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Directors: Val Guest, Quentin Lawrence, Guy Green, Michael Carreras, Cyril Frankel, Joseph Losey
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Once again, the folks at Sony Pictures have been kind enough to bring us another ICONS OF set. This time ‘round, the keyword is SUSPENSE -- and this collection of movies from Britain’s now-renown Hammer Studios not only ups its digital gathering from four films to six (yay!), but it’s also the first time that many of these titles have ever been on home video in the States (double yay!).

Presented in no specific order whatsoever, the set opens with Val Guest’s STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! (1960) on Disc One. While the misleading American title conjures up thoughts of a harrowing thriller akin to the giallo films that would go on to dominate the European market later in the 1960s, STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! is more of a psychological drama. Based on Ronald Scott Thorn’s novel The Full Treatment (which is also the film’s original British title) the story tells of arrogant racecar driver Alan Colby (Ronald Lewis, who had the David Hasselhoff look down long before it was ever fashionable), who has been left in a slightly frail state of mind following an automobile accident on his honeymoon to Denise (Diane Cilento, who was later married to Sean Connery).

Angry and bitter after the wreck, Alan and Denise head to the South of France in order for the now-retired racer to get his head in the right gear, and he's constantly fighting an insane urge to strangle his wife (hey, who hasn’t felt like doing that?). There, they meet a kindly aging psychiatrist named Prade (Claude Dauphin), who takes a strong liking to Alan’s mental condition and Denise’s youthful beauty. Prade is convinced that Alan could do with some proper psychiatric evaluation -- a notion that offends Alan to the extreme, and prompts him to throw one tantrum after another. The doctor eventually follows the couple back to London, where Alan finally agrees to let him help…but then Denise suddenly goes missing one morning, leading both men to believe Alan may have finally given in to his irrational desires.

STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! wouldn’t be my personal pick to open a set of Hammer films. At best, it’s a very drawn-out and predictable film (by today‘s standards especially). However, there is little doubt in my mind that the devoted fans of Guest (who also co-wrote the screenplay along with novelist Thorn) will enjoy the late filmmaker’s ability to establish some truly memorable shots.

Moving on, we have CASH ON DEMAND (1961), the second and last feature on Disc One. Three years after exposing their dynamic chemistry to the moviegoing world in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959), Peter Cushing and André Morell starred in this superbly-made drama (which was based on a play). Cushing is in top form as Fordyce, an obsessive-compulsive bank manager. A thoroughly petty man who hasn’t an inkling of care towards his own “subordinates,” Fordyce starts one fateful Wednesday with a preposterous allegation of embezzlement towards one of his senior staff members (Richard Vernon). But Fordyce’s paltry plans go due south when an insurance investigator for the bank’s main branch named Hepburn (Morell) arrives.

A completely debonair man, Hepburn is, in reality, a smooth-talking-yet-ruthless thief who has come to rob the bank! A phone call alerts Fordyce that his wife and child are being held hostage at their home. Hepburn then goes about instructing the bank manager on how to behave over the next hour, taking the opportunity to ridicule Fordyce for his prudish attitude towards his employees and family alike. It’s a delight to see Cushing and Morell at work in CASH ON DEMAND. Their reactions to each other -- particularly as adversaries -- is ideal, and the almost Dickens-like tale is executed in a manner that only a studio like Hammer could bring us. Recommended.

Disc Two opens with THE SNORKEL (1958), the earliest of all the films in this ICONS OF SUSPENSE collection. The great Peter van Eyck (in his pre-DR. MABUSE days) gives one of his best performances as Paul Decker, a writer who coldly murders his wealthy wife before the opening credits and makes it look like a suicide. His modus operendi is sealing up the windows and doors with tape, turning on the gas lamps, and hiding underneath the floor wearing a snorkel (hence the rather odd title) while his unconscious bride slowly suffocates to death above!

The local Italian police feel it’s a clear-cut case of suicide. But his crime does not go unnoticed: his pre-teen step-daughter Candy (Mandy Miller) is thoroughly convinced that he murdered her mother…just as she is convinced that Paul drowned her father years before. From there on in, Candy searches for clues that will finally convict her diabolical step-father of his crimes, while Paul begins to woo Candy’s post-teenage nanny-figure, Jean (Betta St. John, CITY OF THE DEAD). The late William Franklyn (THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA) co-stars as Jean’s potential middle-aged “love interest,” and Grégoire Aslan turns in a rather amusing performance as the local clueless cop.

Side B of Disc Two features the one title (that I’m aware of) that has ever been available legitimately on home video in the United States: 1963’s MANIAC, directed by Michael Carreras and written by Jimmy Sangster (both of whom should be well-known to even the most novice of Hammer enthusiasts). Once again, the setting is France. An American artist, Geoff Farrell (Kerwin Matthews, in one of his best performances), finds himself stranded in a small village pub after a break-up with his spoiled girlfriend (Justine Lord, in a small role), and immediately becomes attracted to pub keeper Eve (Nadia Gray) and her step-daughter, Annette (Liliane Brousse, PARANOIAC).

