Saturday, February 27, 2016


Freddie Francis, 1964
Starring: David Knight, Moira Redmond, Jennie Linden

A disturbed young woman, Janet, is sent home from boarding school after her nightmares — really memories of her father murdering her mother when she was a child — become uncontrollable. She is sent to her family home and put under the care of her guardian, Henry Baxter, the family attorney, and a pretty young nurse. Janet’s dreams begin to involve a woman with a scar on her face and a birthday cake — which culminates in a fateful birthday celebration, where Janet meets Baxter’s wife and is unable to control her violent impulses.

Nightmare falls roughly in the middle of Hammer’s of suspense films penned by their finest screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, and follows a loosely similar pattern to his earlier efforts like Taste of Fear (1961), Maniac (1963), and Paranoiac (1963), in the sense that each of these films is centered on an unstable damsel in distress. Once you’ve seen a few of these, the formula is clear: a tormented young woman is admittedly a little off her rocker, but is being pushed, violently, towards the brink of hysteria by some unknown antagonist. Much like Psycho Nightmare’s most obvious influence — the film’s focus shifts about halfway through. Of course there’s a key twist, and as in all of these Hammer suspense films, it’s one that you can guess from pretty early on in the film, but doesn’t end exactly the way you’d expect. 

Thanks to Freddie Francis — cinematographer on The Innocents, The Elephant Man, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman and director of horror films like The Skull, The Psychopath, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Girly, Tales from the Crypt, and Tales That Witness Madness, among many morethis is one of the better directed entries in Hammer’s suspense series. There’s some dread-inducing black and white cinematography from DP John Wilcox, Francis’s regular collaborator. Francis makes Janet’s nightmares seem real, particularly in the film’s early scenes, and his directorial work emphasizes the wonderful blend of themes in Sangster’s script that include ghosts, nightmares, madness, and murder.

The reemergence of past, often childhood or family-related trauma is one of my favorite cinematic themes; another is the home as a place of terror. While these are often used in the earlier film noir movement or somewhat later giallo film subgenre, they don’t turn up very often in Hammer films. Nightmare, thankfully, has them both and makes use of these tropes in spades — in a strange way, it feels like the stepping stone between Gaslight (1944) and Deep Red (1975), which might be an odd comparison to make, but I can’t help and wonder if Argento saw this film. And like Deep Red, Nightmare has some subtle, possibly unintentional holiday themes; the wintry setting is particularly unusual for Hammer, but is lovely and leaves behind an enhanced sense of Janet’s profound emotional isolation.

The film’s hilarious original title was allegedly Here's the Knife, Dear: Now Use It, and while it never quite this campy, I wish a bit more had been done with Janet’s hysteria. Janet’s attempts to seduce her guardian — who she realizes she is in love with — and equally hysterical suicide attempts are waking acts that don’t quite measure up to her nightmares, but fortunately Sangster and Francis leave it it’s unclear if Janet is insane or, as in some of Sangster’s earlier suspense efforts, if what she is seeng is real, part of some malicious conspiracy against her.

Nightmare really benefits from some strong lead performances, particularly the sweet-looking Jennie Linden (Women in Love) as Janet. She apparently replaced Julie Christie (!), who wisely withdrew to appear in Billy Liar. Theater actor David Knight capably costars as her guardian, Henry, while the film really belongs to Moira Redmond (A Shot in the Dark) as Janet’s nurse. Keep an eye out for Peeping Tom’s Brenda Bruce as Janet’s sympathetic teacher and Clytie Jessop (The Innocents), who has an unsettling cameo as the woman from Janet’s nightmares. 

Nightmare might not be the best of these Hammer suspense films — that honor goes to Paranoiac — but this is a solid entry in the series and is well worth watching. Sadly it’s a bit hard to get ahold of for home viewing, but you can pick up the Italian DVD, at least until someone comes along and releases a deluxe Blu-ray box set of all these Sangster suspense titles. It’s definitely proof that the studio could carry on capably without either Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee to keep them afloat. 

Friday, February 26, 2016


Michael Carreras, 1963
Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Nadia Gray, Liliane Brousse, Donald Houston

While traveling through France, American painter Jeff Farrell breaks up with his girlfriend and winds up staying in a countryside inn owned by a beautiful woman, Eve, and her equally lovely stepdaughter, Annette. Jeff has some trouble warming up the two women, because of a locally infamous event that keeps them isolated. Years before, Annette was raped by an area man and her father got violent revenge, killing him with a blowtorch. He has since been imprisoned in an asylum and — after Eve steals Jeff away from Annette and takes him as her lover — she convinces Jeff to help her break her estranged husband out of the hospital… but her intentions are not all that they seem.

Just one in a series of Hammer suspense films from their most consistent screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, The Maniac boasts some typically enjoyable twists and diverges from Hammer’s standard formula of colorful Gothic horror films set in Victorian times and chock full of vivid blood and plunging necklines. This more sedate, understated effort is in keeping with the other suspense films in Sangster’s series in the sense that it was shot in black and white and makes the most of a contemporary, seaside setting like almost all of Sangster’s curiously European-flavored crime thrillers from the ‘60s. This stands out a little because there are a number of French extras and side actors in the film, the opening sequence is shot entirely in French, and the two primary actresses have thick, appealing accents.

The Maniac’s director, Michael Carreras, was actually more often in the role of producer for Hammer and his few directorial efforts are a mixed bag, such as The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, with most falling under the fantasy/action umbrella rather than horror, such as The Lost Continent. I can’t say that The Maniac is one of the studio’s best films, particularly from a directorial standpoint, but it has a certain charm and makes use of a rural French setting with actual locations in southern France. Unlike the other films in the suspense series, it makes use of plenty of exploitation, horror, and film noir elements. There’s a particularly surprising opening sequence for Hammer, where a young girl is raped — albeit offscreen — and her father kills the perpetrator… with a blow-torch.

Like some of the earlier suspense films, this is clearly in the same tradition as the groundbreaking Psycho (1960), but even more so, Clouzot’s suspense masterpiece Les diaboliques (1955). Sangster seems to have been particularly absorbed by the latter — and why shouldn’t he, it’s amazing — and this has some of the same themes: a romantic threesome involving a violent husband, a weak and impressionable female character, and a dead body sunk into water that later reappears. Like Les diaboliques, the center twist revolves around one character telling another a series of facts that wind up not to be true, facts also readily absorbed by the audience. I’m going to avoid spoilers this time around, but the closing act’s strength lies in a number of tightly wound twists, most of which are unveiled in the last ten minutes. And, unlike most other Hammer films, the police have a surprisingly large role in the film’s series of deceptions, neatly sidestepping any need for concluding exposition.

