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Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense Vol.2

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 American import Dirk Benedict of "The A-Team" fame plays Frank Rowlett: a playboy, gambler and chancer whose clean-cut good looks have helped him out of many a financial scrape by allowing him to date a succession of rich women. Rowlett thinks he has struck gold since his current conquest, Sara Helston (Jenny Seagrove) is the daughter of the millionaire, Matt Helston (John Paul) and is completely in love with him! Marriage is on the cards and that will be a massive boon for Rowlett since he is in debt to a small-time gangster who is threatening him with an early death if he doesn't pay up soon. But, when he is given a twenty-four hour deadline to pay off this debt, Rowlett is forced to try and sell an expensive watch that Sara gave him as a gift, to a back-street Chinese tattooist called Hai Lee ("Pink Panther" star, Burt Kwouk). When Rowlett notices that Lee keeps a huge stash of money underneath a loose floorboard in his office, temptation is just too great and he attempts to stuff his pockets with cash while Lee is distracted by a client. However, he is caught in the act and an altercation ensues that results in Rowlett murdering the tattooist -- but not before he is pricked by one of Lee's tattooing needles leaving a small ink stain in the middle of his chest! Rowlett thinks nothing of it, and with his debts now fully paid and marriage into the rich Helston family imminent, things seem to be looking up. However, he soon notices that the ink stain on his chest seems to be getting bigger! Rowlett tries to hide it from his fiancé but it continues to grow; eventually it takes the form of a picture of him murdering Hai Lee which expands to cover his whole chest and begins spreading to his face and arms! As this stain of guilt gets bigger and bigger, Rowlett's whole life starts falling apart...
Although saddled with a rather anodyne leading man in the shape of Dirk Benedict, director Val Guest manages to work around the problem by finding ingenious ways to suggest certain aspects of the character's psyche: we see early on that Rowlett is confident and sporty from framed photographs on a sideboard showing him bare-chested -- looking bronzed and carefree. But the spreading tattoo brings a gradual change in his character since it forces him to cover up his body and hide from his own fiancé, in the process bringing shame, guilt and doubt into a life previously unsullied by such emotions. By the end of the film Rowlett is skulking about like a leper in the shadows -- covered-up from head to toe and a complete societal pariah. The clammy sense of dread and alienation experienced by the character is very well conveyed just by contrasting it with the picture of the happy-go-lucky individual portrayed in the opening minutes of the film -- without any great acting effort being required on Benedict's part! Adequate support is provided by Jenny Seagrove as the trusting fiancé and Rowlett's efforts to impress her well-to-do family lie at the core of this episode's exploration of shame and social inadequacy, ably wrapped in Clemens' contemporary black magic plot.
The Corvini Inheritance
Two wonderful performances from David McCallum and Jan Francis mark out this hallucinogenic, sometimes giallo-esque, thriller scripted by David Fisher and directed by the only female ever to direct for Hammer, Gabrielle Beaumont: a British-born director who worked mostly on American television shows such as "The Dukes Of Hazzard. The episode starts with quite an atmospheric sequence which could have come straight out of Dario Argento's "Door Into Darkness" series and definitely has that giallo quality to it. Jan Francis's character, Eva Bailey is stalked on her way home by a masked, black-gloved figure. He then tries to break into her apartment by smashing one of her windows to gain entry. Meanwhile, head of security at Hammonds Auction house, Frank Lane (David McCallum) is preparing to receive an expensive item of jewelry known as the Corvini stone -- a gem which is said to change colour to signify adultery in its wearer -- which is to be guarded on-site. Lane has developed a series of apparently fail-safe security measures which have been very successful and involve constant video surveillance and strict adherence to his patrol schedule. In fact Lane, who lives alone except for his cat, is obsessed with surveillance and security! It transpires that he is Eva Baily's next-door neighbour and when he learns about her recent break-in attempt, the lonely security expert tries to woe her by giving her free security advice, installing a security camera outside her front door, and attempting to help her identify and catch her mystery assailant!
This episode, while featuring a few giallo reference points and a "twist" ending characteristic of the genre, is one of the most quintessentially British of all the thrillers in the series: Its weird and offbeat, set in a grayish drizzly city, and is full of dysfunctional and quietly desperate people sheltering behind mediocre and uneventful lives. The two strands of the story (Lane's obsession with guarding the Corvini stone and Eva Baily's mysterious attacker) seem entirely unrelated for most of the episode but the character studies of the two leads, which are played wonderfully by McCallum and Francis, are riveting and the conclusion almost shocking -- although the twist will not surprise anyone since it is so clearly sign-posted half way through. The tone of this episode seems vastly different to many of the others, with all the slick, Americanised gloss stripped away to leave a strange and compelling study in creeping madness and alienation. This is also the closest in style to the previous "Hammer House Of Horror" series, not least because the auction house scenes were filmed at Hampden house which had been that series' base and principle location.
