Another batch of films from Hammer studios have been restored and reissued on Blu-ray/DVD.
In many ways the combination of shock tactics, mixed with (appropriate levels of) sex, violence and supernatural demonic horror made Dennis Wheatley an ideal author for Hammer’s contemporary films. In some ways you could argue that the period settings of much of the studio’s output would make the modern aspects of much of Wheatley’s work inappropriate (until they went post AIP hipness in the 1970s and added To the Devil a Daughter (1976) to their catalogue) but the scripting of The Devil Rides Out means that there are a number of elements contained within the narrative that place it far more ahead of its time than many of the films that were far more shocking on release, but now seem passé. It remains a well written and well acted film with some brilliantly realised special effects combined with Terence Fisher’s capable direction, here emphasising the modernity of the setting that brings force an ancient evil being regenerated by a coven.
Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) and Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) find that they are not welcome at the party of their close friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) partly, it seems to de Richleau, because their presence would increase the number of guests beyond the thirteen that he fears is the mysterious Mocata’s (Charles Gray) requirement for conducting an occult ritual. Simon is kidnapped by the coven, along with another new recruit, Tanith Carlisle (Niké Arrighi). Fortunately de Richleau has extensive knowledge of the occult and is determined to locate the pair, but the group he faces is extremely powerful. Demonic affiliations could bear hideous consequences and their very souls might be at risk as May day night approaches, the moon shines and Mocata’s evil purposes, too awful to comprehend, become very clear.
Although some aspects of the film are of its era, the structure and revelations within The Devil Rides Out are still thoroughly engaging. The devil shown at the first Sabbath sequence seems to recall design elements from the classic silent Häxan (Benjamin Christensen ) while the later creatures (notably the giant spider) stand out, if not entirely for their realisation, at least for their integration into the story and the predicament of the characters. In many respects it is the horror of the psychological and spiritual elements that make these sequences, that entrance the characters into falsehoods about reality and their place in it, that make the film work so well.
One of Hammer’s films that doesn’t fall within the horror genre, Rasputin: The Mad Monk nevertheless contains a number of controversial and shocking elements that not only reflect the studio’s more renowned output but also depict popular understanding of the central character perhaps best recalled by that Boney M. song suggesting he was ‘Russia’s greatest love machine’ and that ‘it was a shame how he carried on’. This may seem a touch trite but there are certainly elements of this characterisation in Hammer’s depiction. Rasputin: The Mad Monk was a relatively high budget production for Hammer (and 20th Century Fox). Indeed it was shot in CinemaScope and this restored print includes this version – a welcome addition over previous releases. The life and notoriety of Grigori Rasputin (played with assurance by Christopher Lee) is depicted in an undeniably persuasive manner.
When the wife of an inn owner (Derek Francis) is virtually at her deathbed there seems to be nothing that even the doctors can do. Fortunately, the rumbustious monk Grigori Rasputin (Christopher Lee) turns up and cures her with the power of his hands. His payment? Much drink and much dance, the latter, particularly, with the innkeeper’s daughter but Rasputin’s licentious behaviour results in the extreme and violent displeasure of the girl’s father and her boyfriend. Accused of sinful behaviour, indeed he freely admits to it so that he has something worthwhile to take to confession, Grigori returns to St. Petersburg where he can resume his eagerly joyous self-perpetuating bouts of gambling, sex and drink whilst delivering the healing powers that his hands possess. His healing abilities can revive those deemed incurable but could also be conceived as additional elements of his immorality disguised as skill or even the work of the Devil. Grigori’s goal is to attain the highest regard of the Russian state through making the Tsarina (Renée Asherson) comply with his multiple desires. He endeavours to achieve this by engaging an occasionally sordid relationship with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Sonia (Barbara Shelley), an he hatches an unruly plan involving the Tsarina’s son. Will Grigori’s desires have consequences on his continuing legacy in Russia’s capital or are there plans afoot to eradicate the mad monk from his seemingly impervious position as a purveyor of contemptible immorality?
The CinemaScope format of Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk really helps bring the film an aesthetic style that enhances its value as an historical biopic, although the biopic is a genre that, whatever the trials and problems facing the central character, normally ensures that they are depicted as heroic. As is often the case when he plays the titular character in Hammer films, Christopher Lee is spellbinding whenever he is on-screen – portraying seduction, threat, hypnotic trances, violence, hard drinking and vigorous dancing with aplomb. His Grigori is at once desired and despised, most notably perhaps by Sonia, played by Barbara Shelley, one of Hammer’s other favourite stars, fresh from Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). The net result is one of the more compelling historical dramas (even if the higher Hammer budget was still modest at the time) with elements of the (terribly British) sex and violence that the studio became known for. It addresses political issues at both a cultural and ecumenical level amidst the general debauchery.
Included on the Blu-Ray are a number of enjoyable extras including some wonderful retrospective making-of documentaries and also a fascinating look at the novelisations of some of the Hammer films.
One of the horror genre’s most reincarnated characters (along with Dracula and Frankenstein), The Mummy (1932, 1959 and 1999 amongst many others) is also one where history and the origin of the creature are fundamental to the plot. The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), the third of Hammer’s mummy films, adopts a different approach to the instigation of the mummified corpse’s brutality by using the aforementioned shroud but maintains the ‘opening of the tomb with subsequent deaths’ scenario that forms the quintessential structure of this fantasy-horror subgenre. It also adds to the gore quotient not matched until the deliberate shock horrors of Dawn of the Mummy (Frank Agrama ).
It is 1920 and archaeological enthusiasm for all things Egyptian is at its height. Sir Basil Walden’s (André Morell) expedition is certain that it has discovered the tomb of the pharaoh Kah-to-Bey. But perhaps its location by ‘The Rock of Death’ together with threatening behaviour from a protector of the tomb that has been part of thousands of years of family responsibility, not to mention the snakes, should give him a clue that he really shouldn’t proceed with his exploration of the crypt. But, they go ahead anyway, and discover a corpse, although Barbara Preston (Elizabeth Sellars) refuses to translate the hieroglyphics on the shroud covering the body, for she believes that it has an ominous curse if the words should ever be read aloud. It’s inevitable really, isn’t it? The corpse and the curse are going to combine with bloody consequences for all concerned.
John Gilling provides well structured direction of his script adaptation of the story by John Elder (Anthony Hinds), mixing the elements that define a large number of Hammer studios horror output by mixing scares with some sense of the past; an enjoyable blend of history and horror. (Gilling had also made historical Hammer’s inThe Brigand of Kandahar( 1964) and The Scarlet Blade (1963)). The Mummy’s Shroud also combines the elements as seen in Gillings’ The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies (1966), structuring the narrative in such a way that the horror elements, although indicated clearly in the opening (there is a long flash-back to thousands of years previously to indicate the horror that will evolve) will develop into situations that will deeply affect the characters. The deaths in The Mummy’s Shroud are notably imaginative in a Kensington Gore kind of way and even when they are not delivered to camera the discoveries are notably gloopy. It is unsurprising then that the film was cut to make it X rated in 1967, although subsequent changes in classification have now made the film a PG. The effects are still reasonable and the whole has a pleasingly grotesque ending. Shrouded in entertainment value then.