Though Hammer’s major stars are absent from this production, there are some decent performances. Lead Kerwin Matthews has sort of a gruff, Americanized look in the same vein as Alain Delon — though of course nowhere near as ravishing — and at this point he was hoping to expand his career beyond The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Romanian actress Nadia Gray (La dolce vita) steals the film as Eve, the sultry stepmother who whisks Jeff away from her own stepdaughter, played by French actress Liliane Brousse. Though she barely had an acting career, she did appear in two Hammer films (this and Paranoiac), but is disappointingly flat as the innocent Annette. I’d like her to have at least tried to reach a more convincing depth of hysteria, as she is abused plenty throughout the film. She’s not even mad when her stepmother steals her boyfriend, which pretty much made all my sympathy for her go out the window. Hammer had something of a problem with these milquetoast damsels in distress who could do literally nothing for themselves other than squeal or seem mildly outraged.

I don’t know if I would recommend The Maniac, but it is definitely entertaining for suspense enthusiasts. You can find it on DVD in the Icons of Suspense collection alongside Stop Me Before I Kill!, Cash on Demand, The Snorkel, Never Take Candy from a Stranger, and These Are the Damned. The main problem with the film is that certain key sequences are missing — not in the sense that the film has been lost, but that they were simply never filmed in the first place — such as the scene where Eve’s husband escapes from jail and another where she and Jeff must dispose of a body. Granted I was a little tired while watching the film, but some quick cuts made it necessary for me to go back and watch two or three scenes so that I could be really sure of what happened. A little sloppy, but overall not a big deal if you’re looking for some stylish suspense popcorn.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Freddie Francis, 1963
Starring: Oliver Reed, Janette Scott, Sheila Burrell, Alexander Davion

Wealthy siblings Simon and Eleanor Ashby live an isolated existence in the family estate with their Aunt Harriet and a few servants. Neither sibling has recovered from the deaths of their parents in a plane crash or the subsequent suicide of their older brother, Anthony. An out of control alcoholic, Simon tries to drive the depressed Eleanor insane, but must wait until he is entirely of age to inherit the family fortune. Unfortunately for Simon, a man shows up claiming to be the long lost Tony. Eleanor falls hard for him and is nearly driven to suicide by her incestuous desire, while Simon pretends to be sympathetic, but silently plots Tony’s death.

Out of all writer Jimmy Sangster’s suspense films for Hammer — including titles like Maniac (1963), Nightmare (1964), Hysteria (1965), and The Nanny (1965) — this film based on Josephine Tey’s 1949 novel Brat Farrar is my absolute favorite of the bunch. This is likely due to a young Oliver Reed in the starring role as the totally bonkers Simon. The character starts the film as a sort of parody of Reed himself (or at least what Reed would later become) — raising hell, driving like a maniac, seducing women, and drinking wildly — but eventually twists into a fascinating, very ‘60s version of the charismatic yet raving Gothic villain more often seen in Hammer’s colorful horror films with Victorian, rather than contemporary settings. 

And that’s another one of my favorite things about Paranoiac: despite the fact that it is definitely a suspense film and not a horror offering — and has a contemporary setting — it’s one of the finest examples of Gothic melodrama in all of ‘60s cinema. The opulent family estate might as well be Otranto’s ghost-ridden castle and there’s — incredibly — even a family chapel where Eleanor hears phantom organ music at night. The grounds are heavy with the psychological specter of dead parents and family trauma, there’s more than a hint of incest, and the almost constant threat/reminder of suicide. Like some of Hammer’s other suspense films, seaside cliffs factor into not only the visual world, but into the plot as well.

Speaking of plot, it’s pleasantly nuts and hits some of the notes you would maybe expect — such as murder for profit and family trauma — but also has plenty of pleasant surprises. SPOILERS: It’s revealed that Simon has become completely unhinged because he actually murdered Tony all those years ago and forged the suicide note. The real Tony’s body has mummified in the family chapel and Simon regularly enacts a strange ritual — playing organ music to accompany a recording of Tony singing, while a cloaked, masked figure stands nearby with a meathook (!) — to preserve the shreds of his sanity. But the fake Tony’s emergence has caused him to have a full mental breakdown. This pushes him over the edge and he attempts to kill Tony and Eleanor, and succeeds in a killing a few others.

This is yet another case of every character — except the fragile, unstable Eleanor (played by a sort of forgettable, though well cast Janette Scott from The Day of the Triffids) — being absolutely terrible. Alexander Davion (Valley of the Dolls, Plague of the Zombies) is remote but compelling as “Tony,” though of course he winds up being an imposter so Eleanor isn’t stuck falling in love with her brother and so that he can rescue the damsel in distress. The family lawyer’s son — who wanted to steal the Ashby fortune — has hired the fake Tony, a con artist, but his feelings for Eleanor force him to come to her aid.

Fast paced and chock full of red herrings, tightly wound suspense, and some spectacular scenery chewing from Oliver Reed, Paranoiac comes recommended, particularly for those who appreciate unusual thrillers. It’s fortunately available on Blu-ray, and should especially appeal to those critical of Hammer’s reliance on colorful Gothic horror. This is an early example of the assured work of director Freddie Francis, who got his start as a cinematographer on films like The Innocents — which Paranoiac look astonishingly like thanks to great camera work from Hammer regular Arthur Grant — and Night Must Fall before progressing to The French Lieutenant’s Woman and work with David Lynch like The Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story. Francis also directed a number of other horror films, including The Day of the Triffids, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, The Skull, The Psychopath, The Deadly Bees, and more.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Andrzej Żuławski (1940–2016)

Mark: “For me, God is a disease.”
Heinrich: “That’s why, through disease, we can reach God.”
--Possession (1981)

Early this morning, the great Polish director Andrzej Żuławski passed away at the age of 75 after battling with cancer, like several other artistic greats this year. Here are some personal remembrances of his highly original, unforgettable career.

It was until relatively later in my life — at least compared to when I first began obsessively watching cult movies — that I discovered Andrzej Żuławski. Almost exactly ten years ago, I was 22 years old, had just dropped out of grad school, and moved to Philadelphia. After years of hearing about it, I finally went to the now defunct but much beloved TLA Video and rented Possession. Except I didn’t realize that Żuławski’s Possession wasn’t yet available on DVD and what they gave me was Neil LaBute’s absolutely banal romantic melodrama of the same name starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. I film that Żuławski, had he seen it, would likely have hated it as much as I did. It is, in every way, the complete opposite of Żuławski’s perfect film of the same name.

