Saturday, September 3, 2011

The ten Hammer films I’m most ashamed never to have seen (not including “Straight On Till Morning”)

In preparation for a forthcoming post on my blog The Dennis Wheatley Project, I watched The Lost Continent for the first time the other night.
I’d owned a copy of it for ages, but I’d been saving it until after I’d read Uncharted Seas, the Dennis Wheatley novel it’s based on. (I’m reading all Wheatley’s novels in order. Don’t ask. It’s a long story.)
As usual when I catch up with a Hammer film I’ve never seen before, I enjoyed every second of it, and was struck again by the fact that there’s just something... some weird, indefinable alchemical something... about Hammer films - all Hammer films - that perfectly suits my cinematic metabolism.

I can see that their best films are their best films, but even the ones that inspire nothing but complete disdain from even sympathetic reviewers – like this one – invariably give me nothing but pleasure.
From the first time I saw Lust For a Vampire I knew that it was a film I would be periodically watching again and again for the rest of my life. Dracula AD 1972 gets better every time I see it. I got The Vengeance of She as part of a box set and didn’t get round to it for over a year, so persuaded was I by its reputation as perhaps the worst of all the major Hammer movies - and when I finally gave it a chance I loved it from the first frame to the last. My most recent viewing was my fourth and it won’t be the last.

The vast majority of the Hammer films I’ve seen, and all the most famous and important ones, I saw between the ages of ten and eighteen, in a lucky, happy time when they seemed hardly ever absent from British tv, on BBC2 on Saturday nights, and ITV in the week.
Heady days they were, and I was able to indulge so regularly and with such repeated pleasure that it’s only comparatively recently that its occurred to me that there are gaps still to plug here. In the last couple of years I've tracked down - and adored - those last few major stragglers, like Captain Clegg, most of those black and white Jimmy Sangsters, and, best of all, The Mummy's Shroud. (Even the fact that those fabulous stills of the mummy looming up behind a négligée-clad Maggie Kimberly turned out to be another case of the Susan Denbergs didn't spoil it for me.)

There remain, however, just a few significant chapters in the Hammer saga that still remain just titles and stills to me.
Here are ten of the most notable – accompanied by my pledge to catch up with all of them over the next year.
Anyone got a copy of The Old Dark House?

1. X- The Unknown
2. The Abominable Snowman
I’ve seen the two black and white Quatermasses, but never did get round to these remaining black and white proto-Hammer horrors, the first written by Sangster in Nigel Kneale mode, the second by Kneale himself and with Peter Cushing in the cast. No excuse, no excuse. I always thought it would have been interesting if Hammer had retained Nigel Kneale as a regular screenwriter and just let him do whatever he wanted: his obviously more cerebral approach would have made for an interesting counterpoint to Sangster and Hinds. I can't see Sir James giving him a free hand, though. Incidentally, my former day job brought me into contact with Judith Kerr, Kneale’s widow, last year, and necessitated me visiting her at their daughter's house - which has the largest tank of tropical fish I’ve ever seen. It all seemed very Quatermass, somehow.

3. Shadow of the Cat
Bit of an interloper this. Nowadays, the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-true-Hammer-Horror battle is over, and the verdict is yes. But I got into Hammer at a time when nobody had even heard of it, and I lived through those bitter years when the pro- and anti- forces besieged each other. I sided instinctively with the nays, for some reason, despite my love of Barbara and André, and I’ve never really accepted it into the family, certainly not in the blasé way in which it now turns up in all the lists, without even a comment to indicate its mongrel status. But still, there’s no excuse for not ever having seen it.

4. The Damned
I’m beginning to notice a running theme so far: I’ve missed most of the black and white ones.
I’m sure it’s a coincidence (and in any event we’re switching to colour from this point on) but it’s certainly true that colour is, to me, one of the defining features of Hammer. Another is a certain traditional kind of ambiance, even in modern-setting productions. This, I’ll wager lacks the latter every bit as much as the former, and in truth I’m really not in any great hurry to catch up with this. For my money Joseph Losey, like Alan Parker, is one of those names that practically guarantees an infuriating time.

