‘Hammer House Of Horror’ (DVD/Blu-Ray) Review

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Our Rating

Nightmares induced10
10

Things that go bump in the night…

The classic horror anthology series gets a brand new release in the form of a spruced-up Blu-Ray box set.

* Special note: this should’ve been posted several months ago but, due to unforeseen circumstances, this was delayed. Apologies for this oversight. *

Isn’t television wonderful? These days it seems to be that all the best entertainment is found on TV, from long-running comedies to well crafted, thoughtful dramas to imaginative sci-fi to spine-chilling horror, and everything in between. More often than not you’ll see the best actors in the world plying their trade on television, along with talented writers, directors and producers. It’s often said that television is enjoying something of a golden age at the moment, and it’s hard to disagree when faced with the continuing success of output providers such as the BBC, Sky and HBO, to name just three. Consider that, despite the blockbuster movies that continue to fill our cinemas, in todays pop culture the most talked about items are TV shows, with global successes such as ‘Game of Thrones‘, ‘The Walking Dead‘ and ‘The Big Bang Theory‘ occupying just as much as space as the big movies in the cultural zeitgeist. Just witness the hype machines that growl into life whenever a new series is due to start, or the emotional desolation that manifests in a fan-base when that series comes to an end. Not-to-mention the huge sub-cultures that have grown up around so many shows over the years. Probably the best example of this would be ‘Star Trek‘, the original 60’s series and it’s many spin-offs, which continues to inspire fierce devotion in it’s seemingly never-ending armies of fans. Add in to that the 13 (so-far) movies, novels, comic books, an animated series and the many, many conventions that happen every year all over the world, and you have a true pop-culture phenomenon, and all from a TV show that was initially poorly received and was cancelled after three series. And that’s a point that needs addressing, for much of the enduring appeal of ‘Star Trek’ comes from its later incarnations. Because there was once a time when TV was not the juggernaut we enjoy today…

For many years TV was considered the bastard-stepchild of the movie industry, a way for actors who weren’t god enough to make it in movies to make a living. I admit that’s quite a generalisation, but the point stands. If cinema was the handsome, strapping big brother, then TV was the runt of the litter, a good place to start or finish a career, but certainly not the place to spend your whole career. Unless, of course, it was all you could do. In which case you were stuck. And you could argue that this situation came about because of the initial success of TV. Back in the 1950’s, as TV was starting to take off in a big way, the film industry took such a hit in terms of revenue that it forced the big studios to change the way they went about their business. If people were staying at home to watch this new-fangled televisual entertainment, rather than forking out for the picture house, then they needed to give people a damn good reason for making that trip out. And this ultimately led to the event movie, and in time the summer blockbuster, ‘Jaws‘ (1975) being accepted as the first example of this. And it’s around this time that people began to see TV as the inferior product to the cinema, the cheapness of the products on display in stark contrast to wonders to be seen at the local fleapit. Sure, the big TV producers still plugged away, usually attempting to ape the success of whatever was big in the cinema at the time. For instance, in the wake of the staggering success of ‘Star Wars‘ (1977) sci-fi shows once again came to the fore, with the original ‘Battlestar Galactica‘ launching in 1978 and a revival of pulp hero Buck Rogers joining the following year. But, for most people, TV remained second-best until, ironically enough, it was a new take on ‘Star Trek’ that began to change things. Launching in 1987 amongst the wailing of the die-hard fans of the original, ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation‘ jumped around 70 years into the future and featured a multi-racial crew (a Klingon! in Starfleet!) aboard a bigger, more technologically advanced Enterprise. But it was the man in charge of everyone that got the attention. Up until that point Patrick Stewart was mainly known for his work in British theatre and TV, as well as some supporting roles in a range of cult movies, such as ‘Excalibur‘ (1981), ‘Dune‘ (1984) and ‘Lifeforce‘ (1985). But what really caught peoples attention was the fact that this was a Shakespearean actor taking a role in a sci-fi show, and what’s more taking it seriously and giving some great performances across it’s 7 seasons (and 4 spin-off movies). And the landscape began to change, ever so slightly, with actors feeling able to take a chance on a TV project over a big-screen movie, with long-term contracts potentially guaranteeing work for years. And, to cut a long story (very) short, we find ourselves in the early 21st century with more choice than ever before. There are more ways than ever to watch your favourite shows, from initial broadcast to online streaming, and so many goodies to choose from that it makes your head spin. In particular, partially down to changes in social attitudes over the years, horror has become a popular choice for TV companies, with vampires, werewolves, zombies, haunted houses and everything in between proving popular, on mainstream TV as well as subscription services. Which brings us neatly to the daddy of them all, ‘Hammer House Of Horror’…