Several years earlier, Eve’s husband Georges (Donald Huston, A STUDY IN TERROR) murdered Annette’s would-be rapist with a welding torch (the opening scene of said execution is indeed a memorable one), and the aging psychopath has been incarcerated ever since. After taking up with Eve, Geoff and his newfound MILF girlfriend decide that they should break Georges out of prison (!), so that he and Annette can move away, leaving Geoff and Eve to lead their own life together.

Their idea is dumb one to say the least: the recent escapee promptly murders his caretaker from prison (who assisted in the break), and begins to stalk the others. Several plot twists pop out of nowhere (this was made after Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, so the urge to “wow” theatre patrons was on), leading to a finale set in France’s beautifully-creepy Les Baux-de-Provence ruins. Overall, MANIAC is an enjoyable experience…although you really have to wonder how stupid some of the film’s characters really are. Norman Bird co-stars as a local police officer (whose voice is dubbed by THE PINK PANTHER’s André Maranne).

Of all the imaginative terrors that Hammer Films unleashed throughout their long and famous history, perhaps none is as threatening as NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER (aka NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER): an all-too-believable tale of a reclusive elderly child molester in Canada. Directed by Cyril Frankel, this 1960 shocker was light-years ahead of its time, and is undoubtedly one of Hammer’s most underrated productions.

Housed on the first side of Disc Three, NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER weaves a haunting tale of the Carter Family, who have recently moved to the small community of Jamestown, wherein patriarch Peter (Patrick Allen, NIGHT CREATURES) has assumed the title of principal at a local school. One evening, young Jean Carter (Janina Faye, whom classic horror aficionados will easily recognize from HORROR OF DRACULA and THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS), returns home to tell how she and her friend were invited into the home of old man Olderberry (Felix Aylmer, in a chillingly silent performance) and offered candy…in exchange for dancing naked in front of him.

When Peter and his wife Sally (Gwen Watford, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) go to the police to report the incident, they are met with blind ignorance. Mr. Olderberry is one of the community’s founding fathers, and no one -- be it his powerful son or the many townspeople whom he employs -- are willing to step up to the plate and defend the Carters…despite the fact that every local knows full well how sick the elderly pedophile is.

Last, but certainly not least in the ICONS OF SUSPENSE set is 1963’s (THESE ARE) THE DAMNED directed by the one and only Joseph Losey. Starting out as another juvenile delinquent offering, our tale finds retired American Simon Wells (longtime soap star Macdonald Carey) vacationing in London. Targeted by attractive young “teenager” Joan (Shirley Anne Field, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM), Simon is brutally beaten and mugged by a gang of twenty-something motorcycle hoodlums, led by Joan’s jealous brother, King (the great Oliver Reed, delivering yet-another fantastic performance).

But, just when you think this is a story of man vs. thugs, Hammer switches gears on us and plunges us straight into a Cold War science fiction fable. A local military installation is secretly raising a group of radioactive children who will eventually begin the human race anew when the inevitable atomic apocalypse comes. Chased by King and his gang of leather-clad bikers, Simon, Joan, and King himself wind up deep in the bowels of the cliffside base -- unknowingly exposed to the deadly kids -- while the local military officials (Alexander Knox and James Bond regular Walter Gotell) try to figure out how to remove the civilians from the protective children and keep the whole thing hush-hush in the process. Viveca Lindfors (CAULDRON OF BLOOD) also stars as Knox’s carefree artist fling, who is working near the facility in Knox’s small cottage, and may be too close to the truth for her own good.

Each black & white movie in THE ICONS OF SUSPENSE COLLECTION: HAMMER FILMS is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. CASH ON DEMAND and THE SNORKEL are both framed at 1.66:1, while the others are presented in the 2.35:1 Scope ratio. All titles are anamorphic (sweet), and look absolutely amazing considering their age. In my opinion, CASH OF DEMAND suffers the most out of the whole lot, exhibiting a fair amount of softness and grain throughout, but never to the point that it becomes unwatchable. THE SNORKEL is in its full 90 minute running time (the American prints ran 74 minutes) and THESE ARE THE DAMNED is presented in its longer 96-minute “director’s cut.”

Special features are limited to the original theatrical trailers for each title and are found with their respective feature films on the discs. Each disc also includes a promo trailer for The Treasures of Columbia Classics.

While STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! really didn’t make very much of an impression on me, the other titles in this collection are an absolute joy to behold -- and the retail price tag of $24.96 should not deter any fan of Hammer films (or nearly-forgotten suspense dramas in-general) from picking this three-disc set up. (Adam Becvar aka Luigi Bastardo -