5. Terror of the Tongs
This looks like great fun, rather more so I should think than Stranglers of Bombay, a(nother) black and whiter with which it is invariably if mysteriously paired. Christopher Lee in Fu Manchu rehearsal, the docks of Peking recreated at Bray and the famous bone scraping scene... and all I can do is imagine it.
The same goes for The Scarlet Blade, and for The Devil Ship Pirates, and for...

6. Pirates of Blood River
I’m sure I'd love them all, but Pirates just edges ahead in my wish list because of its rare casting of two of my minor Hammer glamour favourites: Baskerville minx Marla Landi, whose uniquely mangled dialogue is a delight in that movie and I'm sure will be again here, and the incredible Marie Devereux, for whom no justifying comment is necessary.

7. She
8. Slave Girls
There are a few reasons why I really should get around to seeing this. It’s a key Hammer movie, of course, along with One Million Years BC (the closest I've got to a Hammer film I couldn't get all the way through) one of the anomalous smash successes among the studio's sandy adventure films that convinced them there was potential in the subgenre. A score of flops later they were still trying. But this one features both Lee and Cushing – which actually is a rarer event than you might have thought at Hammer – and I have, let’s not forget, seen The Vengeance of She four times, so it feels somewhat perverse to have never watched this.
And Slave Girls just looks like good fun, with Martine Beswick in a scandalously rare swaggering lead, the potential of which just pushes the film ahead of The Viking Queen and Creatures the World Forgot in my ten.

9. The Old Dark House
Can this really be as bad as they all say? Surely not.
I doubt it’s a patch on the 1932 original – few films are – but then, it doesn’t sound like it’s all that similar either. The prospect of William Castle working for Hammer is one to savour, and so is this cast: Janette Scott, Fenella Fielding, Peter Bull, Robert Morley, Joyce Grenfell...
I’m willing to bet that this is a little gem in hiding, desperately long overdue sympathetic re-evaluation. I can't even guess what it's really like. But will we ever get the chance to see it?

10. The Anniversary
I like The Nanny; love Bette Davis… So how come I’ve never made the effort to see this? Search me. Anyway, I promised to limit this list to ten, which means, as predicted, there’s no room for Straight On Till Morning.

What are the most glaring gaps in your circle of Hammer film acquaintances?


Unknown said...

'The Damned' is probably the best of the un-Hammerish Hammer films that I've seen. It has a weird atmosphere that is quite unlike anything else in the Hammer cannon. Well worth watching!

Snipes said...

I've not seen A LOT of Hammer Films, mainly because of time and I just got sucked into the experience only a couple years ago, but I definitely share your opinon that even the horrible ones are ironically enjoyable to watch. I hated When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, but if that film was ever released in pristine Blu-ray I'd snatch it up in a minute! Same goes for She, which I have seen and found quite boring but it's a breathtaking looking film. For me I've gotten the most enjoyment out of the thrillers. Love Paranoiac! and Maniac. You're aware of my few guilty pleasures, I'd also throw in Moon Two Zero, another film most people shunned yet I thought Hammer pulled off a very entertaining science fiction film.

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, that should definitely go on the list, actually. I forgot all about that. A space western with Bernard Bresslaw in it - and the stills look absolutely gorgeous. Now it really is a Top 11.
Incidentally, that comment I left over at your place about Slave Girls being on the list of ones still to see wasn't a sleazy attempt to get you to read this; it was reading your post that inspired this one.

Interesting to see a vote for The Damned too. Okay, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Holger Haase said...

Great list, Matt. Looks like you'll be in for some treats. I have seen all those films (with the exception of SHADOW OF THE CAT) and they're all worthy of exploration... though some more so than others.

SHE is one of my undisputed Hammer faves. On the other hand PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER I only watched last month for the first time and though I enjoyed it the forced French accents in it started seriously grating on me after a while.

You are right that there is always something worthwhile in a Hammer production. I actually have a great fondness for some of the generally derided productions such as MOON ZERO TWO or THE LOST CONTINENT. The closest I have ever come to a Hammer film I didn't really take to was THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR... and that may have had something to do the quality of the print made available to me.