Originally broadcast in 1980, ‘Hammer House Of Horror‘ (from this point on referred to as HHOH) was the brainchild of Roy Skeggs, a producer who had worked at Hammer during their boom years, and returned after a period of severe financial difficulty. Working in conjunction with Brian Lawrence, another returning producer, Skeggs worked to revitalise the ailing studio, moving away from a seemingly endless line of Dracula and Frankenstein remakes, and shifting focus towards anthologies and serials. HHOH was one-such endeavour, an anthology serial produced in conjunction with Cinema Arts International and ITC Entertainment, and consisting of 13 episodes, with each focusing on a different type of horror, with more traditional themes such as witchcraft, werewolves and demonic possession joined by non-supernatural themes such as cannibalism and serial killers. Featuring a cast of familiar faces from British TV and film, episodes were shot on film as opposed to video, and on location rather than on studio-bound sets, meaning you feel like you’re watching something of genuine quality, rather than a rush-job designed to fill a gap in a schedule. A ratings winner at the time, in both the UK and the US, HHOH is rightly regarded as a classic of modern television, and has now been released on Blu-Ray for the first time, all nicely spruced up and ready to scare a new generation.  So, with that in mind, let’s dive in at the beginning…

We begin, appropriately enough, with episode 1, the jauntily titled ‘Witching Time‘. Featuring as its main plot device good old-fashioned witchcraft, a musician (Jon Finch) working alone in his isolated farmhouse finds himself first beguiled, then terrorized by a young woman (Patricia Quinn) claiming to be a 17th century witch. Foregoing gore for more subtle scares (and, it has to be said, a fair smattering of nudity), ‘Witching Time’ works particularly well as a psychological horror, as Finch, dealing with both his isolation and the seeming ambivalence of his absent wife (Prunella Gee), slowly loses his grip on reality. Is the witch real? Or does she just exist in his fractured, booze-addled mind? As a viewer, you’re never completely sure, although Quinn’s slinky, sexy performance would turn the head of most men (and probably some women). The remote location also adds a nice sense of foreboding to the oppressive atmosphere, and it all builds to a nicely gothic climax, as Gee decides to fight for her man. Next up is ‘The Thirteenth Reunion‘, which features Julia Foster as a journalist investigating a revolutionary new form of weight-loss treatment, only to find herself dragged into something far more sinister when a friend who is also taking the treatment dies in mysterious circumstances. Eschewing outright scares in favour of a much more creeping sense of dread, Foster’s bored journo rediscovers her investigative drive as she uncovers a group of shadowy individuals manipulating events to their own unpleasant ends. Featuring a host of familiar faces, including Dinah Sheridan, Warren Clarke and James Cosmo, ‘The Thirteenth Reunion’ is a fine example of a form of horror that is hard to describe, but basically boils down to ‘something horrible hiding in plain sight’, or something along those lines, as seemingly benevolent people turn out to be anything but and ordinary situations become life-or-death struggles. That this works so well is largely down to the talented cast, particularly Foster, who realises too late that she may have bitten off more than she can chew, but also worth special mention is Cosmo, who is thoroughly menacing as the P.T. instructor from hell, and Barbara Keogh, portraying a genial old lady from Bolton who is simultaneously very friendly and utterly terrifying.

