Let me set for you the stage. An impressionable lad (yours truly) has just been forced to sit through Bible School thanks to his highly religious and over-bearing grandmother. After church Mom would be doing chores and my grandparents would inevitably fall asleep in their easy chairs. Despite their respectful attempts to keep me pure as the driven snow, this was a grave mistake in my rearing (and I emphasize grave). Left alone to my own devices, I found myself being drawn away from my usual helpings of Bugs, Magoo and the Panther to find myself awash in Technicolor thrills on those Sunday afternoons.
I surrounded myself with gothic mysteries, Dr. Frankensteins, vampires and Van Helsings, witches, mummies and scores of beautiful bountiful women spellbound by all manner of monstrous predator.
This was sinful, and I loved every single stinking moment of it. I was addicted. I wanted more. I never turned back. This was my first real introduction to horror – the house that Hammer built, one beguiling brick at a time. They impressed. They scarred. They titillated. They gave me a corset and petticoat fetish that continues to this day. Most importantly, they made my Sundays worth getting up for.
They still haunt my subconscious, and I keep them all close to my blackened heart. Whittling down my top ten favorite Hammer Horrors was an arduous task to say the least, I feel as flushed now as I did when I first got an eyeful of Barbara Shelley’s cleavage, but I digress. Here they are for your consideration – musings of a misspent youth, indeed.
10. Demons Of The Mind (1972)
Sexual repression, madness, incest, suicide, possession – it’s all for e-strange-d doctor Patrick Magee to discover in this intellectual mind hump. It’s a convoluted morality play posing science against religion; however, there’s enough blood, boobs and gothic weirdness going on to satisfy most horror fans, I assure you.
9. Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971)
This particular doctor gets a gender face lift in this interesting twist on the famous tale of duality. Ralph Bates gives his best, and Martine Beswick is ferociously sexy as the other-half intent on completely taking over. Hammer also throws famed graverobbers’ Burke and Hare and Jack The Ripper into the mix to keep the proceedings from ever getting dull. It remains a smart and classy presentation despite the many lurid possibilities.
8. Curse Of The Werewolf (1961)
This serious marsupial memoir stars a young Oliver Reed as Leon, the result of a rape between an imprisoned beggar and a servant girl, who is cursed for having been born on Christmas Day. Leon’s only hope for redemption is true love, and we all know it’s not easy finding a girl who will put up with his type of moonlighting. Excellent performances, especially from Reed, help to make this a fascinating character study that shares little in common with most of its counterparts – aside from the requisite silver bullets.
7. Fanatic aka Die! Die! My Darling (1965)
Tallulah Bankhead does her Baby Jane-best in this over the top psycho-thriller. Bankhead Bible-thumps and gun totes her way into Camp Classic, as a mother intent on keeping her dead son’s fiancé faithful to the end. Richard Matheson’s kinetic script swiftly builds to the inevitable and entertaining climax. In addition, Donald Sutherland’s turn as halfwit imbecile here is a delight onto itself.
6. The Plague Of The Zombies (1966)
This compelling argument for undead labor unions was an obvious influence on Night Of The Living Dead. When locals refuse to work in the village Lord’s hazardous tin mines, he kills and resurrects them with voodoo rites. A chilling dream sequence remains a highlight in this genuinely suspenseful and well acted revenant relic.
5. The Gorgon (1964)
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, along with director Terence Fisher, were the unholy trinity in the House of Horror – and this gothic fairy tale is one of their best. Barbara Shelley is excellent as a troubled woman who turns into the mythical snake-haired creature at night and petrifies all those in her sight. Cushing carries the impetus of the film as a man struggling with his own personal demons, while Lee attempts to vanquish all evil. Impressive mix of characters, action and thrills topped off (pun intended) by a memorable bleak ending.
4. The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Another strong Matheson script is realized through intense performances from Chris Lee and Charles Gray. This was a pet project of Lee’s, and he really embraces his role with zeal. Imaginative and skillfully directed, this tense morality play is thoroughly entertaining with some fantastic set pieces. Also notable as one of the most thoughtful and serious attempts to realistically portray the practice of magic.
3. Twins Of Evil (1971)
Ah, the Karnstein Trilogy, let my inner pervert catch its breath for a minute. You see, Hammer went softcore in a trio of vampire tales – these being generally more graphic in both flesh and foul than any of the company’s previous excursions. It was a wrestling match with my crotch to not include them all quite honestly. The first, The Vampire Lovers (1970) stars the comely Ingrid Pitt and the always dependable Peter Cushing, and is a common favorite for some; Lust For A Vampire (1971) was even more explicit, but it marginally suffers from an inexperienced cast.
Twins Of Evil would find Cushing back in tow, alongside the Collinson Sisters (Playboy’s first twin playmates), who make fine additions to Hammer’s able-bodied (ahem) female roster. This could be considered a prequel of sorts, and we are treated to more food for thought in the narrative, giving this entry the most substance of the three in my opinion.
2. The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957)
While Americans were under attack from wild teenagers and atomic monsters, the Brits usher in the return of gothic horror (and in graphic color, no less) with this indisputable masterstroke. Terence Fisher skillfully directs the first coupling of soon-to-be Hammer stalwarts Lee and Cushing, and both give brave interpretations. Lee wordlessly inspires both shock and sympathy, while Cushing’s portrayal shows remarkable depth and gravity. A landmark.
1. Horror Of Dracula (1958)
One of the most iconic vampire films ever made, period. The perfect blend of gothic horror, suspense and eroticism insures this film the top spot on my list. Hammer made seven sequels, all but one starring Lee; while Cushing would only reprise his Van Helsing role three more times. As explicit as the censors would allow in the day, Horror Of Dracula was a groundbreaking and subversive punctuation in the neck of horror cinema. Only Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1966) would come close to capturing the same exquisite magic if you ask me, but they’re all enjoyable
Criminally absent: Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) & To The Devil A Daughter (1976)
Honorable mentions: Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb (1971) & Countess Dracula (1971)