Sunday, November 30, 2014

Carry on Screaming! British Horror Week - The Sequel! - Happy Birthday Hammer! 80th Anniversary Moviethon

Despite being a long term horror fanatic, I'd barely seen any Hammer films until late last year. Prior to that, all I can remember seeing were one or two when I was at university and that was in less than favourable conditions (overly bright lecture theatres in the middle of the afternoon, while hungover not being the best way to watch movies). But being aware of their importance to British cinema history and that some of my friends are big fans, I knew I owed it to myself to pull my finger out and start exploring their large and varied back catalogue.

As I think I said in the first post of this sporadic theme month, this British horror kick started by accident. But when I saw that Hammer were celebrating their 80th anniversary this month, I started watching as much as I possibly could. My characteristic laziness and procrastination has meant I've blogged about perhaps barely 10% of what I've watched but I'd be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to let you know about the Hammer 'thon I had three weeks back.

It being their 80th anniversary, I decided to watch 8 films in one day (not a world record by any stretch but perhaps a personal best for me), 3 of which I'd never seen. Rather than going in depth on these right now (we can always return to the films individually at a later date), here's a blow by blow account of how the Hammer action went down...

Saturday 8th November 2014 

10:00 - The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955)

Literally two days before this moviethon, I was lucky to stumble across a DVD of this and its sequel (I hadn't seen either) for the very reasonable sum of £5. And I'm damn glad I bought it. The Quatermass Xperiment (the title apparently stylised to xpolit - sorry couldn't resist -  the recently introduced X rating) is not only an excellent sci-fi horror film but apparently it could be considered Hammer's first horror film. 

Based on the seminal TV serial from a few years earlier, the film follows the eponymous Professor (played here by Brian Donlevy, who writer Nigel Kneale reportedly hated, calling his performance "belligerent" if memory serves. Apparently the actor was mostly drunk during shooting, which might explain this) as he and Inspector Lomax of Scotland Yard (Jack Warner) attempt to track down an AWOL astronaut (the only survivor of an ill-fated mission) who is mutating into an alien organism that has invaded his body and which is now attempting to assimilate anything unwise enough to cross its path.

As I've frequently found with the Hammer films I've seen so far (especially ones from the 50s), I was pleasantly surprised by how effective this still is on the horror front and there are moments which are surprisingly grisly for the time. It also seems to have been massively influential (John Carpenter is a big Nigel Kneale fan for one) and is one of the earliest examples of body horror I can recall seeing in a film. Also, there's one great scene utilising found footage, another way in which this seems to have been way ahead of its time. And the look of the astronaut's mutated arm makes me wonder if Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto ever saw this too. 

Coming to this as someone who had seen Quatermass and the Pit (which we'll get to later) previously, I can see the problems Kneale had with Donlevy's performance and I greatly prefer Andrew Keir myself too... but to be honest I still enjoyed the former's bull headed "take no prisoners, take no shit" approach in this and it seemed to fit with his generally amoral attitude. 

Overall, a must see for classic sci-fi/horror fans and a great way to start the moviethon. 

11:29 -  Took a quick break here to make breakfast and pick up a few things from the previous evening's shenanigans... got seven movies still to go so needed some fuel for the fire!

12:15 - Quatermass 2 (Val Guest, 1957)

Also adapted from a TV serial of the same name, Quatermass 2 is more Invasion of the Body Snatchers than The Thing from Another World. This time the professor is investigating the fall out from some rather curious meteor showers, eventually leading him to discover a conspiracy involving synthetic food and alien infiltration of the government... which makes this movie rather prescient when one considers current concerns regarding genetic modification of crops and, in more Fortean realms, the theories of David Icke et al. 

Brian Donlevy returns to play the title role and is still going at it like a bull in a china shop (which, as I said earlier, I sort of enjoy)... but this time he seems to have developed a bit more of a social conscience. From what I remember, the rest of the cast were very good too but the one face that stood out to me (because of its familiarity) was Sid James of Carry On fame, who plays a reporter here (if memory serves).

