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Hammer, We Hardly Knew Ye
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I’m sure all you boils and ghouls remember the very first time you saw Peter Cushing swing across the screen in Brides of Dracula. Perhaps, you felt a twinge in your stomach when you saw Christopher Lee show his fangs for the first time in Horror of Dracula. Or maybe you just couldn’t help to be swept into the atmosphere of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Regardless, there is a certain feeling you expect to generate while watching the typical Hammer horror. To the classic horror fan, Hammer is to horror as plastic is the Michael Jackson’s nose. However, there is a whole other side the Hammer in which few classic horror fans venture to. While their horror films are what gave them their reputation, Hammer did many other films in the adventure, comedy, and action vein. This article was written to introduce you, my evil eyed viewer, into this rarely ventured side of our beloved Hammer Studios.
It seems, more often than not, Hammer often collaborated with another studio when making its non-horror movies. Hammer did a line of comedy movies based on the British hit, "On the Buses" which was basically about (you guessed it) a bus driver and his conductor. The plot was usually centered around Inspector Blake who’s major goal is to make the bus drivers’ lives absolutely hellish. While Hammer had no input in the show, they did do three movies about the series. The first, called appropriately, On the Buses, was made in 1971. This one was pretty much a movie-long episode of the show, but it truly is British comedy at its best. Mutiny on the Buses was released in 1972, and seems to be accepted as the best in the series (and perhaps better than the show) with a particular emphasis on the series most loved "villain" Inspector Blake. Holiday on the Buses was made in 1973, and in general was a flop as it came out just as the series was ending. I saw this one fairly recently, and it is in no way as sharp as the previous two movies. In fact, it was pretty apparent that the series was ending soon as the actors seemed to be apathetic through the whole movie.
After On the Buses closed, Hammer jumped on the bandwagon of another tv series named "Man About the House". The series was quite controversial, as it was about a single man living with two single girls. This television show inspired the American version of the show, "Three’s Company." Hammer made one movie for the series titled (you guessed it) Man About the House, which was more of a spin-off than anything. The movie was classic British comedy at points, but in my humble opinion, does not hold up to the original television show at all. Unlike "On the Buses", Hammer did only one movie for "Man About the House" for the series only had a 3 season run.
For the most part, Hammer only dabbled in comedy periodically, which was definitely a good thing. The Hammer comedies I’ve seen have been mediocre, and very forgettable. The one I did enjoy was Someone at the Door, which was a remake of the 1936 version of the film with the same title. It is classified as a comedy/thriller and it does deliver. The basic plot is that a brother and sister move back into their childhood home and try to launch the brother’s writing career by faking the sisters death. Of course everything gets botched up by a gang of jewel thieves who try to rob the home at the same time all this is going on. The film is short but sweet (running 65 minutes in length) and definitely worth viewing on a boring rainy day. It is available at moviesunlimited.com
This genre proved to be a little more successful for Hammer than comedy, and rightfully so. With the recent release of the widescreen Hammer Films Collection often found priced below $10 a video, Hammer horror fans were exposed to one of the first widespread video releases of the Hammer Adventure movies, called A Challenge for Robin Hood. Though obviously done on a strict budget (like ALL Hammer films), it was executed beautifully. The story had plenty of twists on the classic Robin Hood story. Pretty much all the normal Robin Hood characters are there, but this time, Robin Hood and his gang are Norman noblemen. The action never ceases and in my humble opinion, is a great way to spend 92 minutes.
Even prior to A Challenge for Robin Hood, Hammer created Men of Sherwood Forest, which was Hammer’s first color feature. It is a rather exciting film with Robin Hood and his Merry Men trying to rescue King Richard who is locked away in Germany. As it exciting as it was, the cream of the crop of all the Robin Hood movies was The Sword of Sherwood Forest directed by Terence Fisher, who is perhaps the best director Hammer ever produced. The action is riveting and your eyes are literally attached to the screen. Unfortunately, its probably the hardest of all the Hammer Robin Hood flicks to find.