When I was finally able to track down the proper Possession a few weeks later, my expectations — unreasonably high at that point — were completely exceeded. A lot of horror genre fans are drawn to the film because, like much of Cronenberg’s output, it seems to be an uncomfortable, almost incomprehensible work of body horror. In the midst of marital disintegration, mutilation, and hysteria, a woman (Isabelle Adjani in one of her best performances) births a Lovecraftian cephalopod creature in a squalid Berlin apartment just a stone’s throw from the Wall, while her estranged husband (Sam Neill, also at his best) attempts to patch together their relationship. Sort of. But like another great director of his generation, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Żuławski was never beholden to genre and always shaped it to his own needs, weaving in historical, literary, artistic, and (less frequently) cinematic references.

And while Possession has stayed with me since the day it finally came into my life, in a variety of unexpected forms, I don’t think cinema fans should consider it to be Żuławski’s ultimate film, but rather a gateway into his catalog. It contains what I believe are the four cornerstones of his work: characters defined by hysteria and excess, a central plot that involves doomed or painful love, an abstruse political allegory, and a restless if immaculate sense of visual style. Regardless of genre — horror (Possession), science fiction (On the Silver Globe), war-time period piece (The Third Part of the Night, The Devil), crime film (L’amour braque), romance (L’important c’est d’aimer), and more — the way into Żuławski’s films is often through love and passion. Regardless of the surrounding plot, there is often a tortured central relationship — generally a woman who must chose between two men — that swerves rapidly between the extremes of romantic passion and abject cruelty. Love, in Żuławski’s films, is all consuming, an irrational but inevitable force that is inexplicable and totally unavoidable.

My favorite of his films, to my constant surprise, is L'important c'est d'aimer, his first feature film made in France — after leaving communist Poland — and the work that immediately precedes Possession. A struggling photographer (Italian crime film sensation Fabio Testi) has a chance meeting with a failed actress (Euro-art house goddess Romy Schneider) on the set of a porno film and falls in love with her. He secretly funds a production of Richard III (costarring Klaus Kinski, no less) to get close to her, but he realizes that her pathetic husband (French pop singer Jacques Dutronc) is the only thing keeping them apart. This is Żuławski at his most sweeping and melodramatic — partly thanks to a sob-inducing score from Georges Delerue — this beautiful, brittle film follows the relationship between art and pornography, love and possession, and fantasy and reality.

And though it is largely concerned with a tragic romance, even L’important c’est d’aimer includes a subtle political subtext, something that would wind its way through all Żuławski’s films, whether he was discussing the effects of WWII (The Third Part of the Night), communist Poland (The Devil, On the Silver Globe), or contemporary Poland (Szamanka). And it is maybe this ability to weave together so many disparate threads that makes Żuławski such a giant of 19th and 20th century cinema.

His loss is a profound one, though I can’t help but feel more like celebrating his work rather than lamenting his absence. If you’re a stranger to his work, or are only familiar with Possession, there’s no time like the present to explore his catalog. He’s capable of a depth of feeling nearly unparalleled by any director of his generation, as well as plenty of warmth and humor amidst the chaos and hysteria. I highly recommend picking up some of his films from Mondo Vision (or Kino Lorber or Arrow later this year) and not shying away from the special features, particularly the thoughtful commentary tracks he provided for a number of his films. I listen to these embarrassingly frequently and they stand as a testament to the fact that he had an exacting, brilliant mind with an enthusiasm for art, culture, and human life.

For my part, I just happened to spend Valentine’s Day weekend watching L’amour braque (aka Mad Love) and L’important c’est d’aimer (aka The Most Important Thing is Love) and in two days I’m heading to New York for the Lincoln Center’s retrospective of his Polish films, along with the New York premier of his farewell to the cinema, Cosmos.

Originally written for Diabolique.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Peter Graham Scott, 1962
Starring: Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romain, Patrick Allen, Michael Ripper

A group of sailors, led by the arrogant Captain Collier, invade a small English town on the coast in order to investigate reports of smuggling activity. They are also met with strange rumors of phantoms who ride through the marshes at night, killing stragglers and terrifying the locals. A local leader, the domineering Reverend Blyss, has unusual control over the townspeople and every seems to have something to hide. Will Collier and his companions be able to find the smugglers? And will they survive a run in with the phantom riders?

Also known as Night Creatures to American audiences -- a title I actually prefer, despite how nonsensical it is -- Captain Clegg is a blend of classic Hammer horror and traditional pirate/smuggler fare. And I do love pirate films, even landlocked ones. Captain Clegg is based loosely on the Doctor Syn novels by Russell Thorndike, about a reverend who happens to be a smuggler, scholar, swashbuckler, and an all around hero to his community.

This is not a subtle film eager to withhold its mysteries until the final act. It's almost immediately apparent that most of the townsfolk are in on the smuggling scheme, which is headed by the good reverend, played with aplomb by Cushing. He is in top form as both the droll minister and the coldly calculating Clegg, and though Cushing doesn't slap anyone in this film, he sure as shit swings from a chandelier. While Hammer made a few pirate/adventure films -- such as The Stranglers of Bombay, The Sword of Sherwood Forest, and The Secret of Blood Island -- this is my absolute favorite and, thanks to the presence of the effectively creepy "phantoms," it's likely to be the only one of interest to horror fans.

It stars Hammer regular Yvonne Romain, a beauty so buxom she gives Valerie Leon (Blood from the the Mummy's Tomb) a run for her money. Romain appeared in Corridors of Blood with Karloff and Christopher Lee, as well as Circus of Horrors and Devil DollCaptain Clegg is her second pairing with Oliver Reed, the first being Curse of the Werewolf, where she plays his unfortunate mother. A young, sober Oliver Reed is great here as the romantic lead, though he could stand to have a little more screen time -- and perhaps sometime to descend into full scale hysteria. The bulk of the film's running time goes to Patrick Allen's (Dial M for Murder) Captain Collier, who bears an upsetting resemblance to Captain Crunch. Most of this is due to his enormous chin and awful hat. If you pay attention to any of the sailors, they have the most slapdash, dreadful hats that appear to have come from a party supply store and not a props department.

I assume most of the budget went to the awesome skeleton make up, which is both impressive and scary, if somewhat underused. There are also a few creepy shots of a scarecrow, who later plays an important role in the plot. Overall there is less swashbuckling than I would have liked and this plays out like more of a costume drama, though it is still plenty entertaining. Captain Clegg does manage to keep a few secrets till the end, allowing for a few unexpected twists and turns. It is also frequently funny, occasionally descending into slapstick.

In addition to the cheap costumes, there are a few flaws. The script has a particularly ham-fisted way of making the smugglers likable and pigeonholing the sailors as cruel brutes. Nearly all of the smugglers are depicted as smart and funny, and are probably best symbolized by beloved Hammer regular Michael Ripper's character, the coffin maker and Clegg's right hand smuggler. He's kind, honest, and absolutely loyal, giving the sailors a run for their money at every turn with almost Scooby Doo levels of ridiculousness.