Finally, it's worth pointing out this could be considered a zombie movie of sorts, with the z word being uttered at least twice. 

The BBC has been showing some classic sci-fi movies as of late and they showed this a few days back funnily enough... so if you have access to I Player, I imagine it should be on there to view for free until some time later this week. Like its predecessor, this comes highly recommended.

14:00 - Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967)

Being the first Hammer film I ever bought, this will always hold a special place in my heart. I'll admit many of its charms were probably lost on me during my initial viewing but with each subsequent re-watch I love it more and more. 

Released a whole ten years after the previous movie, this is different in a couple of ways that will be immediately apparent... i.e. the introduction of colour and the substitution of Andrew Keir for Brian Donlevy. As much as I perversely enjoyed the latter's performance, I much prefer the avuncular presence exuded by the former. Apparently Keir wasn't too happy making this, believing the director wanted someone else, but honestly, I would never have guessed that from watching this... though in retrospect he does come across as a tad world weary but that seems entirely appropriate to his character's place in the film's universe here.

This time the story involves mysterious artefacts discovered while a London Underground station is being refurbished. Firstly, strange looking skeletons are found (leading eventually to speculations that will excite anyone intrigued by ancient astronaut theories) and later a vessel is uncovered, which is initially assumed to be an unexploded bomb or advanced German V weapon.

Admittedly I've only seen the first two films once so far, compared to the handful of times I've watched this but it's safe to say it's my current favourite of the series. Apparently Val Guest was busy working on Casino Royale at the time so Roy Ward Baker took over as director. He does a fine job here and would go on later to make more films for Hammer and a few for rival studio Amicus too (such as Asylym, which we looked at earlier this month).

As you might guess, I wholeheartedly recommend this one too! In fact, let's just say right now I'd recommend every movie I'm discussing today!

16:00 - Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (Seth Holt and Michael Carreras, 1971)

The first part of a mummy double feature, the was an apt follow on from the previous film for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was the second Hammer film I ever bought and also our pal Andrew Keir returns... though there's a tragic story associated with that... in fact, this whole movie was sadly plagued by tragedy, as we'll soon discuss...

Less a traditional mummy movie and more in the vein of a reincarnation/curse movie like Mario Bava's Black Sunday or Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace (itself based on a H.P. Lovecraft tale), Blood from the Mummy's Tomb is a firm favourite of mine. It's one I always find a lot of fun and unless I read about the background, I'd never have guessed about its own seemingly cursed nature. And therein hangs a tale or two...

Peter Cushing was originally cast in the role later played (and very well I should add) by Andrew Keir. He completed one day's shooting before having to leave the production due to discovering his wife had emphysema. Furthermore, director Seth Holt actually died before filming was completed. As the film's Wikipedia page (by way of a Guardian article) informs us: "Director Seth Holt died of a heart attack five weeks into the six week shoot, collapsing into cast member Aubrey Morris's arms and dying on set. Michael Carreras directed the final week's filming." Like I say, unless I'd read this, I'd never have known and nothing in the finished film makes any of this apparent... a true testament to the talent and professionalism of all involved.

Being from the early 70s, this obviously has a different feel to older Hammer movies and you might say it's somewhat tonally different too, edging perhaps slightly towards camp in places. I should add though this isn't a criticism at all and besides you might well perceive the film differently than I... and as I may have implied here, I'm not entirely sure about all this myself. Every time I re-watch a movie there's always the possibility of my opinion radically transforming.

Aside from Andrew Keir, who does an excellent job of filling Peter Cushing's considerably sized shoes, I really enjoyed what the cast brought to this, with particular praise due to the stunning Valerie Leon, who plays the leading lady, and James Villiers (who was also in Asylum) as the Mephistophelean character Corbeck.

As I said earlier, a lot of fun this one and perhaps a good introductory film for anyone out there unfamiliar with Hammer... especially anyone not particularly acclimatised to older movies.

18:03 - The Mummy (Terence Fisher, 1959) 

Apologies in advance here folks, my notes on this one will be very brief. 

