Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s Hammer Horror Classics: Volume One sports a disappointingly arbitrary sense of organization. A first volume, particularly one purporting to assemble the most famous horror-related efforts of a prolific studio, logically leads one to expect the debut entries in the various monster series being represented. After all, one doesn’t go to the library wishing to start with, say, the sixth Matthew Scudder or Easy Rawlins mystery. Casual or new viewers first acquainting themselves with Hammer Horror will want to see how the various stories began, how tropes were introduced, how tones were established, and so on, while veterans will prefer to update their home-video collections from the ground up, as it were. This set features one Mummy, one Frankenstein, and two Dracula films, and all of them, weirdly, are sequels with the exception of The Mummy. Cumulatively, this set offers the impression of having turned up late to a good party, missing pivotal introductions in the process.
One suspects that the distributor is pulling a bait and switch familiar to many gift-set packages, spreading out the good stuff (usually the early entries in a series), interspersing them with theoretically less-fondly-remembered cash-ins. The layout of this box set doesn’t even encourage one to watch the films in chronological order. This doesn’t matter as much with The Mummy or Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, as they’re unrelated to one another, but the two Dracula films are assembled so as to encourage the inattentive viewer to watch the latter one, Taste the Blood of Dracula (the fourth follow-up to Horror of Dracula) before its predecessor, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (the third sequel). This sloppiness of presentation isn’t unimportant either, as Taste the Blood of Dracula is directly informed by the ending of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.
Salvaging these matters are the films themselves, which offer testament to the remarkable care and sense of craftsmanship that Hammer often displayed, even when cranking out endless sequels to adaptations of thoroughly pillaged properties like Frankenstein or Dracula. Even the least consistent film in this collection, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, is bolstered by lush, evocative, occasionally even experimental imagery, an iconic lead performance, and a progressively casual understanding of European horror as a reaction to patriarchal repression. In both Dracula films, for instance, the titular count (the formidable Christopher Lee) is inadvertently resurrected by hypocritical male prudes in positions of power, whose mistakes must be righted by younger, sexually freer generations. In Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the titular doctor (the equally formidable Peter Cushing) is understood to be nothing more or less than a Sadean tyrant obsessed with scientific protocol as a pretense for bending people to his will—a suggestion that indicates the horror genre’s inherently suspicious, conservative roots while simultaneously serving to question traditional poles of authority.
These films illustrate Hammer’s most significant achievement in the horror genre. The company modernized Universal Studio’s monster icons with an often bitter, volcanic acknowledgement of the classist rot of Victorian society, while preserving the freeing, surreal sense of un-reality that remains so vital about the creatures themselves—in essence fashioning macabre, live-action storybooks for adults. For a certain kind of atmospheric horror fanatic, there’s an intense, ineffable pleasure to be had from watching, say, a ripe, gorgeous, unmistakably Technicolored image of a horse-drawn carriage as it careens past a foggy bog, dropping a huge Egyptian casket into a murky body of water. This sequence was clearly shot on a set that’s nearly as obviously fake as the mock-up of “Egypt” that we first see in The Mummy’s prologue. The otherness of these tableaus fuses with the dry British comedy and the lurid sexual innuendo, creating a lush, heightened, frightening melodramatic aura that could be defined as the “Hammer touch,” which would clearly influence a countless number of artists and filmmakers, perhaps most obviously Alan Moore and Tim Burton.
The Mummy is one of Hammer’s classics, cleverly fusing the human pathos of the original Universal film with the creature-centric physicality of the sequels the latter inevitably yielded. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Taste the Blood of Dracula are both memorably bat-shit crazy. The former has one of the greatest images in the Hammer Dracula series: When the Count descends on a requisitely busty virgin in her bed, she squeezes a doll’s hand in an unnerving symbol of defilement. Taste the Blood of Dracula was initially conceived as a vehicle without Lee, who was tiring of the role, imagining the Count instead as a free-floating contagion—a metaphor for both authoritative oppression and the revolt it inevitably inspires. This idea remained in the film despite the actor’s eventual, welcome participation. Even the often sluggish Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is invigorated by Cushing’s even-nastier-than-usual performance (the actor’s refusal to soften the character scans as a gesture of humanist integrity), and by its cheeky disregard for matinee idol heroism. Perhaps the seemingly random selection of this set suits Hammer’s aesthetic after all, befitting its simultaneously anarchic and highly controlled abandon.
This set provides an instructive sampling of how stylistics could vary underneath the umbrella of Hammer’s house aesthetic. In Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, for instance, filmmaker Freddie Francis, a gifted cinematographer in his own right, instructed director of photography Arthur Grant to shoot Dracula’s scenes through color filters, fashioning unsettling prisms that seem as if we’re somehow looking at Dracula through his own bloodshot eyes. Grant also shot Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed as well as Taste the Blood of Dracula, and both of these favor the studio’s characteristic, somewhat less ostentatious horror style, abounding in eye-popping reds and greens, rich, autumnal browns, and velvety blacks, all of which are beautifully rendered on these discs. By further contrast, The Mummy was shot by Jack Asher, who favored a somewhat more angular sense of composition within the requisite Technicolor of the day. The Mummy looks the best in this set, perhaps for that very angularity, which might exacerbate image sharpness. But the quality of refurbishing is consistently high across all four entries, and some inevitable image softness scans as inherit to the source materials. Grain has been removed from all the films, and the colors pulse with a newfound vibrancy. The various mono soundtracks are mostly clean, though occasional hissing remains. The scores, however, register with robust nuance. An attractive package.
Nothing but the original theatrical trailers.
This barebones, arbitrarily assembled package of Hammer Horror films is redeemed by the gorgeous aural/visual restorations, and by the eccentricity and daring that thrummed through even the studio’s more routine franchise placeholders.