Six Weeks of Halloween 2022: Hammer Horror

The word Halloween is a contraction of the words “hallowed” and “evening” (or “All Hallows’ Evening”) and dates back to 18th century Scotland. Naturally, there were several interim contractions on its way to the word we know and love, like the way “evening” became “eve” or “e’en” then eventually dropped the apostrophe in the eternal way that language mutates and evolves.

Around these parts, we celebrate that Hallowed E’en by watching a veritable plethora of horror movies (and reading some spooky books as well) for the six weeks leading up to the big day. Why six weeks? Well, that used to be two weeks better than most folks’ marathons, but it seems like people have been engaging in a little seasonal creep of late, and now this is just sorta de rigueur. Regardless, it’s always a fun time to engage in such a marathon, with the season already being festooned with mutilated gourds, decorative corpses, ornamental headstones covered with ironic puns, and picturesque cobwebs adorned with grotesque plastic spiders, amongst other nominally ghastly traditions. Not to mention that the pumpkin spice must flow. I look forward to this season more and more every year, and I’m so happy it has arrived.

It’s traditional to start the marathon with a theme that is a little more venerable and classy than usual. Which is not to say that it won’t be schlocky fun, just that there will be some element to the theme that hints towards respectability. Things like silent moviesforeign filmswell curated flicksclassic anthologies, and the like. This year, we begin our marathon with a series of Hammer Horror flicks. This was originally a planned theme way back in 2009, but I only really got to two of the more famous entries in the company’s catalogue.

Hammer Film Productions started as something of a generic studio built around “quota quickies“; cheap, domestic B-movies designed to fill gaps in cinema schedules. They are most famous, however, for their series of Gothic horror films and revivals of the old Universal Monster movies – now in vivid colour! Quite honestly, I’ve always been more interested in their non-Dracula/Frankenstein efforts. I’ve come to love the originals so much that the Hammer takes, while interesting, don’t do a whole lot for me. So we’ve got three Hammer originals and one Universal Monster update this week, let’s dive in:

Week 1: Hammer Horror

The Devil Rides Out – This textbook tale of Satanic Panic tells the story of two aristocrats investigating their protegé, who seems to have fallen under the spell of an occult plot to summon the devil. Fortunately, the Duc de Richleau knows his black magic and devises a plan to counter the deadly Satanist, Mocata. Hijinks ensue.

The Devil Rides Out

So we’ve got the standard Hammer horror gothic visuals, always effective, mixed in with a tale of mediums, mystics, Aleister Crowley-esque cults, and the goat-headed Devil Himself. Hammer regular Christopher Lee leads the charge as the suave but hard-edged Duc de Richleau, a surprising turn as a hero given Lee’s usual portrayal of sinister monsters. It’s all effective in its own, old-fashioned way, though I suspect it might not connect with modern audiences quite as well as it did at the time. This has a reputation of being top-tier Hammer, and I can see why, even if I’m not entirely in love with it. Still, there are lots of things to love.

For instance, the circle of protection sequence is visually striking and tense. The effects are clearly dated, but just the general geometry of the shots is effective enough. One of the funny things about this movie is that everyone is a filthy rich aristocrat, such that when they need to create this 20 foot pentagram on the floor, of course there’s a giant room in the house that’s seemingly tailor made for such a purpose.

There’s a long series of Duc de Richleau novels written by Dennis Wheatley and apparently Christopher Lee always wanted to reprise this role in additional adventures, but alas, no sequels were made. In any case, I enjoyed this quite a bit. Though it’s clearly an old-fashioned tale in many ways, it still has some effective stuff going on and it made for a good intro to the Six Weeks of Halloween. ***

Scream of Fear (aka Taste of Fear) – A wheelchair-bound young woman returns to her father’s estate after ten years away. She’s told that he’s away on business and that he’s been feeling ill of late. Suspicious, she explores the grounds at night and sees a vision of her father’s dead body. Naturally, no one believes her and it appears as if her seemingly friendly (but obviously wicked) stepmother and the local doctor are plotting something nefarious. Will she overcome their schemes?

Taste of Fear

Hammer is known for their vivid colors and gothic imagery, but this is more of a modern (er, for the 1950s) thriller and it’s filmed in black & white. It looks great and it channels more of a Hitchcockian feel than most of Hammer’s catalogue. Actually this feels even more like a play on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique, what with the water-logged corpse and all (mild spoilers, I guess, sorry). Weirdly enough, I also got a pretty strong Giallo vibe out of this, especially the last 20 minutes or so, when the twists and revelations start flying with reckless abandon. There’s an absurdity to the whole thing that should annoy me and trigger nitpicking impulses, but instead I just found myself utterly delighted.

The first hour is perhaps a tad slow, though there’s a well established atmosphere of mystery and growing dread. The sequences where she sees her dead father, but then gets gaslit when she tries to convince everyone around her – they are effective but maybe a bit repetitive. But it’s all worth it for that ending. As the film’s tagline implores: FOR MAXIMUM THRILL . . . WE EARNESTLY URGE YOU TO SEE THIS MOTION PICTURE FROM THE START!

