Director: Don Leaver, Peter Sadsy, Tom Clegg, Francis Megahy, Alan Gibson et al
Script: Alan Gibson, Anthony Hinds, Francis Megahy, Anthony Read et al
Cast: Peter Cushing, Warren Clarke, Denholm Elliot, Leigh Lawson, Angela Bruce, Diana Dors, Brian Cox, Suzanne Danielle, Simon MacCorkingdale, Gary Raymond, Derek Nimmo, Peter McEnery, Georgina Hale etc.
Running time: 136 minutes
By the mid-seventies Hammer Studios had run out of steam and, after the commercially disastrous To the Devil a Daughter and their remake of The Lady Vanishes they were pretty much a spent force on the international film market. However, at the end of the seventies Hammer struck a deal with Lew Grade’s ITV franchise, Associated TV (ATV), who commissioned a horror TV series from them, to be shot on 35mm film with whichever ‘stars’ they could hire at a discount. The result was this, Hammer House of Horror a thirteen-episode series, featuring 13 unrelated stories of the macabre, along the same vein as Tales from the Crypt or The Twilight Zone.
I must confess that I have a deep affection for the series since it marked the first real chance I had, as an impressionable boy, to acquaint myself with modern horror, after previously only having snuck downstairs to watch old black and white Universal horrors after my parents had gone to bed! I remember getting quite agitated in the back of my dad’s car, as we headed home, from visiting relatives in Shropshire, about not getting home in time for the start of the first episode being aired. I hadn’t wanted to make too much fuss about my anguish as my parents would have scrutinised what I’d been anxious to watch, so I had to bottle up most of my pent-up anxieties for the seemingly endless journey home… We were late getting back, and I missed the first ten minutes of the first episode, Witching Time, but it still made an impression, although one somewhat dulled by the fact that I had to watch it on our old B & W TV set, in our guest room, which had a habit of cutting out every ten minutes, requiring a few hefty swipes from my right arm to get it broadcasting again!
Sadly, my parents discovered me watching a ‘sexy scene’ and frowned upon me watching most of the rest of the series, especially when it was sometimes moved to a later time slot, as was often the case back in the early eighties. Hence, I probably only saw five or six episodes of the series during its first terrestrial run, but they stayed with me for many years to come…
It has to be said that most of the episodes, when looked at in the fresh light of day, could have been so much better, but they are what they are and I feel that, as a slice of the time period, they stand up nicely as a snap-shot of British TV horror from that epoch. I’m not going to write reams and reams about each episode, but I will touch upon each briefly, with a capsule synopsis and review.
The series kicked off, as I said before, with Witching Time, which, for me, is one of the most underrated episodes. A composer starts losing his marbles when a 17th Century witch emerges during a thunderstorm and starts to turn his life upside down. Directed by Don Leaver this is an okay episode, but lacks any truly memorable moments.
The Thirteenth Reunion, also directed by Leaver, sees a reporter for a ladies’ magazine stumbling upon the bizarre truth behind a secret society that meet regularly to celebrate their survival of a mostly-fatal airplane crash. Plucked from the headlines of the time this is quite a nicely-spun slow-burner, with a cool ending, even if you can see it coming from miles off!
The House that Bleed to Death is one of my favourites and also one of the most memorable episodes, which follows what happens when a young family move into a house that they bought, perhaps, a little too cheaply! I always think of it whenever I hear strange noises coming from the water pipes!
The Silent Scream, directed by Alan Gibson, is probably the most well-regarded episode of the series and features a tour de force performance from Peter Cushing, along with a very young Brian Cox. Highly recommended.
The Two Faces of Evil is probably the episode that freaked me out the most as it follows a family picking up a hitchhiker one rainy night and really regretting it. I’ll say no more, but I found it to be very disturbing and it gave me a mild phobia about long fingernails for years after!
The Mark of Satan was one of the weakest entries in the series but still holds the interest and isn’t as bad as you may have heard. I liked the general aura of paranoia throughout the episode.
Visitor from the Grave sees a young woman become the victim of a macabre plot to drive her insane. This sort of story has been done to death, literally, before, and better.
Rude Awakening sees Denholm Elliot clearly enjoying playing a lecherous estate agent who has recurrent dreams about his secretary, a mysterious house and the murder of his wife. Worth watching, but mainly for Elliot’s performance.
Charlie Boy is another of my favourites, which sees a young woman buying an ancient African fetish idol that seems to be possessed by the spirit of an evil sorcerer. This feels like a missing episode from a rival Amicus film!
The Carpathian Eagle sees a young woman convinced that she’s possessed by the reincarnated spirit of a murderess. This is probably most notable for featuring an early performance by Pierce Brosnan.
Growing Pains is another weaker entry in the series. An adopted boy creates a series of disasters for his new father’s research project. Patchy at best.
Children of the Full Moon is one of my favourites and I wouldn’t be spoiling anything by saying that this involves werewolves – lots of them. I’m a sucker for a good werewolf story and this one is a lot of fun, and quite creepy in places. Well done to director Tom Clegg.
And, finally, Guardian of the Abyss is another underrated episode, which, although very predictable, is still great to watch; just let the story unfold before your eyes, and go for a hellish ride. Anybody who’s a fan of the fiction of Dennis Wheatley will appreciate this entertaining satanic yarn.
Like I said earlier I have a soft spot for this horror TV series from the early eighties so most people’s rating would probably be a bit lower. However, I think it generally had decent production values, a good level of acting and most of the stories held my attention, even if most were utterly predictable – or maybe that’s because I watch too many horror films?!
Definitely worth revisiting if you’ve already seen it, and, if you haven’t, you’re in for a 15-rated spooky treat…
Hammer House of Horror is being distributed by Network on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital download. The extras on my review discs were limited to:
Commercial break stings (20 secs) – as it says on the tin;
‘Rude Awakening’ opening and montage of raw takes (12.5 mins) – silent footage of various shots from the Rude Awakening episode, with Denholm Elliot.