Don't ask me why it took me so long to get into Hammer Horror movies, because I don't have a very good answer. Sure, I'd seen certain movies like 'Satanic Rights of Dracula' and 'Dracula A.D. 1972'. I'm not the world's biggest vampire fan, so I forgot about them soon after watching. Within the past year or so I've had a chance to watch some other Hammer productions and I learned for myself that Hammer wasn't just some blood-sucker factory, but they indulged in a wild array of subject matters, and then I got curious.
The more Hammer I watched, the more I had fun with them. Hammer House didn't produce horror movies with subtlety or depth. This isn't quiet horror. This is wild, all out thrill rides. What I have learned is that Hammer Horror is fun. What I also learned is that many of them are a pain in the butt to find.
Here in the U.S., Anchor Bay released a lot of the Hammer movies on DVD and then promptly forgot about them. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde consistently sells on the secondary market for over fifty dollars. Any of the Quatermass flicks will cost you a pretty penny. I didn't occur to me that things would be different elsewhere until I heard a talk from Carol Cleveland.
If the name isn't ringing any bells, Carol Cleveland was the "token female" in the Monty Python troupe. She gave a talk at the local Monty Python Tribute Weekend (yes, we have that in the Dallas Area every year). She mentioned working on a Hammer science fiction movie called 'Moon Zero Two'. From the clip she showed, it looked horrible. Needless to say, my husband and I really wanted to see it. We came home, looked on Amazon.com, saw the prices it was going for, and gagged slightly. Then it occurred to us...perhaps we would have better luck finding it on Amazon.UK. We recently found a movie there that had never been released in the U.S. (Runestone, based on a Mark E. Rogers story) and figured it wouldn't hurt to try. While they didn't have Moon Zero Two any more affordable than the American counterpart, my browsing led me to something much more interesting....The Hammer Collection 21 DVD box set. For about 30 pounds. And not just 21 of their movies that have hit the public domain, but some that would cost triple that for the US version. I ordered. Quickly. And got very impatient waiting for the set to get here.
A week or so later, there it was, waiting on the doorstep with my name on it. My Hammer set. With little lobby cards! And an insert booklet with both a history of Hammer horror and a little piece on each of the movies included. Plus, the box itself is cool, square, about 8 inches a side that unfolds revealing five volumes of over-the-top horror goodness. I was in movie geek heaven.
Believe me; it was difficult to decide which flick to watch first. And wouldn't you know, but I picked one I had seen before: 'Straight on Till Morning'. I'd had a copy a while back but ended up selling it, something I've regretted ever since. It's about a young, plain woman named Brenda who leaves her small town home to see life in the Swinging Mod Scene of London. She's a little behind the times and slow on the uptake, but she finds one man, Peter, who loves her in spite of her lack of beauty. In fact, he loves her BECAUSE of her lack of beauty. He hates beauty and anything involved with it. So much so it drives him to dastardly deeds. In many ways, this could have been like any other serial killer movie out there. But between the wild flashbacks, the time capsule of Mod London in the 70s and weird Peter Pan references, this one is a lot of fun for anyone who doesn't take themselves or movies too seriously.
Second on the queue was 'The Nanny'. In the beginning, ten year old Joey is released from a home for "disturbed boys", being sent there after drowning his little sister in a bathtub. Only, he insists it wasn't him that did it, but the family's nanny, played by the always creepy Bette Davis. Sure, she's a little possessive and overbearing toward the family, and sure, she's creepy (mainly because Bette Davis is, well, creepy), but could she really be a killer? Of course we know the answer going into it, but again, the charm of a Hammer horror movie is not in the surprise endings, but in the ride. The pacing is fantastic, and the little boy actually puts in a decent performance, more nuanced than the much-decorated Davis does. I don't want it to sound like I'm knocking her-I really am not. She is absolutely perfect as the psychotic caretaker. All in all, a recommended fun ride.
Next was one I'd been itching to see but could never afford in a U.S. copy-'Quatermass and the Pit' (aka 'Five Million Years to Earth') and I was honestly a little disappointed. I do attribute a lot of that to the build-up in not being able to see this for the longest time. While working on a London subway tunnel, the construction crew unearths a buried metal craft. Was it a Nazi bomber or something from much farther away? And why is it driving people crazy whenever they get too close? Quatermass and the Pit was really good at the ending. But the road to the climax was as long as longcat, and surprisingly dry for a Hammer movie. Were the end sequences worth the ride? Sure, but be forewarned that, especially the first third, can get so dull you might want to have a magazine or sandwich handy to help pass the time.
