R.A.H. (againstathorn) wrote,

Finishing Up That Hammer Box Set …

So over the past few weeks I’ve slowly been making my way through that Hammer box set I purchased last month, and this morning I finally finished the last movie! Behind the cut is a list of those remaining films followed by some short write ups.

Plague of the Zombies (1966)
One Million Years B.C. (1966)
Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)
Prehistoric Women (1967)
Horror of Frankenstein (1970)
She (1965)
Vengeance of She (1968)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Scars of Dracula (1970)

While Hammer generously supplied sequels to their Dracula and Frankenstein films, Plague of the Zombies was surprisingly the studio’s only zombie outing. Coming two years before Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead bludgeoned viewers with shocking amounts of gore in stark black & white, Plague starts off as a relatively laid back affair, taking place within colorful English interiors and allowing its characters plenty of time become acquainted. Up until the last 20 minutes, Plague is actually low on both action and gore, operating as more mystery than horror, and there are only to major scenes when the zombies close in—one of which turns out to be a dream. However, the finale churns out more than enough zombie mayhem to satisfy viewers, although it’s fairly subdued compared to the films of Romero and Fulci. These zombies don’t want to feast on brains, but judging by their working conditions they could really use a Labor Union. As with most early zombie films, the walking dead in Plague are derived from voodoo and black magic, not radiation or religious apocalypse. Refreshingly, this film is also absent of the sort of blatant social commentary which would later become a hallmark of the genre.

The popularity of One Million Years B.C. seems split between the special effects of Ray Harryhausen and the animal-skin bikini worn by Raquel Welch. The opening scene introduces a savage tribe as they coldly abandon a wounded elder—such is the harsh life of early man—thereby setting a bleak tone for the story, but as soon as the stop-motion creatures make their debut, it’s all camp from there on out. If this is your sort of thing, then you’ll undoubtedly enjoy One Million Years B.C. as a fun, visually rich adventure film. The plot involving sibling rivalries and tribal quarrels functions adequately enough to serve up shots of fighting dinosaurs and scantily-clad blondes. If anything, please try not to contemplate the absurdity of the situation as our hero is rescued from a giant turtle by an entourage of gorgeous women, all clothed in bikinis and armed with spears. By this today’s standards, this might even be considered family friendly.

Imagine by enthusiasm when I discovered that Hammer’s film on Rasputin starred none other than Christopher Lee as the legendary “Mad Monk.” This is a role which a required both presence and dramatic range, and Lee was the perfect actor to pull it off. Of course Rasputin: The Mad Monk is far from an accurate historical account on the mysterious man who served as a mystic under the Nicholas II, and this largely fictionalize story seems based on only his most notorious attributes, namely drinking, faith healing, and taking forever to die. Oh, and he certainly has a way with women. That intense stare seems to have a hypnotic power they cannot resist. Just don’t make fun of his wild dancing or else he’ll publicly call you out to apologize in private. This is a very serious man, indeed. Anyway, Rasputin succeeds at entertainment, but if not for Lee it would’ve been completely forgettable.

Believe it or not, Prehistoric Women makes One Million Years B.C. look like high-art. Apparently Hammer gathered leftover sets and costumes from their other adventure films and then rushed together a screenplay to produce this shameless guilty pleasure. A British explorer on African safari is apprehended by a primitive tribe who worship The White Rhino. Right as they are about to put him to death, he is suddenly transported to a jungle paradise occupied by numerous scantily-clad women, the leader of which rules over all those beneath her as slaves. Those who disobey are bound to some sort of cast representing the White Rhino and sacrificed, or something. Anyway, the women are all very beautiful, which is the only why someone would want to watch this. The story is so simple I’m sure one could probably follow the movie with the volume off. In fact I might offer that as a recommendation to prospective viewers.

When I heard Horror of Frankenstein was a comedy, I cringed thinking it would be some sort of slapstick outing. However this turned out to be much more subdued than I anticipated. In fact, its comedic elements don’t come off as any more ridiculous than what transpires in a typical Hammer film. Written and directed by Jimmy Sangster, Horror is more tongue-in-cheek than outright funny. It moves along at a brisk pace with tiny jabs of macabre humor. This is the only Frankenstein feature by Hammer which is absent of Cushing, as it required a younger actor to play the Baron, but Ralph Bates does a serviceable job. As a remake of Curse of Frankenstein, it offers a fresh approach to the series. Recommended.

Next we have She, an epic fantasy offering many elaborate sets and beautiful cinematography. The story is solid, providing a satisfying mix of drama, action, and ambiguity, and overall the movie delivers exactly what one would expect from the genre. A young man played by John Richardson embarks on a journey to find the lost city of Kuma, ruled by the immortal queen Ayesha. It is revealed that this man is actually the reincarnation of Ayesha’s former lover, Kallikrates, and she urges him to unite with her in the blue flame which will make them both immortal. Eventually this comes to fore, though for reasons I don’t understand Ayesha suddenly grows very old and dies, leaving Kallikrates immortal and alone in Kuma.

With the tremendous success of She, there was of course a sequel, Vengeance of She, which didn’t fare as well. For starters, the production is modest compared to its predecessor, and the opening scenes take place on French Riviera and has a distinctly 60s feel. The story, from what I was able to understand, involves a young woman who finds herself possessed by the spirit of Ayesha. Kallikrates, still in the city of Kuma, wishes to be reunited with his deceased love and lures the young woman to his domain. This is actually not a bad follow up to She, but the Riviera scenes combined with the Kuma stuff makes for a very uneven film. Two things make this mediocre follow up tolerable—gorgeous actress Olga Schoberová as Ayesha and the haunting musical theme which I still can’t get out of my head.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness strikes me as one of Hammer’s more confident Dracula efforts alongside Horror of Dracula. Before the grand entrance of the fanged-one himself around the 30 minute mark, Prince spent plenty of time on exposition, introducing a group of weary tourists who foolishly ignored warnings from the locals not to enter the dreaded castle over the hill. As one would expect, the castle hosts many gothic interiors which are a treat for the eye and provide a perfect setting for the cryptic events which will later transpire. There’s no Van Helsing here but we do have a local priest on hand to help combat the Count. This is all pretty standard fare, but it’s executed so well that there’s plenty to admire within each scene. Oh yeah, and the Dracula-on-ice finale marks one of the most memorable moments from the series.

Scars of Dracula was Hammer’s last traditional outing with the Count before attempting to remake the wheel with Dracula A.D. 1972. In contrast to Prince, Scars immediately opens with a shot of Dracula grinning in his coffin, after which the nastiness promptly begins. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does exemplify how Hammer was aware of audience’s waning interest in the Count and were eager to provide more action and mayhem. Early on the story introduces a thoroughly unlikable young man whom we follow to Dracula’s castle where he meets a predictable, if not deserving, fate. His friends go out searching for him (Lord knows why) and after discovering the occurrences at the castle they seek the aid of the local villagers to put an end to Dracula for good. I actually really enjoyed this installment—you know, for all the usual Hammer reasons—though I admit it didn’t really bring anything new to the table.

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