Sunday, October 31, 2021

Hammer House of Horror, for Halloween

In its 1960s prime, Hammer Films did gothic horror better than anyone. However, for their most successful TV series, they leaned into folk horror. Even in episodes that do not rely on traditional folk horror tropes, bad things tend to happen to anyone who visits the countryside. Hammer had co-produced a Frankenstein pilot that failed to sell as well as a previous anthology series that came and went, but in 1980 they scored a hit with genre fans when Roy Skeggs created Hammer House of Horror, which airs today as a Halloween binge on Decades TV (hang on, this will be a long one).

Rather fortuitously, the series starts with probably its best episode, “Witching Hour” (directed by Don Leaver and written by Anthony Read), wherein viewers quickly get a taste of the series’ blend of the sinister and the sexual. Film composer David Winter rightly suspects his actress wife Mary is having an affair (as we see with absolute certainty), but Winter has no idea she is in fact sleeping with his best friend.

Unfortunately, Winter’s jealousy and resentment leaves him vulnerable to the attacks of Lucinda Jessup, a 17
th Century witch, who transported herself across time to avoid a date with the stake. Ironically, it will be his estranged wife who tries to save Winter from her sexual and spiritual domination. Jon Finch (star of Hitchcock’s Frenzy, who turned down an offer to play James Bond) is a spectacular mess as Winter. Prunella Gee (the nurse in the rogue Bond movie Never Say Never Again) is terrific, but underappreciated by horror critics for her forcefulness as his wife (probably because of her sex scene), while Patricia Quinn chews the scenery like a world champion as Jessup. The folk horror is pronounced and pretty scary.

In contrast, “The Thirteenth Reunion” (directed by Peter Sasdy and written Jeremy Burnham) is more darkly ironic than outright frightening. Yet, it is interesting in its way, because it serves up some rather mordant cultural commentary. The strange business involves a reporter infiltrating a trendy but abusive New Age weight loss clinic—definitely shades of EST here. There is also an appealing budding romance between her and another patient, because neither are typical romantic leads, but it is rudely interrupted.

While “Reunion” is a product of its day, “Rude Awakening” (directed by Sasdy and written by Gerald Savory) feels somewhat ahead of its time, because of its circular structure. Norman Shenley is an estate agent who keeps waking up from dreams in which he is repeatedly punished for a crime he has not [yet] committed—the murder of his wife. Resolving to get to the bottom of things, he keeps driving back out to the creepy old manor of his nightmare, only to befall another gruesome fate, before waking up again.

This episode really doesn’t seem fair, because it almost amounts to cosmic entrapment. However, the variations of each successive go-round are quite compelling and Denholm Elliott is perfect as the luckless Shenley.

“Growing Pains” is an underwhelming evil kid-ghost story and “Charlie Boy” we’ll skip because its too apt to become cancelation bait. “The House that Bled Death” (directed by Tom Clegg and written by David Lloyd) is not perfect television either but it became notorious in the UK for a scene of blood showering down from the ceiling on a child’s birthday party. It turns out the house a young family bought at a bargain price really wasn’t such a good deal after all. This episode appears to be inspired by the Enfield Poltergeist that was also the subject of
The Conjuring 2. The Hammer take is very different, until suddenly it isn’t.

Probably the most viewed episode is “The Silent Scream” (directed by Alan Gibson and written by Francis Essex), because it stars long-time Hammer favorite Peter Cushing. Martin Blueck looks like a kindly old man, but he is really a National Socialist war criminal (masquerading as a camp survivor), who befriends down-on-their-luck ex-cons like Chuck to lure them into his cruel Skinner-esque behavioral experiments.

“Scream” is easily the darkest, bleakest episode of the anthology. Cushing’s knack for shifting from kindly to malevolent at the drop of a hat serves the story quite well. The working-class pathos Brian Cox brings as Chuck heightens the episode’s claustrophobic discomfort. It is creepy, but a real downer.