'Demons of the Mind' was a weird kind of Hammer horror flick. It had all the excesses, the costumed glory of the Dracula series and the fast pacing of their best entries. However, it has something a little extra-a surprisingly deep story. A baron keeps his two teenage children locked away in their castle, fearing the family "curse" has infected them. What is this curse? Insanity, inbreeding and basically "bad blood". Meanwhile, somebody is murdering the local women. Who? And why? This neat movie captures a time where ideas about madness were shifting from the metaphysical to the physiological. Then there's the parallel between insanity and lycanthropy, which you rarely see in movies, especially ones that are near forty years old. I didn't think I would like this one as much as I did. And I ended up digging it quite a bit.
Finally comes the wonderfully titled 'Fear in the Night'. It's everything I've come to adore about Hammer movies-more focus on pacing rather than character development, but succeeds all so very well in keeping the viewer wrapped up in the suspense. We find out only what we need to know about the characters to keep the plot moving from one point to another-we know that there is a young woman, recently released from a mental institution, and has a whirlwind marriage with a teacher at a private boys' school. A one-armed man may or may not be trying to kill her, or she may not be cured of her insanity. Oh, and why are there never any boys on the grounds of this boys' school? The odd cast includes Peter Cushing and Joan Collins as the most oddly matched husband and wife in Hammer history, and yet it works in perfectly with the plot. Definitely recommended.
As said before, Hammer movies are not known for their in-depth social commentary or character development. And this is why I think these movies are much more successful than the modern slasher flicks. In very recent years, the trend seems to be to get a deep look into the brain of the villain. We want to know, not just how they kill their victims, but why. So either the writer or the director take a deep look into their childhood and everything is explained. To me, that's not as much fun. There are a lot of times I don't want to play Freud. I don't want to empathize with the killers. Sometimes you want to lose yourself in a movie, not place yourself inside the character's brain. This is where the Hammer movies of the fifties through seventies shine. They are pure escapist fun, and for that I am very grateful.
There is a downside to ordering this, and other movies, from Amazon.UK: region coding. To keep bootleggers and the international import business from sticking their nose into box office tallies, the various continents are separated into differently coded regions for the DVDs. In the US and Canada, we are region 1. The UK where I ordered these discs from is region 2. This is not like the glory days of the laserdisc, where you could order a movie from Luxemburg that hadn't hit American theatres yet, and watch it at home. One region will not play on another's DVD player. You have two options here. One is to buy a region-free player. These have been adapted to not have the region coding in their internal system. The upside is they hook up to your television like a regular DVD player, and you can watch any disc from any other country in the same way you can watch one from the bargain rack of Wal-Mart. The downside is that you have to special order them, as your local Best Buy won't be carrying them any time soon. If you don't know a reputable dealer offhand, you could be taking your chances with an online seller. I've ordered them that way before and got burned with one that wouldn't even play my regular discs, let alone discs from Brazil.
The other option is watching it on your computer. Some of the older computers didn't bother putting region coding on their hard drives, so they could import and export computers all over the world without worrying about compatibility. However, mainly due to the MPAA and copyright paranoia, this is no longer the case. Luckily for us movie dorks, there are some fantastic programs downloadable to basically turn your computer's DVD ROM drive into a region free player (the one I use is VLC player downloadable for free at www.videolan.org). The upside is, well, it's free. The downside is watching movies on your computer. Great if you have one of those laptops or desktops with huge monitors. Less fun if you have either a regular laptop or one of those netbook size thingies. Whatever option you chose, there are ways to play these little gems only available elsewhere.
There are more options out there than just buying overpriced secondhand market DVDs or bootlegging. While movies aren't always available for where you live doesn't mean you can't locate them elsewhere. There are high-quality legitimate copies out there for most everything, if you're willing to look. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to order Animalympics from Amazon Germany.
By the way...I'm still looking for Moon Zero Two if anyone can point me toward an affordable copy. Greatly appreciated.
WHERE TO FIND THESE MOVIES: All but The Nanny are out of print in the US, but dirt cheap in the UK.