Bay of the Living Dead: The Horror of Hammer Films
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a regular column about the horror genre. The column returns after a one year hiatus and will be seen around the 1st of each month here at BAS.
From 1957 until approximately 1975, England’s Hammer Films was known and beloved for their Gothic horror films. Starting with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), a re-imagining of the classic 1931 Frankenstein film, Hammer produced low budget chillers featuring lots of blood and thunder, with some female cleavage thrown in for good measure. Most of Hammer’s horrific output was set in the 19th century, giving the films an almost fairy tale quality which mesmerized audiences the world over.
Most of the Hammer films have been made available on DVD and Blu Ray, with a particularly large number of the company’s home releases coming from Scream Factory, a scary subsidiary of Shout Factory. Scream Factory has pulled out all the stops with its Hammer films, releasing superb Blu Ray prints featuring vibrant colors and crisp, sharp sound. Scream Factory has been quite generous with each disc’s extras menu. Included with each film is a plethora of interviews with surviving cast and crew members from each film, commentary tracks from a variety of film historians, making of the film documentaries, theatrical trailers and TV spots.
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And now, for your entertainment, are two of the Hammer films brought to your home screens on Blu Ray via Scream Factory.
The Brides of Dracula (1960)
This follow-up to Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958) does not feature an appearance by the bloodthirsty Count, but it does star a top billed Peter Cushing (1913-1994), who was then a big name in the annals of horror cinema. Cushing reprises his Horror of Dracula role, appearing as Van Helsing, the no nonsense and quite determined vampire hunter.
Brides of Dracula co-stars the exotic French beauty Yvonne Monlaur, who plays Marianne, a young teacher who finds herself stranded in a small Eastern European town while en route to a new position. Having nowhere to sleep, Marianne accepts an invitation to sleep at the creepy castle of the mysterious Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt). But things take a weird turn at the castle when Marianne finds the Baroness’ handsome son (David Peel) locked and chained in a room. Shocked by this, she steals a key and sets the young Baron free.
Then we find out why the Baron was locked up–he is a vampire, and he’s not a nice guy. First he turns on his mother, then he goes to the all girls school where Marianne is to teach and sets his sights on the students. Two young ladies are turned, a teacher and a young girl from the neighboring village.
Enter Van Helsing, determined to protect Marianne and stop the scourge of vampirism before it gets out of control.
The Brides of Dracula is an exceptionally well made film. The cavernous castle set is impressive, the acting is good, and the film moves at a fast pace. The film is chock full of atmosphere. The countryside in which the action takes place is dark, overcast, and fogbound.
There are a scenes that are quite scary. In one sequence, one of Baron Meinster’s victims rises out of her grave on camera, pushing her coffin lid open and crawling out of the ground. Handsome Peel (1920-1981), an actor who unfortunately had a short lived film career (he later became an antiques dealer) is quite good as the blonde vampire who oozes class and sex appeal one moment, turning into a wild animal the next. Cushing, always a superb actor, is commanding in his role, and Monlaur makes for a pleasantly attractive heroine. One performance that really stands out is that of Hunt’s. This superb character actress exudes an air of great sadness when we first meet her. Later, after she’s turned into a vampire, the audience sees the true extent of her tragedy when she tries to hide her fangs in shame.
As always, Scream Factory offers a superb print of the film–this sixty year old production looks brand new on Scream’s disc. Interviews include recently shot chats with Monlaur and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, both of whom have since passed away. There’s also a documentary on the making of the film.
All in all, Brides of Dracula is a wonderful chiller, beautifully packaged by the folks at Scream.
The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
This film is notable as the first starring role for Oliver Reed (1938-1999), an actor who would go on to become a big name in the film business.
Now a highly regarded film in the Hammer canon, The Curse of the Werewolf is a beautifully shot film set in the Spain of two centuries ago. Reed plays a young man who comes to the slow, terrifying realization that he is going to turn into a wolf every time the moon is full–he is being subjected to this curse because he was conceived via rape and was born on Christmas Day. Why this turns him into a werewolf is never clearly explained.
Though sumptuous to look at due to its beautiful period sets and settings, Curse of the Werewolf is a little on the slow side. The superb make-up effects by Roy Ashton aren’t seen much during the film’s 93 minute running time–a little more werewolfry was needed. The film, after all, is called The Curse of the Werewolf, not The Curse of the Anguished Young Man.
Be that as it may, Reed’s dark and intense performance gives the film a haunting, almost mesmerizing quality. The actor brings his character’s tragedy fully to the surface, creating what is perhaps the most sympathetic movie monster of its time. That Reed is so good in the film will surprise no one who’s followed his career–ever see him in Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils (1971)?
Kudos must also be given to lesser known performer Yvonne Romain, who gives an equally sympathetic performance as the werewolf’s tragic birth mother. The astonishingly beautiful Romain wins audience sympathies as a mute girl who lives a very sad life. She’s in the film for all of 15 minutes and doesn’t have a word of dialogue, yet Romain leaves an indelible mark on the film.
Scream Factory’s Blu Ray includes a recently shot interview with Romain, as well as with actress Catherine Feller, who plays the young lady who falls in love with the werewolf. There’s a documentary on the life and career of make-up maestro Roy Ashton, and a second documentary on the making of the film. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included. Good job, Scream Factory!
Next month: more Hammer horror!