This unfortunately neglected film is entertaining and definitely worth watching thanks to its likable cast. Fortunately it is finally available on DVD in part of the two-disc Hammer Horror Series collection, which unfortunately has double-sided discs, but includes Brides of Dracula, Curse of the Werewolf, Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Vampire, and Evil of the Frankenstein. Despite a lack of extras, the print looks good and sounds great. The Night Creatures title was originally meant for a failed Hammer adaptation of Matheson's amazing novel I Am Legend, where it actually would have made sense. Couldn't they have called the film The Marsh Phantoms? Or at least something topical?

Monday, February 15, 2016


Seth Holt, 1961
Starring: Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, Christopher Lee

Penny, a paralyzed young woman, travels alone to her family home after the death of her mother. She hasn’t seen her father in many years and is apprehensive, but her anxiety only grows when she is told that her father has suddenly gone away on business. She’s left alone with her stepmother, the mysterious Dr. Gerrard, and the family chauffeur, Bob. He becomes her only ally when she has a midnight sighting of her father’s corpse and nearly drowns to death in the family pool, though everyone else thinks she’s just suffering from nervous strain. But has someone murdered Penny’s father and are they trying to do away with her too?

Though more of a psychological thriller than an outright horror film, this early Hammer entry is one of my favorites from the studio and will likely appeal to anyone not impressed by their colorful, Gothic horror period pieces. Set in present day and shot in gloomy black and white by Douglas Slocombe (The Lion in Winter, Raiders of the Lost Arc), Taste of Fear is one in a series of suspense films penned by regular Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, along with films like The Snorkel (1958), Maniac (1963), Paranoiac (1963), Nightmare (1964), Hysteria (1965), The Nanny (1965), Crescendo (1970), and Fear in the Night (1972). Obviously influenced by Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (1955) — and perhaps less so by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) — Sangster makes great use of a tried and true mystery plot, murder for profit, and a few of the films twists and turns are genuinely surprising.

There are some elements that obviously come right from Les diabolique, such as a dead body that suddenly appears and just as rapidly disappears, a murky swimming pool that serves as the physical base for a character’s seat of psychological terror, and an unstable female character who is known to succumb to frazzled nerves, frail health, and occasional bouts of hysteria. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a French location — a lovely seaside home that would be wholly picturesque if it wasn’t for the foreboding cliffs — and a thoroughly European feel to the film. There is also something about Taste of Fear that reminds me strongly of Patricia Highsmith’s work; her own The Talented Mr. Ripley had only come out six years before. The isolated, damaged, but somehow slightly sociopathic protagonist is in line with many of Highsmith’s lead characters and the eerie clues — an abandoned cottage that is occupied late at night, a car that shouldn’t be there — are other common features. There’s also an underlying thread suggesting mental illness in Penny and several of the other characters. Her father is a sick man who suddenly disappears, while after her mother’s death in Switzerland, Penny’s nurse/companion Emily mysteriously drowned in a lake, giving the family swimming pool a much more terrifying weight.

The underused Susan Strasberg (Kapò) is perfectly cast as Penny and looks radiantly beautiful in the film. With her dark, Audrey Hepburn-like looks, Strasberg was great at playing vulnerable yet not totally helpless characters and she is cut from quite a different cloth than the majority of Hammer’s stereotypical “damsel in distress” female characters. The casting is pretty spot on across the board and makes excellent use of actors who are all fairly ambiguous. Ann Todd of Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case is convincingly sweet as a stepmother who might be trying to hard because she has something to hide, while Christopher Lee — allegedly in one of his favorite films for Hammer — nearly steals the film as a stern doctor who might not have Penny’s best interest in mind. Lee is delightfully creepy and ambiguous, in a way that he rarely repeated throughout his career.

SPOILERS, sort of: But it’s Ronald Lewis (Billy Budd, Mr. Sardonicus) as Bob who really steals the film. Lewis wasn’t a familiar face to me — unlike someone like Lee or Strasbourg — and as a result, he’s something of an unknown quantity throughout the film. His character first works to enhance Penny’s sense of unease and anxiety, then later becomes her touchstone and even her lover. It would be hard to believe in a sunnier, more air headed actress that the family heiress would take up with the rather plain, if convincingly manly chauffeur, but Penny is so alone and defenseless that it becomes plausible. I won’t totally give away the ending, but it gradually becomes clear that Bob is not exactly what he seems.

Taste of Fear comes highly recommended, particularly for anyone who likes psychological terror. It’s available on a region 2 DVD from Sony, though I’d love it if someone would release a Hammer suspense series box set, preferably restored and on Blu-ray. Lee fanatics will love a chance to see this great man in a role not dissimilar from his turn in City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel, though director Seth Holt brilliantly uses Lee’s inherent sternness and imperious manner to his own ends, with great results. And if you weren’t a fan of Strasbourg (or even aware of her presence), you will definitely be after watching this.

Friday, February 12, 2016


John Gilling, 1961
Starring: André Morell, Barbara Shelley, William Lucas

“You seriously mean to tell me that an ordinary domestic cat is terrorizing three grown-ups?”

A wealthy old lady is murdered by her husband — with help from the rest of the immediate family — who then conspires to cover it up and steal her fortune, declaring that she had become introverted and unreasonable in recent months. She is reported missing to the police, though her beloved cat, Tabitha, was a witness to the murder and begins terrorizing the remaining members of the household. Meanwhile, the lady’s favorite niece, Beth, is called to the estate and cares for her Uncle Water, who has collapsed thanks to an attack from the cat. In the ensuing squabbles over the old lady’s fortune, Tabitha begins to have her revenge.

At first glance, The Shadow of the Cat doesn’t seem like a Hammer production, as it was released under one of their labels, BHP Productions. And though it remains one of their most obscure titles, this is a surprisingly solid entry in Hammer’s early ‘60s suspense output, largely black and white affairs concerned with murder, mayhem, and corrupt families. John Gilling — director of The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies, and screenwriter for The Gorgon — did his first work for Hammer here, a project he handled competently if without a lot of flourish. There are a number of familiar names associated with the film, such as Hammer’s cinematographer Arthur Grant, composer Bernard Robinson, and screenwriter George Baxt (The Revenge of Frankenstein, Circus of Horrors, The City of the Dead).

