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Universal Home Video

What hasn’t been already said about England’s Hammer Films? They were prime purveyors of some of the finest horror films that the late 50s, 60s and early 70s had to offer, appealing to a massive worldwide audience. Today in the digital age, it seems more than ever that fans want to get a hold of these Hammer horrors and add them to their collection in the most pristine editions possible. Many of them have been released on DVD through the years (with still many more to go), but now Universal Studios has released all eight of the Hammer films they possess in one compact shot.

Hammer’s distribution rights were all over the place when they initially came out, and in some cases, have remained with the original studios that released them, as they did with these. Here are all eight of the Hammer titles that Universal released to theaters in the early 60s in a nifty dual disc package of six color gothic horrors and two black & white “Hammerscope” thrillers. If you don’t know much about Hammer and these films specifically, there are a number of good books out there, as well as publications like Little Shop of Horrors and Dark Terrors, among others. But if you’re reading this review, you want to know how these discs look, so I’ll cut right to the chase, and not analyze the films themselves. It’s safe to say that anyone who owned any of these titles on VHS or laserdisc will either want to sell them or throw them in a milk carton and stuff ‘em in the back of a bedroom closet after purchasing this easily priced DVD set.

Note: each synopsis comes from Universal’s press release, followed by comments.

Disc 1: Side A
THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960). Director: Terence Fisher. Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), a beautiful young French girl, is stranded en route to a teaching assignment in Eastern Europe. She is persuaded to spend the night at the nearly deserted castle of a mysterious Baroness (Martita Hunt), where she accidentally discovers a man chained to the wall of his room. The Baroness only explains that he is her seasick and feeble-minded son. Unable to get any further information from the maid Greta (Freda Jackson), Marianne steals a key and sets him free. Once unbound, the Baron (David Peel) fiendishly recruits the undead for his evil purposes until captured by Marianne and the indefatigable Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).

A true Hammer vampire classic, Universal’s new DVD transfer of BRIDES OF DRACULA is something of a revelation. The old VHS and laserdisc suffered from grain, muted colors, and cropping on all four sides. The DVD is anamorphic and letterboxed at 1.66:1, revealing far more picture information when compared to the old, claustrophobic full frame transfer. Colors showcase everything a Technicolor film should be, from Cushing’s blue eyes, to Yvonne Monlaur’s red hair, to Andree Melly’s rosy cheeks, and of course the trademark Hammer blood! Detail is so rich that Bernard Robinson’s set designs take on a three-dimensional appearance like never before. Not only is the transfer striking, but it restores a few extra seconds of blood when Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) is mercifully staked by Van Helsing – never before seen! This is probably the best transfer on this set, but it certainly sets the high standards for the rest of the bunch.

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) Director: Terence Fisher. Oliver Reed portrays the bloodthirsty man-beast who loves by day and kills by night in this gripping gothic thriller. Directed by famed horror filmmaker Terence Fisher, this atmospheric tale of terror follows Reed, the orphaned baby of a maniacal beggar and a mute girl, from birth to manhood, when he discovers his horrible secret. Try as he may, the cursed youth is unable to suppress the dark forces within. When the moon is full, he becomes an uncontrollable killer incapable of distinguishing between friend and foe. Spectacular makeup effects and beautifully photographed 19th Century European locales heighten the suspense of this classic werewolf story.

Universal’s new transfer of THE CURSE OF THE WERWOLF, Hammer’s triumphant and sole lycanthrope venture, is also a vast improvement over the old laserdisc and VHS tape, with the original Technicolors coming through in a striking manner. Fleshtones look natural, and backgrounds have excellent definition. The film is presented anamorphic at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, making way for excellent picture composition and revealing far more visual information on the sides of the screen than before. The only minor problem is occasional speckling, as well as several rickety lap dissolves (transitions to another scene), but overall the transfer is excellent. This version still maintains several bits that were restored for home video, namely during the tail end of an implied rape, and the werewolf’s climatic demise.

