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Witching Hour: Hammer House of Horror on Blu-ray

  Britain's Hammer studio had had a very good run of hits that were synonymous with the horror genre, lasting from the mid-nineteen-fifties with their adaptations of television's Quatermass, through series of Frankenstein and Dracula movies that captured the world's imaginations, and many other variants, taking in psychological thrillers and more supernatural terrors, even science fiction. But come the mid-seventies, lack of investment and changing tastes saw their fortunes stumble at the box office, especially in the horror field as their hits began to come from television once more, though sitcoms this time. Curious, since the seventies saw a boom in horror lasting to the eighties - or maybe not so curious when you knew nobody was putting money into British films, genre or otherwise. Therefore Hammer made a couple of series specifically for the small screen.

In 1980, around September, Hammer House of Horror debuted on ITV with the opening episode of a new anthology. Witching Time was that story, and sought to update the traditional gothic chills of the material that made their name to more modern times as Jon Finch (The Tragedy of Macbeth, The Final Programme) played a composer of films trying to finish the score to a film his actress wife Prunella Gee (Kinvig, Never Say Never Again) has starred in. All very contemporary, and with a film production backdrop too, that was until a classic thunderstorm blew in and changed his pet dog into Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), who is behaving very strangely, almost as if she belonged to a different time. That was because she did, she was a witch from the seventeenth century who had escaped her tormentors through time.

Now, you may be thinking Catweazle here, if you were old enough to remember it, but banish thoughts of Geoffrey Bayldon from your mind as Quinn's Lucinda was a lot more malevolent. Oddly, the tale established Gee's character as unfaithful - with the local doctor Ian McCulloch (Survivors, Zombie Flesh Eaters) - apparently to explain why she should have such a hard time later on when the witch visits her spellcraft upon the couple, but also to have her redeem herself in the finale. By that time Finch had gone berserk, hugging his elbows as if in shock at Lucinda's tormenting of him, including taking him to bed with her, raking her fingernails down his bare back as they got up to no good. The nudity was an indication of moving with the times, and placing it so early in the run got viewers hoping for more, so this was a canny way to kick things off, if not the best instalment.

Second up, the company made good on their promise to provide work for their old associates, with the director Peter Sasdy (who joined the studio in its latter years) and the writer Jeremy Burnham, an erstwhile actor who had penned them a Frankenstein entry, before going on to a successful career in series television: The Children of the Stones was one of his. The Thirteenth Reunion, after the more lurid opener, was more restrained, almost humorous, seeing reporter Ruth persuaded to conduct an investigation on a health club with new-fangled methods, what they used to call a fat farm that operates a good cop bad cop approach to policing the guests' weight problems. Glossing over the fact the actress playing Ruth was Julia Foster (Alfie, Half a Sixpence) who could not by any stretch of the imagination be termed overweight, this was unusual enough to stick with.

Your patience would be rewarded as the twist was worth waiting for, initially seeming as though illegal operations are being conducted by the owners of the business, but then growing more apparent this was not the whole story. When Ruth makes friends with a fellow attendee (Warren Clarke: A Clockwork Orange, Dalziel and Pascoe) it seems like the start of a romance since he is a nice chap, but as this was a horror show, no sooner has she kissed him goodnight after a baffling slap-up meal ordered by the staff, he is racing down a country lane at high speeds and hallucinating, then dead. Gerard Kelly (City Lights, Brookside) helped in her sleuthing which led to a posh bloke (Richard Pearson) and his coterie of dinner guests as echoes of a real-life tragedy were sounded in what was either incredibly bad taste or amusingly twisted. An improvement on episode one.

The sense of humour was more pronounced in the third episode, Rude Awakening, where Denholm Elliott (Hammer's To the Devil a Daughter, Raiders of the Lost Ark) was having trouble with his slumber. What's the first thing you learn in school about writing short stories? That's right, don't make them end with the lead character waking up and it all being a dream, of course, but nobody evidently told this lot as they pulled the same trick over and over throughout. It started with a pre-credits sequence unlike the other instalments as it was a brief summary of what were about to see in preview clips, but once the title sequence was over with we could get on with seeing Elliott as a sleazy estate agent (he was perfect for this sort of thing) who is having an affair with his secretary Lucy Gutteridge (Top Secret!, the George C. Scott A Christmas Carol).

Or at least he seems to be, but once he has been asked by a mysterious representative (James Laurenson: The Monster Club, Pink Floyd: The Wall) to have a look at a property he is tending to, it goes weird, as once out in the middle of the countryside to check out this mansion, he finds himself inside and spoken to by a disembodied voice accusing him of killing his wife, then her body falls from the dumb waiter, and the suits of armour spring to life and attack him. After that he wakes up next to his wife (Pat Heywood, Romeo and Juliet, 10 Rillington Place) who is not impressed to hear her husband has suffered a nightmare, and so the cycle repeats itself, he gets into a terrible situation then wakes up in shock. It has to end somehow, and the pay-off was grimly comic, the tone that was just right for these plots, though not used in every one, nicely played by the cast.