Distinguished-looking Hammer regular André Morell — from films like Barry Lyndon and The Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as The Mummy’s Shroud and Plague of the Zombies — is delightful as the murderous husband, though of course it would have been great to see Cushing in the role. This is probably Hammer’s wildest foray into scenery chewing from the entire cast and some serious temper tantrums are thrown in an effort to kill the pesky cat — making almost everyone look completely ridiculous. And of course the family is a bunch of unlikable scoundrels, with the exception of the sweet-as-pie Barbara Shelley, one of Hammer’s most accomplished stock actresses. 

My favorite plot device involves Uncle Walter’s plan to summon some distant relatives and offer them a lot of his late wife’s money to capture and kill the cat. The central question is, of course, is Tabitha preternaturally powerful, or is it guilt that’s driving the family mad? With a central plot as absurd as “the cat saw you do it,” the film is fast paced and is more fun than it has any right to be. The whole thing reminds me of a recent story about a 20+ lb cat that attacked a family of three and trapped them in their bedroom and they felt they had to call 911. In far more exaggerated terms, Tabitha is responsible for — among other things — a minor heart attack, drowning someone in a bog, and lots of innocent cuddling up to Beth, who thinks everyone is losing their goddamn minds. Fucking Tabitha even gets “cat cam,” in which the camera becomes wide-angled and distorted, indicating that we’re looking at things through her sociopathic eyes. This aspect actually reminds me a little of the even more fun giallo film from Antonio Margheriti, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973), where a naive Jane Birkin narrowly avoids being murdered in her family estate.

What the film lacks in a serious plot, it makes up for in atmosphere, for instance, it opens with the old lady reading Poe’s “The Raven” to her cat. Sadly the Poe references end there. Though it doesn’t really look like Hammer’s trademark, colorful Gothic horror films, a lot of their early suspense output didn’t pull a lot of weight in the style department. Regardless, this was shot at Bray Studios and has a set that isn’t quite contemporary but also isn’t an outright Victorian period piece. It feels a bit like The Devil Rides Out, which is set in the ‘20s, and there are plenty of elaborate smoking jackets and other aristocratic accoutrement.

The Shadow of the Cat perhaps predictably looks back at mystery-horror films like The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Old Dark House (1932), and its “murder for inheritance in a spooky family estate” plot is probably going to have some of you rolling your eyes, but it’s a surprisingly fun, if obscure entry in Hammer’s horror canon. Though it was impossible to find for years, The Shadow of the Cat is available on region 2 DVD. For anyone who enjoys spooky, atmospheric entertainment — as this is clearly not outright horror — there’s a lot about it to love, even coming from an avowed cat hater like me.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Terence Fisher, 1959
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Andre Morell, Marla Landi, David Oxley

The cruel Sir Hugo Baskerville hosts an extravagant party at his family estate and sadistically kills a young girl when she rebuffs his advances. In return, he is killed by an enormous dog, allegedly a hound of Hell, and it becomes a local legend that this hound kills male members of the Baskerville line when they wander out on the moors alone. Hugo's distant descendant, the young Sir Henry, contacts Holmes after his father's sudden death, because he fears that he will be the next victim of the curse. Holmes entrusts Sir Henry to Watson's care for a few days, warning them to avoid the moors at all costs. One night Watson and Henry see a light shining on the moors and go to investigate, but they hear menacing howls. Will Holmes arrive in time to save Sir Henry from the spectral beast?

If memory serves me correctly, this is the first Sherlock Holmes film adaptation I had the fortune to see. As a young Sherlockian and rabid horror fan, it seemed perfectly natural that my beloved Hammer Horror would round up the usual suspects — director Terence Fisher and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee — to adapt one of Conan Doyle's more horror-influenced tales. And though it remains the most adapted Conan Doyle story, this version is of historical interest because it was the first of any Holmes adaptation to be shot in color. Hammer’s trademark sense of Gothic style goes a long way towards bringing Conan Doyle’s suspenseful, and often richly detailed, world to life.

Unsurprisingly, The Hound of the Baskervilles has the same flavor as most of the Hammer Dracula films and is more representative of traditional Gothic horror than contemporary genre films replete with gore and brutality. This will not appeal to everyone, as it’s definitely a period piece, and though there are many scenes of suspense, nothing actually frightening occurs. The film is rich with a wonderful sense of atmosphere and is worth watching just for the typically beautiful Hammer setting with foggy moors, ancestral mansions, and the lovely if melancholic English countryside.

Though the villain is clearly not a homicidal ghost dog, I'm going to avoid spoilers, because the film's ending deviates in an interesting way from the novel. Most of the plot changes occur to spice up action and pace, giving it a more typical Hammer feel. Sir Henry is attacked by a tarantula — though this is normally one of my biggest pet peeves, the script offers a somewhat plausible explanation, as tarantulas don’t possess enough venom to do any damage to humans — and Holmes is nearly trapped in a cave-in while investigating, plus the ending is more violent than Conan Doyle’s somewhat wistful romantic conclusion.

Cushing and Lee are two of my favorite actors to see together and they are absolutely delightful here. Despite Hammer’s reliance on creating film series — as exemplified by Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, the Karnstein trilogy, and so on — I’ve always been disappointed that there were no more followup films. I’m not quite sure what the explanation is, but it’s one of my biggest Hammer-related laments. Cushing's Holmes is similar to his Professor Van Helsing. He excels at playing asexual, aloof characters more interested in scientific procedure than human relationships. This was his first appearance as Holmes — he was apparently such a Holmes fanatic that his knowledge helped out on set — and he would later go on to star as the great detective in a long running TV series for the BBC. 

André Morell's Watson is calm and unaffected, generally more likable and less comic than other portrayals of Watson from the period. Though he’s warm and likable, he’s not quite able to keep up with the energy Cushing. And you might be surprised to see a young, but no less serious Christopher Lee as Sir Henry, the proud but persecuted victim. Unlike Cushing, Lee had less of an involvement with Conan Doyle’s famous character, but his turn as Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s excellent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not to be missed.

There is a basic DVD available from MGM, which includes some nice, Lee-heavy special features. He gives a lengthy interview about his relationship with Peter Cushing and also reads excerpts from “The Hound of the Baskervilles" in his wonderful voice. Coming highly recommended, of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles is definitely an underrated effort, both as a Holmes adaptation and as a Hammer mystery/suspense/horror film.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Joseph Losey, 1963
Starring: Oliver Reed, Macdonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Viveca Lindors

Simon, an American tourist on holiday in England, expresses interest in a young woman named Joan and gets mugged by her overprotective brother King — and his gang of motorcycle-riding miscreants — for his troubles. But Simon and Joan cross paths soon after and he convinces her to go on a date with him, a daytime boat ride. An enraged King pursues them and they flee over the sea to a strange island guarded by military personnel. They cross paths with cheerful, yet cold-skinned children who are obviously the product of some experiment. Can they escape King's jealous wrath, get away from the island, and save the children?