Rude Awakening‘ is an altogether more restrained affair, although it still contains much to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The late, great Denholm Elliott (probably best known these days for ‘Trading Places’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ series) portrays Norman, a lecherous old rogue of an estate agent, who is seemingly having an affair with his lovely young secretary (Lucy Gutteridge) while trying to wrangle a divorce from his frumpy wife (Pat Heywood). So far, so straightforward, but things take a slightly darker turn when Norman is asked to oversee the sale of a large manor house. At this point it becomes something of a character study/psychological horror, as a series of events occur that lead Norman to believe he is dreaming, or more accurately, experiencing nightmares. Encounters with ghostly widows, houses that mysteriously vanish and a secretary whose appearance changes dramatically from day-to-day all suggest that Norman is not the most sane of men, but it seems that worse is to come, as a disembodied voice continues to admonish him for killing his wife, despite the fact that she is very much alive… Can Norman see the future? Or is his mind simply unravelling? That you’re never really sure, even at the end, is down to a fine performance from Elliott who, despite being associated with upper-middle-class English gents, was also adept at playing a seedy loser, and gives it the full monty here. In his hands Norman is a thoroughly dislikable man, a vision in a cheap suit and cheaper car, but seemingly convinced he is god’s gift to women. Gutteridge also does fine work as Lolly the secretary, essentially giving a range of performances as her appearance and character change with each of Norman’s dreams, all of which add to the off-kilter nature of the tale. Next up is ‘Growing Pains‘, which plays a similar riff to ‘The Omen‘. A successful couple (a diplomat and a research scientist, the sort of pairing that only seems to exist in fiction), played by Barbara Kellerman and Gary Bond, adopt a young boy after there own son tragically dies. However, almost from the beginning strange things begin to happen, such as a car going out of control, and the family dog turning from docile to murderous in the blink of an eye. Is the new addition to the family to blame? Or is something more sinister afoot? To be honest, the central story isn’t the strongest, and takes too much time to really get going, paying far too much attention to a subplot involving Bond’s work on artificial foodstuffs (although we do get a nice cameo from Norman Beaton, of ‘Desmond’s‘ fame). But when it does kick in, it’s saved by a fantastically strange performance from Matthew Blakstad as James, the adopted child who may or not be a monster in disguise. Coming across like a young Jeeves, and possessed of an almost supernatural calm, James is a fascinating character, and made all the more watchable by the fact that you have no real idea of what he’s about or why. And while Bond is a touch bland, Kellerman is on fine form as a brittle woman struggling to deal with the death of her son, yet determined to make James feel like part of the family. The climax goes some way to answering some of the questions thrown up by the plot, but still leaves some hanging and open to interpretation.

From there we go to the fantastically titled ‘The House That Bled To Death‘, a modern (for 1980, anyway) twist on the haunted house tale, and often cited as the best episode of the series (for proof, consider that in 2003 HHOH was placed at number 50 on Channel 4’s “100 Scariest Moments”, a point that was illustrated with a clip from this episode). In this tale of a slow-burning haunting, a married couple (Nicholas Ball and Rachel Davies), along with their young daughter (Emma Ridley) move into a surprisingly cheap house, without knowing that it was the scene of a grisly murder. Almost immediately strange things begin to happen, such as doors slamming and locking on their own, objects disappearing and re-appearing and the family cat meeting something of a sticky end, before it all culminates in the birthday party from hell and the moment where the episode earns its delightful title. Are the family the victims of a demonic haunting? Or is something else afoot? The beauty of this story is the way that it plays with your perception of events. At first it seems like a fairly straightforward haunting, with the family suitably spooked (sorry…) and turning to their new, sympathetic neighbours for help. But certain things stick out, such as the slight lack of closeness between the family members, or the fact that the young child is surprisingly independent of her parents. And there’s also the estate agent (played by the excellently creepy Milton Johns) who sells them the house and slips back into the story for no discernible reason… It all builds to a nice little twist that will have you re-watching the episode to see if you can spot the clues. We then jump to ‘Charlie Boy‘, a tale of voodoo and possession that you feel would struggle to get made in these enlightened times. Here, budding film producer Graham (Leigh Lawson) inherits a collection of African art that includes a fetish that his wife Sarah (Angela Bruce) immediately falls in love with, christening it ‘Charlie Boy’. When a business deal is called off, Graham’s dark mutterings about vengeance are followed by a series of mysterious deaths, forcing him to confront the fact that there may be more to Charlie Boy than meets the eye, and that both he and Sarah are in great danger. It’s a tricky one to appraise is ‘Charlie Boy’. While it’s not particularly scary, and the voodoo storyline will put some people off, at its heart is an interesting character study of a man who reacts to disappointment by lashing out with little thought for the consequences until it’s too late. Alongside that, the performances are good, with Lawson and Bruce in particular making a strong impression as a happy, mixed-race couple at a time when that wasn’t a common sight on British screens. It should also be noted that Charlie Boy himself is an ugly bastard-of-a-thing, that no sensible person would want on their mantelpiece, voodoo or otherwise.

