Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Watching Hammer Top 10

This post first appeared on Watching Hammer (where it is still available to view). Unfortunately this post was also the last one to ever appear on that blog that had burned fast and bright. I have no idea what happened to the owner. My emails have gone unanswered and I am aware that other people who had tried getting in touch have also not received a reply. I sincerely hope that all is well with him and that he just lost interest in updating the blog. If anyone reading this is in touch with him, please pass on my message.

In the meantime I decided to re-post my Top 10 Hammer movies on my own blog as well.


When Watching Hammer first approached me with his request for a Top 10 of my favourite Hammer movies my first response was: “Hell yay”.

Followed by a “What have I done?”

See, as a general rule I don't do lists. Don't get me wrong: I love lists. Love reading them. Love ticking things off them. Or contemplating what's missing from them. But compiling them????

The trouble is that my mind is flighty. I don't have A favourite film or book; I have favourite films and books. And their number is legion. And what I may consider my favourites often depends on my general mood, the company I am with, or even the time of day or where I am right now. And even then a lot of my favourites aren't necessarily indicative of an overall general inherent quality, but of heavy bouts of rose tinted nostalgia. I could endlessly discuss the merits of one film against another, but the moment someone mentions that they prefer one because it reminds them of their childhood or teenage years I just back off as I get it. No point in arguing when nostalgia steps in as it inevitably does with regards to classic movies.

And speaking of which: I was born a little too late to watch the Hammer movies in the cinemas. I do remember walking by a picture house when To the Devil... a Daughter was first shown, but I was way too young to even contemplate sneaking in to see it. In Germany at the time we had Sunday kiddies matinees that often showed classic movies so I watched a number of those (such as The Crimson Pirate) there and if memory serves me well I also saw Hammer's own When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth in one of those. And, yes, it was the nudie version. (Us Germans never minded showing some innocent bit of skin to young impressive teenies.)

In the meantime I have also seen some of their movies on the big screen courtesy of Don Fearney's fabulous events, though anyone who knows me also knows that I tend to spend more time shmoozing there than attending movie screenings. Heck, prior to its DVD release I had only seen the last half of his Hammer Vampires documentary as I spent the first half having lunch with Caroline Munro. (Sorry, I just have to rub this in any chance I can.)

As for watching my earliest Hammers, I feel like I knew them already before seeing them on German television (a snowy, black and white one in my bedroom) as I had spent hours reading up about classic horror movies from borrowed library books and had kept pouring over those images until they were already ingrained in my memory way before I even saw them as proper movies.

Part of the difficulty of deciding on my Top 10 Hammer films is not only that I find it hard to make a Top 10 of anything (never mind a Top 10 of my favourite production company), but also that I simply haven't even seen all of the movies yet. I don't even own all of their DVD releases and from the ones that I do own I am ashamed to admit that I still haven't even watched them all.

So needless to say the following Top 10 is sorted chronologically. If I can't even decide on a proper Top 10, what chances do I have to organise the list in any other order but a time line? Also bear in mind that the answers I am giving today may not be quite the answers you get from me next year or even next week. You will also notice that I will at times cheat and throw in a few other suggestions that could equally make it to the list.

One thing that you may, however, observe is the absence of any Frankenstein movie. Yes, I do like their Frankenstein films and they would easily make it into a Top 20, but overall I don't find the whole Frankenstein genre quite as intriguing in general (not just with Hammer) as some of the horror myths and legends. But if you wanna know: My favourite Hammer Frankenstein is The Revenge of Frankenstein. Or maybe Frankenstein Created Woman. (See what I meant with me being so indecisive?)

Without further ado.....

The Hound of the Baskervilles

I love Hammer movies and I love Sherlock Holmes. So needless to say I absolutely adore Hammer's Hound adaptation that successfully walks a wonderful tightrope between the more typical Gothic Horror scenes of the flashbacks and the Whodunnit of the actual Holmes tale. Peter Cushing is an excellent Holmes but more importantly Andre Morell is one of the first cinematic Watsons (or even THE first?) who doesn't come across like a bumbling idiot. The rest of the cast is first rate as well with a special mention to Christopher Lee who actually plays quite a dashing romantic hero role for a nice change. Not continuing this movie with a proper series of Holmes adaptations will for me always be one of Hammer's most tragically wasted opportunities.