No, they can’t, because this is an apocalyptic sci-fi film, one of the very few produced by Hammer Studios. Known in the US as These are the Damned, this incredibly bizarre film is an inexplicable cross between apocalyptic sci-fi, romance-adventure, and the British Teddy Boy/youth gang subgenre. I still haven't really been able to wrap my brain around it, but fans of weird '60s cinema will definitely get a kick out of seeing Oliver Reed interact with radioactive children and struggle against his violently repressed sexuality. Which is not at all related to children, just to clear up confusion about what kind of movie we're dealing with.

This seemingly random sci-fi entry into the Hammer catalog bears some similarities with their horror/sci-fi mash-ups like the excellent Quatermass series. Though The Damned feels like it's made up of pages from ten different genre-themed scripts that were spliced together with someone to roughly fill in the gaps, it's actually based on H.L. Lawrence's 1960 novel The Children of Light. Despite the number of oddities and non-sequiturs going on, it's weirdly compelling and often succeeds despite itself. Of course it was (surprisingly) helmed by none other than Joseph Losey, then on exile in England after the disastrous Hollywood blacklist enforced by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy. Losey wound up making the majority of his films in England and though his name isn’t quite A-list, he’s a director you don’t want to pass up. Films like The Prowler (the film noir effort, not the slasher movie), The Servant, Mr. Klein, and others will be of interest for any genre cinema or cult movie fans.

Overall, The Damned fits loosely in the creepy children sub-genre. While a film like Village of the Damned (1960) might spring to mind as a likely influence, this has far more in common with David Cronenberg’s The Brood in the sense that it is a deeply weird film, and one that I could imagine Cronenberg himself remaking. There’s certainly something Ballardian at work and, perhaps curiously, J.G. Ballard had just began writing novels at this time: the apocalyptic disaster tale Wind From Nowhere (1961) and the post-apocalyptic sci-fi story The Drowned World (1962). The sense of inevitable, impending violence — and sexual terror — in The Damned is reminiscent of later Ballard novels like High Rise and Crash, while The Damned also captures the sense of a world being completely out of whack.

Some of The Damned’s characters could easily fit into a Ballard novel and seem unlikely protagonists (or antagonists) for an early ‘60s sci-fi film with themes of atomic terror. For starters, Oliver Reed’s character, King, would seem completely ridiculous if anyone else had been cast. Reed’s raving, violent, and incestuous gang leader becomes the film’s most interesting character, even as his actions become more and more improbable. Apparently the final version of the script toned down a lot of the more blatant incestuous references in the novel. Reed would find himself in a similar role several times in British horror, including in Hammer suspense film Paranoiac, made the same year, and the Lovecraftian The Shuttered Room (1967). Reed’s introduction — sitting in an idyllic square with his leather jacket wearing mates — is fittingly accompanied by an inane pop song with the lyrics, “Black leather, black leather, smash, smash, smash.”

To make matters even weirder, a side character — the Swedish sculptor Freya (played by Viveca Lindfors of Bell From Hell and Exorcist III), who is the mistress of an important scientist — develops a surprisingly weighty presence, as does her very weird art. The sculptures were apparently created by decorated real-life artist Elisabeth Frink, herself quite Ballardian. She belonged to the “Geometry of Fear” school and made eerie-looking sculptures of men and animals that do much to enhance The Damned’s cold, unforgiving, and loveless atmosphere. Of course this is also exemplified by the children themselves. Unlike the monsters of Village of the Damned, they are lonely and isolated. SPOILERS: They learn everything from a TV set in their classroom and are unable to receive any human affection or even contact without bestowing radiation sickness and ultimately death on their would-be guardians.

Subversive and often surreal, The Damned comes highly recommended, but will probably baffle a lot of viewers. If you enjoy unusual atomic horror or the novels of J.G. Ballard, or you’re just an Oliver Reed fanatic like me, this is definitely the film for you. The Damned is not available on a region 1 single disc as a stand alone film, though it has been fortunately restored to the original 96-minute print. It is included in the "Icons of Suspense" Collection from Hammer, along with Stop Me Before I Kill!, Cash on Demand, The Snorkel, Maniac, and Never Take Candy from a Stranger. There's also a region 2 DVD from Sony if you’re reading this from across the pond, with some utterly absurd cover art that makes it look like a low budget zombie film.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Roy Ward Baker, 1967
Starring: James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover

At the closed London Underground stop Hobbs End, workers uncover strange skeletons that are thought to be millions of years old. A paleontologist believes them to be the missing link in human evolution, but the find is endangered when a metallic cylinder is also discovered, buried at the station. It appears to be a bomb, so a military team is called in headed by Colonel Breen, with the somewhat unwanted assistance of Professor Quatermass. He is the only one to believe that the cylinder is of alien origin, until strange, seemingly supernatural events occur around the cylinder and insectoid, demonic-looking corpses are found inside the device.

For my money, Quatermass and the Pit is the most terrifying sci-fi film until John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing nearly two decades later. The third and final film in Hammer’s Quatermass trilogy — all based on Nigel Kneale’s different television serials for the BBC — is the studio’s crowning achievement when it comes to science fiction, thanks to a spectacular combination of supernatural horror and sci-fi that blends threads of human evolution, alien invasion, and folklore into quite a ripping yarn. Despite some questionable special effects, there is little here to criticize and Quatermass and the Pit is simply one of those films you have to see, whether or not you consider yourself a Hammer aficionado or even a sci-fi fan.

Director Roy Ward Baker — then still experiencing the afterglow from A Night to Remember (1958), the only Titanic-themed film I actually like — was chosen for his technical experience when Val Guest, director of the first two Quatermass films was busy with the early Bond spoof, Casino Royale. Baker wound up having a sizable impact on British horror and would stay on to become one of Hammer’s best later-period directors, helming such films as The Vampire Lovers, Scars of Dracula, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde, and The Legend of the Seven Vampires, as well as Amicus films Asylum and And Now the Screaming Starts! 

Part of the reason the film is so superior is because Hammer finally replaced hardboiled American actor Brian Donlevy — who improbably starred as Quatermass in the first two films — with the staunchly British and very professorial Andrew Keir, who was in a few other Hammer films over the years. This is by far the best cast of all three Quatermass films and for me, Keir will always embody the character. He’s matched by pseudo-antagonist Colonel Breen — the excellent Julian Glover of For Your Eyes Only and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusae — a solid example of the sci-fi/horror trope of stubborn military commander who won’t listen to the brilliant scientist. Hammer regular Barbara Shelley (Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Village of the Damned) also gives a compelling performance as a psychically sensitive lab assistant who becomes Quatermass’s clue to the alien beings.

