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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

Hammer Horror Classics, Vol. 1 Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)

The Mummy (1959)

Following the success of Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1956) and Dracula (known in North America as Horror of Dracula, 1958), Hammer Films rebranded itself as England’s home for modernized classic horror stories. Fisher quickly made a sequel to Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) and Hammer struck a deal with Universal that allowed them to officially “remake” the studio’s ‘30s and ‘40s supernatural/Gothic horrors, rather than creating more generic adaptations of the original public domain stories. Plans were made for versions of The Invisible Man and The Phantom of the Opera, but The Mummy would be the first of this new line of Hammer-branded series (Invisible Man was never completed and Phantom of the Opera followed in 1962). Once again Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster were brought on to usher a speedy production through its paces. Surprisingly enough, Sangster’s script was actually based mostly on the sequels to Karl Freund’s 1932 The Mummy, Christy Cabanne’s The Mummy’s Hand (1959), Harold Young’s The Mummy’s Tomb (1940), and Reginald Le Borg’s The Mummy’s Ghost (1944). The mix & match adaptation approach immediately sets Fisher’s movie apart from dozens of other interpretations of John L. Balderston’s Arthur Conan Doyle-inspired killer mummy story. Freund’s film never needed to be remade, but there was certainly room for improvement in those sequels. On the other hand, Sangster’s script ends up pretty fractured between flashbacks and awkwardly connected timelines. Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, and stars Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee shot The Mummy back-to-back with Hound of the Baskervilles and, despite the usual comparisons to Curse of Frankenstein – i.e. Lee playing an undead monster and Cushing playing an aristocrat that is in over his head – I think the Conan Doyle adaptation makes for the better companion piece. The pair share an eerie tone (as opposed to the slightly more abrasive terror of Fisher’s Frankenstein movies) and the foggy, outdoor climaxes are similar. Of course, the (uncomfortably un-PC) Egypt-set scenes have little in common with any of Fisher’s other horror movies.

Trivia: During production, artist Bill Wiggins painted a preview poster for The Mummy in which the title monster has a shaft of light streaming through a gaping hole in his torso. Cushing saw Wiggins’ poster and was afraid that audiences would be disappointed that there was no analogous scene in the movie, so Fisher added a bit where Cushing impaled the Mummy with a harpoon.

Many of the ‘big’ Hammer films have been released on Blu-ray already in different territories. The Mummy was previously released by Icon Home Entertainment/Lionsgate in the UK and included both 1.66:1 and open-matte, 1.37:1 versions of the film. Warner Bros.’ US release skips the open-matte version (fine by me!), opting to stick to the 1.66:1, 1080p transfer alone. I’m told that it is unlikely that Hammer does their scans in-house, but regardless of whoever is taking care of that particular business (possible Studiocanal?), their work seems to be recycled between regions (assuming there is more than one release). This is mostly good news, because all four of the films in this collection more or less match the average WB catalogue re-release HD transfer. The Mummy fronts this package with a sharp image that blows the foggy, compressed DVD versions out of the water. Edges are strong, blacks are solid, and the intricate costumes and background details are tight. However, the exciting detail increase is secondary to the even more impressive boost in color quality. The acrylic gels are much more vibrant (without blooming) and the neutral hues are cleaner, creating more dynamic range for the vivid highlights. Grain levels appear mostly accurate, but, like some of the other UK Hammer discs (including The Mummy, obviously), there are signs of DNR enhancement, which leads to some slightly waxy textures.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono soundtrack is effective enough. The vocal effects are a smidge muffled, the noise reduction has led to some odd volume discrepancies, and the original sound design is sometimes crowded, but the uncompressed qualities ensure there’s very little distortion at high volume levels. Franz Reizenstein’s score is sparingly used, but is quite boisterous whenever action or a good scare are called for. The only extra is a trailer, which is too bad, because the UK disc includes a commentary, five lengthy featurettes, and more.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)

