I don't know what pleases me more – seeing a no-frills/budget-priced two-disc DVD set of some prime Hammer hits (and, okay, one miss) – or seeing the iconic studio back in action, releasing their own titles and conquering the home video market. I guess it's all of the above – but mostly the former. This triple-feature collection can be best called Two-and-a-Half Menaces, and comprises a pair of 1960s Terence Fisher masterworks, DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS and FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN...and the death-knell (albeit amusing) misfire THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES. Of course, in any mixed bag – the results are expected to be...well, mixed. And so they are – but the pros so outweigh the cons that they're guaranteed to embellish every screening with as much goth fun as one can have without getting arrested.
All three titles were previously available on DVD via the Anchor Bay label. Suffice it to say that each offering has been re-mastered for this set under the Millennium/Hammer/Exclusive brand (Exclusive, by the way, was the distributing moniker that Hammer used in their early days). The Dracula and Frankenstein pics had a pronounced effect on my childhood. I worshiped these flicks, loved the look, the actors, the music and the direction. Even as a pre-teen kid I knew that if Terence Fisher's name was listed as director, I was going to be in for a rousing Saturday afternoon at the movies. I was never disappointed. Fisher, like iconic genre stars Peter Cushing (in two of the entries) and Christopher Lee (in one) strut their stuff in high style – the actors in a pair of their signature roles (Drac and the Baron). The costars are equally tantalizing, especially Barbara Shelley in DRACULA (or is it the other way around?), and Bavarian one-shot wonder Susan Denberg as crazed Dr. F's latest experiment. But there's also Francis Matthews, Duncan Lamont, Suzan Farmer, Thorley Walters, Andrew Keir, Charles Tingwell and a host of other top-drawer thesps in magnificent support. Then there's the Arthur Grant cinematography, the Bernard Robinson art direction, the James Bernard scores...it just goes on and on. Hey, there's a reason the Queen knighted the company (granted, primarily for bringing in tons of revenue) that transcended all the sensationalism and negative press that accompanied their original output. As usual, the critics were the last to appreciate and understand what was going on up there on the screen...and we kids the first!
1966's DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS was the long-awaited return of Christopher Lee in the role that helped make him an international favorite. Why it took eight years for the resurrection wasn't because of want of trying. After all, in the 1957 smash hit (released here as Horror of Dracula), Lee had been dissolved into so much dead dust by Peter Cushing’s resourceful and athletic Van Helsing. Cushing returned in 1960 in a memorable “stake out” entitled Brides of Dracula – in itself a brilliant recruitment ad for vampirism. But it was Lee vs. Cushing that certainly warranted an encore. By the mid-1960s, Hammer, true to their budgetary restraints, frankly saw it impossible to afford both stars and not tweak their purse strings (so we were told). In place of Cushing came Father Sandor – via the personage of the imposing Andrew Keir.
The plot had a quartet of Victorians vacationing in the Carpathian mountains – never a good idea. The two couples – one progressive, the other veddy staid stereotypes – unwittingly unleash the artist formerly known as Prince-of-Darkness...and in a rather unique fashion. While even the most uninformed vampirist knows that the undead are repulsed by garlic...that doesn't necessarily mean a clove...or in this case a servant bearing a reasonable pungent nomme de plume facsimile. Klove (Philip Latham), a human disciple of the Count, would instantly make John Carradine shriek an arm-flailing “uh-oh,” but that doesn't stop the visiting Brits. Chaos, to put it mildly, ensues – but not before involving the aforementioned priest, his ill-equipped monastery, its Renfield-like inhabitant (Thorley Walters) and more period trappings than a Dickensian taffy-pull. The script initially so offended star Lee that he issued an edict – refusing to utter one line of the dialogue, which he found insufferable (reportedly the prime culprit being “I am the apocalypse!”). Why couldn't, the actor reasoned, the screenplay by John Sansom (pseudonym of writer Jimmy Sangster, from an idea by John Elder – pseudonym of Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) at least adhere to some portion of the story “...as Stoker wrote it.” In defiance, Lee played the role mute – and quite majestically too. The bat's share of kudos, however, go to the superb actress Barbara Shelley as the prim and proper pent-up (aka be-otch) Helen. The first to get vampirized, Shelley underlines the connection between vamping and vamPING...or the undead version of sexting before anyone (with the possible exception of Hedy Lamarr) ever had the notion of a cellphone. Once bitten, the brittle Brit goes all Moll Flanders on everyone's ass – forcing the valiant cast to scurry like mad in search of protection (in every sense of the word). It's a remarkable transformation and performance.
The lush, gorgeous James Bernard music is another plus to this immorality play, filmed uncharacteristically (for a goth) in the anamorphic economy widescreen TechniScope process (which split each frame in two – thus using up half the amount of film...a saving of about $5000.00 1965 dollars).
For all of the studio's infamous penny-pinching, they might have just gone with Cushing...as, upon its release, DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS went through the roof, bested only by 1965's Thunderball and nearly rivaling the Beatles' Help!
