With 2020 shaping up to be one of the most dreadful years on record, I can’t think of a better way to blow off steam this Halloween amid a pandemic than to hunker down with a beverage and some classic horror fare. The following recently released Blu-rays are all of the vintage variety, and many of which were produced by UK studio, Hammer Films.
Hammer made its name by recreating many of the classic Universal Studios monsters from the 1930s—Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and others—in more contemporary form. Hitting its prime during the ’60s and ’70s, Hammer’s productions were rife with racy colors, meticulous Victorian-era costumes and set pieces, eerie atmospherics, and a gothic literary feel. The films also launched the careers of two horror icons, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, both of whom would dominate and epitomize the studio’s Frankenstein and Dracula productions. Often imitated, Hammer brought horror into the modern era and offered a revamped and more sensual take on an otherwise overlooked genre at the time.
But not every Hammer film hit a home run. In fact, several of the later films were straight-up shredded by critics at the time, but, for true Hammer-heads, still have redeeming value in their quirky, idiosyncratic charms. All of these titles—including a couple from the era that were obviously influenced by Hammer—are available to buy for future viewing and may be streamable now if you dig a little bit.
The Curse of the Werewolf
Starring UK veteran actor and legendary drunkard Oliver Reed, Curse of the Werewolf (1961) is actually a tale of loneliness and despair, which ultimately infuses it with an extra layer of emotional depth. Set in 18th century Spain, a homeless man is thrown into a castle dungeon for no apparent crime other than being destitute and slightly snarky in tone. Over the years, he begins to rot and later produces an accursed offspring that will eventually wreak havoc upon the local population upon reaching adolescence.
Featuring Reed in one of his early leading roles, the film’s stellar period sets coupled with the lead actor’s performance as the forlorn Lycan make this a standout. (Shout! Factory)
Kiss of the Vampire
This Hammer goodie (1963) was the third of its new lines of vampire films, and the second to not feature icon Christopher Lee in the titular villain role. Set in the late 1800s or early 1900s Bavaria, a couple on honeymoon soon find themselves entangled with a vampire cult led by the mysterious—and authentically creepy—Dr. Ravna, played to the teeth by British character actor Noel Willman. Will the couple be able to outsmart the evil doctor and his blood-sucking minions?
Directed by Don Sharp who had never directed a horror film prior to this, Kiss of the Vampire has a more subtle suspenseful feel than many of the other Hammer films and for what it may lack in overt violence, it more than makes up for in slow-building tension.
Another interesting aspect of the film is that it doesn’t feature either of Hammer’s early main stalwarts—Cushing or Lee—and was largely comprised of lesser-knowns. The Hammer vampire franchise would resume with Lee in the Dracula seat once again in 1966 with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, making Kiss of the Vampire a prized outlier.
This one’s a true oddball. In the wake of the massive success of the first Alien film (1979), a slew of similarly themed movies of varying quality began to flood the market to cash in on the trend. Inseminoid (1981) was one of the byproducts of said movement. Off the top, what’s interesting about this one is that it was helmed by director Norman John Warren. Amid the success of Hammer and its less-accomplished step-cousin Amicus Films, filmmakers like Warren and exploitation auteur Pete Walker joined the horror fray in the ’70s, adding more overt sex and violence to the mix. Warren’s most famous horror outing was 1976’s Satan’s Slave, and by the time Inseminoid came out a few years later, the peak ’70s horror scene had run its course.
Anyway, back to the movie, a research expedition in space quickly goes awry when an errant alien begins to stir shit up—first by poisoning a couple of male spacemen into turning against the team and then by impregnating one of its female crewmembers(!). The result is even more madness and mayhem, all the way up until the bastard is born. The lo-fi production values—especially the rubber aliens—make for unintentionally funny bits. But, the eerie music, slow and effective pacing and strong feminist angle (the women are the more resourceful and stronger set here) make Inseminoid an interesting view. (Shout! Factory)
Yet another offbeat offering, 1968’s Lost Continent strayed a bit from the Hammer gothic horror blueprint into the realm of Sci-Fi and fantasy. A charter ship carrying illegal contraband (that, ironically, is massively hazardous when mixed with water), with a sketchy gaggle of rich and poor passengers set sale for Caracas. As you might imagine, things go bad fairly soon and the captain and some of the ship’s misfits find themselves tangling with monstrous seaweed, giant crabs, and marauding barbarians of the ancient variety.
If that all wasn’t weird enough, our heroes are soon confronted by a nefarious cult comprised of Spanish Conquistadors led by a child. (I know.) Anyway, it’s hard to put into words how or why this film was made and why it’s retained some appeal all these years later. Aside from some cheap monsters, the strange costumes and vivid set colors do add to the film’s peculiar charm.
It’s also worth noting that one of the female leads, teen actor/singer Dana Gillespie would go on to be a protégé of sorts of David Bowie and part of his MainMan management organization. (Shout! Factory)
Daughters of Darkness
In the tradition of Hammer during its mid ’60s to early ’70s peak, stylish French/Belgian production Daughters of Darkness (1971) is equal parts exploitation and arthouse. The story centers around a newlywed couple vacationing in Belgium, who soon encounters the wicked and immoral Countess Bathory, who as legend has it, bathed in the blood of 300 virgins to maintain her youth. Her “secretary” Ilona (played by gothic queen Andrea Rau) serves as her accomplice and requisite eye candy.
As a whole, the film has little to do with traditional vampire fare. In fact, there’s nary a pair of fangs to be found. What you do get is a fair amount of high-brow eroticism, some sadomasochism for good measure, and a few very melodramatic death scenes. But in a strange way, it works—if, at the very least, it succeeds in keeping you transfixed the entire time. You can see what I’m talking about with this limited-edition 3-disc set restored in vivid 4k (Blue Underground).
For questions, comments, or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, Kaz