One of my favorite things to do when October rolls around is re-watch several horror films by Hammer Films from the late-50s to the mid-70s. Their films had a specific look and temperament all their own, and made stars out of people like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The problem with being a fan here in the United States is that, with a few notable exceptions, the best movies in the cycle never made their way to Blu-ray.
Now, fans and collectors can check off four films coming to HD disc form in this country for the first time, thanks to a new box set from Warner Bros. Dubbed “Horror Classics Volume 1.” The set compiles some otherwise hard-to-find films among the first DVDs Warner put out (they were in those cardboard clip cases, if you remember them). Let me tell you what you get!
The Mummy (1959)
Following the massive international hits of The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula in 1957 and 1958, respectively, Hammer decided to adapt yet another Universal horror classic, without getting too close to the source material. Luckily in this case, there was no famous Gothic novel be faithful to, and instead writer Jimmy Sangster was able to go for it. Peter Cushing plays an English archaeologist part of an expedition, along with his father and uncle, to unearth a specific and long-lost crypt of an Egyptian mummy. Despite warnings from some locals, a seal is broken, which drives the father mad. What do you ya know? This was a cursed place and the mummy inside (played again by a mostly-full-of-makeup Lee) comes alive, looking for the reincarnation of his lost love while destroying anyone in his way. The great Terence Fisher directed and it had lots of nice studio-for-outside shots. I’m also impressed that they were able to cover Lee in makeup yet still make it very clear that he’s the one behind it.
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
We jump forward a decade to the fourth Dracula movie, and the third to star Lee as the eponymous vampire count. Following 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness, which Lee requested to play silently, he returned to once again menace the people of the village who had the bad fortune of being near Castle Dracula. In this one, Lee has lines again, which is for the best because he’s the best part of the movie. A Monsignor (Rupert Davies) attempts to keep Dracula’s castle closed forever, without realizing Dracula didn’t die in the castle in the last one. After the blood of a frightened priest falls on his frozen lips, Dracula (say it with me) rises from the grave, determined to seduce and corrupt the Monsignor’s comely niece (Veronica Carlson). Director by Freddie Francis, who directed several horror films in the era, would go on to win a best cinematography Oscar for Glory.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
The second-to-last of Cushing’s performances as the titular mad scientist, by this point in the franchise, they sort of ran out of things for him to do. I mean, this one did follow immediately after Frankenstein Created Woman, after all. Here, Frankenstein is hiding out in a manor house next to an insane asylum. He’s posing as a psychologist to get close to the lunatics (he still is concerned in “brain research,” after all). One of the lunatics is a former colleague of his whose brain is slowly dying from lack of oxygen. As a way to save his friend, Frankenstein blackmails some young lovers who are stealing laudanum from the asylum into helping him place his friend’s brain in the body of a new creature. Naturally, he’s not too happy about it, and a lot of destruction ensues.
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Finally, we have what is arguably the very last of the good Dracula movies (they made four more…). After being defeated in the last film, a group of wealthy pleasure-seeking playboys start what amounts to a blood orgy cult and decide the ultimate thrill would be to drink the blood of the dead vampire count. This isn’t the best idea, and the red-eyed Prince of Darkness rises yet again (NEVER do the incantations wrong) and causes a ruckus in the town. Directed by Peter Sasdy, this movie, if you’re interested in such things, is one of the first in Hammer’s new model of upping the blood and sex. Worth noting, Risen from the Grave received a G rating, Taste the Blood was a hard R.
Now, as I said, it’s great that all of these movies are now available on Blu-ray here in the United States. All four of the films look and sound excellent, and the richness and film grain in these movies stands out beautifully. It’s a pleasure to watch all four of them. The disappointment here is that there is absolutely nothing in the way of special features or extras.
In the UK, Hammer Films along with Studio Canal released most of the movies in excellent and lavish editions with commentary, documentaries, featurettes, and loads of other goodies. There was hope that these would be ported over into the North American market, but only Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Frankenstein Created Woman made it. That’s likely because they were owned by a company other than Warner. Warner Bros. owns the U.S. distribution rights to the majority of the Hammer catalog and evidently didn’t see fit to worry about giving any extras. A shame, I think.
So, while I think these movies are all worth having, and I’m happy I now own them at this quality, they might not be worth the $50 suggested retail price. On the other hand, that’s only $12 per movie, so that’s not too bad.
Horror Classics Volume 1 and the individual titles are in stores today.
Image: Hammer Films/Warner Bros
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!