The Silent Scream‘ is another episode that many people may jump straight to, as it features horror icon (and all-round legend) Peter Cushing giving a genuinely superb performance as a seemingly kindly pet-shop owner giving a leg-up to a recently released convict (a young Brian Cox). This is another example of beautifully crafted slow-build horror, as the brilliantly named Martin Blueck (Cushing) welcomes Chuck (Cox) into his shop, offering him a chance to break the cycle of his life with honest work for honest pay. However, as the pre-credits sequence shows us there is a lot more going on here than Chuck realises, and as he is slowly exposed to the rest of Blueck’s world the mask of benevolence slowly slips away, revealing something decidedly more sinister. What follows hinges on the interplay between two characters built on contradictions. Despite Chuck’s seeming desire to go straight, he is tempted back to the dark side (as it were) with disturbing ease, while the true the nature of Blueck’s personality is concealed beneath layers of outward respectability, meaning that when the truth emerges it’s as much of a shock to the viewer as it is to Chuck. And it’s those contradictions and conflicts that drive the morality tale at the heart of the story, as Blueck’s plans are revealed. As mentioned, Cushing is excellent as Blueck, but Cox is also on fine form as a man struggling with his own nature while trying to do the right thing by his long-suffering wife, an equally good Elaine Donnelly. Another popular British icon of the day makes an appearance in the next episode, ‘Children Of The Full Moon‘, not surprisingly a new spin on a werewolf tale. After a bizarre pre-credits sequence, where a small child is shown with a dead animal that she has apparently killed with her teeth, a married couple (Christopher Cazenove and Celia Gregory) heading to the west country become stranded in a forest and seek sanctuary in an isolated house, where the mysterious-yet-friendly housekeeper (Diana Dors, that icon we mentioned earlier) looks after a group of children, who range from spectacularly cute to deeply sinister. All seems well, relatively speaking, although the children do exhibit some odd behaviour, such as a great curiosity about the new arrivals (particularly Gregory), as well as the fact that they don’t seem to sleep… Later that night they experience more weirdness, in the form of strange dreams about werewolves, and someone, or something, creeping around the house. Everything culminates in an apparent assault in their bedroom, only for Cazenove to awake in a hospital, being told that it was all dream… Despite the modern setting, this is actually quite a traditional take on the werewolf legend, with the innocent couple falling into a trap without realising it. At the same time, however, the clash of the old and the modern is also emphasised, and it’s all backed up by great performances from the cast, especially Dors, who dials down her natural glamour while upping the sinister as Mrs Ardoy, a housekeeper/animal wrangler with a smile that radiates both kindness and menace in equal measure.