Despite being known for playing the blood-sucking Count on film more times than any actor in history, Christopher Lee did not appear in a second Hammer Dracula role for eight years, when Terence Fisher helped persuade him to don the cape for Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). Even then, Lee hated the script so much that he refused to speak once during the entire film. He still didn’t speak much in Freddie Francis’ direct follow-up, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, but is clearly more enthusiastic in his third appearance as the character, which sits among the top three or four in the series (depending on one’s tolerance for the hippie-dippiness of Dracula A.D. 1972). Producer/screenwriter Anthony Hinds’ script disguises a standard-issue Dracula story with an aura of mystery, witty asides, and a series of colourful protagonists in place of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. However, Monsignor Ernest Mueller (Rupert Davies) still has an awful lot in common with Prince of Darkness’ Father Sandor (Andrew Keir). The minor narrative shortcomings are held in check by Francis’ keen eye and sharp direction. He was probably Hammer’s second most indelible horror filmmaker, behind Fisher. Fisher sort of set the standard, tone, and rules, while Francis, a cinematographer by trade (he won the Cinematography Oscar for Jack Cardiff’s Sons and Lovers in 1960), pushed everything a little further from a photographic standpoint. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave was his final Hammer movie as director (before returning to rival studios Amicus and Tigon) and I’d like to think it is his best, though all of his Hammer work is worth viewing.

The rest of the films in this collection have not, as far as I know, been officially released in any territory on Blu-ray disc, following appearances on HD television. This 1080p, 1.78:1 (slightly reframed from the original 1.85:1 AR) transfer is another extremely colorful upgrade on an already relatively colorful anamorphic DVD release (which was available stateside in a four-movie set with Horror of Dracula, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Dracula A.D. 1972). Francis and cinematographer Arthur Grant set primary and secondary highlights, usually in costumes, against purposefully drab, almost monochromatic backdrops. These hues are quite vivid and rarely bleed into their surroundings. The DVD edition’s blocking effects (usually seen on the edges of the brighter reds) are corrected and the halos surrounding black shapes have been minimized. Details are more consistent than the sometimes fuzzy Mummy disc, which is vital during the super dark sequences (such as Dracula’s rebirth or the breathtaking sequence where characters scale Spanish tiled roofs). Again, grain levels seem natural in parts, but there are many signs of DNR application in the occasionally slick shapes and textures. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack is a step up from The Mummy. The single channel treatment is still a bit cramped, but the noise reduction has been minimized, ensuring that volume levels are steady. James Bernard’s somewhat generic score is rich and loud without any notable distortion.

Once again, the only extra is a trailer.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Even more than the Lee-fronted Dracula movies, the Cushing-fronted Frankenstein movies tend to swirl into a single, somewhat indiscernible whole. Awkward attempts at ongoing continuity, a stiff narrative formula, and general lack of neat ideas make it difficult to remember which movie is which without re-reading the various plot synopses. Following Freddie Francis’ generic, but good-looking The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Terence Fisher made the best and most easily identifiable Hammer Frankenstein movie, Frankenstein Created Woman (1967). It injected new life in the series’ veins and Fisher returned once again for Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed – another good-looking, but ultimately indistinct entry. Two things set it apart. First, it features a particularly tragic version of the monster. In this case, the Baron and his unwitting assistant transfer the brain of an ailing doctor into the body of a mental patient, ruining the lives of both men and their families in the process. Second, it is the most mean-spirited movie in the franchise. Frankenstein is such a sociopathic creep that the famously gracious Cushing was somewhat shamed by the film. It’s too bad, because he’s fantastic in it. I’m not sure anyone has ever acted with his hair as well as Cushing does here. In the most notorious scene, one which has soiled the movie for Cushing and a number of Hammer fans, the Baron rapes the fiancée of the younger doctor that he has already blackmailed into acting as his apprentice (note that the rape scene was originally removed from US cuts, but has been reinstated on home video for years now). Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed sags a bit in the middle, but Fisher and company are in fine form during the opening and closing sequences, which feature some of the most exciting and spectacular footage in the entire Hammer canon. It was all downhill from here. Still, Jimmy Sangster’s The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), a pseudo-remake/parody of Curse of Frankenstein, and Fisher’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), a continuation of this film that borrows a few too many plot points to stand on its own, are still more charming than the worst of the Dracula series.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is presented in 1080p, 1.78:1 (reframed from the 1.85:1 TAR) HD video. This is another Blu-ray debut, though, again, I believe the same scan was made available for HD television broadcasts. It’s a perfectly strong transfer with more natural grain texture than the previous transfers. Fisher and cinematographer Arthur Grant’s use of unusual color highlights (especially greens and reds) remains the key component. The image here has some issues with the color strips lining up (a pretty common problem for Technicolor releases) and the grading skews a bit warm. This leads to some orange skin tones and a sort of yellowish overall tint, but the hues are quite vivid and nicely separated. Black levels are deep with only minimal pooling and dark edges are well-defined with only minimal haloes. Details are about as neatly separated as the ones on the Mummy disc, which is a boon for the gloriously ornate laboratory sequences. This DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono soundtrack is another ‘good as we can expect’ uncompressed presentation. Overall volume levels are a touch quieter than the Risen from the Grave disc, but not as muffled and flat as the Mummy. There are plenty of high volume moments (screaming mental patients, rattling lab equipment, blazing fire) that don’t cause any notable distortion effects. James Bernard’s score follows similar themes that were already established for earlier entries, but, when he’s given a chance to cut loose (the opening titles, for example), the music is perfectly bombastic.