I don’t want to oversell the ending or anything, but this was clearly my favorite movie of the weekend and probably my favorite Hammer Horror flick too. It’s a shame it’s so hard to find – it doesn’t appear to be available on any streaming service. I watched it on Indicator’s excellent Blu-Ray, which has both UK and US versions and tons of special features. If you’re a physical media nut and you like this sort of stately thriller, it’s worth a splurge. ***1/2

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter – When several young girls are found dead, mysteriously aged and drained of blood, the local doctor calls on his old army friend Captain Kronos, an infamous vampire hunter, for help. With the aid of the hunchbacked Professor Hieronymus Grost and a local peasant girl, Kronos and the good doctor set about ridding the area of the vampiric menace.

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

There’s this thing that lots of movies do where they scoff at the existing vampire lore that we all know and love, instead laying out a new series of rules that are treated as if it’s always been that way (e.g. “Of course vampires don’t care about garlic, you watch too many movies!”) But Captain Kronos takes a genuinely unique tact in positing that every piece of vampire lore you ever heard of is true, it’s just that they are attributable to different strains of vampire. As such, the first task of the vampire hunter is to figure out what type of vampire you’re dealing with, find its weaknesses, and only then do you strike. It’s a sort of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario, because it allows Kronos and his hunchback sidekick to throw out weird lore you’ve never heard of, while also not betraying what you already know. It’s actually a pretty effective approach.

In practice, this does sag a bit in the middle as they try to zero in on the vampire. On the other hand, there’s a great deal of swashbuckling and horse riding going on throughout which can be fun. There’s one sequence where Kronos is confronted by a local group of cutthroats that he quickly dispatches with his samurai sword. It’s one of those sequences where you only see him pull the sword, then almost immediately the sword is back in the sheath, cut to a wide shot, where you see the bad guys collapse from their wounds. Indeed, most of the action takes place in creative ways rather than utilizing special effects. A more modern take would have done the thing where one of the cutthroats staggers back and then the top half of his skull slides off and blood squirts everywhere. Blood and gore have their place, but this movie takes a more restrained approach and it’s actually kinda refreshing to see things happening in reflections or shadows.

Since we’ve reached the mid 1970s with this one, there’s also a fair amount of skin on display. Kronos spends a fair amount of time shirtless and hanging out with Caroline Munro, whose long hair is often… strategically placed (a la the Austin Powers gag), which I guess was somewhat risque for the time. At this point, Hammer was running into financial issues, so a Kronos series never materialized, but this does seem ripe for a sequel or remake for sure. This isn’t exactly top tier stuff, but it’s quite enjoyable. **1/2

The Mummy (1959) – Archaeologists discover the 4,000-year-old tomb of Princess Ananka and almost immediately begin to perish in mysterious accidents and murders. It appears that someone has enlisted the help of a mummy to take revenge on those responsible for the desecration of the sacred tomb, and the last remaining archaeologist must find a way to survive the mummy’s wrath.

The Mummy

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Universal classic of the same name, but this does strike me as an improvement over that original film, even if it does fall victim to similar hammy tendencies. Still, Peter Cushing brings a classy refinement to the proceedings and Christopher Lee plays the mummy in an imposing and menacing way. I love Boris Karloff, but if I remember correctly, he spends an awful lot of time not in mummy form… Even George Pastell, who plays the keeper of the mummy, stands his own when facing Peter Cushing.

This is ultimately standard mummy fare, slightly elevated by better effects and the vivid Technicolor that Hammer is famous for. I’m glad I caught up with it for sure, though it’s not exactly top tier stuff. **1/2

A pretty great start to the marathon here, stay tuned for some more Hammer on Wednesday, and next week, Giallo Essentials!

2 thoughts on “Six Weeks of Halloween 2022: Hammer Horror”

  1. Yes, it is Six Weeks time! The most wonderful time of the year! I’ve been chomping at the bit for it to begin for a while now.
    I’ve been wanting to do a Hammer retrospective for literally years at this point. Every year I plan on doing it, I always change my mind at the last minute. That’s because I can’t just be normal and watch, like, most Hammer flicks. Instead, I want to squeeze in like all 105 horror movies the studio ever made in six weeks, like a lunatic. But someday it will be Hammer Time for me, oh yes it will be.
    Weirdly, the only one of these four I’ve seen is the Mummy. It’s quite good and a definite improvement over the multiple Kharis movies Universal made, almost all of which are identical anyway. Sadly, all of Hammer’s mummy sequels are pretty bad too! I guess there’s only so much horror you can mine from a shambling corpse in bandages.

    1. Yes, as you might be able to tell, I was quite ready for these here six weeks.

      I suppose I’m somewhat lucky in that I don’t feel obligated to be too completist (even if I generally want to watch the first movie in a series first, I often don’t feel obligated to get to the sequels right away). I watched 6 Hammer films this week (two more coming on Wed), and to be honest, I was not super enamored with them (with the big exception of Taste of Fear), so I’m glad I won’t be watching the other 96 that I haven’t seen yet. Phew.

      I figured I had to do one of the Universal Monster updates with both Cushing & Lee, and the Mummy seemed like a logical choice (I’d already seen a Hammer Dracula and Frankestein). One of the little shorts I linked to (the Human Resources one) basically makes the same point that the Mummy has been engaging in the same schtick for almost a hundred years, it’s pretty funny…

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