When The Omen was unleashed on the unwitting world in 1976, Hammer must have been kicking itself it did think of the idea first: a demonic child horror from their stable would have been just the thing to revive their fortunes at the box office, and sadly To the Devil a Daughter just didn't cut it, though it did point the way to this fairly successful television series. However, if you wanted to see how they might have bungled the premise, take a look at a least loved of the run, Growing Pains, which saddled the simple variation on The Bad Seed with a mad science theme and a vengeful spirit for good measure. It was as if they were trying to distance themselves from the far more notable effort in this vein, but the effect was that you merely looked to the David Setzer novel and its blockbusting adaptation and noted how well it had been done there.

That said, it's debatable whether The Omen really was done well, or whether they had a great idea and the rest of it wrote itself, no matter that it was purely a pattern of gruesome death after gruesome death. Here it was mostly the laboratory specimen rabbits that met a sticky end, as a couple who have lost their son the year before, Barbara Kellerman (Satan's Slave, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe) and Gary Bond (Zulu, Wake in Fright), adopt a replacement (future author Matthew Blakstad) , and he turns out to be the regulation creepy kid who has bad luck and horrible happenings follow him about, such as the car taking him home losing control or the steak for dinner suddenly covered with maggots. To say this built to a disappointing, unresolved climax would be accurate, and the late on vengeance was arbitrary to say the least.

If you thought the second edition did dubious things with a sensational real-life story, the fifth, The House That Bled to Death, was its equal, though at least some would judge it more of a dig at a story many found difficult to believe. The Amityville Horror had been a huge bestseller in the late seventies, and the resulting film, while not pleasing the critical consensus, had been similarly lucrative, so here was Hammer's take on the supposedly true-life yarn, only instead of a setting in America here we were in the very-un-Hammer location of modern suburbia. If that made it come across as more the sort of material Pete Walker would be more comfortable with, well, there was a definite flavour of his technique about this, not simply the uncovering of boring British towns as hotbeds of ghastliness, but the way events played out as well.

We were introduced to a young family, dad Nicholas Ball (Hazell, Lifeforce), mum Rachel Davies (A Private Function, Making Out) and small daughter Emma Ridley (who as the decade wore on became nicknamed Wild Child and was rarely out of the tabloids thanks to her party hard lifestyle). They move into said house where a murder has been committed some time before (we see this as the pre-credits sequence) and as they start to do it up, strange things start happening, like the cat getting slashed by a broken window pane or a pair of Gurkha knives that keep turning up after being thrown away. This might be the best-recalled episode for the birthday party scene where the kids are drenched in blood, but it leads up to a twist that will either satisfy in a satirical manner, or seem like an illogical cop-out. Still, its horror in the mundane was well-realised.

Sixth saw a cliché given a fresh lick of paint, or rather a fresh splash of blood, yes, it was the de rigueur voodoo doll episode, here called an African fetish doll to distance it from any other, more infamous yarns (pointing no fingers at the Zuni doll segment of Dan Curtis's TV movie favourite Trilogy of Terror). In this case it was movie entrepreneur Leigh Lawson (Percy's Progress, Sword of the Valiant) who inherits his late uncle's collection of ethnic memorabilia that includes said fetish when the old man falls from the roof of his country seat in a Rod Hull-predicting manner. Could the doll have something to do with this apparent accident? If it didn't then it would have been a short instalment, and this lasted the usual fifty-four minutes, so it's not long before it's affecting Lawson's life in superficially beneficial ways.

To be more specific, when a nasty man intimidates our hero and his girlfriend Angela Bruce (Rock Follies, Takin' Over the Asylum) in a road rage incident and he jokily takes it out on Charlie Boy (also the name of the episode), said nasty man is stabbed to death. And when the relative who could offer him the funding he needs for his next project dies after Lawson drunkenly pierces a photo with one of the fetish's knives, he meets with a brutal farming accident. So it goes on, with the others in the photo seemingly lined up - and they include him and Bruce! Which made for a seriously predictable tale, but if you liked seeing things play out precisely as you anticipated then you would be satisfied enough, and vintage movie buffs would be glad to see Marius Goring from the Powell and Pressburger films (like A Matter of Life and Death) as an antiques expert.

One of the best of the lot was The Silent Scream, for some their favourite of the series, and certainly one of the nastiest hours of television ever broadcast in Britain. It took an ex-con, played by Brian Cox (X-Men 2, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) who comes home from prison having made a friend in one of the counsellors there, a concentration camp survivor played by Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing. You can express sadness that the other most identified star with Hammer, Christopher Lee, never had a chance to appear in the programme, but Cushing was big enough to make up for that, making his last performance for the studio that made his name one of his finest, an outwardly friendly old gent whose surface politeness masks an abyss of evil. What he wants to do is create a prison without bars, and has been experimenting with animals to do so.