I think (but am not sure) that I might have seen this during that aforementioned screening at university but honestly I can't remember... I know for certain we watched The Gorgon but at any rate I'd meant to check this out for some time, having thoroughly enjoyed both Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein.

Really I should have taken a break after Blood from the Mummy's Tomb as I was starting to get a bit spaced out after four movies and I plan to revisit this in the none too distant to hopefully do the film justice.

Though less so than the other movies on today's menu, I remember enjoying it... an overlong (and possibly somewhat redundant) flashback scene aside. And you know anything with the names Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Terence Fisher attached is always going to be worth a watch.

Like I say, I'm gonna have to come back to this one once I've had chance to re-watch it.

19:40 - Took an extended break here to eat and rest my brain/eyes for a bit. Also I had to pop out for some additional provisions... and in retrospect I wish I'd done that earlier, it being bonfire weekend and hence the village I live in being a bit of an obstacle course of kids. Hindsight's 20/20 as they say. Anyway, back to the films and to finish, a vampire triple feature!

21:15 - Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Prior to getting into Hammer, I'd sort of half assumed that British horror movies of this vintage would be quaint and tame by today's standards (which could well be the main thing that took me so long to give them a go). My first viewing of this extremely seminal film last Christmas would show me how bloody wrong I was on that front!

This must have scared audiences witless back in '58 as I'd say it still packs a punch even now. Like with The Quatermass Xperiment, there are parts which blew me away in how graphic they were for when this was released. It is also, I should add, still very entertaining.

I'm sure we're all familiar with the Dracula story in at least one of its many incarnations and another way in which this surprised me are the novel ways in which it diverts from Stoker's original novel. 

Admittedly I'm skimming over most of the details of these movies now for the sake of expediency but also I really don't want to give too much away to anyone who hasn't seen them. And going back on what I said earlier r.e. Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (which is still a fine enough film to begin one's Hammer initiation with), I think if you've never seen a Hammer film, this is really the ideal place to start. Grand gothic visuals, rip roaring action and adventure and some scintillating performances from leads Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as the Count and Van Helsing respectively, this is arguably still as potent a piece of horror cinema as the day it was released. 

22:55 -  Captain Kronos -Vampire Hunter (Brian Clemens, made 1972, released 1974)

From the archetypical Hammer vampire film to one of the more atypical now, this is another firm favourite of mine and after watching it again for this moviethon I think it's my current number one Hammer film. 

I was a bit confused at first r.e. the dates, as indicated above. It seems that it was shelved at first and later released, perhaps owing to the financial troubles Hammer was apparently suffering at the time. If anyone has any insight on any of this, feel free to drop me a line below. 

I also gather one reason this was rather radical as far as Hammer vampire movies go was that it was an attempt by the studio to try something different in the hopes of getting more bums on cinema seats. It's a damn shame the film wasn't a success as I'd have loved to have seen more adventures involving the Captain (Horst Janson) and his assistant Hieronymus Grost (John Carson).

Edging more towards action than horror, this was also a departure from the norm in the sense that it expanded the vampire mythos and suggested there are many species of bloodsuckers out there, which is certainly an ingenious idea. 

There's also a lot of humour here and some cracking dialogue to be savoured (e.g. regarding Grost: "What he doesn't know about vampires wouldn't fill a flea's codpiece"). I absolutely loved the rousing score by Laurie Johnson and there's some fine performances from all involved, including some from people familiar to me from other movies, such as Ian Hendry (from Theatre of Blood and Tales from the Crypt) and Caroline Munro (from The Abominable Dr. Phibes - which I actually had no idea she was in - Slaughter High, Don't Open Till Christmas and many more).

And kudos to Clemens for not only doing an excellent job writing but also for bringing some style and directorial flair to the table.   

Overall, an apparently overlooked gem of a film and one I hope more people seek out. Hammer has talked about remaking the film and I hear they even asked Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field in England) if he'd give it a go. Now that I'd love to see!

00:35 - One last quick break and then time for the 8th and final film!