Here in the States, it hit the nabes, supported by Plague of the Zombies (another Hammer pip). Released in America by 20th Century-Fox, the studio eschewed the cost of Technicolor prints, in favor of their house DeLuxe Color. In the days before CRIs, this visually translated to pinkish-looking, murky washed-out images. The subsequent Anchor Bay DVDs (and Elite Entertainment laserdiscs) used British elements that wowed us Yank Hammer fans.
This new Millennium edition is the best I've ever seen on this title – a fresh, new master, rendering the crispest, sharpest images and richest colors...plus in a totally uncompromised 2.35: 1 anamorphic aspect ratio. The only setback is the loss of the earlier release's second audio track, encompassing Lee's, Shelley's, Matthews' and Farmer's witty and royally entertaining reminiscences.
1966's FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN is the set's jewel in the crown, easily one of the best movies Hammer ever made (to say nothing of one of the greatest titles in cinema history). Once again, under the quill of “John Elder” and direction of Fisher, this gory-story follows the increasingly unsavory madness-descending adventures of Baron Frankenstein and his attempts to create life...by basically causing a lot of death. This time the Baron is obsessed with the human soul...Does it exist – and, if so, can it be harnessed? Does it leave the body after death? Can it be transferred from one host to another? If so - “...we have conquered death.” It's a metaphysical conflict pitting medicine against religion – pretty heavy stuff for a movie geared toward an adolescent audience. But, and here's a key secret to Hammer's success, the picture and all concerned played it straight...refusing to dumb-down to its base and, thus, intriguing its millions of viewers who appreciated the grown-up respect they were being doled out in (admittedly) gruesome portions.
The Baron, using the skills of a local doctor (the always-dependable Thorley Walters), directs each operation in minute detail – his hands had been scarred beyond use in the previous pic’s castle fire (damn those pitchfork/torch-carrying villagers!). That's not the case with his other Hans – an eager young assistant and son of a guillotined murderer. Hans is also in love with Maria – a disfigured daughter of a brutal tavern owner. Maria is constantly taunted by three aristocratic toffs. When the enraged drunken a-holes kill her father, Hans is blamed and sentenced to death. Maria commits suicide and, if this were any other movie but a Hammer Film, the picture would end here. Cushing, working fast before all this young flesh goes past its expiration date, retrieves Hans' headless body and Maria's drowned corpse and fuses the latter's soul into that of the former. Making a detour into Maria's brain, he corrects the physical aberration that caused her deformity – with striking Playmate of the Month results. Proud of his arguably spectacular achievement, the Baron has failed to realize what he has actually done. Hans' psycho gene, inherited from his father, lives on inside Maria. She, like her lover, each possesses a furious desire for justice and revenge. Incredibly, the movie also comprises a sidebar of dual sexuality, which asserts itself in the worst evocation of “Pardon me while I change into something more comfortable.”
Fisher's direction, always an underrated plus, is perhaps at his epoch in this amazing adult fable. The transference of guilt/identity coupled with the undeniably weird romance (all backed by James Bernard's beautiful music) that at times goes on within one body is like some supernatural cinematic hybrid of Hitchcock and Frank Borzage (not surprisingly the two directors Fisher revealed in a late-career interview that he most admired). The compositions are, like its narrative, revelations of cold symmetry – most prominently the killing of the barman framed by the perfectly synchronized low-angle image of the foppish trio caning in size-placed order.
Cushing, is (what else?) splendid (when is he not?). I can't think of any other actor who could play this role and still have audience support. Let's face it: Peter Cushing could make a reading of a Bazooka Joe comic sound like an evening with Edgar Allan Poe.
Denberg, herself a quasi-real-life tragic figure, manages to stretch beyond her ga-ga gorgeous looks and deliver a poignant, obviously conflicted performance. This is even more amazing when considering that her thick accent forced Hammer to have another actress dub all her lines.
While the anamorphic transfer is from a near-pristine 35MM, it isn't from the elements used for the old Anchor Bay. The Millennium FCW has the U.S. Fox logo at its head – and, while perfectly acceptable, is a bit on the warm side. Oh, well – if only the Baron had created non-fade stock...
The enfant terrible of the set, 1974's THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, represented the end-of-the-line of the studio. I first saw it at a 1975 Hammer fest. The packed room of diehard fans were aghast at what unfolded before them. When the lights went up, there were a few echoed lonely claps, but it was mostly a depressed aura of “Are you kidding?” that permeated the surroundings – even with Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and one-time studio head Michael Carreras in attendance.
The premise is one of those “looks good on paper” concepts. Indeed, in the Bruce Lee era, the idea of a gothic horror/martial arts vampire flick must have had the completion bond company financiers licking their chops (or chopsticks). Surely a Hammer coproduction with the famed Run-Run Shaw empire was a can't-miss enterprise. With the bulk of the picture resting upon the shoulders of the Chinese, it was more like a take-the-money-and-Run-Run Shaw project. The result goes beyond uneven – it's simply just too silly...And this is coming from someone who will believe almost anything for this kind of a flick.
