Synapse Films

By the mid 1970s, Britain’s legendary Hammer Films had a tough time competing in the theatrical market, and would soon give up doing horror features altogether (after proposing and announcing an array of failed projects). In 1980, when Roy Skeggs and partner Brian Lawrence had control of the company, it seemed the perfect time to produce anthology thrillers for television (though Hammer had dabbled with the small screen in the past), and so was born the 13-episode “Hammer House of Horror” series and further survival of the Hammer name. Varying in its subject matter (witchcraft, lycanthropy, ghosts, devil worshipping, haunted dwellings, etc.), many of the veteran behind-the-camera talent from Hammer heyday where employed, as well as some of their dependable acting stalwarts (including a marvelous Peter Cushing return) and the usual dependable British stage and TV performers. Production values where high (with scenic location shooting throughout the series’ run) and although some episodes are better than others and some of the stories encounter the expected terror-tale clichés, “Hammer House of Horror” is a terrific little series that holds up well to this day (and makes for some fine Halloween-time viewing). Synapse Films now presents the entire series in a 5-DVD set, finally with the definitive transfers we’ve been waiting for.

WITCHING TIME (Director: Don Leaver) has a mild mannered film composer named David Winter (Jon Finch, veteran of Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN) working one stormy night at his English farmhouse in rural Woodstock Manor. After hearing some strange noises outside, he enters the barn to find a redheaded woman, totally naked under a black cloak. The woman claims to be Lucinda Jessup (Patricia Quinn, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW), a prosecuted witch who lived on the property in the 17th century. Although David doesn’t buy into her crazy story, he locks her up in a room to cool down, but she manages to get lose and takes possession of her host, clawing her mark into his back during a night of passionate love-making. David’s straying actress wife Mary (Prunella Gee, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN) and a doctor friend (Ian McCulloch, ZOMBIE) are having an affair, though after a number of violent and macabre incidents inside the house, Mary decides to help her husband via exorcism and reverse voodoo. James Bernard did the score for this episode, and the arrangements echo his early (and best) work for Hammer.

THE THIRTEENTH REUNION (Director: Peter Sasdy) involves a women’s magazine reporter, Ruth Cairns (Julia Foster, ALFIE), assigned by her editor (Dinah Sheridan) to join a health farm for those struggling with weight. Though Ruth looks to be fit as a fiddle, she squeezes into place as one of the “fatties”, even starting a romance with another member named Ben (Warren Clarke, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), a friendly bachelor banker. The night after their first date, Ben is killed in an auto accident, and the following day a young undertaker (Gerard Kelly) contacts Ruth due to the strange occurrences evolving around his workplace, not to mention the concurrent hush hush surrounding Ben’s body. Ruth’s probing leads her to discover a dark secret during a private dinner party attended by a baker’s dozen of eccentrics with a common bond. This episode also features appearances by David Latimer (the hero of Hammer’s PREHISTORIC WOMEN/SLAVE GIRLS), Barbara Keogh (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES) and Kevin Stoney (the sinister butler from THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR). Screenwriter Jeremy Burnham (THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN) teamed up with director Sasdy a decade earlier for Hammer’s COUNTESS DRACULA.

RUDE AWAKENING (Director: Peter Sasdy) has an obviously very bored real estate broker, Norman Shenley (a delightfully game Denholm Elliot, who had been in Hammer’s last horror feature, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER) having strange, recurring dreams, making it difficult for him to decipher between fantasy and reality. In his subconscious, he has visions that he murdered his nagging wife (Pat Heywood), as he badly wants a divorce from her (she won’t grant that). These dreams also see him having an affair with his lovely young secretary Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge, TOP SECRET), who keeps changing in appearance, at one point resembling a late 1970s punk rocker. James Laurenson (who was memorable as the “Shadmock” in THE MONSTER CLUB, made around the same time) is a business associate who also shows up in Norman’s dreams, in a number of different personas, and he also appears to be the mysterious voice warning him that he shouldn’t have snuffed out his life-long partner. This one aims more for black comedy, and the solid cast (headed by the always great Elliot, who had also been in the Amicus anthologies THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD and VAULT OF HORROR) makes it work.

In GROWING PAINS (Director: Francis Megahy), a young boy gets a bit curious in his father’s lab, and quickly dies outside the house. The father, Terence Morton (Gary Bond), a brilliant botanist working on experiments to end world hunger, and his wife Laurie (Barbara Kellerman, THE MONSTER CLUB) decide to adopt another child to compensate their remorse. The boy they take in, James (Matthew Blakstad, YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES) is a nearly emotionless oddball, clinging to a ratty stuffed rabbit, with a series of nasty incidents happening once he arrives. A car nearly swerves off the road, maggots show up in the dinner table steaks, a plush animal is exposed with bloody entrails, the lab rabbits are slaughtered and the family’s otherwise docile Rottweiler suddenly turns on them (he also cries at night after he’s been buried out in the yard). One of the more dark and disturbing entries in the series, it features the dead son’s ghost popping out of its grave; vengeance for the parents’ negligence towards him when he was alive.