Hammer also did a plethora of "feminist" adventure films in which the basic concept was that "Women rule. Men suck. Women must kill men for no apparent reason except that they suck." Such is the case with The Viking Queen, Prehistoric Women, and The Vengeance of She. As hopelessly dated these movies are, they are wildly entertaining and available in the Hammer Films Collection.
I couldn’t even think about writing this article if I failed to mentioned the Blood Island series. Camp on Blood Island is the most elusive, yet most sought after Hammer film on the market (and I got it - nananananana!). I can’t even remember if this ever had an American release. This movie is set at the closing of WWII, where many prisoners are trapped (due the Japanese invasion) in the Blood Island concentration camp. The sadistic leader is sure to murder them all, until a Dutchman named (who guessed it?) Dutch, plans on training the prisoners to fight. Disturbing and realistic, this film is top notch. This is wonderfully paired with The Secret of Blood Island. I go out on a limb by saying these two films are Hammer at is darkest best. The best place to get them is videoscreams.com. They are only $10 for a fairly decent dub.
Finally, no rant on Hammer adventure would be complete without a little shout out to the movie One Billion Years B.C. For the women, it is a good story with a strong female character and lots of adventure. For the men, it star Racquel Welch (nuff said?).
Hammer Cop Flicks
Most Hammer fans have heard of the Dick Barton flicks, yet few have seen them. Let’s keep it that way, ok? These films done in the early years of Hammer were funny to a fault. While I expect most older movies to be somewhat overacted, these films are pathetically so. Yet, with all this against them, they are worth seeing - ONCE. Typical cheesy acting, and cop stereotypes make them worthwhile to see (preferably with a bunch of friends who love to make comments at movies). They are considered cult flicks (though the cult must be pretty small as no one has made any comments on the movies at the Internet Movie Database). A series in the late 70’s called Dick Barton: Special Agent premiered which was loosely (VERY loosely) based on the Dick Barton film Hammer made with a similar name. However, Hammer had nothing to do with the show and it only ran one year.
The one film I really did enjoy by Hammer that was along these lines was Shatter. It was done like a poor-man’s James Bond but with a lot more Kung Fu. This was also Peter Cushing’s last appearance with Hammer (which is why it made it In the Hammer Film Collection). While its no Dr. No, it does deliver the goods. The whole plot of the movie centered around a drug lord, and Peter Cushing was the (very elderly) British secret agent. This is not all that hard to find, and worth at least a one time view.
Brief Comment on Hammer Sci-fi
I will keep this short because most of Hammer’s sci-fi is pretty available (especially the Quartermass series) and there is really no defining line between horror and sci fi in most of Hammer movies. Therefore, I won‘t review them here.
If you have ever had the urge to see a British version of Planet of the Vampires, then see Hammer’s Moon Zero Two. You will be shocked at how similar the costumes and the sets are in it. This movie is the Hammer at its worst. It is pretty much only worth viewing for the really cool cartoon in the opening credits.
It is no secret that Hammer’s horror was sometimes hit and miss. With classics like Brides of Dracula, Horror of Dracula, and The Curse of the Werewolf, its easy to see how movies like Dr. Jeckyl and Sister Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, and the tail end of the Dracula and Frankenstein series seem slow moving and unoriginal. I’ve always said that Hammer was the most unpredictable studio, but the horror was probably the most consistent with about 70% being "hits" and 30% being "misses". With this consistency, its easy to see how the other genres (which had a 50/50 hit/miss rate, at best) were overshadowed. My advice? If you are a true film guru, then by all means aim for being a Hammer completeist. If you are a curious ghoul, then search for some of the select flicks I’ve mentioned here. However, if you are a "horror or the highway" cyclops, then forget every movie I mentioned here and stick only to those horror flicks that say "Hammer Horror Collection" on the box.