Next up is ‘Carpathian Eagle‘, a somewhat perfunctory serial-killer tale that still manages to work quite well, mainly by employing the Columbo-esque trick of revealing our killer relatively earlier and then allowing us to sit back and watch the police fumble toward the solution. Our story concerns a seemingly beautiful young woman who seems to spend her time allowing herself to be picked up by sleazy men, before proceeding to murder them in the manner of a European Countess who lived 300 years ago. The investigating officer (Anthony Valentine) enlists the help of an author (Suzanne Danielle), who seems to researching the same Countess, and the pair attempt to unravel the mystery. Once again we find ourselves in the realm of psychological horror, as Carpathian Eagle is not particularly scary or bloody, but still manages to wring plenty of tension from its setup, especially as the reveal of the killer does suggest to the viewer that the story can only realistically end one way… It’s also very well cast, with Valentine on fine form, his Inspector Clifford a strong study in down-at-heel decency, a man determined to do the right thing even if it costs him a burgeoning relationship, not-to-mention being a million miles away from the sort of characters he was most known for playing. Danielle, an actress known as ‘The Body’ long before Elle Macpherson turned up, is also strong, adding layers of warmth and sympathy to a character who could have been two-dimensional, and there’s reliable support from some fine British actors, including Gary Waldhorn, William Morgan Sheppard and Sian Phillips, as well as a young Pierce Brosnan (yes, that one!) as one of the victims. We find ourselves on much more traditional territory in the next episode, ‘Guardian Of The Abyss‘, a good old-fashioned tale of devil worshippers and virgins. An old scrying glass, possibly belonging to Elizabethan mystic/fraud Dr John Dee, finds its way into the hands of an antiques expert (Ray Lonnen). He offers to get it valued for its owner, only to find himself drawn into a mystery involving a secretive cult, the evil hypnotist who leads them and a girl in desperate  trouble. What follows is a wonderfully demented game of cat-and-mouse, as our expert and his new friend (who, it must be said, is no longer a virgin by the end…) attempt to evade the cult and thwart their evil plan, only to be constantly outwitted by marvellously sinister types in cloaks, before it all builds to a gloriously overwrought climax. That any of this works at all (and it does) is largely down to some excellent casting. If Lonnen never quite convinces as a potential victim, mainly down a strange manliness which is hard to quantify, it’s well balanced by his role as a protector to Allison, who is nicely portrayed by Rosalyn Landor with the right balance of innocence and something else bubbling under the surface. Elsewhere the villains are led by John Carson and Paul Darrow, neither of whom are able to appear anything other than utterly sinister, which makes them perfect as devil worshipping nutcases, and look out for early appearances from TV stalwarts Sophie Thompson and Caroline Langrishe. And, if nothing else, the whole thing must be seen for the sheer brilliance of Lonnen’s characters choice of car-and-hat combo: a gorgeous gold soft-top Mercedes 560SL paired up with a truly appalling tweed fishing hat. Perhaps he is in league with Satan after all…

