Hammer Horror Classics Vol. 1

Director- Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis, Peter Sasdy


Cast - Various

Country of Origin - U.K.

Discs - 4

Distributor - Warner Bros.

Reviewer - Scott MacDonald

Date - 10/02/2015

The Films (The Mummy - 4/5 , Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed - 5/5, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave - 4/5,  Taste the Blood of Dracula - 3/5)

   I want to preface this review by stopping a few rumors about Warner Brothers Region A Blu-ray release Hammer Horror Classics Volume 1 in their tracks. These rumors were brought to my attention by Chris Workman co-author of the invaluable, and in progress Tome of Terror series (The 1930ís edition available here), so I would like to thank him for giving me the opportunity to address them. The first is that are cut editions of these films. These are in fact the uncut editions of each film. They were released uncut on DVD, and they are released uncut here on Blu-ray as well. These are not upscales, Warner Brothers is not in the business of upscaling DVD content to Blu-ray, these are gorgeous HD scans of their Hammer owned content. I have also heard complaints as to why Warner isn't releasing the complete Dracula and Frankenstein Hammer series. This might be the oddest complaint at all. They simply don't own them all. Hammer worked with a variety of producers during the time these series were popular, and as such the rights are all over.  Warner owns the rights to Dracula A.D. 1972, Horror of Dracula, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Dracula Has Risen from The Grave. As far as other Hammer content they only own the rights to distribute a few others.

 

   With the Hammer Horror Collection Volume 1 Warner Brothers have put together a HD compilation of 4 fine Hammer titles from their own library. The titles in the set include 1959's the Mummy, 1968's Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, 1969's Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and concludes chronologically with 1970's Taste the Blood of Dracula.

   Hammer Film Productions had existed since 1934, and had achieved moderate success in a variety of genres. However, it would not be until 1955's Sci-Fi adaptation of Nigel Kneale's popular serial the Quatermass Xperiment that the studio would begin to achieve true success. Of course, Hammer would become most well known for their horror films, which would begin life with the Curse of Frankenstein, and would be followed up the next year with Horror of Dracula. The two films actively avoided using stylistic choices already utilized by Universal Studios in their productions to avoid a copyright infringement suit. However, Universal seeing the success Hammer was having with their classic monsters worked out a deal with Hammer opening their house of horrors to the fledgling horror makers for remake. Hammer chose a series of films, and in 1959 began production on a remake of Universal's The Mummy's Hand. This remake would also incorporate facets of Universal's the Mummy's Tomb, but would be released as simply the Mummy. It would, of course, star Hammer's golden boys Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the primary roles.

     The Mummy opens in the late 1800's in Egypt, and follows the archaeological exploits of the Banning family Stephen (Felix Aylmer), Joe (Raymond Huntley), and John (Peter Cushing). As the film opens they discover the Tomb of the High Priestess Ananka. They first are warned not to enter by an Egyptian man Mehemet Bey, but upon entering are cursed. When Stephen reads from a scroll he discovers among the tombs contents, he is driven insane.

   The Story picks up 3 years later, and Stephen who had been placed in an asylum since returning to the UK from Egypt has come out of his catatonic state calls for his family.  Upon arriving at his side, he warns them that his reading of the scroll has awakened Ananka's defender the mummy Kharis (Christopher Lee). The family is now cursed to die by the mummy's hand, and that is just what will happen as Kharis has reached the UK, and begins to hunt down the Bannings.

   The Mummy used to be my least favorite of the initial run of Hammer monster remakes. I would chalk that up to the Mummy being my least favorite, and most under utilized of all movie monsters in general. The Blu-ray from Warner Brothers helped turn that opinion around quite a bit. The film on this viewing offered a wonderful exciting and atmospheric experience with a series of excellent performances from all involved. The film opens solidly with the Egyptian sequences, which features excellent set design that really channels turn of 19th century Egypt. When the film enters the U.K. sequences it becomes a really ripping horror tale that has a few slow moments, but overall offers tight pacing that should keep most viewers interest. Cushing offers his usual solid performance, but special recognition must go out to Lee as Kharis who manages to offer a lot of expression solely threw his eyes alone, as the rest of his body is covered in makeup and bandages.

     Most of the Hammer Horror Films got at least one sequel within a few years of the initial hitting theaters. Revenge of Frankenstein came out in 1958, and Brides of Dracula came out in 1960, however they didn't really become franchises for Hammer until the mid to late 1960's when for a number of years sequels become commonplace for the studio. The remaining contents of the Hammer Horror Classics Volume 1 are the late 60's sequels to Dracula and Frankenstein. The first of which is the excellent Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.

   Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is the first of Hammer's Dracula sequels not to be directed by Terence Fisher, and in some ways it shows. It lacks some of the more suspenseful elements that marked Fisher's films. That being said it was quite a nice atmosphere, and is quite charming, though I did find it's anti-atheist message a bit heavy handed. I did push that in the back of my head for the sake of enjoying the film.

   The film opens in a small town nearby  Castle Dracula (now on top of a mountain for those keeping score). A Monsignor (Rupert Davies) visits the village to check up on the local church and it's Priest. He is disturbed to find the church empty, and finds the reason being is that the church is in the shadow of Castle Dracula, and the parishioners no longer wish to attend for fear of Draculaís curse. He takes the timid Priest to perform an exorcism on the castle, and place a large cross in it's doorway. The Priest is too scared to finish the act, but Monsignor does his duty. Unfortunately, Dracula wakes up during this, takes the Priest under the thrall, and seeks revenge on the Monsignor for making his castle inaccessible.