The film’s score and soundscape is another noteworthy element. Electronics expert Tristram Cary creates a number of terrifying, dissonant sounds that help underscore the mood of claustrophobia and slowly mounting terror. Despite the cheat set and, as I said, sometimes laughable special effects, Quatermass and the Pit uses its limited resource to create a work of real fear — one that insinuates that human evolution was guided by aliens, a concept used recently in the deplorable Prometheus. In a clever twist, the presence of the aliens is conveniently explained by human folklore. The horned, insectoid creatures were interpreted over the years as demons and devils. Quatermass himself explains that the name of the subway stop — the site of many hauntings and disappearances — is Hobbs End, Hobb being another name for the Devil.

This really comes with the highest possible recommendation. I got a chance to speak about it a few months ago on the Cinepunx podcast — along with British films Horror Express and Raw Meat that also deal with the themes of human evolution and trains — and this is a great place to start for anyone not interested in Hammer’s Gothic horror output, but curious about British horror. It’s certainly one of the most underrated sci-fi horror films of the ‘60s and I wish Hammer had paired up with Nigel Kneale for a few more of these. Pick Quatermass and the Pit up on DVD immediately, though hopefully soon there will be a US-friendly Blu-ray release. If region isn’t an obstacle, there’s a UK Blu-ray from Studio Canal. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Val Guest, 1957
Starring: Brian Donlevy, John Longden, Sidney James

Meteorites begin crashing to Earth and Professor Quatermass — who is busy trying to get a Moon colonization project off the ground — decides to investigate. He finds his way to a strange factory, which seems to have borrowed his plans for the Moon colony, though he meets with resistance because operations there are top secret. One of the meteorites is filled with an unidentified gas that seems to possess Quatermass’s associate, who is then taken away by guards from the factory. Quatermass teams up with Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax to find out what happened to his friend and they discover a terrifying alien conspiracy that may go all the way to the British government.

The sequel to Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment is once again based on Nigel Kneale’s excellent BBC series and, like the first film, manages to be surprisingly faithful to Kneale’s script.  Kneale was unhappy with the casting of hardboiled (and allegedly alcoholic) American actor Brian Donlevy as Professor Quatermass in The Quatermass Xperiment and subsequently refused the studio’s request to use the character in their loose follow up X the Unknown, but managed to get more input with Quatermass 2. Of course director Val Guest — who returned from the first film — also had a hand in the script and made one crucial change: while the series’ climax has Quatermass traveling to outer space to defeat the aliens, Quatermass 2 has the slightly more believable premise of the protagonists firing an unmanned rocket to blow up the alien base in space.

Admittedly, there are things about Quatermass 2 that are arguably better than The Quatermass Xperiment. First and foremost, it’s a relief that Brian Donlevy has settled into the role a bit more comfortably. I intensely dislike him in the first film, but the sequel is so fast paced and action packed that he fits into the grand scheme of things a bit more smoothly. In The Quatermass Xperiment, he spends most of his time yelling at people and ordering everyone around, but he’s more appealing here as the odd man out; he has trouble getting anyone to believe him and, for once, is unable to constantly get his own way. 

He also makes a decent pair with John Longden (Alias John Preston), who replaced Jack Warner (The Ladykillers) as Inspector Lomax. I do have a serious soft spot for sympathetic Scotland Yard-type characters though. But the film is basically stolen by Sidney James (The Lavender Hill Mob) as a hilariously drunken reporter who is the only member of the press to believe in Quatermass’s theory of an alien conspiracy and who has moments of brilliance that allow Quatermass to take him seriously. Also keep your eyes peeled for Hammer regular Michael Ripper — my favorite of the studio’s stock company — fresh off his first appearance in a Hammer genre film with the previous year’s X the Unknown

Similar to the previous year’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Quatermass 2 is concerned with hysteria and government conspiracy, apt subject matter during McCarthyism and the Red Scare. The film has the same assured sense of direction, moody cinematography, and documentary-like style that Val Guest displayed in the first film, but with a larger budget and plenty of location shooting. Notably, this is the first time production designer Bernard Robinson would work with Hammer, though it’s obviously a far cry from his colorful work on the studio’s later Gothic horror films. The factory set is quite fun — complete with its own bio-dome — and allows for a breathy conclusion where Quatermass and co. are forced to lock themselves in and defend against an angry mob — a later staple of Hammer’s horror films. 

All in all, Quatermass 2 comes recommended, particularly for fans of sci-fi horror crossovers. In retrospect, it feels like a blend of Doctor Who and The X-Files, and I would say it’s worth watching even if you haven’t yet seen The Quatermass Xperiment or any of Kneale’s serials. Pick it up on DVD, though I’d love for Hammer and the BBC to release a joint box set that contains all three films and all the serials. Quatermass 2 was somewhat ignored because it was released in the same year as The Curse of Frankenstein, the film that would set the course for Hammer’s future. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Leslie Norman, Joseph Losey, 1956
Starring: Dean Jagger, Edward Chapman

Soldiers located a mysterious source of radioactivity in the Scottish highlands, which leads to a deadly explosion. Some of the men are killed, while others are suffering from radiation burns, and a strange pit in the Earth begins to open. Dr. Royston, an investigator with the Atomic Energy Laboratory, is called in to investigate with the help of Mr. McGill, a security consultant. When a local boy and a hospital intern are killed after suffering from radiation burns, Royston and McGill surmise that a radioactive creature has emerged from the Earth’s core and is stalking the area, desperate for food.

An unofficial sequel to Hammer’s horror/sci-fi breakout film, The Quatermass Xperiment, this tamer entry also received an X-rating — probably thanks to some grisly scenes of burning flesh — and the studio wisely capitalized on that with the film’s title. But make no mistake, this is the same blend of sci-fi and horror that would character the Quatermass trilogy and the studio’s final sci-fi film, The Damned (minus the latter’s weird teddy boy subplot). When Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale wouldn’t allow Hammer free reign to use his beloved character, they basically just made a similar film to The Quatermass Xperiment but replaced the miscast Brian Donlevy with wholesome-looking American actor Dean Jagger of White Christmas and Vanishing Point fame. 

Jagger’s not particularly heroic hero, Dr. Royston, is thankfully not as abrasive as Donlevy’s unfortunate portrayal of Quatermass, but he really does lack personality. If X the Unknown is inferior to The Quatermass Xperiment, it is in two points: the absence of a truly compelling protagonist and antagonist. The film perhaps unwisely avoids the kind of hysteria and panic that would make Quatermass and the Pit such a triumph and the characters are all entirely too calm and civil. While there is some solid acting from Jagger and his primary costar, Leo McKern (who I have loved from the moment I saw Ladyhawke as a child), the two characters simply get along too well. There is not enough tension or anxiety between the central characters and don’t even get me started on the monster. (But do keep an eye out for an early appearance from the beloved Michael Ripper, soon to be a Hammer regular). 

