The Hammer house of horror continues to haunt, thanks to six videos in wide-screen format from Anchor Bay Entertainment.
For the unindoctrinated, Hammer Films was a popular studio that cranked out a slew of tidy, efficient and atmospheric horror films from the late '50s to the mid-'70s. Noted for using the same creepy-looking estate at the Bray Studios in London as the centerpiece of almost all its films, Hammer was a cut above the standard horror flick thanks to clever direction, hammy acting and quick-moving scripts.
Sure, most of the movies are hokey, melodramatic and cheesy, but what better for Halloween?
"Dracula, Prince of Darkness": It's hard to keep a good bloodsucker down. At least that's true of Christopher Lee, the actor who along with Bela Lugosi is best associated with playing that Transylvanian count. After completing a Dracula-free sabbatical, Lee hopped back into the cape for this cliched minor Hammer effort. The premise is predictable: Two vacationing couples wind up at Drac's estate, where they eat, drink and then are bitten. For some reason, after being bitten by Drac, all the female characters -- who are severely buttoned-up in their high-collared blouses -- suddenly turn into harpies with cleavage. The men fare worse: One bite and kerplunk, they're goners. "Darkness" isn't Hammer's finest vampire hour ("Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter" is tough to beat) but it does get the mood and hysterical acting down. (NR: Violence, equivalent of a PG)
"The Plague of the Zombies": Zombies! A plague! What more could a horror fan want? What about a very phony-looking decapitation by shovel -- in a graveyard, no less. You just can't go wrong. "Marsh Fever" is what the scaredy-cat townsfolk call the strange malady gripping and killing residents, but what's really going on in this Cornish village is Zombie Fever! Summoned to ferret out the Zombie Truth is a doctor. He, along with his wife, visit one of his former students whose wife looks anemic and acts skittish. The plot thickens after a mysterious and wealthy eccentric sics five creeps in jodhpurs and red riding jackets on the doc's wife. Entertaining and seriously deranged. I loved it. (NR: Violence, equivalent of a PG-13.)
"The Reptile": Something's not quite right with the people across the moor. Momma's nowhere to be found. Daddy's never happy. And daughter Anna is rarely seen, although she can be heard late at night, chomping into someone's neck. Egad, folks, she's a Snake Woman! Her latest neighbors/victims are an attractive couple who have inherited a cottage from Anna's latest meal ticket. Taking a cue from Bram Stoker's "Lair of the White Worm," this undiscovered Hammer gem gives the willies as well as the giggles. (NR: Violence, equivalent of a PG.)
"Quatermass & the Pit": The origins of this intelligent, existential horror/sci-fi flick can be traced back to a BBC serial, which featured the adventures of Professor Quatermass, a rocket research expert. Hammer Films liked what they saw on TV and remade it into a film that seems to be a 1967 version of "The X-Files." Workers uncover a strange sphere-shaped object while building an extension for a London underground subway. Thinking the device is explosive, Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is called into action. What he discovers is linked to the dawn of Man, visitors from Mars and mind control. Wow! Ambitious, intriguing and mind-bending. (NR: Equivalent of a PG for violence.)
"The Lost Continent": Every studio needs to crank out a stinker. "The Lost Continent" ranks high. A dumpy ship gets way off course, tossing its passengers into that evil Sargasso Sea -- where anything can happen, including an attack by killer mutant seaweed. Oh, how scary. And if that doesn't set your pulse thumping, what about that shark with just a fin and no body! Or the pirates with balloons on their heads! Or the mutant killer crab! Or the mutant killer scorpion! Every line is a howler. My favorite is when a bratty prince says, in a deadpan voice, "Am I not El Supremo?" As goofy in its badness as "Plan 9 From Outer Space." (NR: Equivalent of a PG for seaweed violence.)
"Rasputin: The Mad Monk": So what if everyone speaks with an English accent even if they're supposed to be Russian? And who cares if Hammer messes with history? What does matter is if this "Rasputin," featuring Christopher Lee in the title role, is worth watching. You know you're not going to get a textbook version of history from the start as the mad monk "cures" a terminal woman and then celebrates with a jig in a tavern. Deliriously decadent, "Rasputin" is a comic book version of history. (NR: Equivalent of a PG-13 for violence and sexual situations.)
And if that's not enough, here are some other Hammer films worth seeing: "Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter," "The Blood on Satan's Claw," "The Horror of Dracula," "Nightmare," "Paranoiac" (with Oliver Reed), "Tales From the Crypt" (1972 version with Joan Collins) and "Theatre of Blood" (with Vincent Price and Diana Rigg).
-- Randy Myers/Knight Ridder
(1) Liar, Liar (Universal). (2) Sleeping Beauty (Disney). (3) Star Wars Trilogy -- Special Edition (Fox). (4) Diana: The People's Princess (MVP) (5) Playboy Celebrity Centerfold: Farrah Fawcett (Playboy). (6) Spawn (HBO). (7) Fleetwood Mac: The Dance (Warner Reprise). (8) The First Wives Club (Paramount). (9) Diana: Legacy of a Princess (MPI) (10) Jenny McCarthy: The Playboy Years (Playboy).
(1) Liar, Liar (Universal). (2) The English Patient (Miramax). (3) The Saint (Paramount). (4) Volcano (Fox). (5) The Devil's Own (Columbia Tri-Star). (6) Donnie Brasco (Columbia TriStar). (7) Anaconda (Columbia TriStar). (8) Sling Blade (Miramax). (9) Dante's Peak (Universal). (10) Murder at 1600 (Warner).