THE HOUSE THAT BLED TO DEATH (Director: Tom Clegg): An elderly man murders his elderly wife in their kitchen. Because of the morbid, well-publicized incident, the house goes on sale for the cheap and is occupied by young couple William (Nicholas Ball) and Emma Peters (Rachel Davies), and their little daughter Sophia (Emma Ridley, RETURN TO OZ). With the hope of renovating the run-down place, they soon encounter a number of macabre occurrences, including the unexplained appearance of objects belonging to the previous owners, blood dripping from faucets and the violent death of the family cat. But the final blow for the family to get the hell out of the house happens during Sophia’s birthday party (with a house full of guests), as a pipe from above breaks and bursts blood (what else?) all over the kids’ party table down below. A definite fan favorite when picking and choosing from the entire series, there’s a double twist ending and screenwriter David Lloyd cleverly emulates the events and circumstances of “The Amityville Horror” with his entertaining screenplay. James Bernard once again provides a terrific score in usual Hammeresque tradition.

CHARLIE BOY (Director: Robert Young): After the death of his uncle (who of course died under unusual circumstances), Graham Elder (Leigh Lawson, PERCY’S PROGRESS) inherits a large amount of personal items from his collection. The standout is a horrific African fetish doll, and his girlfriend Sarah (Angela Bruce) decides to call it “Charlie Boy”. With the unsettling idol in tow, Graham and Sarah are challenged by a silent, scar-faced driver, after he’s cut off and initiates some deadly road rage. Eventually he backs off, but later on, when Graham is fooling around with a knife (pretending to be a gangster) with the fetish doll, the man is stabbed to death elsewhere. The trend continues, as a would-be business partner and a film director friend meet similar fates at the hand of “Charlie Boy”, as Graham ponders whether the thing is really responsible for all the bloody havoc (it’s not supposed to have any powers outside its native territory). Director Young only did one other movie for Hammer, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, and though he only dabbled in the genre, his flare for the macabre is on display here. David Healy (a pudgy American character actor who worked primarily in the U.K.) has a small part, and he was also in Hammer’s LUST FOR A VAMPIRE.

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THE SILENT SCREAM (Director: Alan Gibson) features Peter Cushing’s triumphant return to Hammer Horror after last being seen in 1974’s LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES. Chuck Spillers (future star Brian Cox, MANHUNTER) is released from prison and looks up an old friend who visited him regularly during his sentence, and also gave him money for a fresh start upon release. The friend, Martin Blueck (Cushing), is an elderly pet store owner experimenting with electronically containing wild animals (of which he has a collection of in his secret zoo) through a dangerous shock treatment method. Martin, who happens to be an ex Nazi, offers Chuck a job, but things backfire when he attempts to crack a safe and falls into a trap, and he’s now a human experiment imprisoned by these deadly electrical methods. When Chuck’s loyal wife Annie (Elaine Donnelly) comes snooping around looking for her man, she too becomes an imprisoned pawn in Martin’s sadistic doings. Definitely one of the most solid and well-written (by Francis Essex) entries in the series, Cushing delivers another intense, sinister character to his remarkable Hammer repertoire (this would be his last acting assignment for the legendary company), and Cox plays terrifically along side of him as the likable young thief (it’s easy to see why he became one of the busiest character actors in the subsequent years). Director Gibson, who did Hammer’s underappreciated DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, nicely sustains a level of intensity and suspense. The score by Leonard Salzedo (REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN) is a standout.

With a title like CHILDREN OF THE FULL MOON (Director: Tom Clegg), you know this one just has to be about werewolves, and fortunately, it is. Young lawyer Tom Martin (Christopher Cazenove, EYE OF THE NEEDLE) and his beautiful wife Sarah (Celia Gregory) are involved in a baffling car accident, taking refuge at a manor in the woods which seems to be in the middle of nowhere. They are greeted by the kindly but odd Mrs. Ardoy (Diana Dors, THEATRE OF BLOOD), a proper looking woman with a “pack” of small children running about the place (and they’re given permission to wander the woods after hours). Staying in one of the large house’s bedrooms, Sarah is assaulted by an unseen invader while her husband’s off somewhere else. The couple ends up in the hospital with no memory of the events that took place, and some months later, Sarah becomes pregnant, with a penchant for animalistic sex, as well as a craving for strips of uncooked meat. With a startling opening shot of a little blonde girl with blood on her lips, snacking on a slaughtered lamb as some wolves (German shepherds) bark, this gothic tale of werewolf rape and weirdo kids is fairly well conceived, and you do get to see a bear-like werewolf face in the form of the patriarch woodsmen played by Jacob Witkin. Dors is great as the ever-smiling Mrs. Ardoy and Robert Urquhart (the Baron’s assistant Paul in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) has a supporting role as Tom’s friend and colleague.

