Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Style by Hammer, Distribution by Universal...

A handful of films made by British production company Hammer Films were distributed by Universal. These have been released on DVD as part of the Franchise Collection in the Hammer Horror Series 8-movie set. In this post, I discuss the films in the set that were directed by the very underappreciated Terence Fisher. (I'll cover the others later.)

Brides of Dracula (1960)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Monlaur, Martia Hunt and David Peel
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Dracula has been destroyed by Van Helsing, but his cult of vampiric corruption lives on. Van Helsign (Cushing) must save a young teacher (Monclaur) from the vile attenbtions of one of Dracula's deciples (Peel).

This is a curious "Dracula" movie, because while he is invoked in the title, Dracula is very much a pile of ash back in his castle, having been dispatched at the end of "Horror of Dracula."

And, despite the lack of an actual appearance by Dracula, this is one of my very favorite Hammer Dracula/vampire movies. It's even superior to “Horror of Dracula” in several ways, making it among the rarest of sequels.

First, the Baron’s castle from the first part of the movie features some spectacular sets; the sequence in the vampire's castle when the innocent Marianne comes to realize that she is trapped in a house of madness and evil, is quite possibly one ofthe most effectively creepy things in any Hammer movie, period.

Second, Cushing is at the top of his game here. His performance is full of zeal and it is the best he gave in any of the Hammer Films he was featured in. The mixture of horror and steely determination that he gives Dr. Van Helsing as he confronts the vampires and their twisted human servants is very well acted. He is also served well by a plot that allows the Van Helsing character to shine, fantastic sets, and excellent lighting and camera work that constantly reinforces the film’s gothic horror tone.

Finally, the climax is one of the most thrilling of any of Hammer’s vampire movies, and Baron Meinster’s doom provides the best death of any vampire in their productions.

All in all, “Brides of Dracula” may be the best film director Terence Fisher ever made. It is certainly the best of all Hammer’s Dracula movies. (And it’s quite possibly made stronger by the fact that Dracula is nowhere in it. I think Peel’s evil, bug-eyed Baron Meinster comes across as far more sinister and evil that Lee’s staid and distant Count Dracula ever did.)

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Starring: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans, Yvonne Romain, Catherine Feller and Josephine Llewellyn
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

This film chronicles the background and tragic life of a werewolf (Reed) and the kindly adoptive father (Evans) who tries to save him.

The film is well-acted and beautifully shot (as is the case with almost every film that Fisher helmed), but it is deadly dull. It was a struggle to get through it, and I probably wouldn't have bothered finishing the movie if I hadn't intended to post comments here. There aren't even any werewolf transformation scenes to liven up the plodding procedings, as they all happen off-screen.

"The Curse of the Werewolf", despite its excellent cast and spectacular look, is not a film for you to waste your time on. Reportedly, it didn't do well for Hammer at its release, and I'm not surprised.

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Starring: Edward DeSouza, Heather Sears, Herbert Lom, Thorley Walters and Michael Gough
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Harry (DeSouza), a young director and producer struggles to mount an opera for its wealthy (Gough), but as if dealing with the backer/creator's massive ego, and his savory designs upon the young, virginal diva (Sears) wasn't bad enough, the production is plagued with mysterious disasters. He soon begins to uncover dark secrets surrounding the production, but will he manage to placate the Phantom of the Opera (Lom) before it is too late?!

The Hammer version of "The Phantom of the Opera" is the fastest moving, most-visually interesting adaptation of the tale that I've seen. The watery lair of the Phantom is very cool, Heather Sears is a hotty and she also plays nicely off Lom., Michael Gough is the perfect upper-class slime and wanna-be musical genius who only acheives that status when he steals the life-work of another man. All in all, the cast here is great, and it's another Terrence Fisher-helmed movie that's absolutely gorgeous to behold.

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