The 1984 anthology series "Hammer House of Mystery And Suspense" appears, with hindsight, to have been the final strangulated gasp of the once great Hammer brand name. (Not withstanding repeated recent claims in successive press releases of the company's imminent revival.) Four years previously, the 1980 television series "Hammer House of Horror" had been a huge success and looked certain to revive the fortunes of the ailing company. However, the series' co-financier ITC got into financial trouble after Lew Grade's disastrous big budget "Raise The Titanic" flop, and the expected second series (with an increased budget) never materialised. "Hammer House Of Horror" had been the brainchild of Brian Lawrence and Roy Skeggs, two of Hammer's ex-company directors who had gained control of the Hammer brand name long after it had ceased actually producing any films! Lawrence, Skeggs and script writer Don Houghton left Hammer in the early seventies and formed Cinema Arts International. Reinstated to the board after Michael Carreras was forced to step down as Hammer's Managing Director when the company officially went into receivership, Lawrence and Skeggs set their sights on producing television movies using the Hammer brand name as a means of attracting interest.
The ITC collaboration produced several memorable tales of contemporary macabre: "The Two Faces Of Evil", "The Mark Of Satan" and "The House That Dripped Blood" being just a few of the more disturbing episodes. After the collapse of the ITC deal, Skeggs and Lawrence turned to America to find finance for a new series. "Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense" was actually a revival of an old idea of Michael Carreras' (even in their glory days Hammer had always flirted with the idea of breaking into television) but it had never been followed through. Now, story-editor Don Houghton started requesting script ideas from literary agents and ended up with synopsis from many Hammer regulars; Hammer veterans such as Val Guest, Peter Sasdy and John Hough were brought on board to direct several episodes; and funding for the series came from Twentieth Century Fox who stipulated a seventy-minute running time for each episode so that they could each be presented as a movie of the week (broadcast under the name "Fox Mystery Theatre") for their US screenings. Like many of Hammer's sci-fi movies from the early-fifties, the episodes also had to include American stars in key roles. The American influence is very obvious in the finished episodes: the horror content is muted and often non-existent and there is a very mid-eighties glossy look to the series which has badly dated many episodes. Also, the last minute extension of the episodes from fifty minutes to just over seventy, leaves some of the them feeling over-stretched. Nevertheless, this is still essential viewing for the British horror fans and DD Home Entertainment present the entire 13 part series spread over two, beautifully packaged, three disc box sets. The rest of this review looks at the first six episodes and the extras featured in volume one.
The old Hammer style is well and truly buried for this first episode of the series which is an expensive-looking espionage thriller set in Communist bloc Czechoslovakia. Principle director, John Hough was given first pick of the script treatments and, with this being the first episode to go into production, also found himself blessed with a slightly bigger budget and more time allotted than the other episodes would receive. Jeremy Burnham (an established television writer who had also contributed an episode to "Hammer House Of Horror") wrote the film and, although not the best episode, it's a reasonably suspenseful thriller with a decently chilling conclusion which recalls the downbeat endings of the previous Hammer Horror television series. In it, a television researcher played by Susan George is talked into accompanying her ex-husband (Patrick Mower) on a business trip behind the Iron Curtain to communist Czechoslovakia. However, no sooner have they arrived at their hotel, her ex disappears without trace as do both their passports! When a dead body turns up in her hotel room, she finds herself trapped and alone in a hostile country with a menacing thug (Peter Vaughan) on her trail, as well as the unsympathetic Communist authorities. John Hough had previously directed "Twins Of Evil" for Hammer -- one of the company's best-loved films -- and does a nice job here with the Viennese locations (which double for Czechoslovakia), giving their baroque austerity the foreboding, damp ambience of communist-era central Europe. The film is virtually carried by Susan George who spends most of the time on-screen alone, since Patrick Mower disappears early on; her performance is convincing despite the glossy, eighties hairstyle and make-up she's been plastered in, which makes her look like a refugee from "Dynasty"; the sense of her isolation and mounting anxiety is always palpable though. There is also a nice turn from Peter Vaughan who, of course, has no trouble looking villainous! Also, look out for a brief cameo right at the end from a current "Eastenders" star.