Not mice or rats, but a whole menagerie of big cats, apes and even a kangaroo, all of which Cox observes have been tutored in not leaving their cages even when the doors are open. This is because of an electrical charge around the frame that when turned on, shocks them and puts them off trying to get out again, sort of aversion treatment, but can Cushing get this to work with human beings? Cox blunders into a trap after thinking he is helping the old geezer out by feeding the animals, leaving his only hope of escape his wife Elaine Donnelly (Lovely Couple, Between the Lines) who hesitates about going to the police considering her jailbird husband's history with the law. Playing on themes about merely needing the correct motivation to incarcerate your prey, this built to an illogical but nightmarish conclusion, one of the most horrible in the series.

For whatever strange reason, Hammer never really got on with werewolves, their only true attempt at trying something different with the genre being Oliver Reed's star-making turn in Curse of the Werewolf in the early sixties, but not one they followed up with one of their franchises as with vampires or Frankenstein. Belatedly, however, they included the horror staple in this series, for the episode entitled Children of the Full Moon which seemingly acknowledged the lupine menace had become a cliché hence they would kick off the story with another one: the couple's car breaking down on a quiet country road and stranding them, forcing them to seek a telephone at a local farmhouse. The twist was that the owner was Diana Dors, all frumped down as a jovially sinister brood mother of a bunch of creepy kids.

There does not seem to be any master of the house around, so Dors (Yield to the Night, Theatre of Blood) is inviting enough to allow the pair (Christopher Cazenove - Eye of the Needle, Dynasty - and Celia Gregory - Survivors, The Baby of Macon) to stay the night, and you don't need to be a student of this kind of thing to know what they may have unwittingly let themselves in for. Yet despite this being a werewolf tale, as given away by the pre-credits sequence where we see a little girl munching on a bloody lamb she has just killed, there wasn't much gore or special effects work, in contrast to the cinematic wolf people who were appearing at the time. What it did instead was allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions, so we can work out that Gregory's change of personality was down to being raped and made pregnant by the beast - cue her slurping back slivers of raw meat.

Serial killers were the subject of Carpathian Eagle, or rather one of them was, in the sort of twist that you almost exclusively see in fiction rather than real life when the multiple murderer was a woman, played by Suzanne Danielle (Flash Gordon, The Boys in Blue). She was one of those celebrities who was going to be the bright star of the future when this was made, but as it was her career never really took off and she married golfer Sam Torrance for a quiet life instead, yet she is fondly recalled by those who remember her at all. Here you think the writers missed a trick in revealing she was the criminal so early when a whodunit might have been a better path to take, but here we were with Suzanne picking up men and subjecting them to ritual sacrifice with a ceremonial dagger, and Anthony Valentine (Performance, Colditz) the police detective on her trail.

What made this refreshing to a point was not the depiction of a female doing the slaughter, it was actually Valentine's honest cop who makes sure to treat everyone fairly, from the writer Danielle plays and is connected to the killings by her research to the transvestite club singer (or mime) who becomes a suspect. In this post-The Sweeney world, it was nice to see an officer of the law not be a harsh but fair/boorish thug (as his partner is, it appears), but it was not quite enough to lift a plot that led up to a non-ending, leaving the viewer hanging and wondering what happened to the resolution. However, there was amusement in seeing a jogging Pierce Brosnan as one of the victims, and the possibly unintentionally hilarious bachelor pad of another ageing lothario who calls himself Randy Andy, which was some sight to see.

Hammer had flirted with the Dennis Wheatley canon of occult societies unleashing literal Hell from country piles before, most notably in the really rather enjoyable The Devil Rides Out, but though that did well for them, another try in To the Devil a Daughter had effectively seen off their horror movie output for almost forty years. Undeterred, they presented as episode ten Guardians of the Abyss, which was a Wheatley yarn in all but name as we open with some black magic ceremony or other where the would-be sacrifice glimpses some abomination in a scrying mirror and proceeds to bash her head repeatedly against the nearest pillar to get the shock of it out of her mind. But she doesn't work out as the representative lead occultist John Carson (Plague of the Zombies, Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter) wants, so he settles on an alternative.

She was Rosalyn Landor (The Amazing Mr Blunden, C.A.T.S. Eyes), and she makes good her escape, right into the arms (or the car, initially) of antiques dealer Ray Lonnen (Z Cars, Harry's Game) who is only too happy to assist, and as luck would have it he has just come into possession of his own scrying mirror at a sale. Though Paul Darrow (Blake's 7, and, well... Blake’s 7) has expressed an interest in buying it from his pal Barbara Ewing (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Brass), also in antiques, Lonnen suspects him of being dodgy, with good reason, and soon he is mired in an infernal game of strategy with the cultists who have some terrible purpose or other. There was one very good scene where Carson hypnotises our hero, but the fact this developed into a poor man's version of The Wicker Man did go against the overall effect.

