Happy Halloween! In honor of the (apparently) late, lamented Watching Hammer, I offer this nostalgic list, written at their request just before the site ceased posting new material:
Sincerest thanks to Watching Hammer for inviting me to contribute a Top Ten. Since Hammer’s heyday ended when I wasn’t quite old enough to drive, I haven’t had the experience other contributors did of seeing these films on the big screen, and was forced to content myself with TV, home-video and convention screenings over the years. In my infancy as a genre-film aficionado, I thought Hammer was a bunch of pretenders who had the audacity to remake our beloved Universal classics, but our friends across the Pond had the last laugh because now, at any given moment, I’d probably rather watch a Hammer than a Universal, much as I love them both. And the fact that my future wife and I bonded in high school by chatting about these films during chorus class didn’t hurt.
As the guy who had a hard time getting his list of favorite films on his own blog down to 100, I found it difficult to limit myself to ten, and must give an honorable mention to The Phantom of the Opera before beginning. So, rather than subject myself to further agony, I am listing them in chronological order. I make no apologies for including both of the films written by the object of my obsession, Richard Matheson, because I genuinely believe they were two of Hammer’s best, although this is really a list of favorites rather than those I would rank as “best” by some mythical objective standard. Here goes…
The Quatermass Experiment: Given my focus on writers, it’s no surprise that I think Nigel Kneale was one of the best things ever to happen to Hammer. He might not have agreed at the time, since he was unhappy with both the casting of Brian Donlevy in the lead and the adaptation (by Richard Landau and director Val Guest) of his seminal BBC serial, but since some chapters of the TV version are lost, we’ll never be able to compare them in their entirety. Be that as it may, Quatermass’s struggle to learn what happened to the three-man crew of his first space rocket is eerie and suspenseful from the start, as he learns that contact with an alien life-form has made one astronaut (Richard Wordsworth) absorb the others and begin mutating. It was Hammer’s first big success, and rightly so.
Quatermass 2: Many years ago, when New York’s outstanding Film Forum repertory cinema was still in its old Watts Street location, I arranged with my friend Greg Cox (now Matheson’s editor at Tor and a successful author of franchise fiction) to attend a screening of the Quatermass trilogy. When I told him we might want to arrive early, he laughed and said, “Matthew, these are old British SF films from the ’50s and ’60s; we won’t have any trouble getting in.” Well, the line was literally around the block, but we did get in. Due to the vagaries of television programming, I think this was the first time I’d seen the original since childhood—perhaps the first in its entirety—and the first time ever for the sequel, which really wowed me. Donlevy and Guest were back (the latter sharing script credit with Kneale this time), as Quatermass copes with a government conspiracy that turns out to represent an alien invasion. The scene of the politician who has fallen into a vat of toxic liquid is a particular standout in this gripping and inventive thriller.
The Curse of Frankenstein: With its unprecedented full-color gore and sumptuous period production values, this set the template for Hammer’s most famous films and established the “dream team” of their early days, including director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, composer James Bernard, and up-and-coming genre superstars Peter Cushing (as Baron Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Creature). Cushing’s Baron is a fascinating character, and Hammer wisely built the ensuing series around him rather than the Creature, who gets dissolved in a vat of acid at the end. Hazel Court is the delectable cherry on top as Elizabeth, and I love Cushing’s chutzpah as he yells, “Look out, Professor!”…while pushing the poor old guy—whose brain he needs—off a balcony, in order to throw anyone within earshot off the scent.
The Hound of the Baskervilles: In all fairness, I haven’t seen a number of the screen incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, but of those I have, I would rank Peter Cushing as second only to Basil Rathbone in the role. In most cases, Rathbone easily surpassed his material, much of which was not derived from Conan Doyle, but here, the above dream team (minus Sangster) provided a top-notch vehicle, complete with the always-welcome Andre Morell as an unusually intelligent Watson. Although relegated to the role of the imperiled Baskerville heir, Lee adds considerable heft, and Cushing is a delight as he rips into lines like, “There are many strange things to be found upon the moor—like this, for instance!” (Cue the loud “Thwock!” as he slams the ceremonial dagger into the table.)