The Mummy

Hammer's Egypt never looked better. Christopher Lee gives a standout performance for the most part entirely through the eyes. Yvonne Furneaux is by far Hammer's most attractive female Mummy fodder (even though it appears she doesn't much like to be reminded of it now). And "Props" Cushing manages to hold it all in place while running and walking with a limp.

Most importantly, however, this is not filmed in the style of their usual Gothic Horrors but more like a haunting, beautiful yet slightly nightmarish dream with imagery not likely forgotten in a long while.
Oh, and Blood from the Mummy's Tomb ain't half bad either.

The Curse of the Werewolf

I really can't properly remember what had been my very first proper Hammer movie. If I'd hazard a guess I would say it's a tie between The Curse of the Werewolf and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (another worthy contender for a Top 10 Hammer list).

From all the classic horror myths, the Werewolf legend is perhaps the most humane and tragic with its plots of innocent men accidentally being turned into creatures of the night and needing to fight their urges every month for a few days while for all intends and purposes remaining utterly normal all the days in between the full moon.

No wonder that the Werewolf myth has long been one of my favourite sub-genres. And Curse of the Werewolf is classic Hammer Horror at its best. The scenes of aristocratic debauchery and the rape of the young girl (Yvonne Romain) by a disgusting looking beggar (played by Richard Wordsworth) remain as potent and memorable as when the film was first screened. And who could forget Oliver Reed's tragic performance that turned him into a star from that moment on? I can't! No wonder this movie has remained a favourite of mine from the very first moment I had managed to put my eyes on it.

The Kiss of the Vampire

I have a confession to make here. If I was hard pressed and had to make a decision between never seeing a Hammer Dracula again or any of the non-Drac Vampire movies, I'd drop the Count without a second thought like a hot spud. True, all their non-Dracs probably would not have seen the light of day if it wasn't for their Stoker adaptations and interpretations but there is generally way more originality in their other vampire outings than in any of their more famous movies.

Kiss of the Vampire is a wonderful case in point with a number of very atypical vampire hunters: a pair of honeymooners on the one side joining forces with a crazy alcoholic against a coven (is that the right term?) of vampires resembling a modern day cult led by Noel Willman.

Other cases in point that I equally love: Vampire Circus or Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter. In actual fact the one non-Drac Vampire movie that I don't hold in such a high regard as most everyone else is The Brides of Dracula, a beautiful movie with wonderful characters but marred by a train wreck of a screenplay.


She would not only prove to be Hammer's most expensive movie ever but an excellent Boys Own style adventure yarn that easily stood the test of time. Though Bernard Robinson has done wonders to create fantastical worlds with little budget at Bray, it is nice to see Hammer actually film on location for a change (in Israel to be more precise). Strangely enough the company actually toned down the grisly and violent scenes of the source novel and focused entirely on the classic adventure aspects.

Bah, what am I saying: It's got Ursula Andress, the world's most beautiful woman at the time playing the world's most beautiful woman. What more do you want?

'Nuff said.

Dracula – Prince of Darkness

It may be a case of familiarity breeding contempt, but as much as I like the original Dracula (I refuse to call it Horror of...) I do prefer its follow up Dracula – Prince of Darkness. There's something to be said about a gruff gun wielding priest and vampire hunter called Shandor; an oh so properly mannered lady who becomes a man (and woman) hungry vampire and writhes venomously on a table before being staked by a bunch of guys holding her down (with all kinds of nasty connotations); a sequence in which one of our Everyman heroes gets sliced open like an animal at a meat processing plant to revive the Count. Seriously if it's a question of Dracula vs. Dracula – Prince of Darkness, the original always loses out for me.

Rasputin the Mad Monk

Because Christopher Lee told me to. You know, he has studied the history of the Romanoffs extensively and as a child had even met Prince Yussupoff.