Paint Me A Murder
Jess Lasky Jr (along with wife and writing partner Pat Silver) scripted this episode. As someone who had worked with Alfred Hitchcock way back in 1936, providing dialogue for "Secret Agent", the 73 year-old Lasky was an appropriate choice for a series dealing in Hitchock's stock and trade: mystery and suspense. Lasky and Silver had become fixtures in British television since the early sixties, writing for series like "Danger Man" and "Space:1999". Director Alan Cooke, meanwhile, was an Englishman who had moved to the States to work solidly in American tv on shows such as "Quincy", "Heart To Heart" and "The Father Dowling Mysteries". "Paint Me A Murder" is built on an interesting premise but never really develops into anything substantial.
Sandra Lorenz (Michelle Phillips) is mourning the death of her artist husband Luke (James Laurenson), whose lack of success in the art world led him to commit suicide by drowning himself at sea. But no sooner is Luke Lorenz in his grave than the very same dealers, critics and collectors who previously rejected him, begin clamouring for his work! Art dealer Vincent Rhodes (David Robb) manages to charm Sandra into letting him display and sell Lorenz's paintings, but she will only let him have a few at a time. There is a very good reason for this though: Luke Lorenz is still very much alive and has faked his own suicide in order to induce interest in his work! All goes well at first with an exhibition at the Tate looking very likely -- but when the police become suspicious; Luke starts to go stir crazy from being locked up in the attic day and night; and the debonair Vincent Rhodes and Sandra fall in love with each other, the whole charade starts to unravel with lethal consequences!
James Laurenson, still a regular player in contemporary television drama, does a decent enough job as the increasingly disheveled artist, while former Mamas and the Papas singer Michelle Phillips is excellent as the greedy wife. The trouble with this episode is that it can't quite decide if it wants to be a straight thriller or a supernatural chiller. It half-heartedly includes elements of both and ends up neither one thing or the other. Lorenz's dark and emotionally turbulent canvases are suitably existentially pained and macabre but the suggestion that they might somehow predict the future seems to have been introduced simply to end the episode on a punchy note rather than for any deeper thematic reasons. The motivations of the characters are not always convincing or coherent either, particularly Phillips' who almost, inexplicably, sabotages her own plan for no other reason than it helps introduce a revenge element to the plot after the original idea has run its course. Still, the performances of the lead players makes it watchable despite the story's shortcomings.
Child's Play
If there was a prize for the wackiest, most absurd plot twist in a drama then this episode would surely see off all other contenders! Script-editor John Peacock worked with first-time writer Graham Wassell on this intriguing tale with the barmiest payoff of all time, and Val Guest returned for the third and last time as director. In fact, this was the last film the veteran director ever helmed and he certainly chose a memorable one! Shot on location at a private residence in Borehamwood, the film is essentially a three-hander starring the stunning Mary Crosby with support from Nicholas Clay as her character's husband, and child actor Debbie Chasen as their young daughter. In it, Crosby plays Ann Preston -- a woman who wakes one morning at 4:10 AM to find that she and her family are trapped inside their house because it has been completely sealed-off by an impenetrable grey wall! The wall seems to be getting steadily warmer, causing the temperature inside to soar! As all attempts to cut through it or find a way out of the house fail, Ann also notices other bizarre things: a strange symbol appears on every item in the house -- whether furniture or food produce -- and her husband even has a tattoo of the symbol on his arm! Ann's hand suddenly goes dead and the lack of sensation begins spreading up her arm; all clocks and watches in the house are stuck at 4:10 AM, despite the fact that they continue to function as normal; neither Ann nor Mike have any memory of their previous lives and their daughter appears never to have aged according to the pictures in their photo albums; and gunky, green slime begins pouring down into the fireplace and filling up the living room! There are many more odd details that pile up throughout the episode and it's clear that the solution is going to have to be pretty damn spectacular to account for them all! Rest assured it is! This is not the best episode by any means but once you've seen it, you'll never forget its outrageous conclusion. While you are trying to figure out what is going on though, you can also enjoy the presence of Mary Crosby who looks absolutely ravishing here!