The Sweet Scent Of Death
Writer Brian Clemens was a natural choice to contribute some stories to the series: not only had he worked for Hammer several times before during their heyday, he'd also always been associated with the Hitchcockian mystery and suspense style that this particular series was focused on because of his own series, "Thriller" -- which ran successfully for a number of years during the seventies and to which he contributed all of the story ideas and most of the screenplays. "The Sweet Scent Of Death" seems slightly over-familiar material though, and feels like one of the stories that suffers the most from having the screenplay extended to fill the seventy-minute running time. Dean Stockwell and Shirley Night star as Greg and Ann Denver. Greg is the American Ambassador to the UK who buys a secluded country house for his wife to enjoy the English countryside while he is away on business. Upon arrival, they have a bunch of blood red roses anonymously delivered -- even though no one knows they have moved there! Ann is sure that she recognises the strangely behaving delivery man though, and soon pins down his identity to the British fiancé of a girl who was murdered in New York ten years previously. Ann had been the ambitious lawyer who got the man accused of the crime off the charge on a legal technicality! Soon, Ann begins finding blood red roses all over the house and suspects someone of skulking about outside during the night; when she finds an enlarged photograph of herself in the basement which has been slashed to ribbons, Ann becomes convinced that she is in grave danger from the former boyfriend of that murdered girl! Director Peter Sasdy ("Hands of The Ripper", "Countess Dracula") builds the mystery and tension up quite well at first but the "twist" ending is oddly signposted very early in advance making the final revelations supremely unspectacular and easy to predict. The trouble is, this is a very overused story idea (Hammer used to make lots of psychological thrillers with similar story-lines in the sixties and seventies) and despite Clemens bringing a well-worked-out motive for all the strange happenings and Sasdy handling the climax in excellent style, it can't help all falling a little flat. All the characters seem curiously blandly written with the only person really shining being Robert Lang in a small part as an avuncular police detective.
A Distant Scream
This third episode was the series' first foray into the supernatural. But, for some reason, it gives away most its secrets in the prologue leaving the rest of the episode to play out in predictable fashion! Rosemary (played by Stephanie Beacham - then a big American star from her role in "The Colbys") is accompanying her American lover Harris ("Kung Fu's" David Carradine) on a fishing holiday in windswept Cornwall while her husband is in Brussels. However, Rosemary keeps seeing a mysterious old man who appears to be following her! At first she suspects that her husband has sent someone to spy on her relationship with Harris, but she eventually recognises the man as an older version of her lover! No one else can see the apparition and when the future Harris reveals that Rosemary is soon to be murdered and that he will be accused of the murder and spend the rest of his life in jail for a crime he didn't commit, Rosemary is, understandably, quite perturbed! Harris has returned in spirit -- after dying in prison -- to solve Rosemary's forthcoming murder! Suspicious characters abound in the small, coastal boarding house: the rugged ships Captain who constantly flirts with Rosemary; his jealous girlfriend, and the retarded son of the landlady, all seem like possible contenders for the homicide -- but can this forewarning of events to-come actually help avert them? This second episode by director John Hough makes good use of the Cornwall coastal landscapes (the obviously terrible winter weather plays havoc with Stephanie Beacham's hairdo though!) but the film could have been a lot more interesting if the old stranger's identity and purpose for returning hadn't been given away in the pre-credit sequence (which is the only reason I haven't shied away from revealing it here); by the time Beacham's character catches up with the audience we are almost halfway through the film. Nevertheless, there is an interesting and quite subtle, fatalistic conclusion concerning how Harris's attempts to intervene in his own past actually end up playing a central role in bringing about the very events he is trying to avoid, and Hough stages an incredibly realistic fall from a cliff near the end.
The Late Nancy Irving
Peter Sasdy's second episode in the director's chair is one of the series highlights which builds from rather prosaic beginnings into a truly macabre tale of increasing strangeness. The eventual explanation for all the bizarre events turns out to be rather far-fetched and ridiculous but that doesn't detract from the atmospheric build-up of the piece. Christina Raines is Nancy Irving: an American professional golfer who is in England for a tournament and to catch up with her English boyfriend, Bob Appleyard (Simon Williams) before he leaves for Singapore on a business trip. While driving down a quiet country road, she comes across a car smashed into a tree, but then wakes up in a clinic whereupon she is told by the clinic's Dr. Marquis (Tony Anholt of "Space 1999" fame) that she has been in a car crash, although she has no memory of the event. Confined to bed, she is told that she suffers from a rare form of anaemia and must undergo regular blood transfusions. As the days pass, Nancy becomes increasingly concerned by the fact that she has received no phone calls and no one has visited her; she also seems to be getting weaker all the time. When she overhears a television broadcast announcing her own death from a recent car crash, and finds the doors to her room are locked, Nancy is understandably distraught! This is the first of two episodes written by David Fisher who had previously written for "Hammer House of Horror" and "Doctor Who". Sasdy takes his time establishing an atmosphere of normalcy in the first half-hour and then begins gradually undermining it until things reach a fever pitch of weirdness. An excellent cameo from an aged Marius Goring ("The Red Shoes") as a strangely malevolent older patient at the clinic is a highlight and although, once again, overlong, the episode reaches a very tense and chilling climax before slightly fizzling out in the final scenes.
