Raynor, who has become a Satanist and is planning on impregnating a sixteen-year-old Nastassia Kinski with the Devil's seed! Richard Widmark is the American star, imported to secure American backing, and ex-Avenger, Honor Blackman also stars. There are moments of brilliance in the film, with Lee giving another fantastic performance and Denholm Elliott also brilliant as a man tormented by black magic. The film suffers from a bungled ending and, although its an entertaining diversion, it was never going to prevail against the new modern breed of horror film that was doing the rounds by this time. This was to be Hammer's last horror picture and the penultimate film before the Company was eventually dissolved.
These 21 films come packaged by Optimum Releasing with some key extras scattered amongst them. All of the material has been available previously on US releases of various Hammer films. "Dracula Prince of Darkness" has a wonderful hour-long documentary, in which Christopher Lee narrates various episodes from his film-making career directly to camera, without the imposition of an interviewer, while sitting in what appears to be a Victorian drawing room. This not only includes anecdotes from his time making Hammer films, but also the likes of "The Three Muskateers" and "The Far Pavilions" . Featurettes previously included in US Anchor Bay releases turn up with some of the films: "One Million Years BC" has interesting interviews with Ray Harryhausen and Raquel Welch -- each running around twenty minutes -- which give some great background on the filming of this hugely successful flick. "To the Devil ... a Daughter" features a twenty-minute featurette with Christopher Lee talking about the genesis of the film and how it differed from Dennis Weatley's source material. Script writer, Christopher Wicking, and various other members of cast and crew including director Peter Sykes, also contribute to give a brief but fairly informative overview of this troubled production.
Various audio commentary tracks, which originally appeared on US Anchor Bay releases, have been imported for this box set. Directors and various stars appear with a moderator directing the flow of conversation on "The Nanny", "Scars of Dracula" (which includes Christopher Lee), "The Horror of Frankenstein", "Straight on Till Morning", "Fear in the Night" and "Demons of the Mind".
As might be expected, the transfers are quite a mixed bag. All of these films have appeared on DVD before: some on UK discs by Warner Bros., others on US discs released by Anchor Bay. In general everything looks as least as good as it did on previous releases — but no better. "Scars of Dracula" has extremely vivid colours and a sharp image but there is a problem with a heavy "ghosting" effect throughout which can be distracting. "The Nanny" appears in anamorphic widescreen for the first time and looks a little soft, but by increasing the contrast on the TV, I found it looked vastly better. The best news for UK fans is that "Dracula Prince of Darkness" now appears with an extremely crisp anamorphic widescreen transfer — the old Warner Bros. disc was non-anamorphic — looking sharper than I've ever seen it look. The black levels look slightly too light, but this can be improved by altering the brightness level on your TV. Unfortunately, out of the twelve check discs I have received for review purposes, there is one very poor transfer: namely that of "The Reptile" which gets a very dupy looking, soft transfer with washed-out colours. Nevertheless, this massive set offers a fair cross-section of the output of the company, and, for those who do not already own all the Anchor Bay discs, it will be an essential purchase for British horror fans with large wallets!