Next up what was generally regarded as the worst instalment in the series, Visitor from the Grave, which was a pity since it was written by Anthony Hinds under his John Elder pseudonym. He had been one of the controlling interests in Hammer for decades, producing many of their projects and penning more than a few scripts into the bargain. Here it seemed he had lost his touch, as he rolled out a narrative that would have come across as hackneyed in the sixties when all those Les Diaboliques rip-offs were at their height, so imagine how dispiriting it was to witness the barrage of clichés in 1980, when everyone would have been wise to the tricks in Hinds' screenplay. You would be well ahead of the main character, it was safe to say.

She was played by Kathryn Leigh Scott (Dark Shadows, Providence) as a neurotic American in rural England whose husband (Simon McCorkindale: The Sword and the Sorcerer, Manimal) returns home to their isolated cottage to discover his wife has just killed a potential rapist with a shotgun the night before. He decides to cover up this incident, burying the body in the woods, but Scott's demeanour has her on the verge of hysteria from minute one to the final scene, and not always on the verge either. The fact she keeps catching sight of the man she shot, a business acquaintance of McCorkindale who was out for vengeance, is not having a beneficial effect on her mental health, and visits to a medium do little to assuage her fears, but if you were not well aware of what the plot actually was, hand in your deerstalker post haste. The double twist at the end was simply daft.

On the other hand, this was followed by The Two Faces of Evil, possibly the best episode of the lot, and certainly the one which many found the scariest thanks to its keenly deployed atmosphere of an escalating nightmare, where logic is draining out of the lead character's life after a car accident. But was it an accident? She was Anna-Calder Marshall (Wuthering Heights [1970], Anna Karenina [1997]) and her portrayal of a normal mum out for a holiday with her family who is plunged into terror when in a rainstorm her husband (Gary Raymond: Suddenly Last Summer, Jason and the Argonauts) picks up a hitchhiker. Barely making an intelligible sound and face hidden by his sou'wester and rain hat, he proceeds to attack the husband and send the car crashing into the verge, whereupon Calder-Marshall wakes up in the local hospital.

The direction by Alan Gibson was by far the finest of the series, imbuing even the most everyday scene with unease with off-kilter photography and careful framing, so that when all Hell breaks loose it is extremely effective. For those who saw this on its first broadcast, more than a few recall how terrified they were by the unfolding events as the wife realises the man who she thought was her husband, recovering and unable to speak thanks to a throat wound, may not be what he seems. We never got a solid explanation for what was actually happening other than a discussion about doppelgangers, we don't even know who is in on this conspiracy and who is not other than the heroine, but that simply emphasises the surreal claustrophobia of the plot. Definitely among the best horror anthology tales British television ever produced, and still unnerving today.

In the same vein was the final entry, The Mark of Satan, which expressed the disturbing idea that madness can be catching. It concentrated on a hospital morgue attendant, three days into his transfer to that department, who hears about a patient who died during brain surgery and managed to call out, "Leave my soul alone!" as he expired on the operating table. Soon after, the attendant (Peter McEnery: Victim, Entertaining Mr Sloane) is growing obsessed with seeing the number nine everywhere and becomes convinced this is the key to some unnatural truth he is beginning to perceive, but the question the viewer must ask is whether it is all in his head or if it is genuinely happening, and with this series there is no easy answer to that. The first half indicated he was fixated on a pattern that was purely in his own mind.

But then the second half queried that by dropping hints that there was a Satanic group at large comprised of everyone at his work or at his home, where he lives with his mother and a lodger, single mother with a baby Georgina Hale (The Devils, Cockneys vs Zombies) who is friendly towards him despite his mother disapproving of her (but not her rent) - or is this young woman leading him on to be a sacrifice of some sort? The information that the dead patient determined to release the demon inside him by drilling it out with a power drill is potent stuff, and McEnery is drawn inexorably to trying the same fate, but can he see sense, if indeed there is any sense to be seen? A fittingly bleak conclusion to the run, then, with some wild hallucinations-or-are-they? If this wasn't the best episode, it was certainly in the upper echelons.

Network have released the whole series of Hammer House of Horror on Blu-ray, restored to pristine sound and vision and looking better than it ever has, a benefit of being shot on film. The extras are the break bumpers, raw footage from Rude Awakening (lots of clapperboards), Guardians of the Abyss in 1.85:1 widescreen, and an extensive image gallery of publicity and stills. Overall as good or even better than you remember, if you had seen it before, and well worth investigating if you're a horror fan who has never hitherto encountered it.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006