00: 56 - Lust for a Vampire (Jimmy Sangster, 1971)

Now I'm sure there are some of you out there thinking, "Why oh why did you end with this one Simon?". And I'll concede you have a bit of point there... I mean, I was sort of thinking that myself at one or two points but basically the reason is simple... the last (and 1st time) I watched this, I enjoyed it that much that I said to myself "This is now my current favourite Hammer movie". Since then I've seen quite a few more and re-watched others, meaning this would rank much lower now but despite my changing opinion and the fact this seems to be maligned by many, I still very much enjoy it and found it a fine film to end the moviethon with.

Part of the Karnstein trilogy (and generally seen as the weakest apparently), this is easily the campiest film from Hammer I've seen... and as I said when I invoked that word for another film earlier, I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. In fact, it's probably why I enjoy it as much as I do!

As with Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (from the same year), the plot centres round a reincarnated lady (brought back in a very cool reanimation scene) and the havoc she wreaks. 

I think one reason I'm preprogrammed to love this, the slight silliness aside, is the girl's school setting. And I don't care what anyone says, I loved the music (by Harry Robinson)... and yes, that includes the song "Strange Love" (music by Robertson, lyrics by Frank Godwin and performed by someone simply known as Tracy).

This also shares further similarities to Blood from the Mummy's Tomb in that Peter Cushing was replaced at short notice (by Ralph Bates) and Jimmy Sangster (who generally performed scriptwriting duties for Hammer) picked up the directing reins that were originally to have be held by Terence Fisher. Taking all this on board it's totally understandable the film would turn out far from ideal... but as I've implied, I love it just the way it is anyway.

03:15 - THE END! 

Now the observant among you will note that Lust for a Vampire is not over two hours long... frankly due to the late hour I started watching it and the inebriated state I was in, I paused the film at one point to pop out for some fresh air (okay, I mean a smoke!). 

At any rate I had a total blast during this moviethon and it's got me eager to see many more Hammer films. Yup, despite being late to the party, as it were, you can now consider me completely sold on the studio and its films. 

While it's great to see they're still putting out movies (I really enjoyed The Woman in Black and apparently its sequel is coming out very soon) and acknowledging their rich heritage, I'd also love to see them do some more films like the ones we looked at today. Like what would a Captain Kronos directed by Ben Wheatley look like? Or a Quatermass movie made by the Dr. Who crew? Or a Dracula or Frankenstein movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch (I heard great things about his theatre appearances in the latter)? What would your fantasy Hammer movie to be made now be folks and who would direct/appear in it?

And finally, before I forget, HAPPY BIRTHDAY HAMMER!!!!!!!! 


  1. Really nice set of micro-reviews, and I bet you had a blast doing it. Blood from... and Lust For... aren't among my favorite Hammers, but I agree there's generally too much dumping on these and the other lesser films. After all, a weak Hammer is usually still fun to watch, and everyone's taste is different. (One of my least favorites -- mentioned in your reviews -- is a favorite of nearly everyone I know.) Happy watching!

    1. Thanks Stephen :) I've still only seen a small fraction of Hammer's back catalogue but agree that even the lesser of those were very enjoyable. Borrowing James Agee's comment r.e. the Marx Brothers, I'm sure even the weaker Hammers are more worth watching than many, many other things. Cheers for stopping by and commenting!

  2. Simon, oh so much goodness here! The esteemed Mr. Sullivan is absolutely correct in his assertion that even 'a weak Hammer is usually still fun to watch.' As you know I'm a big Hammer fan and I've only seen one that I out and out disliked. Hammer had an uncharacteristically strong output over a 15-20 year span. And you know me, I love Lust and Captain Kronos. Excellent work sir!

    1. Cheers Brad :)

      I'll be taking a bit of (but not a total) break from Hammer now but look forward to seeing many more next year, especially when I do that promised British horror month. And it's very exciting to me that I still have so much to see.

      And I'm morbidly curious to see your 'The Burning' of Hammer films, as it were!

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