Hammer Volume One: Fear Warning (Blu-ray)
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Review of "Hammer Volume One: Fear Warning (Blu-ray)"
So long Ciao. We had some times.
This boxset from Indicator is currently £43 in HMV and at amazon. Given that you get four films, that’s pretty good – Indicator normally sell one film for £15. But is it worth it? Good question…Hammer was the most famous British horror filmmaker, whose gothic horrors pretty much defined the genre in the late 50s and through the 60s. Their films have a very distinctive look, with strong, almost over-ripe colours, which should have meant that Blu-ray would enhance and improve on them mightily. Unfortunately various botched releases and poor quality film materials have meant that a depressingly high percentage of Hammer blu-rays have been less than satisfactory.
Indicator have made quite a name for themselves in their so-far short lifespan, and it’s encouraging to see them releasing some of Hammer’s movies. Unfortunately, most of the marquee titles have long since been released on Blu-ray, with most of the remaining important ones scheduled for release by Studio Canal in the new year. Unfortunately, Indicator’s boxset only has one film starring Hammer’s trademark duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and includes some obscurities. This was fine by me, as I’ve seen all the famous ones already, but I worry it won’t sell well enough for them to continue with their Hammer releases (they reputedly have the rights to several of Hammer’s non-horror movies).
Maniac (1963)This is a black and white thriller set in France with lots of twists and turns in the plot. Hammer made a lot of films like this alongside their more famous gothic horrors. They were inspired by Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, and by Hitchcock’s Psycho. They typically have meaningless, generic titles and are not as memorable as Hammer’s colourful monster movies.
The film begins with a schoolgirl being ‘assaulted’ by a creepy older man, who is then murdered by the girl’s father, using an acetylene torch. A few years later, with papa safely locked away in an asylum, the daughter and her step-mother, Eve, both fall for a rather feckless American, Jeff, who is left stranded in their remote café. Jeff becomes Eve’s lover and – obviously none too bright – agrees to an elaborate ruse whereby they’ll break the mad dad out of his loony bin. Everything goes smoothly until Jeff finds a corpse in the boot of Eve’s car, and the plot twists start to come thick and fast.It has a couple of effective scary, or at least surprising, moments, but unlike, say, Psycho, it doesn’t stand up to repeat viewings when you know how it all ends (in fact, it’s fairly easy to second-guess). The script works hard on the plot (perhaps a bit too hard), but doesn’t give the actors much to work with as far as characterisation goes. Kirwan Mathews, star of various Harryhausen films, is a good-looking blank as Jeff, and Nadia Gray rather generic as Eve. But Liliane Brousse is reasonably good as the daughter, and George Pastell (a familiar face in Hammer films) is fine as the police inspector. Best of all is Donald Houston as the mad father, acting against type – he’s hamming it up a treat, but is a lot of fun to watch.
It makes pretty good use of the locations in the Camargue, and as mentioned, there’s some decent suspense (although not as much as there should be). I enjoyed the jazzy, bongo-heavy opening theme, even if it was rather at odds with the tone of the film. And it’s good to tick another film off the list. But I suspect I’ll have forgotten most of Maniac in a month or two.
The Gorgon (1964)This is the one film in the set that really feels like 100% Hammer. It’s a period gothic directed by Terence Fisher, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and featuring music by James Bernard; between them, those four probably evoke the Hammer spirit better than anyone. It’s not the best of the Hammer horrors by any stretch, but it’s the best film in this set. I’ve already reviewed it on this site, so won’t go on about it too much here.
It’s set around 1900 in a remote town in a small German principality. The monster is a gorgon, from Greek myth, who turns people to stone with her gaze and has snakes in her hair. There aren’t many other horror movies that use Greek mythology, and it’s unusual for Hammer to have strayed away from their usual sources. But sadly the film isn’t solid enough to withstand the essential silliness of its premise, and the special effects, especially of the monster herself, really let things down.It’s not all bad, though. Cushing and Lee are pretty great (Lee goes a bit over-the-top). Barbara Shelley, Hammer’s best leading lady, is good as Cushing’s assistant who may have a secret, and Patrick Troughton is always a welcome presence, even though he’s wearing a preposterous helmet-and-moustache combo. Richard Pasco is an odd choice for romantic lead, though, and the film is repetitious. Still, it’s as close to the archetypal Hammer spirit as this boxset gets.
The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964)
Hammer’s first mummy film was pretty good, made in the first flush of their success, with Fisher, Cushing and Lee giving it their all. Their subsequent mummy films, though, leave a lot to be desired (they made two more, this and The Mummy’s Shroud. Another Hammer title, Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, confusingly isn’t about a mummy at all). Curse doesn’ feature any of Hammer’s stars and feels a bit phoned-in.An archaeological expedition to Egypt uncovers a tomb, with a lot of trinkets and a mummy. They take them away to London, over the dire warnings of the local fez-wearing red herring character. An American showman intends to exhibit the mummy for money, but soon enough the wretched thing has come to life and started taking its terrible revenge on the defilers of its tomb.
