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The Hammer Collection

video review by
Gary Johnson

[click on photos
for larger versions]

Web site:
Hammer Horror

This newest quartet of horror releases from Anchor Bay, expands their "Hammer Collection." While their previous trio of Hammer studios releases suggested that Anchor Bay may have already exhausted the series of its best titles, along come these excellent additions. Well, two of the four movies--The Devil Rides Out and Frankenstein Created Woman--represent Hammer at its best anyway. And The Witches is an underrated occult thriller. (Not much good can be said of The Mummy's Shroud, however.)

From the looks of the video covers, this quartet might have been subtitled "Women in Peril." Look no further than the video covers for evidence. The Devil Rides Out shows Charles Gray (who you might remember as Dr. Scott in Rocky Horror Picture Show) in the process of ripping the bodice of a young damsel; Frankenstein Created Woman shows the Doctor's creation (played by Playboy playmate Susan Denberg) strapped to an operating table; The Mummy's Shroud shows the mummy Prem attempting to rip the head off of a pretty young archaeologist; and The Witches shows devil worshippers parading around the splayed form of a young woman. Anchor Bay certainly realizes that the audience for these tapes is largely male, and they're teasing that audience with suggestions of nudity and violation--as did Hammer when they advertised many of their movies from this same time period (the late '60s).

Most importantly, however, these videos represent the first state-side release of these four titles. Both The Devil Rides Out and The Mummy's Shroud were previously available in fuzzy, poorly transferred videos from the British company Lumiere. But Anchor Bay now gives us all four movies in digitally mastered, letterboxed versions.

The Devil Rides Out
Released in 1968, The Devil Rides Out (retitled "The Devil's Bride" in America) is widely regarded as Hammer's last classic horror film, before the mediocrity of the '70s set in. Directed by Terence Fisher, The Devil Rides Out wastes no time at all before throwing us into a blistering fast battle with the forces of darkness. In the movie's opening minutes, Christopher Lee (in a rare good-guy role) visits the son of a close friend and discovers his worst fears realized: the young man is consorting with devil worshippers. He immediately dedicates himself to extracting his friend's son from the coven, but the evil Mocata (Charles Gray) won't easily let his new subject slip from his grasp. Based upon a best-selling novel by Dennis Wheatley (screenplay by Richard Matheson), The Devil Rides Out contains several truly chilling sequences, such as the scene where Lee and three friends attempt to ward off the evil forces of Mocata by resting within a magic pentagram--while giant spiders and the Angel of Darkness prowl outside the ring. Unfortunately, however, several key sequences are less than credible. The aforementioned scene reaches its conclusion when the young daughter of Lee's friends wanders into the parlor and into the midst of the evil doings. Her parents had merely left her upstairs to sleep while they and Lee battled the forces of darkness below! Surprisingly, the movie actually works best in some of its quieter scenes, as in the eerie, atmospheric scenes where Mocata wields a Dracula-like power and bids his subjects to return to his domain. (Be forewarned: the video that I previewed was poorly transferred. It contained a small-but-perceptible flicker that made the onscreen image slightly blurry. This problem might effect only a few videos, and then again it might affect the entire run of The Devil Rides Out.)

Frankenstein Created Woman
Hammer had announced Frankenstein Created Woman as a project as far back as 1958, when Brigitte Bardot was igniting movie screens with And God Created Woman. Hammer's take on creation mythology exploited the darker realms of the human mind. The beautiful Susan Denberg becomes the monster in this go round. But she's no lumbering brute as in the previous incarnations. She's a sleek and elegant seducer who entices men and then murders them viciously. She was a sweet, considerate woman--until she committed suicide that is. And then, after Dr. Frankenstein's handiwork--which involves transferring the soul of her recently executed lover into her body!--Denberg emerges as a vengeful killing machine who uses her body to lure the men responsible for her/his anguish. Frankenstein Created Woman thrives by exploiting Denberg's body, particularly in the laboratory scenes, where she is clad in only a few strips of white cloth. However, any sexual desire created in the male audience is subverted by replacing her soul with the soul of a man. Peter Cushing once again reprises his role as Dr. Frankenstein. He's a mechanical, non-emotional creation--as soulless as the bodies that he stitches and grafts back together. In one scene, he casually thumbs through the pages of Bible, while his frown/smirk suggests his displeasure. Directed by Terence Fisher, Frankenstein Created Woman is one of the most interesting movies in Hammer's entire series of Frankenstein movies.

The Mummy's Shroud
In 1966, John Gilling directed three movies for Hammer. Unfortunately, The Mummy's Shroud is the least of these movies. Both The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies are widely recognized as two of the best Hammer movies not directed by Terence Fisher. However, Gilling's The Mummy's Shroud doesn't belong in the same category. The screenplay gives us an egomaniacal millionaire (John Phillips) who funds an archaeological expedition to search for the tomb of Kah-to-Bey. The small archaeological party discovers the tomb and promptly disregards the warnings of the wild-eyed tomb guardian. They cart away all the treasures. Now, the mummy Prem rises and wreaks his vengeance. However, the movie suffers severely from an inadequate budget. The opening scenes, set in ancient Egypt, feature a battle between two armies, but we only see about a dozen warriors. With little resources at his disposal, Gilling's camera underwhelms his viewers by failing to provide the epic, historical sweep necessary in order for his story to acquire much force. In addition, the screenplay fails to provide us with any central characters that we can really care about. Phillips is a boorish martinet. Andre Morell as the leader of the archaeological expedition makes for a more interesting lead character, but the screenplay kills him off before the midway point. Of interest: the mummy in The Mummy's Shroud was patterned upon a real mummy in the British Museum.

The Witches
By the '60s, Joan Fontaine found movie roles to be few and far between. Fontaine was only in her mid 40s, but Hollywood had little use for middle-aged actresses with their greatest successes (in Fontaine's case Rebecca and Suspicion) long behind them. Instead of waiting for a role to come to her, Fontaine decided to search for a role on her own. Therefore in 1962, she optioned the novel The Devil's Own by Peter Curtis. It's not hard to see her attraction to the novel: it focuses completely on the headmistress of a private school. Playing the headmistress, Fontaine is the focal point of virtually every scene in the movie. Her character was traumatized after a run-in with a voodoo priest in Africa. Now she tries to live a normal life again back in England. But she finds herself in strange surroundings. The priest who hired her turns out to be an ordinary man who just happens to enjoy dressing up in clerical garb, one of her students suddenly falls into a coma, and a man is mysteriously murdered. With a screenplay by Nigel Neale (who is usually associated with his Quatermass films), The Witches is filled with interesting characters and quirky touches. The first two-thirds of this movie contains some of the most underrated filmmaking to come out of Hammer. Unfortunately, the movie ends with a resounding thud. As the movie takes us into a devil worshipping cult, the actions become choreographed and the results become ludicrous. Instead of capturing the hysteria of a religious cult, the filmmaking becomes artificial and unconvincing. After The Witches failed at the box office, Fontaine retired from acting.


Related links:

review of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Shatter and The Satanic Rites of Dracula

review of Quatermass and the Pit

In addition to these four new releases, Anchor Bay's Hammer Collection includes The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Shatter, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Reptile, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Lost Continent, Rasputin the Mad Monk, Plague of the Zombies, and Quatermass and the Pit. All the movies in the series are presented in widescreen format, and the videos come in clamsell cases. In addition, the videos include theatrical trailers. Suggested retail price: $14.95 each. For more information, we suggest you check out the Web site for The Hammer Horror Collector's Network, "The Official Hammer Fan Organization":


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