X the Unknown also lacks The Quatermass Xperiment’s use of a compelling villain in the form of actor Richard Wordsworth, whose gradually transforming astronaut is a creature of both sympathy and terror. Despite the fact that it’s moody and atmospheric, the movie is so low budget that the monster barely appears and then only as a radioactive, vaguely shiny blob. This is a strange precursor to films like the superior The Blob (1958), Japanese atomic horror film The H-Man (1958), and Caltiki, the Immoral Monster (1959) from giallo forerunner Ricardo Freda

The monster is not exactly alien life, but competing life on earth that has come from deep within the planet’s core. The film’s scariest moments actually involve man encountering nature — such as when the boys go into the woods at night and when a soldier descends into a seemingly bottomless fissure in the earth — and while I love this early folk horror premise, it falls flat because of the “monster.” More than anything, it reminds me of the blancmange at Wimbledon skit from Monty Python and the Flying Circus. And speaking of Monty Python, one of their directors, Ian MacNaughton, actually appears here as a Scottish soldier named — drumroll — Corporal Haggis. I thought I was imagining things, but IMDB confirms that that’s actually the character’s name. 

This first feature script from the studio’s most popular writer, Jimmy Sangster, also plays fast and loose with science — radiation in this case — and Royston figures out a way to kill the monster with radio waves, which apparently neutralize the radiation that keeps it alive, but cause a spectacular explosion that miraculously harms no humans in the process. The great Joseph Losey — then blacklisted from Hollywood and working in England — began directing the film, but was replaced by Leslie Norman due to an illness. Luckily Losey would return to Hammer for The Damned, while Norman was apparently so widely disliked on set that even though he helmed a competent film, well-received film, he never made another movie with Hammer.

X the Unknown is an enjoyable, if dated effort, though I think I can only recommend it to fans of ‘50s horror. Though it loses momentum and focus in the second half, it’s plenty entertaining and takes itself quite seriously with some help from moody cinematography and composer James Bernard, who essentially reprised his score from The Quatermass Xperiment with equally chilling results. Check it out on DVD, but don’t expect it to be quite as magical as the Quatermass trilogy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Val Guest, 1955
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Richard Wordsworth, Margia Dean

Professor Quatermass is overseeing the test runs of a rocket he personally designed, when something goes horribly wrong. After a trip to space, the rocket crashes into rural England and out of the three pilots aboard, two are missing and the sole survivor, Victor Carroon, is catatonic. While Quatermass and a team of scientists are studying Carroon, he begins to horribly transform and soon breaks out of the hospital. Quatermass and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lomax begin a desperate manhunt after Quatermass realizes that Carroon’s new alien form is giving off spores with the potential to destroy the entire planet. 

Known in the US as The Creeping Unknown, this first film in Hammer’s Quatermass trilogy was a major turning point for the studio — and for British horror in general. Based on the BBC television serial penned by sci-fi great Nigel Kneale, the film of course condenses the events of the serial, but also made two major changes. The first, and most grating, is the casting of American actor and film noir regular Brian Donlevy (Hangmen Also Die) as Professor Quatermass, turning Neale’s thoroughly British scientist into a rude, ball-busting American. He looks more like a gangster or an irate insurance claims adjuster than he does a scientist and chokes on some of his dialogue. In one scene, he says to Victor Carroon’s distraught wife, “There’s no room for personal feelings in science!” This is basically the ‘50s sci-fi equivalent of “There’s no crying in baseball.” Harsh and unlikable, Donlevy is completely miscast — Peter Cushing would have been a much better fit, though he wasn’t yet a Hammer star at this point — but he is still unable to ruin the film.

Named The Quatermass Xperiment to capitalize on the “X” rating certificate the film received from the British censor board, surprisingly little of the monster is actually seen in the film, but there’s a fantastic sense of atmosphere. The competent Val Guest went on to direct one of my favorite early Hammer films, The Abominable Snowman (1957), as well as sci-fi classics The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). Though he keeps the monster primarily offscreen — a la Val Lewton a decade earlier — there are some fittingly grisly moments, such as a murder in an elevator and a bleak scene in a local zoo where the monster wreaks havoc on the animals. Though it isn’t quite scary (or gory) by modern standards, I can see why this was Hammer’s first major breakthrough, a success of such proportions that the studio not only produced a small run of sci-fi films, but began almost exclusively making horror films.

Character actor Richard Wordsworth (The Curse of the Werewolf) is the heart and soul of the film, giving a spectacular performance as the unfortunate Victor. Though his character ultimately transforms into something non-human, he gives a physical performance full of pathos and believability. Many of these early sci-fi horrors — particularly the British ones — have a romantic relationship at their center, but The Quatermass Xperiment doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on this, but merely uses Victor’s relationship with his wife — and her desperation to get him away from Quatermass — it to humanize Victor and elegantly move the plot forward. He is unable to kill his adoring wife, even though he is transforming into something alien and monstrous, and runs away from her in horror. 

Aside from the casting of Donlevy as Quatermass, Guest’s second major change away from the serial is the conclusion, spectacularly set at Westminster Abbey. In the serial, Quatermass is able to remind Victor of his last, lingering vestiges of humanity, and in order to save the planet, he kills himself. But in the film version, Victor has become completely alien and Quatermass electrocutes him to death with the help of a conveniently placed television crew. This change makes The Quatermass Xperiment less of a human story and more of a monster movie, but the concept of a transformed astronaut was obviously horrifying enough to inspire a number of similar films in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

This isn’t the only reason why it’s considered a minor classic. Val Guest keeps the pace moving at a brisk clip and despite the occasional moments of scientific exposition, there is a steady sense of suspense, even claustrophobia, to the proceedings. The film is an almost equal blend of horror, science fiction, and murder mystery; Scotland Yard even gets involved because they think that Victor may have murdered the two missing astronauts. The Quatermass Xperiment also has a decidedly bleak note thanks to Quatermass himself, who exploits Victor and, at the film’s conclusion, is determined to start his experiments all over again.

The Quatermass Xperiment comes highly recommended and anyone who enjoys a blend of sci-fi and horror will definitely want to seek it out. Pick it up on Blu-ray and I promise you’ll be able to get past Donlevy’s heavy-handedness and, if this is your first exposure to Quatermass, you might even enjoy him. The film boasts plenty of delights, including some enjoyable effects, wonderful atmosphere, and a particularly fantastic score from Hammer’s regular composer, James Bernard, which would set the stage for the rest of their sci-fi films.