Disc 1: Side B
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) Director: Terence Fisher.
Herbert Lom stars as the Phantom in Hammer Films' celebrated production of Gaston Leroux's horror classic. Mysterious mishaps bedevil a London opera house, but when tragedy strikes during an opening night performance, it's clear that these "accidents" are the deliberate work of a deranged madman -- the Phantom (Herbert Lom). When Christine (Heather Sears), the young star of a new musical is contacted by the shadowy specter, her producer (Edward de Souza) investigates, tracking the ghostly Phantom to his secret underground lair. More than an evil apparition, the Phantom proves to be a brilliant composer. Disfigured and nearly destroyed, he now demands his hellish revenge. Christine, his new star, is the Phantom's one weakness, and he pays the ultimate price to keep his love alive.

A financial failure for Hammer when first released, Universal’s new DVD transfer of the third film “Phantom” gives it the feel of a Cinemascope spectacle. It’s anamorphic and letterboxed in the uncommon 2.00:1 ratio. As compared with the old VHS and laserdisc transfer, the DVD adds far more picture information to the sides, while slicing a sliver off the top and a bit more from the bottom. Overall, compositions look excellent, and colors are very bright with fine picture detail. The clean image still has some grain, but not nearly as much as the old home video editions. PHANTOM had extra scenes shot in America for broadcast television, but they are thankfully not reinstated (though they would have made a nice supplement). KISS OF THE VAMPIRE’s and EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN’s additional TV footage (which were intended to replace scenes that were cut) are also not reinstated, nor added as a supplement.

PARANOIAC (1963) Director: Freddie Francis. Nothing is quite what it seems in this riveting, complex tale of greed, dementia and deceit. Rescued from a suicide attempt by a man claiming to be her long-dead brother, a young heiress (Janette Scott) finds a new reason to live. But her relatives have doubts; they think "Tony" (Alexander Davion) is an imposter who's trying to get his hands on the family fortune. Everyone has their own secret reasons to suspect Tony, as well as their own designs on his vast inheritance -- especially brother Simon (Oliver Reed), a magnetic but devastatingly cruel wretch who'll stop at nothing to thwart the supposed pretender. In this flavorful feast of a thriller, "the horror-mystery elements are brewed to a fine discriminating savor."

One of two psychological thrillers shot in black & white and included on this set, PARANOIAC was previously released on VHS in Pan & Scan, and on laserdisc at the proper 2.35:1 ratio. With anamorphic enhancement, the DVD is also 2.35:1 and looks as good as any Scope 1960s film possibly could. The image appears very sharp and rather nicely defined. There are no noticeable blemishes whatsoever on the clean image, with perfectly balanced grayscales and a deep black levels.

Disc 2: Side A
THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963) Director: Don Sharp. Lost on the way to their honeymoon, a young couple stumbles upon a mysterious family of vampires and their evil leader. A wrong turn leaves Marianne (Jennifer Daniel) and Gerald (Edward de Souza) stranded in a remote Bavarian forest where they have no choice but to accept the hospitality of the hypnotic Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman), distinguished lord of the local castle. Ravna uses his "children" to lure the newlyweds to his lair, and soon, they are plunged into a nightmare of horror and deception from which there may be no escape. Their only hope is Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), who calls upon an ancient ritual in a desperate attempt to destroy the vampires and free Marianne from Ravna's power. A lush 19th-century-setting, masterful direction, and vivid special effects intensify this spooky Hammer Films chiller.

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE was once one of the hardest Hammer films to get a hold of, but in the 90s, Universal released it to VHS and laserdisc. Most recently, Image Entertainment licensed the title and issued a DVD, but this new fully restored version is a vast improvement. Letterboxed at 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement, the Eastman colors look very bold, and the picture detail being very well defined. The Image edition was far too dark and grainy in comparison, so Universal’s new transfer is a definite winner, improving upon these problems greatly. Only during lap dissolves and briefly in other parts, does the picture become slightly inferior, but all in all, the quality is superb.

NIGHTMARE (1964) Director: Freddie Francis. This thriller walks the thin line between sanity and madness, exploring the shadowy world between dreams and reality. As a child, Janet (Jennie Linden) witnessed an unbearable horror: her insane mother stabbing her father to death. Now a young woman, Janet's recurring nightmares have her convinced she'll follow her mother to the asylum. Accompanied by her schoolteacher Miss Lewis (Brenda Bruce), Janet retreats to the home of her guardian (David Knight), who has hired lovely Grace (Moira Redmond) as a companion to help calm his troubled ward. But Janet's nightly terrors, magnified by the eerie, creaky old house, bring all of her fears chillingly to life. Are Janet's problems all in her head, or is there a sinister force at work? Startling plot twists reveal that sometimes when you wake up, the nightmare is just beginning.

