Warner Bros. Home Entertainment newly remasters four Hammer Horror classics, unleashing them on Blu-ray for the first time in the U.S., and it should be more than enough proof for those fans holding on to their DVDs of these titles that it’s time to upgrade! The box set, spread across four discs (each film on its own disc) is in a nicely-designed rigid pocketbook style, and comes just in time to for Halloween to be one of the most highly desired Blu-ray releases of 2015 (each title is also being made available separately at a low retail price).
Hammer Films' third big monster pairing of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, 1959’s THE MUMMY, was an inevitable remake of the 1932 Karloff MUMMY, but Jimmy Sangster's script also uses themes from some of the Universal sequels (namely THE MUMMY'S HAND and THE MUMMY'S TOMB). Having already proficiently dealt with the Frankenstein and Dracula legends, director Terence Fisher again delivers a lively, gothic masterpiece that completes the trio of classics that put Hammer on the map and still luring audiences of all ages to this day.
Cushing plays John Banning, laid up with a broken leg on the site of an archaeological dig in Egypt. Banning has to remain in his tent while his father Stephen (Felix Aylmer, SEPARATE TABLES) and uncle Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley, MAN BAIT) finally discover the entrance to the lost tomb of Princess Ananka. Prior to violating the sacred burial place, a local priest named Mehemet Bey (George Pastell, THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY) warns them against doing so. Not buying into local superstition, they enter the tomb and the elder Banner unwisely reads aloud the ancient scroll, bringing back to life the 4000-year-old mummy Kharis (Christopher Lee). Being the only witness to the reincarnation, he loses his mind in the process.
Three years later, Banning's father is in an asylum in England. Finally regaining enough control to speak, he warns his son that the mummy is very much alive, but his words are taken as the ramblings of a crazy person. Transported to England by Mehemet Bey, the mummy is indeed alive and out for retribution, starting with a nightly visit to old man Banning's padded cell, bursting in and viscously killing him. Whemple is the next to be attacked, with his nephew being present to witness Kharis in action. He manages to shoot him twice with no effect other than to blow a couple of large holes in the walking corpse. When the mummy later comes back to claim Banning's life, he's distracted by the image of his wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux, REPULSION) who is a dead ringer for his beloved Ananka. When Kharis is unleashed for the last time, he sets off with her in his arms, pursued by Cushing and the armed police, lead by Inspector Mulrooney (Eddie Byrne, ISLAND OF TERROR).
The best asset to THE MUMMY is the superb acting job by Lee in the titular role. Roy Ashton's still-impressive make-up only allowed for openings where the eyes are, so the actor basically has to play the part through expressive glances, as well as his more than adequate towering and flexible physique. Lee's mummy is a supernatural creature of great empathy as witnessed with his eternal love for Ananka, and at the same time he's an unstoppable, unflinching killing machine (Lee reportedly took a beating, smashing through windows and doors repeatedly, as well as being adorned with explosives to simulate bullet shots!).
With Fisher's unique direction, the striking cinematography of Jack Asher, the stirring music of Franz Reizenstein, and Bernard Robinson's sets — recreating ancient Egypt and 19th century England to great effect — the production soars high above the minuscule Hammer budget and THE MUMMY remains impressive to this day. Cushing is terrific as always, and even had a hand behind the scenes, suggesting his unforgettable harpooning of the mummy, another timeless effect which was also hyped in the advertising campaign. In smaller roles, Furneaux is beautiful and charming as Isobel/Ananka, Pastell (who reworked the character in CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB) is perfect as the fanatical priest, Hammer regular Michael Ripper is a comical drunk and George Woodbridge (HORROR OF DRACULA) is a plump police constable.
Beginning with 1957's CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Hammer Films' Frankenstein series had always centered on the doctor rather than his creation. Peter Cushing's personification of Baron Frankenstein was so well-identified by the public by the late 1960s, that 1967's FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN no longer required the lumbering monster. For 1969's FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, Cushing's characterization was more intense than ever, helping to deliver the most unique entry in the series, and arguably the best. If there had been acting honors for horror films that year, Mr. Cushing certainly would have garnered the top award.
FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED was Hammer's fifth Frankenstein film, and the fourth one to be directed by Terence Fisher, who often regarded this as his favorite work. Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) is introduced hiding out and conducting his bizarre experiments in an abandoned villa. He lops of the head off of a colleague and later confronts a prowler (Harold Goodwin, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) who runs to the police covered in blood after a fight in his lab. Knowing he's got to get away, he hides the evidence and makes his way to the boarding house of young Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN), using the name "Mr. Fenner." When Frankenstein learns that Anna's boyfriend Karl (Simon Ward, THE MONSTER CLUB) is dealing drugs pinched from the asylum that he works at, he blackmails the couple into aiding him with his experiments while keeping his identity a secret from the public.
As the bumbling police further their search for the culprit of the first murder, Karl unintentionally kills a night watchman while he and Frankenstein steal medical supplies. Frankenstein and Karl kidnap Dr. Brandt (George Pravda, THUNDERBALL), a basket case asylum inmate who happens to be the Baron's ex-partner and solely possesses scientific information vital to his research. In order to gain the knowledge, the brain from his dying body is transformed into another doctor (allowing for an overdose of trademark Hammer blood), and the resulting "creature" is brilliantly played by Freddie Jones (THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA). Brandt awakens to see the shaven, surgery-scarred face of another man and manages to escape, wounded and in utter horror. He makes his way to his home, but his wife Ella (Maxine Audley, PEEPING TOM) ultimately rejects him and he swears fierce revenge on Frankenstein, even if it means his own life.
FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is not only one of the finest of Hammer movies, it's also one of the finest that the genre has to offer. Fisher's direction is masterful, at times evoking tension worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. The screenplay by Bert Batt and Anthony Nelson Keys presents one of the most original Frankenstein premises, full of dark melodrama, anti-heroes forced to do the villain's bidding, and two coinciding doomed romances. Veronica Carlson's tragic heroine makes her one of Hammer's most remarkable and talented leading ladies. Simon Ward, Maxine Audley, Geoffrey Bayldon (ASYLUM) and Thorley Walters (THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT) all get high acting nods, but Freddie Jones — as the pathetic yet love torn and vengeful creature — is most impressive. Most impressive that is next to Cushing, who plays the Baron more wicked and determined than ever. Frankenstein is a murderous, conniving, chauvinistic, raping mad genius who can turn on the charm when the moment calls for it, and this film gives Cushing his all-time best genre performance. From his opening scenes as a rubber-masked assassin to the fiery "cat and mouse" climax, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is a gothic masterpiece and a must-see/must-own title for any serious horror film fan.
Hammer Films' output of Dracula movies had previously been the sole property of their most celebrated director, Terence Fisher. By the late 1960s, Hammer continued the series in rapid mode, but started to introduce "new blood" into the director's chair with DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA. Both feature scripts by Hammer regular Anthony Hinds (aka John Elder), roaring scores be Hammer's in-house composer James Bernard, the usual high level of production values and acting talent, and of course, the eminent Christopher Lee donning the red-lined cloak and pointy fangs, not for the final times in his enduring film career.
DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was directed by Freddie Francis, a renowned cinematographer who was employed to helm a great number of genre films including a number for Hammer. When the aftermath of vampirism still plagues a small village, a brave Monsignor (Rupert Davies, WITCHFINDER GENERAL) and an easily manipulated priest (Ewan Hooper, HOW I WON THE WAR) travel to Castle Dracula to exorcise it. Planting a huge gold cross on Dracula's door only makes matter worse when he (Christopher Lee) is revived from his icy coma, and enacts revenge on the Monsignor. The priest is made his lackey, and after putting the bite on a busty tease of a barmaid (Barbara Ewing, TORTURE GARDEN), he sets his sights on the Monsignor's niece Maria (Veronica Carlson), who is in love with atheist baker Paul (Barry Andrews, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW). Paul must look for his true inner faith in order to protect and save his beloved Maria from the most evil man alive (or undead if you will).