The movie opens with some Asian dude visiting Castle Dracula. Of course, Christopher Lee had already nixed any participation in these productions. This was lamentable in 1972's Lust for a Vampire, where the studio shamelessly hired a Drac-tor that looked like Lee – a sometime radio deejay named Mike Raven. In GOLDEN VAMPIRES, they didn't even opt for a Lee lookalike, but someone who looked like Raven – a lipstick-wearing more-ham-than-Hammer unfortunate whose one attribute was his impressive name: John Forbes-Robertson.
The Count morphs into the luckless mo-fo and travels to China to practice his art. There a poor farmer invades the castle of the newly-formed vampire cult (I guess you could call it the Fang Dynasty) to search for his daughter and is shocked at what he sees: a horizontal wheel of live naked moaning writhing girls, prepped for sacrifice. Ironically, armed only with a hoe, he valiantly tries to triumph over evil...but...
Cut to modern-day 1904 (huh?)...Van Helsing and his son trek to China to stamp out vampirism, accompanied by a small contingent of kung fu fighting compadres. It really is as ridiculous as it sounds...with most of the screen time taken up by martial arts battles with vampires and resurrected zombies. This lowest common denominator nonsense so stunned the original American distributor, Warner Bros., that they dropped it from their release schedule – along with a slew of other Hammer titles. Similar to what other U.S. companies were doing to their one-time lucrative British partners, these newly-abandoned markets sent the English film industry into a downward tailspin where, for several years, the only profitable movies were ineptly-made softcore comedies and thrillers.
Not that I'm blaming THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES for the fall of the British film industry; merely that it was indicative of what was going on. The curse of this movie was its being relegated to slipshod companies, who flooded the drive-ins and grindhouses (and later P.D. home vid outlets) with lousy edited prints that for years made GOLDEN VAMPIRES an even bigger laughingstock than it was.
Watching it forty years later does have its retro charms. I mean it's not terrible – just...dim sum. The direction of Roy Ward Baker is unquestionably professional, but it certainly wasn’t “a night to remember.” On the other hand, star Peter Cushing once again proves that it's impossible for him NOT to be good in anything; more so, his presence elevates the on-screen shenanigans to palatable. Then again, one can almost see Don Houghton's script prefaced by “Please deposit paycheck up front before proceeding.” Undoubtedly, the worst recipient of this carelessly assembled endeavor is the great James Bernard who is insulted by his credit – misspelled as “James Benard.”
A pleasant surprise is the Panavision cinematography by John Wilcox and Roy Ford. Having erased all memories of the ill-fated premiere, I was haunted by the barrage of miserable copies I've seen over the past four decades (not that I actively sought out screenings). Even the Anchor Bay 2.35:1 copy, while better looking, was nothing to write home about. This (finally) anamorphic version, from a pristine Warner Bros.-prepared source (jeez, they were that close to actually releasing it under their banner) is outstanding...almost. Crystal-clear beautifully-lit scope images are definitely jaw-dropping, but the rub is Millennium's decision to release the transfer in a makes-no-sense time-compressed edition (thereby extending the movie's curse into the 21st century). Trust me, it doesn't help when lackluster cinema is speeded up and sounds like outtakes from Alvin and the Chipmunks. Then again...hmmm...maybe it does!
Perhaps the most horrific aspect of THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES was the Hong Kong filming experience. While the British actors and crew were treated with respect and reverence, Cushing was shocked by what befell his Asian counterparts. Often when an actor flubs a line or cue, he/she is berated by the director; in China, the rebuke was a nod from an on-set studio exec which produced a gaggle of muscle-bound henchman armed with bamboo rods who systematically beat the performers into submission. A master of understatement, the veteran star (at the aforementioned convention) correctly pegged this form of punishment as “...an unusual and different approach to filmmaking.” I responded by inquiring if this was a union position (personally, I find this reverse reward program invigorating and yearn for Washington to adapt these practices in dealing with 113th Congress). Mr. Cushing responded with a droll deadpanned “Oh, I wouldn’t think so.” This led to a brief staring competition – during which I blinked and broke out laughing. That was his cue, and blue peepers a-twinkling, he merrily joined in with the giggles. To say Peter Cushing was the sweetest guy I ever met in “The Industry” is a given; in actuality, he’s likely the nicest person I’ve ever met in my life.
Okay, let's be honest: LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES is not going to be the make-or-break decision on whether you purchase this collection (and why would it?). Consider the final third an anti-Christ bonus. Furthermore, since many online sellers are offering this DVD for under ten bucks, there's no reason for classic horror buffs...let alone cheap classic horror buffs (or former Hammer production heads) to wait for that after-Halloween sale...
HAMMER 3 HORROR CLASSICS FEATURE FILM SET: DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS/FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN/THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES. Color. Letterboxed [Dracula, 2.35:1; Frankenstein, 1.77:1; Golden Vampires, 2.39:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono audio: Dolby Digital 2.0. CAT # HAM-93375. SRP: $14.99.