A couple gets stranded on a country road in “Children of the Full Moon” (directed by Clegg and written by Murray Smith), as they often do in
Hammer House. The reference to a full moon is not accidental, but the payoff monster fans expect comes very late in the episode. Mostly, it is about more creepy kids and a creepy old lady.

Elizabeth Bathory gets a good riffing in “Carpathian Eagle” (directed by Megahy and written by Bernie Cooper with Megahy), but its fabled royal murderess used a winged familiar to do her killing. Weirdly, a rash of serial murders appear to duplicate her M.O., so a beleaguered inspector seeks insight from experts on the legend: a true crime writer and an expatriate East European noble woman.

Megahy tries to keep the killer’s identity secret, but we see plenty of her alluring legs. She even seduces a young Pierce Brosnan, who is quickly killed off. “Eagle” starts out quite provocatively, but eventually reverts to standard plot devices. Nevertheless, it is still notable for calling out oppression in Communist Poland and a tolerant attitude towards sexual orientation that aged better than you would expect.

Perhaps the second-best episode is “Guardian of the Abyss” (directed Don Sharp and written by David Fisher), wherein things get very satanic. It all starts when a woman inadvertently buys Dr. John Dee’s legendary scrying glass at an estate auction. Suddenly, a lot of people want to acquire the mirror, so she entrusts it to her platonic pal, Michael Roberts. Naturally, those folks are cult members. So was Allison, until she was tapped to be their next human sacrifice.

The plot of Guardian is suspiciously similar to Janet Greek’s
Spellbinder, but it predates it by eight years. The evil cult is all kinds of menacing and it is great fun to Paul Darrow from Blake’s 7 as the devil worshippers’ cold-blooded front man.

Perhaps “Visitor from the Grave” (directed by Sasdy and written by Anthony Hinds) might be a the second most watched episode, because it stars Kathryn Leigh Scott from
Dark Shadows. The American heiress she plays might even be whinier and more neurotic than Maggie Evans, but it is somewhat understandable, given she finds herself haunted by the would-be assailant she killed in self-defense. The truth is the twists of this tale are pretty easy to see coming, but it is still fun to watch all the séance theater anyway. Plus, Gareth Hunt, also of Blake’s 7 turns up in a supporting role.

Ironically, “Two Faces of Evil” might have been more effective if it had skipped its third act twists and doubled down on its primary premise. On another blasted country road, a family picks up a hitchhiker decked out like the hook man in
I Know What You Did Last Summer. He acts the same way too, immediately attacking the father. The mother is assured everything is fine when she wakes in the hospital, but she soon starts to suspect the man with the damaged vocal cords that is supposedly her husband is actually their attacker.

By the way, this series did no favors for the reputation of the medical profession. Like the arrogant and possibly negligent doctors in “Faces” the hospital staff in “The Mark of Satan” (directed by Leaver and written by Don Shaw) may or may not be evil. Maybe they deliberately infected Edwyn Rord, a socially awkward morgue attendant, with the virus that drove a madman to perform a self-lobotomy, even though it sure seems to have been a result of his own carelessness. Regardless, he suddenly sees all kinds of ominous signs, represented by the number nine.

“Mark” achieves an unusual degree of ambiguity, but Rord is such an unappealing character, it is difficult to invest in his crack-up. However, it is nice to see Anthony Brown’s relatively sympathetic portrayal of the priest, whether it is in real life or hallucinations.

Just about every episode has an unsettling vibe that is powerfully underscored by Roger Webb’s eerie theme, lushly orchestrated for string orchestra and electric guitars. Visually, the series reflects more of an influence from disorienting genre films by the likes Polanski and Kubrick more than the lurid bodice-ripping horror of Hammer’s glory days, especially in episodes like “Faces” and “Mark.” It showed the studio could learn and few new tricks and still give thrills and chills. Arguably its last hurrah,
Hammer House of Horrors is highly recommended for fans of horror anthology (despite one or two clunkers). All 13 episodes air multiple times today on Decades and it streams on Shudder and Tubi.