CARPATHIAN EAGLE (Director: Francis Megahy): There’s a string of murders where men end up with their hearts carved out, and Inspector Clifford (Anthony Valentine, also in Hammer’s TO THE DEVIL…A DAUGHTER) is on the case. His only lead comes when listening to the radio, as he becomes aware of novel where the killer also removes the heart of his victims. Meeting the author, Natalie (the luscious Suzanne Danielle, the star of CARRY ON EMMANUELLE), she informs him that the character in her book was based countess that lived centuries ago, making living descendant Mrs. Henska (Siân Phillips, CLASH OF THE TITANS) and her cross-dressing nephew prime suspects. Bookwormy Natalie also becomes a suspect, but unless the viewer is the type that can’t tell that a spectacled Clark Kent is really Superman, you’ll have no trouble realizing Natalie (disguising herself in a number of revealingly sexy get-ups) is the man-luring murderer. Some of her victims include a mustached Barry Stokes (from THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER and Norman J. Warren’s PREY) and a pre-"Remington Steele" Pierce Brosnan. Wilfred Josephs, who composed the music for the British version of CRY OF THE BANSHEE, did the score.

GUARDIAN OF THE ABYSS (Director: Don Sharp): After an auction, antiques dealer Michael Roberts (Ray Lonnen) talks his friend Laura Stephens (Barbara Ewing, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE) out of selling her newly-acquired piece, a scrying glass with strange writing on it, to a pushy guy offering a ridiculous amount of money for it. Michael keeps the glass for appraisal, but it appears to have some kind of supernatural power that puts him in contact with Allison (Rosalyn Landor, the little girl in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT), a young woman who has just escaped from the sacrificial altar of a secret devil-worshipping cult. The head the cult, Charles Randolph (the great John Carson from Hammer’s PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER), is a persuasive hypnotist who challenges Michael, Allison’s protector. Here, Hammer successfully revisits the occult genre (reminiscent of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT in many ways) and Carson’s character is not unlike the evil one he portrayed in PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES. Director Sharp needs no introduction here, as he was a Hammer vet of such titles as KISS OF THE VAMPIRE and RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK.

VISITOR FROM THE GRAVE (Director: Peter Sasdy) is the tale of a housewife (Kathryn Leigh Scott of “Dark Shadows” fame) defending herself from a home invader with a shotgun, regretting her actions in spite of her husband (Simon MacCorkindale) covering up the murder (the image of her victim soon shows up everywhere). Screenwriter John Elder (aka producer Anthony Hinds) returns to Hammer with this morbid tale, which carries the expected twists. THE TWO FACES OF EVIL (Director: Alan Gibson) is a grisly yarn about a doppelganger (or two) appearing after a nice family (the parents are played by Anna Calder-Marshall from Robert Fuest’s version of WUTHERING HEIGHTS and Gary Raymond from the “Rat Patrol” series) picks up a peculiar hitchhiker one rainy afternoon. Phillip Latham ("Klove" from DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS) also stars. The last entry in the series, THE MARK OF SATAN (Director: Don Leaver) is also the darkest and most depressing. A morgue attendant (Peter McEnery, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS) is obsessed with the number “9”, as it keeps coming into play in his life, making him believe that satanic forces (it’s later revealed as upside-down “666”) are overwhelming him.

The “Hammer House of Horror” program was first shown in America in the early 1980s on the WHT cable network (somebody over there must have liked Hammer, as they used to broadcast TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA as well) in their uncut form (some episodes contain nudity). Later, edited episodes (minus THE MARK OF SATAN) where shown in syndication throughout the country. Thriller Video released these syndicated versions on VHS (hosted by Elvira) in 1985, again all but the MARK episode. Finally in 2011, A&E released a complete DVD box set in the States, but the transfers suffered from an annoying “ghosting” problem due to an inferior PAL to NTSC conversion. Synapse Films now revisits the series a decade later, with far better results. Like never before, the episodes consistently look fantastic, with sharp detail and vivid colors (the colors in CHILDREN OF THE FULL MOON especially look eye-catching) and strong mono English audio tracks. All episodes are presented in their original full frame format and are uncut in the proper running order. If you’ve avoided buying the A&E set, you’ll definitely want to pick this up, and if you already have it, an upgrade is a must as the transfers are that much better.

Extras (all produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures) include brief audio intros to every single episode by Shane M. Dallman, who provides some factoids and little bits of trivia. There are two featurettes here, both spotlighting actresses from the VISITOR FROM THE GRAVE episode. “Grave Collections: A Visit With Kathryn Leigh Scott” (8:24) has the actress recollecting her association with the horror genre (starting with “Dark Shadows”) as well as some details about working in the episode, the locations and director Sasdy (she describes him as “energetic”). “Hammer Housekeeping: A Visit With Mia Nadasi" (6:14) is an interview with the Hungarian-born actress, who has been married to Sasdy for over 40 years. She not only discusses her role in the episode (as a sort of gypsy fortune teller) but mentions she did the dancing choreography in her husband’s films COUNTESS DRACULA and I DON’T WANT TO BE BORN (THE DEVIL WITHIN HER). An animated still gallery displays production and behind-the-scenes photos, promotional art, video covers as well as ad mats for the U.S. syndicated TV broadcasts. (George R. Reis)