Visitor From The Grave‘ is another psychological horror, but this time mixed with a ghost story. Penny (Kathryn Leigh Scott), an American living in the UK, is attacked in her home one night by a criminal type (Stanley Lebor), and fends off the attempted rape in the most final way possible, by blowing most of his face off with a shotgun. However, despite being buried in a shallow grave in the woods by her boyfriend (Simon MacCorkindale on suitably oily form), the villain seems far from dead, appearing to Penny in a range of locations. Is Penny, who has a history of mental health issues, simply cracking under the strain of her ‘crime’? Has the monster really returned from the grave to claim vengeance? Or is there something even more sinister afoot? Most of the credit for the success of this rests on the casting, particularly Scott, who is excellent as an emotionally unstable woman who relies so much on the support of her partner that she is incapable of seeing that he may not necessarily have her best interests at heart. Similarly MacCorkindale, a man who could play suave-yet-untrustworthy in his sleep, is great as the boyfriend who is at least partially responsible for her predicament, and there’s fine support from Lebor, normally known for playing boring types, and Gareth Thomas of Blake’s 7, whose role here must be kept secret (spoilers!). And the whole thing wraps up with an absolutely belting double-twist that comes out of nowhere. This is followed by ‘The Two Faces Of Evil‘, a modern take of the old myth of the Doppelganger. Here, a family on a drive through the countryside stop to pick up a rather mysterious hitchhiker, who says nothing before attacking the father, Martin (Gary Raymond), and causing the car to crash. Things take a turn for the strange in the aftermath, when the mother, Janet (Anna Calder-Marshall), wakes in hospital to be told that her husband is alive but badly injured, and there is a body in the morgue (the attacker presumably) which, upon closer inspection, looks a hell of a lot like her husband… What follows is a beautifully executed study of rising paranoia and hysteria, as Janet begins to suspect that the husband she has brought home is anything but, while the odd behaviour of the doctors and nurses at the local hospital does little to dispel her worries. Once again, it’s the performances that make this work, with both Calder-Marshall and Raymond on excellent form. In particular, Calder-Marshall impresses as a woman teetering on the brink of insanity, struggling to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic incident yet seemingly about to experience something far, far worse, while Raymonds performance is so bizarre and off-kilter that you’ll be 100% convinced that he’s from another dimension, even if no-one else seems to be… And we end with ‘The Mark Of Satan‘, another tale of satanic possession, only this time taking place in a mundane, suburban setting. Peter McEnery plays Edwyn, a mortuary attendant who becomes convinced that he’s been chosen as the devil’s new disciple, and that his co-workers and family are all in on the plot. What is interesting about this story is that Edwyn’s paranoia is not triggered by any event that occurs on screen, rather he is already a troubled man, seeing signs and portents everywhere that convince him that a shadowy group is trying to infect him with ‘evil’. This extends to his somewhat staid home life, where an overbearing mother (Anne Dyson) and slightly-too-friendly lodger (Georgina Hale) both add to his conviction that he is in serious trouble… The whole thing has a nice air of creepiness to it, with the deliberately dull suburban setting nicely contrasting with the slightly fantastical plot, which provides no easy answers, either for Edwyn or the viewer. The performances are also strong, particularly Emrys James, who seems to be enjoying himself immensely as a rouge-ish doctor who may or may not be an agent of Satan.

Although it’s been nearly 40 years since its original broadcast, HHOH remains a hugely entertaining watch. These are all enjoyable, well-crafted stories, written by people who understood horror stories better than anyone, and performed by some of the most talented and capable actors and actresses working in Britain at the time. Sure, you can make the argument that it’s all a bit dated, and that TV shows these days take more risks when it comes to horror. But in response to that, I would simply say without HHOH the more popular supernatural and horror-themed shows of recent years simply wouldn’t exist. Think ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’, ‘Supernatural’, ‘American Horror Story’, ‘Psychoville’, and the dozens of others that riff on the same themes. It all begins with HHOH, a show that proved horror-themed television was viable, provided it was done properly. So, thank god that everyone involved took that on board and produced a genuine, 100%, gold-plated classic that still stands up today. If you’re already a fan, with fond memories of happy nights crapping your pants at the thought of Peter Cushing locking you in a cage, or Denholm Elliott perving over you, or Paul Darrow just being in your general vicinity, then you won’t need any encouragement to add this excellent set to you collection. However, if you’re new to all this old-fashioned scaring, then do yourself a favour and pick up this excellent reminder of how good British TV can be when everyone puts in the effort. You’ll be scared, you’ll be creeped out, you may sleep with the lights on. But you won’t be disappointed…

About author

TheMetalHead

Long-time fan of all things geek-related. Comics, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, Warhammer, video games, mythology, you name it, I probably like it. This also extends to pro-wrestling and heavy metal, hence the name. Particular loves would be the Star Wars sage, Game of Thrones (books and TV), Judge Dredd, Assassins Creed, and many more. Born and raised in Essex by parents who have broadly supported these passions over the years, so much so that they now share many of them.