Three Standalone Hammers

No clever intro this time: I’m clearing my backlog of Hammer movie reviews, here’s a review of three which don’t fit into any neat category.

The Nanny

After What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a surprise hit, Bette Davis was more than happy to spend a chunk of her late career cashing in on her newfound acclaim as a horror villain. After all, the performance she and Joan Crawford had pulled off in Baby Jane had kicked off a brief micro-genre of psychological horror movies with older women as malevolent figures – why not exploit that, when the industry was otherwise all too willing to leave aging actresses on the shelf? That’s how she ended up starring in this 1966 Seth Holt film, which ended up being Hammer’s last black and white feature.

We open with Bette’s character – referred to simply as “Nanny”, for that is the capacity in which she’s hired by her employers – enjoying a happy little walk through her local park before she enters the home of her employers, the Fane family. As soon as she steps inside, the contrast between the miserable atmosphere inside the house and the happy outdoor scene is brutally obvious.

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Hammering In Desperation

The debacle of To the Devil a Daughter was by far from Hammer’s first attempt to shake itself free from the artistic rut it had driven itself into. Although it churned out plenty of old-style films following its classic formula during the early 1970s, the same period also saw Hammer attempting a range of experiments to see how it could shake up its habits and thereby rekindle its fortunes. There were flirtations with more sexually explicit material in The Vampire Lovers, various attempts to transplant classic monsters to modern day settings such as Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb or Dracula A.D. 1972, recasting of beloved series as horror-comedies (Horror of Frankenstein), and more besides.

One of these experiments involved producing more in the way of psychological horror. Despite being overwhelmingly associated with supernatural horror, Hammer had always produced a trickle of non-supernatural fare, some of which had been received quite well – for instance, the Bette Davis vehicle The Nanny from 1965 was both uncharacteristically gritty by Hammer’s standards and also something of a critical and commercial success. Could a shift in focus to more mundane terrors help restore Hammer’s credibility? Let’s take a look at two 1972 attempts…

Fear In the Night

This was originally released as part of a double bill with Straight On Till Morning entitled Women In Terror!, though to be honest I think this was a misstep – both movies are heavy enough going that I feel like watching one after the other would be too much, and it would have been better to pair each of them with something lighter as a palette-cleanser.

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Hammering the Stake Through Dracula’s Heart

Hammer’s Dracula movies may well be their most famed series, thanks to the excellent casting of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula – though it’s notable that in a nine-movie series, once you discount footage from earlier films repeated in later films to remind the audience of what’s previously transpired, Cushing and Lee only faced off against each other in three of the nine movies in the series; two of the movies has Cushing’s Van Helsing facing either a different vampire or a different actor cast as Dracula, and the other four movies have Christopher Lee as Dracula without Cushing being involved.

As with other Hammer series, the sequels may well be the most interesting ones to explore – after all, once you’ve done your riff on the original Bram Stoker story, it becomes necessary to come up with your own tales. And as usual for Hammer, the results are… mixed.

The Brides of Dracula

Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), a schoolteacher from Paris, has been offered a post at a posh girl’s school in Transylvania. As she is travelling to the school, her superstitious coachman (Michael Ripper) abandons her – coach drivers are extremely unreliable in this sort of thing, aren’t they? Alas, there’s no room at the inn, but she receives an invite from local aristocrat Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), the local aristocrat, to stay at her castle overnight.

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What If He Was Me, and I Was Called Frankenstein?

A big chunk of Hammer Studios’ output was essentially 1960s Britain’s answer to what Universal Studios had been doing with the horror canon in previous decades. Whereas the Universal horror franchises tended to kick off with a really strong implementation of the original concept, ran off some strong sequels, and eventually ran into diminishing returns, it actually seems to me that the various Hammer sequels to their adaptations of The MummyDraculaFrankenstein are less interesting than the sequels that followed.

After all, the movies which kicked off those series were made early on in Hammer’s run, while they were still developing their distinctive in-house style, and by and large followed the plot of the original source material in broad brushstrokes, with the usual decisions about what features to cut, what to include, and what to add any adaptation must consider. It feels to me like the celebrated Hammer Horror style really got going once they started in on the sequels, where Hammer’s writers and directors cooked up a range of original stories and took the various series in unexpected directions.

Take, for example, some of their later Frankenstein sequels…

Frankenstein Created Woman

This 1967 Terence Fisher effort, the fourth in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, opens with an execution by guillotine. The guillotine is set up in the middle of fucking nowhere, which seems a bizarre place to put a device intended for public executions, but the rural scenery adds an interesting folk horror sort of aesthetic to things.

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