REV-ELATIONS (CLASSIC HORROR TV/FILM)

Cosmic Rock

Welcome to Rev-elations here on Cosmic-Rock.com where I will be revisiting classic horror TV & film. We could call it a review column, but I'm not here to be overly critical. As a wannabe filmmaker myself,  I can find a learning opportunity in almost anything and I have such a deep love for the genre that my main goal here is to remind the general public of these lost treasures and appreciate them for what they are. While I won't be afraid to share a negative opinion here or there if I feel it is necessary, I have the mindset that any piece of performance art was the result of someone's time, passion, money and creativity. Yes, some things are just plain bad but art isn't created out of thin air. Real people put their souls into something there to try and entertain humanity. That alone is worth respect. While I've had my own 20 year career in entertainment (sports entertainment to be exact), and am currently trying to learn the "horror business", at the end of the day I'm just a fan.

The first project I'm tackling is the 1980 series "Hammer House Of Horror". Any horror fan of tenure is quite familiar with the legendary British filmmaking powerhouse Hammer Films. The original horror characters created in literature and popularized by Universal Pictures in the 1930s were Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Creature (GIl-man) etc.  These films were some of the most popular early "talkies" but like all great film eras of the past,even though lightning had been captured in a bottle during the 30's and 40's their time had come and gone. Since the characters came from literature and were largely public domain, however, they were ripe to be explored with a new lens by the mid 1950's. British film company Hammer from 1956 forward became known as a "horror" movie company by utilizing these characters. They brought Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula and The Wolfman to the masses again with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing reprising most of the main roles. The Hammer films brought horror into the age of color. For the first time bright, red blood flowed on the screen, creating a startling and enchanting imagry. Another staple of the Hammer films were the gorgeous and often completely nude British and European actresses who filled the female roles. Not only did Hammer bring blood in color to horror, but sexuality as well. What was once innuendo for Karloff and Lugosi, needed no such finesse in the world of Hammer. Yet the feel of the universe they created gave it an incredible elegance as well. The dramatic English diaglogue, the eastern european folklore setting, and the gravitas that Lee and Cushing brought to their performances all worked together to refine what would normally be considered "schlocky" material and give it a sense of credibility to a mainstream audience. Hammer studios saw a nearly 20 year reign as the kings of British horror in film, but as many documentaries on the Slasher genre will tell you by the early to mid 70's, "Castles & Cobwebs" had fallen out of style. Movies like "Night Of The Living Dead" and "Psycho" changed the landscape of horror forever. No longer were we scared of historic monsters from distant lands because we had been shown the monsters in our own back yards, in our own day and time. The Romanticism that was part and parcel to the Hammer formula was rejected by a more jaded audience who had now lived through the Vietnam war and had now become accustomed to seeing real life horror on the 6 o'clock news.

As the 70's progressed the gritty realism of "Last House On The Left" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" made the spooky fantasy world of Hammer seem ridiculous by comparison.

It is often said that each generation gets the horror films it deserves. These more extreme movies were a natural reaction to the state of society at the time. That isn't to say there was no longer value in the classic villains, but when uncharted territory was being uncovered elsewhere with characters like Norman Bates & Leatherface, well Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein just seemed like old familiar friends by that point. We'd even turned them into loveable cartoon characters on our cereal boxes and Rankin & Bass animation specials.

 

As the 70's ended and the 80's began, supernatural themes overall, and even a few of the old classic Eastern European boogiemen were given fresh coats of paint, reintroduced and accepted alongside the slasher genre that often sought quanity over quality to some degrees of success.  Hammer, however, was certainly feeling the effects of the 70's. Their remake of Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" in 1979 did so poorly at the box office that it nearly bankrupted the studio and would be the last movie they made for almost 30 years. In the meantime, at least for 13 episodes in 1980, Hammer found a new home on television with the anthology tv series, Hammer House Of Horror. The stories ranged from your expected werewolves, witches and vampires to zombies (hey why not? Could you have imagined Hammer's version of NOTLD?), the occult, and more but also included human killers....even... serial killers? That's right. It came full circle. Even Hammer adapted the slashers that almost put them out of business. The series checked all of the boxes a Hammer fan would be looking for in a tv series. While there was no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, there was blood a plenty, horrific creatures, twisted morality tales, time capsules of a certain era, and beautiful, often naked women.  The series returned in 1984 for another 13 episodes this time called "Hammer's House Of Mystery & Suspense", but was cast with many American stars and the show was slightly tamed to try and appeal to a broader audience. The 2nd run was less popular and less true to Hammer form.  That first season however, is glorious if you are a Hammer fan, or a fan of anthology style horror which will be a focus of this column.

 

I will be focusing on that original 13 episode run of "Hammer House Of Horror" starting with episode one, "Witching Time". The story revolves around David Winter, editor husband to actresss Mary Winter in the 1950's in England. David is played by  Jon Finch who also starred in Roman Polanski's MacBeth and Alfred Hitchcock's "Frenzy". Mary is played by British TV veteran actress Prunella Gee. David is worried that Mary is having an affair as she's been "staying late" on shoots and there is obvious tension in their marriage. In a classic "be careful what you wish for" scenario, a witch named Lucinda , played by Patricia Quinn of Rocky Horror fame, shows up in his barn during a thunderstorm that night claiming to have escaped a witch burning centuries ago. Lucinda is frightened of the modern world and David falls for her charms and enters into a faustian bargain type situation, Mary comes home the next morning and it hits the fan and their downward spiral begins. Lucinda tries to kill Mary multiple times and has David wrapped around her finger. In the end love wins and Mary puts away Lucinda for good in a very Wizard of Oz like manner. Or so they think. The episode ends with Lucinda being dispatched once and for all "by water and by flame" as she had mentioned to David when they first met. We get no word on whether or not Dave and Mary worked out their infidelity issues but this being fictional entertainment, I for one will assume that the dispatching of evil together let them do just that and live happily ever after. But then again, it's horror. So maybe they still had yet to face the biggest horrror of all.....divoooorce coooourrrrt. We will never know.

 

 

I enjoyed this episode overall. It didn't blow me away by any means but it was a fun "twilight zone, tales from the crypt" style monkeys paw scenario. It ulitilized a horror witch archetype as a villian which was not a previous Hammer staple, but fit perfectly in the world they had created.  Patricia Quinn I thought did a fine job in the role, and it was interesting to see in contrast to the role of Magenta in Rocky Horror Picture Show. Both Finch and Gee were serviceable as the leads. It had a little blood, a little nudity and some relationship drama to spice it all up. Certainly felt like Hammer. It was not uncommon to see the 80's depict the 50's in America via Happy Days, but this was a look at 50's Britain through 80's eyes which was interesting. While not necessarily "castles and cobwebs", the gothic element of Hammer was there with the witch who's backstory also had an element of time travel explained via magic and the episode blends the traditional Hammer mix of elegance and sexuality. If you're looking for the greatest hits of the series you could probably skip it, but if you're a completionist like me it is definitely worth a watch and a nice warm up for what's to come.

 

Thanks for taking the time to check out the column! Join me next time when I take a look at episode 2. The tale of an evil secret society called "13th Reunion".  - Dan Wilson