This does have a bit more going for it than some mummy movies. Slightly more time has been spent on characterisation, with the exhibition leader sinking into alcoholic despair, for instance. American comic actor Fred Clark, as the showman, is excellent, and the film really sags when he’s not around. The final reveal is bizarre enough to be novel, although wastes a fairly good idea. But it’s a thoroughly generic gothic horror, and although it has the usual lurid Hammer colour palette, it lacks the usual hysteria, and has a slightly lethargic soundtrack.Clark aside, it has decent performances from a cast playing rather generic characters. Jeanne Roland as the female lead is dubbed with a French accent, not always completely convincingly. George Pastell plays the chief Egyptian (he was Cypriot, and frequently played Arabic characters). Rather less forgivably, frequent Hammer supporting actor Michael Ripper plays a comedy Arab. Mercifully, he’s not in it for very long.
This is another of Hammer’s horror thrillers, with as generic a title as ‘Maniac’. Unlike that earlier film, this isn’t based around plot twists, but is an example of old lady horror. Starting with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, several horror films were made in the 60s starring former screen icons in late middle-age. Bette Davis made a few, including a couple for Hammer. Fanatic, though, belongs to Tallulah Bankhead, a stage star with a scandalous love life, who is now probably best remembered for playing the lead in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.Patricia goes to visit the mother of her dead fiancé. Unfortunately, the old woman is a complete lunatic with incredibly strict religious views, and she promptly takes Patricia prisoner. Her servants, married couple Harry and Anna, collude in the kidnapping, hoping to inherit her money. There’s also a simple-minded gardener lurking about. The story mostly consists of Patricia’s attempts to escape.
Fanatic isn’t bad – it’s a little bit like Misery, the Stephen King movie, which also has a religious psycho imprisoning someone. The story is melodramatic and rather silly, but Bankhead more than rises to the occasion, going overboard in the best possible way. Stephanie Powers is just as good in her way as the threatened but determined Patricia. She never becomes whiny or irritating. Peter Vaughn and Yootha Joyce are great as Bankhead’s servants, and a very young Donald Sutherland does what he can with the gardener.It’s an odd film that switches from wry humour to menacing horror about a third of the way in. The soundtrack, by Wilfred Josephs (best known to me for doing music for I, Claudius and a BBC documentary series called The Great War), reflects that, starting out with funny, jazzy music that tells us we’re watching a comedy, before ramping the hysteria up a bit as things build. It’s an oddity by Hammer’s usual standards, but is easily the second best film in the set.
These look better than I was expecting. The Gorgon and the mummy one had previously been released in the US on Blu-ray in editions that were considered disappointing, and it’s unlikely that any new restoration work has been done since then. But they look pretty good here (and unfortunately show enough detail to make it obvious when stunt doubles are being used). Hammer’s colour scheme is always difficult to get right – make it too lurid and it’s silly, but mute it too much and it doesn’t look like a Hammer film anymore – but these disks more or less get it right. Maniac looks good in black and white, while Fanatic had a few signs of its age, with a few moments of visible damage. But on the whole these look appropriately high quality.All the disks have decent extras. A few have commentaries and the like, and some other short bits and pieces. The things they all have are short (15-minute) making-of documentaries. These are mostly just talking head contributions from historians (including the ever reliable Jonathon Rigby). Each disk also has a ‘Hammer’s women’ piece, which are even shorter (usually around ten minutes) and are discussions of the films’ leading ladies, delivered by more historians and critics (women, this time). They’re quite good (although the Barbara Shelley one on The Gorgon might annoy you if your tolerance for academic language is low).
All these extras, newly made for this release, have the disadvantage of filming their interviewees in unflattering close-up, under what seem to be oppressive lights which reflect off their skin in a most unappealing way (Rigby is perhaps worst affected). Also, some of the contributors seem a tad inexperienced at this kind of thing, leading to some very over-emphatic delivery. Never mind, everyone has something interesting to say. There’s also a good (also short) chat about Wilfred Josephs’ career on the Fanatic disk, and each film has a good booklet with essays and other material about each film. The box itself is sturdy, and thankfully there are no superfluous DVD versions included.Indicator, one of the newest UK Blu-ray companies, continue to impress. They’re up there with the BFI and Eureka as the best in the country now. The pool of available films seems to keep getting smaller (the once-mighty Arrow are clearly running out of interesting things to release), but Indicator consistently put out strong releases of slightly left-field movies. This may not be A-list Hammer, but it’s definitely worthwhile if you’re a fan.
All screenshots were taken from the blu-rays using Aiseesoft Blu-ray Player software on my PC's BD drive.
Hammer Volume One: Fear Warning [Blu-ray] [Region A & B & C]
Release Date: 2017-10-30, Rating: Suitable for 15 years and over
Shipping Costs : Not specified | Availability : refer to website
Product Information : Hammer Volume One: Fear Warning (Blu-ray)
Manufacturer's product description
Actor(s) (Last name, First name): Cushing, Peter
DVD Region: Blu-ray
Director(s): Michael Carreras, Terence Fisher, Silvio Narizzano
Director(s) (Last name, First name): Fisher, Terence
Classification: 15 years and over
Listed on Ciao since: 29/10/2017