For the Average Joe it’s October, but for a very passionate group of people known as ‘Horror-hounds’, it’s actually Halloween Month. So, huge props to Studio Canal, who are embracing the Witching Hour by prying open the Hammer Horror vault and serving up a delicious collection of titles to delight the most fevered of horror tragics. Let’s take a look at what’s on the slab (in alphabetical order, to align with your collection).
Based on the classic novel by celebrated author Dennis Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out (1968) was directed by Hammer trailblazer Terence Fisher, who clocked up a whopping 29 features for the studio. Widely considered to be amongst Fisher’s best films, The Devil Rides Out stars Christopher Lee – whose name you can also expect to see repeated in this article – and Charles Gray (Diamonds Are Forever, The Rocky Horror Picture Show). The film has Lee’s character investigating the occult when it appears that a friend’s son has been seduced by a local Satanic cult. Chock-full of sinister markings, devil worship and black magic, the film is a must-have for all self-respecting horror fans, and kicks off a sensational lineup of titles.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) is another Lee/Fisher collaboration and is perhaps best known as the movie where Dracula has no lines. As in, no lines whatsoever. Arguably Christopher Lee’s most celebrated character, his Dracula is resurrected when his ashes are mixed with the blood of an English tourist. Dressed as dapper as ever, he drinks his way through travelling Englishmen faster than a German through beers at Oktoberfest, and occupies the screen bigger and bolder than ever. Held as one of Hammer’s most visually spectacular films, Dracula: Prince of Darkness also features a very young Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, who was tearing up the international stage long before most of us fell in love with him in The Castle (1997).
Do not let the PG rating of The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) deter you, because this Hammer Horror movie might just be one of the most disturbing and nightmarish depictions of ‘The Mummy’ to date.
Before Brendan Fraser and Tom Cruise were diggin’ up Egyptian corpses, Shakespearean actor John Phillips was raising the dead in spectacular fashion, with a genre twist which sees the story exploit a more slasher-driven narrative. This is essential viewing for any horror nut and is worth it alone for the absolutely terrifying imagery of the mummy itself. Like a hideous cross between Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz and Grandpa from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is the stuff of nightmares.
If you ever wondered what inspired the iconic look of George Romero’s zombie characters, then look no further than Plague of the Zombies (1966). With their flecked, grey skin and milky-white eyes, the walking dead from this gem laid the foundation for the explosion of zombie films to follow, and remains a seminal title of the genre. With the black magic of voodoo as its crux, the story tells of an epidemic in a small Cornish village in the late 1800s, which leads to the discovery of a town secret that’s steeped in corporate greed. This clever and intriguing movie pre-dates the famous “braaaains” zombie trope and dabbles in classic Haiti lore of old. Not only stylish and viscerally arresting, it’s also wonderfully acted and perfectly paced.
The story of The Quatermass Experiment was broadcast as a television serial in 1953, and influenced many popular future titles including The X-Files, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. Hammer Horror’s series of Quatermass films peaked with their 1967 entry Quatermass and the Pit, which possibly paved the way for stories from Stephen King and George Lucas, with its horror-infused science fiction leanings. The story remains faithful to its source material, and depicts the excavation of a spaceship near the London Underground, which alters the known origins of mankind. This unique entry in Hammer’s catalogue makes it a must for all, and might be considered as the original (and possibly superior) Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Christopher Lee cuts a historical figure in Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), a horrific and fictionalised account of Grigori Rasputin, the mystic holy man whose stranglehold over the Russian royals in the early 1900s is the stuff of legend. Taking advantage of the more sensational aspects of Rasputin’s mythology, the film has Lee as the imposing titular figure, dishing magic upon the royals like Doctor Strange on a bender. Lee considered this performance to be amongst his best and there’s no doubt that the role’s power-hungry and sex-driven persona is unlike anything he’s done before or since.
As you work your way through this amazing collection of Hammer Horror films, you may get a sense of deja-vu when you arrive at The Reptile (1966). Filmed back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies, the production used most of the same locations as well as its cast and crew. The result is a familiar-looking film with a new story, that might have been influenced by the work of H.P. Lovecraft. When people of a small Cornish township begin to die under mysterious circumstances, it’s discovered that something scaly and monstrous lives amongst them, and must be stopped before the death count keeps mounting. Incredibly creepy and atmospheric, The Reptile is highly regarded amongst horror historians, and makes for a wonderful companion piece to The Plague of the Zombies.
Finally, The Witches (1966) is a surreal and spine-chilling story about a woman whose own horrors at the hands of African witch doctors lead her to believe that witchery is afoot back home in England, and her line between reality and fantasy is soon blurred. Not to be mistaken for the equally thrilling 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, this Hammer classic is a mesmerising descent into madness, made all the more compelling by a strange and eclectic production design.