My own list of most ashamed not-seen Hammers would include (in no particular order): SHATTER, CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND, HELL IS A CITY, THE MUMMY'S SHROUD. I also haven't seen a lot of their later comedies.... though can't say I am too ashamed about this. ;-)

The good news is that a lot of the films you mentioned are available easily enough. THE OLD DARK HOUSE e.g. has been shown on Sky Movies quite regularly over the last few years.

Flop said...

Hell is a city is a must see as is She.

Matthew Coniam said...

Holger -
I've seen Shatter, though can't really recommend it that strongly, even so, it's good fun to see Cushing turning up in it, and it makes for a good double-bill with Seven Golden Vampires.
Mummy's Shroud, however, is a must! It's the least plotted of the mummy series (Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, though still oddly dull, had a great twist) but in a funny way it's the one that comes closest to the purely mindless fun of the Universal mummy series.
I had no idea The Old Dark House had been made available! When I used to keep an eye on these things it was thought lost forever in a tangled web of copyright confusion.
Anyone got a copy they want to lend me? I can do swaps!

Holger Haase said...

I'd love to get you a copy of THE OLD DARK HOUSE. Unfortunately, when I watched it on Sky I had no access to a DVD Recorder so don't actually own a copy myself.

Holger Haase said...

Or you may just want to drop by YouTube where starting from here: THE OLD DARK HOUSE is available in several 15-minute long parts.

Given the dubious legal issues re this upload I would recommend to avail of this version as long as it is still available. ;-)

Matthew Coniam said...

You're kidding me!
I'm off there NOW - I've wanted to see this film since forever...

Holger Haase said...

Haha, it happens to me all the time. I've been searching to the guitar tabs for CAROLINE GOODBYE for ages and a few months ago went into a rant about their availability. Needless to say that they had managed to mysteriously show up in the most popular Guitar Tab site that I swear I had searched in before time and time again.

Let me know what you think about OLD DARK HOUSE. I actually like it quite a bit. It's not great but it's enjoyable enough.

Jonas said...

Straight on Till Morning is propably one of the most disturbing Hammer films I have seen. It lacks the popcorn entertainment qualities of many Hammer films.

Sam79 said...

I only just watched The Anniversary last week (after having the DVD for 6 months). It was very entertaining though quite obviously derived from a stage play as the pace is a little uneven at times. Bette Davis is fantastic (as usual) though plays such a nasty piece of work, it's sometimes quite uncomfortable to watch! I didn't watch The Evil Of Frankenstein and Straight On 'Till Morning for years and wish it had stayed that way! I felt cheated by the former (Peter Cushing was obviously expected to carry the film all by himself) and quite traumatized by the unexpectedly grim little film that leaves quite a nasty aftertaste.
I still haven't gotten 'round to seeing The Abominable Snowman or Captain Clegg...

Snipes said...

@Matt - don't worry, I didn't think that. I actually follow this blog so when I saw it pop up on my Reader I figured I'd add my two cents! :)

If you're interested in really hard to find cult films I'd suggest it's a relative goldmine of B-movies and cult films (especially Hammer). I can probably dig up an invite for you if you're interested, it's a private torrent site. Just need an email address. I've found it invaluable when it comes to Hammer, and Giallo films especially ones that have never been released on DVD and are thus impossible to find.

Holger Haase said...

Cinemageddon is just amazing... if you can manage an invite. The biggest issue with it is to keep your patience with the downloads to ensure you keep a decent share ratio and not be kicked off it. ;-)

Larry said...

I saw She many years ago and remember that I really like it at the time, but can't remember much about it. I also saw The Old Dark House many many years ago and really found it funny. I don't know how I would feel about it now. It might be interesting to try and find a copy of these two and watch them again. As for The Anniversary, I love it. I have it on DVD. There is something perverse and yet lighthearted about it. Hearing Bette Davis tell a her sons girlfriend to please move I am offended by body odor makes me laugh just thinking about it. Its a strange strange film that remains one of my favorites.

Wayne Davidson said...

THE OLD DARK HOUSE is on DVD in the USA as part of the William Castle Collection. and I believe X THE UNKNOWN is about to be released on DVD in the UK. Enjoy!