Freddie Francis injects much excitement, fascinating camera work, and some highly memorable scenes in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, and despite his limited screen time and limited dialog, Lee is an imposing figure who steals every scene he is in. Hinds' script has its weak points, even toying around with vampire lore in a would-be death scene, but this is prime Hammer gothic horror, and became one of their biggest money makers. Rupert Davies' Monsignor is a more than acceptable substitute for Peter Cushing's Van Helsing and as the heroine, Veronica Carlson proves to be one of the most talented and beautiful actresses that the company ever hired (again, as proven by her performance in the following year's FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED).
TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA was the direct sequel to DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, and it was directed by young Hungarian Peter Sasdy, a former TV director who would go on to do COUNTESS DRACULA and HANDS OF THE RIPPER for Hammer in the earlly 1970s. For the first time in the series, the central action takes place in Victorian England which helps give the film a striking look to it. Using footage from DRACULA HAS RISEN, a goods dealer (Roy Kinnear, HELP) witnesses Dracula's deterioration into dust, retrieving his dried blood. Back in England, three thrill-seeking middle-aged gents (Geoffrey Keen, John Carson, Peter Sallis) run into the sinister Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates in his Hammer debut) during an evening of debauchery. Courtley convinces the trio to purchase the remains of Dracula in order to perform a satanic ceremony, but all goes wrong and they end up beating the rogue to death. Since Courtley drank his blood before dying, he is revitalized as Dracula (Christopher Lee), swearing revenge on the ones who killed his servant. Due to the "sins of the fathers," Dracula hypnotically brainwashes the children (Linda Hayden, Isla Blair, Martin Jarvis) to strike their awful daddies.
TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA had a lot of production controversy, as it was almost shot without Lee and with Bates in the lead role — this changed after demands by Warner/Seven Arts. Ultimately, Dracula has less to do, and almost seems written in as an afterthought, but the film still works for many other reasons. The Victorian setting, which includes a richly gothic desecrated church, makes this one of the best-looking Hammer films, and Hind's revenge-based script is enacted by probably the best cast that they have ever assembled. Lee is commanding and looks better as Dracula than ever, teenage Hayden is marvelous as the sweet girl turned dominated no-gooder, and Anthony Corlan (aka Anthony Higgins) is a strong, likable hero and further proved his acting ranged with a marvelously dissimilar turn as the heavy in Hammer's VAMPIRE CIRCUS. James Bernard's score is powerful and romantic, and Sasdy's direction handles the vampiric myths and religious and revenge aspects with impressive flair.
What can be best said about the presentations here, is they are simply flawless, and a “night and day” improvement over their DVD counterparts. All four movies have been remastered in 1080p in their original aspect ratios (THE MUMMY in 1.66:1 and the other three in 1.85:1). All four have no print blemishes whatsoever, and have good organic grain structure and amazing detail, with colors looking solidly stunning. Like Warner's DVD of TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, this Blu-ray restores over four minutes of footage that was removed from the U.S. theatrical version and previous VHS release (originally rated "GP," it now carries an "R"). Scenes that are now back are: shots of Dracula's oozing blood turning to powder at the beginning; extended footage during the brothel scenes, including a snake charmer's exotic dance and topless nudity, the violent, deadly beating of Lord Courtley, and; Dracula's violent, snarling attack on a female victim, which is probably the best bite scene in the entire Lee/Dracula catalog. Also, all the major death scenes have extended footage, including bloody facial close-ups, and more glimpses of Dracula himself! FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is also the complete version of the film, including the notorious rape scene that was originally removed from the U.S. version (the film is now rated "PG-13" for "violence and horror images"). Like the visuals of these Blu-rays, the English audio tracks (DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0) are also perfect, and there are additional French, and Spanish (both Castilian and Latin) language tracks with optional English SDH, French, Spanish (both Castilian and Latin) subtitles. In addition, both DRACULA films include German audio tracks and German subtitles. Each film contains its original theatrical trailer. (George R. Reis)
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