When it comes to classic Horror films, some will always swear by Universal. That was the studio that gave us Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. But for my dime, my heart belongs to Hammer. Every year around this time, I like to review a few favorites, revisit some I might’ve given a bum rap to, and even try to catch some I hadn’t seen before. I’ll tell you what I think about a few of my favorites.
The key to Hammer was that they managed to hire great actors, real Shakespearian thespians looking for quick and easy work in the off seasons. To them, the stage was the thing, and anything else was slumming. Movies weren’t so interesting to them, but as true dramatic actors, playing literary characters in genre movies was a smooth proposition. That’s Christopher Lee as Dracula. True to Bram Stoker’s vision he played the Count as something of a gentleman, practicing a brand of evil that is almost subliminal.
Although Mr.Lee played the immortal count a number of times, I can only heartily recommend the first Dracula feature, entitled Horror Of Dracula in the US to avoid copyright issues with Universal. A relatively loyal retelling of the essence of Bram Stoker’s story, Lee faces off against Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, taking turns chowing down on the scenery until their final face off, which is as memorable a piece of celluloid action as scenes that cost literal millions more to make. The trouble with each subsequent Dracula feature was that he was revived and perished again every time out for each cash grabbing sequel, leading to an impression that he just couldn’t get anything right. in my imagination there’s a great unmade Christopher Lee Dracula flick in which the consummate bloodsucker successfully conquered the world, but since it doesn’t exist, I just stick to the first one and recommend that you do the same.
Another tremendous Hammer offering was The Curse of Frankenstein. In a bit of role reversal, Christopher Lee played the sympathetic monster and Peter Cushing portrayed Dr.Frankenstein. Unlike Universal’s version or even the original novel, Cushing as Frankenstein was an awful, demented bastard. A twist of obvious brilliance, because really, wouldn’t it be a pretty ghoulish entity that would stitch corpses together and presume to create life in such a manner?
Every bit of suave sophistication Christopher Lee brought to Dracula was completely absent in the misbegotten creature he portrayed here. The scene in which he has first gotten loose -a stumbling, horrifying thing that looks every bit like you would imagine living death- is one of the most fantastic depictions of a monster you could ever find. Although the make up is obviously dated, it’s all in the way that Lee moves, utilizing his training as a mime.
1961’s Hammer entry Paranoiac doesn’t feature a conventional villain at all. In fact, it’s a bit hard to determine who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist. Oliver Reed brilliantly plays an angry young man swinging out of control, but it would seem that he could be the (anti)hero of the thing. You don’t know for sure until the final real.
Hammer Horror is notable in that it avoids schlock. You would expect elements of camp, which are completely absent from the better ones. That’s certainly true here. Paranoiac deserves to be regarded in the rarefied critical air of Psycho. And like Psycho, the less you know going in, the better.
Reed also starred in my absolute favorite Hammer production: Curse Of The Werewolf. As a tragic figure, Oliver’s misbegotten man spited by God has no equal. Born under a bad sign and sordidly tragic circumstances, he never has a chance, and in the hands of a great, criminally underrated actor, you hope that the swarthy and sympathetic orphan might make good. Alas, Hammer didn’t really make those kinds of movies…