Bay of the Living Dead: More Hammer Horror!
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a regular column about the horror genre.
Last month we took a look at the recent Blu Ray releases of two classic Hammer horror films. As was stated, Hammer Films is a British production company who, from 1957-1975, was world famous for its sumptuous, elegantly appointed and scary horror films. Much of Hammer’s output was set in the 19th century and were often based on classic tales of horror literature.
Scream Factory, a subsidiary of Shout Factory, has recently released nearly two dozen Hammer Films on Blu Ray. All titles offer superb prints and loads of extras. Here are two of those titles.
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The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Le Phantome de l’Opera is a novel written by French author Gaston Leroux, first published in 1908. Over the years, as the book was adapted into several film versions and a very famous musical, there has been a great deal of debate as to whether or not Phantom is a work of Gothic romance or a horror story. When Hammer adapted the story in the early 1960s, it was a combination of both.
By now, Phantom of the Opera is a familiar tale. This film features all of the story’s familiar tropes: the disfigured phantom, hiding behind a grotesque mask, lives in the catacombs beneath the opera house, though in Hammer’s version the setting is moved from Paris to London, circa 1900. In this version the phantom is less a scary monster and more of a tragic, sympathetic figure.
Herbert Lom (1917-2012), a noted character actor of the period, indeed wins viewers sympathies as Professor Petrie, alias The Phantom, a brilliant composer whose music was stolen by the sleazy opera impresario Lord Ambrose. The Phantom is dying. All he wants is a little time to train Christine, the chorus girl who dreams of opera stardom, to sing in the premiere of the opera that was stolen by Ambrose.
The film has an impressive opening. It begins with an eerie shot of the empty opera house. The camera glides across the theater and dissolves into the catacombs below, where the Phantom is seen sitting at a huge organ. The camera then comes in for a close-up of his grotesque looking mask which only exposes one eye. Then the story begins.
The cast is quite good. Lom makes for a disturbing visage as The Phantom, stepping in and out of the shadows to terrorize the denizens of the opera house. Michael Gough is deliciously evil and sleazy, if a bit over the top, as the villainous Lord Ambrose, while Heather Sears as Christine and handsome Edward De Souza make for an attractive pair of romantic leads–it’s De Souza’s character Harry who unearths the dark secrets of the phantom.
As with all Hammer Films, the sets and costumes are lushly elegant, and the film is loaded with atmosphere. Scream Factory’s Blu Ray is chock full of extras, including a documentary on the making of the film hosted by the now 80ish De Souza, who shares the story of how the film came to be. There are commentary tracks featuring a variety of film historians, and the film’s theatrical trailer is also included.
Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
Edward De Souza returns in Kiss of the Vampire a doozy of a horror tale. De Souza and Jennifer Daniel star as Gerald and Marianne, a pair of newlyweds on their honeymoon who find themselves stranded in a desolate Eastern European village. There they find a room in an inn where the innkeeper and his wife are obviously living in terror of something they cannot talk about.
The newlyweds accept an invitation to dinner from Count Ravna (Noel Willman), a wealthy man who lives with his children in a huge castle atop a hill. What they don’t know is that Ravna is the leader of a cult of vampires, and that he intends to make Marianne a member of the cult. After Marianne disappears at a party at the castle, Gerald is told by everyone that they don’t know who Marianne is. Only Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), a fellow lodger at the inn, admits that Marianne does indeed exist, and the two set out to rescue Marianne from the clutches of Ravna and his cult before the young bride is turned into one of the undead.
Kiss of the Vampire is a fun and spooky thrill ride, made all the more scarier by Willman’s hypnotic portrayal of Ravna. There are many nice touches throughout the film, starting with the cavernous castle set, and including a wonderfully eerie scene in a fog bound graveyard where the professor does battle with a young female disciple of the cult. And the bat attack–thousands of bats descend upon the castle–is a thrilling sequence.
Exceptionally well made and highly entertaining, Kiss of the Vampire is well worth a look. As with Phantom, Scream Factory’s disc includes an audio commentary with several film historians, plus a separate commentary track with De Souza and Daniel, who share their memories of making the film. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included, as is Kiss of Evil, a heavily edited version of the film which was created for the American market. Evil includes several scenes shot by the film’s American distributor that did not include Hammer’s participation. It’s a very different film, but it’s not an improvement. The new footage adds up to a pointless subplot featuring some local villagers. Your time is better spent watching Kiss of the Vampire, which is the film Hammer intended audiences to see. It’s a wonderful chiller, and does not need to be “improved” upon.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
The Curse of Frankenstein is the film that set the standard. Though Hammer had been making films of different types since the 1930s, this was the company’s first color Gothic horror film. A huge international hit upon its original release, Curse established the Hammer horror formula, a formula that would be the company’s norm for nearly twenty years. Now, Warner Archive offers this grand old film in a two disc special edition which offers the film fully restored and remastered. The Curse of Frankenstein has never looked better.
The film made stars out of Peter Cushing (1913-1994) and Christopher Lee (1922-2015), who appear as Baron Frankenstein and his ghastly creation, respectively. Cushing is now fondly remembered for his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the first Star Wars film. Following Curse, he and Lee would star in dozens of horror films, often as co-stars, both for Hammer and for other studios.
Cushing is wonderful as the obsessed Baron Frankenstein, determined to create an artificial man at all costs–he even commits murder in pursuit of his mad dream. Lee wins audience sympathies as the monster, here called “The Creature”, though his character is not as well developed as the monster character portrayed by Boris Karloff in the 1931 Frankenstein film.
The sets and costumes are quite beautiful. Watching the film is like taking a trip back to the 19th century, with a beautiful Gothic atmosphere pervading every frame of the film. Though not particularly scary, The Curse of Frankenstein is nonetheless an exceptionally well made and entertaining film. The feature includes optional commentary tracks with a variety of film historians.
The second disc is where you’ll find most of the extras, such as a documentary which explains how Hammer horror came to be. There’s also another documentary on the work of Jack Asher, the cinematographer and lighting director for this and other Hammer horrors. Asher’s brilliant work is a big part of why the film is so beautifully atmospheric and sumptuous to look at. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.
Warner Archive has done a splendid job of bringing this classic film to Blu Ray. It’s well worth checking out.
Next month: a look at a recent film by indie filmmaker Joshua Kennedy.