And The Walls Came Tumbling Down
Paul Annett directed this wonderful episode which is the only one of the series that comes close to capturing the original ambience and spirit of classic British horror. Annett is best known by genre fans for the camp Amicus werewolf movie "The Beast Must Die" and he, with the help of a cast of reliable and well-known jobbing British thespians, manages to come up with an enormously entertaining throwback to Seventies British witchcraft movies such as "Blood on Satan's Claw" and "Cry Of The Banshee". (Ironically, neither one a Hammer movie!) The original script by Dennis Spooner was so heavily rewritten by series script-editor John Peacock (who also reworked the script for Hammer's last ever horror film "To The Devil A Daughter" with which this episode shares some similarity) that he ended up sharing a writer's credit for the episode. The story is set both in the present day and the mid-seventeenth century with key actors taking dual roles in both time-periods. The "all star" cast is made up of a whole host of luminaries from classic British TV and movie drama: Gareth Hunt, Patricia Hayes and Peter Wyngarde (making a rare 80s TV appearance) are all in fine fettle and there are cameos from future "Coronation Street" star Peter Baldwin and a young-looking Gary Waldhorn who would go on to find fame as grumpy David Horden from "The Vicar Of Dibley". Heading the cast is the rather out of place, former Playboy cover girl and "girlfriend" of Hugh Heffner, Barbi Benton!
A deconsecrated church is being readied for demolition to make way for a NATO building facility. One of the workers on the site is mysteriously killed after uncovering a hidden room behind a wall inside the church. The room contains two skeletons and a faded painting -- although what it depicts cannot now be discerned. Three hundred years previously a young member of a satanic cult betrayed his coven to the church authorities and three of them were burned at the stake. The young cult member's punishment was to be walled-up in the abandoned church that the coven had been using for their rituals along with cult leader, Daniel Haswell (Wyngarde) to wait for the day that Haswell's ultimate plan will be put into effect. Now, in the present day, Haswell's restless spirit appears to have been unleashed and a number of deaths and strange events start occurring inside the crumbling church. Psychic researcher Caroline Trent (Barbi Benton) convinces demolition expert, Peter Whiteway (Gareth Hunt) that something satanic in origin is taking place and the painting inside the hidden room holds the key.
The period sections of the film are what make this episode stand out; Annett handles them beautifully, and actor Robert James makes a fine Peter Cushing substitute in the role of Father Amberly the witch hunter -- helping this mid-eighties episode no end in conjuring the spirit of classic seventies horror! Peter Wyngarde, who rarely appeared on television after his defining role in the series "Department S" and "Jason King", is wonderfully compelling in his portrayal of the Coven leader Daniel Haswell: with his piercing, coal-black eyes and instantly recognisable moustache, there is nothing camp about his portrayal of evil here! The portions set in the present day are almost exclusively set in rundown neighbourhoods so there is little of the pseudo-glamour of many of the other episodes in the series -- just traditional English grime! Rather than being just a typical story about a 17th century satanist re-emerging in the present day, the script cleverly works-in eighties anxieties about nuclear war which bring a nice twist to the final scenes. A very enjoyable episode!
Tennis Court
The final episode of the series features a good, old-fashioned haunting -- its all terribly middle-class and tasteful though! Radiant Hannah Gordon plays the wife of an MP who discovers that the tennis court in the grounds of their new estate is host to a malevolent supernatural force! This is the only screenplay that actually needed abridging rather than extending to fit the running time of the series. Based on a short story, "The Haunted Tennis Court", by Michael Hastings, the original screenplay had been commissioned by Roy Skeggs in 1981 with the intention of making a full-length feature. When that failed to get off the ground, the old screenplay was adapted to fit the new running time and the film was made as part of this series instead, with Cyril Frankel directing. Frankel had worked for Hammer before, directing the little-seen but highly regarded thriller, "Never Take Sweets From A Stranger" and "The Witches" which was based on a screenplay by Nigel "Quatermass" Kneale! Here he brings some degree of dynamism to a tale which is essentially in the revenge-from-beyond-the-grave tradition. Maggie Dowl (Gordon) inherits the estate where her father and mother once lived. Her father was lost during the war when his plane was shot down; his co-pilot and best friend left him to die in his panic to escape. That co-pilot became a vicar (played by "Mission: Impossible" star Peter Graves), and still lives near the estate where his best friend once lived. Now Maggie begins to suspect that the spirit of her father is still around -- haunting the tennis court where he used to play as a young man. The story may be a bit thin but there are some fairly engaging set-pieces sprinkled throughout which employ some clever special effects. These include the possession of the vicar's daughter by the dead fighter pilot during which her face becomes horrifically scared and burned; a paranormal investigator being smothered by a tennis net which comes to life; and the rousing exorcist-style finale!
As well as these seven episodes spread across three discs there is also some more footage from the interview sessions with John Peacock and Val Guest conducted by Hammer historian, Marcus Hearn who also writes the liner notes for the sixteen page booklet which accompanies the set. These interviews run for around five minutes each with Guest commenting on the two episodes ("Mark Of The Devil" and "Child's Play") from the set which he personally directed, while Peacock talks in general about the making of the series. Disc three also includes photo galleries for each episode which contain publicity stills and behind the scenes photographs.
The print quality of these episodes is quite good with only minor print damage occurring sporadically throughout -- and slightly faded colour; the mono audio track is perfectly adequate. Just like the first volume, this set is beautifully packaged and is bound to please fans of British horror.

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