American film actress Carol Lynley and one of the British stars of "Dynasty", Christopher Cazenove, star in this episode: one of the best and scariest of the entire series which saw veteran director Val Guest leaving semi-retirement (at the request of Roy Skeggs) to resume his relationship with Hammer -- a relationship which stretched back to the fifties when he directed the first Hammer X certificate flick, "The Quatermass Xperiment" and resulted in a total of fourteen films for the company. Although, like all the other episodes, it forgoes the gore and nudity of the "Hammer House Of Horror" series, this story would still have stood out even among that superior crop of episodes! This is a superbly realised ghost story which gradually builds up a sense of unease with a series of disturbing, evocative and quite inexplicable events until a terrifying level of near-hysteria is achieved by the final reel. Frank and Sylvia Daly have a strange experience while on holiday with their best friends: after a night out, the couple head back to their hotel room but find that their belongings have disappeared and the room is occupied by an old, bedridden woman, while a younger woman at her bedside promises her, "I'll go and find help!" Neither woman acknowledges the Dalys, and when the couple return to the room with the hotel manager, the couple have vanished and the Dalys belongings are back where they originally were! However, they later notice that the old woman's cain is still in the corner, leaning against the radiator! Two years later and Frank notices the same two women in a park having the same conversation as two years before! The Dalys are just about to move to Botswana because of Frank's job and are busy packing and shipping out their belongings. However, later that evening, while Frank and Sylvia are having one last drink with their neighbours in their, now unfurnished, living room Frank glances into the mirror above the mantelpiece and instead of his own stripped-down room he sees a completely different one with unfamiliar furnishings! Later that night, the couple try to sleep but strange voices can be heard in another room and when Sylvia goes into the bathroom to fetch a glass of water she is distraught to see an apparition of the drowned body of the old woman from the hotel and the park, floating in the bath! But the bad experiences are only just beginning and the couple find themselves assailed by a series of visions apparently concerning the murder of the old woman by her husband. As they become more and more vivid, the couple find it harder to break free of the awful sights that continually impress themselves on their consciousness. Eventually, they become trapped in an awful alternative reality! Michael J. Bird's screenplay wraps things up with a neat shock-ending which is no less effective for being not entirely unexpected.
By far the strangest episode of the series, "Black Carrion" is the one most people seem to remember -- probably because of its utterly bonkers plot line and unusual tone. The episode was written by the series' story-editor, Don Houghton; but ironically, Houghton had to be replaced by John Peacock after he was taken ill soon after the episode went into production. The story sees freelance journalist Paul Chater (Leigh Lawson) and sixties rock 'n' roll expert Cora Berlaine (Season Hubley) commissioned by the editor of "Upbeat" magazine to track down pop duo The Verne Brothers -- an enormously successful act who disappeared off the face of the earth in 1963. The two investigators track their quarry's last known whereabouts to the deserted "ghost" village of Briars Frome. The duo became owners of the village after buying a house there, but the place was apparently abandoned by its inhabitants after the construction of the first motorways led to it being bypassed by motorists in the early sixties. However, strange events are now occurring in the vicinity: more and more road users are disappearing without trace, and the police (led by John Patrick of "The Bill"!) are now beginning to take an interest in Briars Frome! When Cora and Paul pay a visit to the Verne's old Manor house there, they inadvertently discover the village's macabre secret. This is the third episode to be directed by John Hough -- who attempts to inject something of the comic irony of "The Avengers" into some bizarre proceedings. But the offbeat tone is more reminiscent of gentle, nostalgic police drama, "Heartbeat" crossed with the insane madness of "The League of Gentlemen". Hough fills out the seventy-minute running time with endless scenes of The Verne Brothers performing their retro rock 'n' roll which also adorns many other scenes, from grotesque lorry drivers who ram hapless motorists on country roads to "feral" old-age pensioners hiking cars off of a cliff! The one thing that can safely be said about this episode though is that you can never predict for a second where it is heading! The resolution is suitably weird and comical.
These six episodes are spread over two discs with the third devoted entirely to the extras. The image quality of the episodes is fair, although colours are quite faded throughout. Most have some print damage and occasionally this gets quite heavy, but luckily only for a very short amount of time! On disc three we get interviews with directors John Hough (17 minutes) and Val Guest (11 minutes) and script editor John Peacock (15 minutes). These are conducted by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn and cover the interviewees' careers and experiences working for Hammer. There are also four shorter interviews (about 5 minutes) with Hough and Guest in which they discuss the specific episodes they worked on. Finally, there are photo galleries for all six episodes. The set is beautifully packaged and comes with a sixteen page booklet featuring notes on the series by Marcus Hearn.
"Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense" is generally regarded as being much inferior to the previous television series featuring the Hammer name. This is probably true, but that doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of variety and inventiveness on display here. DD Home Entertainment have given the show two rather nice box set releases which every British horror fan will want to own. The second volume will be reviewed soon.