But all jokes aside: The legend of Rasputin (and this film is indeed more legend than history) is utterly fascinating and never has it been captured better than in Rasputin the Mad Monk with one of Lee's most riveting performances and a death scene that is more drawn out and captivating than that of any of his Draculas.

The Devil Rides Out

With The Devil Rides Out Hammer proved that they couldn't just do stunning looking Gothic but also stunning looking Art Deco Horror. This is a superior change of pace from the usual Vampire and Frankenstein flicks and it is nice to see the Devil given his dues as well with a mesmerising performance by Charles Gray and Christopher Lee as a very convincing hero for a change.

In actual fact I have a special place in my heart for all of Hammer's Dennis Wheatley adaptations. Yes, the author himself doesn't appear to have been too enamoured by The Lost Continent and To the Devil.... a Daughter but based on my perception of the very few Wheatley novels I ever read, I can't say that I give too much on his opinion in this matter.

There's something to be said for a film like The Lost Continent that on the one hand dares to show not one single likeable main character and on the other hand goes completely trashy with Dana Gillespie's big balloons. Also, To the Devil.... a Daughter has one of the most truly shocking and uncomfortable scenes in any Hammer movie ever. So much for them only ever going the safe road until the end.

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde

Doesn't the title say it all? This is Doctor Jekyll and SISTER Hyde played by the wonderful Ralph Bates and Martine Beswicke. That alone is such a great twist worthy of my Top 10, but then Jack the Ripper is also brought in. So what's not to like?

Incidentally, and this may only indirectly be reflected in this list in the titles that also ran, I do think that some of Hammer's output in the 70s has been unjustly maligned. I am losing count of the number of times that I hear that Hammer lost the plot with their later productions and never really learnt to go with the times blah blah. Truth is that they did attempt to go new ways in the 70s but that these weren't accepted by the general public. Nevertheless some of the company's most interesting productions were from their last couple of years in business: Apart from Dr Jeckyll and Sister Hyde I would also light a candle for Captain Kronos, Vampire Circus, To the Devil.... a Daughter and Straight On Till Morning as well as for a number of others that fall into their more established series.

Dracula AD 1972

This film has always been a guilty pleasure of mine way before when I even knew I was supposed to feel guilty about loving it. This may just have been one of the very earliest Hammer Dracula films I have ever seen and it took me years to learn that I stood pretty much alone in my admiration for this groovy classic. Then the Internet came along and over the years I gradually discovered that there were a couple of other folks out there who also seem to get great enjoyment out of Dracula A.D. 1972.

I frankly don't care that Dracula never ventures outside the desecrated church. Instead I really enjoy the exciting pre-credit fight between him and Van Helsing and the Kubrickian shot that brings us straight from a 19th century graveyard into the skies of shwinging London populated with modern aircraft. I also really dig the dialogue between all the cool cats and chicks that populate this movie. Alucard's death scene is genuinely exciting and, given the use of a shower, not anything we could have seen in any of the previous Dracula movies.

And lest we forget: Seeing Caroline Munro's quivering bossom splashed with blood is just as hot as watching Stephanie Beacham's perk nipples underneath her white gown.

Oh, and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is equally cool. Though Satanic Rites of Dracula sucks in a not very good way.


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I remember reading this when Watching Hammer posted it originally. A couple on there that I really like (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, RASPUTIN:THE MAD MONK), one that I believe to be vastly overrated (THE MUMMY) and two of my least favourite Hammer films (SHE and DRACULA AD '72.)

It's a shame Watching Hammer has vanished into the ether...a wonderful site and one I have great affection for - Had the author continued on their quest, this might have become one of the premier Hammer resources on the net.

Holger Haase said...

I agree. This guy was amazing. I really am worried about him. He was always worried about his online privacy but I had exchanged email messages but he just isn't responding anymore. I hope he's OK.

Unknown said...

My favorite top 10:


I would have loved to squeeze THE MUMMY or some Frankenstein films, especially CURSE, REVENGE or EVIL to the list, and I have always found CURSE OF THE MUMMY´S TOMB as enjoyable B-film with sumptuous production values. But my love for Hammer vampires won!