   Dracula leaves the village to go to the city where the Monsignor lives, and uses the Priest to find the location of the Monsignor. Dracula, takes a barmaid at a local tavern, and turns her before setting his sights on Maria the niece of the Monsignor as the primary target of his revenge. Paul, a young man, who is acquiring an education while working as a baker at the bar is in love with Maria, but quickly finds himself on the outs with her Uncle and primary authority figure the Monsignor when it comes out that he is an atheist. However, when Maria is taken my Dracula he must find actual faith to defeat the evil vampire.

   OK, so yeah the script lays it's faith based message on pretty damn thick. Early on Paul comes to dinner at the home of the Monsignor to introduce himself as Maria's suitor and gets kicked out for his lack of beliefs, only to find faith a necessary component to take on Dracula. That being said the film itself is a tight entry in the Dracula series, and is quite near the top of the series rankings as far as I am concerned. Freddie Francis creates some wonderful visuals on his limited budget, and Lee turns in a fantastic intimidating performance as Dracula. Veronica Carlson offers a solid turn as Maria, and it's no surprise she was asked back for the following years Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.

   The third film chronologically in the set is 1969's Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. By this point in the series the focus had shifted from Frankenstein's Monster to the exploits of the Baron (Peter Cushing) himself.  In this entry we open with a thief entering the space that Dr. Frankenstein is currently utilizing for one of his experiments. Of course things for the thief or the Doctor do not end up well, and the thief barely escapes. The thief commits the un-thiefly act of going to the police, covered in bloody, and reports Frankenstein's actions. This puts Frankenstein on the run from the law.  He ends up hiding out under the name Mr. Fenner in a boarding house run by Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson in another splendid turn for Hammer) in a different city. This puts him in contact with her boyfriend another Doctor named Karl (Simon Ward), who is also performing unethical acts (though not on the same level as Frankenstein), and upon being caught by Dr. Frankenstein is blackmailed into assisting him with his experiments. These experiments include breaking a former colleague Dr. Brandt out of a lunatic asylum. Brandt, it is believed perfected cryogenics before losing his mind, and Frankenstein believes by putting Brandt's brain into a healthy body could dispel the man's insanity, and retrieve those secrets that he could then use for his own gain.

   Like Corman's Poe films there was a certain amount of repetition among some of Hammer's mid 60's output, especially within it's sequels. This happened more in it's Dracula sequels than in it's Frankenstein sequence, where experimentation seemed more likely. Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, seems to not only go against formula by creating something dark and violent, but it is also one of Hammer's best films overall. The film was directed by Terrence Fisher whose direction was sharp throughout, and offered a great deal of suspense through the entire presentation. The cast is excellent overall in this one, and while Cushing may have offered trickles of humanity in his performance as the Baron in the past, that is all but gone from his portrayal here. Freddie Jones as his creature offers a solid turn, and Veronica Carlson offers a tragic, dynamic performance.

   The final film in the set is Taste the Blood of Dracula. This is quite possible my least favorite of the Hammer Dracula Films. So I'll just get that out of the way. It is directed by Peter Sasdy who would go on to do the much better Hands of the Ripper and Countess Dracula as well as some episodes of the Hammer House of Horror in the 1980's.

   Taste the Blood of Dracula follows Dracula Has Risen from The Grave, but one doesn't really need to have watched the prior film to understand it. The film follows the exploits of 3 men who are bored with their home lives, and meet at night to get some kicks. While out one night they meet up with a man who offers them the opportunity to be a part of Satanic pact, and drink the blood of Dracula. The trio are repulsed and end up killing the man, which inadvertently resurrects the vampire. He then seeks revenge for his minions death by turning the daughters of the three into vampires, and sending them against their Fathers.

   Taste the Blood of Dracula started life at Hammer as a Satanic thriller before Dracula was brought into the script. This in a way is quite apparent, as Dracula feels less a part of this film than any prior or future entry in the series outside of the Lee-less Brides of Dracula.  It's as if Hammer needed a hit, and Dracula put people in seats. Like the prior film this one also has a bit of subtext, though it's not as heavy handed in that it shows that the prior generation is full of immoral and corrupt individuals, and that they need to be removed from their positions of power.

   The film itself feels quite a bit awkward in that it spends a good amount of itís early running time setting up itís Satanic premise only to turn it into a Dracula film. Taste The Blood of Dracula also feels a little bit of too much of the same this time around. People look at later films like Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula as the place where the Dracula series went awry, but I at least found those entries fun, rather than retreads, this film and it's follow up Scars of Dracula always felt like they came off the Hammer assembly line. This is not to say I don't get enjoyment out of them, because anytime Christopher Lee portrayed Dracula on screen for Hammer the film was at least enjoyable fun, and this film is certainly that. Overall, it's a fun vampire romp, it just doesnít match up to the series high points.

 

Audio/Video (5/5 (all))

     Warner Brothers has done a fantastic job bringing these 4 Hammer Films to Blu-ray. The Mummy is presented in a 1:66:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer, while the other 3 films are 1::85:1 with 1080p AVC encodes. The transfer all across the board have fantastic detail, excellent natural looking colors, with brightness never reaching any unnatural levels. There is a healthy level of organic film grain present through all the transfers.

   The audio is presented across the board with DTS-HD MA 1.0 track in English with optional subtitles. The tracks are also excellent and represent the films nicely. The dialogue and score come through nice and clearly, and I did not detect any issues with any of the tracks.

 

Extras (1/5 (all)

   The theatrical trailer for each film.

 

Overall

   It is always a treat getting more Hammer on Blu-ray, and it's fantastic finally getting Warner opening up their vault and releasing some of their Hammer titles. The Blu-ray's look and sound natural and fantastic, and I am absolutely looking forward to volume 2. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.