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September 11, 2012

Hammer House of Horror

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Tom Clegg, Alan Gibson, Don Leaver,
Francis Megahy, Peter Sasdy, Don Sharp
and Robert Young - 1980
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD (Five Discs)

This is the collection of all thirteen episodes of the 1980 British television series. The final episode, "The Mark of Satan" features Peter McEnery attempting to perform brain surgery on himself. There are also a couple of scenes involving brain surgery, not very graphic, but enough to have upset a few viewers thirty years ago. Still, I found this episode especially fitting coming from a company called Synapse.

Actually, the most shocking aspect of this television series is how much nudity was featured. The classic Hammer movies were as much about young full breasted women showing a certain amount of cleavage, as they were about vampires, werewolves, and assorted monsters. Still, I wasn't prepared to see Patricia Quinn as a 17th Century witch back from where ever she'd been for three hundred years, shedding her cloak to reveal nothing underneath, to seduce Jon Finch. Miss Quinn isn't the only one to bare breasts or backside in the series. For some viewers, of course this is a bonus in this newest DVD version of the series.

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As for the horror aspect, a few thrills and chills. It should be pointed out that all of the stories have contemporary settings. Some of the episodes felt more like extended versions of the kind of stories one might have seen in the portmanteau films like Dr. Terror's House of Horrors or The House that Dripped Blood. There are also recurring motifs such as the car that mysteriously goes out of control, the guy who gets stabbed in the chest, and the unfaithful lover. As for scariness, if you've made it though the original "X-Files", you're home free.

The Hammer connection is a bit spotty, with house producer of the last features, Roy Skeggs, on board, with Phillip Martell as music supervisor. The directors from previous films include Don Sharp, Peter Sasdy and Alan Gibson. Some of the more interesting work is from Don Leaver, a mainstay of British television, who directed the first episode with the naked witch and the final episode with Peter McEnery's misguided attempt to ease his mind.

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The actor most associated with Hammer, Peter Cushing, makes what might be assumed to be an almost obligatory performance. But what may be of greater interest is seeing the gallery of other British actors who participated, some former top names, one future star, and a handful of people who briefly were associated with high profile projects. Among these are Dinah Sheridan and Powell-Pressburger regular Marius Goring, Brian Cox and a nebbishy Pierce Brosnan not yet hitting their respective strides, and persons of interest including Simon MacCorkindale, Leigh Lawson and Christopher Cazenove.

My own favorite episodes feature veteran actors. In an episode that might strike some as a little bit similar to Groundhog Day, Denholm Elliott portrays a real estate salesman who has a recurring nightmare that he's been accused of murdering his wife by some unknown, and usually unseen, person. Showing up at his office is luscious secretary Lucy Gutteridge who appears in a different outfit and different persona, each time Elliott enters his office in the morning. The episode is by turns funny and sexy until Elliott actually does wake up to a real nightmare.

The other episode that may come closest to being a reminder of classic Hammer films features Diana Dors as the overly friendly, and mildly creepy "mother" to a brood of young children, in a very large house deep in the woods. Even though the twist here is more predictable than in some of the episodes, Dors makes it fun to watch with her own sense of pleasure, leaving her "Blonde Bombshell" days well behind.

Kathryn Leigh Scott and Mia Nadasi briefly share their recollections on the same episode, "Visitor from the Grave", directed by Nadasi's husband, Peter Sasdy.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 11, 2012 08:24 AM