As before, the only extra is a trailer.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

This collection (which is labeled as part one, even though a second Hammer Horror collection never came from Warner Bros.) comes to an end with one of the best entries in the studio’s long-running Dracula series, Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula. Taste the Blood of Dracula was released only six months before Roy Ward Baker’s Scars of Dracula. Baker’s film was a direct sequel, but Taste the Blood of Dracula wasn’t planned as a two-parter, so it stands just fine on its own. Scars, on the other hand, was clearly thrown together late in the game and ended up being the most slapdash entry in the series (and arguably the worst, alongside The Satanic Rites of Dracula, 1973). Taste the Blood of Dracula was meant to appeal to younger audiences, as would most of the studio’s horror movies following the start of the ‘70s (Dracula’s adventures were soon overshadowed by the super-sexual, lesbian-themed Karnstein movies The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil). Due to behind-the-scenes turmoil, screenwriter Anthony Hinds had been instructed to write a script that didn’t require Christopher Lee’s as the title character, so his part is notably small (he appears for the first time 45 minutes into the film). Fortunately, this only magnifies his impact. The plot and general lack of Lee was somewhat repeated in the definitively more groovy A.D. 1972. I prefer the follow-up, but have to admit that Hammer’s teen-baiting fits their established mode better here (especially the whole hypocritical puritan parent angle). Taste the Blood of Dracula was Sasdy’s feature debut following a long stint in television. He brings a lively and, at times, almost parodic contemporary style to the production. At his best, he modernizes Terence Fisher house with handheld cameras and zooms, but isn’t quite up to the expressionistic standard of Freddie Francis. Sasdy’s Hammer follow-ups included the mostly dull Countess Dracula (1971) and the underrated Hands of the Ripper (1972). He also directed a goofy adaptation of the British TV series Doomwatch (1972) for rival studio Tigon and a fantastic Nigel Kneale (creator of the Quatermass series) TV movie called The Stone Tape.

Taste the Blood of Dracula’s Blu-ray debut is another strong 1.78:1 (reframed from the 1.85:1 TAR), 1080p transfer. Overall detail and clarity is a slight step down from Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, but probably the second best in the set, especially in terms of close-up textures. Arthur Grant’s smokey photography occasionally muddies up some of the otherwise clean blacks, but the highlights and gradations are perfectly subtle. Hot spots and over-sharpening effects are not an issue. This transfer has the fewest signs of DNR tampering, as well. Grain levels are relatively consistent and fine without major clumping or sudden disappearances in frequency. However, like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the image appears to have been re-color timed to match modern standards. The whole image is slightly warmer than previous versions, leading to more of those slightly orange skin tones and yellow tinting during daylight scenes. Slightly suspicious calibration aside, the colors are quite vivid, homogenized, and sharply separated, minus the minor bleeding and edge haloes of some of the other films in this set. Despite the ‘yellowing,’ reds and blues are quite brilliant. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono soundtrack is tight and perfectly clear. The dialogue and incidental effects aren’t muffled or tinny and the minimalist off-screen effects work blends neatly into the mix. There are no pops, crackles, or high end distortions to speak of, even when James Bernard’s music is blasting at full volume.

And the only extra is still a mere trailer.

The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.



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