Like PARANOIAC, NIGHTMARE is presented widescreen 2.35:1 and anamorphic, and looks fabulous for a 40-year-old black and white movie. The film is shot dimly, and black levels are very deep, and the image appears very sharp and rather nicely defined. There are no noticeable blemishes whatsoever, and the overall transfer is extremely clean.

Disc 2: Side B
NIGHT CREATURES (aka CAPTAIN CLEGG) (1962) Director: In this engaging costume melodrama of skulduggery on the low seas set back in the 18th-century, the Royal Crown suspects a bit of smuggling is going on in this locale, and they send Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) and his crew to check it out. When a mysterious swamp phantom clouds the investigation, Captain Collier suspects the odd village vicar (Peter Cushing) may be hiding something. What better way to do that than by the appearance of ghosts to scare away the curious, or by posing as someone he is not?

NIGHT CREATURES is truly one of the rarely seen Hammer films, never before released on home video, and not popping up on TV in ages. This DVD presents a pleasant transfer, and like PHANTOM, it’s letterboxed at 2.00:1 with anamorphic enhancement. The picture looks very nice for the most part, even if the colors and fleshtones are not as impressive as some of the other titles on this set. Picture detail is fine, with occasional nighttime scenes looking a bit too dark. At times, the letterboxing looks a bit tight, but it’s wonderful to to finally be able to add a nice edition of this to the collection.

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964) Director: Freddie Francis. Peter Cushing stars in this inspired fantasy as Baron von Frankenstein, the creator of the infamous monster. On the run from irate villagers who disapprove of his unorthodox experiments, Dr. Frankenstein returns to a remote mountain castle with his assistant Hans. Caught in a snowstorm, they are rescued by a mute deaf girl (Katy Wild) who leads them to the safety of her cave home. There, Frankenstein finds his original creature preserved in ice. Resurrecting the monster in his laboratory, Frankenstein discovers the brain is dormant, and he calls in Zoltan, a mystical hypnotist (Peter Woodthorpe). But Zoltan uses the creature for his own selfish purposes, and unleashes a violent chain of events. This chiller offers all the excitement and suspense of the original with spectacular effects and blood-curdling action in vivid color.

Often maligned for imitating Universal’s Hollywood Frankensteins too much, as well as purporting to be a sequel to a film that doesn’t exist, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is the only one in Hammer’s Cushing/Frankenstein catalog not directed by Terence Fisher. Say what you want about it, but the film looks great on DVD. Not surprisingly, this transfer is also miles beyond its previous VHS and laserdisc counterparts, with much greater detail, and stunning colors: the lights and various liquids in Frankenstein’s lab really stand out now, as does all the background detail. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer allows for far more picture information than the full frame cropped version, and with only minor speckling on the source material, the image is simply splendid.

All eight films feature English Dolby 2.0 mono audio tracks, all of them sounding perfectly fine for their respected titles. There is optional French and Spanish Subtitles for each title as well. Although you have eight films squeezed on to two discs, authoring and compression are well done, with no detectable flaws. Although THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF played fine on three different players, we could not get it to load on the computer rom, but a second copy played just fine in said rom. So there may be occasional player incompatibility problems. No extras, not even the trailers, so you’ll have to look to other sources for that.

The packaging is very simple, but still attractive. The cover showcases Peter Cushing's Van Helsing and Oliver Reed’s werewolf with a clear window in the center frame. You pull out a thin folding jacket with illustrations of a female vampire's face in a full moon and flying bats over a gothic castle, which opens up to a synopsis for each title, with small rectangle shaped art next to their respected titles (most of them lobby card reproductions). The two discs themselves lay on clear plastic spines, with a collage of more Hammer horror imagery.

Though no supplements, this set is a Hammer’s fans dream, and every title here looks far better than ever before. Especially at such a low cost, this definitely belongs on every serious horror fan’s DVD shelf! (George R. Reis)