AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: HERE https://diaboliquefilms.com/product/hammer-horror-the-warner-bros-years-blu-ray/
RUNNING TIME: 101 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Though it’s taken a bit of time for Blu-ray to catch up, Hammer Horror has generally been pretty well served on the home viewing front in my opinion. The majority of the films were available on video and then on DVD, sometimes with decent special features, though Region 1 saw more and often better [generally courtesy of Anchor Bay] releases, meaning that for big fans like myself a multi-region DVD player was essential. Small waves of them have since come out on Blu-ray [though not always to a good reception – anyone reading this remember the ridiculous fuss about the ‘finished’ special effects shots in The Devil Rides Out?], and recently the floodgates seem to have well and truly opened with featurettes and audio commentaries being almost commonplace. However, the releases of the films that Hammer made in conjunction with Warner Bros in the late 1960’s and 1970’s have always been lacking special feature-wise, even though in this bunch are some firm favourites of many fans, plus Hammer’s most commercially successful horror [Dracula Has Risen From The Grave] and one of the company’s most admired [Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed]. This is something that Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros years seeks to correct, as well as to provide an overview of Hammer’s place in the film world in its later years and why they went under, and to detail the changing relationship between the little British studio that changed the face of horror in the late 1950’s and the big American studio and distributor which for a while was able to give Hammer’s movies the widest and most publicised releases since they first broke onto the scene.
Warners distributed some of the early, ground breaking Hammers in the US such as The Quatermass Xperiment, The Curse Of Frankenstein and Dracula [re-titled Horror Of Dracula], but how they came to be involved in not just distributing some of Hammer’s films a decade later but also in the development of the actual films was not something I was clear on despite owning several films on Hammer. That’s only one reason why I’d just about recommend this documentary to those who know a lot about Hammer and more casual fans alike. Why do I say “just about”? Because 35 dollars is rather a lot of money for one Blu-ray and I’m sure that some who are interested in buying it will have to think about it for a bit. For those of us who’ve not just watched but read up a lot on Hammer over the years, this new documentary isn’t packed full of earth shattering revelations, much of the information being very familiar indeed, but for us rabid fans watching a documentary about films we love can be as warm and pleasurable experience as going back to the films themselves, and there’s nothing like hearing stories you may have heard before but actually from the people involved.
A good example of this is when the documentary moves on to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, which contains a scene where Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein rapes Anna the heroine, played by Veronica Carlson. Even though it makes Frankenstein seem even more evil which helps the film in some ways, the scene seems out of place and the rape is never referred to later. In fact the scene was not in the original script and Michael Carreras [the son of Hammer head James Carreras and pretty much in charge by now] demanded that it be put in when shooting had nearly finished, claiming that the film needed more sex [presumably a proper love scene was out of the question]. I knew all this, but actually seeing Carlson recall the events firsthand, describing with sadness how Carreras stormed onto the set waving script pages at everyone, the reactions of Cushing and director Terence Fisher, and saying how her performance would have been different if the scene had been in the screenplay, put a fresh new spin on it all, while those not familiar at all with this stuff may be surprised considering that these days Hammer Horror has become synomynous with a certain cosiness. And it’s also a reminder that, despite the considerable artistry of many of the films, Hammer was first and foremost a commercial outfit, and that the considerable impact of the early Hammers wasn’t really down to their quality as films [even if those qualities were considerable] but because they pushed the sex and violence rather further then horror movies – indeed movies in general – had done so before.
After detailing on how Hammer and Warners became partners, the documentary moves onto the films. Of course the non-horror films – Crescendo, Moon Zero Two and When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth – have far less time devoted to them. In a way this is a shame, as less is known about these then the Dracula and the Frankensteins. Even the awesome guilty pleasure that is The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires only gets a few minutes given to it. Even though I was excited to see a few seconds of behind the scenes footage from the production of that film, I would have loved, for example, to have learned a bit about the fabled Hong Kong cut that contains far more fight footage. I don’t care how long a documentary is if the subject is of interest to it and it’s well presented. The epic ones about the Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The 13th franchises certainly did not outstay their welcome for me. It’s recently come to my attention that Diabolique the makers of this documentary promised those who backed it on Kickstarter extra footage that didn’t make it into the main feature. This promise has since been claimed by Diabolique to have been a mistake, which you can either believe or not, but it’s certainly rather shady that Diabolique have sold some or all of what they shot to Anolis, a German company who release many of the Hammer films on Blu-ray in that country. Anolis released Taste The Blood Of Dracula a few weeks ago, and guess what? – the 44 minute ‘making of’ apparently consists entirely of footage from Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years, two thirds of it being footage unseen in it but obviously filmed for it or at least alongside it with the same talking heads. I reckon the rest of the unreleased material will soon be seen in Anolis Blu-rays too.
However, don’t let all this negativity put you off because there really is a lot of good stuff here, some of which will make Hammer fans grin from ear to ear. A visit to Black Park, the Buckinghamshire location that became almost laughably familiar especially as Hammer tended to film at the same spots, was a major highlight to me, as well as reminding me that I still haven’t made the pilgrimage yet. Also wonderful is Taste The Blood Of Dracula‘s John Carson and Madeline Smith watching the oft-censored brothel scene they were both in together, and then recalling filming it. It was interesting to see director Peter Sasdy speak as I don’t think I’d seen him before. He tells an interesting fact about an important part he played in the development of Taste The Blood Of Dracula which I didn’t know before but which I won’t reveal just in case another Hammer nut is reading this and wants to find out for him or herself. And how the hell does Caroline Munro still look so good? Of course many of the folk involved with these films are no longer with us so the bulk of the talking is done by others, but familiar Hammer scholars Jonathan Rigby [who wrote and directed this, and who’s rather too kind to Dracula A. D. 1972 in my opinion but that’s just my opinion!] and Denis Meikle are always a joy to listen to. I had no idea that Christopher Frayling, one of my favourite of the movie experts who often crop up in DVD and Blu-ray special features, was also a Hammer lover, and no less than Joe Dante pops up quite often too. If you’re a film nut like me then you’ll probably agree how lovely it is to see a director you like talk about films you like. And Carlson [one of the many existential questions I grappled with as a younger teenager was who out of the Hammer starlets was ‘preferable’, Veronica Carlson or Barbara Shelley, and I still don’t think I’ve come to a decision], who seems like a really lovely lady, being given the last word leaves you with such a bittersweet feeling of nostalgia.
Of course sadness does begin to creep up and virtually takes centre stage near the end. The documentary is very good in describing how, despite often awkward attempts to keep up, Hammer’s brand of Gothic horror eventually found itself out of date as the genre became more horrifying and more set in the present day, and finishes rather wonderfully with footage from a reading of a script that was never shot called The Unquenchable Thirst Of Dracula. The whole thing is well structured and tight so I guess being selective about what is included has its bonuses as well even if I’m dubious as to the prevailing reason for so much being omitted. If you do decide that it’s worth the cost [bearing in mind how expensive import fees are now], I don’t think you’ll regret biting the bullet if you really do love your Hammer, and seeing as it played on my Blu-ray player without me having to change it to Region ‘A’, it seems to be Region Free too so fans living outside the USA and Canada should have no problem being able to view it.