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Hammer Horror Films On Turner Classic Movies

by j.d. lafrance

For aficionados of the horror genre, it's Christmas time and Turner Classic Movies is bringing home the presents. Every Sunday night in October, TCM is showing two Hammer horror classics, beautifully restored, and shown in their original aspect ratios (a.k.a. widescreen). Hammer is best known for revitalizing and reinventing the horror genre during the '50s and '60s with a series of stylish takes on Dracula, Frankenstein and other staples of the genre.

Of late, TCM is diversifying not only the films they are showing but also the style in which they are being shown. For example, every Monday this month, hip clothing designers are introducing fashionable films that defined their decades. For horror film buffs, TCM is bringing back the '70s trend of showing a horror double bill on the weekends.

TCM kicked off their Halloween celebration on the first Sunday of the month with a classic creature double feature, The Mummy (1959) and The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Both films feature Hammer regulars, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The Mummy is surprisingly free of the kind of blood and gore that Hammer films were associated with while The Curse of Frankenstein gives the classic Mary Shelly story a twist by portraying Doctor Frankenstein (Cushing) as a truly evil man that stops at nothing to achieve his nefarious goals.

Last Sunday, TCM delivered a double hit of the legendary Christopher Lee essaying one of his most famous roles, Dracula, with Horror of Dracula (1958) and Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966). The former presents the classic face-off between Lee and Cushing as the legendary vampire hunter, Van Helsing. The latter sees Lee going it alone as a more animalistic Dracula who never says a word throughout the entire picture (Lee has said that the script was so bad that he refused to utter any of it!).

TCM are saving the best presents for last. On October 26th, they are showing The Devil's Bride (a.k.a. The Devil Rides Out) and The Devil's Own (a.k.a. The Witches). Based on the novel by Dennis Weatley, The Devil's Bride (1968) features Christopher Lee and Leon Greene as old friends who visit a friend (Patrick Mower) at his mansion where he is hosting a party of rich socialites. Lee and Greene sense that something is off about this "meeting of a little astronomical society" and it becomes readily apparent that their friend is under the influence of a Satanic cult led by Charles Gray.

Lee is cast against type as a thoughtful protagonist who relies on his wits and his extensive knowledge of the occult to battle the forces of evil. Greene is the square sidekick to Lee's suave protagonist--the brown suited stuffy Dr. Watson to Lee's black suited, European cigarette smoking Sherlock Holmes. The Devil's Bride is vintage Hammer horror as evident from Lee's top notch acting, Terence Fisher's superb straightforward direction, and James Bernard's atmospheric score.

The Devil's Own (1966) features one of the most exciting openings in any Hammer film. Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) is a schoolteacher in a small African village that is suddenly terrorized by the local witchdoctor and suffers a nervous breakdown. The atmosphere of fear in this scene is quite tangible. The rest of the film plays out in England as Gwen becomes the headmistress at a private school that may actually be a cover for a coven of witches.

The film features a strong performance by Fontaine (her last one before she retired from the business) who initiated the project when she bought the rights to Peter Curtis' novel and brought the book to the attention of the folks at Hammer. Her portrayal of Gwen is rooted in reality which puts the more fantastical elements into perspective.

In an age where studio created horror films favor flashy computer generated special effects over a strong story and good dialogue, the Hammer horror films are breath of fresh air. While some of the films come across as slightly cheesy and a tad dated, the best of the bunch contain richly textured atmosphere, strong performances and engaging stories.

While Robert Osbourne is introducing each movie, TCM's website contains detailed reviews and an excellent overview of the Hammer studio by Bret Wood.

Issue 16, October 2003

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