Fanatic: One might be forgiven for mistaking this as another of Hammer’s post-Psycho psycho-thrillers, written by Sangster and bearing similar one-word titles: Paranoiac, Maniac, Nightmare, Hysteria. But as much as I love Sangster’s seminal scripts for Hammer in the ’50s, I think Matheson far surpasses him in this adaptation of Anne Blaisdell’s Nightmare (whose title presumably had to be changed to differentiate it from the Sangster film). Stefanie Powers is lovely and believable as the American girl imprisoned by her late former fiancé’s mother, equally well played by Tallulah Bankhead, and her growing realization that her captor is a dangerous religious fanatic rather than a harmless eccentric gives the film a satisfying dramatic arc. Throw in the young Donald Sutherland as a mentally challenged servant, and you’re good to go.
Dracula—Prince of Darkness: This is my wife’s favorite movie, but that’s not the only reason I’m including it. I’m sure many would consider it sacrilege to give this the nod over what we Yanks think of as Horror of Dracula, especially since Lee’s distaste for the script (Distaste the Script of Dracula?) led him to omit his dialogue. Still, I’ve always preferred Prince; maybe I never got over the fact that Sangster had Harker get turned into a vampire, just as Dan Curtis did in the Jack Palance television version—a plot point, I might add, that is not found in Matheson’s published teleplay. But I digress. Andrew Keir pinch-hits beautifully for Van Helsing as rifle-toting Father Sandor, and rich entertainment is provided by the interplay among the ill-fated Kent family, with Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer amusingly cast as Charles and Diana and the ever-popular Barbara Shelley as the prim Helen, whose transformation into a sensuous vampire is most extraordinary.
Quatermass and the Pit: Feel free to criticize me for devoting almost a third of my list to ol’ Bernie, but remember, I could have included Kneale’s The Abominable Snowman, as well. Reuniting Keir (as Quatermass) and Shelley, this is truly a thinking man’s SF film, as Quatermass discovers a five-million-year-old Martian spacecraft that is buried beneath London and holds surprising secrets about mankind’s evolution. With Roy Ward Baker [see "A Career to Remember"] succeeding Guest, and Kneale bearing sole script credit, it once again showed the triumph of good writing over pathetic special effects—in this case, those finger-puppet Martians.
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave: Yeah, we Bradleys love us our vampires (Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter almost made the list as well), and I’ve always had a big soft spot for this follow-up to Prince, an affection that not merely the presence of Veronica Carlson can explain. The redoubtable Rupert Davies as the monsignor has a lot to do with it, as does the spectacular climax, with Dracula knocked over his own battlements and impaled on a giant cross. One of Fisher’s periodic hospitalizations forced Freddie Francis to direct this, but although he told me when I interviewed him that he was more interested in the young lovers than in Dracula, I think that once again, the story of the non-nosferatu characters is strong enough to keep us going in between visits from Lee.
The Devil Rides Out: A pinnacle for all concerned. Dennis Wheatley justifiably praised Matheson for his exciting adaptation of Wheatley’s somewhat verbose novel, and Lee has a rare heroic (not to mention sizeable) role as the Duc de Richleau. Charles Gray is also outstanding as the Satanist villain, Mocata, and although the usual complaints are leveled at the skimpy special effects, see Quatermass and the Pit for my response to that. With the usual superior contributions from Fisher and James Bernard, this is horror at its fast-paced, non-jokey and intelligent finest. Lee and others have argued that it is ripe for a remake, but since you know it would just turn into another CGI-fest, I’m not sure I agree.
The Vampire Lovers: I’d be lying if I said that naked women in general, a naked Ingrid Pitt in particular, and lesbian vampires didn’t influence this choice. But, in my defense, look at the record: you’ve got Cushing as the devoted and devastated father, General von Spielsdorf. You’ve Jon Finch, soon to be brilliant in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, in a supporting role. And, perhaps most of all, you’ve got what may be the most faithful adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s oft-filmed “Carmilla,” with Baker at the helm. Threadbare production values be damned, this is a good movie.
BOF Addendum: Now I’ll sit back and wait for Drax to complain (albeit with love) about the absence of visuals. I keep telling him I am the Word-Man. Word-Man. WORD-MAN! BWUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!